The boy had problems. He spent hours bouncing a rubber ball against a wall. At the time, my mom said, she minded most her mother in law’s impudence: she’d sent Lelio Lopez, known as Tata, to my parents’ apartment in Columbus, Mississippi without permission. Just put him on a bus and called my mother to inform her he was on his way. Thirteen years old, Tata was an in-law without being an adolescent. The product of my paternal grandmother’s second marriage was accustomed to secondhand status; like that ball, he was hurled against immovable objects. Mom, twenty-four, had no idea what to do with him. There was this boy in the apartment whom she hardly knew.
My grandmother decreed, consulting no one in traditional mother-of-Cuban-son way, that Tata would be my godfather. For the next twenty years he flitted through my life not quite like a shadow but a presence who must not be named lest he remind people of decisions poorly made, responsibilities abandoned, damage wrought. One of my few memories starred this paternal grandmother, Tata, and me in a car in Hialeah. The car ran out of gas. What happened remains vague. I sat in the back while my grandmother was impotent with rage. She did, however, suggest it was his fault. He pushed the car off the road. We weren’t more than a few blocks from her house. My great grandfather picked us up. It was 1980 or 1981, around the time my grandmother’s husband disappeared. He had abandoned his wife, I learned years later, because he couldn’t stand to be around her. Take the house and car, he said, but leave me alone.
From what I understand he also abandoned Tata, his son. His mom kept him, as one would a stray cat for which a saucer of water is placed on the terrace. But there were flashes of energy. My favorite memory took place in 1983, one of those interminable but thrilling Monopoly matches: thrilling because it was my ninth birthday and Tata and my cousin Maria, teenagers, treated me like a colleague. I won — they let me win.
In 1985 he joined the Army and was stationed in Korea. Except for a brief, awkward Christmas appearance four years later during which I learned he was a trucker – he was taller and thicker, with a sloppy grin – he disappeared again. He’d changed his name to Andrew. Then there he was again, at our house for Thanksgiving in 1993, his first visit since that birthday a decade ago, and I noticed changes: he looked forty-one not thirty-one, the clothes looser around his body. Before dinner my grandmother suggested he and I hang out in my room. I dreaded the moment – what the hell could we talk shit about? Relief came quickly, breathlessly. My copy of the Rykodisc Lodger lay on my five-disc CD changer. “I love David Bowie,” he said. Our eyes met. I’d like to say we shared what’s called a moment, but he was in a room with a nineteen-year-old guy uncomfortable with his being there in the first place, and he didn’t know this Bowie album existed anyway. He and my grandmother left after dinner. “I’m tired,” I heard him murmur to my dad.
Two autumns later at the same time my parents told me Tata was going to die soon of AIDS, they also advised me to keep it quiet. In 1995 AIDS shamed families. He caught it from hookers in Korea, I was told. The day before Thanksgiving, confined to bed, he had days if not hours to live. On Thanksgiving morning my dad asked if I wanted to see him. My maternal grandmother came with us. “Yolanda, prepare yourself,” Dad warned her in the car. In the Hialeah efficiency usually assigned to renters was the hospital bed in which lay a dessicated form willing itself to die. My paternal grandmother, chirping and hovering, said she’d changed his diapers for the occasion. Hair and bones – that’s all I noticed. He’d kept his hair. The call came the next morning. At the cemetery – there was no wake – the family remained dry-eyed in an obstinate way that suggested pity unblemished by affection. Maria, the cousin who took a walk on Boardwalk and lost a fortune when her die-cast metal Schnauzer visited my hotel, was inconsolable, the first and last.
Other than fresh flowers or a lit candle before a photo in his enlisted man’s uniform at my grandmother’s while she lived, Tata passed from conversation and perhaps memory. When mentioned it’s with what Thomas Gray called the passing tribute of a sigh. If he left grieving friends or lovers in Seattle — where I learned years later my father had picked him up in secret and brought him home in the early nineties — records have them have vanished. What deprivations he suffered at home I’ll never know either. An example of damage, a warning sign before he was human. The truth I learned, unbidden, a couple of years ago: Tata was gay. No surprise, for even reconciling this news with what I knew already failed to thicken him beyond the two-dimensional contours of a symbol. To exist in recollections as unrealized at least allows for hope; potential energy chaffs at inactivity. Tata was the man who wasn’t there. I could not love him because he wasn’t around to love and, fatally, hadn’t learned how to demonstrate it — not to us.
Possibly we weren’t paying attention. I hope somebody was. To the extent that I have, it rests with Tata as memory. I’ve contributed to the banalizing of his life by remembering his death; he’s a cautionary tale, recounted in my head on every date since the late nineties, on every occasion when the possibility of infection looms. He’s still not a person. Even a negative force has value, I remind myself. Love has no value, though.