On July 21, I’m marrying my best friend. She is the best woman I’ve ever met. She inspires feelings that only great literature and film, and beautiful goals, have inspired in me before her. For Christmas, I put together a book of original poetry for her. The poem below is one I included in that book. While a love poem, it is also about a very special, unmatched love I am fortunate to share with her. I cannot wait to be Haley Miller’s husband.
I always wanted to see Max Patch.
I found it through pictures on Instagram,
a kaleidoscope of autumn colors
made for late-night scrolling;
the place where lovers embrace,
kissed by the dimming sunset,
to take carbon-copied pictures
they’ll post hours later—
no filter necessary.
I thought I’d take the dog.
There was no one else to take,
and a wise man once said
to never waste a memory
on someone you’d hope to forget
(or maybe that was Instagram, too).
After three months together,
I knew it’d be you.
The dust covered my car on the long drive up,
until we parked,
woozy from the winding road,
blankets in hand,
to our own spot among the dying autumn grasses.
We shared a ziplock bag
of Vanilla Life cereal,
and laid close to feel the warmth between us
as the sunlight faded.
You and I were made for sunsets.
I’ll always remember the ball,
bouncing up and down on his foot
in the park behind our house.
Those days he danced to the beat of Copa Mundiales.
My brother and I squealed,
“Kick it up in the air, Dad!”
He’d bounce it two or three more times, then kick it high above his head,
maybe forty feet in the air.
With our eyes glued to the ball, we chased until it landed in front of our feet.
We grabbed it with our hands like American boys,
then brought it back to watch him do it again.
In school, I told everyone my dad would’ve played with Maradona
if he didn’t quit Newell’s Old Boys.
Eran otros tiempos, he told me when I asked why.
Small town boys near the campo wanted to go fishing after school,
not take two buses to Rosario.
They played because it was fun to bounce the ball.
I wanted to be like him.
The immigrant plumber who worked 14-hour shifts
in dusty Newark basements
for Portuguese men who didn’t know he looked like Maradona once.
Like Maradona in the old videos I watch on YouTube.
Smiling wide with the ball bouncing, bouncing.
For years he trained me between work shifts at 16th street,
playing with middle-aged Arabs and Mexicans.
Hours we spent in that park, where he bounced the ball,
and he’d say, “I want it right here, hit it here,” and we’d stay there
until I did it right.
I wanted to bounce the ball like he did,
con amor like a lover, not like the English do.
“You must treat the ball with respect,” he told me.
I didn’t know what it meant then.
I’ve heard it said: Argentineans are born with the ball at their feet.
I don’t know if that’s true.
But I know my earliest memories were of him with the ball at his feet.
And the picture that still sits 26 years later
on a shelf he built in my old bedroom,
is evidence that maybe my story was different:
Maybe I was born with the ball in my hands.
Maybe I brought it to him, pleading:
“Dad, dad—do it again. Kick it high for me.”
I’m not sure why I got the urge to write about my dad this week. I probably saw someone post a photo online of them with their parents and it made me think of this picture. He’s on my mind a lot these days as I coach a soccer team for the first time. The way I act on the sidelines, and the things I tell my girls, remind me of him when he was at my travel team practices as a kid.
For years, I thought my dad was probably the best soccer player in the world who wasn’t famous. In high school and college, when I played with the old immigrants guys at 16th street park they’d always tell me to invite my dad. He’d never come, though. He’s an old, rickety plumber with tendonitis who smokes way too much for his own good.
When I was younger, he’d throw himself into some of my practices and marvel the kids with his moves. There was a jerk on one of my teams who was the best player on the team—the coach’s son—and he’d often try to embarrass the younger players like me. My dad, noticing this, asked the coach if he could run his own drill: a 2v2 mini-tournament. He volunteered to play with me, and suggested coach and son play together. My dad made the poor fella look so foolish that he ripped off his jersey and complained how it wasn’t fair. I’ll never forget my dad telling him in broken English: “The way I just made you feel is the way you make these boys feel every practice. If you don’t like it, stop doing it to them or I’ll keep doing it to you.”
That’s the kind of man my dad is. He’s a hard-nosed guy, but he tries to be fair—to an excruciating extent, oftentimes, for me. He never gave me an inch as a soccer player or as a son. He worked ridiculous hours for not enough money. If I made a mistake or was lazy, it was disrespecting him and the time he dedicated to me. It’s no surprise, then, that I’m such a perfectionist now.
My dad and I have rarely seen eye-to-eye on anything throughout the years. But, I know I wouldn’t be the man I am without him in my life; without those times he’d wake me up at 6 a.m. to go and work plumbing jobs with him when I was 14, and really I just wanted to go out and play with my friends on Saturday. After work, we’d go to a Portuguese restaurant in Newark sometimes and have the best meals while watching soccer games. It was his way of telling me: “I know you hate this, but I need you. I’m trying my best to teach you something. You’ll appreciate this one day.”
I have many more stories about my dad, and lessons I’ve learned from him. But, it’s not even Father’s Day, and I’m rambling. I feel very fortunate to still have this picture of him, though. It’s almost crazy to think it’s been in the same spot for more than two decades. I’ll never forget it, or the hundreds of days we spent together at parks kicking around a soccer ball together.
At the dinner table,
the brown one with the square floral tablecloth,
the dog sits at my feet, watching.
The pasta is badly cooked, with the cheap red sauce.
It’s so easy to make, you know.
Two weeks ago,
in Colorado Springs
or Los Angeles maybe,
Later, laying on colorless hotel room bed sheets,
I played the song on repeat.
(I didn’t want to play it, I swear.)
The laptop speakers vibrated.
Tears in my eyelids spilled,
like heartbreak-sized waterfalls,
and dried on the skin of my cheeks.
“I can’t erase it…
I just replay it…”
Over and over again.
In the best movies,
even the sad ones,
endings can be beautiful sometimes:
Bound by running time,
words on a screen
or notes in a song, fading,
like closing credits.
I still won’t look in the closet where you hung your dresses.
When I was in grammar school, I wrote a poem that was printed in a book of student poetry. It was probably one of those gimmick poetry books, the kind where you sent in a payment for the publisher to print the poem, and they accepted almost every poem that was submitted. I worked a plumbing job with my dad and used the money he paid me to buy the book. I read the poem while laying in my parent’s bed one morning. “Lost in a world of hate and confusion…” was one of the lines. It was a really, really bad poem.
Throughout high school and college, I was blessed with English professors who challenged me to read from our country’s great writers and poets. In 11th grade, Mr. Sweeney had our Honors English class give presentations on some of them. Mine was on the poet Robert Lowell (I was a little asshole then and probably didn’t read any of Lowell’s poems, just like I didn’t read The Old Man and the Sea, Winesburg, Ohio, The Grapes of Wrath, This Side of Paradise, and so many others, until years later). In his critique afterward, Mr. Sweeney told me I spoke with a “valley girl voice” and that my thick, black hair, swung over the left side of my face covering most of my forehead, made me look “like I was wearing a helmet.” I’m thankful he led me to great literature, but he was an asshole, too.
In my final year at William Paterson University, Dr. Hauser got a more interested version of me. He exposed me to more Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Frost, T.S. Eliot and I happily consumed it all. One of the poets I loved most was William Carlos Williams, who grew up a few miles away in Paterson and remains famous for his poem about the plums that you probably read in an English class before. Until this past week, the last time I thought about Williams was in Dr. Hauser’s class.
Last Tuesday, I watched the movie Paterson at Downtown West and it all came back. The movie focuses on a bus driver-poet and his life in the city with his artsy Persian wife, English bulldog, and the people who fill up his everyday routine. The bus driver-poet, played by Adam Driver, is very influenced by Williams (in a way, it reminded me of The End of the Tour about a writer and his relationship with David Foster Wallace). It was a beautiful movie that only lasted a week in Knoxville because “there were only like four people there the night it premiered,” the lady at the ticket counter told me Sunday night when I went back to watch Moonlight.
Most of this post has been a huge buildup to just say that poetry is hard, raw, and unsettling, in such a way that it’s impossible for me to walk away and be happy with any of the poetry I write. Since college, I’ve pretty much avoided poetry, sticking to sports, journalism, and short stories here and there. As I’ve explored fiction writing, I’ve begun experimenting with poetry again, too. The movie opened the door in a way to sharing those poems.
One of the things that makes poetry hard for me is that I’m not interested in poetry that doesn’t make sense to what I feel (or can feel). The movies, novels, art, and journalism I consume all touch me in some personal way; they mimic moments, conversations, images that I’ve to some extent experienced. There’s epic poetry out there that is beautiful, but I quickly lose interest in the fanciful stuff. I’m not knocking it at all, that’s just me.
So, inevitably, when I write poetry, it’s personal in an unsettling way. It’s not like short stories where I can hide behind so many words and scenes. And it’s scary to write this way because I worry what others might think of me:
Will you judge me because of the feelings I’ve taken from inside of me and put on a computer screen? Will you empathize with me? Will you be angry? Or pity me?
I do think it’s a beautiful thing when we can be real. Every work of art I say I love has that heavy dose of candor to it. Poetry is cathartic and therapeutic in that sense. And, I’m glad that Paterson and Williams have gotten me writing it again.