Sometimes I find myself thinking about my grandfather's old girlfriends. Is that weird? But everything about his life is weird. He died of some mysterious, unspecified illness before I was born, and my father only ever refers to him by his first name, "Kaz." Where other girls had grandpas who'd been struck down by cancer, all I had was this faded, black-and-white image: a man with a vivacious smile and a debonair wave to his hair. The photo must have been taken in Japantown, before the war.
According to my great aunt, Kaz was quite the "bad boy" - drinking, womanizing, leading a louche existence when he was barely out of high school. Apparently, there was a jazz singer named Lily, whom he fell in love with. My great aunt giggles as she remembers this, but something nervous and almost hysterical undercuts her show of boisterousness. I want to know more, but her lips tighten, and she says mockingly, "Look at Leslie, so bemused, taking it all in."
Perhaps these childhood memories have something to do with why I'm tantalized by Anthony De Sa's Barnacle Love. This collection of linked short stories tells the tale of the Rebelo family, beginning with Manuel, a young fisherman, fleeing the insular confines of his Portuguese hometown. He washes up nearly drowned on the shores of Newfoundland, ready to make a new life, but where does he fit in? What does it mean to follow his dreams? Caught between tradition and the surging pulse in his blood, he falls under the spell of a fisherman's daughter, who, despite being a cripple, is strength and sexuality incarnate:
"Her hands blur as they weave the leather straps and secure the metal brace to her thigh - the moulded cup meets the hardened flesh where her leg should be. He's not sure how he feels about it - she is not whole. But when she brushes by him he is caught in her smell of cotton sheets and the peppered sweetness of cinnamon. There is intrigue in her difference - something fragile that needs his tending. Manuel wants to hold her, touch her."
With her missing leg and her slight figure - so slight that she appears almost an apparition when he first sees her - she represents mystery and the beauty of something lost. Her atrophied flesh and severed bone embody something unknowable about her past, in the same way that Manuel's own ties to Portugal are being torn away.
I find myself wondering about my grandfather's past and what it must have been like growing up in the shadow of Japan. He bristled under his father's expectation that he carry on the family tradition by becoming a doctor. I remember my great aunt alluding to his thwarted musical talents. She said that his personality dissolved after the war.
I want to ask my dad what happened, but something stops me. He already looks edgy, lying on the couch, flipping the channels, and I haven't said a word.
So instead I simply ask him if he would like to read Barnacle Love.
Photo from: here