Rebecca Elisa Garza was back at home, but instead of the stately dwelling she was used to, she was in a hovel, her actual house - her father’s house. She found it ironic that he was a builder, and had helped build beautiful homes all over Ambergris Caye, yet he couldn’t ever finish his own. The house in Cayo still needed interior walls; the railing was missing on the ledge that passed for a porch. Here, the one and only bathroom was still missing a light fixture. Light streamed in from the gaps in the rotted plywood walls and when it came time to take a shower, Rebecca’s best friend was her flashlight, or sometimes, candles. The handheld showerhead was not for style, her father never got around to actually installing a proper shower head. The best part of the bathroom was the second hand avocado green ceramic tub that the space was built around. It was being scrapped by a hotel where he was working at the time, and he salvaged it, believing he could provide a better home for it, and it was free.
Everywhere showed signs of half-finished projects. Celeste Garza never could get around to doing one thing right. Well, not when it came to comfort. A brand new GE refrigerator was given to him by his former boss, and it stayed outside to withstand the elements, never once plugged in and never once brought inside the home. Rebecca had never asked why he didn’t take advantage of the fridge. She didn’t see why a perfectly good (and expensive) appliance couldn’t be used, especially when they had to resort to buying ice from the neighborhood store every day. Daily perishables were stocked in a Coleman icebox, and homemade chipped ice was used to cover the items, most sealed in plastic containers and bags. Water still got in. Butter spattered every time it was used to fry eggs, and cheese had a bloom, and if meats were included in the mix, everything else smelled of meat and tasted of meat.
She was home.
Not even Mom had been able to convince him to fix things, and even though he acted like his life was over when she left, he never showed any sign that he loved her before. The three years Rebecca spent away from him were the best years of her life. She found that she could breathe better, actual physical breaths that didn’t come hard and fast and shallow, and she no longer clenched her entire body at the sound of loud laughter. She could tell what genuine laughter was, and what was hollow. She still couldn’t believe that she got away from him, if only for a few brief years. After her last educational debacle away from him, she wondered how she would pay. Now she wondered if payment had simply been delayed.
She looked out of her window in the small bedroom she called her sanctuary. The lock didn’t work, her mattress rested on the floor, sweating onto the blue linoleum flooring at night while she slept. As she looked out, trying hard not to be nauseated by the stink below, she wondered briefly if she should just leave.
As quick as the thought appeared, she shook herself. She had tried, so many times, but always, she felt guilty. No-one knew or understood, but despite the many despicable things he had done, and for all his flaws, she loved him. Papa had raised her. She could still remember his words calling her away from her dreams. She only had to remember one word.
Pajarito (little bird) was one of his favorites – and to this day, it remained a precious pet name for her. He played the morning game as long as he didn’t have to work early. He let her sleep in most weekends, and when he got bored and wanted her to get up and be, he would start calling pet names. Sometimes, she would count as many as sixty, and it became a game. She would hold out and hold out, then he would start inventing absurd and funny-sounding words, and she would giggle, giving up, and he would say “get up.” And she would. Those were the best moments of her days – the brief interlude between sweet dreams and the bitter nightmare of uncertainty.
When mama left, the pet name game briefly stopped. Instead, she woke to the sound of him crying. She would cry too, feeling sorry for herself mostly, as she knew she was once again locked down. He would never let her go. She had never had a properly sealed bedroom, and Mama and Papa had often slept on the floor next to her bed during her younger years. It was as if they were afraid that she would get up and walk away into the night. Later, as she got older, they gave her a bedroom, dividing up the big space into two smaller areas, but the wall never went all the way up. Rebecca could hear everything, every whisper, every muffled sound every day of her life with them as long as she was under the same roof. So she had also heard their plans and hopes for her. Nowhere in Papa’s whispered conversations was a future husband or children included for her.
So, as Rebecca looked out her window, she felt trapped, and a whole lot of despair. She had been raised to be loyal, to love unconditionally, and without questioning her elders, she had a naïve outlook on life. Freshly graduated with a degree under her belt, she was living at home, with no job and no prospect of a future. As she saw the crocodile submerge once more, she decided to go job hunting that day. It was early enough, but the familiar twisting at the pit of her stomach told her she had woken late in her father’s eyes.
She scrambled for her clothes, picking up her mattress and leaning it against the wall of her room. She folded her sheets and placed her pillows on the floor for sitting later. Most of her clothes were still in bags from college, and she pulled on whatever she found. A hasty run to the bathroom finished her morning ritual, and she searched the kitchen for breakfast ingredients. When she was satisfied that she had the basics for a hearty enough breakfast, she went down the block to where Papa worked. She hoped he was in a good mood, and she hoped that today would be a good day.
She saw him hammering away on the porch of his boss’ house. Another man worked alongside him, and Rebecca could see it was Papa’s boss. Mr. Clemens was a nice man, and she had never understood how he dealt with Papa all these years. They were like a bad marriage, always fighting, Celeste throwing things at him, yet, he never fired him. Well, that one time he did call the police on him, but then he bailed him out the same day. And never took it out of Papa’s paycheck.
As she grew closer, she could see that Papa had a dark look. Her stomach plummeted. She knew immediately that he was not happy, and she wondered if she had woken too late. Was it possible that she didn’t hear him trying to wake her? She stepped up and tried to call out her cheeriest “good morning.” Papa whirled around, and the look on his face was ugly.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?”
Rebecca stammered. “I’m sorry if I’m late.” She felt stirrings of anxiety and anger, and she knew.
Papa bent over so quickly, she didn’t even realize until he came advancing menacingly at her that he had an orange power cord wrapped around his hands. Mr. Clemens saw what he was doing and he shouted, but not before the first blow landed on Rebecca’s forearm, which she raised to try and stop him. Papa raised his hands and the cord again, but he didn’t bring it down again. Mr. Clemens had grabbed the cord from behind and that stunned Papa momentarily that Rebecca could turn and flee.
As the two men argued, Rebecca ran home. She sniffed as hot, angry tears coursed down her face, and in her mind, he was dead. She knew she had to pack up her things. She had a couple of friends, old teachers who would be able to help. Her thoughts swirled violently in her head, but one message was clear. LEAVE. She ran to her room, and grabbed a few things she had out, and thanked her lucky stars she had no closet. Everything was packed. She only had to walk out. She looked around once more, as if to say goodbye, and as she did, the front door slammed.
Papa came in, and she shuddered, wondering how much he would hit her before she escaped. She turned to look at him, and the look on his face made her stop. He was crying.
He came to her, arms outstretched, sobbing like a child. She tried to resist, tried to harden her heart, but all she saw was a child in pain. She let him envelop her, her face buried in his chest, sniffing his old familiar smell of wood, cement, dirt, and sweat. He was her Papa, and he was all she had. He petted her head and cried, only whispering “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” over and over again. She knew he was, and she knew she wouldn’t leave, at least not today. And she wondered again how Mama did it.
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