Epistle for papi, Raul Mártir
I hate it that when I think of you the first image I see is of you on your death bed. A colostomy bag on your belly, you were just a pile of bones and loose skin. Your bare chest, once milky white, was now yellow, like your eyes. And your light brown hair, that was always thick and full, that you always wore longish so it swept over your eyelashes, was so thin I could see your scalp. That was yellow too. Your room smelled of medicine and shit and dead flowers. I hated going in there but I couldn’t stay away. I wanted to see you, to watch you. I wanted to be with you.
It was October 1983. You’d come to visit us in April. I don’t think we were expecting you because mom didn’t tell us you were coming. You just showed up one day.
You were tall and strong. You smiled wide when we danced to Menudo for you. I watched you stare at Dee. Her yellow hair and light brown eyes, her pale skin like yours. I hated her for it. I hated that you watched her more. I so wanted you to want me. Mom had already told me you never wanted me. But I didn’t learn the full story until later.
Mom was on birth control when I was conceived. She took the pills for four months before she discovered she was pregnant. She was scared to tell you. You didn’t want anymore children. When she finally did, you chased her into the street and tried to kick me out of her. I held on. When I was born, you didn’t give me your name. When I was in the hospital, dying, you didn’t come get the genetic testing they needed when they were trying to figure out what was wrong with me. I’m alive no thanks to you, papi.
You finally did give me your name. Mom has a copy of both birth certificates. The one that says Vanessa Moncada that was issued days after I was born in December 1975. And the one that says Vanessa Martir, issued months later. My social security card said Vanessa Moncada until just a few years ago.
When I saw you watch my sister Dayanara the way you did, when I could never find a picture of you holding me when I was a baby, when mom would flinch when I cried, “I want my papi,” I knew you didn’t want me. I resented you for that. Millie became my dad. I made her Father’s Day cards complete with cardboard tie and dedication. I held this for so long, until my nena.
Vasialys was five. I had just picked her up from the baby sitter and we were walking home, to our new apartment in Inwood where we’d moved just a few months before. I was chatting about my day when I looked down and stopped. Vasia’s just like me; she wears her emotions on her face. In those big brown eyes that are a barometer for her moods, her worries.
“What’s wrong, mama? Do you wanna cry?”
“Yes, mami.” And the flood began. She sobbed into my shoulder while I rocked her. We were on a corner. It was winter. Nothing mattered but my nena. People watched.
When she calmed a bit, I asked. “What’s wrong, mama? Did something happen at the sitter?”
“No, mami.” She sniffled. The tears kept streaking down her face. “I miss my grandpa.”
“Your grandpa? You never met your grandpa.” I stood up. I had been at eye level with her up to that point.
“Yes, I did. I met my grandpa. Your father. He used to visit me but he doesn’t anymore.” She was frustrated. Angry that I’d denied her her memory. A fresh batch of tears came. She started shaking again.
I knelt in front of her. “Ok, mama. I’m sorry.” I held her. When she calmed down, I asked, “My father visited you?”
She smiled. “Yes mommy. He used to play with me all the time but he doesn’t anymore. I miss him.”
We walked home. That night was the first time I spoke to you, papi. I cried. I yelled. I accused. I remembered you didn’t want me.
I didn’t know you. I only have three memories of you: When we went to visit you in Puerto Rico in 1981 when I was five, when you came to visit us in April 1983, and when you were dying in October 1983.
“I don’t even know what your favorite color was, papi.” I was sobbing. I’d already raged. I was that little girl again who just wanted her daddy.
“Blue. My favorite color was blue.” I heard it in my chest. It was warm. Loving. Filled with remorse.
I learned that day that you’ve walked with me since the day you died. You’d been seeking forgiveness through my daughter. It’s through her you came to me.
Now I have pictures of you around my home. On my altar. I talk to you all the time now. You hold me when I cry.
I see you, in my mind’s eyes. You’re standing with my Millie, mi abuelita Tinita. You stand among the ancestors that walk with me, protect me, guide my hand when I write. Help me make my way through life.
I finally wrote my memories of you. And, one day, I finally asked mom again. I needed to know. It was the first time she didn’t berate you. The first time she didn’t shrug off my questions. You leaned in.
I didn’t know the story of how my mother met my father until I was thirty six years old. It wasn’t for lack of asking. I asked so many times when I was a kid, especially after he died when I was eight. Sometimes mom would just ignore me and go back to what she was doing, cooking or sewing flower patterns onto white table cloths and napkins. Other times she rolled her eyes, curled her lip and went on a rant about his being a playboy, a drug dealer and pimp. “¡Nos abandonó! ¿Que mas tú quieres saber?” Then one day, I needed answers. I was deep in memoir. I had written the story, Memories of Daddy, for my memoir and wanted to know more. I waited until she was in a talkative mood and asked.
She’s cooking. So many memories of my mother are of her cooking. She’s humming. I hum when I cook. I’ve fought for much of my life to not be like her and still, I carry so much of her in me, from getting quiet when I hurt to my defensiveness.
She’s so small, my mother. Round in the middle with legs that could kick a bull over onto its side. As a kid, we hung out on the front steps, me, my sister and the neighborhood kids. Mom walked out, her face stern, a cigarette in her hand. All of five feet, she could take up the entire eight feet of the door frame and the four feet of the foyer. We dispersed. Some walked down Palmetto Street, others up Ridgewood Place. A few brave stragglers sat on the car hoods in front of the building, fidgeting with the seams of our jeans or staring down at the gutter, splitting the crack vials with the front of our shoes. No one looked at her. They named her “Rambette,” the female version of Rambo. She was that menacing in her silence. She inhaled her cigarette in long drags, glaring through squinted eyes. When she was done, she flicked it into the street, rolled her eyes and went inside. No one dared approach our building for the rest of the day. Her force lingered there.
She eats when we’re done. She’s done that for so long, waited for everyone else to eat before she sits, one leg tucked under her, the other folded over under her chin. The same way I eat.
I approach and sit.
“Talk to me, mom.”
“How did you meet my father?”
She smiles. She stares at the plant on the table. Mom has always had plants in the house, layered on the windows in makeshift tiers she made out of slats of wood that she perches with expertise, using the windowgate as leverage. Piled on the tops of the cabinets. Hanging from the ceilings. I think they remind her of home.
“Raul Mártir.” She met him in Bushwick. She’d already had my brother, Juan Carlos. She lived with my grandmother at the time. The woman who blamed her and still does. So many times grandma put my mother out on the street, pregnant and even afterward when she had her son, my brother. My mother worked in a factory making sweaters. She was so thin that the owner used her to model the clothes. She was only 17, hadn’t yet been in the U.S. for two years, still didn’t know the language, but she somehow knew how to survive. I get my hardcore I-can-do-this-no-matter-what ways from mami.
She went out to the store to get pampers and milk. “Porque en ese día todo era barato. Los pamper costaban $2, la leche, centavos.” She’s proud that she didn’t need public assistance. In fact, she didn’t turn to the government until she had me. I was supposed to die. The doctors didn’t know how to treat me. She grew tired of la lucha. “Yo corría contigo al hospital dos y tres veces a la semana.” She took me to a specialist a doña told her about. He referred her to St. John’s hospital, the hospital to which he was affiliated. One day, after working long hours and running home to check on her other two children, she walked in to find me, all bones, not having been touched tenderly all day, laid out asleep. She got on her knees and prayed, “Dios mio, si mi hija va sufrir, por favor, llévatela.” Something came over her. She started ripping the nodes off my chest, the tubes, the needles. The nurses thought she’d lost her mind. She says she somehow knew that if I stayed there I would die. They had her sign a waiver saying she was responsible.
My bones were so brittle I couldn’t be held to her chest. Imagine that; months old, I couldn’t be held to my mother’s chest. I couldn’t hear her heartbeat that lulled me when I was curled inside her. They created a makeshift cradle out of a board. This is how she carried me to Columbia Presbyterian’s Baby Hospital. That’s where she says they saved my life. I say she saved me. More than once. I see that now.
I was in the hospital for four months. Brought back to life. Mom had to quit her job. The doctors said I needed her round-the-clock care. That’s when she went on public assistance. The first time and only for a few years. She went back to school. Then she started working in the NYC school system. She’s been doing it ever since.
Raul stood leaning on his yellow Nova. Said he knew her. “Yo paré.” She smirks when she says that. She raises her eyebrows and I see the 17 year old, hungry for love coqueta, intrigued by his attention. “Yo no te conozco a tí.” He says he’s seen her in the neighborhood. He’s staying with friends nearby. She leaves but they talk when she sees him. Brief chats when she goes to the store. She tells him she has two brothers and a sister. That she lives with her mother. It’s all he knows.
One day, when she exits the school, Bushwich High School where she takes night classes for her high school diploma after long hours at the factory, he’s waiting for her. He offers to buy her a pizza. Their first “date.” She arrives home at 11, an hour later than usual. My grandmother refuses to open the door.
In the past, whenever he walked or drove her home, she’d wave to him through the window. He wanted to make sure she got into the apartment safely. He didn’t trust the men who lived on the first floor. “Ese edifício es peligroso.” When she didn’t come to the window, he grew nervous. I picture him, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel while he waits. The drumming grows nervous. She hasn’t pushed the curtain aside to wave. He needs to see her face, safe inside. He finally pushes the door open, steps out in his bell bottom jeans, butterfly collar and platform heels, like the picture mom has of him sitting on a staircase.
Mom is in a frenzy. Her soft taps at the door remain unanswered. “Mami, abreme, por favor.” She’s almost whispering while she tells me the story. Her head is cocked at an angle. I see the 17 year old her, though she’s 57 now. Hair to her waist, frail-looking, but she already has that don’t fuck with me air, just not as pronounced. The years added the exclamation point.
She starts banging. “Esta bien. Dáme’l nene. Dáme a Juan Carlos. Yo me voy. Me quedo en la calle. No sería la primera vez. Dáme a Carlos.”
Her mother comes to the door, leaves it bolted. “Adonde estabas? Putiando por seguro.”
“No, mami. Un amigo me invitó a comer una pizza. No estaba haciendo nada malo. Por favor. Dáme a Carlos.”
Raul ascends the stairs and finds my mother, desperate, in tears, banging at the door. “¿Qué pasa?”
“No me quieren abrir.” Mom is wringing her hands as she remembers. “Mami, dame a Carlos. Mami, por favor.”
“Ven. Vamos afuera. Vamos. No te preocupes.” He puts his hand on her back trying to calm her. She shoves him away.
“No.” She turns back to the door. “Dame’l nene, mami.” She bangs.
“Y porque quieres que te den a tu hermano? Vamos. Ven.”
“Mi hermano?” She laughs. “Carlos es mi hijo.” He falls back.
To me: “El me creía muchacha. Yo no le había dicho que yo tenía un hijo. No quería que el supiera.” She’s looking at me now. The wrinkles around her eyes have grown deeper. I understand. She didn’t want to destroy the image he had of her. Still a girl. Innocent. New to this country.
He starts to talk at the door. “Señora, dale su hijo. Yo la saqué para una pizza. No hicimos nada. Yo no he subido a conocerla porque ella no quiso. Por favor, dale su hijo.”
I imagine my mother, though distraught and still pleading, she’s surprised that Raul has not left. He knows and stays. She sees him through different eyes now.
My grandmother finally opens the door. Mom plows in, grabs her son, a few of her belongings and leaves.
Raul takes her away. My brother falls asleep in the backseat. He’s not even one yet and has already seen so much. I imagine him, trembling, when my mami takes him into her arms. She hoists him on one hip while she throws things into a bag, mostly things for him, clothes, pampers, formula, just a change of clothes for her. No matter what, no matter how hard she was, we always came first.
Raul looks over at Carlos. He’ll dub him “el negrito” and will love him like his own. “¿Por que no me dijístes que tenías un hijo?”
Mom starts to cry. “Ay, Raul, si tú supieras lo que me paso.” Mom tells him how Carlos came into this world. Mom’s eyes are wet as she recounts the story but she doesn’t let them fall. It’s her way.
“El lloró conmigo, Vanessa.” She looks at me. I see the scene, him holding her while she cries into his chest. He tells her he’s going to call his brother, Miguel, who lives with his wife, Virginia, a few blocks away on Ridgewood Place. They have a room. She can stay there with Carlos for the night. He will figure out what to do in the morning. It’s late. El nene needs a bed to sleep on.
The next day mom takes Carlos to the sitter and goes to work. She’s a mess but can’t stop. She has responsibilities. She has to feed her son.
She stays in the room for a few weeks. Raul visits her every day. He takes to Carlos, who takes to him right away. “El Negrito.”
“Pero yo no estuve con el, Vanessa.” She needs me to know that. She needs me to understand that while they were involved, while he courted her and took care of her, helping her find a place to stay, they didn’t share a bed. “Besitos y abrazos, sí, pero yo no estuve con el.” Then he moves her. They rent a room together. “Entonces, sí, pero antes d’eso, no.”
She finally starts whimpering. I want to lean in and hold her but somehow I know I shouldn’t. She’s somewhere else. She confesses how good he was to her. “El me quiso, Vanessa. Me quería tanto. Y a Carlos tambien. El quiso a mi hijo.” She confesses for the first time that she too was to blame for what happened between them. “Yo no pude tener relaciones, Vanessa. Lloraba. El trató pero no pude. Por ese hombre. Ese desgraciado.” Her chest heaves, she wrings her hands and she cries, wipes her face, though not as brusquely this time. “Por ese hombre yo nunca pude tener relaciones con nadie. Nunca.”
“What happened to you, mom?” She waves her hand, pushing the memory away.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wondered how different my life would have been had you not died, papi. I wonder if I would have made such devastating mistakes with men. Mistakes I keep making. I wonder if you would have been at my college graduation. If you would have cried when you saw Vasialys for the first time. I wonder if you not being around is the reason I never imagined myself getting married. Who will walk me down the aisle, papi?
The little girl in me will always want her dad. The woman in me knows that he’s gone, but he never left. But there are days, like today, the day before the 29th anniversary of your death, that the hole you left feels gaping. Huge like a black hole. It tries to suck me in. This letter is how I resist. I can’t climb in. I won’t.
I sometimes watch little girls with their fathers. It makes me smile and twists my insides. I deal with Vasialys’s father’s shit sometimes because I know there is an empty that lives in me because I didn’t have you. I want to spare my nena that pain.
Tonight I will light a candle for you. I will pray. Tell me a secret, papi. Tell me your heart. Show me. Tell me, do you miss that little girl I was? Does Vasialys remind you of me? Are you proud, papi? Am I enough?
Tu hija, Vanessa