Drawing

by

02/17/2019

Neighborhood: Corona

An el train chugged across the tracks, shadows cutting in and out from the sun beaming above it. Cars cruised along the streets of Corona, Queens, as though there was nowhere to go. Storefronts sat like rows of sleepy eyes, their riveted steel lids rising just enough for their doors to open. The sidewalks were almost empty. Men with leathery, stubbled faces sat on stools by their fruit stands and merchant tables, watching and smiling as we passed. My father’s callused hand swallowed mine as he guided me down the block. I was four. My father’s dental lab was somewhere nearby. Sometimes on Saturdays I’d beg him to take me with him on his errands. Sometimes he did.

I could hear my father sucking his teeth under his mustache, and as we walked my tongue felt around my mouth, searching for a way to mimic him. When we got to the lab’s tall, black-framed glass door, my father, never letting my hand go, pulled the ring of keys from his dark khaki slacks. I saw the handful of gold and silver and wondered how grown ups could tell them apart.  With his free hand, he juggled through the ring and dug a key into the black metal lock. A few feet down the tiled hallway, my father stopped, lifted his leg, and mimed wiping his butt with my hand while making a fart sound. I laughed.

At the foot of the stairs, my father let go of my hand and flew ahead. He always climbed two steps at a time, at a speed I could never match. “¡Papi, e’perame!” I cried out, struggling to keep up. He stood waiting on the second floor as I stretched my legs out, slowly clearing two steps, then two more, then two more, to reach him. When I arrived he took my hand again and led me down the hall. More doors, more keys. Always quickly.

The lab’s fluorescent lights flickered on. I could smell new carpeting and freshly cut wood. There was a reception desk and a waiting area by the door. I sat in the chair at the desk, reached for the lever underneath the seat, and pulled on it with all my might. The chair hissed and shot up to its highest point.

My father moved to the other room, where he kept the workstations and tools and models of teeth he would work on. He’s a dentist, although he doesn’t do the typical work of checkups, cleanings, and fillings. According to my mother, he graduated dental school at the top of his class and had some success in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, where my family’s from. Because foreign medical degrees don’t carry over to the United States, if my father wanted to be a dentist after moving to New York, he’d have to go through school all over again. Speaking little English, having a family at home to support, and without the money to pay for classes, my father decided to find another way into the field. He eventually took a few certification courses that allowed him to work making dental models. Other dentists in the area would commission him to create three-dimensional mockups of patients’ jaws and teeth. Despite having to start over, he’d worked his way up the ranks and was still going. In five years, we’d have a house in the suburbs, with a pool in the backyard and a Cadillac in the garage. All of it came from my father, willing it into being by whittling porcelain teeth.

I opened the reception desk drawer to look for stuff to doodle with. There was still a part of me that wanted to emulate my father and become a dental technician, but already I was feeling the irresistible pull of art. Whatever I got my hands on, I made a story out of it. I’d learned to read early and devoured children’s books by the pile. I spent hours at home crafting epic stories with my Batman and Superman action figures. And when I had nothing else, I’d draw on whatever paper I could find. In the desk, I found a bag of multi-colored rubber bands, a box of paper clips, a black stapler, and a little metal thing that I didn’t recognize. It looked like a pair of jaws with fangs on each end, and it closed when I squeezed it. It reminded me of a piranha, and I suddenly wished I had brought one of my toys with me. This thing would be cool to fight.

I heard the humming of my father’s tools in the other room, and the sound of him blowing away porcelain dust while he worked. A high buzzing sound appeared, and I knew he was whittling down a model jaw. Even when I periodically ran up and yanked on his polo shirt to hop onto his work chair, he kept right on going. I loved how strong my father was. He could easily handle the weight of me climbing on top of him without a moment’s interruption.

Back at the receptionist’s desk I took a big black marker and started drawing on a yellow lined legal pad. I loved drawing, but was becoming frustrated. My Batman never looked like Batman. I’d seen the comic books and cartoons, but somehow the images I saw in my head wouldn’t translate to the page. My drawings looked awkward and wrong. My lines were never straight. I couldn’t do muscles or hands, eyes or noses. I was a great colorer, picking the perfect blue for the cape and gray for the tights from my big Crayola case. I always stayed within the lines, and my coloring books were filled with perfect versions of the real thing. But I knew I didn’t draw them, and I didn’t feel right about it. My uncle Alexis never had this problem. He was an artist. He could play guitar and sing, and I’d seen him do really cool drawings. When we used to live near each other in Manhattan before my family moved to Corona, he came over all the time, and while Mom prepared coffee I pestered him for drawings of my favorite characters.

“¡Tío, pintame un Superman!”
“¡…un Bahman!” “¡…un Thundercat!”

He’d smile, repeating my words, “Ah, Thundercats!” Then he’d take my pencil and paper and begin drawing. I stared, mesmerized at the way his hand moved, the way the pencil glided across the page, and the way the image seemed to suddenly appear from it, as though he were a wizard and the pencil was his wand. Within minutes I was looking at a perfect rendition of what I’d begged for. I always asked how he did it, but he always just asked me back, “¿Como tú crees?”

I replied that it must be magic, or a superpower, like how Superman can fly. He always laughed. I spent a long time trying to copy his drawings, but they never looked right, no matter what I did.

Sitting in the receptionist’s chair I drew my fifteenth Batman logo on the legal pad, and it still stunk. I couldn’t understand why. What was the secret? How come Alexis could do it and I couldn’t?

…Can all grown ups do it? I thought.

After a while the humming of the machinery died down and my father reappeared in the waiting room, shutting the lights and door to the work room behind him.

“Vamono’, Papo,” he said. It was time to go.

“¡Papi! ¿Tú me puede pintar e’to?” I asked, pointing to the Batman symbols I had been drawing.

My father walked over to me and looked down at my paper.

“No, Papo.” he said. “Vamono’, ya.”

“¡No, Papi!” I insisted. “¡Yo quiero que me pinte un Bahman!”

My father looked again at my drawings, grabbed a black pen from the cup on the desk and leaned over. I watched as he began, furrowing his brow. His hand pulled the pen across the page and slowly, surely, drew the symbol. He even took another moment to fill the outline in with black ink. It was perfect. It was just like the real thing. How did he do that?

“¿Cómo tú hici’te eso, Papi?” I asked, desperately.

“Fácil,” my father replied.

Easy? How easy? I wanted to do it, too. I wanted to know how. I wanted him to show me.

“¡Enseñame cómo hacerlo!” I pleaded.

“Sigue tratándolo,” he told me, shutting off the lights to the waiting room and motioning for me to follow him out.

Keep trying.

***

Angel Eduardo is a writer, musician, photographer, and graphic designer in New York City. He has been published in The Caribbean Writer and Label Me Latino Journal, among other publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing for Memoir from CUNY Hunter College and is working on a book-length memoir project, from which this piece is an excerpt. More of his work can be found on his official website www.angeleduardo.com

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