Father's Day for Abandoned Children
I hate when Grandma pulls at my hair while she braids it. Sometimes she comes behind me when I’m sitting on the couch and pulls on the flyaways standing on the top of my head. I always flinch and ask her to stop; she’ll just giggle.
I braided my own hair for today. I usually don’t. It makes me feel small, like a child. I watch my reflection in the glass as I come up to the door and I see my mom in the way my hips move as I walk. Mom keeps pictures of her younger self on her mirror at home. When she looks at herself, there’s a constant reminder of what she used to be: thinner, prettier, happier. She always says, “I need to get back to that.” I open the door and she’s gone.
They had asked me not to see him.
“You don’t owe him anything, mamas.”
Mom was braiding my hair that night. She loves doing that for me before bed. She always says I’ll wake up with knots in my neck if I sleep on wet hair.
“What did he ever do for you, Lupe? What right does he have to see you now? Why didn’t he ask for this five, ten years ago? Or what about when we were trying to pay for your quinceañera or for your college?” Grandma wasn’t really asking, she was arguing with a man who wasn’t in the room, but I was the only one on the other end of the yelling. “I haven’t decided yet,” I told them. But I had. I’d known from the moment I opened the email that I would go. I’d known from the moment I read the subject line: hey, mija. It’s just lunch. It doesn’t have to be a big deal, or at least that’s what I’ve been telling myself. I go there all the time with my mom anyway.
I walk into the familiar smell of peppered chicken and melted butter. I didn’t know he liked this place, but I guess I don’t know anything about what he likes. For a long time, I thought he didn’t like me.
He isn’t there when I walk in, and I don’t want to be the first one to arrive. I try not to think of the possibility that he might not show up at all as I speed-walk to the bathroom.
I check my clock: 1:02 p.m. It’s two minutes after we said we’d meet. I am late and so is he. He was always late when I was young, too. On my sixth birthday, my mom’s boyfriend at the time got me a bike. Mom told me to go out and ride it until my dad arrived to pick me up. By the time he got there, I’d already fallen and scraped my knee, cleaned myself up and gotten over it. I remember I almost thought he wouldn’t show up at all, and that I was still disappointed when he did. Something stirs inside me. The bathroom is yellow, the same yellow as our kitchen at home. Ivory tiles cover the bottom half of the walls. I used to ask Mom if we could add tile like that in our bathroom. She always said yes, but Grandma said we didn’t have the money for it, and so we never did.
My phone buzzes with a text: he’s at a table by the door. He must be planning his escape route, or maybe he’s anticipating mine.
He’s bald now. He used to have a full head of thick dark hair and a mustache. Now there’s nothing but a shiny glare on his brown head and the shadow of his nose above his top lip. I’m almost unsure if it’s him. “Hey, mija.”
His voice is the same, like the sound of spreading butter on toast. He stands up to hug me, but I stop in my tracks when he does. I haven’t touched him in over a decade. He seems to think better of it and instead just pulls out my chair. He smells like the dryer sheets Grandma uses. I nod as a thank you.
We’re silent for several minutes, both of us pretending to study the menus. I knew this would happen.
Simon had offered to drop me off.
“What am I supposed to say to him?” I’d asked him before I got out of the car.
“Well, anything you want. Or nothing at all. Maybe he’ll do the talking.” “That’s not likely,” Grandma said from the backseat; she had insisted on coming. “Your dad doesn’t talk! He never did. He used to stand around like a mute.”
She pulled a hair off the top of my head.
Then, Simon ran his hand through my hair. A sympathetic look danced in his sky-filled eyes.
“You’re going to be okay, cariño,” he said. I love it when he calls me that.
“Do you know what you want?” the man across the table asks me now.
I nod. “I get the same thing every time I come here.”
“You’re just like your mom,” he says, and he seems to regret it immediately as he purses his lips and swallows. “She used to do that, too.”
I feel a tightness in my chest. I don’t like the fact that he thinks about my mom.
“Well, I am her daughter,” I say shortly without looking up from the menu. “Have you ever had the coffee here?” he asks. “I have. It’s okay.”
It isn’t as good as Grandma’s. She made me a cup this morning: Café Bustelo, with a splash and a half of milk and a big scoop of sugar.
“Here, mamas. Your mom will be out for breakfast soon,” she’d said, smoothing a piece of hair behind my ear.
Mom didn’t come out. I knocked on her door before I left, but she didn’t answer.
The last time she was mad at me was a month ago when I didn’t come home after being out with Simon, and the time before that, I was a child. I’d accidentally dropped and broken the jar of sweet peppers — they were my favorite. Mom came out of the restroom, met by the mess of red, orange, and yellow with glass shards in between. Without saying anything, she walked to her bedroom and came back with her chanclas. But instead of raising them at me, she put them on her feet, picked up the broom and passed me the pala. She said, “Help me clean this up,” and nothing else after that.
A waiter comes to ask if we’re ready. The man across the table says yes. He gives his order and then I give mine. The waiter takes the menus and leaves. It’s silent again except for a woman sitting at the table next to us talking on the phone. She seems stressed, but I can’t make out what she’s saying because she’s talking so fast. Listening to her voice sounds the way walking in wet sand feels.
The table wobbles. I study the lines on the faux wood. I can’t stop my leg from shaking. Her words muddle together like soup.
“So how have you been?” he asks, pulling my attention away from the woman. What a stupid question. How have I been when, exactly? I want to ask. The past few days since receiving your email? The past few weeks since I found out about my condition? Or the past 12 years since I last saw you? I almost probe but can’t bring myself to be so assertive.
“I’ve been well.”
“And, well, how is your mom doing?” “I’d rather not talk about her with you.” “Right. Well, how are your grandparents doing?” “They’re well.” “That’s great.” The silence that falls over us this time doesn’t last very long before the waiter comes back with our food. A lemonade and a grilled cheese sandwich for me. A water and a salad for him. “My wife put me on a diet,” he chuckles. I tense up, and I’m not sure if he notices; he’s busy stabbing lettuce on his fork. I remember the sound of his wife’s voice as if she’d just spoken to me. I remember her calling me spoiled, or telling me my skin was too dark, or telling me my mom was sabotaging my relationship with them. I remember her saying my dad married her because she was lighter and prettier and thinner than my mom. I remember the feeling of her creamy white fingers around my small wrist. Once, I’d asked her to braid my wet hair for me, and she told me to do it myself. I woke up with knots in my neck the morning after. “So, is there anything new going on in your life?” he asks. I want to hit him. Then, any patience I might’ve kept fades away, like the voice of the woman beside us as she starts to cry.
"New suggests that you might’ve been aware of the old things going on in my life, which you’re not.”
“But I would like to be.” “I have a question for you. Why did you ask me to come here? What do you get out of this?” “I just want to be in your life again.” “Why?” “Because you deserved better when you were young and —” “And? And I’m doing just fine now.”
"But if you would just give me a chance —” He looks at me with scrunched eyebrows.
“And talk about what? The year my grandparents retired? My mom’s engagement? What I study in college?”
“Well, I’d be happy to talk about any of those things with you.”
I don’t say anything.
“So your mom’s engaged?”
I take a bite of my sandwich.
When Simon and I found out about my condition, I cried. The whole world had ended. I went to the doctor because I thought I had a stomach bug. Apparently, there was a different kind of parasite using me as a vessel. The world had ended, and I was the only one who knew it. “I’ll support whatever choice you make with this,” Simon had told me. His warm, fair fingers brushed over my cheek and then my shoulder. He’s always been supportive about what I want. He said the same thing last year when I decided to change my major with barely over a year until graduation. Even sitting here, I feel it stirring around inside me. It doesn’t even have fingers or toes yet and already it was making itself at home in my body. “So, you’re graduating next year, right?” he asks. I try not to roll my eyes. “Yes, next semester will be my last.” “What do you major in?” “Social work.” “That’s what your mom was majoring in, before —” “Before she dropped out to have me,” I finish for him. “She was really excited to have you.”
Something stirs inside me, but I’m not sure if it’s the parasite or just my nerves. I haven’t told my mom yet.
“She was really excited to be married, too.”
“I’d prefer not to talk about —”
“About how you asked her to drop out so you all could have the perfect little family, just to cheat on her and have that with someone else instead?” “Your mom and I weren’t right for each other.” “That’s rich.” “You were just a baby.” “I was just a baby, and you still left.” “I tried to be there for you.” He reaches for my hand, but I pull it away. “You have a loose definition of ‘try’.”
I’m very aware of how small my hand would be in his.
“I was doing my best.” “Your best could only last eight years? You know most children don’t start forming memories until they’re five or six.” “I always thought about you.”
The corners of his eyes droop low, just like mine.
“Yet you couldn’t pick up the phone,” I say as the lady beside us gets up and leaves. The little bell rings at the top of the door. “Why have a child at all if you’re not going to be there for her?” “I never regretted you.” “Clearly.” Behind him, I can see my reflection in the window. I see Grandma’s nose and Mom’s lips in my own, but his eyes are there, too. I used to go to el centro with Mom and Grandma all the time. Everything was cheaper downtown, and every store sold anything we needed. We’d buy fake flowers for my grandpa’s grave from the tienda on the corner of Corpus Christi St. and Washington Ave. We’d buy clothes for my most recent newborn cousin from the lady at the store next to the Popeyes. Mom would buy me ice cream from the paletero against Grandma’s protest; he’d ring his little bell as we walked away. Mom held my left hand, and Grandma held my right. On the car ride home, they’d talk in Spanish about something I didn’t know because I couldn’t understand. Secrets stuck in their teeth like the strawberry seeds stuck in my own. In the backseat, I tried to get them out with my tongue. The first person I talked to about the email from my dad was Simon. “He signed it, With love, Mark,” I told him. Simon laughed on his own. “I mean, wouldn’t it have been weirder if he signed it from Dad?”
I only nodded.
“Are you going to go?” His hand moved to smooth the top of my hair.
“I don’t want to be like him.”
“Why would you be?”
“If I go through with the abortion, I am exactly like him, aren’t I?” “It’s not the same situation, Lupe. He has nothing to do with us.” “I have to see him.” “It’s not a baby yet. You know that.” “But it is our baby.” “It doesn’t have to be.” He took my hand. “What about school? What about the future we talked about? If we have this baby, we’d end up living in your mom’s house forever.”
“But it’s our baby.”
He cupped my cheek in his hand. “It doesn’t have to be.”
There was something about the loose stitch between his eyebrows; he was trying to convince himself just as much as he was trying to convince me.
“Maybe it does. If I go through with this, I’m no better than him, I’m worse.”
I wondered if you might be better than any of us.
A waiter came to collect our plates. I left half my sandwich untouched. I’ve always been a picky eater. Grandma has never minded, but my dad’s wife did. “You don’t have to decide how we should move forward today,” my dad says. “I know this must be overwhelming.” I want to tell him he doesn’t know the half of it. I want to tell him I don’t have so much time for other decisions. I want to tell him about the unopened pill bottle waiting for me on my dresser at home. I don’t want to tell him about how alike we really are. I say, “Thank you.” “Well, you have my email. So, if you would like to meet again, just reach out,” he says.
I want to tell him to try harder. I want to tell him my mom isn’t speaking to me. I want to tell him that I need this more than I’ve let on. I don’t want to tell him that we’ll never speak again if the responsibility is on me.
I say, “Sure.” I let him open the door for me. Simon’s car is already waiting by the curb. Grandma’s not in the car with him now. It feels like a betrayal, but I’m not sure if it’s hers or mine. I don’t hug my dad before I walk away.
In the car, Simon keeps his hand on my thigh.
“How do you feel?” “I’m not going to keep it.” “Okay.”
There’s something sad in his blue eyes that I can’t afford to ask about.
“I’m nothing like him.” “You’re not,” he agrees. He draws circles on my skin with his thumb. The sun creates a glare on the windshield that stings my eyes. I watch the cars pass by us on our way home, each filled with people, with real lives, that I’ll never meet.
I don’t want to know you, but I’m sad now that I never will.