I talk on the phone in the kitchen with my adolescent legs bent over a chair. As soon as I hear the garage door open, I stammer and interrupt and hang up. I dart up to my room, two stairs at a time. Everyone knows I have a strange father.
I am back in the kitchen ironing my waitress uniform. I take as many shifts as I can after school and on weekends.
My father is in his mood. I feel him approach before I hear him or see him. “If you have sex before you are married, I am not walking you down the aisle at your wedding.” I keep working, sloshing the iron’s steaming water on the wrinkles, silently willing him away.
Later, he repeats himself. He gestures to the neighbor’s house. Beth, their daughter, is at home with her boyfriend while the parents are away for the weekend.
I am almost 16 and not in love with KC, though he’s my boyfriend. My parents take us to dinner at a nice restaurant. KC gets a thick, teenaged boy erection in his dress khakis while he is sitting next to me, stroking my arm.
On the morning of my 16th birthday, I wake early to my father pushing open my bedroom door, shouting at me. When he is like this, his nose changes color and he gasps for air. His body expands, gets clumsy.
My mother drives me to school that morning and, as she backs her car out of the drive, dents my father’s. “Good,” she says, looking at the dining room windows. “He saw that.”
That night, I call my friend Leslie to come get me. I whisper on the phone and she drives up quietly in her silver Mustang. Leslie’s parents are old-fashioned and old, like mine, but they let me stay with them as long as my parents know where I am.
My mother telephones me at Leslie’s house, urging me to come home. She tells me that my father loves me. Then I hear breathing on the other line. His panting on the other line grows with my complaints and my indignation. “I thought you were on my side!” I scream to my mother. Betrayed, I hang up.
“Tu papá se fue hace 62 años.” That’s what la Tía tells me this past Christmas. I visit her because my father is old and unwell. He is 87 now. He left Argentina after university and told his mother he was coming back for the New Year. He came back for a visit five years later with a pregnant American wife.
Se fue is more powerful than “left.” It’s more like he took himself away. He cleaved himself. I don’t know if his mother and sister ever forgave him.
I am 14. The night before I am to leave for a three-month visit to my grandmother, my father and mother sit me down in the family room, on the goldenrod sofa, to tell me something important. My father is nervous and my mother is unusually patient with him. My father tells me that his mother had an affair with my grandfather’s business partner, a man who was like an uncle to my father. My father tells me he has never told anyone except my mother. As he curls into his crying chest, my mother holds him.
Only years later do I wonder why he never told my brothers on the eve of their visits to Argentina.
I get on an airplane to Buenos Aires alone the next morning with cash sewn into my clothing for my grandmother, leaving behind the weight of her adultery.
Later, in my Tía’s house, my prima rouses me in the middle of the night, saying that it’s “el Tío” on the telephone. I answer expecting to speak with Tío Miguel. It’s my father. He speaks to me in Spanish and he sounds fluent. He tells me over and over that he is my father, but I don’t believe him. “Speak to me in English.” I am finally reassured when I hear his familiar thick accent. His broken English.
When I am a sophomore in college, I get a call from the dean’s office to come for an appointment. I tell my professor that I’ll miss class that afternoon, and she hears my voice catch. The dean and the president have received letters from my father telling them he is no longer my father. I am 18. Now I have to figure out how to pay for college.
My mother chalks this up to my father feeling burdened by how expensive my college is.
When I am 21, my father comes to my graduation, but finds another reason not to be my father again. I leave for a job in Japan without calling home. But months later I call my father when I learn his brother, my Tío, has died. I’m not sure he understood that we hadn’t been talking.
When I am 25, I move in with my boyfriend. My father writes a letter to me, refusing me as his daughter and calling my boyfriend my “concubino.” His rage is so familiar to me by this point, so predictable. I reseal the envelope and send it back.
I’m an adult when I find the letter my mother wrote to my father, telling him she was pregnant with me. He is working out West in California, she is at home in Baltimore with my brothers. I’m the fourth child, one too many (two too many, really).
She writes to him she has that feeling of being pregnant, but that she’ll wait until he returns to go to the doctor together. She tells him that she is riddled with contradictions. She is an independent, professional woman, she says, but also a woman of faith. She tells him that she never planned to have any children, but that sometimes there are plans greater than an individual’s.
After my father receives this letter from my mother, he packs up a massive stump of petrified wood in his truck and drives it back to Baltimore. This, he always tells me, is mine. Whenever I return home, he tells me, “This is yours, Tita.” This stump of petrified wood is my inheritance.
The stump of petrified wood still stands next to the fireplace in the family room. I can’t imagine how I would move it or where I would put it. The petrified wood is a riddle to me, which seems too perfectly fitting for an inheritance from my father. Like I made it up. I didn’t. Trust me.
As a little girl, I love the peace of falling asleep against my mother’s shoulder in mass. I can still feel the nubs of her green wool coat pressing into my cheek. I also pretend to fall asleep just so she stays seated next to me.
As a little girl, I feel puffed up when my mother praises me for putting myself to bed at night.
When I am a teenager, my crying infuriates my mother. Sometimes, she taunts me to cry more.
When I am in college and graduate school, she tells people to be careful what they say around me. “Tita remembers everything.”
“You know Dad disowned me three times,” I tell my mother recently. She looks confused. Incredulous. “Are you sure?” she asks. The next day, she tries to reassure me, “He did it to Chris, too.”
Later, “You’ve been through a lot,” my mother tells me. She means my cancer. I don’t know how to explain to her that was the easy part.
I try a different approach. “I have no idea where I got my tenderness from!” I laugh. “Certainly not from you people!” I joke, yoking my mother, father, and brothers together. My demeanor is light, and my mother laughs, but I’m serious.
My mother celebrates her 85th birthday in Cuba. I am at home with my father, who can no longer stay alone. No one will use the word “dementia.” He knows who I am. But he cannot tell me which turns to take to the Chinese restaurant he and my mother have been going to for 25 years.
While my mother is in Cuba, we have daily outings. To the salad bar. To Starbucks. He naps. I run.
One afternoon, he hands me a file, telling me it has special things for me. There is a report card from high school, a letter of recommendation from college, a program from a choral concert. I page through, recognizing everything. He smiles at me as I do this. Then I see the letter he wrote to the president and the dean disowning me. A xerox of it. He continues to smile at me. In that moment, it is 1989 again. I need to tell my professor that I am going to miss class.
A year later, my father gets lost. He leaves for the grocery store and ends up in Kansas, 275 miles away. “The shock,” my mother calls it.
My visits home increase. The bleached out colors of Colorado greet me every time I land. It’s a landscape that numbs me. Even the grandeur and beauty of the Rocky Mountains don’t move me. I sleep in my childhood room, on the sheets I was given in high school, under the same lime green cotton bedspread.
I stay with my father so my mother can go to London. I have been seeing him regularly and think I know what to expect. I expect that he’ll get his own breakfast, as he always has. I expect that he’ll shower and shave and dress, as he always has. I expect that he’ll get the mail and watch the news, as he always has.
I hear him get up at night. He gets dressed. He puts his suits into piles on the floor. Or he takes all his ties and twists them into a box. Or he writes on his clothing with a magic marker. Or he puts the recycling bin in the front hall coat closet.
One morning, before sunrise, he sits in a chair in the middle of the kitchen trying to eat uncooked oatmeal out of a frying pan. Uncooked oatmeal is all over the counters and the floor around him.
One morning, after sunrise, I wake to the house alarm going off and see him walking down the drive to get the newspaper.
My father has stubble, white, thick stubble, on his face. My father, who has never had a beard or a mustache, and who is always clean shaven. I take my electric razor and shave him. He juts out his chin at the right times and rubs his hand along his jawline, satisfied.
I take out his hearing aids and take off his trousers. I take off his sweater, his Oxford shirt, his undershirt. His watch. His shoes and socks. I ask him to stand again and I turn my head as I pull down his underwear. I walk him to the bathroom to shower.
One time I turn on the shower faucet before he gets there, thinking I am helping. He is naked and he says no, no, no, and walks out of the bathroom. He is agitated. He sits back down on the bed and starts to put on his dirty, smelly clothes. I have confused him.
I am reading in bed one night and he comes to talk. He sits on the edge of my bed. He shows me a list of clothes he wants to buy. We discuss the list and make a plan to go the next day. We have this conversation several times a day. His closet is filled with clothes, more than he can ever wear anymore. He looks at me and smiles as he asks, “Please remind me tomorrow. I might not remember.” He kisses my forehead.
I am in his bedroom again, helping him dress. I accidently kick my foot into the metal bedframe, hard. I yelp and tears come quickly.
My father stops immediately and gently cradles my foot with his still smooth and strong hands. His face softens with concern. His face softens with tenderness. All this time, I never knew where mine came from.
Tita Chico lives in Washington D.C. and teaches at the University of Maryland.