Doin’ Time ~ Jennifer Jordán Schaller

I remember the envelope my Peruvian-born father, Ramon, sent me as clearly as I remember the itch I had to take a lighter to it.  On the return label, I could see that he and Glenda now shared the same last name.  I was in my early twenties and still nursing a huge grudge against him for his absence during my childhood.  When I opened the envelope, I pulled out two wallet-sized pictures of the two little brothers I hadn’t yet met.  In one picture, my half-brother Eric is sitting on a block. His short, buzzed hair is thick like my father’s and his skin is dark like mine.  In the other picture, Chris, my step-brother, has a mischievous smile. There is a twenty year difference separating me and my father’s youngest child.

            In all, my father has four kids: two from his first marriage to my mother, me and my full-blooded brother, Alan; and two from his second marriage to Glenda, Chris and Eric.  What made me want to set fire to these pictures wasn’t that my father started life anew a few short years after being released from prison.  I do believe ex-cons should get a clean slate once they do their time.  Sure, people can get rehabilitated: illiterate drug dealers can learn to read by moonlight, rapists can find Jesus, and murderers can acquire a Zen-like attitude toward their emotions.  I buy that.  And besides, I wouldn’t want him to live in the past.  It was good that he started a new family.

            On the contrary, what made me want to take battery acid to photos of helpless children was the fact that while moving forward with his life, pursuing the American Dream, paying taxes, starting a business—hell, even contributing to a 401K for all I knew—my father chose to do all of this without me.  And then one day, I went to the mailbox, opened up an envelope, and for the first time, saw a little boy who had my skin and eyes.

            My boyfriend Karl was there as I waved the pictures around, doubting their authenticity.  He was there when I said, “I am going to burn these pictures.”  He took them from me as I rummaged through a junk drawer for a lighter.  He knows my father’s and my shared past.  He doesn’t ask questions.  He doesn’t assume he knows how I’m feeling.  He even agreed, years later, to visit my father’s side of the family after our honeymoon cruise ship docked in Miami, leaving us a short drive from their homes. 

 

I can’t say for sure why my father went to prison.  Maybe he wasn’t busted for drug trafficking like relatives told me. Maybe, just like he said, he was only busted for money laundering.  But he could have headed up a cartel.  Maybe he was like Johnny Depp in Blow or Al Pacino in Scarface—minus the machine gun.  It’s sad that the only way I can grasp his existence is through a canon of Hollywood-ized drug dealers.  Was he the bad guy with a good heart or the sociopathic kingpin?

            What I know for sure is that when I was eleven, my father was found guilty of something, and it must have been something bad, because he was sentenced to nearly thirty years in prison.  What I also know is that a few years later he obtained a retrial and ended up serving six years total.  He and I don’t talk about why he went to prison.  I’ve asked, but the answers don’t really add up.  I don’t expect all the gory details; however, I do think I deserve something resembling the truth.  Maybe I want too much.  All of this was loaded into the back of my mind as my husband and I stayed with my grandmother, days after behaving like debauched newlyweds on a large ship.  This was definitely one way to kill honeymoon bliss.

            I remember waking up in my grandmother’s condo, taking a shower before everyone else—so my grandmother wouldn’t call me Osiosa or lazy—and hearing her voice from the kitchen.  She speaks little English and called to me, saying,   “Yennyfuhr.  Ju father is here.”

            When I hear Spanish come out of my mouth, I’m embarrassed.  My dissonant Rs and hideous vowels sound like a train wreck.  My grandmother and I communicate through hand signals and my wrongly conjugated verbs.  My desire to know Spanish is strongest when I am in the same room with my father’s family. I could pick up a Spanish textbook and learn the present participle and the subjunctive of estar, but I didn’t grow up with the language.  When I don’t hear Spanish for a few weeks, I feel it slip away.

            I walked into the kitchen and saw my father sitting at my grandmother’s table, eating toast and drinking café con leche with my grandfather. When my father saw me, he stood up and zoomed in on my face. I braced myself as he kissed my cheek.

            “Hello my beautiful daughter. How are you?”

            “Fine. How are you?”

            It’s ridiculous, but every time I see him, I want him to know through my terse answers that I am still mad—like hello, if you weren’t aware, your absence throughout my childhood, it still pisses me off.  I hadn’t seen him in a couple of years, but each time I see him, he acts as if no time has passed.  He makes me forget I’m mad.  When I was a kid, I thought of Desi Arnaz when I saw my father. They both had good looks, thick Spanish accents, and raucous laughs.  Now he looked like a taller Joe Pesci with glasses and more hair.  His skin looked tough from the sun.

            He answered, “I’m doing well. Your grandmother says you and Karl want to drive down to Key West.”

            Karl and I had discussed going with my father, but as he mentioned what I had said, I felt nervous.  I gulped and said, “You, Glenda, and the kids should come.”

 

The day we drove down to Key West, we were supposed to meet my father and his family at a gas station in Florida City. By this time, Eric was five and Chris was seven. I had only met Chris and Eric once before—at my wedding.  I remember not expecting my father and his family to show up to the wedding because I had told my father I didn’t want him to walk me down the aisle.  He called after receiving the invitation and I told him, “I want grandpa to walk me.”       

            My father sucked in a breath and said, “Why?”

            “I don’t trust you to show up.” I figured a girl has enough to worry about, like the groom making it to the altar. I would’ve rather walked alone than be disappointed by my father again.

            Months after our phone conversation, my father surfaced at my wedding with Glenda and his young sons.  He wore a designer suit and looked like a Goodfella with Eric and Chris dressed in identical designer suits.  I didn’t know what to say to any of them.  At the reception, I kicked my father playfully in the shin, and then asked him to dance.  I thought by writing him off, I wouldn’t have to see him again, yet he showed up to my wedding looking about as awkward as anyone can in Armani. I had been trying to write him off for years; in spite of that, here I was in Florida, gearing up to meet for a day date with him.

            The morning we drove down to Key West, I called my father before we left my grandmother’s condo, and he told us to be careful, that the cops in Florida have a low tolerance for speeding. Meanwhile, Karl sped as usual, accelerating our rental like a Nascar pace car.

            Karl and I bought breakfast before settling in at the gas station parking lot.  I was munching when I called my father to say we were there.

            “What? You’re there already? Glenda, they’re there already. Honey, tell your husband not to drive like a maniac.”

            “I already did,” I said as I took a bite of an egg sandwich.

            “Tell him that the police in Florida have no tolerance for speeding.”

            “I told him that.” I shot Karl a dirty look.

            “I’ll be there in a little bit. Tell him not to drive anywhere.”

            “Okay.” He sounded so fatherly, so concerned.  I turned to Karl and said, “My dad is upset at your driving.”

            “Oh I get it.  Now he’s your dad because you don’t like the way I drive.”  He shot me a look.

            I don’t call my father dad to his face because I don’t feel like he’s earned the title; nevertheless, a piece of me clung to the idea that one day, my father would be the person I want him to be, even though that will never happen.  I was torn between anger and adoration.  Karl knew I was mad for many reasons. My father said he wanted to come to my college graduation ceremony and then he didn’t, my father never told me he wasn’t coming and stopped answering my phone calls, and my father promised me random graduation gifts and never actually purchased or sent them.  Karl knows I’m mad, not at who my father is but that he builds me up and then deflates me like a discarded balloon.  You like that? I’ll buy it for you.  You want the world? I’ll get it for you.  That’s why Karl was so annoyed when I flip-flopped on the name issue. I can understand, but Karl doesn’t know what it’s like to go years without talking to one of his parents.  For me, the years without seeing my father and then the fake, gooey hellos, make me feel crazy, lock-the-cat-in-the-attic crazy.

            “That’s real nice Jen. You call him your dad when you want to get at me.”

            Even if it was twenty years too late, it was nice to have an overprotective father.  I asked him, “Aren’t you going to eat?”

            “I’m not hungry right now.”

            I stared at the grease on my hash browns while Karl changed radio stations.  I contemplated whether to apologize.  My father’s profile broke our silence.

            Karl rolled his window down and gave my father a nod.  My father bent over, poked his head through the window and said hi to Karl.  He turned to me and said, “Hola, mami.”

            My father stood up straight.  He looked like a cop ready to lecture a lawbreaker.  He said to Karl, “You don’t understand what the police are like here. It’s not like New Mexico.  They’ll catch you in a minute, and the fines are outrageous.”  He scratched his head and said, “Follow me. I’ll take it slow.”

            Slow he did take it, all three hours down to the Keys.  As we cruised down the narrow highways, blue sparkling water below us, I imagined what it would have felt like to have a father who was present.  Were my father’s newfound fatherly inclinations a result of raising Chris and Eric?

 

This visit to Florida was the first and only time I chose to spend any time alone with my father as an adult.  When I was a child, he shot in and out of my life, a spotlight that briefly shined on me, making me feel special. When I was three, my mother took me to the airport to pick up my father. I remember feeling excited when I saw him between the kneecaps of strangers. I bolted as fast as my toddler legs would take me. I heard my mother yell, “Stop!” but I couldn’t run fast enough.  My father dropped his bags, and I jumped into his open arms. He threw me in the air and said, “Hello, my princess!”  Then he kissed my cheek.

            He burst into my life, and I loved the feeling of his energy in the house.  The sun was brighter when he was home.  When I was five, I remember a family gathering at a Latin restaurant with maybe about ten relatives.  My father insisted he pay for everyone.  And then he pulled out the tip, a crisp one hundred dollar bill he slipped out of his wallet, magician style. He held out the bill to the waitress. Everyone at the table gasped. My father laughed as the waitress slipped the money in her apron and scampered off to the kitchen.

            Fast forward ten years from the Latin restaurant, my father was in prison.  We communicated through phone calls and letters that attempted to give me nuggets of wisdom about life. One letter, handwritten in plain, boxy print says, “You make your life happy or sad, rich or poor.” I rolled my eyes when I read this because it seemed pretty obvious to me.  Thinking about his words now, I know he was alluding to the choices we make in life, how they define us.  And just because he chose to be one way, didn’t mean that I had to also make poor choices.  I can see the truth and wisdom in his words now.  Growing up with a felon for a father, I had to realize that it doesn’t matter who I am or where I come from: what matters are the choices I make.

            In another line he wrote, “We will be together soon, once I get out of this place.”  He often said we would be together soon.  I truly believed we would be together once he was released from prison.  That didn’t happen, at least not right away.  There were the bits of wisdom in the letter juxtaposed with what I perceived as a lie.  Maybe he wasn’t lying about wanting to see me.  Maybe he just didn’t understand the prison system.  For my father to see me after prison, first, he had to get out of the halfway house.  Then he had to get a place to live.  Then he had to scrape together some money.  Maybe he never had enough money or maybe he never had enough stamina to try and make things up to his angry daughter.

            When he got out of jail, I really thought I would get to know him.  Call it naivete or a childhood wish that took a long time to fizzle out.  Perhaps I was a child for much longer than I should have been.  By the time my wedding rolled around, I had no illusions about my father.  I wouldn’t count on him, not for something that important.  I took control by closing up the very last part of myself that I had left open for my father. 

            My father spent six years in prison, but the last time I saw him before his arrest, I was in the fifth grade.  The next time I saw him, I was graduating from high school.  I remember sitting in my white cap and gown, listening to tear-filled speeches about high school being the best part of our lives.  I might have fallen asleep had it not been for the suspense—was my father really there?  I kept searching behind me.  My father held a rented video camera while sitting atop bleachers.  I watched his camera lens pan the auditorium.

            After the ceremony, my father and I sat alone in my mother’s apartment.  I asked him why he trafficked drugs.  Sitting knee to knee, cattycorner on two sofas, he said, “No, mamita.  I didn’t sell drugs.”

            “Then what did you go to jail for? You did something.”

            He swept the air with his hands and said, “I laundered money. It’s completely different.”

            He explained that he wanted to use the profit he made from laundering money to give me a good life.  He had said many times he wanted to make a good life for me.  I wanted him to make me a good life too.  But like his letter said, “We make our lives happy or sad, rich or poor.” My father taught me through his absence to rely on myself.  It was the opposite of guidance, but I learned from it.  What the parenting books don’t tell new parents is that if your kid doesn’t like your choices, he/she will also learn from you.  It’s like anti-modeling, and this is how he taught me.  If I learned from him who I didn’t want to be, then why, during this trip to Florida, was I still curious to know him?

 

Three hours after leaving Florida City, we arrived in Key West. Karl and I weren’t hungry, but my father’s kids said they were starving.  They needed to eat large meals every three or four hours.  I didn’t understand children when I was twenty-five, didn’t know that was normal.  I thought they were acting like pregnant women.

            We went to a Hemingway-inspired bar (what bar isn’t Hemingway inspired in Key West?).  Pictures of Ernest Hemingway were plastered behind the bar.  I feigned preoccupation with the restaurant’s ambience—the absence of walls, the bar taps, the greasy burgers—but I was really watching my father.  He had just answered his phone to talk to one of his workers. Glenda looked over the menu with their kids.

            I secretly took up scorekeeping, reasons my father is full of horse dookey.  I couldn’t believe this ruse—new family, new children—look at me, I’m so rehabilitated.  Ack.  I scanned the table to sniff out any clues.  On the phone, my father gabbed, a self-important phone talker who used too many hand signals for an audience that could only hear his voice.  I looked across the table at Eric who reminded me of my full-blooded brother, Alan, when he was a kid. They both had fat cheeks, deep dimples, and mischievous eyes.  I’ve seen pictures of my father looking the same as a child.

            Then there’s Chris who looks nothing like my father. That’s because my father is not his real dad; however, Chris doesn’t know this. My father and Glenda don’t want Chris’s biological father in their lives. Why? It’s not my place to describe.  But I remember what it felt like not knowing the whole truth as a kid. I wonder when Chris will compare his thin frame and elongated face with my father’s stocky body and round head.  Deep down, a kid always knows the truth, like a bloodhound sniffing out a corpse.

            And then there’s Glenda, who mostly spoke Spanish to her family. She can speak English, but I doubt she speaks it often. Because she was so quiet, I tended not to think about her much.  I can see now she probably felt as awkward as I speaking another language.  The first time I met her, she was twenty-three and I was eleven—just before my father’s arrest.  She had long, dark hair back then. Now her hair was shoulder length and frosted.  She waited for my father, all those years in prison.  I couldn’t imagine spending my twenties waiting for the release of a convicted felon.

            Eric ordered a hamburger fit for an adult. All through lunch he asked for fries.

            My father said, “You won’t even finish that sandwich.”

            Was my father being cheap or did he really believe Eric couldn’t eat that burger?  Either way, Eric was a stocky child who probably didn’t need that much red meat.  My investigative hunches weren’t panning out, still I kept looking for more evidence to support my hypothesis—the slammer didn’t change my father. He is still full of horse puckey.

            As I was thinking this, I looked down and noticed Eric staring up at me from across the table, smiling like a goon.  I thought about Hemingway’s female characters, how I might have seemed just as one-dimensional, sitting there, ignoring a five-year-old as I concentrated on the lonely, yowling guitarist in the corner. I looked away from Eric and thought about how I had absolutely nothing to say to anyone at the table except for Karl.

            My father hadn’t talked to me much all day. The entire situation was odd, and I probably looked hostile as I scanned the table, looking for his faults.  My father turned to Karl and said, “How are the kids at your school? What are students like in Albuquerque?”  My father seemed to enjoy talking to Karl, and talked to him way more than he had ever talked to me, possibly in my entire life.

            Karl responded, “It depends on the school. Mine is pretty rough, but I like it.”

            “You teach math, right?”            

            “Yeah, middle school math,” Karl said before taking a bite of burger.

             “That’s a hard age,” my father said.

            I sat in between them, sucking down a glass of water.  I had finished my sandwich and felt like twiddling my thumbs. Then I felt watched. I looked at my father, who was staring at Karl who was staring at his sesame seed bun.  Then I looked down.  Eric was still watching me.  The dimple in his right cheek wobbled as he grinned.  I have that same dimple.  I crossed my eyes and looked away.

            My father said, “Florida needs teachers, especially math. They pay teachers pretty well here.”

            “Really?” Karl sounded like he might consider moving to Florida if the figure was right.

            “Yeah, last I heard the middle 30’s.  You two could live out here.”

            Karl’s eyebrows lowered and he said, “That’s about how much teachers get paid in New Mexico.”

            My father looked around the building and said to no one in particular, “I used to work jobs in Key West. My company helped build some of these buildings.”

            Then his phone rang.  It had rung three times easily before we found a restaurant.

            My father answered the phone while Eric and Chris pushed each other in their chairs. Chris told Eric, “You’re so stupid.”

            Karl and I looked at each other as we leaned back in our seats. We communicated with our faces, motioning with our noses and lips as Eric and Chris wrestled. Eric would have knocked over his soda if Glenda hadn’t caught it.  I tilted my head toward Eric while opening my eyes wider at Karl as if to say, did you see that? Karl furrowed his eyebrows as if to say, how could I not?  It was clear that my father was in charge of discipline and as long as he stayed on the phone, the boys escalated their wrestling.

            I wondered how long my father would yack on the phone.  He said, “It doesn’t matter what he thinks. This job has to be done by the end of the week. Look, I’m here with my family. I can’t talk now.” My father tucked the phone into his pocket and told Eric and Chris to calm down. They listened.

            I didn’t remember my father disciplining me as a child.  Once when I was about three, he and I were twirling like airplanes in the living room.  My mother yelled at my father to stop playing rough.  I lost my balance and fell into the corner of a stereo.  My forehead squirted blood, and they rushed me to the hospital.  No stitches, but I still have the scar. Maybe that didn’t mean he was a bad parent.  I had so little to cull from when I developed my opinions of him.  My father was only twenty-three when I was born.  He probably knew less than I did about kids then, and I didn’t know much either—how grouchy they get, how hungry they get, how wild they get.

            The sides of the restaurant were open to the warm, moist air. Tourists walking by could see us eating. From the outside, we probably looked like a normal family.  I liked the idea of catching up on old times with my family, even though it was a lie.  Really we were just a bunch of fucked up people eating greasy hamburgers, shoveling meat to mouth, saying nothing beyond idle small talk.

            My father paid the bill, and we walked outside.  He said he wanted a picture with all of us in front of the restaurant.  He asked a passerby to take the picture.

            Eric said, “I want to stand next to Jennifer.  She is the princess.”

            I couldn’t believe Eric knew my childhood nickname.  My father must have said nice things about me when I wasn’t around.  Hearing my nickname transported me back to when my father bought me lots of presents, told me he loved me, and left sometimes in the middle of the night.

            The stranger told us to smile and snapped the picture.

            “Wait,” I said, as I ruffled through my bag.  “Can you take one more?”

 

We roamed the expensive shops in Key West.  I wandered after Eric into a store with pink feather boas in the window.  I could have spent hours among the glittery shoes and funky purses.  Eric said within earshot of the saleswoman, “Oh man, let’s get out of here.” I laughed and put my hand over his mouth as we walked backward toward the door.

            After about an hour of walking, my father stopped at a tourist booth and asked a guide about the coral reef tour.  Just then, a man drove by on a pastel blue scooter with his little dog sitting upright, back legs straddling the seat in front of his crotch.

            Eric and Chris laughed and pointed.  My father laughed and said, “Did you see that?”

            “That was pretty funny,” I said between terse lips.

            My father said, “The people down here are a trip.”

            I couldn’t laugh. This wasn’t fun and games for me.  Maybe they could laugh at Vespa and the weiner dog, but I couldn’t.

            My father asked if Karl and I wanted to go on the reef tour.  We said sure.  Then my father insisted on paying for all of us.  When we walked past a shop with a pretty blue dress in it, my father said he wanted to buy me it too.

            I whispered to Karl, “He’s forking out a lot of cash today. It’s going to take more than that to make up for my childhood.”

            Karl laughed and said, “At least he’s trying.” Karl had said several times I should forgive my father.  After really getting to know the dysfunction that is my father’s and my relationship, he has let that go.  I think about forgiveness now, and really, I don’t know what the hell it is.  Forgive and forget: what does that even mean?  Is forgiveness trusting the person you know will let you down again and again?  Is forgiveness not feeling anger toward the person who has hurt you again and again?  Or is forgiveness acknowledging the humanity of someone who has made bad choices?  Sure, my father is human.  Yes, he made mistakes. But am I forgiving him when I cut him off, not to spite him but to spare myself pain?

            As I write, I’m no longer angry. I would like to understand the person I was then, how I came to be who I am now.  I was angry during this visit because I felt somehow that his actions would overshadow my life and make me incapable of accomplishing things.  I worried that the plague of his and my mother’s failed marriage would somehow make me incapable of being in any kind of healthy relationship.  That hasn’t happened; I’ve been married nine years. 

            I can understand where Karl was coming from when he talked about forgiveness.  He can’t imagine cutting off either of his parents, who have been married for forty years.  My father and I can go years without talking.  This doesn’t feel right or wrong.  It’s just how our lives are.  He zoomed into my life when I was a child, and now that I’m grown, he has zoomed out.  It’s not ideal; but it’s my life.  I wonder if I am supposed to want more.  I wonder if being okay with his absence is some kind of forgiveness.  I wasn’t okay with his absence nearly a decade ago as we climbed onto that boat tour—not by a long shot. 

            As the boat tour took off, the rocking motion sent my father to sleep on a bench.  He lay down with his mouth drooping.  He had one arm over his face while the other arm hung down to the floor. Eric walked by, crammed a cracker into my father’s mouth, and smeared crumbs across his cheek.  My father woke with a start and playfully pushed Eric away. I laughed.  My father didn’t get angry.  He was patient. He seemed kind.

            Then I felt a surge of anger, just like I did when I opened that envelope for the first time.  I wanted to yell, “I never got to cram a cracker in your mouth, you big jerk!” I wanted to break down and get on all fours, bang my hands and feet and cry, “It’s just not fair!”  My father and I never had lazy days like this.

            I watched my father with his sons like a voyeur outside a bedroom window.  My father was a Dad.  It stung. He pointed out fish to his sons and asked them to quiet down for the tour guide. He caught pictures of the stingrays.  

            Nine years removed from this trip and a parent myself, I think about my father and I don’t feel remorse for behaving like a child.  I was going through my own grief; however, for the first time, as I write, I can sympathize with him.  I can’t imagine not being there for my own daughters.  If I had been on the boat with my girls, I would also point out the stingrays.  I would relax and feel the thick, salty air stick to my skin as I held their small hands.  My father probably wanted to reach out to me that day and take my hand, but I had this large block of cold air around me, threatening to scrutinize every nice gesture in my wake.  On the way back to the reef, my father’s sons sat next to him, while the boat rocked them all to sleep.

 

After docking, we went to “The Southernmost point of the U.S.A.,” a monument marked by a huge concrete buoy.  My father wanted to take a picture and asked us to move in closer. He said, “This will be a great picture of my kids.”  It bothered me to hear him say that because I wasn’t a kid.  My festering childhood wounds, the ones I thought had healed, reopened and gaped like fish mouths on hooks.  How should I have processed all of this? Sure his family seemed a little too perfect, but no seemingly nice family is perfect all around.  I constantly felt like my father was trying to fool me, for what reason, I don’t know.  There wasn’t any rational reason.

            My father snapped the picture.  Eric and Chris darted off, probably to dangle each other off a ledge.  I leaned back against the black and red buoy that said, “90 miles to Cuba.” Countless people rejoiced after reaching the shore below. The humidity suddenly felt like a soggy blanket of salt.

            As we walked back to our cars, Eric took my hand and said, “Can I ride with you?”

            I hesitated.  Then his dimples deepened. He was so small and helpless, just like I once was. I said yes.  My father saw Eric holding my hand. He looked surprised.

            Eric ran to tell my father and Glenda he would ride with us. My father called out, “That’s fine.” And then he pointed at Karl, “But you follow me.”

            I said, “Uh-oh, the hellion’s riding with us.”

            Karl said, “He’s not that bad.”

            I was pretty sure he was that bad. The first time I met Eric, he looked up at me and said, “I can see your tetas.” I told him not to be a pervert.  He seemed like the kind of boy who manhandled girls on the playground.

            It had been a few hours since lunch, and it would be a three hour drive up north, so we agreed to stop at a restaurant near Miami.  I climbed into the car and told Eric to put on his seat belt. He gave himself some slack before buckling, then plopped his head on the armrest in the middle of the front seats.

            Karl started the car and we were off. Eric was off too.

            “JENnifer! Have you seen that movie with Wheel Smeetch?”

            “I don’t know what a Wheel Smeetch is.”

            “You didn’t see that Wheel Smeetch movie? When the car exploded, dat was the best part.  They were chooting at each other from the cars.”

            “That sounds like a lot of movies I’ve seen.”

            Karl works with a lot of Spanish speakers at his inner city school. He said, “He’s saying Will Smith.” 

            I said, “Oh yeah, yeah. I’ve seen Bad Boys.  It’s Will Smith.  His name has a T-H sound. Smi-TH.”

            Eric laughed and said, “Dat’s my favorite movie.” Then he began talking about school, friends, video games, and more movies with explosions.

            Eric’s voice rattled my ears as I looked through the window, where ocean spanned for miles. It was almost like our car was gliding over water.  The landscape played tricks on me, making me feel like I could swim to the horizon—a stark contrast to the landscape where I grew up, mountains all around.  When I was a kid, I decided one day that I could walk through our back field and make it to the Sandia Mountains in a day.  I traversed tumbleweeds, and the mountains seemed further the closer I got. I turned back.

            My daydreaming about landscapes was interrupted by Eric, who said loudly for the third time, “I wish I brought my Gameboy.”  I turned my ears away from his mouth.

            The sun set behind the car as the highway curved slowly north.  The sky all around us turned pink. We drove on a two-lane bridge that stretched for miles. Bridge turned to highway. Highway turned to roads dotted with houses on stilts. The stilts were protection for when the Keys flooded. I imagined the devastation that residents may have seen: lost cars, boats, homes and loved ones. Why did people return?  What gave them resolve? I was thinking about how empty I felt when Eric yelled, “JENnifer! Look in the meever and you can see the moon?”

            “What? A meever?  Karl, what is he saying?”

            He shrugged and said, “I have no idea this time.”

            “The MEEVER.  Look in the MEEVER!”

            “I don’t know what a meever is.  Can you lower your voice?”

            “Yeah, use your indoor voice,” Karl said like a teacher.

            Eric looked confused and said quietly, “You don’t know what a meever is?”

            “No I don’t. What is it?”

            “You really need to get out more.”

            “Just tell me what a meever is.”

            “Look in the meever.  The moon is in the meever.” He pointed at the rear view mirror.

            I laughed and said, “The mirror.  Eric, it’s meer-roar.”

            “Mee-Vuhr.  JENnifer!”

            Every time he changed the subject, he screamed my name and made me jump.

            “Yes Eric?”

            “My dad is taking me to Sea World.”

            As he said this, I felt that familiar pang, the one I felt while opening that envelope—I couldn’t name the feeling then, or even during this visit—but what I thought was anger I can now call jealousy.  I was wildly, insanely jealous, sibling rivalry of the most demented kind.  I’m sure it was obvious to everyone around me, everyone but Eric, who only knew I was his older sister.  I told him, “We just went to Sea World.  You should see the baby dolphins.”

            “We are going to see the whales.  JENnifer!  You know why I like whales?”

            “You like them because they are so big. Shamu weighs 10,000 pounds.”

            “No that’s not why.”

            “You like them because they’re so smart?”

            “No.”

            “They’re strong?”

            “No.” He raised his arms and said, “I like whales because they can jump.”

            I laughed.  I remembered seeing things as simply as he does. 

            I wondered if he knew subconsciously that what my father told sometimes wasn’t true.  Eric believed my dad when my father told him he was around for my childhood.  I suppose that depends on what your definition of around is.

            Many parents project a different persona for their children, project the parent they’d like to be, a parent in opposition to what the world sees.  Will Eric feel deceived by his father’s omissions or will he understand why his father never told him he went to prison?  Will Eric have to figure out this forgiveness stuff?  Or will it come naturally?

 

Near Miami, close to the end of our three-hour ride back from Key West, we stopped at my father’s favorite Latin restaurant in Kendall, Florida.  We ordered food as my father spoke to a cute waitress from Central America.  He was talking to her in Spanish, all googly, making guesses as to what her home country was.  When I was a child, he used the same tone with me.

            The waitress circled the table taking our orders. When she came to me, I said, “Cuban Sandwich.” She responded in Spanish.  I figured she asked for my drink order.

            “Water.”

            “No hablas Espanol?”

            I shook my head no.  When I speak Spanish, I search for words like dropped coins.  My father kept talking to the waitress. I heard him say Nuevo Mejico.  He was telling her about me and Karl.  When the waitress put in our food order, he called after her, “Gracias, mi amor.” I cringed. 

            As we waited for our food, Eric and Chris wrestled in a chair, fighting over one another’s milkshakes, and one malt shop glass tilted as Chris caught it.  My father and Glenda yelled, “No!”

            While the boys wrestled, my father told me and Karl that he had just taken Chris and Eric to Disney World.  I smiled and nodded, trying not to appear annoyed that my father had also taken his children to Disney World.  Where was my ticket to Disney?  I was too old but still, where was my ticket?

            “In a couple of weeks, I’m taking them to Sea World.”

            “Yeah, Eric told us.”

            My father had exhausted all topics with Karl, and now we had silence.  I was tired. Eric was tired too, but instead of wrestling his brother, he snuck up behind my father and wrapped his arms around him in a surprise wrestling move.

            My father said, “Ugh,” and looked like the wind was knocked out of him.

            Eric laughed as my father grunted and said, “Squeeze harder. You can’t hurt me.” Eric grunted and squeezed.  He was a burly Kindergartener.  It looked painful. Then my father said, “Come on Eric, you can do better than that.”

            Karl and I looked at each other, bug-eyed, once again motioning with our eyebrows and noses in Eric’s direction.  I wouldn’t want to fight that little kid.

            Karl whispered, “Eric’s going to kill your dad.”

            I smiled and felt my chest sink.  Before Eric and Chris were born, I had concluded that my father was one of those people who shouldn’t procreate.  I had also hoped that somehow, by cutting him off from my life and cutting myself off from hurt, I would be punishing him.  I wanted to make him feel sorry.  I was being childish, but I can empathize with my younger self because these are the wounds I begrudgingly carried into adulthood.  I didn’t want to be childish; I just couldn’t help it.  I dealt with pain differently then. 

            As a defense, if someone even remotely seemed unreliable, I would cut him or her off.  That’s why I rarely had a boyfriend for more than two weeks until I started dating Karl.  I had this clear cut way of protecting myself, but in that restaurant, I started to doubt whether the protective shield of evil looks did me any good.  The thought of what-could-have-been pierced my hard, cold heart.

            Karl took my hand and smiled, but I felt alone. We wolfed down our dinner when it came. The restaurant was closing. My father quickly paid the tab, and we gathered our things and went outside into the damp, Florida night.

            Eric said, “You should spend the night at my house.  I want to show you my new video game.”

            “Karl and I have to go,” I said. “We’re leaving on a plane tomorrow.”

            He said okay and then I hugged him.  Then I looked at my father, who was on the verge of tears.

            “We should do this more often,” he said as he hugged me.

            I pulled away from his arms and nodded yes, but I didn’t mean it.  Who is the liar now?  It’s been years since that night we got in our cars and drove in separate directions. 

 

The next day my father called once to say goodbye.  Karl and I were packing our bags.  I had the phone propped against my shoulder as my father said, “It was good to see you.”

            “Yeah it was nice.”

            “I hope to see you sometime soon.”

            “We’ll see about that,” I said, defensively, as I rolled my eyes.  I thought he sounded like his prison letters, but I can see now, years later, that his words weren’t promising me anything.  He was asking for an entrance into my life, and I cut him off.

            He said, “Mami, I love you.”

            I said, “Thanks.”

            He started bawling.  I wanted to get off the phone, this was too much, and I didn’t feel sorry for him.  I was doling out consequences, grand mistress of my own universe. Now, I look back and see how immovable and rigid I was.  I had a strong expectation about what a father should be, also created through a canon of Hollywood-ized fathers: add a pinch of Mr. Brady, a nice dose of Tony Danza in Who’s the Boss, and throw in some of Erkel’s dad for good measure.  My father didn’t fit the mold, so I rejected him.  Sure, during my childhood, as he darted in and out of my life, he rejected me as well.

            Because my father was absent for so much of my life, I pinned all of my sadness onto him.  I told myself, if only he was around, I would feel better.  But that is wrong.  I feel two kinds of pain when I think of him: the pain he caused me and the pain I have caused myself.  To this day, I am still not able to separate the two, but I feel them both strongly when I hear his voice and see his face. 

            Karl and I were still packing.  I was ramming my dirty clothes and new trinkets into a duffel bag when my father called a second time because he said that Eric and Chris wanted to say goodbye.  I was certain Eric and Chris didn’t care, but I humored him.

            “Hi,” Eric said.

            “Hi,” I said.  I could hear water splashing.  “Are you at the pool?”

            Eric said, “Yeah.  My brother keeps pushing my head underwater, so I punched him.”

            “You probably shouldn’t punch people.”

            “I know.”

            “I need to go. Our plane is leaving soon.”

            “Okay.”

            “I love you.” The words came out of nowhere. I didn’t know I loved him until I said it.  It was a physical feeling I couldn’t help.

            I was relieved when he said, “I love you too.”

            Eric handed the phone back to our father who said, “Call me when you get home. Let me know you landed safe, okay?”

            “Sure. I should go now.”

            “Okay, goodbye.  Mami, maybe we could go to New Mexico sometime.  We could visit you.  I think the boys will like that,” his voice started to crack again.

            “We can talk about that later.”

            We hung up.  Suddenly all the anger and jealousy I felt in the beginning of the trip softened and became what felt like a gluey vat inside me. I felt stuck.  Holding a bottle of hairspray in one hand and my phone in the other, I churned out tears systematically, as if I were a sprinkler.  Karl said, “Are you okay?”

            “Yes, I’m okay,” I guffawed, as I packed my toiletries.  But I couldn’t stop crying.

            I cried as I kissed my grandmother goodbye, I cried as I dragged my luggage behind me, I cried as Karl and I walked to the elevator, I cried as we drove out from Bay Harbor Island, I cried at the toll booth where Karl asked me to get change, I cried during the bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Miami highway, and I cried as we pulled up to the car rental return.

            Karl said, “Are you okay?”

            “No.” It was the first honest word I’d spoken all day.

            “We can come back.  We’ll see your family again soon.”

            “That’s not why I’m crying.”  I paused, took a breath and said, “It’s not fair that they get my dad and I don’t.”

            Karl said, “Your dad was just a messed up person.  It’s obvious he regrets what happened.”

            I was fine with my father being a lousy parent to me.  I wasn’t fine with this new person.  Who was he and why didn’t he fit into the mold I created for him?  When he went to prison, I secretly hoped he would rot in the slammer and come out begging me for forgiveness.  I wanted him to be humbler, to be someone he wasn’t.  Because he wasn’t this new person I thought he should be, I wished the Karmic gods of justice to dole him out a blank sperm count, for the betterment of humankind and for vengeance, so my father could pine for his relationship with me, so he could make things up to me.  He of all people did not deserve to bring more children into the world.  As I churned wretched thoughts, the rental car attendant knocked on my window, and I wiped boogers on my sleeve.

            Karl said, “Be cool, Jen. These people are going to think I’m making you cry.”

            I laughed and grabbed my purse, still sniveling, but I was trying to pull it together.  As we walked inside the airport, I saw I had a voicemail.  It was my father calling one last time.  He wanted to apologize, he said, for not saying goodbye to Karl.

 

Shortly after arriving home from Florida, Karl printed our photos.  There were a couple of my little brothers, several more of me and Karl, and the one of all of us down in Key West.

            I held that picture up to my face and laughed when I saw Eric. His lower lip hung down and his belly poked out from a tight yellow shirt.  I looked a little chunky too with my gut hidden under horizontal stripes.

            Then I noticed my father. What scared me is that I hadn’t recognized him standing next to me—his eyes were beady behind thick glasses, his hair seemed even grayer.  I still have that photo from Key West.  It’s in the back of a photo album.  I have no intention of burning it.  One day, my daughters will ask me, “Who are those people?”  I will tell them, “This is your grandfather, your step-grandmother, and those are your uncles.” They have two uncles who are only about a decade older than they are. 

            I will try to give straight answers to the questions they might have, like Why don’t I know your dad?  Or, Do you miss your dad? 

            I will try to tell them as honestly as I can about what my father and I both did to our relationship.  I will hopefully be able to explain what not to do to the people you love.

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