Sunday, May 28, 2006

i *heart* x-men

When I visited my father in Tacoma, Washington, I was eleven years old and Mount St. Helens had just erupted. But there were three things I was more excited about: being with the man I knew only through pictures and letters; snow; and finding the missing issues of Chris Claremont and John Byrne's "Dark Phoenix Saga" in the Uncanny X-Men (culminating with Jean Grey's tragic felodise in the Blue Area of moon, under the eyes of the Watcher, while the rest of the team battled the Shi'ar Imperial Guard).

Papa looked just like his pictures, only older, and I wrestled with my fear of meeting his American wife and my half-siblings. Back then, I hadn't fully developed my Dune-like mantra on how to handle fear, so fearful I was to the point where I almost ruined my visit myself. Part of me felt that as my father's oldest (and original) offspring I deserved his full attention, accumulated through the years of his absence and sweetened by my interpretations of his occasional letters. But though I know he tried to be the missing father of many years compressed in the span of a few weeks, the realities of our own lives' trajectories could never be in accord with my magnificent fantasy of how our reunion would be. I had imagined that, upon seeing me, he'd experience an epiphany, a Damascus moment so pure and profound, that he'd abandon his US family and return to Mama and me, book us flights back to Manila, and pick up our lives as if the entire divorce and separation was just a blip, a continuity error, and we'd live happily ever after. Instead, by the third day, I was calling my mother in New York, struggling not to cry over the phone as I begged her to give me a ticket to join her there with her friends as they made a circuit of the current Broadway shows.

And I found the snow too wet and cold, not at all like the soft snowflakes of my imagination, presenting their unique patterns as they fell deliciously on my tongue, magically whole in the palm of my hand. It was just after winter and Papa took me to a mountain where everything was greyish white and bitter. Bundled up in borrowed warmth (for the sole windbreaker I brought along from Manila proved utterly ineffective), I tried to make a snow angel and caught a cold instead.

But my entire trip was salvaged when Papa, frustrated that I could not enjoy a single thing (including a visit to a frozen beach), asked me if there was any place I'd like to visit, anywhere he could take me to make me smile. Breaking out of my taciturn persona I immediately answered: "A comic store, please".

We drove to Seattle, just him and me. It was a weekday. His wife had work and my siblings had school. We exchanged the barest of words along the way. I realized that I had no idea who he was and I think he felt the same way. Normally talkactive, during that time with him I was practically mute.

I forget the name of the comic book store he took me to, but I remember how huge it was, like an impossible library covered wall-to-wall with comics, new and old, with the back issues arranged in order of titles in boxes arrayed on the floor, with special issues protected by see-through sleeves displayed on racks and shelves.

I had found my personal heaven.

Seeing me frozen, Papa said, "Go ahead. Get what you want. I'll wait in the car." Normally, I would have interpreted those words as a frank dismissal, evidence of his non-interest. But back then, it was a wondrous gift, a chance for me to induldge in four-color joy.

When his patience expired after two hours of waiting in the car, Papa came back into the store to take me home. He found me surrounded by piles of comics I longed for, that I had imagined impossibly ordering by mail from Manila.

"Okay, Deanbo," he said, squatting beside me. "Which one do you want?"

I looked to him. "Can I have a few, please?"

In that moment, he realized he had me. "Sure. And we'll go for some sourdough pizza, okay?"

Breathless with gratitude, I selected around ten comics and handed them to him. He picked himself up, walked to the counter and paid for them.

At the pizza place, I ignored the biting winds as we sat outside and held on to the brown paper bag that contained inestimable treasure. When the food arrived and we were served the most gigantic and thickest pizza slicest I've ever seen in my life, he asked me about my mother, how she was, what was going with her life, how I was, how school was, what I'd like to be when I grow up, was I happy.

I found the exchange of words difficult at first because nothing had truly changed between us since I arrived. But glacing down at my bag of comics, I thought of the conversation as a kind of payment for them, since I had little money myself, and soon was betrayed by my own nature, and finally made the acquaintance of the man who divorced not only my mother but me as well.

Later that night, in the the guest bedroom that was temperature controlled to Philippine standards of comfort, I looked at my haul, open my mint copy of Uncanny X-men #137, and lost myself in the drama of the Blue Area of moon.

Twenty six years later, I'm watching Jean Grey morph into the Dark Phoenix in a movie theatre with my friends. Beside me, my wife Nikki gasps at the same moments I do, applauding without shame. It was not the comics I knew - the was no moon, instead there was Alcatraz Island - but it was still true. I'm loving every frame of it - Scott, Logan, Kitty, Piotr, Ororo, Bobby, Hank, Rogue, Callisto, the Marauders, and of course, Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix.

I'm eleven years old again, lost in the story of love and hope.


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