I hung up, packed up the car and begun the long drive to Fresno for Darla’s conference and the longer drive, still back to my young adulthood of 35 years ago.
The heat wave had begun and even with the A/C on it was a hot and smoggy drive. We spent the night in Fresno and left the next morning for LA.
Upon pulling into LA’s Friday afternoon’s traffic, there’s no way around it, we hit the bumper to bumper, stop and go traffic. I drove the 30 miles past East LA to my brothers house, hot, nervous with anticipation and emotionally drained. It was good to see a friendly face.
I didn’t call Johnny that night or all day Saturday. I wasn’t up for another busy phone line. Instead, Darla and I drove to East LA to check out the old neighborhood. It looked somehow familiar and yet, at the same time, like a foreign country. Nothing was spelled in English. The colors of the houses and storefronts were painted bright and colorfully with the sights and sounds right out of Tijuana, Mexico. We drove by Johnny’s house just to be sure I could find it… I hope it’s not that old beat up house with the junked car in front of it… Oh, that’s across the street. There it is. That’s where Johnny lives. Wow… Nice little house. We drove up and back again.
I called at 9 AM Sunday.
The phone rang twice, then 3 times. I could feel my heart beating fast, hoping the phone would please be answered.
“Yes, this is Johnny.”
Thank god! I thought to myself as I said, “We still on for today?”
“Ahh… yeah, sure…. I’ve got to go to church first though.”
“Well, that’s okay. What time is that?”
“11 o’clock. Or, 10 o’clock. I’ll be back by 11:30.”
“Ok… I’ll get there by 12. That work okay?”
“Ahh… sure.” he answered somewhat reluctantly.
I nervously paced the floor as I tried to eat something. Would I be able to find the house again? Do I have enough gas? Will the traffic be too bad and make me too late?
We jumped into the car and got on the freeway with plenty of time to spare just in case. I sped down the freeway, afraid traffic would come out of nowhere on this Sunday morning. It wasn’t too bad. Hot and smoggy but not too bad. I found the place with no problem. I pulled up with the blazing hot sun pounding down upon us. Five minutes early. Is that okay? I asked myself. Would be weirder to just sit here sweating in the car, so we got out. I stared at the stairs that led up the hill that the house is build on and waited for Darla to get out of the car. Why is she always so slow? I hear myself ask myself. Relax. Relax. Everything’s okay. You’ve waited for this moment now for most of your life. I took a deep breath, looked at my tall, white, thin, blond girlfriend, who just happens to speak Spanish better than anyone I’ve ever known. We started up the stairs. Don’t tell me? Oh, no, don’t tell me I’m going to cry?! Oh, no! I felt myself choking up. I took a few deep breathes and felt like fainting.
We went up the stairs and I knocked on the door. A moment later, the door latch opened. There he stood, looking gorgeous. Nervous but gorgeous. We shook hands and then we hugged.
I looked at him and I couldn’t say a word. He smiled nervously and said, “Come on in.”
I waited for Darla to walk in then I went into Johnny’s house.
I stood there and looked at Johnny. I couldn’t take my eyes off him.
The tears were by now streaming down my face unabashedly. I felt like a child.
“Hi. Good to meet you.” Johnny said as he looked us both over, smiling nervously.
I smiled my biggest smile and could not take my eyes off of him for ten minutes, just studying his face, his smile, his eyes, his teeth, yes; they’re something like I remember Marissa’s teeth looking. A little less than perfect. I guess not many people can afford braces in this part of town. I looked at his beautiful black hair and his dark skin and his body as tears streamed down my cheeks and onto my chest and shirt and onto my hands. Johnny got up and brought me a box of tissues. Oh, do I need these? Is it that obvious that I’m crying?
Finally I could catch my breath and I took over from Darla, speaking alternatively in English and in Spanish. Again, I felt like the lost child being found.
Johnny’s sister, Sally, 3 years his senior, brings out some Dr. Pepper on ice in glasses and some chips and salsa… I’m too busy taking it all in and talking to even think about eating or drinking. We basically rehash all we’ve talked about over the past 3 months on the phone, that is, go over the last 35 years of our lives but the main thing different is that we can sense each other’s beings as we study each other’s expressions, body movements and mannerisms.
I pull out one of several photo albums I brought along at Darla’s prompting to show Johnny a chronograph of my life with pictures in black and white and faded color behind plastic covers of me as a child and as a youth and as a Cholo (inner city street tough) and as a medic in Vietnam and as a hippy after Vietnam and with my mom and dad and my brothers and with his brother and sister and with many different women over the years.
“Wow, Phillip, you’ve been with a lot of different women and married a lot of times, haven’t you? He laughs as we all do and I realize how obvious it is when looking over pictures of my life.
“Ahh… Yeah…. Guess I have been… “I answer nervously as I squirm and hold Darla’s hand.
Johnny holds the albums and looks intently at each photograph as he turns the pages that represent years of who his birth father has been as he probably wondered who I just might be these past 3 & 1/2 decades.
I point out pictures of Joshua, his younger (who up until very recently has thought of himself as the oldest) and of his 2 very pretty and very obviously White sisters.
But nothing seems to hold his attention as much as the pages that hold pictures of Marissa.
“That’s Marissa back in high school” I say pointing to a small black and white photograph of a smiling and very pretty Hispanic girl with a sexy haircut and seductive look on her face.
Everybody in the room takes their turn holding the album as they study her picture and shake their heads with acknowledgment.
We flip through a few more pages that have a few more pictures of Marissa on them. Marissa looks young and confident with obviously no idea of what the near future had in store for her. The photo album is again passed around. Words are spoken in Spanish and again acknowledgement is read on everybody’s faces. There’s a picture of me with my arm around Marissa with beaming faces smiling at the camera and the sun shining in our eyes. We look very young. We were much younger than Johnny is now, who was staring a hole in the photo album.
Johnny appears nervous and begins speaking to Darla in Spanish as we get up to stretch after an hour and a half of sitting on the couch, talking and looking at pictures. I look into Johnny’s room, completely fascinated by what he has on the walls and the way his room is set up. I look at pictures of his family and realize, of course, I could have been in all these pictures had things only worked out a little bit differently. 35 years and this is the first time I’ve ever been in his room. I look over his CD collection of what is completely all Mexican music. Johnny grabs a CD of Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits and hands it to me. “You can have this one if you’d like it.” he says with a very sweet smile.
“Thank you, Johnny.” I say as I take it and hold it in my hands and realize this is the first thing my first born child has ever given me. The tears begin to well up again and make my glasses even more splattered with tears. I try and not say anything more to keep from betraying my suppressed crying and make everybody even more uncomfortable.
I take the CD and put it into my bag with the photographs.
“I wish you were my father.” Sally says. “I’ve been hoping he calls me now for a long time. I remember when I was only 3 years old how my mother took me to the place we got Johnny at when he was just a baby. She told me to pick one out and I picked Johnny.” she went on with a distant smile. “Of course, she’d already had it arranged to take him before but, I remember how she made me feel like I was the one who choose Johnny. That always made me feel like I was sort of his mother too.”
“Want to go get something to eat?” Johnny asked as he walked out of his room and I found myself exploring the rest of the house, the hallway with pictures on the walls, the bathroom, nicely kept with fresh towels set out and nice fragrance soaps. We walked into the kitchen and out into the backyard, only 100 yards or so away from LA Country General Hospital.
“The hospital wanted to tear out the entire neighborhood in order to expand the hospital but all the neighbors got together to stop it for now.” Johnny informed us as we got into his car and drove into the alleyway and down the street toward what is now Caesar Chavez Avenue but what had once been, for many years, Brooklyn Avenue. The neighborhood that I’d ridden my bicycle in for years as a child and driven my car in as a young man, looked somehow comforting and yet, somehow sad. My mom and dad used to love to come down here to pick up corn beef and real Jewish rye bread while it still had some vestiges of what was left of the Jewish community it had once been. A block away stood the large Jewish temple on the corner of Chavez Avenue and Pomeroy. It was surrounded by a high chain link fence, topped with rolls of razor wire and signed marked “No Trespassing! Keep out!”
“This is where Hilary Clinton made her speech when she came to speak in LA recently. She said they’re going to restore the old temple into the place it had once been and make it a historic building.”
I looked up at the building as we drove by and saw the large Jewish star embedded high in the arch of the facade and remembered being in that same building as a child dancing the bunny hop with my mom and dad celebrating somebody’s wedding.
“That’s Manual’s also known as El Tepeac restaurant, where most people want to go. But it’s gotten too popular, crowed and expensive now. We can go to Ciros instead. It’s just across the street and the food is just as good and there’s no wait.” Johnny said as we got out of the air conditioned car and emerged onto the hot pavement and walked the streets where I drove with my friends as a teenager many years ago. I looked over at Johnny and at Darla and saw two people who looked very different and came from very different worlds and yet who are both very special people in my life now. Darla held my hand as we walked into Ciros and looked at what could be a local restaurant in any town or city anywhere in Latin America. All conversations were in Spanish and everybody looked up at us as we walked in and were shown to a table. Heads turned again to take a better look at Darla once she began speaking perfect Spanish to the waitress.
Darla has Swedish and Norwegian ancestry but she grew up in Spain and Ecuador and Panama as a child because her father was a diplomat for the US Foreign Service Office. It is strange to see someone look so gringo and yet have such mastery over the Spanish tongue. Even after being with her for several months it still impresses me.
We placed our orders and I couldn’t order a beer fast enough. As we ate the delicious food, I asked Johnny how it feels to know that he’s half Jewish. “Hmmm… wonder what it would be to tell some of your friends that you’re Jewish too. Ha ha.” I laughed.
“I think it’s cool. At the restaurant, John O’graths, where I work at in West LA, there are a lot of Jewish people and I’ve learned a lot about the culture. I really like them a lot. They’re always nice to me. There are a lot of celebrities who come in there and at first I thought it was really neat. Then I realized they’re like everybody else only they hate it when you recognize them. They want to be left along and my job really, is only to serve them.”
After our meals and more catching up, Johnny said: I’d better get back now.”
“Okay.” I replied and felt his anxiousness to get back to his familiar surroundings.
We got back into the car and drove back to Johnny’s house, walked up the stairs that I’d only been up once before and walked into the house.
“Are you wondering if I really am your birth father, Johnny” I asked him.
“Huh? Well, you know….Yeah….It’s pretty strange…”
“Let me see your hands…. See how square and block-like they are, just like mine. I always called mine Russian hands.” I said as I held his hands and Johnny looked at and compared our hands.
“See how we both have these thin wrists?” I added as I smiled up at his handsome face and could see his mother’s dark eyes and black hair staring intently back at me.
We walked up the stairs and Sally, her husband and son were in the kitchen talking. “I’m really sorry my mom’s not here but she had to go visit my aunt Veronica in El Paso, Texas since her younger sister passed away last week. She’ll really be sorry to have missed you, Phillip and Darla.”
“Tell her hello for me would you?” I asked. “And, please thank her for what a fabulous job she’s done with Johnny. I mean, he’s really had everything anyone could ever possibly have, a warm, loving home and family and good health. There really isn’t anything more important in the world…..” I added.
“Well, I hope to be able to see her another time soon.” I said as I looked over and smiled at Johnny. “I guess we’d better get going now.” I said as we shook hands and hugged all around.
As Johnny walked us back down the stairs he said: “I hope you’re okay if we don’t get together tomorrow too. I’ve got some other things I’ve got to do.”
“Huh? Oh, yeah… Well…..it’s okay. I understand. I know how it is.” I said as I wondered when we might see each other again. No one said anything about a next time.
I hugged Johnny again and he and Darla exchanged something in Spanish. I felt my eyes well up again as we drove off and we headed toward the San Bernardino Freeway on ramp toward City Terrace and East back to my brother, Richard’s house in Diamond Bar.
Part 5 will be here soon.