Night falls outside, gently, like the sprinkling of powdered sugar onto a beignet, behind him as he stands in the doorway for those few, seemingly infinite, moments. I can feel my joints ache with the stiffness of remaining still for too long; I hesitate for another second before I take a few steps in his direction, leaving the kitchen and entering the living room.
‘Lucas,’ he says, looking at me, eyes bloodshot; tears have stained his cheeks, washing away the dirt and grime accumulated from a hard day’s work in the stockroom. ‘I – I heard that your mom came home today and I just wanted to – ’ he stops, blinking for a few moments, as he cranes his neck to view the kitchen, returning the stares of the six other people who are seated. ‘Am I – um, am I interrupting something?’
He takes a step forward and the smell hits me, the putrid, rank stench of too many Corona’s on his breath, and now that he bathes in the light above the front door, I can see him clearly. Disheveled shirt, stains on his pants, hand still clutching a warm beer; his hair is thick and unkempt and greasy, shining with a sickly light, contrasting his paler-than-usual and worryingly sallow skin. For a moment, as he lurches a few feet through the door and throws out a hand to the stair railing to keep himself steady, I feel panic seize at my chest, making my stomach curdle. Today of all days…
‘Dad!’ A scamper of steps, a blur of grey and blue, and Percy and Dee have rushed past me and thrown themselves into Roberto’s arms. For a second, I see something small shine in asphalt and chrome colored hues along his arm – a watch, maybe, or a bracelet – but the sleeves of his flannel cover it over quickly, and it is buried out of sight.
I turn to look at everyone else. Aleah and Jason both wear silent expressions of confusion, with Aleah raising an eyebrow at me and Jason focusing intently on the steam rising from the food in front of him. Mother looks as though she’s contemplating leaving her seat, her hazel colored eyes brimming with conflict, and Abuelita looks as though she could have a cow and cook it with the smoke coming out of her ears.
‘We – ’ I begin, my voice cracking. I take a deep breath and try again. ‘We just sat down for dinner,’ I manage, my eyes flicking from my sisters to Roberto. There’s something wrong here, I know I can feel it, but I don’t know what or why. It feels as though our home, our sacred space, has been invaded by something more foreign than the likes of an unwanted guest. It could just be that he’s drunk and is about to pass out. But it could also be something else. ‘What are you doing here?’ I repeat.
‘Oh,’ says Roberto, his shoulders dropping. He looks up at me and then to Mother and then back to his daughters. ‘Sorry, I – uh, um, I didn’t know. Yeah,’ he clears his throat, nodding. ‘I should – ’
‘Well, we have an extra seat,’ begins Dee. I close my eyes. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion. ‘Nobody is sitting here and –’
‘Dee,’ I begin, grabbing her arm and pulling her closer to me. ‘That’s not a good idea. He can barely stand.’
‘I can stand just fine,’ he belches, before taking another step forward, throwing his weight too heavily, and we watch as his knees buckle, sending him crashing onto the staircase. Dee and Percy immediately scamper over, ignoring Galadriel’s yelps of fear and disapproval, and each take an arm, leading him over to rest on the sofa.
‘Roberto,’ says Mother. I turn to look at her and she has gotten up from her seat and begins to walk over to him. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘What,’ he slurs, breathing heavily. ‘A man needs a reason to visit his own kids?’
Mother’s eyes narrowed and her lips pursed. ‘You couldn’t call? What, you don’t have a phone?’
‘Oh yeah, my phone,’ he says, offering a dazed, toothy grin. ‘I don’t know where it is. I think I may have left it at the bar or something.’
I almost feel bad for him, having his daughters untying his shoes and propping his feet under a pillow on top of the living room chest, massaging his temples, the way he can’t stop hiccupping, his dirty, bedraggled appearance. Almost. I turn to look behind me to find Jason and Aleah in the doorway of the living room, conflict etching itself across their faces – do I stay at the table and give them space? Should I be here just in case they need something? What do I do? – with Abuelita standing in front of them, her rage blooming like red and white fireworks.
‘You might be in remission but you still have cancer,’ I tell him, in a flat, neutral tone. ‘You can seriously damage your health like this. You need to go home.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ says Percy, stepping in. ‘He’s not in any state to drive home. He can sleep on the couch.’
‘Right, because there’s no such thing as Uber or Lyft or even a cab,’ I reply. ‘there’s no possible way for him to go home.’
‘But he’s going to have to come all the way back here tomorrow to get his car,’ protests Dee, her eyebrows tying themselves as she speaks. Earnest worry and pity bleed from her head; for that, I do feel moved by. But not for him. ‘It doesn’t make sense, he’ll have to waste money to come back here.’
I feel a kind of hysteria building in the pit of my sternum, unsure of whether to laugh or scream. ‘What’s wrong with that? He chose to come here, we didn’t force him. He can get his car in the morning when he’s sober.’
Dee and Percy immediately turn to look at me and they open their mouths in all forms of protest, before a voice silences them, and Mother approaches.
‘Can we have a moment here?’ she asks, in a neutral tone as she stares at Roberto.
I turn to look at Aleah and Jason, who promptly make their way back to kitchen, followed by Percy and Dee. Abuelita stands behind me as we survey the scene.
‘Corazon,’ says Abuelita, smirking as she stares into Roberto’s half-shut eyes. ‘My how the mighty have fallen, ehh?’
‘Mama,’ snaps Mother, giving her a sharp look. She turns to me and sighs. ‘Go watch our guests.’ When I don’t move, her eyebrows furrow. ‘Now?’
‘You just got out of the hospital,’ I tell her, honestly. ‘You can’t afford this kind of stress right now, it’s what sent you there in the first place.’
‘There’s no way to prove that,’ replies Mother, smoothly. I look at her eyes. They are firm, with all the conviction of a stone fortress. There is no way of talking her out of this one. ‘I need to deal with this situation on my own,’ she says, finally.
Abuelita sighs. ‘If that’s what you want.’
Mother nods, and I take Abuelita by the hand and lead her out of the living room and into her seat at the kitchen table.
‘I don’t see what the problem is,’ says Dee, rolling her eyes. ‘He’s our dad, why can’t he enjoy dinner with us? We haven’t had him over in a while.’
‘I don’t know if you’ve realized this, Dee,’ I reply while taking my seat, and in retrospect, my irritation came off more like shrapnel than a scalpel, ‘but Roberto and Mother are currently going through a nasty divorce. Him deciding to show his face while fucked up is also not the best idea.’
‘Why are you being so rude?’ asks Percy, her eyebrows furrowing. ‘Since when do you call him by his first name? The man raised you, you can at least give him respect.’
Respect. The same respect he gave me after I was forced to come out. I remember that day vividly, my things and clothing in boxes thrown out onto the street. I hadn’t realized I was beaten unconscious until I came to on the front lawn, when it began to rain. That was the first time I thought I had cracked a rib.
‘I won’t have any cock-sucking faggots in my house.’ Sometimes I can still hear his words in my sleep, or feel the spit on my face.
Anger like needles pricks at my hands, as though they’ve fallen asleep. ‘Sorry, let me just…’ I say, reaching past a wonderfully composed Aleah to grab her open bottle of wine. I pour a generous amount into my glass and take a deep swig. Inky like the night sky, dry like a baseball glove. The drink warms me, like a fire in the open hearth. ‘I don’t think now is the best time to talk about this,’ I manage to say, finally. ‘We have guests and the last thing we want to do is make them think that we’re messy.’ I take another swig of wine at that thought.
‘Well, I don’t want you to drink alone,’ says Aleah, pouring herself a glass of wine. She held the bottle towards Abuelita, then to everyone else. ‘Anyone?’ she asked, setting the bottle down with a shrug. ‘Okay, well, it’s there. Help yourselves.’
‘I’m having wine,’ said Dee, suddenly, grabbing the bottle by the neck.
Percy immediately lunges for it, but Dee holds it out of reach. ‘No, you’re not,’ says Percy, a flicker of annoyance starting to blossom. ‘You’re only twenty.’
‘And you’re funny,’ retorts Dee, shaking her head. ‘If I can remember correctly, you started drinking a lot earlier than I did. At least I won’t be taken home in a wheelchair from school with vomit in my hair.’
An exhalation, a glance at the dark red wine in my glass, and I relive the memory temporarily. Percy was fourteen, downing a bottle of vodka shared with a few of her high school friends who ditched first period to get drunk in the girl’s bathroom on the first floor of the Science Building. She hadn’t eaten anything, and, well. She never liked vodka after that. The nurse sent her away in a wheelchair when Mother came to school to pick her up, and in the process, Mother lost the pearl ring Abuela Christie gave to her for her sixteenth birthday.
I remember Roberto glazing over the incident as though she had been sent to the principal’s office over difference of opinion regarding evolution versus ‘intelligent design’. Somehow, I ended up with stitches under my chin and a mouthful of blood for ‘being a bad influence on your younger sister’. Of course. Because I was the one who got plastered drunk and beat his wife and her son as soon as I got home from work.
‘That really happened?’ asks Jason, wide-eyed. Sometimes there is little difference between his facial expressions and an emoji.
‘We’ve all been there before,’ I finally manage to say, forcing a smile.
‘Thank you,’ says Percy, shaking her head. ‘No judgment anywhere in this table.’
‘He’s right,’ chimes in Aleah. ‘I remember my first time. Sixteen, though, not quite fourteen,’ she says with a wink. ‘And it was the girl’s locker room by the swimming pool. But, there wasn’t anything else to do. I grew up in a shitty town; it was either the pool or the Walmart parking lot or under the freeway.’
Modesto, if I can remember correctly. Where God turns a blind eye and the creek always rises, and all year long the city is subject to unbearable heat, and the stink of the garbage-filled Tuolumne River reaches epic highs during the summer as it floats over the city like a cloud of smog. It’s hard to imagine George Lucas growing up there, but, I suppose the not-so-best environments are always the best for creative minded individuals; desperate for more, they create worlds of adventure to escape into. I’ll gladly own up to that.
Suddenly, footsteps, and into the kitchen enters Mother, with Roberto stumbling behind her, reminding me of the way Galadriel walks when she knows she’s done something bad. Mother takes her seat next to me, and, to the overt displeasure of Abuelita, Roberto trips before catching himself on the seat we had reserved for the petty Gods of the old world. If we weren’t a cursed people before, I’m sure there is no question about it now.
Time to start digging our graves.
‘Hi,’ says Roberto, awkwardly extending a hand to Aleah as he adjusts himself on the chair. ‘I’m Roberto.’
Before Aleah could grab his hand, however, Abuelita cleared her throat loudly. ‘Shouldn’t you at least be respectful and wash your hands?’ she asked, her eyes narrowing in contempt. ‘We’ve made this space sacred and holy. The least you can do is not taint it.’
Roberto, his armor pierced by the first blow, feigns a wide smile as he balls his hand up and pulls it back to himself. ‘As the father, I should make a better role model, huh?’ he slurs, more to Aleah than anyone else as he pushes his chair back and stands up. ‘I’ll be back, I’m –’
‘Wait, Dad,’ says Dee, standing up. ‘The downstairs bathroom sink is clogged, let me take you to the one upstairs.’ She leads him out of the table and to the stairs and they vanish.
‘Oh,’ says Abuelita, loudly as she laughs to herself. ‘Se me olvido, Persephone, I think I forgot my insulin case in your car.’
‘No you did – ’
‘Can you check please?’ A silence, before Percy sighs and stands up.
And then, a red spiral on the wooden table in front of Abuelita burns a bright red before vanishing as she casually flicks it towards Jason, and immediately, he shivers, as though cold water had been dumped on his head. ‘Actually, Perce, I’ll go with you.’
I watch in disbelief as Jason stands up and follows Percy out of the backdoor and into the night. I turn to look at her, incredulously. A Mayan Sigil. ‘Did you just -?’
As though she knew what I was going to say, she swiftly switched gears to focus on Mother. ‘Paulina! Que mendiga cosa haces ahorra?’
‘I didn’t want any trouble, Mama, please – ’
‘Oh, you don’t want any trouble, eh?’
‘He’s drunk! He needs to sober up! I’m not the heartless bitch that he – ’
‘He’s polluting our sacred space!’
I’ve seen her do them before, scratch Mayan Sigil’s onto candles and tables and flick them through the air at their respective targets, enforcing her will on them. Inteventionist magic. I can hear the voice in my head so clearly, like a guardian angel, a nagual, whispering a warning to me. I take a deep breath, closing my eyes for a moment, before turning to Aleah, who wears a strained grin. ‘Do you want to smoke a cigarette?’ I ask, smiling.
We step out into the backyard and close the door gently behind us, transforming the loud voices of Mother and Abuelita into muffled, suffocated murmurs. I take out my pack of Marlboro 27’s and offer one to Aleah, who smiles as she takes it, before offering my red, plastic Bic lighter.
‘Thanks,’ she says, as I light her cigarette before lighting mine.
Immediately, the sweet taste of tobacco constricts my lungs, and I feel my heart race before slowing down. I sigh. Bliss can sometimes be found in the smoke at the end of a cigarette.
‘I’m sorry about this,’ I say. The patio is covered in low strung garden lights, wrapped around the large, red sun umbrella in between a threaded, wooden patio bench and a few metal chairs. I plop down on the bench and adjust the cushions so that I can stare at the moon, a big, bright silver light in the middle of the cloudy night sky. Above my head are a few mason jars with brightly lit butterflies that Dee preserved, in royal blue and monarch orange and forest green, suspended from the wooden pane so that they look like beautiful, if not depressing, Chinese lanterns.
‘It’s okay,’ she tells me, sitting next to me. ‘I’m sure it’s not always like this.’
I can hear Percy’s voice floating over the backyard from the garage, saying, ‘…torn this damn car apart and I still can’t find it!’
But it is always like this. And I don’t know how to tell her that without sounding like we’re some kind of crazy, messed up immigrant family, running from wars and straight into riots, desperately trying to perform that delicate tightrope walk between not having a proper home and following the desires of the heart, and that everything and nothing is wrong with us, that we were simply just dealt a bad hand of cards and we can’t do anything but bet on the ones we have and hope for a better fate…
And suddenly, I feel tension along my sinus, like I’m about to sneeze; pressure like fingers probing the inside of my skull, rummaging through my brain. I flinch, staring at Aleah, wide-eyed; is this how other people feel?
‘What?’ she says, before breaking into that warm smile, that smile capable of tempering eternal winters and moons frozen over many suns ago. ‘You think you’re the only one who knows a thing or two about people?’
I feel naked and vulnerable and cold as the wind begins to pick up.
‘It’s okay, you know,’ she says, gently, fingering one of the lantern jars. In it is a blue Morpho butterfly; as Dee called it, Venus in a Jar. Goddess of love and change.
I feel the pressure relieve slowly as the invisible fingers fade away. ‘Maybe,’ I say.
‘It’ll get better.’
A silence. And then: ‘How about we make a deal to respect each other’s privacy?’
‘That sounds like a good idea,’ I reply, smiling.
We head back inside to find Dee standing over by the table, talking to Mother and Abuelita. She has a look of concern on her face.
‘He threw up all over the bathroom and passed out in my room,’ says Dee, biting her lip. ‘I think we should let him stay.’
A sigh of defeat. ‘Well,’ says Abuelita, shrugging. ‘What’s done is done.’
The backdoor slides open and Percy and Jason stand there, with a look of exasperation along Percy’s face.
‘I couldn’t find your – your thing, Abuelita,’ she says, breathless.
Another sigh. ‘We should eat. The food will get cold soon.’
I help her serve plates all around, pouring wine and water and some of the pox, a corn and sugar cane fermented ceremonial drink that tastes like honey and amber. We ate mostly in silence, with few words exchanged over the quality of food – ‘De-licious, Lucas’ – a few smiles thrown around, and requests to pass things like salt and hot sauce.
Even if we wanted to talk, we wouldn’t have been able to.
Roberto’s snoring drowned out all other noise for the rest of the night.