It was 1983 and I was six years old, riding between my father and brother in my father's Oldsmobile, back when front seats stretched from door to door. My father drove, and my brother, who was ... [+]
It had been silent for several seconds and I knew I had to say something.
"So we're not Italian?"
It was the only question I could think of. I could tell my mom wanted more but was relieved I wasn't being too dramatic about it. She had just called my sister. God knows how that had gone.
"I mean—well, I guess not."
She let out an exhausted sigh, barely resembling a laugh. Even over the speakerphone I could feel the weight of her emptiness. She went on.
"I should have waited, at least until you got to school. I'm sorry, I don't want you to worry about this—"
"I'm not worried. You're fine. Have you talked to grandpa—"
That word suddenly felt inappropriate, like mentioning politics at Thanksgiving dinner.
"Um, have you talked to grandpa at all about it."
"Nope, that's the worst part about this. He isn't even addressing it. But, it's not like we were talking much anyway."
I didn't know where to go from there so the conversation grew silent again. I wondered if she could hear what I heard, wheels over asphalt and the hum of my engine, which made sporadic ticking noises. Up until thirteen minutes ago, before my mom called, those ticks were the chief concern in my life. School hadn't started yet; I didn't have a girlfriend. All I had were vague engine issues and a tire pressure light on the dashboard that lit up every three hours or so, before going back to black, an inconsistency that assured me it was nothing serious. But now, after thirteen minutes, a quarter of my identity was up for grabs. It was Mom's turn to end the silence.
"How do you feel about all this?"
I knew this should shake me. It warranted concern, maybe even anger. But somehow, all I saw was the road ahead of me. I felt the asphalt and the tire pressure light was on. This news, which could reasonably take its place as Chief Concern, was knocking to get in, but somehow, I was ignoring it.
"I mean we're not Italian."
"Yeah, we're not Italian."
There was a much bigger piece to this we hadn't addressed yet, but I hadn't been bold enough to go there. Now, however, seemed as good of a time as any.
"So where's your real dad?"
It sounded heartless and cold, I immediately regretted it. I could tell Mom was taken back a bit. What made it worse was I had cloaked it in a facade of concern for her, asking where her dad was. I should have just been an outright narcissist and asked So who is my grandpa? Whose genetics do I have? This may be the most significant news in your adult life but let's connect this back to me please.
"He died. Two years ago."
"I want to tell you everything about him. He was actually a pretty amazing guy. I'll wait until you're not driving though. You probably have a lot of questions, about cousins and all that."
I did want to know more, but not about cousins. That hadn't even crossed my mind. I wanted to know who he was when he died. I wanted to know what he looked like and what beliefs he held onto up until the end. More than anything, I wanted to find some hint of myself in him. All this time scratching at the stories of Dad's dad and the rocky soil of the senior citizen formerly known as "grandpa" left the spade of my identity dull. The isolation wasn't just disappointing, it was unnatural. I couldn't see my reflection in any relative. Now, there was an extra character in the genetic pool who could potentially prove my existence was more than some glitch in the family tree.
"I have two photos of him," Mom continued. "I'll text them."
"Thank you, so do we know his heritage or anything?"
"I'm not sure, I'll ask his kids, my half-siblings. That's weird to say. Please pull over before you look at these and be safe on the road."
"So we don't know if he was Italian?"
Her patience over this query had a limit of three questions.
"Who cares if he's Italian?"
"The genes, the mom's dad is the indicator for hair genes. Italians have thicker hair. That's all."
"That's what you're concerned about?"
There was nothing I could say. This silence was the worst yet.
"I'm sorry, about everything. I'm really sorry, Mom."
"Thank you. It's okay. I love you. Everything will be okay."
And I knew she was right. If anything, things would be better now.
She hung up and the car was silent except for the hum and ticking and quiet engine pushing me through the desert. I felt the phone buzz and could see the text notification from Mom: two images attached.
There wasn't a rest stop for another ten miles. I pulled out next to an empty Indian Goods stand with weathered signs showing moccasins and jars. The first photo I opened was the more recent of the two: the grandfather I'd never heard of in his late seventies. Prominent creases from smiling marked his cheeks and his eyes were watery even though he wasn't crying. He looked kind and I wanted to know him and I felt a pang of irrational guilt over finding this photo three years too late. This is how I would have seen him my whole life: an old man with a fully engraved smile.
I didn't see myself in the first photo, perhaps due to his age and my inability to see myself anywhere beyond the present. The second photo, taken some time in his twenties, was like looking into a distorted mirror. He wore a military uniform; I think Mom had mentioned he served in the army. His hair was thick and curled against his will, even with the short, slicked back soldier cut. There was my nose: long, but only prominent once you noticed it. His left eye looked out of line with the right, like mine. His forehead was wide and tall; I wouldn't be surprised if he struggled finding army caps that fit. All my hats were stretched until the seams ripped.
I put my phone back in my pocket. The sun was hinting at leaving its place highest in the sky, allowing shadows to form around the trees and brush. A car passed, then another. He was dead. All options with this information began and ended here, with the road stretching before and behind me. I was no longer alone, I had a face that was my face. My genes were his genes. Somehow this late arrival made them more real than the other three quarters. The clouds were moving quickly and the wind was building. There was nothing else to do with the information, or more accurately, there was no one else to inform. If I never mentioned this outside my family and kept it hidden here in the desert it wouldn't affect a soul. The sun could stop moving and the shadows could cease to grow, I would remain here in an eternal heartbeat internalizing the fact that I wasn't as alone as I'd believed. Still, the news sat before me or above me, waiting for a reaction. How long could I stand here before some consequence, some opposing force from either direction, come and knock it off balance? My world had suddenly grown heavy from accountability beyond the immediate and the peripheral, but all I could feel was the sun in its final stages of burning warmth and the isolation I'd grown to love shed like dead skin in the heat.