by | Nov 19, 2020 | Creative Nonfiction

BOBO by Christopher Gonzalez

The first time I see my brother as a father, the twins are three weeks old, snoozing in their rockers. He towers above them holding an Xbox controller and wearing a headset—a familiar image on a slant. The babies, newly unlocked characters in our lives. One day they didn’t exist and, now, I’m washing my nephew’s bobo in the bathroom sink for the tenth time that hour. When I’m on tío duty, it is my job to retrieve the bobos. Pull them out from beneath the couch and behind the cuna; pick them up from the living room floor, speckled with lint and dust. At nearly a year old, the twins pluck the bobos from their lips and throw them as an act of play, which maybe is an act of defiance, to say, We’re grown now. We don’t need these. The twins crawl, little speed racers across the floor, and any surface with a ledge becomes a ladder they use to stand. One of them desperately wants to walk. I watch him hold steady along the edge of the couch, then he raises his hand, turns out his left foot. I rush to kneel by his side, both my hands hovering like a forcefield around him, but that’s as far as he gets before he wobbles and lands backwards on his butt.




A college writing professor once said that on the subject of fathers and sons there is little to write in fiction. Fathers and sons communicate in burps and grunts and groans, he said. That, because the communication is simple, there is somehow nothing complex about the dynamic between two people who can’t be bothered to use words. He referenced Hemingway’s “My Old Man” and said that was it. It was the definitive story about father-son relationships. I’m not sure if I believe in a definitive anything, especially when it comes to stories and whose experiences are allowed to shine as being The One. It takes almost eight years for me to read that story after hearing this comment in a workshop, and I come away with a lot about horse riding, a lot about old-timey anti-Italian sentiments, and an exhausted brain from run-on sentences. Sure. But in spite of my bitterness, I can see the meat pulp of the story: how young boys look up to their fathers, how we glorify unkind men. When we’re young, we’re not developed enough to see the rot. I suppose this is relatable to the boy I was and the father I had, but there’s so much more to say on the subject. There’s so much more to write. It is, in fact, the most difficult relationship I attempt to explore in my own fiction, and I always come up short. So many feelings and thoughts about fathers who leave, and fathers who stay, and fairweather fathers, and fathers who can take their twenty-four year old son to a Hooters for a drink and tell them, truth be told, they never wanted to be a father, they weren’t good at it, that when you were just a toddler and the two of you were out and about and someone asked about you they might suggest you were their little brother, because that’s how they viewed you: a sibling, a hanger-on, dropped into their life, someone to look after on occasion but ultimately not their responsibility. And so they are somehow able to simultaneously apologize for over two decades of negligence and skirt any accountability in the time it takes you to swig a beer.




I am terrified to hold either of the twins my first visit. To feed them feels like an act of faith. I live with a roommate in Brooklyn and am responsible to no one other than my employer, my landlord, and the roaches who scuttle out of the kitchen sink when the apartment is dark. But during my first visit, my brother hands me the bottle and places one baby in my arms. I never thought about my brother as a father, not because I didn’t believe he could or should be one, but because we were both cursed with such difficult fathers it didn’t make sense for either of us to repeat the cycle. I couldn’t see it happening for me, so why would I think about it happening for him? But my brother, his wife, these twins, makes more sense than most things. I feed the baby, then burp him. I accept the spit-up dribbling down my arm. I feel alive.




My therapist and I talk about the idea of a breadcrumb trail from the loneliness and hurt I feel in adulthood to my childhood. Ask yourself what the child version of you needs, he says. And give him the biggest hug. Sometimes that is enough. For so long, the idea of having a kid sounds like a second chance to love and support and raise someone up rather than tearing them down before they can fully know themselves. I would be different, I would be better. In high school, when the gap between my father and me widened, I began to tell myself this little mantra. I want it to be based in truth, but it’s too idealistic. Absolutely, I would fuck up my kids the way all parents do—but, dammit, I would be better. I’m reminded of William Finn’s lyrics in Falsettos. In the song “Jason’s Bar Mitzvah,” Marvin tells his son, “You hold my dreams / Kid, I burst at the seams/ ‘Cause of you.” I bawled my eyes out the first time I heard this sung in a dark movie theater below Union Square. Wanting to hear those words, wanting to get the chance to feel what it means for them to come from my own lips. But perhaps this is actually a toxic way of viewing fatherhood. That wanting to create someone and turning them into a keeper of your own dreams, packing them with what was once absent in your own life, will result in breadcrumbs of a different color.




I see a constellation in the faces of my twin nephews. How strange to find my mother at one angle, my sister-in-law at another, her parents in a smile, a raise of an eyebrow, her sister, her brother, then my brother, and sometimes me. When they aren’t crying or cranky, they are little butterballs of joy. They laugh, my heart flips.




I have spent most of my twenties pondering fatherhood and whether I will experience it in this lifetime. I haven’t been in any long-term relationships. (I throw a hand grenade anytime someone gets too close. I’m trying to change; I’m failing.) Fatherhood isn’t technically associated with being in a committed relationship, I know this, of course I do, but I want family, I want foundation. I stare at babies in strollers on crowded subway cars, how they kick their little feet up and wave at straphangers. When they cry, I am annoyed, though I know rationally it is not the fault of the parent, and kids are just kids. But it’s enough that I start to think of this reaction as a flicker of darkness, that maybe I would make a shit parent because I lack patience. I lack compassion. Of the traits I share with my father, his selfishness and anger have rung true at various points in my life. I can acknowledge that I have worked to develop in direct opposition of him. I have gone to therapy, for one. Still: I can be cold. I can be cruel. I can be responsible for hurting others and somehow convince myself no, it’s me who was wronged. When I see parents pushing large strollers through narrow aisles at the grocery store, or walking with little ones strapped to their chest down busy Brooklyn sidewalks, I wonder if I can ever be this inconvenienced—and then I know I’m not ready at all.




A recent night at my brother’s house. We  finish up dinner in the basement when we hear a loud thud upstairs. My sister-in-law reaches for the crawling twin and places him in the playpen with the other. We share a look; everything goes quiet. She asks if I wouldn’t mind checking out what happened upstairs and points to the knife we used to slice pumpkin pie. The blade is sticky with clumps of filling. I grab it, then pause at the bottom of the staircase. She’s scared and so am I. Maybe it’s a tick from being an anxious child, but I’m overwhelmed with macabre images of blood soaking into the carpet, of orphaned babies, of a Grimm’s fairy tale spun into reality. But I creak up the stairs, into the kitchen. I hold the blade down at my side and walk room to room, like I’ve seen in movies. And I know without an ounce of doubt that if someone is here, they would take me down, it would be so easy, so quick, I probably wouldn’t scream. I flick a light on in the guest room, jump at my shadow. I hold the knife out, and if death is what I’m being dealt, then let it be. If sacrifice is love, if giving is love, then maybe I’m loving harder than I ever dreamt possible. And then my brother makes an appearance, a knife in his hand—he moves with the blade pointed out, no questioning in his footsteps. I lower the blade again to my side, and follow his lead.



Photo used under CC

About The Author


Christopher Gonzalez is a fiction editor at Barrelhouse. His writing has appeared in the Nation, Best Small Fictions 2019, Little Fiction, The Forge, Split Lip, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. His debut short story collection I’m Not Hungry but I Could Eat is forthcoming from SFWP. He lives in Brooklyn, NY, but mostly on Twitter @livesinpages.