Dad

There’s this photograph of my dad, from the late 1990s, in an old album somewhere on a bookshelf. He is standing on a rock, laughing. His hair is wavy, and he’s tan. The ocean is behind him.

My dad’s laugh is always loud, always candid. When he smiles, his eyes crinkle at the sides. He used to be utterly careless and insanely fearless.

When my dad falls in love, he falls hard. His love for soccer, tennis, and the many theories of physics defines him. He wears his heart on his sleeve around his friends and family.

I remember when I told my mom I loved her more than my dad because I was truly convinced that his meniscus injury—acquired from playing soccer on a rainy day—was a petty act (he hogged the couch to watch Wimbledon because he needed to “ice his knee” on the coffee table)  and I was unimpressed by his sedentary research career. But my dad has always told me that he loves me more than anyone in the entire world.

I used to sit in his office sometimes. The physics building at the National Institute of Standards and Technology is cold and dark. I detested the way the building looked and felt, but he is passionate about physics, evident in the stacks of books he hoards. He gets distracted by computer games and fancy gadgets, but he is serious about what he does.

I think I secretly loved my dad just as much as my mom, though. My dad has a very peculiar charm; he’s friends with just about everyone, from his college roommates to the drive-thru cashier at Taco Bell. He tells me jokes and stories. He makes funny faces. I find him hilarious.

My mom has always been slightly envious of this—she hasn’t had a close friend in over a decade. She tells me I’m the only person she can love. She just “gets tired of people.”

My parents are completely different; they have nothing in common besides a last name. My mom has a short temper, a mean streak, and wide, sunken eyes. My dad has a calm demeanor, a buoyant nature, and small, puffy eyes.

Their totally polar characteristics are almost complementary, but fall just short of that. My mom and dad share food because, when they’re eating chicken, my dad likes the meat and my mom likes the skin. But they bicker about the most trivial of things, and they never seem to get along well.

I guess it’s fate, or maybe his choice, that my dad took his work abroad. My mom has resorted to quarreling over the phone, but the turbulence has settled into a back-and-forth chatter that has a hint of bonhomie.

When my parents were dating, my dad was frugal to the point of being cheap, my mom said. When they were passing an ice cream stand, my dad refused to buy her a popsicle. At a winter festival, my dad made my mom jump the fence so they wouldn’t have to buy tickets.

“I should’ve known,” my mom said.

My dad often tells me that I am just like him. We have the same smile, and we curve our ‘t’s with the same tail. He tells me that he and I think on the same wavelength, that I just really get him.

He likes to wear button-up shirts that have pockets on both sides. One side is usually empty, but he still insists on having pockets on both sides. I understand this, because I have an irrational need for symmetry as well.

My dad has never explicitly revealed his religious beliefs to me. Even though he has gone to church, he does not identify with one particular religion. He is like this when I ask him about other sensitive subjects as well—sometimes the best answer is no answer at all.

He’s adamant about some things, though, like left-wing politics, and human rights.

I told my dad about someone I met who was overtly homophobic. I was sheltered enough that I had never encountered such hatred. “I wish I was gay,” my dad said.

I think my dad inspired me to be so footloose and fancy-free. He just doesn’t give a damn about the trivial things.

We took a family vacation to the island of Oahu, Hawaii, the summer of ’14. A local Hawaiian boy offered my dad some “herb.” My dad hesitated for a few seconds, and subsequently determined that herbs are organic, and organic is good.

The onset of my dad’s OCD—Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—was quite arbitrary. It happened gradually, without a definite beginning, and then peaked and waned throughout the years.

He never really sought a diagnosis for having OCD, because like me, he doesn’t like labels. But it’s so obvious that certain things make him feel uneasy, things that other people consider to be nothing out of the ordinary.

He washes his hands an infinite number of times throughout the day, each time so carefully that I get frustrated if I’m waiting on him. In our house, the sink seems to be perpetually running.

His hands are so dry in the winter that they crack. When I confronted him about it, he laughed it off, but I find it incredibly unsettling.

My dad has this unjustifiable fear of germs and potentially hazardous substances. He carefully avoids touching surfaces that may be unclean, and thinks twice or more before using chemical products.

There was this one time I was using hairspray around my dad, and as soon as my dad saw the aerosol bottle, he made a run for it. He was out the door in less than five minutes. Hairspray is a lethal combination of chemicals to him.

My dad explained that this inescapable frenzy is what keeps him sane. He can’t imagine what it would be like to wash his hands in moderation, or to expose himself to the array of harm in household products because the thought itself is repulsive to him.

But he’s still not entirely devoid of the lighthearted spirit of his younger days. When he comes back from his long trips abroad, we always stay up late talking. We’re both insomniacs.

He jokes about how bad vodka tastes and pours me a glass of wine.

When I think of my dad, I see him bringing me back souvenirs from Tokyo. I smell travel all over him. He tells me to “call anytime,” but the next time I see him is in six months.