“There are parts of ourselves we try to hide because somewhere along the way, we created the idea that we are alone in our flaws.” ~The Real Unphotoshopped Me by Liz Arch, Elephant Journal
In five days, my father makes 30 years of being dead. December 18, 1983. I had just turned eight years old nine days before. We went to see daddy in October. He was living with his sister, my Tia Luisa, in Isabela, Puerto Rico, in the old wooden house his parents left them. It had a big paved front yard and a porch and it still had the second floor that you got to by going around back past the chicken coop. Papi’s room smelled like dead flowers and medicine and ammonia and shit. And though that smell sat in my throat and made me want to hurl, all I wanted to do was sit next to him and watch him. His once porcelain white skin was yellow, like his jaundiced eyes. He was always bare-chested so the colostomy bag on his stomach was exposed. I counted his protruding ribs and watched the bag with gross fascination as it filled with urine and shit. And while I watched it, he watched me. My daddy who I wanted to love me so bad.
The last time we’d seen him, he’d come to visit us in April, just six months before. He looked strong and healthy. His hair was thick, his shoulders broad. My sister Dee and I danced and sang Menudo songs to him in our living room. He sat on the plastic covered brown couch while Dee and I did the dance moves to Subete a mi Moto and Coqui. Dee loved Miguel while I hid my crush for Johnny. She taped pictures to the walls of our room and lined her bookbag with buttons of the group. I hid my I love you Johnny posters in my binders.
We climbed onto papi’s lap and told him stories about school and the books we were reading and how we wanted to go to Puerto Rico and were going to be lawyers and doctors and the first female presidents of the United States. I was just seven but I could see the way Papi watched Dee, who was the spitting image of him with her blonde hair and light brown eyes to match his. But Papi put me on his soldiers when he took us to the store down the street and I told anyone and everyone, “Look, this is my Papi.”
The next time we saw him, he was a skeleton laying on a bed in that house in Isabella.
We spent two weeks with him. One day, I entered the room to check on him. Really, I just wanted to share space with him for a spell. I wanted to hear his raspy breathing. I wanted to touch his hand. He opened his eyes when I entered and smiled.
“Habre esa gabeta,” he said, pointing a bony finger at the bottom drawer of the wooden dresser that was parallel to his bed. I heaved the drawer open. “Sacame esa funda.” I pulled out the black garbage bag that was on top of the neatly folded clothing and brought it over to him.
“Well, open it.”
I pulled out two crocheted dolls. They were identical except that they were different shades of pink. Both had glued on eyes, brown bangs and crocheted ringlets that poked out of large crocheted bonnets. “Pick one,” he said. My eyes widened. I couldn’t believe I was getting the first pick. For so long I believed daddy loved Dee more than me.
I ran out to give Dee her doll. Minutes later I went back into Papi’s room crying. Dee had been playing with her doll when an eye fell off. She ran to Mom crying saying I’d given her the doll with one eye. Mom snatched my doll out of my hand and gave me the now one-eyed doll. She didn’t even ask if what Dee was saying was true.
Papi wiped my tears. He said, “Pero, look, she’s beautiful and unique, like you. Every other doll has two eyes.” He looked at me and smoothed my hair until I smiled.
This is my last memory of my dad. I still have that doll. It’s sitting across from me while I write. It’s filthy and lost its one eye a long time ago. I’ve never washed her and she’s always been prominently positioned in every apartment and room I’ve lived in, boarding school, college, the various apartments I’ve had over the years. She’s all I have left of my Papi.
When I remembered this story this week, I thought of my brother and the relationship we had. It made me realize that when my dad died, my brother became my surrogate father. Actually, even before because Papi wasn’t around. Mom left him when she was pregnant with me. He tried to get her back but she refused. My brother stepped in to that father role when he himself was just a nene.
My brother was just three years older than me but he was more than just a brother. He was a father figure. He was my confidante. He was beautiful. He was everything.
He’d tuck me in at night then tell my mom, “Arrope a mis hermanitas.” We climbed trees together and fought together and defended each other. We were a united front against my sister who was such a bitch from when she was little. She was quiet and mischievous and learned early on that her quiet nature made mom believe that she wasn’t capable of the devious things she did. Me and my brother knew better so when Dee was discovered, when we were already deep into adulthood, both Carlos and I told mom, “We tried to tell you.”
When my brother died, I lost the only father figure I’ve ever really known. He and I didn’t have your average brother-sister relationship. “It was always us, sis,” he reminded me in the hospital while he was dying. And, it was. It was us against my sister. It was us against the bullies. It was us against the world. At least that’s how it felt.
So when he abandoned me for his friends and the drug life, I was devastated in a way that I’m still unpacking. Because he wasn’t just my bro. He was my dad in many ways.
He was it.
When someone we love dearly dies, we don’t just mourn that person. We mourn the life we imagined we’d shared with him. We mourn the person we were, the one who had faith that we’d grow old together. I’m mourning the Vanessa who believed he’d walk me down the aisle. Even in the hospital he said it, before we got the news, when he was promising that he was finally going to turn a new leaf, he was gonna get his life together, was gonna go back to school to get a degree in fashion buying and merchandising, he was going to join Planet Fitness and even asked me to give him a few training sessions, “Show me how to do weights, sis.” He said, “I have to walk you down the aisle when you get married,” and he laughed because we’d just finished talking about how I had no prospects and was pretty much giving up on the single scene in New York.
Both of your father figures are gone. Who will walk you now?
The thing is, my brother filled the space of my absent Papi and now there’s no one left to fill it, and even at 38, I don’t know what to do with that. A girl never stops needing her dad, like I will never stop needing my bro. He was my Superman.
I think of mami who said about her mother, “ella fue padre.” And I think about the stories she shared with me during the cruise I emptied my bank account to take her on. The story about father, Tamagas, who never gave him her name and never acknowledged her as his daughter.
Mom was eight. She was on a train with her grandmother Tinita, the woman who raised her. (Mom reminisced yesterday that even today, as a Jehovah’s Witness, she loves the poinsettias during Christmas time because they remind her of her grandmother who planted them so Mom could decorate them since they couldn’t afford a tree, and she would take my mother around the city of La Ceiba to gawk at the houses with their decorations.) I imagine that train is like the boxcars we took from La Ceiba to Colloles when I was nine, the first time I visited Honduras. They looked like the trains in the black and white pictures of the developing west of the U.S.—old and rickety and uncomfortable. Everything made of hard, splintering wood that poked into you so you couldn’t shift too much without getting a thick piece stabbing into your skin. Mom laid sheets down on the benches but that didn’t keep the palitos from sticking into our bare legs. It was summer in Honduras, much too hot for long pants.
Mom overhead Tinita tell the woman she was talking to, “ese es el papa d’ella.” She rolled her eyes at the conductor who was checking their tickets. Tinita snatched her ticket after he’d punched a hole in it and turned her face, her lips in a tight sneer. Mom looked up at him. He paid her no mind.
She found out his name from the neighbor across the road who took pity on her. He had another family. He had kids and a wife. And he had money. His kids didn’t go hungry like mom did. His kids didn’t almost choke on lombrices like mom did. Mom went looking.
She found out he lived in the same city a few barrios over. Even when abuelita beat mom, mom still ran off and disappeared for hours. I’m finding out that I get my “Imma-do-this-my-way” ways from my mama. So off mom went, to hunt for her dad.
He was at work when she arrived. His two kids were playing in the front yard. She stared at them through the gate. I imagine it’s a wooden fence with sharp pyramid tops. Mom is too short to see over the fence but she can peek through the wide gaps between the sticks. They invite her in. It seems his wife knows who mom is. She gives mom milk and bread. Mom plays with the kids, a girl and a boy. The girl is her age. It gets late so she leaves. She gets beat when she gets home. “¿Donde estabas?” abuelita yells in between lashes from a switch she’d had Mom get. Those are the worst words to a child’s ears: “Vete buscame un ramo.” Still, mom returned the next day. This time she wore a dress too large for her. She stuffed bululos y mantequilla under her dress, tucking it in her panties, and brought them back to abuelita. Those nights they didn’t starve and abuelita stopped beating her.
She didn’t see him right away. She’d spend her days there playing with his children who drank warm milk straight from the cow and rarely ate tortillas y frijoles, the staple diet of the poor. They ate meat every day and their mother, bless that woman, shared the meals with my mother. Mom says she even knew that mom stole food but never said anything about it. One day, he finally walked in early from work. He was a burly man. Big belly, on the whiter side of the Honduran culture, but you could see the Mayan in him. His hands were thick and his nose is round like my mother’s, though his is lifted in the air in a way my mother never learned. He looked down his uplifted nose at my mother and lifted his head higher. He didn’t look at her again. She said it was like she was invisible. “Nunca lo perdono por eso,” mom said. We were sitting on the Lido deck, sipping coffee. She was watching my daughter play in the pool. “Yo solo queria que el me quisiera.”
One day the ice cream man goes by. He buys one for each of his children. Walks right past my mother. Mom hears his wife fighting with him. Then she sees her take money out of her apron pocket. She calls the ice cream man over and buys my mother one. She glares at her husband while she unwraps it for my mother.
Mom’s almost 60 and she teared up when she told me that story.
I’m swallowing hard now because I’m thinking about an almost fight we had in my aunt’s house yesterday. My baby girl has a show at school next week that I can’t make it to because I have to teach. “Tell her father,” mom says. “Ay, mami, he’s never been to any of her shows.” “He has to work,” she says. I feel the defensive hairs on my back raise up and I imagine a bear rearing on her hind legs and barreling towards whoever’s threatening her cub.
“I have to work too. Don’t defend him.”
“Ay, Vanessa, please. He’s a good father. Don’t complain. ¿Tu ves padre en esta casa?” She’s referring to my aunt and how she’s raising her four children on her own.
I get up in a huff. “I can complain. I have every right to complain.” I know where this is going so I go to the bathroom to avoid it.
It’s one of the things that gets me about my family. Most of the women have raised their children without the fathers, my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, their cousins in Honduras, their friends. So when a man does anything, even if it’s scraps, they praise him. And as I wrote the scene above, I was reminded of why. And I can feel my mom’s ache. I remember her eyes, almost 60 years old, she still cries when she remembers how her father rejected her.
And I remember when I learned that papi tried to beat me out of her when he found out mommy was pregnant though she’d taken the pill to try to avoid me. And when I was born he didn’t give me his last name right away, so mom has both birth certificates, the one with Moncada as my last name (hers) and the one with his last name, Mártir. And when I was in and out of the hospital and the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, and everything came out of me in the same consistency that it went in, and I’d dehydrate and wasn’t gaining weight and mom swore I was going to die, he never came to visit. And when the doctors asked to test him to see if the problem was genetic, he refused. And when he came to see us that April before he died, I saw the way he watched my sister who was the spitting image of him. So I know mom’s rejection. I know how it stabs. I know you never get over that. Ever.
And so, when I remember that my brother was the only other father figure I’ve ever had, that shit breaks me because he’s gone and now, yo no tengo papa…and even at 38, that shit is shattering.
This morning I’ve read two articles on the work of Chris Arnade, a former Wall Street banker, who was so disillusioned with the work he did, he started taking long walks through New York City. He’s documented the lives of the underground world people he came across in Hunts Point. The ones we look down on. Shit, I did it too. I’m no better or any less guilty than any one of you. Except I had a brother that lived in that underground world. A brother that I lost to that underground world. To that mothafucka heroin. But, like these people, addicts and prostitutes and alcoholics, my brother was just trying to numb himself. He was running away from those ghosts that haunted him. Silence chased my brother into that needle, coño. So these stories are how I give name and face to those addicts we all give a wide berth to. His name was Juan Carlos Moncada and if you live in New York, you might have seen him nodding out on a street somewhere or he might have asked you for money or sold you a cell phone or a DVD player or a stereo system for a few dollars. Just enough to buy himself his next bag. Just enough to bury his pain for a while. That man was my brother and I loved him. I love him still. I see his face in the faces of the addicts in Chris Arnade’s pictures, and I remember and I write because I can’t forget. I won’t. And I will break this silence. I have to.
I hear Junot Diaz calls his students out when they let their male characters “off the hook.” The villain cheats and lies and manipulates and abuses and yet, in the end, the character is redeemed. He gets the woman he loves. His children forgive him. He becomes a successful, loved, cherished man and all is forgiven and forgotten. I’d love to do a poll to see how many of these writers who do that were fathered by their daddies. How many still have that gaping hole where mine is, right in the middle of my chest, just above my solar plexus. It’s in the same place that aches when the men I’ve loved broke my heart. The same place that throbbed when I found out my brother was HIV positive my freshman year in college. The same place I clutched when he got sentenced to four years for conspiracy after getting caught trying to bring two balloons of heroin in to the US from Venezuela. The same place that exploded when I found out my brother was doing drugs. When I found him nodding out in my kitchen when he was supposed to be helping me get my apartment together. My daughter was just two months old. He’d brought drugs into the house where my daughter slept. The same spot in my chest that is bursting now as I remember him and mourn him and promise him, “I will write that shit, bro. Yes, maybe now somebody will fucking talk.”