A Memoir About Returning
The human body floats.
In salt water,
in outer space,
We hold within us, amongst other things the urge to soar, to discover. It is naturally imprinted in us. Perhaps it is written on our skin. Perhaps in the creases that form on the palms of our hands or the soles of our feet. These creases on our skin hold the unwritten rules of being.
Being my mother’s youngest daughter, I knew that her voice would crack and her almond eyes would leak enough to flood our tiny kitchen when I delivered the news, so I did it casually. As casual as if I were saying “Mami, what’s for dinner?” or “Mami, I’m going to the movies. I’ll be home by twelve.” I told her as I poured cola into the slender tall glass, “Mami, I’m going to college in Massachusetts.”
The small hand on our kitchen clock made at least two rounds before she spoke. Before she realized the Massachusetts I was speaking of was not the name of a street or a nearby town within walking distance but the name of a state. A state different from Florida. A state one-thousand four hundred and fifty six miles away from home. The home that as a single mother she had paid for with hours of towering over sewing machines, restaurant burners, embroidery stations at the clothing factory. This house, that she made a home by endlessly listening to ideas for science fair projects, homecoming dresses, and novels.
“Miry” she said my name only once. Her voice carried in it both her disappointment and her disbelief which weighed more than my ears could handle. More than both our bodies, now awkwardly resting against the red mahogany kitchen counter. Knowing that my sister having recently moved out on her own was more than she could handle, I brought the glass up to my dried lips and took one mouthful of caffeine. “Mami, I’ll be home by winter” I said, in an attempt to lift some of the weight but the tiny room grew colder. I searched for an open window.
I saw college as a window of opportunity. I had lived in Miami long enough to know that the beautiful beach sand could choke me and that the salt water would drown me if I stayed there any longer. Miami was, at that time, a black hole for me. I watched my friends get sucked into the night life. Social events at South Beach, club premiers and vodka in the flavor of a Tootsie pop if you wanted it and I didn’t want any of it. Of course I didn’t say any of this to my mom. A part of me was ashamed that I had been a part of it. I wanted to discover a different side of myself which I knew I would find buried under my sun burnt skin. I let myself think that was the reason and I let myself run as far north as I could.
We all have little things that pin us down to keep us from floating too far. Perhaps a person, or a place, or a word. These things are tied to invisible strings. Heart strings. They can spread across oceans and deserts and they can never be broken.
His voice came in broken bits from my cell phone as if somewhere in between Amherst and Miami half of the words he spoke had lost their way.
“Papi, can you hear me?” I asked.
“Sì, how are you?”
“I am well” I replied as I intertwined my fingers with one another, forming a web. He asked always the same questions.
“Is it cold? How is class? How much longer till you come home, for good?”
I didn’t know how to tell him the truth: that I still couldn’t find the good in returning. For me it meant lying to myself about where I wanted to be and lying to him was much easier. Maybe because of the distance between us, maybe because I didn’t get the rest of his words which grew lost in that distance. I couldn’t tell him that I thought my new skin, now slightly paler from the lack of sun and the abundance of snow, fit me better, felt stronger. I couldn’t fit those words into a sentence, couldn’t say them into my cell phone which I still held up to my face but couldn’t hold the weight of them in my mouth any longer, either.
So instead I replied “Four years, Papi. Four years.” And soon after I heard the dial tone.
At age four, I did not weigh enough to keep him from leaving. There was not enough weight in my frail young body, in my soft airy voice. Was my love for him not dense enough? My hands, as thin as bare branches in winter, would have grasped onto him if only I would have known that it would be another eight years till I saw him again. But he said nothing, no goodbye. This much I can remember.
I remember being four and having a father. I remember having him on my side, always my team. Making our tiny kitchen a mess of cocoa pudding mix and spilled milk and making him be the first to taste the results of my scrumptious creation. I remember having him tell my mom that I was only a kid when she wanted to ground me. I remember seeing his gigantic frame on a small wooden chair next to mine on my first day of pre-school because he didn’t want to leave me alone in a room full of strangers. My small face hot from crying.
But there are things I can’t remember.
The last day I saw him. Perhaps because I didn’t know it would be the last, because I wasn’t ready to have that be the last. I can’t remember what they told me. They must have told me something. I know I asked. I can’t remember the last thing that I told him. Was it “I love you?” I know it wasn’t. I know it wasn’t because that’s not something you tell your father when you think he’s just going out to buy you ice cream, pudding, markers, barbies. I know it wasn’t because I don’t often tell those I love that I love them, because it carries too much weight. Maybe if I had told him then he would have stayed.
I carried the weight of the things I didn’t tell him for eight years.
The day that he returned I felt his absence more than ever. Every day, month, year of his absence poured down on me like hail as I stood in our dimly lit living room. He stood parallel to me, both hands in the back pockets of his Levi’s. I stood there motionless, my body paralyzed by the shock of sharing a room with him again. My gaze fixated on his face, on the dark sunken holes around his eyes, space that was once full. He looked nothing like my old father. The denim hung loosely around his waist and I couldn’t tell whether he had lost weight or whether the jeans were hand me downs from my uncle. I stood there longer than expected, longer than it was appropriate to stand in front of my father who had just returned from Cuba, from leaving. I felt a soft nudge from my mother on the arch of my lower back, which was now trickling with cold sweat. I wanted to say “Papi, I love you,” but my mouth was filled with other words that wanted to crawl out first, like eight legged spiders. Words that made up sentences like “I was only a kid”, “How could you leave me alone in this world filled with strangers?”, “Why didn’t you tell me you had to go?”, “Why didn’t you tell me you loved me?” Sentences like “I hate you.” I was twelve years old and standing in front of a man that had been my father for four years and had been gone for the other eight.
Things don’t always add up the way we want them to. Three years later I was turning fifteen. It was the age of blossoming into womanhood in the Cuban tradition. I remember my mom insisting on planning a Quincenera for me despite my refusals. Refusals she thought came from my not believing she could afford it all but that truly came from wanting to avoid the father-daughter dance. A dance that my older sister thought me lucky for having, a dance that she never had but only falsely crafted numerous times in her diary, which I had found. I couldn’t waltz with him on a sparkling platform while everyone that actually saw me blossom sat at their ornamented tables with moistened handkerchiefs and watery eyes. I’d be lying. But the strong mother she was, she always tried to make up for his years of absence. So I let her have the party because I knew that she would feel short of the mother she was, the woman she was and it was after all, the least I could give her in return.
The things I hadn’t said returned to me all at once like a prayer I had forgotten the words to. We were swaying from side to side on this stage covered in lilacs, bows, confetti, guilt. The scent from the flowers was suffocating, or maybe it was his cologne, or the stench of those words rotting inside of me. He was there, both hands on my waist holding on tightly, firmly. During the dance he looked into my almond eyes, my mother’s eyes and told me I was beautiful and I started to tear up. And in the blur of the salty substance and the stage lights and the lies I think I saw his emerald eyes become watery too. He must have been thinking I was overwhelmed by the moment, by his being there watching me blossom, moving in synchronized steps with me as everyone watched from their seats. And I was, overwhelmed. But overwhelmed doesn’t mean blissful, doesn’t mean forgiving, doesn’t mean loving. Those words were buried under the distance he created within us. I couldn’t help thinking, while we shared this dance, that we were only the empty shell of what a father-daughter relationship was suppose to be.
So when he called me in the middle of my day to ask me “How much longer till you come home, for good?” the tears built up in my eyes and I tried to swallow them down with my words. I didn’t tell him that every night for eight years, before putting myself to bed, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten and eleven year old me asked herself the same question in between sobs. I didn’t tell him that college was the first window of opportunity I saw to leave him. That I wanted him to feel my absence, wanted it to weigh him down. Wanted to hear him utter over and over again, “How much longer till you come home, for good?” even if they weighed me down as well.
We all have moments that bring us back. Moments that tug at our strings and pull us home. Even if we’re not ready, not done soaring. Even when we don’t want to come back.
Back in November I got a call from my older sister. My family never called me. I was always the one to call them, always, it was just one of those unwritten rules so when I saw my phone vibrate my heart began to shake too. I knew something back home was broken, wrong, out of place. Or even worse, someone. When I answered she sounded casual. As casual as if she were saying “How was your weekend?”, “Are you dating anyone?”, “Is it cold?” she said “Hi Miry, dad is in the hospital.” I wanted to speak but my throat was closing in on itself, clogged with sand, snow, salt water, tears, fear. Clogged with heavy guilt. I wanted to speak but it was taking every ounce of energy I had to not collapse, run, break, burst. She waited, my sister…she knew. When I finally spoke my voice sounded broken. I said, “what does he have?” She said calmly, not answering my question, “He’ll be fine.” As if somewhere in between Amherst and Miami half of the words I spoke had lost their way.
Always in distance something is lost.
I called him twice a day, every day for two weeks. Every passing day he sounded smaller, weaker, less like my father. I could tell that he struggled to speak. There were long pauses in between each of this words and his breathing was so soft and soundless that at times I couldn’t hear it. I would count the duration of his pauses in my head: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten seconds. Anything past that and I’d call out for him, “Papi?” more worry in my voice than I wanted to show. For seven days we didn’t know what he had. I lived seven days with the uncertainty of what I might lose my father to this time.
One-thousand four hundred and fifty six miles apart, we both lived in the same darkness for seven days. We shared it. The darkness was weighing down on us both and all I wanted was to lift some of his weight. We saw the sun rise and set seven times before they gave his sickness a name. “Pneumonia,” they said casually, like doctors always do. He started treatment immediately and was able to return home a day later. I couldn’t go home with him, couldn’t be there physically to check his temperature or wait by his bed, but for those two weeks, despite the distance we were the closest we had ever been since.
There are things I still don’t understand. Like why he left me sixteen years ago now, without a goodbye. I don’t understand why, when he was in the hospital, despite the circumstances, I couldn’t tell him: “Papi, don’t leave me.” I don’t understand why some words never leave our mouths, stay in there hidden from the world. But what I do know is that I could have lost my father for the second time and knowing that made me realize that I had him back in the first place. Despite my silence, he knew that I wanted him to stay even though he didn’t say it. And despite his silence, I knew he wanted to stay as well. What I know now is that he felt the weight of my love, that it was enough to keep him here.
We hold within us more than we know. You know if strung together, all of the blood vessels that make up the human body could circle the Earth twice. The first time, to discover. The second, to return.