My mom sent me a picture of me as a baby with my Dad. It’s one I’ve never seen before. I’m sitting in his lap, my body is facing him, but I’m looking in the opposite direction, kind of pushing myself up and away from him. In my left hand, I’ve grabbed his sunglasses off his face. He’s looking at me smiling, and in his expression, you see the love that you’d expect to see when a father looks at his child. It’s not how I remember my relationship with my dad. I don’t even know what to do with this picture.
My dad was an artist. It’s not what he does for a living, but it’s what he loves to do. His studio is also his bedroom. (My parents haven’t shared a room since I was born.) There are easels and canvases, and wooden palettes with thumbholes. You know, the kind that show up when you do a Google Image search for “artist, clip art.”
Whenever he lets me into his artist space, the first thing I do is take in its smell. I love the smell of his paints, co-mingled with turpentine. He works with oil, and they come in these tubes, which he doesn’t always let me handle because my small fingers either can’t squeeze hard enough and only the oil drips out, or they squeeze too much and the tube vomits color in excess. But he tells me to focus, breathe and take it slowly, so I can find the perfect pressure, put the right amount on the palette, spatula to scrape off the edge, cap back on tube, clean the spatula with a rag, and move on to the next one. Start with the lighter colors, and end with the dark. Never start with the dark or you contaminate the light. It’s a specific methodology, ordered and ritualistic.
He never does anything with his paintings, he never sells them as far as I know. They hang all over my childhood home in the Philippines, a train-like house with a long hallway, lined with his work in ornate frames. His paintings are thick, with texture. I think even more than looking at them, I like feeling them with my hands; it’s a tactile experience. He paints in globs, leaving just enough trace from the hairs of his brush. He usually paints scenes, on European streets, indistinct people in movement. But the one I remember most vividly is one that never goes up on our wall. It’s of a single woman, sitting on her knees in a field of green. He’s taken such care and specificity, down to each blade of grass. You can almost feel the warm breeze that softly moves them. I know it’s warm, because she’s sitting there naked and she looks pretty comfortable. I imagine that the grass feels soft underneath her. I want to sit there as graciously as she does.
He has her propped up on an easel. I am 5, maybe 6. She is fair-skinned with long dark wavy hair, and she looks right at me. Her bare breasts are beautiful, not too large, perfectly shaped, nipples perfectly centered. I want my breasts to look like that when I get older. From between her thighs, you see her dark bush, but she must trim it because they’re not wiry and explosive like my mom’s. I want my bush to look like that when I get older. Behind her in the distance are train tracks. I think there is a train, because I can almost hear its whistle, and I think there is a tunnel cutting through a mountain. I may be painting all that backdrop with my own memory, but the woman, I am sure, is all of my dad’s creation, and she is everything I want to become.
“This is my girlfriend,” he says, just as a matter of fact. I wonder which one it is. He’s had so many queridas, so many mistresses, but this is my first time meeting one. “Do you want to be my girlfriend?” he asks, in the same matter of fact tone.
I don’t think I understand his question. I’m his daughter, the youngest, the Queen, as he likes to call me. The favorite as my brother likes to remind me. But, I don’t think I can add girlfriend to that list.
As I honestly contemplate what my answer should be, the room suddenly shifts, rotating to the right. Everything moves with it, except me. I stay right in my spot. Or rather a part of me stays. Because now I’m on the outside watching it play out. There I am, sitting in front of my dad, holding his paint brush, his querida by his side. Above our heads, float the words that are his question. And something, separates from them. His intention, his meaning, fall softly, like rain, landing on my 5 year old chest. It resonates stronger and clearer than what has been spoken. It doesn’t make me run. It doesn’t make me scared. It doesn’t feel wrong. My dad is an artist, and he can choose the right colors to put on a canvas, but he can’t choose the right words to come out of his mouth. I never give him an answer. He doesn’t force one. He doesn’t force anything on me. He just turns and goes back to his querida. I go back inside my body, not entirely sure my answer was going to be “No.”
He begins to paint less and less as we move ourselves back to the States, where we no longer live under the same roof. I pull away more and more. Then one day, he drops off a package to my high school, delivered to my first year French class by the Assistant Dean. The girls all watch with anticipation as I rip open the seal of a thick white letter size envelope. I’m smiling as I pull out the contents, till I see these are divorce papers. No note, but I don’t need one. I know who these goes to, I just don’t understand why he’s making them go through me.
I wish I could make the room shift, I wish he was in there with me, so I could look at it from the outside, to feel what would land on my chest. That way, I can convince myself he’s at a loss for words again, and that in painting me his messenger, he’s trying to stay connected to me. I never inherited his artistry with paint, but I try to use the pen, as a sort of brush, to compose a letter. Except I squeeze the tubes of my emotions too hard, and they vomit too much color as I sloppily convey the image of a girl wanting her daddy no matter how flawed, no matter how broken. I ask, “Do you still want to be my dad?”
He never comes up with an answer. I can’t force one because he’s gone back to the Philippines, back to yet another querida. I go back to wanting to be the woman in his painting. Except I’ve lost him, so I find someone to take his place. I make sure he resembles my dad as much as possible. Twenty-some years older, an authority figure, my college professor, with a wife and kids at home. An artist of a different medium. A dancer, using his body as a brush, and I let him use his body to paint me into a querida.
Turns out, it’s not as beautiful as I thought it would be. There’s no warm breeze or soft blades of grass, or even a train in the distance. It’s just me, sitting there, alone. Naked. I sit this way for five years before I realize that I don’t belong in his painting, no more than I belong in my dad’s. I’m not the subject of the artist, I am the artist. And my artistry won’t just be something I love doing, it’ll be what I do for a living.
Years later, when my dad dies suddenly of an aortic aneurysm, I don’t go to his funeral. We’d said our goodbyes long ago. My brother calls, upset that in our dad’s home, he can’t find any pictures of us hanging on the walls. But I don’t have any pictures of my dad in my house, so it feels fair. Except now, I have this photograph which my mom sent, of me as a baby, sitting in his lap, pushing up and away. He is smiling, and in his expression you see the love that you’d expect to see when a father looks at his child. So what do I do with it? Do I put this up on my wall? The room doesn’t shift. I stay inside myself as I honestly contemplate what my answer should be. And I’m not entirely sure it will be “No.”