Gatsby Wears Levi’s (Part 2)

Nonfiction by | October 2, 2016

It always appeared to me that introducing my future fiancée to my dad would not be a problem given the circumstance he had back then; yet I have been engaged for almost five years now and dad knows nothing about it.

They did marry, right after dad convinced my mom’s family that he would become a licensed engineer; and that he would also give her more than the Tamaraw FX that the other suitor promised. I smile when I see a picture of me as a baby held by my dad, in his toga beside my mom. The vastness of the MSU golf course filled the background.

Getting his license was an elusive thing. Dad was already teaching as a part-time instructor when he started his review for the board exam. During daytime, he taught disinterested engineering majors. At noon, he dealt with death threats from failing seniors. At night, he studied for his board and was in-charge of getting me to sleep. Mom told me that dad used to read his reviewer out loud while carrying me in one arm. I had heard of circuit theorems first before fables and fairy tales.

Dad never got any result, whether pass or fail, from the first board exam. No one in that batch did. All the test papers were burnt in a fire, which the examiners said was an “accident”. Dad would have left his dreams to die like the extinguished flame had he not met mom. With his wife, plus the baby that rested in his arm getting heavier, dad brushed the ashes off and was determined to do it all over again.

The examiners made sure to keep the test papers safe. Dad had his result the second time around.

He passed.

Cagayan de Oro, 1990

Fuelled by his license, dad started working for Cagayan Electric Power and Light Company, Incorporation (CEPALCO). He had to temporarily leave us, his family, again.

He also rented a room that could hardly be called a box. It was a small extension outside his landlord’s house. It was an oven during day-time, and any air left was unbreathable since it was situated next to a piggery. The area was too crowded and privacy was a stranger. During the third month, dad’s first pair of Levi’s was stolen. He left a month after.

In 1996, my dad moved all of us to Cagayan de Oro City, the City of Golden Friendship. Starting a family in a new city, far from any relatives, was tough, but I could not remember a day that dad and mom fought about money. Nobody complained.

I do remember the extra time dad set to teach me the fundamentals of mathematics. I was just in grade school but my notes were already filled with Xs and Ys. One evening I challenged dad to solve a hundred raised to its hundredth form; I was not in the mood to deal with exponential equations so I handed him the pen. He solved the problem at the back of a scratch paper and wrote zeroes after zeroes for almost an hour.

That night I learned that my dad was a very determined man.

All of us were provided with our basic needs. Christmas shopping was very crucial. Any “expensive” item, be it a clothing or a toy, was chosen carefully because it had to last a year. When I said I wanted a new pair of shoes, dad sat on one of those fitting chairs and scrutinized the leather’s authenticity. He held the shoes in his hand, confirmed if it was along the price range that we agreed, and traced the pattern of the welt and the lining. He was focused on the soles and the heels, and had me walk the shoes. I felt like I was auditioning and the grand prize was the new shoes. I won the prize and had to own them for two years.

It would sound funny, but dad knows more about clothing material than mom.

Mom was there to help choose the design. But dad was always the final QA. From my high school prom pumps to my college graduation heels and dress, even my teenaged Chuck Taylor’s craze, he always checked the quality. He insisted on buying me an executive leather bag before I left for my first job in Cebu City.

I am already in my mid-twenties yet my dad and mom still tag along whenever I shop.

Just two weeks ago, mom and I ransacked most of the boutiques in the mall looking for a hosting dress. “Let’s just call your dad, he’s better at this.” Mom said, giving up. The sales lady from Bettina was curious when dad entered the store and started to check our pre-selected dresses. Even if he had enough money to carelessly purchase things, dad was still insistent on quality.

My dad is already the vice-president of CEPALCO. He is almost 50 now and his closet might be filled with Levi’s, M&S, Nautica and what have you, but the vision that he had, like his father’s copra mill, of being established and moving as far as he can from that bitter bran of poverty is still to be accomplished.

This vision, after all, is no longer just about him. He has to make sure that not even one of his three children would experience squatting next to a rice shredder again. All three of us, especially me, should be settled.

By his terms, to be settled means to provide corporate jobs for both his sons. Ideally he would have to train one to take over his career as an engineer. And as for me, his unica hija, he should see to it that he will walk me down that aisle.

To fulfil a part of that vision, Dad would have to buy perhaps the most expensive dress he could buy for me. But I know that the most expensive dress is the hardest one to wear. And I may not be able to wear it at all.

Unless the day will come that two daughters, both wearing the most beautiful dresses, can be walked down the aisle by each of their dads. Unless the day will come when I can properly enunciate the name Dawn instead of Don. Unless the day will come that I will have my dad read this.

But I am determined to wait.

Christine Faith Valdez Gumalal teaches literature at Xavier University – Ateneo de Cagayan. She was a fellow for creative nonfiction at the 2016 Silliman University National Writers Workshop.

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