“Feel my bicep.”
This was the opening line from my birthfather, spoken on the first and last day I spent with him.
My birthmother had tracked him down through a friend who had a contact at the Metropolitan Opera, where my birthfather had been a flutist for many years until “I met Jimmy Galway and I decided it was a sin against God if I couldn’t play as good as him, and I quit the Opera!”
He quit before his pension was fully vested and, when I met him, was living in near-poverty with his two sisters in Philadelphia. “I need $50,000! Could you give me $50,000?!” he said, practically spitting with laughter, grabbing my arm and pressing himself close to me.
We met at the train station in Philadelphia. When I heard the “feel your bicep,” line I turned and saw the man who had supplied me with my olive skin, brown eyes, and fine bones. He was about my height, 5’5″. He was balding and trim, in good shape for a 70-year-old man. He wore white pants and a white v-neck sweater and offered me his arm. I felt obliged to squeeze it, which I did, and in the span of five minutes he proceeded to tell me about many things: his push-ups, his sit-ups, his insomnia, his chronic constipation which had led him at one point in his life to take “80 enemas a day!” until he discovered Metamucil.
Our entire visit was two hours long. I think I got a sentence in, albeit in fragments that I struggled to insert into his manic life-storytelling.
He was first-generation Italian and all the men in his family had played the flute. He had been married to a beautiful Swedish woman who died of cancer, leaving him with three children. He showed me their frayed wallet-sized photos. The two sons, Johnny and Michael, looked staggeringly like me. The daughter, whose name I forget, looked like a Swedish milkmaid, with round blue eyes, flaxen hair, and precociously full breasts for a then 13-year-old.
He pointed out that my breasts were round too, as were the breasts of all the women in his family, so this was proof that we were related. He told me he hadn’t spoken to his other daughter in years, that “after my wife died, she got mad at me about something and went to live with my in-laws in Minnesota!”
He appeared to have no clue what he had done to send his adolescent daughter running to Minnesota, but I did. I was repulsed. I tried to push the image of him climbing into bed with his 13-year-old out of my mind. He had impregnated my birthmother when she was 20 and he was 50. She had gone to the Metropolitan Opera while on winter break from Wellesley, and he hit on her on the way out of the Met. They spent an afternoon together and never spoke again.
When my birthmother tracked him down to tell him that he had a daughter, and would he please meet me so I could know more about were I came from, he told her that four months before I was conceived, he had impregnated another woman who returned to her native Germany to relinquish the baby for adoption, as my birthmother had done with me.
My birthfather, Fernando, and I sat on a bench at the train station, he practically plastering himself to me like Pepe Le Peu, as I tried to squirm away from him. If I hadn’t been so curious about my origins, or if I hadn’t been such a boundary-less 22-year-old, I would have high-tailed it out of there.
But I didn’t. I sat on that bench with a quivering smile on my face, asking polite questions, less listening than being pelted with egregiously inappropriate information about the state of his colon, his financial straits, and his middle-aged paramours.
At one point, we walked to a nearby Italian joint so he could show me off to the restaurant owner, whom he claimed was his friend. He clung to my arm as he yanked me down the street, exclaiming loudly, “Maybe people think we’re on a date, not father and daughter!”
I can’t remember much after that. I know there was a meal and Chianti on a red-checkered tablecloth. I recall parroting back some Italian phrases he taught me. There was more talk of Metamucil, which he instructed me to take after our pasta lunch. He told me that his close friend Jimmy Galway was playing a concert in Washington, DC, where I was in college, and made me promise to attend it.
A week later, he called me to ask when we could get together again. Before I could answer, he inquired if I had gone to hear Jimmy Galway. I said I had not. He erupted on the other end of the phone, blasting me for being an idiot like his two sons who had no taste in real music, that I must be listening “to that Michael Jackson garbage” instead.
I hung up on him. That was our last conversation. When I graduated college and moved cross country the flute that I had played since 5th grade disappeared. I didn’t replace it. I never had any desire to play again.