I’ve walked this route at least a hundred times, but this Friday afternoon was different. It started at lunch. My stomach felt strange as if a tornado had moved in and I could barely swallow my waffles and chicken nuggets. My friends were laughing about something, but I was so distracted by my own thoughts, that I wasn’t following the conversation. I usually try not to laugh or smile anyway because of my dimples. I’ve never liked them. The weird feeling continued at baseball practice where I felt myself a second or two ahead of every movement. I whiffed at several pitches during batting practice and a few easy balls flew by me in the infield.
As I walked home, I thought about the conversation with my mom just last week. She told me that my father had been released from prison and he wanted to see me. This man I had never met wanted to see me. This man, my father, was a prisoner, an inmate, a convict; a true criminal. My mom had divorced him ten years ago, after he had already been in prison for four years. I was just a year old when he was sentenced. We never spoke about him. When I was younger, I asked my mom many questions. I wanted to know about him; what he did, where he was, and who he was. She offered little information and told me it was best for us to forget him. When she spoke about him, the dark wrinkles under her eyes looked even more dull and tired. Along with the little bits of information she did share, my mom told me that my father’s name, Alvaro, means “Guardian” in Spanish. The irony has not been lost on me. Although I appreciate my mom and the long hours she works to pay the rent and buy me nice baseball equipment, she is often too exhausted to spend time with me. We also live in one of the more attractive multi-family homes on our street with a large front porch, plus a lawn in the yard about the size of a baseball infield.
“Hey, Mateo!” a girl squealed as she rode her bicycle past me. I had been lost in my thoughts and found myself just a few steps from my house. I kept envisioning my father just forty-eight hours from now, walking up to the house to see me. For years, I have been fearful of being like him; doing bad things, and losing my life. Because of these thoughts, I have always tried to be good; to be perfect.
The next morning, I sat at the kitchen counter as my mother stood before the sink, peeling a potato with one intense stroke after another. “You don’t have to agree to this, you know. I mean, I can shut this down,” she said.
“No. I need to do it. I don’t know him, really. Maybe it will help to just meet him… just once,” I said, fixating on the potato peels as they fell into the sink.
My mother spun around and looked at me. “Your father sent you letters. I never told you. I put them away in a box,” she said.
“Wait. What?” I muttered.
Her face was frozen and her eyes began to well up with tears. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Mateo,” she whispered.
“Where are they now? I want to read them.” I heard my own voice begin to rise.“Mom, where are they?”
“I'll give them to you before he comes. I just…I thought it was the right thing to keep him…keep them from you.”
“Was it?” I stood up and my voice was even louder now.
“No. I think it was wrong. I think it was wrong,” she said as she turned back to the sink and wiped her face with a towel.
I slowly opened the fist that my right hand had made. “It’s okay, Mom. I’m sorry.”
That evening, I sat in my room with the worn, cardboard box. The box was covered with images of baseballs and the word “beisbol.” There were nine unopened letters inside, postmarked starting when I was around ten years old. I sorted through them and put them in order by the dates, noticing that it looked like he had written about two letters every year for the past five years. My fingers felt weak as I opened the twice folded letter slowly.“Dear Mateo,” it read; the first time my father had used my name or addressed me. I read each of the letters slowly.
I have many regrets, but marrying your mom and having you is definitely not one of them. I’m sorry I haven’t been there for you. I love you and I will always love your mom. I've made mistakes. I was caught up with the wrong people at the wrong time. I don’t associate myself with them anymore. I am trying everyday to be a better man--to be a good man. The man that you deserve.
My shoulders dropped and my hands steadied. My father seemed caring and remorseful. I put the box underneath my bed that night and gently tucked the letters between the alarm clock and my baseball glove on my night table.
My father was expected at one o’clock. I began peering out the second floor living room window at twelve-thirty. Ten minutes later, I saw a man walking toward the house. His hair was dark and his gait was quick. He was wearing jeans that looked new and a button down grey shirt. I ran to the backyard, picked up a glove and ball, and began playing catch with the pitchback. I could see my mom talking to him through the corner of the window. Seeing me, he walked out the back door and towards the place I was playing.
“Hi, Mateo,” he said.
“Hi.” I threw a wobbly pitch at the net.
We spoke for a while about baseball. He was a shortstop in high school. He had the same dimples that I did. They looked good on him, friendly and warm.
“Thanks for agreeing to see me today,” he said.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was really nervous but I feel better now.” I paused. “Oh, and I read all of your letters last night.”
“Yeah, your mom told me she gave them to you.” He sighed. “Your mom loves you so much. And I do, too.”
“I have a game next weekend,” I blurted.
“Oh, I’d love to come. I mean, would you be okay with me being there?”
I felt my dimples making an appearance.