Complete strangers often ask me how I got my name. They think this is an acceptable question. But for me, for the longest time, it was like being asked to tell the origin story of a scar. The question prompts me to replay old memories. It opens old wounds.
My go-to answer is simple: “My dad gave it to me.”
But if I feel like playing a game with them and throwing a counterattack that they don’t see coming, I tell them the truth: “My dad named me after his stepson from his first marriage.”
My dad called me his “second Chance.” I was named after first Chance, who was named after a gigolo played by Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth, which is based on a Tennessee Williams play.
My dad and first Chance were best friends. I’ve seen pictures of them on family vacations, pointing to novelty license plates in a tourist trap in LA or gathered around the sign of a national park, tall mountains looming over their shoulders.
I recall only one vacation with my dad: the Grand Canyon. My mom obsessed over the red rocks of Sedona along the way. I don’t remember the gaping chasm of the canyon. I don’t have any pictures of this trip. I only remember leaving my Garfield pillow in the hotel, and crying over its loss.
There was a photo of first Chance on my dad’s desk at home. In the black-and-white picture, young first Chance is shirtless, wearing padded headgear and boxing gloves, ready for a sparring match.
The closest I ever came to boxing was playing Punch-Out!! on the Nintendo Entertainment System, tethered to that gray brick of a console by the control pad’s short, plastic cord.
Punch-Out!! is brilliant in its simplicity: Each combatant follows a pattern. They throw the same punches over and over again. The key to winning is to memorize them. Learn when to block and when to counterattack. Each subsequent fighter is faster, stronger, larger, and more intimidating, with a more complicated pattern to master. However, with a good memory and fast reflexes, you can make anyone eat the mat in less than three minutes. At four years old, I didn’t understand that concept. It took me hours to defeat Glass Joe, the wimpy first fighter. I took a lot of punches.
When I finally reached Von Kaiser, the second fighter in Punch-Out!!, I noticed he looked like my dad. Of course, at that age, I thought anyone with a moustache looked a lot like my dad. Von Kaiser. Burt Reynolds. Geraldo Rivera. The moustache was my dad’s defining feature, a thick, bushy specimen rarely seen outside of classic gay porn. My mom once commented that my dad looked like a wino in his driver’s license photo. I didn’t know what a wino was, but I thought it was hilarious. “My dad’s a wino!” I told kids at school.
Unlike Burt Reynolds, Von Kaiser had something else in common with my dad: boxing. My dad was an amateur boxer in his youth, and the only thing he liked to watch on TV, besides the movie La Bamba, were boxing matches. At four years old, I didn’t understand the appeal of watching two sweaty, shirtless men in silk shorts punching each other in the face.
I liked playing Punch-Out!!, however, because it was just a game. My father never tried to translate the training of my thumbs to defeat Von Kaiser into training my muscles to fight a real person, although he appreciated that I stood while I played games. This was the extent of my physical activity. “Look at those calves!” he’d say, as I bounced on my toes.
In the garage, my dad hung two bags for training: a speed bag, which I couldn’t reach, and a punching bag that hung from a thick chain and felt like it was filled with concrete. My knuckles were red after punching it once or twice.
He needed this equipment because he trained a kid named Mike on the weekends. They weren’t quite Doc and Little Mac, the inseparable trainer/fighter combo of Punch-Out!!, but they were close. We went to his high school graduation. At the time, Mike seemed like an adult to me. Like my dad, he had a hairy chest and muscle definition. Early Saturday morning they would go for a jog together, then return home to alternate between the heavy concrete bag and the speed bag. At the end of their training, they jumped rope. I couldn’t even jump over a rope two consecutive times, but they spun the rope too fast for me to see it. It sliced through the air and snapped on the concrete driveway with metronomic rhythm. They crossed their arms in front of themselves, a maneuver that would have sent me flat on my face if I attempted it. By the time they were done, both of them had sweat dripping between their shoulder blades, down the front of their hairy chests, darkening the waistbands of their shorts. I’d watch from inside the kitchen.
Mike’s mom worked at the Estée Lauder counter at the mall, applying blush to women’s cheekbones and spraying white paper rectangles with the latest flowery fragrance. My mom instinctively knew when the new Estée Lauder free gift was available. We went to McRae’s with my dad’s credit card to stock up on lipstick and put the tubes in the vinyl tote bag that came with her $45-or-more purchase. She dabbed the lipstick onto the back of her hand. “That’s the best way to see how it looks on you,” she explained. I helped pick out the best color and decide whether or not the latest fragrance was worthy enough to join her arsenal of bottles in her bathroom back home.
When I wasn’t at the makeup counter with my mom, I stayed inside after school and on weekends, mashing buttons and studying patterns. Once, my dad held his arm up next to mine and commented on how white I was, like I was a pale worm he’d just dug up from the soil. Honestly, I never thought he was that much more tan than I was. His arm, thick with black hair, just looked darker against my smooth skin.
Now that’s how I think my dad saw me: A foreign creature. A different species he couldn’t relate to. A specimen he examined with curiosity, and then returned to the darkness it came from.
After my parents’ divorce, I hated spending time with my dad. He always asked if I had a girlfriend. I’d lie, say I did, and go back to searching for hidden tunnels in Metroid II on my Game Boy.
My dad moved a lot, and rarely made friends. Almost every story about a coworker ended with, “I hate that guy. I wanted to kick his ass.” He never said positive about anyone. “Paul Schafer is a faggot,” my dad said one night while we watched David Letterman. This confused me. Perhaps I was a faggot—lying about having a girlfriend, and getting aroused by glimpses of underarm hair when my classmates raised their hands—although I had never been called one. But Paul Schafer, David Letterman’s bald bandleader, the one who laughs at all Dave’s jokes, what makes that man a faggot?
It was difficult for me to rationalize this opinion of my dad’s with certain aspects of his behavior: his casual way of undressing in front of me, his appreciation of the male body, the way he’d tell me I looked good with my shirt off as I started filling out. Every time he’d see me, he ask if I’d been lifting weights, or exercising. Once a week or so I mounted the Soloflex he’d left in our garage. I’d put on some shorts and turn on the radio, doing machine-assisted pull-ups for a few minutes, until my thighs stuck to the rubber seat and sweat ran down my sides. “Your shoulders are getting bigger,” my dad remarked, putting his hands on either side of my neck and giving me a squeeze. I didn’t tell my dad that I was aroused by the guy in the instructional video. And by him. I was always afraid of him finding out.
By the time I was ten, I’d heard every pun you can make about my name. By the time I was twenty I’d been called Chase, Chad, Champ, and once, oddly, Constance. By thirty, I’d met only one other Chance, my namesake, although I’d seen other Chances on TV and the Internet, like a bulldog voiced by Michael J. Fox in Homeward Bound or a gay porn model for Bel Ami. The first boy I kissed loved that Chance’s giant uncut penis.
On the rare occasion first Chance and I were together, he was simply Chance, and I was renamed Chance Lee. I was never called “Chance Lee” at any other time in my life. It sounds like “chancely” when some people say it, as though I’ve been downgraded from a proper noun to an imaginary adverb.
When I was a kid, I felt like the first Chance must never have been called the wrong name. Only me. The other Chance. The one whose name had to be changed in the company of certain people. The one with two different personas depending on what side of the family he was with.
Once we went to Texas to visit first Chance, who was an attorney. My Game Boy died because I’d left it in the car baking in the sweltering Texas heat for hours. The images on the screen were so faint, I couldn’t tell what was going on. I couldn’t make the long jumps or find the hidden exits.
When we left the law office, my dad and first Chance walked in front of me, talking to each other. I lagged behind, staring at my feet. If I hadn’t been watching the ground, I’d have stepped on something in the parking lot. My foot hovered over a giant wad of wriggling bubblegum. I stopped for a minute, stared at it, and then had to rush to the car before my dad and first Chance left without me.
In the car, I realized that the thing on the ground was a baby bird. I’d almost stepped on it. I couldn’t stop thinking what it would have been like to crush it. To squeeze the squirming pink flesh. To feel the crack of bones beneath my foot. Would it bleed? Would a thick mucous squirt out of it like from a bursting zit? What color what its internal fluids be? I obsessed over it so much, I couldn’t tell if I was glad I’d avoided killing if, or if I wished I had. Either way, it had fallen out of its nest, and there was nothing I could have done to put it back.
Later that year, my dad came to visit. He wanted to take me to see a friend of his, maybe the only one he had left, who lived nearby, a friend with two boys around my age whom I once played Batman with when I was six. That day, they’d made fun of me for having a girl’s toy: a plastic toaster. Since when did boys not eat toast? I’d been acutely conscious of my homosexuality since eighth grade, although I hadn’t mentioned it aloud yet. What else would they make fun of me for now?
“I don’t want to go,” I said.
I always knew my dad was strong, but I was surprised at how he moved me halfway across the living room in an instant. He picked me up by my neck and pressed me against the wall. The toes of my socks tried to find footing on the carpet. I had never been in a fight before, and since I didn’t even attempt to fight back, this hardly counted as my first. But it was the first time another person had attempted to physically hurt me.
After a moment, he released me, and pushed away.
My heels sank to the floor. Wheezing, I caught my breath.
“Do you want to go to lunch?” he asked.
I shook my head.
Without saying another word, he opened the front door, walked to his truck, and drove away. I ran to the phone in my bedroom and called my mom, who was next door with our new neighbor, whom she had begun dating. While I was telling her what happened, I heard tires crunch into the driveway. “He’s back. He’s back. He’s back,” I repeated into the receiver. He rang the doorbell. He knocked on the door. I slid down into the space between the bed and the window. Peering through the blinds, I saw my mom’s boyfriend walk across the lawn. I heard the deep mumbling of male voices. My dad returned his truck and left.
Two years later, my half-sister got married. My mom and I drove to Texas for the wedding. I was to be an usher, along with first Chance.
Mom and I lugged our bags into our room at the Holiday Inn. I had a fantasy in my head during the nine-hour car ride: I’d meet a boy at the hotel. We’d sit next to each other, our legs dangling over the edge of the balcony, our fingers intertwined. We’d kiss by the pool. My first, but he’d be a little more experienced than I.
“I’m going to the vending machine,” I told my mom, hoping to find the boy of my dreams wandering the halls along the way.
I opened the door as my dad walked by.
I hadn’t seen him in two years.
He turned his head. Looked at me. Kept walking.
I shut the door.
I peered through the peephole and watched his warped shape disappear down the dim hallway.
“Dad’s staying here,” I said.
Mom called the front desk and got his room number. She had him come to the room so he could repay her for my tux rental. I didn’t mention that I’d just seen him minutes before, and that he hadn’t even recognized me.
I only saw him a couple of times after that, and I lost track of him completely after I moved out of my mom’s house. He moved a lot without telling me. I moved a lot without telling him. When I’d call, the phone would emit the telltale beep: This number has been disconnected. On his birthday one year, I sent a card to his last-known address, giving him my phone number. It was forwarded to him, and he called me.
He only talked about himself. Old memories. He told me about being in the Navy and fighting in Vietnam. He described sailors having sex with prostitutes on the beach. He said, “Your mom and I never slept together after you were born.” By this point, I’d learned that he had slept with my mom’s sister when I was two. But he didn’t mention that detail.
My parents seemed to get along well after their divorce. My mom hadn’t talked to him in years either, and had wanted to get back in touch with him. I called her after I got off the phone with my dad and gave her his phone number. “I’ll call him now,” she said.
She called back five minutes later. “Why didn’t you tell me he was married?”
“Um,” I said. “Because he didn’t tell me he was married.”
“I called, and some woman answered the phone. ‘Who is this?’ she asked. I told her, and she said, ‘Well you shouldn’t be calling here, because he and I are married.’ Then she hung up on me!”
That was the last time I talked to him.
Ironically, I’ve since started going by Chance Lee, dropping my dad’s last name, from my professional name, something my mom never even did after their divorce. I thought I was distancing myself from the side of the family that I never knew, not realizing as I first wrote it down, on a frequent-cup card at a local coffee shop, that I had begun owning an identity that once made my skin crawl. “Chance Lee. Sounds like a ninja,” the cute barista commented. The name stuck.
Five years later, first Chance’s wife contacted me and said that my dad had fallen, was in surgery, and might not make it. She gave my half-sister’s phone number.
“I’m a little nervous,” my half-sister said when I called, talking to her for the first time in fourteen years.
“Me too,” I said.
Her voice sounded the same, and it reminded me of playing video games with her the summer after my first grade year, when she lived with us, and our dad was married to my mom.
She told me that our dad had fallen, but it wasn’t as bad as I had been led to believe. Things got complicated when he kept trying to remove his stitches and his IV, saying he had a boxing match to get to. He had lost a lot of weight.
I asked her about the woman he may or may not have been married to.
“She was really old. I think Chance had to annul the marriage,” she said. “I don’t know that much about it,” That might as well be my family’s motto. She, too, seemed to have developed a habit of distancing herself from our strange family issues.
She texted me a photo of our dad. He was missing his front teeth and his moustache.
We arranged for me to visit.
When I saw him for the time in twelve years he didn’t seem smaller to me, maybe because his size had already decreased so much in my mind. This should be the part where I’d lament about how I always thought my father was invincible, or too strong to ever die, or something like that. But that’s not true. In fact, I rarely thought about my father at all.
“He remembers things. You just have to start talking about them,” my sister told me. I wracked my brain for a fun memory, a trip we went on together, or a game we used to play.
I came up with nothing.
We gathered around him and took pictures. He kept looking at me with a look on his face bordering recognition. Maybe he’d have recognized me if I’d shaved, put on denim shorts, and grown my hair long into the bowl cut I’d had as a fourteen-year-old.
“It’s Chance Lee,” my half-sister said to him. I had been simply Chance the whole trip, but now, here I was, again renamed. He looked at me like he didn’t know who I was.
He never did.
Only later, after I’d returned home, did I remember one thing: that time I lost my Garfield pillow at the hotel near the Grand Canyon.
My dad went back and got it for me.
Rumpus original art by Justin Limoges.