Love Like Orange
My father’s love was orange. It could be warm and milky like summer Creamsicles, boisterous and magnetic as a dancing flame, or deep and foreboding as the morning sunrises sailors avoid. Every Saturday morning, he clocked in, arriving at my grandmother’s house at nine in the morning. My brother, Justin, and I waited at the front screen door, fidgeting and rocking in our criss-cross-applesauce positions, my mother standing in another room biting her nails.
We only needed our ears to alert us of his arrival: the slow whir of a car driving past the house followed by the crunch of gravel as it made a U-turn. The barely detectable squeak of brakes as a car came to a stop. The slam of a heavy door closing, the clap of footsteps, and, finally, the chirp of the car announcing the locking of its doors.
Sometimes he arrived bearing gifts of the stuffed bear variety or a chocolate orange wrapped in bright tinfoil that, to us, was as valuable as real gold. And other times he arrived in ghoulish masks to terrify Justin.
“For Christ’s sake, stop being a baby,” he barked in irritation, removing the Alf mask as my brother sobbed and hiccupped from fright.
“He’s only three; of course he’s scared,” my mother cried, stroking Justin’s back.
“You’re always babying him.”
These standoffs between my parents could last for as few as thirty seconds and as long as weeks. Tears could quickly turn to laughter as we climbed the apricot tree, bright green with orange fuzzy polka dots hanging from limbs and littering the grass.
In the backyard, Justin giggled while swaying forward and back in a swing fashioned out of a splintered four-by-two plank and manila rope as course as sandpaper.
“Higher,” he laughed. Our father obliged.
He was ours until sunset when he clocked out just as swiftly as he’d arrived. While walking to his car, we sent him off with a parade of waves, parroting “Bye! Bye! Bye! Bye!” back and forth as if he were leaving for war and we didn’t know when he’d return. The bright orange sky bounced off his car as it pulled out onto the road.
We waved with our apricot-stained hands until his car disappeared down the street. These days escaped us in a blur of tickles and laughs and tears and shouts and sweet coos of love. We would forget almost everything except the tang of orange that sat bitterly on our tongues.
My father’s love was indigo, as deep and distant as the continental slope we feared would swallow us whole. Sitting on his shoulders, I levitated five feet and nine inches above the ground, scanning the ocean for whales we’d never see this far south.
“Be careful,” my mother warned, which only instigated him to run.
I bounced on his bony shoulders, and then slipped forward and onto the sand. My mother and Justin screamed, and my father scowled, an electrical current of smoky, rich blue pulsating from his veins. Above me, furrowed brows and wide eyes collided, but all I saw were their indigo shadows wrestling on the sand. My mother surrendered, but my father’s palms were stained electric. He stormed ahead of us at a gait our legs couldn’t match.
We called for him: “Wait! Wait! Wait!”
He was too far ahead and could only hear the waves and seagulls, or so he said later. We lost him among the sea of beach umbrellas and Styrofoam coolers and barbeque smoke and waxed surfboards.
On the pier, we had a better view, and we each claimed a direction to survey. We spun around hoping to pinpoint the man with dark hair, dark eyes, and tanned skin. My mother always said he looked like a Greek fisherman, so we looked to the ocean beyond the end of the pier for the dark shadow of a man who’d had enough of life on land and all that comes with it. We felt for his currents of indigo that connected him to us like an invisible leash that tied families together.
“Frank!” my mother shouted.
“Papa, papa, papa,” Justin and I repeated.
And then, as always, he materialized behind us.
“I’m right here; you can stop making a goddamn scene with your hysterics.”
If there’s one thing my father hated more than life among mortals, it was attention from them. We followed him back to the car, our legs marching in double-time to keep up with his long strides. He fought in Vietnam, but the leave-no-man-behind warrior ethos did not apply here. Our feet sunk as the sand grabbed at our ankles, and we hoped we wouldn’t be left behind.
My father’s love was cherry—tart and sweet in the same bite. It was layered with unexpected gestures we loved and hated and from which we ran away only to return and beg for more.
On Christmas, we saw life through cherry-stained glasses. Our living room transformed into New York City, with the dozens of crimson-wrapped gifts as its skyscrapers. It took hours to unwrap everything, and when it was over, we hunted for more and painted our father red with tinsel and kisses.
With flushed cheeks and dilated pupils, we ran in circles, incapable of exhausting ourselves. We scrambled up couches like Mount Everest and excavated cardboard boxes for buried treasures, stopping only for a bite of chocolate from our stockings.
“That’s enough,” my father warned us. He was jubilant until he wasn’t.
I always received half a dozen warnings, but Justin was only given two, which was never enough for him.
“That’s two,” my father barked, standing from his seat.
Justin screamed and ran for shelter. When they returned from the back bedroom minutes later, one of Justin’s wrists matched the scarlet of my father’s right palm; it was what inadvertently linked them, like father-and-son tattoos that faded and then returned weeks later.
Justin’s eyes were carmine from crying, and I wondered if everything he saw was the color of Christmas. He rubbed his wrist while I connected the constellation of kisses left behind from my mother’s ruby lipstick that stained his cheek and forehead.
My father’s love was white—silent and opaque, hovering in a corner just above our reach. When it wasn’t bright and all-encompassing, it was the very absence of light, siphoning its warm comfort that engulfed us moments ago.
While Justin and I lived with our mother and grandmother in a rugged and familiar landscape of chipped paint, peeling wallpaper, and nail polish–stained quilts, my father lived in a glass castle, off limits except for today.
His house was a museum with carefully placed breakables that toed the edges of shelves. There were white ceramic vases with silk flowers, bronze elephants that, at the right time of day, sparkled under the skylight. There were hand-painted boxes from Russia, miniature Chinese floral vases, a globe made from rare minerals, and a cream-colored bust of Poseidon. They were untouchables we stared at with open jaws and wide eyes while on tip-toes, stroking the invisible barrier that hovered around each one.
We ran in the white glow of this castle until my father’s forty-five-year-old hands caught Justin’s three-year-old neck and forced him to the ground.
“How many times have I told you to be careful? You can’t just run around like a goddamn monkey. This isn’t a zoo!”
His booming voice had the incredible ability to vibrate through our bodies and cause our bones to shake in fear. Justin’s face turned white and, with wide eyes, looked pleadingly at my mother.
Disgust washed over my father’s face.
“Go. Run to your mother.”
“Go to him. You need to go with him,” my mother whispered to me.
I shook my head.
“Go, or he’ll just get angrier,” she pleaded.
I was the only one who could placate my father, a badge of honor I would have done anything to shed. After my father died, these memories felt traitorous. I would spend years repainting my past, searching for new hues, but I always returned to the same four, ending with this blinding white that would never fade.
Refusing to look back at my mother or brother, I stomped toward my father who snarled like a mountain lion in his cave of an office. My brother and mother retreated to a corner, licking their wounds. I cajoled my father with pleas for mercy and, eventually, guided him back to the living room where we lapped up his renewed love like milk.