What We Know
My father smiles, a secret smile just for me, as I enter my parents’ house. My brother and his kids arrived before me, and the house seems alive with the sounds of laughter and talking. I don’t want any part of it.
I kiss my mother, brother, and sister-in-law and endure the sloppy kisses of my nephews and niece. It’s all very normal. It’s all very loving. I know that I don’t belong in this world anymore. I sneak another glance at my father and he gives me a reassuring grin; I don’t return it.
“Come help me in the kitchen,” my mother says when the greetings are done.
With a nod, I follow her into the spacious room, which feels much smaller suddenly with only the two of us in it. She uncovers a pot while I watch, and the smell reminds me of days like these spent at my grandparents’ house.
Vovo was always cooking something whether it was a traditional chicken canja1 or tuna and spice filled pastels2. If she wasn’t cooking, she was baking. Lemon chocolate cupcakes, cherry cheesecakes, and doughnuts: Vovo put her love into everything she made.
She put all of her love into her lectures, too. A family dinner at my grandparent’s meant my brother would escape outside with Papai and I would be stuck hearing the same things from Vovo that I had heard the last time I had been with her.
“You have to finish you school before you find boyfriend,” she would tell me. “Once you finish you school, you have good job, you make money, then you find boyfriend or husband. Then when you get married and you husband leave you, no problem! You have job, you have money, you take care of yourself!”
“Vovo,” I’d whine, “I’m only fourteen. Why are you talking about me getting married?”
It was always around that time that my father would magically appear to save the day. “My baby girl isn’t getting married any time, soon, Ma,” he would scold his mother-in-law.
“Cala, mos3,” Vovo would retort.
Dad would wink at me and kiss my forehead. “You do what you want, baby,” he’d tell me. “And no matter what, daddy’s here for you.”
I relied on those words in the next few years. When I was sixteen, I got suspended from school for fighting. My mother had been so mad she wouldn’t even talk to me. I really thought I’d screwed up and when that front door opened, signaling my dad’s arrival, I had been sure my life was over.
As my mother angrily explained the situation, Dad shrugged out of his suit jacket and hung it up on a chair. “Eva. Eva,” he soothed my mother, “I’ll talk to her.” He inclined his head in my direction. “Go to your room.”
My father was a nice man. He always had a smile and a laugh ready, but he was a police detective and when he was angry—well, he was scary. I didn’t look up as he stood in front of me and after a few moments of silence, I finally gathered enough courage to peek up at him.
He was trying not to laugh.
“Aren’t you mad at me?”
He shrugged as he sat down beside me. “Baby girl, there isn’t much you can do that would make me get mad at you. You’re my little girl. You can do no wrong in my eyes. No matter what happens, I’ll always be on your side. You’re my biggest weakness,” he admitted. “I’ll always be here for you.”
I wonder if he knows how much he ruined me.
“You’re quiet today,” Mom says as she stirs whatever is in the big pot. It smells like something Vovo used to make.
I don’t answer her, but I make myself busy setting the table.
“Sweetie,” she says quietly. “I know this is hard for you.”
“Please, Mom, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You’re going to have to talk about it eventually.”
“No, I don’t,” I snap. “He’s obviously not coming back so there really isn’t any point.”
I’m surprised at the steadiness of my voice. This is the first time that I’ve spoken about my husband’s disappearance. My family has been good to me. It has been almost two years and they’ve never bothered me about it. They’ve just dealt with my silence.
I don’t deserve it.
“Okay,” she concedes. “Well, we’re going to go visit your grandparents after this. Do you think you’ll be able to make it this time?”
“No,” I reply. “I have things to do.”
“You don’t have a moment to see your grandparents, Ana? They miss you.”
“I have things to do,” I say again.
Vovo’s questioning was brutal after the incident. She probably meant well, but I couldn’t handle it.
“You do something, Ana? You do something bad to him?”
I dropped my phone when she asked me that question. She was standing in her usual spot in front of the stove, with her back toward me. The sound of my phone clattering to the ground cut through the sounds of the bubbling food and hissing steam, but she never flinched. She just waited for my answer.
Those were the last words she ever said to me. I left the house that day and I didn’t go back.
“Are my girls almost ready in here?”
I jump at the sound of my father’s voice.
“Jumpy, jumpy,” he teases.
“Ana set the table and the food is almost done. A few more minutes,” Mom tells him and offers him a small taste of the meat she’s searing.
He grins at her and places his hand on my back. “I have something to show you, baby girl. Let’s go.”
“Don’t take too long,” Mom calls as we leave the kitchen.
I follow my father out of the house and onto the front porch. We sit down on the stairs and I’m glad to finally be able to breathe.
“Better now?” he asks.
I nod. He always knows exactly what I need, when I need it.
Sometimes I didn’t even know that I needed him, and somehow he would know.
He showed up one evening before my husband disappeared, completely unannounced. I’d been so surprised by his arrival that I’d forgotten to hide my bruises. Dad took it all in stride. His training is what I summed it up to. Dad had put the ice cream in the freezer and gathered me in his arms. He’d calmly asked me where my husband was and why I hadn’t told him sooner.
I could only cry.
“I’m here for you, baby,” he’d whispered. “I’m here for you. Daddy will take care of you.”
But I was a big girl, right? I didn’t need my daddy to take care of me. My marital problems were my problems, and I would handle them. I could take care of myself. I could.
He’d been concerned when I turned him away, but he hadn’t said much. I could see the anger swirling behind his eyes, yet he’d kissed me gently on each cheek and said goodbye. I wish he hadn’t left me that day. It was my own fault though; he’d only done what I’d asked.
I had asked him leave. I had rejected his offer to help me—to take care of me. No matter how old I got, he would still be my father. Why did I choose that day to forget? I made what I thought was an adult decision, and now I realize that it was probably the most immature decision I have ever made.
The next time my husband hit me was the last time.
I didn’t make the same mistake twice. My father was the first person I called. He’d found me in the bathroom, scrubbing the blood out from under my fingernails. That day, the tears wouldn’t come. He’d had me sit down on the toilet and told me not to move. When he came back a few minutes later he told me to change my clothes and go somewhere. He didn’t care where.
He’d smiled and kissed my forehead. “Don’t worry about it, baby girl, this is what I do for a living. I know better than anyone else how to make it go away.” Then he’d smiled that secret smile.
Dad takes my hand and lifts it to his lips. “I did my best, baby girl,” he says with a sigh. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t do better for you.”
I look up in surprise, confused by his words. It’s then that I see the unfamiliar car in the driveway. A detective I vaguely recognize gets out and walks up to us. His face is unreadable.
Dad stands and turns to me. “I’ll always be here for you,” he says as the detective cuffs his hands behind his back.
This is the price we must pay.
1 canja: soup
2 pastels: stuffed and fried pastry dough
3 Cala, mos: “Quiet, man.”