I should inform thee farther. Lend thy hand,
And pluck my magic garment from me.
– Prospero, The Tempest, I.ii
In first grade, I wrote my first line of iambic pentameter.
I like my dad to take me to the pool.
It was a Sunday ritual to go to the Eastern Athletic Club for open swim. We practiced frog kicks. We played catch. We forced our kickboards underwater and then let them pop up like bread from a toaster.
One Sunday during the long phase in which I’d do anything my father suggested, I snuck up to an old man sleeping in a vinyl chair beside the pool and tickled his feet. He jumped up, swim trunks clinging to his skinny thighs. “What are you, crazy or something?!”
In terror, I took off across the wet tiles, slipped, and landed flat on my belly. That was the day I learned the word curmudgeon.
True, it was a bad idea, but how could I have said no? Dad said it’d be funny. Dad knew everything. Not only that—by the time I was born, he’d survived the Titanic: Leonardo DiCaprio was actually playing him in the 1997 film version. He’d traveled across Egypt in the company of a gnome: Tomtenkhamun, unrelated to Tutankhamun. And he’d discovered a village of dwarves in Brooklyn: he brought home a bunch of miniature bananas to prove it. When I saw the same bananas on sale at the Korean market down the street, my first thought wasn’t, “Aha! You didn’t get those from dwarves at all—you got them at Peas ’n’ Pickles!” but rather, “The dwarves must make deliveries here. Do they drive trucks or bring the bananas by bicycle?”
The same year I composed that line of iambic pentameter, we saw a Shakespeare play—my first. It was The Tempest. My father wrote a synopsis on a few pages of notebook paper. Under each scene, he transcribed the most famous lines so I could follow along. We sat in a pub before the show, and he told me the whole story, reading aloud his favorite passages. I couldn’t have explained it at the time, but something about the play—about Prospero—made sense. During the performance, I held the notes in my lap and noted how frequently the actors spat while speaking—little sprays in the spotlight.
If Prospero could create a tempest, my father could stop one. Stormy days, driving on the FDR, he’d summon all his power. And, for a few tremendous seconds, he’d hold up the rain. It would go quiet inside the car, a bit dark—and then he’d release the spell and the rain would start again, pelting. “Again! Again!” I pleaded from the backseat. But it required too much strength. We’d have to wait a while.
He had other tricks up his sleeve, too. He could pull a coin out of my ear. He could slide his thumb off and on. He could close his eyes, peer through his flared nostrils, and say how many fingers I was holding up. Sometimes we’d just stare at each other, and then, quietly, I’d say, I see me in your eyes.
A perennial favorite was hide and seek. When my friends came over, we’d spend what seemed like hours looking for him: behind the shower curtain, in closets, under the table, in the cat litter box. We give up! we’d call at last. Come out! And he’d appear. Where were you? our many voices begged, Tell us! Finally, he did: “Alright, alright—I was hiding on the ceiling.” To the skeptical among us he said, “You didn’t look there, did you?”
I was never skeptical. I took what he said as an article of faith. Part of this staunch believing was that I had yet to learn otherwise. The other part was rooted in a conversation he and I had early on—kindergarten or so. At the time, my best friend, Ella, was starting to tell lies. I thought highly of Ella, who knew all the words to “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” and could roller skate around her apartment while singing them, so I tried lying a few times. She taught me how to keep a straight face, and that if you crossed your fingers, it didn’t count. What about toes? I wondered. But that felt like cheating.
One evening, while making a grudging deal with my father (something trivial: brushing teeth in exchange for a story, perhaps), I crossed my fingers behind my back. Only one hand—two would cancel it out.
He’d picked up on the trend. “Show me your hands,” he said. I held up my left, fingers spread, but kept the right still crossed behind my back. He was patient. “Both of them.” My right hand came out of hiding. He saw what he’d been seeking.
“In this family,” he said, more solemn than I’d ever seen him, “we don’t lie.”
My sense of victory vanished. I’d betrayed him. I’d betrayed a whole long line of ancestors. Did this mean I was no longer in the family? I straightened all my fingers, and I cried.
One Sunday morning, not long after we stopped going to the pool, we sat at the table for a special breakfast: toast, OJ, bacon. I eyed the last two greasy strips on the plate, wanting both.
“Close your eyes,” my father said.
I feared he’d finish the bacon while I wasn’t looking, but I closed them anyway. Then I felt something tickling the side of my head. When I opened my eyes, I saw he’d pulled a piece of bacon out of my ear. Hallelujah, there’s more! But on the plate there was only one piece left.
I don’t remember if I cried—a thousand thousand rains—you lied to me! Or if I laughed: So that’s how you do it! Or maybe I just looked at him. That’s OK, Dad. I forgive you.
I forgive you.