There’s an incredible, indescribable moment when you first witness yourself represented in fiction. It’s a curious validation of your existence—that your image, personality, and gestures could spring forth from someone else’s imagination. That someone found you worthy of thinking up. Then there’s a sibling moment, one just as incredible and indescribable, when you first witness a loved one represented in fiction. It’s a cathartic Ah-ha! Someone you love is also in multiple dimensions at once. They too have a phantasmagorical reflection worthy of someone else’s imagination, along with their breathing, physical body right next to you.
I experienced the latter moment when my father took me to see Star Wars: Attack of the Clones a few weeks after its release in 2002. I was newly eleven, and immeasurably ecstatic. He was forty-five, and hated almost every second.
This scenario had played out often—he took me to movies he knew he would hate (anything Fantasy, Sci-fi or futuristic, of which I was obsessed). But he sat through them anyway, watery coke in hand, dissociating as only parents who want to make their kids happy can. Half-way through the film we’re introduced to an armored bounty hunter on a rainy planet. Twin-pistol wielding, jet-pack flying, wallop-packing, despite his limited screen time. What immediately struck me was how much he looked like my father—medium brown skin; dark, short, coarse hair; and that deep, penetrating gaze only men who worship combat have. The bounty hunter looked about forty-five, and he had a son who looked about eleven. I stared up at my father in the dark, who peered down at me with a parallel curiosity. He’d emerged from his boredom as if he’d just looked in a mirror.
We headed home after the movie. The ride back on that sizzling May day provided us with light, unusual conversation. The windows were down—well, mine was broken, half-open—and you could almost taste the pollen in D.C.’s air. If you held out your tongue long enough, it’d have turned yellow. My father was smoking a rare cigarette, despite us being in his cab. We talked briefly about the movie, and the parts that he didn’t hate.
He liked the blue guy, he said. The character that reminded him most of himself.
I too liked the blue guy. The character that reminded me most of him.
That was a perfect moment between my father and me. Of those there were few. Out of my twenty-five years with him, I can count a little more than half way through my two hands of fingers. This isn’t a criticism of our relationship, it was just that we were so different. He had been a military man, a First sergeant in the Army, with First sergeant tendencies of discipline, absolutism and masculinity. And I was effeminate, scattered, and deeply rebellious. While he demanded I play sports to toughen me up, on the soccer field I picked flowers in the grass. He attempted to teach me boxing, but I ran. Shame, I knew, became his first emotion when we interacted. My father didn’t start telling me he was proud of me until two years before he dropped dead suddenly of a stroke, his body immediately slumped on the floor. I think back fourteen years prior, to Attack of the Clones and Jango Fett, that bounty hunter, and how he also dropped dead. His body immediately slumped sideways on the ground.
If you’ve seen the movie, you know that Jango Fett was the genetic template for the Clone Army—his masculinity, discipline, and physical prowess elected him the ultimate specimen. In the Star Wars canon, he trained the clones to be soldiers, just as my father trained soldiers, too. But to the befuddlement of the movie’s characters, Jango requested only one thing besides his payment: one of the clones, unaltered, to raise as a son.
There’s something narcissistic in that: a man wanting his clone to raise. In real life, that’s actually what men do, what masculinity does. They’re indoctrinated to carry on their genetic code, the template they think they are. And in a twisted logic, somehow they too will be carried on through us, their sons. Now that I’m older, I feel that my father treated me like a clone of his. In me he saw my potential to be him. He wanted me to be as strong, and fast, and manly as he always was. He hoped that I’d carry on his legacy and wear his armor as Boba Fett eventually does in the original trilogy. But I rebelled against my father’s proselytizing of machismo. Even subconsciously, my effeminate behavior rejected everything he stood for. He held those things as dear as men are capable, so his frustration was because I could not emulate that which made him special. The characteristics that made him a man, and would eventually, theoretically, make me a man. Unlike Boba, who Jango loved unconditionally, I had come out altered. Not at all according to the plan that men have for their sons.
I think back to another perfect moment between my father and me. It’s the same year, 2002, many months later in November. There are still allergens in D.C.’s air, chilled and dewy on the morning we head to Baltimore for an elementary school field trip. The behemoth glass building of the Maryland Science Center looms over the Inner Harbor, its reflection like a treasure box in the timid, autumn water. My father is a chaperone, and he is hands-off enough that it isn’t embarrassing, like the other parents who take the excuse to police us running children and our running curiosity. That is what the Science Center is for—a plethora of physics experiments to capture our budding, scientific minds. Pens dangled from string, spinning to draw geometric shapes; a theater playing planetarium images; crystal balls that fulgurate at our psychic touch. It’s a day full of wonder, and would continue in its joy.
On our way back to D.C. from Baltimore, my father is tranquil in his unknowing, as he lets me enjoy whatever song I have on repeat on the C.D. player. The foam earphones blast “Material Girl” by Madonna for the entire trip, my father unsuspecting of yet another betrayal of masculinity. We arrive at Bolling Air Force Base before heading home. The guards wave my father along with respect at the gate. Their sergeant, his soldiers. An F-105D bomber is held up in a grassy circle like a model airplane. We park at the BX. He exhales his breath like smoke as we walk to the Base Exchange from the lot. Protected by my bulbous, chartreuse coat, and “Material Girl” still stuck in my head, I am curious as to why we’re here.
Christmas is coming early, he says once we get to the store. Go get what you want.
And without hesitation, I do just that. I run to the electronics section, scouring the PlayStation 2 games for the new release I’d learned about from a friend. Star Wars: Bounty Hunter sits in the center of the rack, framed by other, insignificant games. And there, on the paper and plastic cover, Jango Fett is posed mid-air, firing those iconic pistols, his mien a shining symbol of everything I think my father could be.
For everyone attracted to men, our fathers are our template for how we interact with the rest of them for the rest of our lives. They are the first we fall in love with, and every other man—those who we’ll love too, or hate—will be unconsciously compared to him and how he treated us. If our father berates us, or is ashamed of us, as mine was of me, it makes loving other men that much harder. But once I found Jango Fett, the lore and mystique of his character, I found that I could love what my father stood for without the risk of his trying to change me.
The idea of Jango Fett became a refuge. I obsessed over the game, played it slowly to savor the personification. I got the Lego set of his ship and kept the figurine with me at all times, safe. For Halloween that year, I was Jango Fett. Armored and pistol-wielding; my helmet occluding my femininity, so that I could parade around Capitol Hill as something I’d never achieve without a mask. And I saw that my father, balancing gargantuan bags of candy (and dollars because the people in that part of town are rich), was holding his head up higher than usual, despite the murky darkness.
I loved Jango in lieu of my father that year. I found ways of stepping into him, using the idea of him as a talisman to safely explore the idea of me that my father wanted. I could be both Jango and my father at once. I finally embodied that clone all men desire for a son. Though it was secretive, under my father’s nose. I was accepted, if even just by the silence of something not real. For many queer kids, the tolerance of something imaginary is infinitely better than the reality of someone who is detrimental to our spirits. That is why so many of us seek sanctuary in fiction. And with Star Wars, it was easy. It was designed for people with daddy-issues.
John Manuel Arias is a gay, Costa Rican and Uruguayan writer back in Washington, DC after many years. He is a Canto Mundo fellow and alumnus of the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. His fiction has found homes in Joyland Magazine, Akashic Books, and the Acentos Review, with work forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Barren Magazine and F(r)iction. His poetry has appeared in several literary magazines, including Platypus Press, Sixth Finch, the Journal, and Assaracus: A Journal of Gay Poetry, with poems forthcoming in The Offing and PANK. He has been nominated for both the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net three times. Before DC, he lived in Costa Rica with his grandmother and four ghosts.