by L. Vocem
First published in Broad River Review
2023 Rash Award Finalist
Gardner-Webb University, North Carolina
Perhaps it was a strange twist of fate I was let go early from the restaurant that night. It wasn’t that busy and while I was taking out the garbage, a piece of broken glass ripped through the bag and sliced my leg. No big deal, but I bleed easily, and blood trailed all over the floors. My shoe was gushy. So, I went home to my parent’s basement. I had moved back there to save money and graduate from college.
I parked, rushed through the family room towards the basement door when I noticed Alicia, my sister, crying in the kitchen. I walked slowly towards her. This didn’t seem like an ordinary cry, but the cry you have when you lose your boyfriend, or someone dear dies.
“What happened?” I asked.
She mumbled a few words. Her nose was red, eyes watery, mucus pouring. Spit came out of her mouth when she talked.
“I was accepted to Emory,” she said, mumbling more.
“Well, congratulations. What’s so bad about that?”
“We’re being deported.”
“What? That doesn’t make sense.”
She went on to explain that if the family did not leave the country in a month, they would be slapped with an illegal status and be subject to forceful removal.
“That shouldn’t stop you from going to school. You have a student visa.”
“Carlos, Dad is not going to let me stay here at all by myself, he wants all of us to go back to Venezuela.”
“You can stay with me.”
“Really, Dad thinks you’re a degenerate druggie and he is going to let me stay with you?”
Alicia cried again. I hugged her and asked where Mom and Dad were. She didn’t know, so I went around the house calling their names. I found Mom in the living room talking on the phone. I tried to say something, but she lifted her finger to be quiet. She held some papers in one hand and the handset of the phone in the other. She nodded and every now and then interjected, “but we already did that, everything was in order. I still don’t understand…why didn’t the Reagan amnesty apply to us?”
She listened, her eyes moving left and right.
“We entered legally.”
I went upstairs to see if I could find Dad. Even though he didn’t speak to me, maybe, just maybe he would tell me what was going on. I knocked on their bedroom door, only to hear in my father’s god-like deep voice “not now.”
I went down the hall to Jose Jesus’ room, who now liked to be called Joe. He was on his bed looking angry.
“Carlos, do you believe this? We’re going back. I was looking forward to high school, wanted to play football, hang out with my friends. I don’t even speak Spanish anymore.”
I went downstairs. Mom was off the phone, still holding the same papers in her hand, staring into the distance. I sat across from her. She glanced at me.
“I thought Dad got a promotion, and now this?”
“I told him not to play politics. He’s not a citizen and they never give these contracts to foreign researchers. But you know your Dad, he loves to play God.”
I had to study for my finals, but at home there was so much tension, so many fights going back and forth between my Mom and Dad. I went over my girlfriend’s apartment to study.
Jennifer was worried and asked. “Will you go back? Will you stay? If you do, we’d never see each other again.”
If I went back I would have to live with my parents, and quite frankly my dad and I didn’t see eye to eye. In the last year, we had not spoken to each other. We would be at the table having dinner, and he’d say to my mother, “Teresa, can you ask your son to please pass me the mashed potatoes.” It was childish and ridiculous. The same thing had happened to my older sister, Ana Maria, when the family first came to the States, so she went back to Venezuela and married her sweetheart.
I couldn’t believe Dad would not let Alicia stay with me. A degenerate druggie was the image he had of me since I dropped out of university and switched to an art school. What kind of education was that, he would criticize. I should be a professional, and that meant a lawyer, a doctor, an architect, or the military. Period. Or as he would say in Spanish. Punto y se acabo.
I couldn’t stay over with Jennifer for long periods of time. She didn’t want to give the impression we were living together and felt uncomfortable having sex with only a thin wall separating the sound from her roommate. I had two more finals, one in philosophy of the twentieth century, and history, plus one last design project. I had no choice but to go back to the basement, where I had my drafting board, my T-square, special rapidograph pens and equipment.
“I have an announcement to make,” my dad said in his thick accent, while we all sat at the dinner table. He went on to tell us that he was looking into some possible jobs, one with the World Health Organization and a large research university up north.
“How could immigration find out so quickly?” my mom interjected. “They had to be tipped off. I bet it was Dr. Kenning, your paper-pushing boss. I bet he found out you were going to be promoted to his job. He figured out how to get rid of you.”
“Teresa, it’s more complicated than that.”
“What do you mean, more complicated?”
“Teresa, not now. One step at the time.”
Jennifer and I went to a party over the weekend. A lot of our friends were foreign students or Americans who liked to hang out with the internationals. At the party, a joint was passed around. When it got to me, I looked at it and passed it to Jennifer. She looked at it as well and passed it around without taking a toke. It was something we had, that if one didn’t do something, the other one would not either so we would be on the same wavelength. Someone came to me and said “sorry about your parents, I heard that they are being…”
How did they find out? I didn’t want anyone to know. I felt shame, anger, apprehension. So, I lied through my teeth. I told them that he was just leaving because he was going to open an institute working on contagious diseases in South America and the third world. My friends bought it. At one point outside, while everyone was away, Jennifer came close and asked “what are you going to do?”
“I have a student visa, so whatever my parents do, does not affect me.”
“What happens after you graduate? That’s only a month away.”
“I’ll get a job in an ad agency, something like that.”
“You have a social security number?”
“I’ll get one.”
“We could get married.”
“If I married you, it wouldn’t be for a green card, but because I love you. Period.”
“And do you love me?”
I locked eyes with Jennifer, pulled her in my arms and gave her a kiss.
“I do, but I would never want papers to get in the way.”
Dad went up to New York, then Minneapolis and back to Atlanta. In our dinner talks, he told us he was doing what he could, but all these places were saying they could not decide right away, these things took months. He looked discouraged.
The next day, a real estate agent came to the house with a Polaroid camera snapping pictures.
“The house has a lovely swimming pool.” She pointed out. “Houses with swimming pools take longer to sell.”
“How’s that?” my mom asked.
“They take a lot of maintenance, kind of like boats. So, you have to attract boat people or people that really understand and want the pool.”
Mom came to the basement and we had a talk. She started in English as we usually did when we were all together. A decision that was made when we first came to the States and wanted everyone to properly learn the language. Yet half way through our conversation, she switched to Spanish. She didn’t want to sell the house yet, but my dad said they would need the money to relocate the whole family to Venezuela and buy something. The banks down there were not like here, where you can get a loan and pay a monthly mortgage. Down there, you have to pay cash.
She couldn’t believe their American dream was about to die. After all these years and all they had gone through, after spending over 20 grand in lawyers and filing every imaginable form and doing everything Immigration wanted. If they could just buy more time. She didn’t understand why they didn’t renew my dad’s contract. He was the first person to photograph through the electron-microscope the gastroenteritis virus Echo-19. His research with encephalitis was legendary. How one little migratory bird started in the jungles of South American and ended in Canada was the culprit. At the Center, all the research on the Clostridium Difficile was his work. And his team was working on Legionnaires Disease when this happened. My mom recited these things by heart. But my dad was a horrible politician, my mom continued. He was too blunt, never sugarcoating anything.
“Kind of how he treats us,” I said. “Whenever he is going to give you some advice, he tells you how horrible you were in the first place, so by the time he tells you the advice, you’re angry or completely demoralized.”
My dad was gone for a week. My brother finished school. My sister Alicia, had a big high school graduation at a stadium. As she walked around in her black garb, she cried, wishing that Dad was there. My dad doted on Alicia. She was probably the smartest of all of us, perhaps the one that would make it to medical school, instead of a loser in art school, or like my older sister, getting knocked up by her boyfriend and having to go back to Venezuela and marrying the guy. Maybe Jose Jesus would be the one. But like me, he didn’t get along with Dad, and back when we used to share a room, would joke that Dad was related to Mengele, and in his spare time flew Stuka airplanes over the Balkans. It was a joke. But Dad expected only the best out of you. I remember in high school being punished because I made B pluses instead of As, being less than the best was unacceptable in his understanding of the world, and unless you delivered, you were mentally tortured and emotionally annihilated.
I used to have a little apartment with three roommates. It was close to school. It was cheap, close to Piedmont Park. I worked at a restaurant to make money, and managed to get grants from Venezuela to pay for school. I busted my ass in school and my grades were tops. I had even done an internship with an ad agency.
Then my mother convinced me to move back home to save money. Wha’ta hell, it was my last year of school. So, I did. Then the incident happened. One of my friends promised me a couple of joints. It was very late one night and since he didn’t know my parents or how they were about things, he left them in an envelope in the passenger seat of my Honda Civic. My Mom must have heard him, or saw something from her window. I don’t know. And my friend, later on told me that he got home and forgot to call me. My Mom found the envelope with the two joints and called a meeting the next day and confronted me about this with my dad sitting next to us. She gave me this lecture about how this is a gateway drug, that from here on is heavier things, cocaine, heroin, who knows what. She repeated the slogan that the first lady Nancy Reagan made popular “Just say no.” As she said that, I played in my head the commercial that was shown in our advertising class, where they say, “this is your brain,” and shows a frying pan, then they toss a couple of eggs and say, “this is your brain on drugs.” Then I remembered seeing on TV the other version where they say “This is your brain, this is your brain on drugs, this is your brain with a side of bacon.”
I wanted to laugh, but I guess they noticed that I was not taking them that seriously, so my dad leaned forward, and said “You’re punished.”
He loved to do that to me as a kid. He would tell me, go to his room. Sometimes, he would forget and hours later, I stood facing his bed with his belt in my hand when he would show up. He would look surprised and tell me that I had three weeks without TV. Or a month without a bike. Or I was not allowed outside.
“You can’t punish me,” I said.
“Why not,” he responded in his ominous tone. While my Mom, all of a sudden looked terrified.
“Look, I pay for my university, with grants, scholarships and what I make from the restaurant. If you have a problem, I’ll be happy to move out.”
“You don’t talk to me like that! No son of mine is going to use that tone with me.”
A few days later, my mom came to the basement to tell me that she had talked to my dad and that I didn’t have to move out. But from then on, he didn’t speak to me.
When my dad arrived home from his trip, Mom said we were going to have a special dinner. My sister set the table the way we always did, placemats, forks, knives, salad forks, butter knives, cloth napkins. As she did that, I reflected on how my American friends ate when I went to their parent’s houses. People arrived on their own time, picked something from the stove, ate in front of a TV and moved on. I liked our formal dinner tradition.
This dinner was special. She was making the most traditional of Venezuela dishes, pabellón criollo. Mom had spent two days cooking carne mechada, shredded beef. In a cast-iron pot, black beans simmered, to which she had applied her secret ingredient. Years later I would find out it was a couple of bay leaves to give it that extra zing. And of course, white rice made her own special way. But what blew my mind was the sudden smell of frying plantains. I couldn’t believe you could find those suckers here in the States.
My dad sat at the head of the table. My mom called for my dad to say the prayer. We all held hands forming an almost perfect ring around the table. Dad spoke. My sister closed her eyes and listened intently. My brother opened his eyes and glanced at me, rolling his eyes. I looked at my mom, on the opposite side of the table, eyes closed, nodding as my dad spoke. Then Amen was said and they all opened their eyes.
There was a new smell in the air.
“Am I smelling arepas?” I asked.
My mom smiled.
“Yes. You could not find harina PAN anywhere for years, and then only in the Cuban markets. And guess what, I bought this at Publix, our supermarket.”
“Wow, this is so cool.”
“I prefer bread,” my brother said. “Arepas are like grits turned into a patty.”
“But Mom, I love your Pabellon,” my sister said.
The food was passed around and we all helped ourselves.
“The plantains also came from our supermarket,” my mom said.
“Things are changing. What’s next, mangos in a supermarket?” I said.
“Thank you for granting my request and making this lovely meal,” my dad said.
My mom asked about my father’s trip, but he remained rather quiet. She went along asking questions. Everyone said their usual, good, fine. When she asked me how I was, I said that I had finished my exams and was graduating in a month. I took a bite of my moms’ dish, mixing the juicy beef with capers with some rice and black beans, savored in my mouth. I looked at my mom and asked “Are you guys going to my graduation?”
My mom and dad looked at each other.
“If we are still here, of course, we will,” Dad said. Those were the first words that he had uttered to me directly in more than a year and a half.
“Your school is in Midtown,” my mother said.
“I’m so happy that you moved back home. Where you lived was… so horrible.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, there were all those gay bars around there.”
“But I lived close to Piedmont Park, it was really cool.”
“But there’s so much depravity.”
“Mom, the area used to be overrun by drugs and hippies back in the day. The gays came over, and you know what, wherever they go, they fix things, real estate values go up and neighborhoods turn around.”
“And how do you know such things?” my dad asked. He had spoken to me not once, but twice in one evening.
“One of my professors bought a house in the area and he told us.”
“And he is gay?” My mother asked.
“As a matter of fact, he is not, but he doesn’t have anything against them.”
“They are bringing this country down with their promiscuous lifestyle. But God has punished them. What they do is not natural or right,” Mom said.
My little brother had a smirk on his face, moving his eyes between mom and me.
“They are bringing this gay plague.”
My dad grumbled but kept chewing his food, now looking at my mom and I.
“But mom, they are turning around these neighborhoods,” I said.
“They have sex like wild bunnies,” said my Mom.
“Mom, I don’t think this is a conversation to have in front of Alicia. She may not know about these things,” my brother said, with a chuckle.
How old was he?
“They are destroying the fabric of this nation. That is what brought Rome down. What do you think, Federico?” Mom asked Dad.
My dad cleared his throat and looked intently at all of us.
“I don’t look at this from a religious point of view but a scientific point of view. And while I completely disapprove of their lifestyle, I don’t see this as a mandate from God. Was the Black Death a mandate from God?”
“But it’s wrong. Scriptures say it’s wrong,” my mom said.
“Where? Tell me, Teresa.”
“God has punished them.”
“We found a great number of gay people dying of Pneumocystis Pneumonia,” Dad said emphatically. “That shouldn’t happen unless your immune system is down. Then we saw the same pattern with Kaposi’s Sarcoma. We started that research, we put the dots together. It was us that named it acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, AIDS. And then the White House cut our funding.” My dad inhaled deeply, took a bite of my mom’s food, closed his eyes, and chewed. He looked pissed, really pissed off. This also felt like a continuation of one of their fights, now throwing something in front of everyone.
“I miss our food,” Dad said. “A good sancocho, a Reina Pepiada Arepa. Some techeños. Remember eating cachitos?”
“Ymmm. I remember those,” my sister responded.
“I’d rather have a hamburger,” my brother interjected. “With melting cheese. I want the cheese to drip all over my hand.”
We all laughed and finished eating. Since Alicia had set the table, Joe and I cleared it and washed the dishes.
“He’s trying to sell us on going back,” my brother said, placing glasses on the drying rack.
People began to flow through the house with the real estate agent. They would pop their head in my room, go through the hallway to the swimming pool area. It annoyed the shit out of me, but it was, what it was. Unlike my brother and sister who considered this their home, to me, this was my parent’s house.
My mom came down to the basement several times to tell me Dad was settling for offers that were too low, the house was worth a lot more. My mom was sad and angry. This was her dream home, everything she had wanted in life was here. And now, it was going to be gone in a blink of an eye.
I realized I needed to decide what to do in my life as well. Soon, I may not have a place to live and quite frankly, as much as I loved Venezuela, I did not want to go down there and live with them.
In one of our family dinners, it was my sister who opened the conversation.
“Why. Why do we have to go? There are millions of people who are here without papers, illegals.”
“Not anymore, since the amnesty,” Mom interjected.
“So, can’t we apply to that?”
“No, because we came legally,” Mom responded.
“But now we may become illegal. We should be able to apply. Right?”
“No, we can’t,” Mom said.
“That doesn’t make sense. Anyway. We stay. Dad waits four, six months for one of those big jobs. And we go back to normal. It’s not like they are going to break our doors down and arrest us. This is America, they would never, ever do something like that in this country.”
“No. We go back,” My dad said.
“In my line of work, I may be hired by big healthcare systems, a national center, government agencies, university research institutes, my papers have to be spotless. So, the answer is no. We go back.”
My mom went around putting little stickers on furniture, lamps and trinkets in the house. Then one Friday night she asked everyone to help move it to the driveway. It was going to be a garage sale. The next day, people walked through clothes, lamps, bikes, lawnmower, and all kinds of personal things, now on sale. She also began to pack in boxes the things that she would take down to Venezuela. My mom looked tired and defeated.
“I’m going to miss you a lot,” my brother said. “You’ve never complained. Whenever I yanked your chain you responded. During rainy cold days, hot nasty days you purred and went to work. You’ve made me a ton of money.”
I gave him an odd look. He caressed the lawnmower as if it was a girlfriend, then looked at me.
The movers came twice. The first time they filled the truck with things that they would take down to Venezuela. They professionally wrapped crystal, lamps that my mom considered irreplaceable, part of my dad’s library. The second truck arrived later. This one took beds, and whatever was going to be given away to one of the charities.
There was no furniture in the house except my room. I’d told them that I would either give it away to my friends or if I stayed, move it to my next place the moment the house was sold.
One night, while I was working on my portfolio, Dad stood by my door. The doctor, the researcher, the god now looked more like a diminished, sullen man.
“I know that you and I have not seen eye-to-eye for many years,” he said in Spanish. “Probably since the incident.”
He told me how much he wished that I had gone towards medicine, not art. But he understood now, that one must follow what feels right, what we are good at and I always had the gift even when I was small.
“But Dad, there’s nothing wrong with art,” I interjected. This is where in the past we would escalate into a full out argument and fight.
“I failed, not you,” he said. “Your mom was right also. I let it get political at work. But I had to, I had to take a stand.”
I kept quiet, realizing that perhaps we were not going the usual path into a war of wills.
“Take a stand?” I asked.
“You’ve heard me talk about Kaposi’s Sarcoma or Pneumocystis pneumonia?”
“I may have,” I responded, not quite sure where he was going with this and why he was talking about it.
“A lot of people started dying from a sarcoma that can be treated and managed. Others from a normally harmless fungus. It shouldn’t be killing people. This type of pneumonia is treatable unless you have a compromised immune system.”
“Oh, so you’re talking about AIDS?”
“We were the first ones to call it that way. We were the ones who pointed out this could be a world epidemic. Yet our funding got cut. We had the resources and talent to be the first ones to isolate it. The French isolated SIVcpz, now we call it HIV.”
“But why are you telling me all this, Dad?”
“People at the Center are not happy with what the Reagan people are doing, how they labeled the Gay’s disease. We took a stand. Dr. Frank wrote a letter to the Director of Infectious Diseases. I backed him. We need blood and plasma collection systems, an electron microscope. We predict a massive need for both epidemiologic and laboratory staff and a need for rapidly mobilizable funds to undertake field investigations. There’s so much that needs to be done. There’s so much we do not understand.”
My dad took a pause.
“Are you going down with us?”
“I don’t think I am,” I responded.
“I’m not going to force you. You’re a man now. But… here you will always be treated like a second-class citizen.”
“I don’t know Papá, I don’t see it that way.”
“In time, you will. I hope it changes. I hope I’m wrong. Anyway, the media got hold of the letter and it was published.”
We all kissed like Latinos kiss: rubbing one cheek and then the other. Men give each other big bear hugs that crunch bones.
I pulled back and there was my dad. There was my brother, my sister, and then my mom. A drop rolled down her face. She was a strong woman, but you could tell she was holding her tears. You could see it in her lips holding tight. The shuttle to the airport was in the driveway. My brother and the driver moved most of their luggage into the back.
“They say the house will close in three weeks. We hope to be back for your graduation,” my mom said.
“Take care,” my dad said.
“So, Dad, what are you going to do?”
He looked up at the sky and then at me.
“I don’t know. Maybe open a clinic, a center, people are dying. There’s a lot that needs to be done.”