Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2019  Vol. 18 No. 1
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back Jose M. Martinez


You remembered faint traces of the gentle scratch from his facial hair. The fibers nuzzled your cheeks whenever he rocked you to sleep, when his gentle swaying wasn’t enough to calm your restless cries. This, of course, was back when you were no bigger than a tiny bundle of sheets and he could still carry and hold you in both arms. It quickly turned into you sitting on one of his legs, back resting against one of his palms, head against shoulder, exhausted after hours of playing in the dusty fields, as carrying you became a thing of the past. In time, the strength in his muscles and bones would fade away.

You remembered hearing the crackle-sizzle of the pans and the occasional bubbling from the pot, taking in the aromas of the portions he cooked for both of you in the morning before he took you to school. It wasn’t always a morning feast, only occasionally would he have the ingredients, and the time, to make meals like huevos rancheros, but no matter what he cooked, he fed as much as your tiny stomach would allow, and you would remain nourished for the early part of the day. He would guide the spoon and forkfuls into your mouth, mimicking large vehicles like planes and trains, before it came time for you to hold the utensils, when they didn’t feel huge in your hands.

You remembered the treks the two of you would take in the morning. It was not a long journey and it never put a dent in your energy levels, though perhaps that was because you were younger and you never seemed to run out of energy. His hands looked and felt as big as that of a giant’s, but over time they would be like the utensils that held your food, the tips of your fingers nearly meeting the tips of his whenever you two played the measuring-hand game.

You remembered that day-to-day the hikes to school felt nearly the same. Agave plants appeared like they dominated the fields on the right side of the road; cacti and other plants appeared as if they took over the left; a convenience store a bit of a ways away from your home, run by a man whose name you never quite learned, though you’re sure it was Emilio. He ran it with his family, and they sold the usual sweets, chips, and carbonated drinks. It always seemed to have the same three cars, a pick-up and two sedans, occupying the parking lot, which was really just a barren spot of dirt, no hope of the grass returning. The store was not the place you would go to get your nourishment; he knew it then, and you would know it when the time came to raise your own. His take-home pay said the same as well. But every so often on the way to school, he would have a few extra pesos in his wallet, and he would get you a tiny bag of chips, or a sweet that you would nibble on at lunchtime and save the rest for when you made the trek back home on your own.

You remembered that although the daily occurrence of him dropping you off at the school gate went unchanged for the most part, there was an instance in this cycle that made you stop and question him, even though he had to get to work on time. There were a handful of children that, like you, were escorted to school by only one parent. But there was also the much larger group of children that would arrive to school with both, parents who would kiss these kids on both their cheeks and wish them a good day, filled with learning. You asked where your other parent was and why it was that she never dropped you off at school. The expression on his face, the first of a few that he would do a bad job at hiding, wouldn’t tell you anything until it was time for you to drop yours off at school, and in the process of getting everyone up at the crack of dawn so you could all make it to the bus stop on time, you thought about the various “explanations” he gave over the years that included, but were not limited to:

“She got up earlier than both of us.”

“She was just too busy this morning.”

“She went on a very long trip.”

“She’s in a faraway place.”

“She went to that country you learned about in school.”

You remembered that, in the beginning, they satisfied your tiny sense of curiosity, but as you got bigger and older, this sense got hungrier and these scraps were no longer enough. It was not until a short time after you began to make the trek to school yourself, once his job forced him to get up much earlier than you, that you asked him where your other parent really was.

“She’s no longer here with us,” he finally said.

He sat you across from him, and, over the course of a couple hours, he explained as best he could that your mother’s health was never the best, and while he enjoyed the time he spent with her on this earth, after a long conversation with the doctor, professionals they could barely afford to see, he had to face the fact that it was only a matter of time before she would have to, as he phrased it to you then, “leave permanently.” She stayed in the rooms planted on this soil for another two years before she finally took her last breath. To this day, he considered it a miracle you came out so healthy when she couldn’t even move her limbs without it taking a toll on her body.

You remembered telling him one day, quite a while after this conversation, that you recalled very tiny visions of resting against a woman’s chest. She wasn’t like the women you saw dropping their kids off at school. Whereas their skin, like yours, was brown and rough, hers was gaunt and exhausted and looked like it had been stretched far too much. Whereas their hair was long and either let down or in a bun, sometimes looking as if it had been damaged from being in the sun for so long, she had no locks at all, and there was nothing to suggest that she, at any point, had any hair. You’re not sure exactly what kind of expression she had (you had only just emerged into this world), but you think it was a mixture of happiness and sadness. Something that indicated, I’m glad we have each other, but why couldn’t it have come sooner? These visions surfaced once, and then a scant few times after that, but it wasn’t until he told you about her that you felt their weight. You told him all this, before asking him, “Papa, was that my mother?”

“Yes, mija, that was your mother . . .” he responded solemnly, a shine in his eyes.

You remembered not being able to feel anything serious. You would definitely feel something, everything, when much, much later you would receive the news about his passing. But as for this revelation? You couldn’t quite put your finger on it. Sadness? Perhaps. Confusion? Probably, definitely. As well as something else. The same Something Else that would be on the faces of your own kin when they ask you why your eyes were blotchy and red, why you couldn’t stop sobbing uncontrollably, and why they didn’t do, feel, the same when you told them about what happened to their grandfather.

You remembered “Oh . . .” was all you could muster. Oh was how you reacted to learning about the fate of the woman who was your mother. Oh was how you plainly and simply accepted the fact that these memories, from your first few moments on this world, would be the only memories you had and would have of her. Oh was what you thought when the memories decided to resurface every so often.

You remembered, after you completed la prepatoria and you were finished with math and all those subjects that became unnecessarily complicated with each “new” concept that was taught, you were able to dedicate all of your time to a tiny store nearby. You picked up the job shortly after you graduated, and it mostly consisted of you helping its strict owner, señora Rosamaria. Your responsibilities amounted to “doing whatever she told you to do.” No item was to be out of place, and if there was, she wouldn’t need to punish you because, as you were reminded almost daily, El Dios would get you before she even had a chance.

You remembered that by then, him coming home late from work was nothing new. The periods where the two of you didn’t cross paths, however, were concerning. There would be days when, as you went to bed and were fixed on the dimness of his bedroom light, only to lose to your own exhaustion, you wondered if he was still alive, and if, with what little the both of you had, they would even bother dispatching someone to deliver the news of his passing. You were relieved when, after coming home from one of your own shifts, you found him in the kitchen, sleeves and pant legs rolled up. He took deep breaths as he rubbed a cut-open pepper over sections of his limbs. In your most worried tone, you asked him if he was OK, and why he was coming home so late, why it was that you hardly saw him. He stared at you, the moment prolonged as you made out the details in his eyebags, dark, and the worn-out skin on his face.

You remembered his response: “I’m in a bad place, mi hijita . . . we’re in a bad place.” He laid it to you straight: it wouldn’t be much longer until they let him go. Even with everything he was putting his body through, even with the hours he was giving them, even though he had been with them for a respectably long time, his employers no longer viewed him valuable. They never officially dismissed him, but as he told you, he could feel it. He could sense how less important he was becoming to them.

“Are . . . are you going to be OK, papa? Are we going to be OK?” you remembered asking.

You remembered the way he embraced you, his arms loosely wrapped around your shoulders as he reassured you that you’d both be fine, traces of insecurity in his voice then sounding more like restrained fear now.

You remembered him telling you that, on top of there being no need to worry, you should not feel compelled to put in extra hours with señora Rosamaria. It would be one of the few instances where what he didn’t know would not hurt him. Whether it was because you kept the truth from him, or because things changed dramatically, shifts with señora Rosamaria began to feel exponentially heavier. You didn’t know why—a typical day with her was, if anything, repetitive and mildly frustrating, with how she could get on your case about simple tasks, as the way you did it wasn’t up to her precise standards. Once this news came, however, it no longer felt like a job where someone annoying was your boss, but rather like some bruja vieja held the final word on your survival.

You remembered him telling you about the coal mines and the possibility, maybe near certainty, of having to work there. You thought of what being exposed to all that dust would do to him in the long run. You thought of him one day simply chipping away with his pickax and, with one fell swoop, either due to him or a fellow miner, the tunnel caving in, his already battered body crushed, the air drained from his tired, old lungs. He once warned you about the coal mines when you were younger, as a way to keep you in school, and how they were “all that was left for people who had nothing else, no other chances in life,” and how he was lucky he still had the security of the job to support the two of you, despite the poor choices he made when he was your age. Such lessons would find their way into the teachings you would impart on your own preciosos, and how the last thing you would have wanted was for them to have that same future.

You remembered bearing with señora Rosamaria for a while until, at that period, what seemed like a blessing but what was actually a dangerous straining journey all its own, your reprieve arrived in the form of a married couple’s visit to the store. You ignored the high levels of worry in the mother’s voice; all you could hear were the words tierra de oportunidad as the woman talked about her son’s choice, the future he felt he could only find there.

You didn’t look back on it until much later, but had you given it more thought, had you talked with the woman, asked her about the hurdles her son went through (though who knows if he survived to tell her the rest of his tales?), had you maybe asked other people in this tiny town if they had loved ones who went up north, had you been more careful and prepared more, perhaps it all would not have felt as arduous, what lay ahead.

You remembered that it was a short talk between papa and you. It should have been longer; there’s no way he would have been OK with your decision there and then, that he would have been OK with what could have happened if it all went south. I want us both to avoid the coal mines, you imagined him saying. I want us both to be provided for, but this is not the way to do it. You thought he would have brought up your age, that you would have been gone so young. But he didn’t—no “Mira aqui . . .”; no attempt to understand why you would have made such a decision, no attempt to dissuade you.

You remembered this being burned into your memory; as you got older and you had to focus on your own children, you never understood how he took the news of this decision with such a calm disposition. At times you found yourself wondering if that was what your situation had come to, that there were no more resources for the two of you, at least none he could easily attain, so you had become the provider. Though you found it difficult to fathom that he would allow you to carry such a burden. After all, this was the same man who, when he walked you to and from school, would have to relax his grip, fearing something could harm you even in his presence. As you nursed and fed your treasures, as they got older at the same rate you did, you would not be able to make sense of whatever thoughts that crossed his mind when he said his goodbyes. You remembered only his expression, which he struggled to hide as he supported your choice. It was an expression you would be unable to hide from your own preciosos, when the time, his time, came.

You remembered, whenever you started one of the loud and clunky gemstone cleaners, you also thought about the accidents that could occur if someone used it willy-nilly. Or rather, you remembered the dangers listed that one of the senior employees immediately translated for you afterward, as you had only just begun learning English; in those early days, the supervisor, and everyone like him really, sounded as if he was speaking unintelligible gibberish. Apparently it was very easy for you to lose a finger, perhaps more, and it made you think about the journey you made several months prior.

You remembered your trek from there to here, and how it felt as if the sun had adjusted its rays specifically to target you, as well as everyone in the large group you found yourself in, some of whom did collapse and did not get back up. You had all spent only a few days on the never-ending landscape. Scores of deadly animals that thrived in such harsh environments often found victims amongst the throngs of lone migrants or migrant families. Not to mention there was the looming specter of the Maras who, with their body tattoos and machetes, could have easily claimed vast scores of you, but thankfully you were all spared from their appearance.

You remembered you were given the lost-limbs speech several times, delivered in what seemed like an angry tone. It made you think about the parts of the journey that involved rationing water, which took a toll on you, to the point where it felt as if your system was forcing your body to join those who collapsed. You recalled how your body entered a stumbling version of autopilot for that last stretch, occasionally registering the sun, its rays strengthening, the blisters piling atop one another on your feet. You only came out of this stasis when your eyes caught the looming, dark fence that stretched for miles. And whether it was the coal mines back home, or the journey here, or pale, balding men reminding you constantly that drifting off could result in going home with one less fingertip, the world wanted to remind you that the dangers would never halt, even after climbing over the towering fence and being met, thankfully, not by people in vomit-green military outfits, but by even more desolate terrain before you would see buildings, unlike what you lived near.

You remembered occupying a tiny space with three other people, located almost an hour from where you worked. There was a sense of unity that came with searching for a better, promising future, but you were also never more than flatmates. You would occasionally share stories, from work and other areas of your lives, and seeing as your successes depended on whether or not your English was good, from the perspective of esos pinches gringos at least, you practiced with one another, reading from the flimsy books you were able to find at a steal. And yet there was never an urgency to stay close, especially when one of you found living conditions that were better, if only marginally. When the time came, you didn’t even remember their names.

You remembered your shifts with señora Rosamaria while at the factory, and how there was no comparison. The most working for Rosamaria could have done to you was give you a sore wrist; after months of your hands making all kinds of contact with hard surfaces, you were glad your fingers weren’t sliced off by the machines, but you were also surprised they didn’t choose to fall off by themselves with how often they went numb. Other parts of your body didn’t get off so easy, as you would learn in the long run once you got as old as your papa and you began to ache all over.

You remembered wanting to tell him of the beginning of your time in this new land, but not being able to. You learned of the American dollar and how much it was worth in comparison to the pesos you used back home, and how you cheered for a few seconds before your flatmates quickly, but reasonably, killed your enthusiasm, before telling you how much it cost to live there, a cost that never went down once your preciosos came into the world. You barely had enough for the essentials once you began sending money to him. You wanted to send him some kind of message, to let him know you settled in, but the materials for it were not on the list of necessities. The worry for him, if he was OK, if he was even still alive, did not affect you greatly in those first few months. You didn’t, couldn’t, let it get to you. It would have meant distraction, which could have led to a lost hand, or at the very least the supervisor thinking you weren’t doing a good enough job before replacing you with someone who “was actually productive” (from the translation the senior employee would give you). It did not get to your psyche initially, until one particularly long, rough day of work, when you felt as if you were going past your limits, when it felt as if your supervisor was even more agitated than usual. You tried not to think about the bad, you tried to have the mindset of there’s always tomorrow, before your thoughts came to the subject of your papa. Your thoughts then became fears: fear of his health getting worse; fear of him getting gravely injured and no one there to check on him; fear of something happening to him that would make this all mean nothing. You remembered not being able to hold it in anymore as you felt the droplets running down your cheeks while you forced yourself to weep quietly, not wanting to wake up your flatmates nor have one of them question you as to why you were sobbing in the dead of the night.

You remembered a little over a year into the factory job, you met Raul. By the time you hit the one-year mark, you knew the gist of your day-to-day responsibilities in the factory, yet he still offered a helping hand, obviously not because he thought you needed it; he did an awful job keeping these feelings hidden. You stated right off the bat that he would have to remain content with just being friends; in case he hadn’t noticed, both of you were working in a factory in conditions far from favorable, and you ended every day hoping your work left such an impression on the supervisor that he didn’t think of you as “expendable.” With all of this on your plate, you didn’t have time for a novio. In a playfully disgruntled tone, he said, “OK.”

You remembered the sense of comfort he brought when you were in that period of your life. Everything felt new, unfamiliar. You remembered him confiding in you that although he had been there longer, there were still things about the country that befuddled him, so it was reassuring that the boat was not empty. You enjoyed not always having to depend on your flatmates for English lessons, as you saw them less compared to Raul, and as he knew a bit more about the grammar and slang that those ratty books didn’t teach. Most importantly, you felt more than grateful that, after a couple outings, he assisted you in getting the supplies you needed to send the overdue messages to your papa that your pitiful wages forbade you from even thinking about, even though he was paid the same as you, and although he insisted that you owed him nothing, you couldn’t help but stifle a “No mames.”

You remembered seeing your papa’s response waiting for you on the bed, ecstatic at the promptness of its delivery, and the joy quickly turning to dread when it was possible that the envelope could have borne a stamp indicating his passing. No such misfortune arrived, and he reassured you that he was the same as when you last saw him, that he was relieved and happy you were safe and sound as far as your circumstances went. You didn’t want Raul to see you in such state of emotion, as the two of you weren’t at that level yet, but that didn’t stop all those feelings of relief from coming out, so you let him take you in his arms. As yours got older and started asking about their papa that they didn’t get to know, much like when you asked about the mama you never knew, you found yourself unable to avoid a bittersweet tone. You had good memories about him, as well as bad, that their young minds could understand, and none were ever as strong as him being there for you when you got your papa’s letter.

You remembered that it didn’t get serious until the two of you were much older, when you both found jobs that were slightly more glamorous, promised slightly better pay and didn’t expect one of your limbs in return; when you could afford to talk to your papa slightly more often; when you had more time to learn English; and when your list of necessities increased by a few items. You remembered that it was not long after your situation had begun to improve, albeit only slightly, that you got your second reprieve, and the last for quite a long time. You were with Raul and some people he knew that you never learned the names of. One of them procured a cooler of cerveza, and as you all shot the breeze, the radio in the background interrupted the music, much like what you heard at home, with a news update. A Spanish announcer reported that el presidente Teflon, known for his firmness yet charismatic and upbeat demeanor, had offered a “legitimate” path for those who journeyed into this land the same way you did.

You remembered feeling swindled once you heard all about this law’s conditions, and how it felt less like a reprieve and more like an ultimatum, like an arrest warrant. This land would be willing to look past the fact that Raul, you, and many like you came in through the back door and happily recognize you as one of their own, so long as you were able to prove that you knew how to speak its native tongue and you knew everything about this land.

Esos malditos gringos . . .” you remembered Raul and a bunch of them cursing, you in total agreement. You knew that on the language front, mostly in his case, the two of you would be OK, but as for everything else? Neither of you knew a lick of the land’s history, and it felt as if the clock began its countdown at that precise moment. Up until then, you figured you would have been able to take this education at your own pace. You knew your supervisor, as well as the people he worked for, was fully aware of who was being hired, as much as he turned a blind eye to the situation because, as you would learn in due time, it would have benefitted them in the long run. You knew that, by the time this law was announced, they could no longer feign ignorance as to who was on their payroll; they were going to have to start “questioning” their subordinates. Neither you nor Raul were caught, but it was close. And as lucky as you two were, several would not be as fortunate. You would hear about the men in dark blue jackets and vests, how these men wrestled them away, how they confined them to empty, dead rooms of hazy white, stripped of their bare essentials, left with only a few ragged sheets. You couldn’t imagine such a fate, being confined in one of those rooms, or some dark, cavern-like space, sitting in cold silence before some booming voice, origin unknown, decided you would be condemned to something truly awful. As you had already resigned yourself to thinking that you could do no worse than those coal mines, you could not help but wonder, what would have been worse than that?

You remembered feeling as if your head was going to cave in from all the reading and reciting you and Raul did immediately after work. That’s how you described it to your papa in a letter to him. He offered you words of encouragement that only he could come up with, and you were going to take time to come up with some kind of a response, however short it would have been, until the texts painfully reminded you that they owned you. And how dreary it all was. You were almost constantly reading from two books at the same time, the lessons blending into one another: one of you at one point, you didn’t remember who, asked in a confused tone why independent clauses would be voted on to become law until it hit that same person that they were reading a grammar lesson. The last time you had this many books in front of you, the last time tests carried this much weight, was la preparatoria, though this was a completely different league. There was so much of it, language, government, history, and you retained almost none of it. Decades later your preciosos, who had essentially mastered the tongue, would still have to help you out with a word here and there. With regards to the other lessons on this crucial exam, you remembered having the recurring thought of Esto me vale madre.

You remembered that these were the first instances in which Raul did not go home. There was a distance between his home and yours, and while it wasn’t what one would call “great,” the time it took to get there and back would have been time lost, time that he could have used to absorb more. These were also the first instances in which the two of you were tested with how you were able to handle sleepless nights. You had to send your papa a tiny fraction less of what you usually sent him from your wages, the rest of it pooled with Raul’s earnings so that you could get the cheapest materials possible for a steady supply of café with kick, and when even the café wasn’t doing its job, you took turns using other, gentler methods to keep the other awake. This was another one of those memories you felt you could share with your preciosos, how when he really cared about something, he would demonstrate it, and he would do so with distinction.

You remembered getting sick and tired of that fucking flag by the time this long process concluded. The flag was inescapable, and initially you were indifferent to its constant presence and the various ways in which people adorned it to their possessions. Whenever you noticed it, it was either hung on a windowsill, gently blowing in the wind, or painted on the side of a building. But when the immigration timer began to count down, and you and Raul felt as if pages upon pages of information engorged you, it felt as if the piece of cloth was constantly taunting you. You saw it everywhere, whether it was on the front of the workbooks, or interspersed throughout the pages of said books; it would not give you peace. When the studying finally concluded, when the two of you could finally rest and you celebrated in the form of procuring a few bottles of liquor, as the two of you lay on your mattress, as you locked lips and as you thought about how pleasant it was to be by Raul’s side, and him by yours, you couldn’t help but think of test day. The front entrance of the test facility was decorated with a pair of flags, as well as the classroom where you were proctored. As the two of you got too tired to continue the gestures of affection, you remembered feeling as if you wanted to pause your test, walk over to the flag screwed onto the wall, tear off the foreman’s hard work, and in your loudest voice, as you hurled it to the ground, holler, “Basta con esta maldita bandera!”

You remembered not telling your preciosos about this until they were as old as when you completed the process, explaining that these thoughts were a result of stress, that the annoyance declined sharply afterward, especially the day of the citizenship ceremony. You didn’t exactly walk up to the flag and get on your knees in a sign of utter loyalty following the proceedings, but as the man in the front called Raul’s name, followed by your name several people later, you did remember putting those stressed recollections at the back of your mind.

You remembered that, for a while, you and Raul were quite close, almost inseparable. It was to be expected; you had both just narrowly avoided a grim fate, after all. The bond was temporary, lasting only a few years, and in all honesty, things could have developed fully, were it not for the conclusion Raul chose.

You remembered when the correspondence with your papa finally reached a consistency, when you could afford to send him the usual share of your wages, after the periods of little to no sleep, after the cramming, after going through the citizenship process with him, that you finally told papa about Raul. You didn’t exactly describe him as the one, as tu amor; you were glad you never gave him that title, as he didn’t deserve it. But in the early days, in those first sheets you sent his way, you talked almost giddily about Raul: you were glad you were by each other’s sides; you were glad the two of you would share living space, as well as the scant few possessions you owned; and you were glad to wake up in the same building as him. Your days would begin there, and continue at the bus stop, where you walked hand in hand, before going separate ways, yet always reuniting when the sun set. Perhaps it was because of how you described being with him, how you worded these “feelings” (which you would learn soon afterward weren’t really feelings), but when you received his responses, you couldn’t detect a father’s traditional approval of your choice of partner; rather, it was more like a general feeling of happiness upon learning that his beloved child had found someone. You couldn’t help but feel a bit off. It was minor, however, and it felt like it would soon pass.

You remembered that the citizenship didn’t immediately bestow a fantastic job. It was only a slight improvement compared to where you first worked. You were still cursed with the same kind of pinche gringo supervisors, though unlike your first few superiors, they could no longer hide behind the curtain of a language barrier if they chose to speak ill about you and your performance. The worry of having the necessities to survive was still there, but as you punched a series of letters and numbers into the keyboard in front of you, which were then projected onto a screen, the worry did not feel as major as when you first packed your bags and started your journey.

You remembered the routine you two fell into. You were able to get better necessities; you were able to make meals not unlike the ones your papa didn’t always have the resources for, plus a few that Raul learned from his family. In between bites, you exchanged stories about your respective upbringings, conversations that resumed once you felt stuffed and nestled on the couch, another thing your improving circumstances let the two of you procure. You talked about your childhoods (he had a large family and plenty of siblings to play with, compared to just you, your father, and late mother), and your hometown (he lived closer to the capital). His motivation for coming here sounded very much like that of the son that woman mentioned, all those years from señora Rosamaria’s store, and you almost wondered if Raul was that very son, before you realized that it was not an uncommon reason, and the son was probably significantly older than the two of you.

You remembered thinking that the image you two projected to your roommates, really anyone who you passed on the street, was perhaps that of a youngish couple who had known each other their whole lives and were deeply in love. You didn’t mind this. During this period of extreme closeness, of near inseparableness, you were not necessarily head over heels, madly in love with him, but there was something deep down that told you, you could feel something for him. After all, when people like Raul and yourself had experienced the perils you had gone through, the natural result was this very bond, no?

You remembered this line of thinking dominated your headspace as your conversations began to focus more on your future. Yes, of course people as close as you would want to move somewhere nicer, somewhere with better opportunities for employment, especially with how much experience you had; yes, of course people as close as you would want to find somewhere better to live, a place you would own, a place with plenty of room should certain developments occur in the future; yes, of course people as close as you would seriously consider turning this “family” of two into a family of three, maybe four. Why give how you thought of him, how you referred to him, a second thought? Surely, you would have eventually stopped thinking of Raul as “the man you were incredibly close to,” and instead think of him as “the man you were in love with”?

You remembered, looking back, that had you been more honest to your papa, to somebody, about the state of this “relationship,” especially when it was in its last legs, maybe you and Raul could have arrived to a point where things weren’t as ugly. You didn’t think your papa, anybody really, had the magic words, as those words would have had to be embedded with miracles. You couldn’t help think, however, that maybe if you talked to somebody, anybody, maybe a bad ending could have been avoided; maybe they wouldn’t have had to get the worst of the effects.

You remembered that the two of you went into this prospect of melding your futures together with plenty of excitement, though you wondered if that was the only motivator, the sole candlelight whose fire eventually gave out. And if it was not excitement, you wondered if it was a sense of wanting to prove that your futures lay with one another, that it was meant to be, that it was not just strong closeness, that you were indeed in love. Remember, you told yourself at one point, the story of the two of you began with one of you having feelings for the other. Surely, they could have finally been reciprocated, as Raul always hoped?

You remembered that there was plenty of excitement, as well as other indescribable emotions, the day your first child came into the world. Uncontrollable levels of joy were part of them, though you reassured yourself that it was perfectly normal if you felt you weren’t going to sob out of joy. Perhaps, you thought, it was because the other parts of this plan you and Raul created did not pan out the way you had hoped: you were still living in the same neighborhood, in the same house with the same two other people, and you still weren’t making enough of an impact at your job to merit a promotion. And it was so unlike you, you realized, to go into something this major without, at the very least, giving it some serious, serious thought. In retrospect, you came to the realization that Raul and you were still in what many referred to as a honeymoon phase, where you still felt remarkably close, and you wish you could’ve found some way to go back and wake yourself from this nightmare-in-disguise, to make your younger self realize that you could not have trusted him this much to have his, later just your, child. Children.

You remembered that, as much as you were not jumping for joy on the inside, it didn’t mean you didn’t care about the small bundle of thin, soft hair, rosy cheeks, shut eyelids, and caramel brown skin you were holding in your arms. You weren’t uncontrollably ecstatic, but that didn’t mean you weren’t happy. There was plenty about your daughter, whom the two of you decided to name Elena (to surprisingly little debate), to make you feel warm and calm on the inside. There was plenty about her that made you think, I couldn’t imagine you in harm’s way, I simply couldn’t. Elena, barely an hour old, occipital rested gently against a warm sheet, against your forearm, who made you want to fight every force, every misfortune, every institution that could sentence her to a miserable future in the coal mines, but for now, made you whisper, I’m a mother now, as you gently rubbed her forehead with one of the tips of your fingers.

Hola,” you both said quietly to your niña. She replied with near-silent, wispy snores.

You remembered that the strong bond was still there when Elena came into your lives, manifesting itself into Raul working longer hours at his place of work, as well as helping with putting Elena to sleep, feeding her, and changing her diapers whenever he could. It manifested itself in you finally treating your body correctly or, at the very least, well enough so that you could rip the bedsheets off and return to work as soon as possible, for Elena. In the meantime, your “For Elena” consisted of you also feeding, changing, and putting your daughter to sleep, as well as reading what you could, and putting into practice what you could, based on those memories you had of your papa taking care of you.

You remembered continuing correspondence with your papa, delivering the happy news that you were now part of the same club as him. You described her appearance, and the miniscule list of behaviors she picked up since she began living in your tiny home. One of your roommates was kind enough to let the three of you borrow their Polaroid for a memento you wanted your papa to keep, and in the letter that followed, your papa described how he felt by admitting that he had to rewrite the first page, as the salt from his tears smudged the ink. You would later, much later, find that same Polaroid atop his dresser, the corner where Raul was posed having been replaced by a gash.

You remembered that, after Elena began to show signs of growing, things began to go south. Unlike Elena’s growth, however, it was not as noticeable. There was still closeness, you two still had a bond. It had just gotten less strong. You remembered thinking that it didn’t feel that way, however. You still thought you were at those same highs as when you became citizens, as when Elena was conceived. You were still the same couple that was not really a couple, but you would get there, eventually. How else would you explain Arturo’s conception?

You remembered being “greeted” every day after work by someone who looked like Raul, sounded like Raul, and walked like Raul, except he wasn’t Raul. He wasn’t the father of your children, or rather, he didn’t feel like him, he didn’t seem like him. The Raul who became the father of your children assisted you when Arturo needed to be calmed while Elena was also sobbing and hollering; he assisted you by asking if both had been properly fed, and if not, then giving them their meals; he assisted by giving you assistance with the second child while you were preoccupied with the first. The Raul who began coming home, sometimes far past midnight, merely plopped on the mattress, or on the awful couch, unaware, or indifferent, to the coos and sobs of Elena and Arturo.

You remembered it wasn’t immediate; Raul did not just decide to come home one day and think, Al carajo to the kids and you. You recalled that it started with a couple of missed chores, nothing terribly noticeable. Eventually, you remembered, it became too many to shrug off, and your reminders started off as friendly, until he registered none of your tones, unaware that on top of the house they had two children they needed to take care of. You remembered learning that parents lost sleep as a result of having kids, but that loss of sleep was supposed to be split evenly, not shifted toward one person.

You remembered that the most hurtful was that not once did he ever bring it up, not once did he explain why he did this. All he did was go to work, though by that point, you could not believe that he was even fulfilling that obligation. The last time anyone went missing for that long over the course of a single day, it was your papa, though unlike Raul, either he nearly disappeared or neither of you ate. Whether or not Raul came home with something for the well-being of your family, you couldn’t say; he would be sprawled out on the couch, arms stretched in weird angles, and hands empty. And there was never anything new on the dining room table.

You remembered feeling like you were being kept in the dark for far too long. You felt it was only a matter of time before Arturo started growing as fast as Elena, and, at that time, you felt as if there was no way you could have handled the weight of your job and taking care of your children without Raul there.

You remembered one night, one of those nights he got home considerably late, after having put Elena and Arturo to bed, after you sang to them softly, kneeling at their bedsides for a length of time before they finally nodded off. You heard the creak of the door a few rooms over, and quietly rushed to the common room, ready to preface the questioning of his behavior with the reminder that it takes forever to put the kids to bed.

You remembered having him at the entrance, and how there was not much of a time gap between when he walked in and when he was about to step back out again. You remembered seeing one of his hands clutching the handle of a small bag, and how before your eyes caught the bag, you were going to start by asking if there was anything that happened at work, anything that might have happened to him, that would have explained why he was with them less and less. You remembered not expecting this.

“I’m not going to do this anymore, Mariana . . . I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said, simply.

“What do you mean you don’t want to do this anymore?” you remembered asking, followed by him repeating his original statement. You still didn’t know how to reply.

“I thought this was what you wanted. Don’t you remember? A family. You said you wanted this,” you replied.

“I also said I wanted to start anew. To have a better life than the one I had back home,” he said, as he pointed to his wallet. “I have the citizenship now, so . . .”

You remembered telling him that you were confused, and before you almost said, “What am I in that case,” you instead reminded him that the citizenship was a shared goal the two of you earned, what both of you studied and worked for, before you pointed to the room that cradled a sleeping Elena and Arturo, and then to yourself.

“What are we?” you asked, remembering no hurt, just in need of an answer.

You remembered that he did not answer, but instead, the bag slung over his shoulder, closed the door behind him, departing with quiet steps into the black of the nighttime streets.


You didn’t remember what part of you made you cling on to the false hope that what really happened was that he had several bad days at work in a row. Or maybe it was outside of work. Wherever it was, this gesture, action, whatever, was his way of expressing the emotions from those days.

You didn’t remember what made you think he would open the door again, that among the excuses he would pull out once he came back inside, they would either be This was an in-the-moment thing, or I wasn’t thinking clearly. Whatever excuse he would use, you had heard something like it before, specifically when he claimed he didn’t have feelings for you.

You didn’t remember when you came to the realization that the closed door would stay that way, that he was not going to come back inside.

What you did remember, however, was that you felt an urge to yell “Vete al carajo, pinche puto!” at the top of your lungs, even though he probably would have been too far to hear you. Not to mention, you reminded yourself that you were going to chide him for possibly waking up the children, the same children you would have woken up if you followed through with this outburst.

You remembered, looking back on this, that if you could have told him anything, if he gave you the opportunity to say something more before he walked away from Elena, from Arturo, from you, it would be that his decision would be final. That he would commit to staying out of your lives. That he would commit to never speaking to any of you ever again. That he would commit to never seeing them grow up.


As Elena and Arturo, both college students, handed you a fresh bouquet of flowers and you placed them on your father’s grave, you couldn’t help but wonder how you managed these past two decades following Raul’s permanent exit. Every decision you made felt like life-or-death for the two. You didn’t know how your own father managed, just you and him, especially with the hand the two of you were dealt, but you couldn’t help but think he probably felt the same way you did: like reading from an instruction manual, except you were its author. You were its author, you didn’t know if what you were writing was correct, and you were never close to being at least halfway done. As you bent upward, careful not to strain yourself, you looked past the trees and greens that surrounded your papa’s house, and remembered that the coal mines were not far from where he lived, and as your children walked toward you, more flower bouquets in hand, you couldn’t help but picture each of them wielding heavy pickaxes, helmets adorning their foreheads, their faces caked in dirt and grime, resigned to the very fate you worked so hard to keep them away from, until the sweet melody of their voices snapped you out of your trance.

“Here you go, mamí,” Arturo said, “this should do it, right?”

“Yes, mi hijito, yes,” you replied, “it looks perfect.”

You all marveled at the sight of his grave, the grave of the grandfather they never got to know. You forced the tears back as you thought about the strain he put on his old, delicate frame, and how he would no longer have to put himself through that again, and as you thought about the final expression he showed you before you said goodbye to him in person, you heard Elena speak.

“What was it like?” Elena asked, “seeing him, I mean, and then no longer being able to see him?”

You wanted to give her the standard reply of It was hard, but your memory had other plans. It thought back to the earliest instance, when you could remember him holding you, when you could feel the gentle scratch of his facial hair as his face rubbed against yours, and you could not help but start from there.  

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