A trial separation

Words by Sarge Lacuesta
Illustration by Pau Tiu

For Father’s Day, a writer and doting dad tells us about being away from his first-born in the age of social media and assignments across the globe.

Lately, as a sort of emotional experiment, we’ve been traveling without our son. Half of the current trip is for work, so it’s been easier to make the decision. Over the past several days, I’ve been in touch with my son only through video, and only at either of our two prescribed times: 7 a.m. or 7 p.m., Philippine time. When he appears in my phone or my computer screen we are almost always on opposite sides of the day, so that it is daytime where he is and nighttime where I am, and vice versa. He’s new at this video calling thing, and many times I need to tell him to turn and move so that his back is not up against the sunlit window or the lamp, just so I can see his features more clearly.

My son is six now; the face that fills up the screen is closer to a young boy’s than it is to a baby’s. Without me knowing it, his features have grown longer from all those growth supplements he’s been taking, his skin is darker from too many hours spent swimming in neighbor’s pools, and his eyes are suddenly inhabited by a sense of keen understanding. “Where are you,” he asks, “and what time is it there?”—right before his attention is drawn by something happening in his part of the world: a new episode of EvanTube HD on YouTube, or the NBA finals. For him, it seems, the world has apparently gotten smaller and less mysterious. And for that moment, it is his forlorn, jetlagged father who feels cut-off and abandoned. “Where am I?” I ask myself later, away from the camera, “and what am I doing here without him?”

The emotional experiment is ongoing, but as we try to remind ourselves how good it is for both parties for parents to travel without their children, we also realize how much our son’s attitude toward us being temporarily away may have been shaped by all those times he spent reluctantly tagging along.

Last year, we were fortunate enough to be able to take him to a colder climate. It was the fall season where we were going, so we were also excited to dress ourselves up. We were going to be traveling to two or three different places and we were on a budget, so we applied practical purchasing and packing decisions carefully: everyone got to bring an equal number of jackets, sweaters, scarves, pairs of pants; we could only bring as many tops as there were days we would be away. But for my son, who was of that age at which their parents like to dress them, we made a considerable exception to the rule. We put him in severely discounted peacoats and half-priced hunting caps, we accessorized him with glinting lapel pins and lopsided ice cream cones, we applied every sort of exotic autumn fantasy to his appearance and his surroundings whenever we situated him in a photograph. We were doing it for ourselves—not for Instagram, and certainly not really for him.

Of course, as fantasy often quickly yields to gritty reality, it all ended midway into the journey. At a nice lunch patio I thought of introducing him early into the world of earthly delights by letting him wet his lips with my wine. After all, I’d read somewhere that not only was it good for the health, it was also good for the soul. He dipped his mouth and he licked his lips and he said it tasted like juice, and I immediately considered the moment a small cultural victory, as well as a secret that I would hide from his kindergarten teachers and his grandmothers on both sides forever. A half-hour later, back on the road, the rolling golden scenery rolled a little too much for my son, who barfed his entire lunch on his scarf and his peacoat and the van seat, causing a commotion and a minor detour. “No worries at all, we’re parents too,” our flustered companions-slash-hostages on the tour said, but I caught them rolling their eyes when I wasn’t looking. After all, they’d been wise enough not to bring their own kids along.

The rest of the trip was perfumed by the smell of that incident. No matter how much I scrubbed his clothes and aired them out—mostly by hanging them from hotel windows—I smelled his vomit whenever we kissed his cheek, or ate our meals, or generally hung out together. His first word of the day would be “eww” and that was our first thought of the day too; in many photographs from that trip I am wincing instead of smiling, and my son is sulking.

On our latest video conversation, he is warm and cheery and sunny, and in the pink of health. I left him in the care of his grandmothers and his keepers, who take him to his classes and his kids’ parties in our stead, and who generally let him do what he likes to do. As he trades the most horrible knock-knock jokes with me, I notice that he is wearing his favorite shirt, lovingly worn and laundered every other day, almost to tatters. I resolve to buy him a new one—this time in the colors of spring—but, after much reflection, decide to ask him what he wants instead. The experiment, it seems, has worked.

About the author

Sarge Lacuesta is an award-winning Filipino writer and editor. His published work includes short story collections Life Before X and Other Stories, and White Elephants: Stories. For these and many other titles authored and edited by him, Sarge has received a number of local awards, including the Palanca Memorial Award and the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award. He is the current editor at large of men’s interest magazine, Esquire Philippines.

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