Rosa stood at the balcony looking at Young Jonathan playing with the other children. You couldn’t tell that he was raised by a single mother by looking at him. The absence of a father didn’t make him walk with a limp, laugh with a snort, or stand with a hunch. The only time you could tell something was wrong was when the gate was opened and one of his playmates ran towards it with overwrought excitement, singing, “Daddy, daddy, daddy.” Then, his cheeks fell and a dour melancholy engulfed him and you could tell something was missing.
She had riffed at the idea of buying him toys and telling him they came from his dad but she had thought it would only raise more questions, questions she was not ready to answer. Besides, she already couldn’t answer simple questions like, ‘who his father was’ or ‘where he had gone to.’ She had thought about telling him that his father was a good for nothing bastard but she found the thought unwise because at some point in her life he was exactly what she had wanted. She instead resorted to dancing around the truth and telling him that his father left to find a better place for them.
Looking at him play she couldn’t help but get bemused by how much he resembled him: His afro of a hair, his dark-brown skin and a face that made you want to take dozens of photographs of him. She watched him running around and making a rumpus and thought that he also had his daddy’s sprightly spirit. But she worried, she worried that her son would grow up to have abandonment issues because he didn’t have a male figure to teach him how to kick a football. Someone to show him what manhood meant and give him the tools he needed to build ambition and drive.
She worried about the confusion and rebellion of the teenage years ahead. She worried about who would talk to him about girls; how to interact with them, how to respect them. She worried that he would detect the hurt in her and he would end up being boisterous and kitsch—treating women the same way his father had treated her. His father who called her a whore when she had told him about her pregnancy. She had seen an entirely different side to him when she told him the news; a hateful and condescending side. Her heart had ripped into shreds when he out-rightly denied her and said he didn’t know where she had been or who she had been with even though they had been seeing each other for more than a year.
She had thought she could count on uncles and male relatives to be father figures to Young Jonathan but a lot of them were brackish duffers who looked down on mothers who did not have husbands and the few who could be counted on were rarely around because they were busy living their own lives. She had dated a few men but the feeling had been that of curiosity, infatuation, lust, even obsession but nothing that could be extended to her son. The worry came in flashes but then it decapitated when she looked around and saw that a lot of fathers were fathers by name. Leaving early in the morning and coming late in the night and disappearing on weekends. She would tuck Young Jonathan to sleep, run her fingers through his overgrown hair and tell him that everything would be just fine.
The worrying came back when Jonathan’s seventh birthday approached. She had made it a habit of getting him grand things for his special day. It was her way of overcompensating for being a single mother. On his previous birthday she had gotten him two bicycles after he came home running, saying his friend had been bought a cool, new bike, with two gears by his dad. His eyes were a bit red and she suspected that he had been teased about it so she got him a yellow and a blue bicycle. “Now you have four gears,” she told him with a painful, proud smile. The one after that she got him an entire collection of toy cars after he was all agog about what a big car his friend’s father drove. She found these acts innocuous but she knew she was spoiling him. Her actions were telling him that he could get away with anything if he learned to put the word “father” in the right sentence.
She was wondering what to get him for his seventh birthday and a PlayStation was the one thing that was on top of her mind. On that day she invited her family members, a few of her friends and Young Jonathan’s playmates. They cut the cake and afterwards she asked him to guess what mommy had gotten him, but he had grown wan and drab. “Where do dads go, mom?” He asked, his palm sitting on his right cheek. The noise of cheering kids stopped. Her friend who was holding a bag of crisps between thumb and forefinger put it down and the room grew silent, a silence that seemed to stretch time and Young Jonathan’s question lingered around the room like thick fog.
Rosa felt a heat flash and her skin paled to the color of a mushroom. She wanted to change the subject and shout “Happy birthday” but her throat felt gravelly. She wiped a lone tear falling down her cheek with the back of her hand. Kissed Young Jonathan on his forehead and her lips parted—the timbre in her voice mellow. “Dads don’t go anywhere. They are in sitting rooms reading newspapers while their kids grow. They are in butcheries eating meat and talking about politics while their kids go hungry back at home. They are in a mistress’s house while their kids learn how to walk and talk. They are in bars, spending their last shilling, their ears being filled with trite by insecure men who they call friends while their kids wait for them at the dinner table. Dads don’t go anywhere because a lot of them were never there.”
Happy father’s day to all the fathers that have been there.
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