My father is a large Dominican man, with dark, weathered skin, strong hands, and thinning black hair that he sometimes slicks back in the morning with a wet hairbrush before he leaves to work.
When we drive to places together — to Whole Foods on Sundays, to work, from work — he’ll play a CD from his collection of either classic rock ballads (Air Supply’s “Goodbye”), Spanish ballads (Julio Iglesias’ “Candilejas”), or his favorite: the operatic stylings of Sarah Brightman, ex-wife of Andrew Lloyd Webber, and the woman for whom the Phantom of the Opera was written. Driving down a suburban street, the beginning notes of “La Califfa” will float out of the truck’s speakers. (My dad only owns trucks. Solid. Roaring. Present. He is a truck.) He turns the volume knob to full blast with his middle finger and his thumb. He’ll roll down the window to smoke a cigarette and to share Sarah with the rest of the city. He does not turn off the truck when we pull into the parking spot of our final destination. He turns off the truck when the song is over.
Many of the hundreds of people my dad has worked with consider him one of the smartest and most passionate men they’ve ever known — while I usually just refer to him as the most everything I’ve ever known. He is at once deeply sensitive and completely impatient; I’ve met gnats with longer attention spans. When my siblings and I were younger, around 1st or 2nd grade, we’d help coach each other to get our daily dinnertime anecdotes down to 30 seconds or less. And yet, as it happens, everything about him that makes him debatably clinincally insane makes him the best leader I’ve ever known.
He opened his first restaurant in 2004, after years as executive chef at the Sheraton Bal Harbor on Collins Avenue. Out of my four siblings, I have always had the strongest affinity for anything culinary, so my working in the restaurant with him seemed natural. I started in the kitchen, among the eclectic mix of cooks, dishwashers, servers, bussers, and of course, my boss. My dad. On my first night, he pointed to a cold, stainless steel table stocked with a tower of immaculate, massive white plates and three or four bottles of colorful sauces and said, along with some generic lines about not being nervous, “You’ll be decorating desserts.” Sounded simple enough. I just hoped my hands would eventually stop shaking so I wouldn’t break one of those plates.
After a few weeks, I grew accustomed to the restaurant “lifestyle.” And with even more time, I fell in love. I quickly watched and learned, and saw that owning a restaurant requires a superhuman degree of commitment, and the vocation is frequently and knowingly described by those in the business as a “labor of love.” When my dad wasn’t physically at the restaurant working on the line, he was at home. And when he was at home, he was on the phone with people who were at the restaurant, or running errands for the restaurant, or scheduled to deliver things to the restaurant. My dad loves reading magazines and articles about chefs and their restaurants. He watches trends in the culinary world like a stock broker watches the Dow, and is enamored by the newest cooking gadgets and techniques. He has over eighty-five different cookbooks in the house. No style or opinion or concept or idea prevails more successfully than his own, however, and our kitchen — his test kitchen — is a testament to the fusion of his personal and professional life, where the dividing line is thin.
By May of 2008, my dad and his partner had opened a second restaurant, and all of my time that summer was dedicated to helping it on its feet. The endeavor took little time — we quickly became the most popular restaurant in the city, and I was working nearly thirty hours between Friday and Saturday alone. August 2nd, 2008 was one of the rare Saturdays I was not working, when my mom suggested I accompany her to a George Michael concert. “What the heck,” I thought, and pretended to be excited for a break from what had become my world. That night, I answered my dad’s cell phone when it rang at 3:00 am and the rest of the house was sleeping. The restaurant had been robbed at gunpoint. The manager was raped by three dishwashers who were fired three weeks earlier.
If not for George Michael, that would have been me.
When I put the phone to his ear, my dad made the same face I had seen him make when my mom fainted in front of him for the first time when I was in 8th grade. Fifteen minutes later, he was in his black pick-up. The drive would take about forty-five minutes. I sat with my mom on the couch for an hour and a half in complete silence. I went to bed just before the sun rose.
I spent weeks in a state of immobile depression, not knowing what to do with my time, and not knowing why keeping busy mattered in the first place. I could hear my parents whispering; my dad in Spanish on the phone, “esta devastada,” he would tell people. My brother, already in college, offered consolation from 3,000 miles away. It’s hard now, but it’ll be better for everyone, he tried to explain. Easy for him to say, I remembered thinking. His heart was still intact.
I barely saw my dad over the next few weeks. When he was home, he sat at the patio table outside with a shallow glass of whiskey in one hand, smoking one cigarette after the other, constantly on the phone. In the few moments of quiet, I’d tentatively glance out the windows. I’d see him staring out past our pool, past the trees, past the rotting wooden fence. Half of me wanted to be beside him at every hour, to sit with him in the silence, with my hand on his shoulder, to show him that I was still able to breathe in and to exhale. But we both needed space. The other half of me knew that, so I continued to watch from the window at the shattered man sipping his whiskey in a faint cloud of smoke, and desperately hoped, for all our sakes, that the pain would subside with each tap of his ashes.
When the restaurant first opened, I was twelve years old—a wide-eyed, trusting 7th grader, in awe of this new and different world alongside my best friend: the training bra. Since then, I never really grasped the concept of a forty-something business executive that lives and breathes his high-powered job. It was something beyond the realm of my understanding, because this — what I worked every weekend for four years — was not a job. It was passion. It was art. It was sweat and tears and fights and sleep-deprivation and everything ugly that comes together to make something else beautiful. It brought me closer to my father, a man who once worked one of those “jobs,” who I’d see for fifteen minutes every day when his arrival home and my departure to bed overlapped. We became connected by our love for the industry, and remained connected by our loss of an anchor.
It was around that time when I made a promise to myself that as soon as I was settled in my fabulously lucrative career as a writer of some kind, that I’d buy my parents a house. A giant house, with lots of guest bedrooms so all of their children can visit at the same time, and a big yellow kitchen with built-in wine racks in the cabinets. It’d have craft room for my mom, with towers of those clear plastic organizing dressers, and a gas range stovetop for dad. He dreamed of owning one of those stovetops when he was younger, he’s told me. Two years after he moved to the States, he started work at the Burger King by his family’s apartment in Miami Beach. He and my uncle (now a neurosurgeon) cleaned the kitchen from 11:00 PM to 1:00 AM. That’s how he knew what those stovetops looked like, and how he knew what to dream of.
When Barack Obama won his reelection, I knew my dad would be happy. Occasionally, when he’s home on a break from work in the afternoons, he’ll masochistically turn the TV to FOX News, and curse out Sean Hannity to whichever unsuspecting seafood vendor he’ll be on the phone with at the time. The night of the reelection, watching Obama via live feed on my laptop, with geology homework and a mug of cheap wine on my desk, I thought about the president of the greatest country on earth as, very simply, a father. Barack Obama probably never had to empty old peanut oil from a fast food fryer, but I can bet there were moments in his campaign when he missed the chance to say goodnight to Sasha and Malia before they went to bed.
I decided, in that moment, that I don’t want to buy my dad a house anymore. I used to want to contain him in his own space. Now, I want nothing more than to share him with the world. I want to be a reflection of my father: to be the very best of him, because over the course of twenty one years, he’s given the best to me.
The night of the election, I wanted to tell him everything — all of this — at once. Instead, I sent him a text, so that he could see it in front of him for as long as he needed to. With tears in my eyes, I distilled a lifetime’s worth of emotion into two sentences:
“Dad, thanks for everything you’ve done for us. I know it’s hard sometimes.”
Almost immediately, a response: “You make it easy.”
In 2003, a year before the restaurant would open, a year before all of this would begin, the Florida Marlins won the World Series. I was eleven years old and that night, already forced into bed by a pulsating migraine, the feeling of which is equivalent to your brain being crushed by the hands of God like a juiced orange, and the only cure is sadly sending yourself to bed, even if baseball snacks are the best kind of snacks, and even if you can still hear the muffled cheering outside your door.
Not even five minutes into SportsCenter’s post-game coverage, my door creaks open, and as my eyes slowly adjust, my Dad is clumsily settling on the edge of the bed, only his silhouette discernible from the thin ribbon of blue television light peeking into my room.
“Laura, Laura,” he loudly whispered, with excited urgency. “Wake up, they won, they won.” He pauses, and leans over to hug me — one of those tight hugs that say more than there are words in the English language.
“I love you so much,” he mumbles.
I inhale his cologne — a distinct mixture of Guy Laroche’s Drakkar Noir, Marlboro Lights, and tonight, a few Presidentes too many. It’s familiar. It’s dirty and clean at the same time. It’s the kind of smell that’s better than a new car or bacon or Christmas trees, because none of those things could ever want anything more than to hug you in the middle of the night, after beer and sports and victory have given them such pure, unabashed happiness, and all they want to do is share it with you.