My father is not the model Mexican of American dreams.
He is not the well-behaved Chicano scholar or the law abiding, VISA-wielding tourist flushed from Mexico’s beating heart in pursuit of sea mouthing sand. He does not cradle my face in his callused palms. Some days I dig my thumbs so far into his silences they bleed back at me. He is the moon-faced Catholic fleeing deportation detention centers, the skid-marked teenager clambering up the border-fence by his bruised fists, the communion wafer condemned to the tongue. He is the witchy, the vexed, el clandestino, the undocumented name-slinger.
Some days I know him as Oscar. Some days I know him as Raymond. Some days I know him as Mauricio. Some days I don’t know him at all. He is: ‘What do we become in Balboa Park’s shadows?’ He has pursuit and evasion down to a science. He is the days when we study the sound of wind-chimes over waves in Seaport Village, window-shopping next to white kids armed with kites and bubbles. He is a vigil of votive candles not yet erected. ¿Qué quieres comer? Chula Vista and Chicano Park. The patron saint of lost beginnings and noonday bruisings. Sweaty Manzanita Sol wedged between the thighs.
Before I’ve grown into my gangliness, he shaves my head in the name of Christ, drags me to church by my bangled wrist, force-feeds me Coca-Cola in a baby bottle to my white mother’s horror. He used to pass notes with her using pocket knives and prickly pear cacti. You can still read them if you know where to look.
At about the time my mother and father split up—which is always and forever and practically since the day I was born—I experience what can only be called a cleaving. I grow up thinking I’m a baby split down the middle, a poorly-sewn fusing, an amalgamation of all their worst parts. I get my father’s flat feet and my mother’s big teeth. Their eyes are black as river-sludge in my face. I wear a rosary for them both.
Try as I might, I can’t make sense of or reconcile these two worlds, the invisible borders of San Diego. My mother lives in the newly-commissioned Mission Valley condos with the big blue pool and the neat shopping center situated about a block away. My father seems perpetually rooted to the run-down immigrant neighborhoods populated by the brown, the undocumented, the low income, the paleta man and elote woman circling the barrio like two town mourners, ringing their bells and crying out as summer sweat gathers beneath their ball-caps.
When my father gets a new girlfriend, my weekends with him start back up again, after many failed attempts. During these weekends, I spend a dollar in quarters on a bag of Hot Cheetos and sit eating them in the waiting area of a well-lit barbershop as a black man buzzes my father clean. His head: smooth, rounded, home to a thatch of dark hair cropped close at the sides and worn long at the crown, his painstakingly gelled spikes dyed blond at their tips. We make dingy DVD rental store runs, where I am allowed to handpick two movies for myself, after which point we grab a $5 pizza from Little Caesars and an armful of Jarritos bottles from the local liquor store. On the sunnier Saturdays, I sit in a field of itchy grass and watch him run loops with his soccer team.
I start seeing this new girlfriend of his every weekend and I like her well enough. I’m so young that, given enough time, I might even love her. I don’t yet know what it means to pit women against each other, and this one is built like a Playboy model—wide-hipped, big-chested, with the tiniest of waists. She has a cloud of blonde hair that bounces around her shoulders, dresses in black from head to toe each and every day in wedge heels, hoop earrings, and tight tank-tops bedazzled at the breast, and she draws her eyebrows on real thin and pointy in the classical chola style. She’s the pale Mexican of gaudy bodegas, of plastic-sheeted furniture that crinkles audibly when you sit and sticks to your thighs with sweat when you stand, of little lap dogs that yap over the sound of novela reruns.
She buys me coloring books and waxy crayons from the 99¢ store near our apartment and grins at me while she makes tacos al pastor at the stove. I think she might love me back. I will remember this period of calm—from ages one to five—as the best and most bloodless chunk of my childhood.
Years later, when I’m fully grown and wracking my brain for the happiest memories to come out of those weekends with my father’s makeshift family, I will call to mind his tiny, white-walled bathroom. I’m sitting in a bathtub my father’s filled to the brim, at age three. The water’s lukewarm by now, dish soap bubbles mostly dissolved, and he’s perched on the toilet beside me on one of those rare nights when he gets off of work early. He’s a man of graveyard shifts, as the ways of the undocumented demand. Tonight, he’s combing his fingers through my hair and singing along to the battery-powered radio positioned at the edge of the counter. The song is ‘La-La Means I Love You’ by the Delfonics.
In a different memory, I’m cleaning and reorganizing this bathroom with his girlfriend while he’s at work. I’ve risen up onto my knees on the plastic toilet seat and I’m wiping it down as she refills the Q-tip container beside me. Something selfish steals over me all of a sudden. I’ve just turned five and I’m soaking up her attention.
“Can I call you mom?” I ask.
She glances at me sidelong and flashes a private smile—honored by the idea, I think. I don’t realize at the time that she’s smug like an understudy whose lead broke her leg, that she’s pleased, not because she thinks of me as a daughter but because I’ve offered her a way to slight my mother, the previous object of my father’s affections. There is banked venom in her grin, beside the affection. Some women learn to love this way: as wastelands of wrath, carnage in place of kindness.
“Of course,” she says. “You can call me ‘mom’ whenever you want.”
“Okay, Mom,” I say, giggling, in the kind of self-fulfilling prophecy that will lead to her pregnancy in a year or two.
And so it’s my secret and hers.
I return to my coloring book and think of how I can’t tell my real mom about today because to her it will be a betrayal, but to me it’s two pretty women, each one loving me more than the last. It’s late December and I’m the border between happiness and hunger. Too little, not enough.
In the morning, and in the absence of my father, she assumes the task of hygienic supervision and asks me into the tub. Only she doesn’t fill it up like he always does, just turns the shower-head on and twists the nozzle towards warm.
“Um…I don’t know how to take showers yet,” I protest over the loud rush of running water, because I haven’t yet graduated from bubble baths. “My mom says I could slip…”
She waves me off. “You’ll be fine. Just call me if you need any help.”
Hesitantly, I step inside and shuffle forward on my clumsy gazelle legs. The warm spray sluices over me like a summer rain, blurring my vision. I watch her leave through damp eyelashes with an acute sense of foreboding. I’m stranded, bereft in a sea of uncertainty, no clue what to do the way a toddler fumbles their first steps without their mother in view. For a few minutes, I manage to awkwardly wash my hair, clutching the Pantene bottle to my chest with one hand and white-knuckling the metal bar above the soap cubby with the other. My feet keep sliding uselessly across wet porcelain. Each time I grip the bar tighter, my heart pounding.
When I reach for the body wash, which is too far for me to grope without letting go, I lose my footing and fall.
There is a split second where everything is thrown into sharp relief, where I scrabble for the metal bar and only just miss it, where I want my real mom for the first time since stepping foot inside this apartment, where I wish I hadn’t pretended my father’s girlfriend could fill her shoes. Then my head cracks open against porcelain. Tucked into the wide and unforgiving cradle of the bathtub, I begin to bleed. This is where I’m set to learn, with biblical melodrama, that some wounds cannot stitch themselves closed.
Worse: that some women have never watched a child weep.
I gaze up into the stream of shower water, naked and twitching and slick with my own blood, too stunned to eke out a sound. There’s no pain around the shocked adrenaline. Then her pale, frightened face appears above me. I can’t hear what she’s saying over the roaring in my ears.
During the ambulance ride to the emergency room I imagine a language made entirely of water and can’t help but wonder if I’ve cursed myself by daring to call her Mom, if God is punishing me for awarding the title to a fraud with no proof that she knew a thing about parenthood.
My head starts to burn only as the surgeon applies alcohol to my wound. I think they might numb me stupid. Then they stitch my forehead tightly shut with a row of seven sutures. I’m sent back to my father’s woozy, with my head wrapped in gauze. Here, his girlfriend’s sympathy seems to run dry. She sits me down at the tiny two-seat bar of their kitchenette, takes me by the shoulders and digs her acrylic nails in hard.
“When your dad gets home,” she says with an urgency that alarms me, “you tell him that I left you alone in the bathroom for a minute to make the bed and that’s when you slipped. Okay? Do you understand me?”
I nod dumbly, though I don’t. I’ve never been asked to lie to an adult by another adult; the strangeness of it momentarily dizzies me. I want to ask her if she remembers when I called her Mom. How, in doing so, I accidentally invoked the opposite. I want to ask if she remembers the way the bathtub smothered the sound in its porcelain palms, the way the bathtub knew it would soon gentle the blunt edge of my bleeding. She stares at me like she wants to ask if I know Mom is just another word for Massacre, that to birth one child you must first skin another.
Mother-to-be, destined to have her own in two years’ time, I have become her accidental target practice. I picture it in my mind’s eye: rivers of silver scar tissue unfurling at my feet, little girls listing sideways like scarecrows with their faces torn, erected from puddles of their own burst blood vessels. I imagine handing her the keys to my body. I imagine her sticking them in her mouth, allowing them entrance through the throat.
Today, I’ve broken her in for my future half-sister, Isabella, made a mother of her talcumed face and a gash of her lipsticked mouth. Until me, she did not know the meaning of the word bloodbath. Because of me, all water looks red. I’ve put a fear in her fated to become resentment.
Opposite her, I’m so lightheaded and afraid that I can’t make sense of anything, and when my father arrives home from work in his paint-speckled construction boots, his face gone slack at the sight of me, I stumble my way through a lie so unconvincing he bypasses me completely to get the story from his girlfriend.
I stare at her as she lies through her teeth, first in English, then in Spanish, and think: you are no mother of mine.
Together, she and my father conspire to keep me through the holidays. They don’t tell my mother, who’s expecting me home on Sunday. I know they’re only prolonging the inescapable, that she’ll be vibrating with rage by the time she finds me, but I don’t say so. I just sit, tending to my wound like a houseplant, whispering at it in soft tones in the hope that it will grow forgiving with time. I don’t want to be ugly forever.
Over the course of a week, they watch me, their stares unflickering. It’s a little like being kidnapped by my own blood. Bedridden by my own bones.
When my mother eventually finds me, I watch my retribution unravel in reverse. Everything, scrambled gloriously. Her hands and her hands again, seeking purchase along my scarred skin, fingering the hollows in my head, checking me over for hurt. The eventual removal of my stitches, as a fissure becomes a knot of fused flesh. I see my head left gaping, brains poured out over porcelain. A sudden and unexpected lurch, an earthly rupture, skin split like thirsty loam. Standing in the middle of my father’s dark street, she and his girlfriend begin to scream, me the gift-prize between them.
I see her most of all—his girlfriend. Barefaced, no eyebrows, mouth stretched open over a screech. No words come out, just the wail of water. She’s pale yellow beneath a streetlamp. At night, she’s lit wax.
“Cállate y déjalo,” my quiet, solemn-faced father says to her, as my mother herds me into the car, shuts the door, and bellows back.
His girlfriend: awful scowl in place, black eyes intent on me through the tinted window. Her face hardens the way river erodes rock to reveal the cruder, more cleverly hidden swirls of humankind. My smiling, doting, self-proclaimed stand-in mom is no longer. In her place: pure hatred, perfectly rendered, shimmering like a polished stone.
As my mother propels us from the cul-de-sac, I press my forehead to glass and imagine blood welling, inevitable, beneath my bandaging. Gold blurs by. His girlfriend is still standing in the middle of the street, barefoot and shivering, when we turn the corner and disappear. That’s the last thing I see. Nail-polished toes, lips pulled back over teeth.
Slowly, I meet my reflection’s eyes in the glass, sketching the seams holding my head closed. It hurts like heartbreak. That’s what I decide I’ll tell them someday, when they’re all gawking at my gore, when I have the right words, when the image of her terrible face begins to lose its potency and there’s no chance that she’ll find me and claw my scab open.
That’s what I’ll tell anyone who asks.
“I heard some violence can be made small and splendid—confined to a three inch slit in the forehead.”
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