Jennifer Companik

Jennifer Companik author photo 2015


Jennifer Companik is fiction writer and essayist of Colombian and Argentine descent who graduated from Northwestern University's Master of Arts in Creative Writing program in 2009. She reads for TriQuarterly and is on staff at Her fiction has appeared in Queen Mob's Teahouse, and is forthcoming in The Ledge. Her winning entry in Larry Doyle’s Agony and Ecstasy Contest (she won in the “Agony” category, surprising no one she knows,) was anthologized in the expanded paperback edition of Doyle’s novel I Love You, Beth Cooper. She also has a memoir in Smith Magazine’s book It All Changed in an Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous and Obscure that her mother found horrifying. 

The Evil Vortex of Doom

         The last time I saw my father alive I was visiting my twin, Tom, in Manhattan when Tom said: “Let’s get lunch in Queens.” My vagabond brother, a D. J., who had taken an apartment in Midtown as soon as adulthood set in, baited his lunch-in-Queens trap with tantalizing words: “Gino’s Pizza” and “cheesecake from Damiano’s.” I’d been away from the motherland so long I needed Gino’s pizza.

         Tom took the Lincoln tunnel.

         I said: “This isn’t the way to Queens.”

         We were born in Queens. We’d lived there until we lost half our baby teeth and Mom got sick of winter. She was happier in Miami except for missing her mom and dad. We returned most summers during our childhood for long visits with our grandparents in Queens, but they died when Tom and I were sixteen. I hadn’t been back since their funerals. Ten years away was a long time—though not so long I didn’t remember which way was Queens.

         “We’re going to Rutherford.” He said this staring straight ahead, my brother, like he was focused on his driving or bracing himself for a blow.

         “Turn around. You promised me Queens. Gino’s. Damiano’s.”

         “I’m taking you to see Dad.”

         I punched his arm. He winced like it hurt, out of respect. We’re twins—same brown eyes, same curly brown hair—with Mom's light olive skin: only Tom got Dad’s massive, polar-bear physique and I am built more like our mother—which is to say I’m tall and thin—but with all the musculature of a naked eyelash. And I’m a woman. My hardest punch could only hope to annoy my brother’s treelike arm.

         I’d gone to visit Tom to drag myself out of the bog-sand of my depression because Tom and I share, above all, a sense of humor. No matter how old we get we’re always the same two little kids laughing in the same sandbox. But I should have known he’d become our father’s Agent of Doom—he lived too close to the old man not to be. I should have known, too, because spending time with my family never goes according to my plans.


         I was nineteen, for example, the time Dad sent me a plane ticket to Mérida so I could meet my stepmother and stepsiblings. It had been a year since he’d divorced Mom and ten months since he’d married Adabella. I went because Tom was in Mérida working for Dad—not because I was dying to meet Dad’s replacement family.

         College expenses had pauperized me and I hadn’t seen Tom in six months. It was the longest I’d gone without seeing him and I missed him so much everything I ate tasted like raw potatoes.

         Dad knew this, used it to lure me to Mexico—told me Tom loved Mérida—that it was hot like Miami but ancient and charming—that they wanted to show me the Mayan ruins. Ruins? Yes. 

         It was the maid’s day off. Adabella was in the kitchen making dinner. Dad and I sat at the sparkling, glass-top dining-room table. I watched his reflection. He watched me.

         I said: “Dad, give me your phone number so I can call you.”

         “I’ll give it to you, Honey, under one condition,” Dad said.

         (Mmmm, conditional love!)


         “You can’t give it to your mother.”

         Mom deserved a shiny gold halo and her own choir of harp-wielding seraphim—or at least alimony—for having been married to Dad for twenty years. She didn’t even have his phone number?

         “I won’t promise that.”

         “Then call me at the maquila.” His jewelry factory. The one he moved to Mexico. Thanks, NAFTA.

         “You never answer the phone there.”

         “I know. But I get the messages.”

         My tiny, Mexican stepmother came out of the kitchen with two plates of food. Steaks and fried potato piled artfully on lime-green dishes, garnished with carrots carved to resemble flowers, homemade chimichurri on the side. She served ours then returned to the kitchen for her own plate.

         I’d wanted to hate my stepmother but couldn’t. When I developed a fever and sore throat the first day of my visit she brought me tea and lemon juice with honey. She fussed over me for three days until I got well. She offered me aspirin, sent the younger children (she had four from her first marriage) to stay at their father’s house, and even threatened to call a doctor. She smelled like chamomile and laundry soap. She smiled at me with affection. Adabella was, in mien and mood, just like my mother.

         She reappeared, plate in hand. She sat across from Dad.

         Dad picked up his fork, inspected it, and made his furious Henry VIII face. “This fork is filthy! How could you put this on the table? Really, mi amor, what’s wrong with you?”

         Adabella stood, went back to the kitchen.

         “Dad!” I hissed. “You shouldn’t talk that way to anybody let alone your wife. I thought you liked Adabella.”

         “Look!” He held up the offending utensil. “There’s a tomato seed stuck on this fork. It’s really disgusting.”

         Adabella came out of the kitchen. “Buen provecho, Lexie,” she said to me, car keys in hand. Then, to Dad, she said: “I’m going to get the kids from Emilio. Have you seen my purse, mi amor?”

         The way they said “mi amor” in Spanish could freeze the Gulf of Mexico.

         “It’s probably in the car. This place is such a disaster I’m not surprised you lost it. You’d lose your head if it wasn’t screwed on!”

         “Dad!” I said, pointlessly, robbed of all hunger.

         (This is how I remember it. Maybe he didn’t use those exact words. Dad traveled between creative insults: “You know why you’re so dangerous? Because you’re an idiot with initiative!” and the “if it wasn’t screwed on” kind. He didn’t discriminate on the basis of occasion. He’d called sixteen-year-old Tom an “oozing pus-brain” after Tom had tried to hide a ding he’d made in the door of Dad’s prized Mercedes. He’d called me a “cock-teaser” once when I came home late from work the summer between high school and college. He wasn’t exactly wrong. I’d crossed the stage at my high school “graduation” only to be handed a blank diploma case—my father having failed to pay tuition my entire senior year. It was going to cost four thousand dollars to think about starting my own life. While my fellow alumni interned or life-guarded or performed wanton wardrobe expansions with their employee discounts at The Gap, I ransomed my high school diploma one lap-dance at a time: I was Supreme Cabaret’s Cock-Teaser Extraordinaire. Dad didn’t know about my job, though—I needed to keep my money—he was insulting my official pretext for coming home so late: my friend refused to drive me home from a night out after I flirted with her latest love interest—not my actual stripperly self.)

          “Sorry, Lexie,” said Dad, wiping the tomato seed off his fork.

         “Don’t apologize to me.”

         “She’s so careless.” He waved, palm up, at her retreating shadow. “It’s frustrating.”

         He used to say the same thing about Mom. All of it. In more or less the same words. Living with us had been a breaking wheel for him. Mom was an indifferent housekeeper. Tom and I were slobs. Once, when we were on vacation and the police responded to our burglar alarm (a hail stone had come through the living room window,) they wrote in the report: “kids’ bedrooms ransacked.”

         I impaled a potato with my fork. “Face it, Dad.” I sighed. “You dig careless chicks.”

         Dad lit a cigarette. Then he fixed me with his ursine smile. “Tom will be here soon.”


         Dad had fled to Rutherford to be near Tom after he lost the maquila in a bet and Adabella kicked him out. So Tom kidnapped me to Jersey.

         “Why, Tom? Why would you do this to me?”

         How far had I run from our father? All the way to Iowa.  Jeff, my soon-to-be-ex-husband, had been a graduate student at the university I’d attended in Miami.

         We met in the elevator before my Shakespeare class my freshman year. We stood at antipodes, sneaking looks at each other in wordless attraction the first time, uncustomarily grateful the elevator in Row Hall was the slowest elevator in the New World. The second time, I stuck out my hand and said, “Hi, I’m Lexie.” The third time we shared the elevator he invited me for a cup of coffee. Two months later, I told him where I worked and why. He said: “That’s sad.” Before returning to Iowa City with his PhD (my junior year) he said: “I wish you’d come to Iowa with me.” No more dancing he meant but didn’t say. I moved to Iowa and into an apartment with Jeff. I continued school there. No more dancing.

         I missed my mother. And Miami. Or I’d forgotten how to smile for free? I wore long wool skirts that itched. People kept telling me I looked “so serious” for “someone your age.” Not that I didn’t try—but my smiles were all teeth, no soul.

         I married Jeff the summer before my senior year of college. Nothing, it seemed, in my disorderly childhood had prepared me for the bland stability of being Jeff’s wife. I kept waiting for a disaster to blow it all up: a crazy ex-lover, a tornado, the Law come to take Jeff away. But nothing did. I graduated. We bought a house in the ‘burbs. I even took a job teaching tenth grade English to a bunch of corn-blond Iowan kids who hated Catcher in the Rye.

         Four years ago, by miracle or mistake, Jeff and I had a son, Julian. I went from looking “serious” to sporting what my father would’ve called “funeral face” had he been there to see me. At first it might have been hormones—after that the desperation I felt had no easy excuse. I cried every time I changed a diaper. I went around believing things like: “I wish I were dead” and “I hate my life” and “What kind of stupid God thought I should be a mother?” I slept when I should have stayed awake and spent the sleeping hours counting black sheep.

         My maternity leave ended. (Things could’ve gotten better.) Feeling invisible, I went to work in low-cut blouses and mini-skirts until one morning, after several breakfast brandies, I showed up in an old dancing costume (Would they see me now?): a thong-bottomed Wonder Woman outfit—complete with power wrist-bands and a gold Lasso of Truth—and threw up in first hour. My students carried me to the principal’s office. Little daisy-faced Katie Bean, said: “Mr. Hein, Mrs. Dunn is sick. I think she needs a doctor.”

         After the firing, my co-worker, Ruth, loaned me her walking coat. She helped me carry my dictionaries, Thoreau posters, and coffee mug to my car. Then she drove me home. Ruth shook her head, repeating: “Why not just quit?” I said: “I might.”

         I didn’t kill myself, because if I died who in Iowa would teach Julian that Spanish was not just the language of housemaids and busboys? A stupid reason, maybe, but I wasn’t operating at the top of my reason.

         I was alive, technically, but my libido was long dead. Jeff said: Are we ever having sex again? I said: You have your sex and I have mine.

         Jeff worked longer and longer hours with his research assistant, Debbie. I’d never met Debbie, but we’d talked on the phone once or twice. I could tell from her voice that she smiled a lot.

         Julian kept growing and doing things like crawling into the study and teething on the collectors’ edition of Hemingway’s The Short Stories Tom got me for our twenty-sixth birthday. I put Julian in the stroller and walked for hours—or stayed in and read Memories of My Melancholy Whores to him, in Spanish, while he wailed, to keep myself this side of oblivion. Mom told me “motherhood is always hard,” that I should “stay tough.” Tom told me I should see someone. I said: I’m married. I see someone every day. Jeff kept making me doctors’ appointments. I kept not going to them.

         Jeff stopped talking to me. He grunted—unless it was about Julian. We spoke in complete sentences to one another only if it was about the baby.

         One morning I woke up, late as usual, to an odd silence: Jeff and Julian were gone. A note said Julian was at my mother and father-in-law’s house and Jeff wanted a separation because I was, as he put it, “a disaster.”

         I was the crazy ex-lover/tornado/Law Man?

         Then I had the terrifying thought that prompted the call to the counseling center (“I need to talk to someone who specializes in women whose children have been taken away who have marital problems and invisibility problems, who drink too much and who are very, very serious.”) The thought: Julian could grow up to hate me.

         I knew from experience that children could grow up to hate their parents.


         Half-way into my senior year of high school, a year before Dad filed for divorce, he asked me to help him shop for a birthday gift for Mom. Mom would turn thirty-nine in a week. I’d already bought her a yummy, pink terrycloth bathrobe. I’d even had it embroidered with her initials. I’d had to baby-sit our neighbors’ three rowdy kids every Saturday night for a month, but the robe was thick and soft and Mom’s old one was a hole shy of becoming a dishrag—and Mom hadn’t bought herself anything new in years.

         For the last four years Dad had stayed in Mexico more and more, and so had his paychecks. We missed them both. Mom had just been laid off. Again. Sometimes we lived without electricity. Sometimes we lived without running water. We played a daily game of hide-the-car-from-the-repo-man. Creditors called and called and called. But that was my parents’ concern, or so I thought. I’d bought Mom the robe thinking it would be inappropriate for me to offer to pay the electric.  

         It seemed typical of Dad to not pay bills but still have cash handy for a gift. I told myself it was romantic of him. I was flattered he wanted my help and happy to spend time alone with him. Maybe I’d get something, too?

         We set out. When Dad said “shopping” it usually meant a trip to Bal Harbor Shops, Cocowalk, or at least Dolphin Mall. I closed my eyes and imagined myself at the perfume counter, being courted by three or four white-suited saleswomen.

         Dad made his turn. I opened my eyes: too many liquor stores, not enough trees, towering graffiti, young men standing at bus stops not waiting for the bus—the kind of neighborhood where you kept the car windows closed no matter the weather. This was the wrong side of town for “romantic.” Dad pulled up to The Family Pawn Shop.

         “Let’s go, Lexie,” he said, unlocking the car doors.

         “You know I hate this place.”

         Yes, we’d been there before. I refused to unbuckle my seatbelt.

         “Oh, c’mon. It’ll be quick.”

         Like ripping off a band-aid too soon.

         “Why did I have to come?”

         Dad unbuckled my seatbelt, saying: “Tito always gives me a better price when you’re around.”

         I looked down at my cut-off jean-shorts and sparkly tank-top—typical clothes for a teenager in Miami—and sweltered with rage. 

         We went in. I scowled at Tito (thirty-five, heavily inked, with the face and gait of a garden lizard.) He and Dad made a minute of small-talk. I scowled some more.

         “Lexie! So good to see your beautiful smile! I hear you had a birthday. You’re legal now.” He laughed like this was funny.

         So did Dad.

         “What can you give me for these, Tito?”

         Tito didn’t answer; he just gawked at the fray of my shorts.

         I looked at what Dad had shaken from a green, velvet bag: my grandmother’s diamond and pearl earrings. My earrings! The only thing Mom was able to get for me after her four brothers, their wives, and my cousin, Romina, had taken everything else. The earrings my grandmother had promised to me—the why of why no one else had claimed them.

         “You can’t have them.” I snatched them off the counter. “These are mine.”

         Dad and Tito looked at me. Dad nodded to Tito. Tito went to straighten the broken-engagement ring display in a case several yards away.

         I surveyed the ratty brown carpet, the gold posts of my grandmother’s earrings digging into my palm, an eye to the door.

         “Lexie, Honey, I know how you love those earrings and you’re right, they are yours. That’s why I brought you here. I wanted your permission.”

         “No!” I headed for the door.

         He followed me; put a giant paw on my arm. “Lexie, look, we wouldn’t be here if we had anything else to pawn. There’s nothing left. I sold my guns. Mom’s jewelry. My camera equipment. Tom’s stereo.”

         That’s what had happened to Tom’s stereo? Tom couldn’t have agreed to that—he would’ve sooner sold a gallon of blood.

         “I don’t care.”

         “It’s just a loan, Lexie. I’ve got a big order coming in two weeks—but not in time for your mother’s birthday. Tito will hold your earrings for three months—longer even, if I ask him to. He knows me. As soon as the order comes in, we’ll come back for them. Please, Lexie.”


         I got to the door but hesitated. I was afraid to sit by myself in a Mercedes-Benz in this neighborhood. I shuffled my feet and looked at Dad.

         He took off his wedding band and placed it solemnly on the counter. It made the slightest clink. Tito returned instantly to the counter at the sound.

         “You want to pawn this, Guillermo?”

         Dad looked like he might cry. He didn’t say anything. Just stared at the small, gold circle on the counter.

         Tito repeated his question.

         Dad repeated his silence.

         Tom had given up his stereo.

         “No, Tito,” I said, putting my earrings back on the counter. “Take these.”


         Tom hadn’t turned the car around. Traffic was light. The endless square-tiled tunnel walls whizzed past: the red and yellow tunnel lights turning Tom’s complexion sallow and ghost-like.

         He said: “Dad’s really sick.”

         Our father had his first heart attack at the end of our freshman year of high school. He’d held Tom hostage with one illness or another since the divorce.

         We were near the end of the Lincoln Tunnel.

         “Really?” I said. “Let’s visit him some other time—when he’s well.”      

         Tom kept talking at me. “The cancer is back. And he’s been having strokes. Last month he called me to say he couldn’t feel his right foot.”

         “Why the fuck wouldn’t he call 911?”

         “He says he doesn’t want any more doctors.”

         “Fucking coward.”

         “He doesn’t care if you curse him out.”

         Daylight was on us now. A big sign said Welcome to New Jersey.

         “He’s dying, Alexandra. He wants to see you again before he dies. You’ll thank me someday.”

         “Fuck you very much.”

         We crossed rivers, a creek, white and brown churches with signs in multiple languages: a thirteen mile trip.

         Welcome to Rutherford: population 18,110 and one captive.

         Tom parked behind Trappers Restaurant. I could tell from the clean carpet and the hostess’ deferential greeting it was the kind of restaurant Dad liked—a spic and span kitchen and easily intimidated wait-staff: “Oh that spoon is smudged! How embarrassing. Glad it was you who saw it and not the health inspector. Damn that new dish washer—he’s fired! Is this one better? Yes? Good. Dessert’s on the house tonight. So sorry. . .” A place with shiny bowls full of heart-attack sauces for the fat-laden meats.

         Eight years had passed since my “dinner” with Dad and Adabella. Dad and I hadn’t spoken since he offered to pay for my wedding then didn’t—and didn’t call, write, or answer my phone calls for six months thereafter. It had been almost seven years. Tom said it was because Dad had had cancer.

         Our father had a cancer for every occasion.

         Dad was on his best behavior. He asked the hostess to seat us in non-smoking. She looked at him, eyebrows like church steeples, and said “Are you sure, Bill?” Here he was “Bill.” In Mexico, or anywhere Spanish was the lingua franca, he was “Guillermo.”

         “So, how have you been?”

         I looked at him, but I didn’t smile. I left his question alone.

         His hair had gone totally white and he wore glasses now. He’d lost at least a hundred pounds. His skin had a yellow tinge. He was fifty-one.

         “How’s work? You still teaching?”

         He had a hand on Tom’s arm and one on the table. His hands shook.

         I still couldn’t speak.

         “So, Lex, doesn’t Dad look slim? Dad, tell Lexie about your treadmill.”

         Tom’s allergic to silence.

         “I walk three miles on it every day, Lexie, but it still looks better than I do.”

         He used to be so big. He and Tom. They’d walked along streets in Mérida like Brobdingnagians in Lilliput. I tried to summon the old rage.

         “You’ll get there, Dad,” I said, unable, even, to muster sarcasm.

         “I’d love to see pictures of Julian. Tom forwarded me a few. He’s a handsome kid, my grandson.”

         I pulled a mini photo-album—when we were together Jeff used to call them “brag books”—from my purse. Monday through Saturday those brag books were all I saw of Julian for the first three months of our separation. I’d worked my way up (counseling, begging, lawyering-up) to five days a week—not enough. Handing the book to Tom to hand to Dad was like picking a fresh scab.

Tom and Dad pored over the album together.

         Julian was named for Jeff’s dad, who was in several of the photos.

         Dad pointed to a picture of Julian hugging Jeff’s dad at a baseball game. “That must be his other grandfather.” Dad took off his glasses, blew his nose, wiped his glasses, and put them back on.

         “Julian looks a lot like you, Dad,” said Tom.

         He did.

         Dad said, “I was never that adorable.”

         He was.


         I was fourteen when Dad picked me up from my first school dance at Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Academy in Miami. Tom thought school dances were lame, so he went to a friend’s house for the weekend instead. Andrew O’Brien, who was supposed to have been my “date,” spent the whole night breathing in Jenny Gutierrez’s eau d’whore. I’d stood by the punch bowl, watching them slow dance to “The Electric Slide,” my friend, Lisa, offering to lure Jenny outside and hold her down so I could inflict contrition on her. If it hadn’t been for the godly presences of Sister Hellawaits and Mother Severo, that might’ve happened. Instead I called home, said I was sick, and asked to be picked up. I expected Mom.

         Lisa waited outside the parish hall with me. She waved me off when Dad pulled up.

         He opened the car door for me. I got in.

         “Mom said you were sick.” He turned the radio on and fiddled with the dial. “What hurts, Princess?”

         “Nothing!” I shouted over the music. “I’m fine.”    

         Had Mom picked me up I’d have spilled the whole story; wept like at the end of that movie where the young heroine dies of breast cancer. With Dad it was different. He’d become a distant planet to me since he’d started his business trips to Mexico that summer. And I was changing. It annoyed me that I was somehow half-him but without the persuasive smile and winning laugh. Tom, at least, was a happy caterpillar. I was a quivering larva. I got acne and menstrual periods. I got ditched at the school dance. I was not about to lose it in front of my suave, remote father.

         He lowered the volume as we left the parking lot. “What do you want to do now?” he asked

         Hoping he’d laugh and leave me to my misery, I said: “I want to drink wine and go dancing on the beach.”


         He turned east onto the Rickenbacker Causeway—away from home—towards Miami Beach. I rolled down the window and inhaled: it was a hot, briny smell.

         Buildings’ reflections shone saber-like in the night-black water of the bay.

         We breathed in silence for a while.

         “Won’t Mom wonder where we are?”

         “We’ll call her.”

         We stopped at a gas station. I stayed in the car while he called Mom from the pay phone.

         Minutes later we pulled into the parking lot of Bolero. I’d never been to a nightclub but I’d seen them in movies. A neon sign and a line of people waiting to get in plus music so loud you could hear it from the parking lot: this was definitely a nightclub.

         I could never have passed for eighteen—my grapelike breasts nestled deep in the padding of my first bra—but I was tall and well-dressed for my age. I could have passed for someone old enough to try to pass for eighteen. But I didn’t have to. Dad’s cop friend, Rico, moonlighted as a doorman at this particular club. He saw me and gave Dad a look. Dad said: “You think I’d let anything happen to her?” Rico let us in. We didn’t even have to wait in line.

         Dad smiled as he ordered me a wine spritzer "Light on the wine." Then he put a hand up to the bartender to wait and turned to me. "Red or white?"


         I drank the pink fizzy water that tasted vaguely of blood and watched couples swirl around me. It was not the mindless flesh-press of a regular American nightclub, nor did it resemble the lopsided lust buffet of the strip-club I would work in when I was eighteen—and it was worlds away from the un-hip, nun-censored gyrations of the Saint Francis of Assisi parish hall. It was a salsa club. Salsa dancing took skill and grace.

         "You can dance if you want: I'll be right here." Dad held up his Corona.

         I knew, in a theoretical, kitchen-radio-tuned-to-Caliente-145.7, dancing-with-my-cousins-at-Aunt-Marisella’s-wedding kind of way how to dance to this kind of music: Mom was Colombian; Dad was Argentine—dancing people—and we lived in Miami, after all. But I hadn’t conquered Andrew O’Brien and “The Electric Slide.” Maybe Dad would let me get drunk instead? I beckoned the bartender.

         Dad ordered me a Coke. “It’s best to start slow, Lexie.”

         Halfway through my Coke a man asked me to dance. Dad pulled him aside and whispered something to him in Spanish. The man nodded and started to walk away. Dad pulled him back and whispered something else. The man smiled and put his hand out to me.

         He looked old to me, though he was probably only twenty-one. His name was Arturo. He was short and unhandsome, his nose too beefy for his fine-boned face but he smelled good—like chocolate and talcum powder. He kept his torso a respectful distance from mine and was very patient in leading me through the steps. We were always less than fifteen feet from Dad, who switched to Coke after two Coronas and who cut in every third song to ask if I was having fun.

         “Can we do this every Friday?” I asked at midnight when we got back in the car to go home; still leaning into the darkness, still breathing in the boiled-shrimp smell of Biscayne Bay.

         “Your mother would kill me.”

         “Where does she think we were?”

         He smiled his bearish smile and patted my hand.

         “I told her we were going bowling.”


         I didn’t curse him out. Dad kept looking at me in Trappers, his brown eyes huge and divided behind his trifocals, like he expected me to blast him any minute. Why did he have to be so pathetic?

         We went back to his apartment in Rutherford.

         “I need pictures of you—of us,” he said, setting up his tripod. 

         We sat on his beat-up black leather couch. Flash-pop. Flash-pop. Tom uploaded them for Dad on Dad’s computer. I looked like any other kidnap victim in any other proof-of-life photo.

         He showed us, well, me really—Tom had been there before—around his apartment. “You and Julian could stay here, Lexie, for a visit. If you want. It’s a two-bedroom.”

         The place was shabby but dark-corner clean and I was sure Dad’s obsession for order meant that a visit from a messy three-year-old (even if I could get Jeff to agree to such a trip—and I couldn’t) would send Dad over the edge.

         “It sure is clean, Dad. Some things never change, huh?”   

         “I guess it’s from when I was a kid. Your grandmother would come home from work and go around the house with a white glove to check for dirt. She beat the hell out of Berta and me if she found any.”

         He really was dying. Dad never spoke about his mother. His father passed away when he was nine—he said his father was nice, worked a lot, and was very sick for a year before he died. His mother died a few months before Tom and I were born, Aunt Berta still lived somewhere in Argentina, and all Mom would ever say about Dad’s mother was that she was “a difficult person.” Mom’s euphemisms tended towards the opaque: her hair could be on fire and she’d say she was feeling “warm around the ears” but as a child I believed everything she said.

         Would I talk about such things with Julian someday, when I was dying? Would I tell my son his grandfather took all the money in my bank account (more than a thousand dollars) the week before my eighteenth birthday? That I didn’t find out until months later when I needed that money to pay for school? That my father had applied for credit cards in my name, maxed them out, and not paid the bills? That I’d had to change my social-security number when I was twenty-one—like a criminal or a battered wife—to feel safe from him?

         For these and other reasons, I’d nicknamed my father The Evil Vortex of Doom. I came in from Christmas shopping one Christmas Eve a few years back and Jeff asked: “Do you want to know if The Evil Vortex of Doom calls, or do you want me to erase the message?” Dad always called on my birthday and holidays and left a weepy message saying he missed me and loved me.

         Was it my grandmother’s fault? Was some part of her always beating some part of Dad? What else had she done to him?

          “I’m sorry that happened to you, Dad.”

         Tom and Dad looked at me, surprise-faced. They’d expected me to say “served you right”?


         Dad offered to drive me to LaGuardia at the end of my week with Tom. He picked me up early. His shaking made me nervous. I said: “Mind if I drive?” Wearing his old, good-dad smile, he said: “Whatever makes you happy, Princess,” and handed me the keys. We had pizza at Gino’s in Queens. We swung by Damiano’s: he bought me a slice of cheesecake to take on the plane.

         I sent him a Father’s Day card and some pictures of Julian.


         Three months before Dad had his final heart attack I’d taken to calling him on my way home from counseling. Tom’d up and moved to Cartagena (“lots of nightclubs” to work and nineteen cousins so no shortage of “cheap places to live”) for good which meant calling him from my cell phone during the day was out of the question. Mom worked two jobs. I only ever caught her on her day off. So I called Dad. He always answered the phone. He always made time to talk. There’s a lot to be said for that.

         Eventually, (on the advice of my counselor,) I felt brave enough to ask Dad about some of the things I’d wondered about my whole life. One day I said: “I’m curious about your mom.”

         “Let’s talk about books, Lexie,” he said. “I know how you love books.”

         “Okay.” Not okay. Didn’t he owe me this? “Well, tell me about Argentina, then.”

         He was born in Buenos Aires and lived there until he was fourteen. These were things I knew.

         “It’s been so long. I don’t remember.”

         I felt my good will slipping. “Tell me something, Dad. Anything.”

         I was stuck in traffic behind a black van with a bumper sticker that said: I’m forgiven. Are you?

         Dad said: “My father never knew his father—never even saw a picture of him. He caught my grandmother in bed with another man when she was pregnant with my father and he left. That’s the story. I don’t know if it’s true. But my father grew up without a father. He was a twin—like you—but his brother died when he was still a baby.”

         “Oh, my God.”

         That night I would make Tom promise not to ever die.

         “I’m only telling you this because you asked.” His smoker’s cough rustled with sadness. “Your grandmother, my mom, was—I hate to say this—a promiscuous woman. When Berta and I were young kids...” He coughed. “And my dad, your grandfather, was still alive—she would take us to this apartment by the train tracks and we’d hear her moaning in there with some man.”

         “You don’t have to tell me anymore, Dad. It’s okay. I mean, it’s horrible, but you don’t have to say more.”

         “Sometimes,” he went on, “we were there for a long time. We were bored. Berta did homework and she knew how loud she could put the radio without getting in trouble—so we listened to music when she was done. We danced. It was fun. But we were too loud once and got in trouble. Berta stuck to her homework after that. I wasn’t such a good student, so I cleaned: floors, cabinets, pots and pans, shoes. It was the only thing that didn’t get me in trouble. Sometimes, if I polished the man’s shoes, he’d give me a caramel when they came out.”     

         Traffic was totally stopped. A homeless man tapped on my window. I gave him a dollar. I’d never done that before.

         Dad’s breathing was terrible in my ear. He said: “She said my dad ran around on her, too. I never saw that. Maybe he did. I only remember him one time really well from before he got sick.”

         Traffic started moving again. I was almost home.

         “Yeah, Dad?”

         He was really talking now. “There was a church carnival in the park near where we lived. My father bought a chance in the raffle and won. He said since I’d picked the winning ticket I could have half the pot. It was like five U.S. dollars—but to me it felt like a million. I bought alfajores for him and me, a record for Berta, and one of those little bars of soap shaped like a rose for my mother. When we came home with presents that day it was the only time everyone was happy at the same time.” He coughed. A lot. Then stopped. “Then my father got very sick.”

         “How did your dad die?” My grandfather was thirty-three when he died. I’d always wondered how.

         “Tuberculosis.” Dad’s cough was wet this time. “I wish you’d come to see me, Lexie. I miss you and I’m dying to meet Julian.” Dad always sounded happy when he said “Julian.”

         I would get Julian from his grandparents’ in an hour. We’d stop for Chinese food and eat chicken chow fun out of the box. Julian would get sauce all over himself. I’d wet a napkin and clean his beautiful face. He’d protest, giggling, that it tickled. I’d make a mental note to tell my counselor I’d thought up another reason to live.

         “I have a job interview on Thursday, Dad. If I get the job, we’ll be able to visit. I promise.”

         I was home. Same beige suburban driveway. Same electric garage door grinding open. Jeff’s hand-saw and hedge-clippers, which he’d left behind, hanging tidily from hooks on the raw wood of the wall inside; Julian’s red tricycle parked in the corner. A “For Sale” sign swinging from chains on a post in the yard.

         “I heard the garage door, Lexie. I’ll let you go, my Princess. There are dishes in the sink. I love you. Kiss Julian for me.”

         “Okay, bye, Dad. Love you, too. Take care.”

         We spoke two more times before Tom called me to say Dad had died. We went to Rutherford to get his ashes and a few mementos. He’d kept the Father’s Day card I sent him; the receipts from Gino’s and Damiano’s tucked in among the photos of me and Julian. His bed was perfectly made. There were no dishes in the sink.




© The Acentos Review 2015