Creative Non-fiction Joseph Jay Literature

Popeye & Sweet Pea

At many stages throughout my life, I often wondered: If I were the same age as my dad, would we have been friends? I knew my dad loved me, but did he like me?

Whenever I cleared my mom and sister out of the living room by letting a particularly loud one rip, Dad would grin and say “Like father, like son.” But hot air, elfish noses, and gravelly voices were about all we had in common. As a child, I couldn’t imagine anything other than a resounding No to my question.

◊ ◊ ◊

Football, basketball, baseball—name a sport involving a ball, and Dad was the MVP of his high school team. At 16, he stood at only 5’6”, but his speed and gorilla-like stature let him dart and pummel his way to the end zone, the crowd screaming “MIKE, MIKE, MIKE!” One victory after the next rolled in for Centennial Collegiate. The head cheerleader would stand by swooning, hoping to be asked out for a post-game milkshake and perhaps her first kiss.

“What was the name of that red-headed hussy anyway?” Mom would ask over the years.

“Nancy,” Dad would fire back with a wink my way. “Don’t worry Claire Bear, she had nothing on you.”

At eight, I entered a basketball camp. Maybe I was trying to follow my dad’s footsteps, or maybe I was forced to go. I’m not really sure now.

I’m in a huge gymnasium with four separate games raging, one in each quadrant. As always, I’m the last one picked. But I don’t even know these kids, I think. How can they even tell I’m the worst? Maybe it’s my spindly frame, or how I stare vacantly at the floor. The whistle blows, and I disguise myself as the Four Corners Monument, hoping that any which player assumes I belong to a different team. Slowly rotating, avoiding all eye contact, I pray that nobody passes me the ball.

After hours and hours of torture, Dad asks in the parking lot, “How was it, Michael Jordan?”

I wait to get in the car before I release my deluge of tears, begging never to return. We drive home in silence and sniffles; Dad has nothing to say about my string of failed attempts at his favourite sports. At least he still has his prodigy, my elder sister, whose basketball team he coaches all throughout high school.

I realize on that ride home that he never would’ve called my name to join his team.

◊ ◊ ◊

At 18, always the adventure seeker, Dad finished high school and left the world of academia behind. He heads with some buddies up to the north for an informal education: Survival 101. The woods and compass are his teachers while he canoes the Nahanni River. For months he hikes, hunts, scavenges for food, and whittles utensils out of wood. I remember a Polaroid of him—MacGyver himself—with his long black hair, wearing nothing but hiking boots and a jockstrap, not a care in the Northwest Territories, signature grin plastered on his face. So masculine, yet so friendly. How could we not be friends?

As a kid I could barely brave the elements of my own backyard.

“Joe, you’ve been playing video games for hours nonstop. It’s a beautiful sunny day. Get out there and help your dad,” Mom says one day when I’m 10.

I sulk my way to the barn, unprepared to report to the boss for Saturday chores.

Dad perks up while Louis Armstrong blares on the stereo. “Giuseppe, you cutta the grass?” he asks in a fake Italian accent.

My scowl says it all, but we reach a compromise: I traipse ahead of him, rescuing the dandelions from a gruesome death by lawnmower. Afterwards I arrange a pretty little bouquet of weeds for my mom.

I just can’t sweat it out in the sun, operating some clunky machinery I care little to learn about. No wonder I’m always called “faggot” by all the jocks at school. Would Dad not have called me the exact same thing back in his day?

◊ ◊ ◊

Only the most secure of men could pull off a yellow desert rose tattoo on their right bicep in the 70s. Nobody thought to call him queer.

At 19, Dad returns from the wilderness to Guelph. With his leather jacket on, he speeds around town on his ’69 Triumph 500 (the same one Steve McQueen had). Some fool makes the mistake one day of trying to steal his racing bike. Dad, the young grizzly, is sleeping in; morning sun creeping through the curtains of his military order den. A familiar revving wakes him up and he blasts out of the house, fists clenched and ready for a fight. He has no time to don any clothes, so there he stands fully naked, as if Maple Street were no different from the locker room. The seething statue of David has just enough time to tackle his stupefied prey to the ground, saving his beloved trophy.

How did this wolf of a man’s son end up as meek as a pageant poodle? Even after seven years of karate, my Converse involuntarily did a 180 and fled the second a schoolyard bully glared at me.

◊ ◊ ◊

But never was I more terrified than at 16, when I told my parents I was gay.

I’d first practiced by telling my schnauzer, Beau, because he was the canine clone of my dad, big bushy grey eyebrows and all. It should’ve been no surprise—the way I gushed at my reflection when my sister dressed me up as a princess—but it comes as a shock to them. Mom cries and reaffirms her love for me, while Dad enters a speechless coma.

My dad doesn’t know the first thing about what it means to be gay. His cousin Delores came home one day to find her husband wearing her dresses and makeup. Did his son also want to become a woman? Would he get beat up at school for being different? Worse yet, would he perish like all those poor souls during the AIDS epidemic? All those talks over burgers and fries about the birds and the bees meant nothing. What do bees and bees even do with one another? These are some of the questions that plague him for days.

When Dad finally breaks his silence, his rough voice crackles like always, but this time for another reason. I dread the lecture or rejection I’m about to receive.

“Joe, I’m sorry I haven’t said anything till now. All I could think about was how I’ve failed you as a dad. All this time I’ve pushed you into something you never wanted to be. How I didn’t know why you were struggling with those jerks at school. I just… never understood. I’m so sorry. I don’t care that you’re gay, you’re still my same son no matter what.” He confirms his words with a bone-crushing hug.

Afterwards, he cheers me on when I lose my first swim meet, proud of me for finding my own sport and giving it my all. He never wanted me to be the best, he just wanted me to try. He shakes my first boyfriend’s hand with his vice-grip technique, jokingly playing the role of the over-protective father.

◊ ◊ ◊

My dad has taught me many things about how to be a man, and I, in turn, have shown him that the definition of “man” need not be so conventional.

So, would we have been friends at the same age in our youth? I like to think now the answer is a clear Yes. I picture how it would have been: sneaking into the latest Jaws installment or tagging along with Nancy to grab a shake after his winning hoop. In time, I discover my love for the outdoors, and we paddle all over the Great Lakes.

In the end, it’s a hypothetical question. What counts is Dad and I are close now; I just needed time to forge my own path.

The saying “the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree” couldn’t be more accurate. My father the sage oak, and I, of course, the fruit.

A recent photo of Joseph and his father, Mike, at Lake Huron.

Joseph Jay (he/him) is an ESL teacher at a vocational school in Switzerland. He is learning the craft of short story writing at Athabasca University. His roots are in Guelph, Ontario, but he now lives with his husband and pooch in Zurich.