My parents probably spoke Spanish to each other when they lived together. I don’t remember. Dad never learned English, and Mom stopped speaking Spanish after they separated. On the weekends with my dad, I only needed two words. Sí, Papi. I know he said terrible things about my mother. I couldn’t understand him, but I was sure that they were “bitch,” “whore,” and, when my future stepfather came along “gold digger.” When he would pause and look my way. I’d say the only Spanish I knew, Sí, Papi. When I was a kid, I said this to appease him. When I was a teenager, it was because I agreed.
Later, when I was old enough to decide whether to spend weekends in his cramped, dirty apartment, when hard labor and hard liquor had wreaked havoc on his body, I still went. Mom reminded me that I didn’t have to. By then I felt sorry for him. Mom had remarried. Her new husband was younger and much better looking than my dad was. Dad was better looking when he was this man’s age, though. Dad kept a picture in his apartment of the three of us on a road trip to the beach that I’m too young to remember taking. His shirt’s off, and he’s smiling with his arm around my mother’s waist. My girlfriends would drool over someone who looked like that. If I’d known how to say it, I would have asked him why he kept that picture on his fridge.
My new step-dad never hit my mother. He never lost his job or wrecked the car. He never drank away the grocery money. He didn’t speak Spanish. If he did, he wouldn’t have needed the Spanish words for “bitch” or “whore.” They had two more girls. Girls who wouldn’t get pregnant at 15 and get tattoos of their baby’s name on their chest above their tits (as if being proud of them made them legitimate). Mom said it was the weekends with dad that were the problem. At dad’s I only knew Sí, Papi. At home, I knew every way to say “no” to my mother.
I don’t remember when mom’s man started coming into my room at night. She was pregnant with my youngest sister when it started. She was in kindergarten before I told anyone. On the nights he didn’t come in, which outnumbered the ones that he did, I’d think about how my dad would learn English. He’d get a good job. He’d lose weight, quit drinking, start running. He’d know what was going on without me even telling him. He’d walk in the house without knocking. He’d look my step-dad in the face, and they’d both know that he knew. He’d pick up my little sister’s aluminum softball bat she always left on the floor. He’d cock it back at my step-dad’s head, and he’d look at me, waiting. And I’d say the only Spanish words I knew.
Header photograph: By Dan McCoy, 1936-, Photographer (NARA record: 2389842) (U.S. National Archives and Records Administration) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons