by Cristina Henríquez
By the time my father reappeared in my life, I hadn't seen him in nearly ten years. My mother came home from her job as a hospital nurse one day and said, "I think you should invite your father to the wedding."
"Who?" I asked.
I put down the plátano en tentación I'd been snacking on. Outside, across the street, our neighbor's dog barked at the cars as they zoomed up and down the street. My mother kicked off her white nurse shoes and unbuttoned the top of her uniform. "I know," she said. "But I've been thinking about it. And today I decided he should come."
"What happened today?"
She swiped a slice of plátano from my plate and popped it in her mouth. "You use too much salt," she said, making a face.
"Mami, did something happen today at work?"
My mother had a habit of making big decisions about her life on the days when a patient passed away at the hospital, whether in my mother's presence or not. Last month, after a thirty-four-year-old man died of a heart attack, she swore off red meat.
"Someone was sick," my mother said. "A father who hadn't talked to his family in a long time. I thought he was another good-for-nothing like the rest of them. But it was very sad."
"It made you think of Papi."
"It would be nice if you invited him."
My mother made arrangements for us to meet. Tuesday. Restaurante Boulevard. Six o'clock. The restaurant was three blocks from my office, so I walked there in the heavy, damp air, thinking about the last time I had seen my father. I was fourteen, and he had volunteered to walk me to school in the morning — a rare occurrence — so I knew something was fishy. I just didn't know that after he dropped me off, he was going to keep on walking right out of my life. He didn't come home that night or the next, and finally my mother admitted that he was staying at a friend's house. A while later, she reported that he was staying at a hotel, and still later, that he had moved to a different town. My mother assured me again and again that it wasn't my fault, that she and my father had their own insurmountable problems. I didn't care what she said. I steeled myself against thoughts of my father. I talked myself into not caring about him one way or another. I talked myself into believing that he was nothing to me.
And, anyway, life had gone on. I finished my schooling, had boyfriends and broken hearts, traveled, fought with my mother, fought with best friends, made up with my mother, made up with best friends, graduated from college, had gotten a job as a teller at Banco Continental, and met the man I was going to marry. Would my life have been different with my father? Probably. Would it have been much different? Probably not. So that was that.
As soon as I walked in the restaurant, I saw him sitting by himself at a table, twirling an unlit cigarette through his fingers like a miniature baton. He stopped for a second and raised the cigarette to his nose, sniffing it.
He looked up as I approached. "Mónica?"
"Oh my God," he said.
His voice was small and thin, and up close, he looked old — much older than my mother — although I didn't know what I had expected.
I took a seat. Without a word, he slid me a menu and stuck the cigarette behind his ear. When I'd finished scanning the menu, he asked, "Do you remember me?"
He smiled, relieved. "Good. Yes, that's good."
We said nothing more until the waitress took our orders — a mozzarella and salchichones sandwich for me, a salad for my father. In a manner as inconspicuous as possible, I studied his face, his pockmarked cheeks, the skin sagging at his neck, trying to fit the current version of him with the face I remembered.
"Tell me something," he said when the waitress left. "Tell me about yourself."
"I work at Banco Continental now," I said. When he didn't respond, I added, "As a teller. I graduated from the University of Panama in finance."
"You've grown into a beautiful girl," my father said.
Self-consciously I ran a hand over my ponytail. When I caught his gaze, my father was looking at me with a paternal glow, his mouth set in a wide smile. After a few seconds, he coughed and folded his olive-skin hands on the table. "And you're getting married?"
"In a month."
"That's what your mother told me. I never thought she'd speak a word to me again. She was — " he drew pinched fingers across his pinched lips, "with me. And then she told me you were getting married. ‘Mónica is to wed,' she said. So formal. Like she had prepared a script to be able to talk to me." He glanced at his hands, turning his thumbs over each other. "And the guy? What's his name?"
I told him about Cesar, whom I had met in my last year at university and who had studied business and now worked for Adidas. I told him that Cesar and I had put a down payment on a house in Las Cumbres. "It has a maid's room," I said, "but we probably won't hire a maid until we have children."
"Children?" my father asked.
After the waitress arrived with our food, we ate in silence for a time. Being there with my father felt easy, easier than I had anticipated, and the knowledge that it was easy was almost stranger than the encounter itself.
Around his plate my father lined up the tomato wedges from his salad like a scalloped necklace.
"Do you still like tomatoes?" he asked.
"I like tomato sauce," I offered. "On spaghetti."
"You used to like tomatoes. Do you remember the time we were in that little market? We were buying ñame for your mother. I was picking some out, and when I turned around you were eating a tomato. It was all over your face. The seeds. Everything."
I didn't remember, but I didn't want to disappoint him by saying so. "What do you do now?" I asked.
"For work? I repair shoes. You don't remember? I was a shoe salesman when you were younger."
"I remember. At that shop by the Super 99."
"Correct," my father said. "A whole life spent in shoes." He craned his body to glimpse under the table. "Your shoes are nice," he said, and then coughed.
They were plain pumps. "Thanks," I said. "They're just my work shoes."
We kept eating, my father digging at every flake of lettuce while assiduously avoiding the tomatoes. I finished my sandwich, and the waitress cleared our plates. Without our meals in front us, I was at a loss, so I reached into my purse and pulled out the invitation, setting it on the table.
It was simple — black lettering on cream-colored paper. On the envelope, my mother had written Sr. José Bonilla, E(n) S(us) M(anos).
My father stared at it without touching it. "Should I open it now?" he asked.
"If you want to." I slid my hands under my thighs and watched as he read it, tracing each line with his finger.
After he finished, he asked, "Who will walk you down the aisle?"
"Actually, I hadn't thought about it."
"What's his name? Cesar's father?"
"Do you want to do it?" I asked.
One look at him told me he did but that he couldn't bring himself to ask.
"You should do it," I said.
"I don't think it would be right."
"It wouldn't be wrong."
"You wouldn't mind?"
"You should do it."
My father gazed at me for a long time, a kind of sorrow pooled in his eyes. "So I will see you ..." he finally said, and consulted the invitation. "On Saturday, September 20."
My mother was sitting on the patio, drinking tonic water when I got home. There was a time I could have come home and found her drinking Ron Abuelo and Coke, but ever since a woman at the hospital passed away during a liver transplant, she'd sworn off alcohol.
"So how did everything go?" she asked when she saw me.
"Were you waiting for me?"
"Did you have a good time?"
"Actually, I did."
My mother nodded. "So, what else?"
"We decided he would walk me down the aisle."
I expected her to be angry. I expected her to say something about how coming to the wedding was one thing, but how he didn't deserve to walk me down the aisle like a proper father. I was bracing myself for it when she said, "I hope you agreed to it. That would be nice for him." She took another sip of her fizzy water.
"So," I said. "You understand this means that he's actually going to come, right? Will you be okay?"
"I'll be fine," she said. "Me? I will be just fine."
When my father showed up the day of the wedding, it was the first time I had seen him since our reunion at Boulevard. I was sitting in a limousine with tinted windows — just me and the driver — watching the guests file into the church. My father rounded the corner, wearing a tuxedo with tails and a bow tie and carrying a large white box. He put the box on the ground at the foot of the stone steps and idled by it while he shook out his pants legs. I watched him sit on a step to tighten the laces on his dress shoes. He slid his hand in his pocket and produced a cigarette. He stared at it balanced in his open palm for a few seconds and then slipped it back into his pocket. People walked by him and glanced at the box, but he seemed not to notice. I saw my mother peek out the church door and, upon identifying him, rush down the steps. They greeted each other stiffly, without affection. My mother gestured toward the box and at one point threw up her arms in what I recognized as disbelief. Then my father carried the box back to the parking lot, while my mother stood shaking her head.
The driver said if I was cold he could turn the air down. I told him I was fine. And I was. I felt remarkably calm. Cesar and I had been together for two years. I loved him completely. Everything I did was better when he was around. I had no doubts.
I lowered the mirror and checked my face. My hair was in ringlets piled at the crown of my head. I bared my teeth to make sure there was nothing in them.
When I looked out the window again, my mother was standing at the top of the church steps beckoning my father, who was empty-handed now, to come inside. Not more than a minute after he disappeared through the huge wooden doors, my mother came flurrying down the steps and opened the limousine door.
"It's time," she said.
I nodded, gathering my dress and stepping gingerly onto the sidewalk. The sun was radiant, the air humid. My mother reached into the limo for my bouquet and handed it to me.
"When you walk in, your father will be there. You just link arms, and on the fourth beat of the music, you start walking. Don't walk too fast. You want to enjoy this. Smile at people as you pass them. If you feel wobbly, look to Cesar. He is waiting for you and he loves you." She kissed my cheek, then led me up the steps. My father smiled at us as we walked in. Without a word, my mother snuck into the church. My father took my arm.
"I brought you a gift," he whispered. "Your mother made me put it back in the car. I forgot I was supposed to give it to you at the reception, after this part."
"You didn't have to bring anything."
"It's twenty jars of tomato sauce. That was the only thing I knew that you liked. For spaghetti."
I smiled just as the music started and the interior doors opened. Inside, the church was glorious, adorned with the hundreds of flowers my mother and I had chosen, swollen with music, quivering with candlelight, filled with nearly every family member and friend I had ever known. Cesar, his hair gelled, his face freshly shaven, looked like he was shaking in his white tuxedo.
I heard my father count, "One, two, three — now."
We walked in.
The reception was at the Radisson Decapolis. When Cesar and I made our grand entrance, everyone clapped and whistled. We did a few turns, then took our place at the head table for dinner. We drank champagne and ate arroz con pollo and sopa de gloria. After a while, the DJ started playing dance music and one by one, as they finished eating, people migrated to the dance floor.
Cesar and I got up to mingle with our guests. People kept telling me how beautiful I looked and Cesar how lucky he was. I knew it was the required line, but still I was glowing with the attention.
After a time, I spotted my father, sitting alone at a table, stirring his drink with his finger. "I'll be right back," I told Cesar.
When he saw where I was headed, he said, "Do you want me to come with you?" Cesar didn't trust my father and all this newfound goodwill my mother and I had toward him. I didn't know whether to trust him, either, but for now I thought he was harmless.
"I'll be fine," I assured Cesar.
I had just started toward my father — I'd taken not more than a few steps — when he started coughing. He covered his mouth with his hand and doubled over in a fit. He pounded his chest, then stood and paced for several seconds, trying to collect himself.
And for some reason, as soon as I saw him do all that, I knew. I knew everything I was not supposed to have known.
I hurried toward him. "Papi," I said.
He looked at me, surprised. "Mónica."
I didn't know how to start. I didn't want to accuse him of anything. I just wanted to know the truth. "Are you okay?" I finally asked.
His face clouded.
"You were the one, weren't you?" I said. "You saw Mami at the hospital. You were the sick father."
"She told you? I told her not to tell you."
"No. I figured it out. Just now."
He cleared his throat. "I'm fine. I'm going to be fine."
"What do you have?"
"Not today, hija. Today is your day."
"What do you have?"
"It's nothing. We can talk about it all another time." He coughed again. "Please."
Later, I would regret listening to him, respecting his wishes. But my problem had always been that I went along with whatever my father wanted. I let him leave us without putting up a fight. I let him slip back into my life ten years later as easily as water flowing through a gate. And then, at my wedding, I let the conversation about his illness drop, because I believed we would talk about it later. I believed there would be time for that. As it would turn out, though, I was wrong. My father, I would learn later, had lung cancer. After my wedding, he would travel to the few places he had always wanted to visit — Buenos Aires and New York City — and by the time he returned, he would be so weak and diminished that he was too embarrassed to have visitors. Even so, my mother would go to see him, and return home with something vital having been stolen from her each time. And again, I would comply with his requests, both because it was a habit difficult to break and because I wasn't sure I wanted to see him in that state anyway. Four months after my wedding, he would pass away.
But right then, I looked at my father and said, "Well, then, do you want to dance?"
Tears sprang to his eyes. "Yes," he said. "I do like to dance."
We walked out on the dance floor and held each other awkwardly. The fabric on his tuxedo jacket was rough under my hands, and I could smell his cologne. Before the song was over, Cesar cut in, and my father let me go.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Cesar said, "So he's back? In your life, I mean?"
"I don't know," I said.
"And everyone's cool with that? Even your mom?"
"Let's just dance, okay?"
Cesar pulled me closer and hummed in my ear. He tapped his fingers against my back. And then, "Hey, look at that," he said after a new song started.
I turned my head to see my parents dancing in slow circles under the lights.
"Nice, huh?" Cesar said.
"Maybe everything's gonna be okay, you know?" he said, and drew me to him once again.
AUDIO: Listen as Christina Henríquez discusses and reads from her winning entry.
Cristina Henríquez (WCAS99) is the author of the novel The World in Half (Riverhead Books, 2009), now available in paperback, and of the short story collection Come Together, Fall Apart: A Novella and Stories (Riverhead Books, 2006), which was a New York Times Editors' Choice selection in May 2006. Her stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, TriQuarterly and elsewhere, and she was featured in Virginia Quarterly Review as one of "Fiction's New Luminaries." After graduating from Northwestern she earned a master of fine arts in fiction from the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Henríquez received the 2005 Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation Award, a grant created by writer Sandra Cisneros in honor of her father. This spring Henríquez will teach a course in creative writing in the English department at Northwestern. She lives in Chicago with her husband, Ryan Kowalczyk (WCAS98). Her father, Pantaleón Henríquez III (GMcC76), of Newark, Del., is also a Northwestern alumnus.