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Set amid the outsider worlds of twenty-first century downtown New York, 1990s Los Angeles, and 1940s Mexico City, Like Son is the not-so-simple story of a love-blindness shared between a father and a son. Born a bouncing baby girl named Francisca Cruz, Frank Cruz is now a post-punk thirty-year-old who has inherited his dead father’s wanderlust, unrequited love, and hyperbolic tendencies. From the author ofTrace Elements of Random Tea Parties, this is a “powerfully written chronicle of love, in which gender is irrelevant, and the siren call of the past threatens the present” (Booklist).
“Frank Cruz—born as a girl named Francisca, but living and identifying as a man—is a loner from Southern California. His father, diagnosed with terminal cancer, offers Frank tragic stories of the Cruz family, a key to a safe deposit box and an arresting 1924 photograph of a beautiful woman named Nahui Olin, a bohemian Mexican artist/poet from an aristocratic background. Frank (who narrates) learns that Nahui had many lovers, lived transgressively and was endlessly wooed. When his father dies, Frank sets off for New York and lands in the East Village, where he meets and falls in love with Nathalie; she eerily reminds him of Nahui, whose face and history have now obsessed him. Their relationship is solid until the horror of September 11 throws them into chaos and sadness that tests their relationship, and Frank’s self-image. With her blunt prose, Lemus doesn't waste a word in this smart, never sentimental identity novel.” —Publishers Weekly
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LIKE SONa novel
By Felicia Luna Lemus
Akashic BooksCopyright © 2007 Felicia Luna Lemus
All right reserved.
Chapter One1 March 1995. Ash Wednesday. Los Angeles.
The doctors tell me I'm dying. Let's go for a nice lunch," he said.
What a fucking crappy way to wake up. Still in bed, I pressed the phone closer against my ear. "Dad?"
"I'm at the V.A. in Westwood," he said. "Main entrance."
And, before I could answer, protest, or even just ask a question-like Where have you been for the past fifteen years?-he hung up. My father, Francisco Cruz: the ultimate drama queen. Eventually, he would even die on Father's Day. At sunrise. With me at his side. Seriously. He was such a theatrical bastard. This being the case, it came as little surprise when, although we'd been estranged since I was a kid, he called out of the blue to announce both his impending death and his desire for a lunch date.
As if the fates would have allowed it any other way, I had the day off from my crap job stocking bins at Aron's Records. So, after I hung up the phone, I pushed myself out of bed and got ready to meet my dad. The prospect of seeing my father must have left me looking scared or just simply like shit because one of my roommates stopped me as I was about to walk out of the apartment.
"Frank, everything okay?" Jen asked.
And this may not seem like much, but it was. That's not to say Jen was some sort of bitch who didn't care, it's just that she and her boyfriend, Ted, ususally minded their own business. Really, they were perfect roommates. Both referred to themselves as "preppy punk," like it was their way of trying to impress me, like they were so transgressive and cool, but honestly they were pretty square. Comfortingly predictable, sweet, and dull, Jen and Ted were grad students at UCLA, older than me and way more mellow. We all liked each other enough, none of us flaked on our bills, we cleaned up our own messes, but, like I said, it wasn't typical that I'd get in their space or that they'd get in mine. So anyway, given Jen's sudden concern, I figure I must have looked like a total wreck when I was leaving to meet my father.
"Yeah, everything's fine," I replied and continued out the door. "Thanks, though."
Jen didn't seem convinced. There was no reason she should have been. She stood in the doorway of our Echo Park apartment and watched as I crossed the street, like she thought I might pass out or throw myself in traffic. I got in my rusty tin can little car, forced a smile, and waved to her as I drove away.
Forty minutes of crosstown side roads hell later, I pulled my car up to the hospital's main entrance red zone. A man sat on the concrete slab bench near the automatic sliding glass doors. My father. I hadn't seen him since I was eight, but I would have known him anywhere.
In fact, my father and I looked exactly alike. Rather, we shared nearly identical features. But whereas I was dressed in post-teen skater slop, he was dressed to the nines. Fedora cocked on his pomade sleek head, his brown wool three-piece suit slightly wrinkled from a night spent in the hospital, but no worse for the wear, he looked like a Hitchcock flick leading man. Polished wingtip shoes, pocket square, cashmere dress socks-this was the way he had always dressed.
Case in point:
When I was in kindergarten, there'd been a big weekend carnival at school. It was the most awesome event of the year. There were tons of rides and booths. My favorite booth was the one where kids threw ping-pong balls into fishbowls, and if a kid got enough balls in, the carnies would give them a little plastic bag filled with water and a goldfish. I didn't win a fish, but I did get the consolation prize-a fish-shaped cutout made of red plastic paper like a spotlight gel. You were supposed to hold the plastic-paper fish in the palm of your hand, and depending on how its tail and head curled, it predicted your fortune. There were instructions on decoding the curls printed on the little white and red envelope the fish came in. My fish's sides kept curling up. I don't remember what that meant. Really, the curling was just a matter of body heat affecting the onionskin-thin plastic, but to me it was pure magic.
Anyway, the carnival had been on one of my dad's weekends. And that event marked the first time I realized my dad was unlike everyone else's dads. All the other fathers were dressed in totally casual outfits-jeans and trainers, some with turtlenecks and denim jackets, others with V-neck sweaters over T-shirts. Almost all of them had shaggy hair and sideburns. They simply looked cool. When we got home from the carnival, I asked my dad why he didn't wear comfortable clothes like theirs, why he went to the barber shop every week and shaved twice a day.
"Don't ever let anyone call you a lazy wetback," he said.
I had no idea how that was an answer to my question. I tried asking my magic fish, but upon closer inspection, its envelope claimed it could tell me only if I was in love, lucky, or tired.
Fifteen years later, I'd been dealt enough jabs-including one incident in junior high when a group of kids threw handfuls of pennies at me, called me a "beaner queer whore," and were only reprimanded by the lunch supervisor to Sit down and eat-that I'd come to understand my father's reasons for wanting to present a polished front. His attire and grooming was passive resistance of a most dignified form.
And so, there he sat on the concrete hospital bench, his manicured hands primly folded on his knees, back straight, clean-shaven face tilting side to side slightly as he listened to the sounds around him. As I approached, his body turned static. I stood directly in front of him. And still he didn't stand. He only adjusted his glasses-as if there was a chance in hell this might help him recognize me any better.
Opaque dark brown lenses framed by bulky rectangular solid side panels, an expensive version of the throwaway pairs ophthalmologists give patients after dilation, a more serious version of those many an old man put over the top of regular glasses to filter out all the sun's light-my father was wearing what as a kid I'd so bluntly referred to as his blind-man glasses.
"Francisca, baby girl."
I cringed. But didn't say anything.
He rose to greet me, facing slightly right of where I stood.
"Ready to go?" he asked, like he had come to pick me up.
I put my hand on his left elbow and, after a briefly awkward moment, led him to the car.
"Where should we eat?" he asked, as if this was a casual little lunch date we had every week.
I drove east on Sunset and then onto Santa Monica Boulevard. We'd made it all the way to Fairfax and were heading south before I got up the nerve to ask what was going on.
"Let's talk while we eat," he said.
Fine. A supposedly dying man should be granted such requests, right?
We arrived at Canter's. I parked in the side lot, took a ticket from the attendant, and led my father into the restaurant. A comforting stink of sugar cookies, pastrami, and pickle juice greeted us, so did one of Canter's many venom-spitting charm-haggard waitresses. My father and I sat at a table for two in the main dining room, under the stained glass false ceiling that looked like a canopy of giant autumnal trees. Why the New England forest motif in a Los Angeles Jewish deli? Don't know, but the resulting effect was simultaneously unsettling and perfect.
The second we sat down I did what I always did when I got to Canter's. I picked up the telephone. Like every other booth, ours came outfitted with an old-fashioned black telephone mounted on the mottled glass that divided the booth into its own little cubicle. You could make local calls for free from your table. I wasn't actually going to call anyone, but the gimmick was too good not to be acknowledged each visit. So I picked up the phone. But there was no dial tone. I clicked the receiver hook. Nothing. The line was dead. My dad must have heard me futzing.
He said: "Your mother didn't say much when I called to get your number. How is she?"
"Don't know, really."
I couldn't see behind his glasses, but I was pretty certain two heavy-lidded eyes precisely the same shape as mine went sad in response. My father took off his fedora and placed it on the table next to the napkin dispenser. With hands as big and bony and slightly freckled as mine, he smoothed his hair into place and sighed.
It was such an uncanny thing to sit across from a person I resembled so exactly, but with whom I'd spent so little of my life. That said, I knew it hadn't been my father's fault we were near strangers. The custody battle that ensued after my mother left him had been extremely messy, to say the least. By the time I was eight, my mother had done all she could-and she did a lot-to end my relationship with my dad. Still, there was no doubt about it, I was his kid.
"Son," our waitress interrupted our silence, "you ready to order?"
Not that my father could see it, but his little girl had become a young man. Starting in junior high, I'd wound Ace bandages tight around my chest to flatten my thankfully negligible breasts. Hoping for the healing benefits of a cold compress, I'd initially stored the bandages in the freezer overnight. Over time, I'd acquired less chilling and more sophisticated means for smoothing things out. And by the time I sat across from my dad at Canter's, I'd mastered counterbalancing most physical evidence of ever having been born a girl.
The careful staging our waitress unknowingly tested with her impatient stare: a baggy long-sleeved black T-shirt over a tight Hanes undershirt over a wife-beater over an extra-small binder; boxer shorts peeking out from under low-slung oversized black Dickies cinched with an Army surplus canvas belt; a bulky dark gray hoody sweatshirt, hood down. I pulled the visor of my baseball cap further over my face, shuffled my skater-sneaker clumsy feet, and cleared my throat to deepen my voice for a response.
"Son?" she repeated.
"I'll just have a coffee," my father answered before I could, oblivious to the way I looked, flattered by what he'd taken to be a waitress's flirtation directed at him. He was totally clueless. But still, I'd passed in front of my father. I ordered a celery soda to mark the occasion. What other options were there? Sweet fizz celebration was the best I could do.
"So, Dad, can we talk now?"
I watched as my father responded by retrieving a black Sharpie from his jacket pocket. He took several napkins from our table's dispenser, unfolded the white squares, and spread them out on the table in front of him. As we waited for our food, he mapped out a diagram of what he was leaving me in death:
I would inherit my father's ticking time-bomb vision.
I'd always known my father had been dealt a particularly bad set of eyes, but now he told me the specifics of his deteriorating eyesight. By the time he was seven he'd needed Coke-bottle glasses. As a teenager, he'd required a magnifying glass to read the Bible as his mother insisted he do each Sunday morning ...
These details didn't make sense. I'd just picked him up from the V.A. hospital. He'd fought in Vietnam.
"Wasn't there an eye exam when you got drafted?"
"Once Uncle Sam found me, nothing mattered except trying to get me killed."
And then he started in on a rant about how Vietnam had never been his war to fight, about how he'd grown up in Mexico with no clue he'd been born in the States, so why should he have had to go to war for this country? And, unbelievable as it may have seemed, it was true-he really hadn't known he was a U.S. citizen until he was drafted. He also hadn't known until he was eighteen that when his mother was pregnant with him, his family had gone north as braceros to build railroads. 1943. Chicago. And-yet another detail you'd figure most people would know about their own lives-he hadn't learned until he was a grown man that he'd once had a sister. Rosario Maria Guadalupe Cruz. My father's sister Rosario had been four years old when the family went north. And when the family came home less than a year later, she was no longer with them.
Rosario met tragedy while she and her newborn brother were living with their parents-along with thousands of other government-indentured Bracero Program laborers-in a Chicago railroad company's shantytown. Their makeshift home was constructed out of barely modified old train cars located on a dusty stretch of land adjacent to a strip of railroad. The living and working conditions were barely one step from slavery. My father's mother was a proud woman; she didn't like leaving her home country to be so shamed. Hard work didn't upset her, but a lack of dignity did. She had wanted to be treated with respect. And she longed to spend more time with her newborn son, she wished she didn't have to leave him every day with the old woman who came to the shantytown each morning before dawn and watched the workers' children for a hefty cut of their pay. My dad said that his mother once admitted that in Chicago, after a particularly trying day of breaking stone into gravel to be laid out under the tracks, she had cursed God for giving her such a trying life. She told my father she'd forever regret that moment of weakness because, a few days later, in what she interpreted as retribution for her ingratitude, the railroad-that angry and almighty steel-and-oil God of industry-threw thunderbolts at her.
Quick rumble flash, a supply train derailed. Heavy weight skipped thick tracks. Screech metal snapped. Rattle impact, the train crashed into the perimeter of the shantytown. In the bright-sunshine middle of the day. It was a pretty day. A very pretty day. The camp was near-empty. Most everyone was working far from there. Few were injured. Only one died.
Rosario had been playing by the side of the railroad.
My father's mother, devastated by her little girl's death, refused to speak a word of their time in Chicago. She forbade her husband or anyone else ever to mention it. As it turned out, the gods weren't done with the family yet.
One afternoon five years later, the trio settled back into their life in Mexico, my father, now a young boy, was helping his father tend to the family's small farm. His mother was inside their shack home, presumably preparing supper. My father felt shivers on his arm as a sudden thunderstorm filled the sky with electric air and heavy raindrops. When a thunderclap rattled the field, his mother must have thought of the shantytown in Chicago. She would have thought of her little girl. A lightening bolt outside, too close outside, too near the house, much too close, shook my father's mother to the core. And outside, in the field, my father watched as celestial brilliance reached down and anointed his father. Singed black to his toes, the man died instantly. One could conclude, and many did, that traces of the flash seared my father's vision, swam through the veins of his eyes, and, although it took many years, slowly turned him blind.
Unfortunately, my father was not yet blind the day his pueblo's grocer, who was also the post general, found him at Sunday service and told him of the letter waiting. "It looks important, Francisco. It's from up north."
With nothing more than a piece of paper translated by the grocer into Spanish, the U.S. government took the farm tools from my father's hands, forced him to report to San Diego for processing, taught him how to shoot a rifle, and shipped him to a jungle in Vietnam.
Thirteen months of hell later, my father returned to Mexico speaking English and with ever-worsening eyesight. Soon thereafter, he decided to move to the States-a country he had never seen with clear eyes-to embark on his newfound birthright: the American Dream.
"Mami, come with me," he said to his mother. "We'll get you papers."
"I won't go," she said.
"It'll be good."
His mother knew that the roads up north were not paved in gold. But even after two years of an American war, my father was still naïve enough to hope for the best. As he boarded a bus north, his mother took his hand and in his open palm she placed a small honey-colored pebble, a memento she'd picked up once long ago as she walked along a rural dirt road leading to church. "Remember your home."
My father kissed the pebble and tucked it in his pocket for safekeeping. He hugged his mother and told her he loved her. He promised to write often, to send money and visit as soon as he could. He followed through on most of his promises, but he never saw his mother alive again.
Excerpted from LIKE SON by Felicia Luna Lemus Copyright © 2007 by Felicia Luna Lemus. Excerpted by permission.
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