Sometimes I catch my father leaning against the kitchen counter in a white t-shirt in the middle of the night, eating spoonfuls of red pomegranate seeds.
The juice spills onto his shirt and he grins, Don’t tell your mother.
He sat on that plastic stool thinking he’d ruined everything again.
The lines of defeat were forming around his mouth and forehead. I frown the same way; our faces follow a downward decline.
He was wearing his motorcycle jacket, the type that protects you. He doesn’t like the ones for show.
We were trapped in the mountainside village of Magdalena in northern Peru. Two landslides had wiped out the roads leading in and out of the village. A local had graciously cooked all nine of us rice, potatoes, and chicken. She moved around the table, handing out forks and knives and bottles of cold beer. My mother, cousin and uncle all cheered. I watched my father hold the neck of a bottle and bring the top to his lips.
A few hours ago, we’d been on our way to Cajamarca. My father, uncle, and a few friends took the lead on motorcycles and my mother, cousin, and a few others followed in a van.
We approached flashing lights and trucks and heard people shouting behind us. The mud and rain had washed away several houses that were at the base of the mountain. We sat in the van in complete darkness, watching the panic, seeing my father’s figure walking towards us after realizing we were trapped. The mud was too deep for us to walk through, and our friend Jarret refused to let my father carry us across, so he did, one by one. When I jumped off Jarret’s back, landing safely on the other side, my father grabbed me tightly, the various zippers and protectors embedded within his jacket digging into my chest. I don’t remember how long he held on.
I called out to my father across the table. He forced himself to smile. My mother noticed and took his hand.
We are all safe, see? And together.
When we finished our beers, our local Peruvian guide told us there was a woman who owned a hostel a few streets over. My father told me to stay in one room with my cousin and Jarret on the second floor. The room he chose for my mother and himself had an open window that faced our room from the first floor.
The following morning, my mother said he didn’t sleep all night. He blamed himself.
From an early age, he’d always held himself responsible for the people he loved. If anything went wrong, it was because of something he’d failed to do.
My father was born in 1959 in Tehran, where he grew up with two older sisters. His mother used to squeeze strawberry juice for him, and his sisters acted like mothers, too. His father had been a general in the Shah’s army. He was stern. He demanded the world from his young son.
My father would start getting ready for work a few minutes before I had to get up for school. I used to watch his reflection in the bathroom mirror down the hall moving in the early daylight.
His arms are long, his skin darker than mine. The damage he has inflicted on his own body rivals the rest of our family’s scars combined. He has broken arms, collar bones, legs, and feet from horseback riding and motorcycle accidents. He has fractured ribs from a car crash so bad it landed him in the gossip columns of Turkish newspapers.
He was a young man my mother met at the University of Pittsburgh in 1980 and brought home to her own father in Turkey two years later. In both places, my father was considered a foreigner.
My grandmother told my mother, You’re killing your father with these actions.
Let him die, then, my mother responded.
My father wound up working for my grandfather. My grandfather trusted him. He’d ask my father to accompany him to doctor appointments in Turkey and on trips to the States for various surgeries over the years.
When my grandfather died, my father was one of the men carrying his coffin to the grave.
Whenever returning from Iran, my father always came back angry. He managed his mother’s estate, helped his eldest sister and her husband out with their finances, settled all his cousin’s gambling debts.
He took care of his friend’s son, S.R., who’d been sent to Istanbul to study engineering. S.R. developed lupus; my father paid for his medicine and accompanied him to physical therapy. With my father's help, he moved out of the dorms and into an apartment in the Beyoglu district. One night, there was an explosion in his apartment. The first person he called was my father.
S.R.’s arms and legs were burnt, and the police were already questioning him. The side of the stovetop was charred and black. A crooked metal spoon lay on the floor nearby. My father took him to the hospital, but they couldn’t do anything to help him through withdrawal. My father took him to a hotel close to our home and stayed with him for a few nights, keeping vigil at his side.
When I woke up around five thirty the next morning in Magdalena. I could hear my parents speaking and went downstairs. My father was putting his motorcycle boots back on, tucking his shirt into his pants and massaging his arm. My mother was wiping the mud off his jacket in the bathroom. My cousin and I wandered the village, smiling at the children who were rushing to school, saying goodbye to their parents at the door and adjusting their uniforms. We bought small, sweet bananas and handed them out to our group. The roads had been cleared by the local government.
Jarret handed out coca leaves. Chewing them would control our nausea and dizziness as we reached higher altitudes. The plan was for us to continue to Cuzco, while my father and uncle rode to Ecuador, where we would all reconvene three days later.
We said goodbye to half the group and got on a plane to Cuzco. The following day we were on the train heading to Machu Picchu, my mother and cousin Beril sitting across from Jarret and me as everyone listened to music and watched the changing terrain. My mother got a message from my uncle: my dad had fallen off his bike while crossing a river, breaking his collarbone and a few ribs.
The train passed at a steady pace. I looked at the orchids growing atop the trees, their stems wrapped around branches and trunks.
A year ago, my father waited outside my room at the lodge in Ranomafana National Park, Madagascar.
If you get scared, just come to my room, I’m on your right.
I will , I called out.
I trapped myself in bed, surrounded by mosquito nets. I listened to his footsteps. He was going to his friend Mustafa’s room at the end of the row of cabins before going back to his own. Mustafa had been sick all day. Riding in the jeep, we’d had to stop every few minutes, so he could run away to the ditch, clutching a roll of toilet paper. I sat in the front seat of the jeep the next morning, watching the fog move over the jungle. My father told me that I would continue the trip with the rest of the group, and he would take Mustafa to the hospital on his own.
I don’t want to leave you, but I can’t leave him, either.
He kissed my forehead and our group divided. When I saw him a few days later, he confessed that Mustafa had been near death.
My father traveled a lot throughout my childhood. I missed him when he went on his motorcycle trips, when they were just for him, my uncle, and their friends. My mother would wait for his phone calls from Guatemala, Bhutan, Chile, and New Zealand. He would come back with a beard, presents, and dirty laundry. He would give my mother a long kiss at the door, as my sister and I waited our turn for an embrace.
When he’s in Istanbul he goes horseback riding on weekends. He rides stubborn mares with large brown eyes that make him feel at ease.
It feels like he never stops. When he is at home, sitting on the leather Eames chair that used to belong to my grandfather, his legs and feet twitch. His phone goes off, messages and calls from unknown contacts.
There’s a memory I keep. I was ten or eleven years old. It was a school night. My sister was in her room, probably listening to music. I was in my room, listening to my mother crying in hers. She cries the way I do. At first silent, then later, an eruption.
I had seen one of those messages before, Can you meet me then?
Years later, my mother told me that he’s had a few "friends" over the years. Friends who pay attention to him. Friends he’s tried to keep secret.
Secrets are the absence of truth. What isn’t the truth is a lie. Lies are the worst sin for my mother.
Cheating isn’t just physical , she says.
I don’t think she meant to tell me. Perhaps she was trying to tell me that no relationship is completely perfect. Instead, she’d forever changed the way I view my father.
He was being careless, she said. Looking for attention. When did he stop getting attention?
Or worse, when had it stopped being enough?
For months, every time he checked his phone or stood up to take a call, I flinched. I tried to extend our breakfast hours when I was in Istanbul, before he went to the stables. I asked him to take me to dinner or movies when he stated he had guests. I started looking for trouble.
I didn’t want this story.
On a December night years ago, we were watching a documentary on lions in the living room.
I told him I knew about the messages.
He said, I know you know.
A few days later we went to dinner together at a local restaurant. My mother’s friend had taken over this restaurant after his father passed, keeping the souvenirs from South America, and serving the same Mexican food, with probably the largest selection of tequila in Istanbul. I licked the salty rim of the margarita glass, waiting for my father to order a beer.
He asked, You know that thing you brought up the other day?
We never mentioned it again.
Can I talk to him? I asked my mother, as the train reached the base of Machu Picchu.
I thought maybe a part of him had wanted to fall off the bike. We were always telling him to slow down. But he couldn’t. He traveled to Singapore for work a few days after his surgery. My mother went with him to make sure he rested and spent nights watching him try to sleep through pain.
After all these years, my father was still trying to prove himself.
But, perhaps I’m imagining all of this. I’m trying to make everything okay.
My father can only be the father I need in moments; the person I expect, in moments.
I collect and store these moments. I summon them when his actions disappoint or confound me.
When I see similarities between him and the man I’m in love with. When realizations I’d rather expel than entertain find their way into my thoughts.
Moments. Him standing on a ladder, handing down books from his side of the family library in preparation for renovations.
The books were old, ripped, fading, and in Farsi. Volumes of religion written by his elder sister, the collected works of the poet Hafez, biographies of the Shah.
He took down his great-grandfather’s collection of handwritten poetry and told me to keep it safe.
See? You’re descended from poets and scholars.
We sat outside, waiting for the train, drinking the same beers we had in Magdalena.
I called my father. He asked if I’d had fun. He’d been up there before, so close to the sky.
I wish you had been there, I said.
I’m so glad I didn’t ruin everything for you, he said.