The day before Noche Buena, I decided I’d waited long enough and set off to Tío Fito’s apartment to find my dad. I’d been back in Miami for three days at that point, and Papi had only called once—the day I got in from Rawlings, to make sure my flight landed and that I’d been on it. He didn’t ask how my first semester went, or make plans to see me so he could ask me this in person over a meal or something. I figured he’d call again, and when he didn’t—and when Noche Buena, the most family-infested of holidays, crept up on me faster than it ever did when I was a kid—I decided to just be pissed off. I thought, what is the most Latina thing I could do right now (I thought about my choices in these terms since being home, after my sister Leidys said, when I described the new coral paint job on our apartment complex as “sufficiently tropical,” that I should “quit acting so white”), and decided that it was this: jacking my mom’s keys and yelling that I was borrowing the car as the front door slammed behind me, driving to my dad’s brother’s apartment, demanding whoever was there to tell me where my dad lived now, then driving to that place, and then yelling as many fuck-as-adjective expressions at Papi as I could generate, all the while still standing in the street in chancletas. It would be a lot like the fights I’d seen him have with my mom, and therefore definitely not white.
I got to Fito’s apartment half dreading my dad’s car would be in the visitor’s spot, but it wasn’t, which meant I would get a practice run at yelling at someone in addition to the lame sassing of the rearview mirror I’d done at red lights on the drive there. Two of Fito’s sons, cousins a little older than me, stood talking and smoking in front of the apartment’s sliding glass doors, which led out to a railing-surrounded patch of concrete just off the complex’s parking lot. I parked and walked up to the railing into the open arms of my cousins, who were, as they put it, chilliando (not a word, but I kept that to myself, since identifying something as “not a word” is a Leidys-certified white thing to do). We hugged and they held their cigarettes way out from our kiss-on-the-cheek greeting. I stood still for a second, the railing pressed against my hipbone as my hand worked the gate’s latch, and waited for them to say welcome home or something, but the blank faces looking at me from behind swirls of cigarette smoke just said, So…what’s up, Lizet?
—I just got back from New York, I said, knowing they’d think I meant the city and not upstate.
—What, you went on vacation? the older one said. I only knew him as Pato and I realized I wasn’t positive on his or his brother’s real names, even though we counted each other as cousins. The other one was called Fito like his dad.
—No, college, bro. I was away at college. I just got back from like, three months away. Hello?
—No shit, Fito said. All the way in New York? That’s fucking crazy, whoa!
—Woooooow, Pato said, less impressed. He put his cigarette back in his mouth and held it there, turning his head to the parking lot.
—I thought we didn’t see you cuz of your dad! Fito said. Or, I mean, you know, your mom?
He wrinkled his eyebrows and looked at his cigarette like it had the answer to this delicate etiquette issue: how to address my parents’ separation, the one that allowed my revised financial aid package to be enough to make Rawlings a real option.
—My dad didn’t mention I was away at college? I said.
The tip of Pato’s cigarette flared orange.
—No! Fito said. I mean, yeah, he did, but I figured you were around, like at Miami-Dade or like, FIU.
I was about to tell him about Rawlings—the rankings, the profile in Newsweek, how freaking hard it was to get into and stay in that school—before thinking about Leidys. The fourth or fifth time she accused me of acting white was when I told her about how I’d gone with my mom to pick up Dante, Leidys’s ten-month-old son, from daycare, and that the girl ranked number nine in my graduating high school class was working there as a teacher’s helper and was five months pregnant with her boyfriend-turned-fiancé’s kid. I handed my nephew over to Leidys after carrying him in from the car and eventually (and without really thinking about it) said that seeing that girl there was depressing. I think my exact words were, It just really bummed me out. I thought that was delicate enough, considering that Leidys was nineteen and still trying to convince her ex-boyfriend (and Dante’s dad) Rolando to, at the very least, show up on weekends and hang out with his kid.
—What the fuck is bum you out? You sound so freaking white, she said, Dante squealing between us. Stop thinking your shit don’t stink and freaking help me.
I almost made some reference to shit stinking and diaper changing, but she gestured to the bags of groceries still waiting outside the apartment door, which she’d picked up on her way back from her job at the salon, and started cooing in broken Spanish to my nephew as she swept him into the room we were sharing since I got there.
I’d hurt her feelings without realizing it, which based on my social interactions during my last three months at mostly-white Rawlings, felt to me more white than anything else I’d done since being back. That, and my weird reaction to the Ariel Hernandez protests happening two blocks down from our building, which I felt were getting seriously out of hand but which every other Cuban around me in Little Havana thought were a totally acceptable way of behaving. My inability to get as upset as my mom about the possible deportation of some Cuban kid who floated over during my Thanksgiving Break, his omnipresent face on our TV screen pretty much ruining my first time home, made me think that Rawlings had changed me in a way that I worried was, for the first time, bad.
I decided to explain Rawlings to my cousins in the way I’d first thought about it, which was not accurate, but was enough to get me past them and into the apartment.
—The college I’m at is more like UM than FIU, in that it’s freaking expensive, but the football team is shitty, and I got this stupid scholarship that covers a lot of it, so, yeah, that’s why I’m there.
Fito nodded and smiled. Pato pulled the cigarette out of his mouth, tossed it over my head into the parking lot behind me, grabbed the sliding glass door’s handle and said, You wanna beer?
Inside sat Tío Fito—Fito the Elder—eyes glassy and with a bottle of Becks (la llave, we all called it, because of the little drawing of a key on the label) snuggled between his legs. He was watching a Marlins game, which confused the hell out of me until little Fito explained it was a tape of the 1997 World Series.
—Two years later and he still don’t believe we won it, little Fito said. Pato laughed and went to the fridge to get bottles for everyone.
Tío Fito stood up, placing the bottle on the tile by his spot on the couch, and staggered over to me for a hug. He was shirt-less and, aside from the preponderance of gray chest hair, the broken little veins sprawling over his cheeks, and the deep lines on his forehead that spelled out the eleven years he had on Papi, looked pretty much like an alcohol-drenched version of my dad, down to the goatee and the heavy eyelashes.
—Meri Cree Ma! he slurred.
He’d come over from Cuba later than my dad, and his English was never as good as it would’ve been had the Mariel boat lift dropped him off somewhere further north of Miami, or if he’d come over as a kid, like my dad.
—Merry Christmas, Tío. Where’s Papi?
He backed away from our hug and fell back into the couch, into the spot where the cushions held his shape. He breathed in sharply, then pressed his hand to his belly and burped.
—Yo, this dude is so drunk, I said with a fake laugh. Pato muttered from the kitchen, Shut the fuck up.
—Eh? Tío said. Tu papi? No here.
He shook his head and flapped his arm around to indicate the living room and kitchen of the apartment. Pato yelled in my direction, You forget how to speak Spanish in New York?
—No, I mean, where does he live?
—You don’t know where he lives? I heard Pato say into the fridge.
—Ok, that’s messed up, Lizet, Fito my cousin said from behind me.
I whirled around to him and yelled, He never told me.
Pato yelled from the fridge, You ever ask?
I hissed, Of course, and believed it for all of two seconds. Because, as I turned back to Big Fito, whose face, in the glow of the TV screen, looked brighter and younger than it should, I scanned the last three months—only two sad phone conversations, the botched Thanksgiving reunion that the traffic surrounding Ariel’s arrival crowded around as we talked on my mom’s buildings steps—for the moment where I actually said the words, Papi, can I have your address? I couldn’t find it, and that’s when I started to worry that maybe he was mad at me for not asking.
—He’s still in Hialeah, my Tío said in Spanish. He kept his eyes on the screen while picking up his bottle and said, In the apartments by your old house, what are they called? Hialeah Gardens Villas, him and that Dominican guy from his job, like roommates.
The idea of my dad having a roommate almost made me laugh: all this time, the stories we could’ve told each other, maybe helped each other out. Then I thought about mine: lacrosse star Jillian, now back in Cherry Hill, New Jersey (“The good part,” she’d been sure to tell me), celebrating not Noche Buena, but just regular storybook Christmas, sledding and drinking boozy eggnog and reading Dickens around a fire and hunting geese or whatever white people did on Christmas. If his roommate was the Dominican guy I’d met a few times, a tile guy—my dad’s age, maybe in the U.S. a year or two, claiming to look hard for a wife but only meeting hoochies—that Papi met while doing drywall at jobsite a couple months before him and my mom spilt up, then our experiences of having roommates probably didn’t have much in common. His guy seemed totally normal.
—Apartamento dos, Tío said.
—No Papi, it’s doce, Pato yelled at him. He stepped across the tiny living room and tipped a bottle in my direction. Apartment twelve. Papi’s bad with numbers.
—Why do–, I said. You know where he lives?
—Yeah? Pato said. He pulled the bottle away. You wanna say something about it? You wanna bitch about it like your mom?
Little Fito stepped between us and yelled, Yo, chill man! It’s like, almost Christmas and shit!
He put his hand flat on Pato’s chest.
The most Latina thing I could have done then, I think, was smack him and tell him there was more coming if he wanted to talk about my mom. But his squinting eyes, the cocked head, the white knuckles choking the neck of the beer bottle, the muscles flashing around his jaw—all of it said, Get out. And I felt suddenly very cold and scared of him. Had he always been quick to get mad like that? Was me noticing it for the first time right then a sign that I’d already been gone too long? Had they always been so loud and aggressive in the house, or did I, without even realizing it, somehow grow used to nice, mostly-quiet white girls like Jillian, who showed you she hated you by folding her laundry extra sharply and clearing her throat while she did it?
—Oye! Old Fito yelled. He shushed us and pointed at the TV.
I looked at Pato, then at little Fito, and said, Number 12, in the Villas?
—Yeah, little Fito said, letting his hand drop. He took the beer his brother had offered me. I took a step back towards the sliding glass door. Tell him we said wassup, he said, opening the door for me.
—Or don’t, Pato said.
He stared at me a second too long and then turned around, disappearing down the apartment’s hallway, his words—in an annoying, high pitched girl-voice, in an accent that I know Leidys would have a word for—trailing behind him: Yo, this dude is so drunk!
Out by the railing, little Fito said, Pato’s a dick. Forget him.
He kissed me on the cheek and opened the gate for me—the bitter beer on his breath wafting across my face. I wanted to ask little Fito what I was missing, but to need him to tell me was worse than anything. Asking questions would only show little Fito that his brother was right about me.
—Merry Christmas, he said, the gate still open. Hope things get better with Tío.
I said, Me too. I clicked the gate shut behind me and hurried to my mom’s car, only getting it when I turned the key in the ignition, the car baking me inside even in December: he didn’t mean Tío Fito. He meant his tío. My dad. He meant that what came next for me could be worse than just a drunk uncle. By the time I pulled out of the spot and passed their apartment, no one waited outside, new cigarettes in hand, to wave goodbye. The glass door was shut, and through it, I saw the glow from the TV, the green of the baseball diamond on its screen washing over my uncle, making him look like a memory of someone—like a ghost I only barely recognized—as I drove away.
Jennine Capó Crucet is the author of How to Leave Hialeah, which won the Iowa Short Fiction Award (making her the first Latina to win the prize in its forty-year history), the John Gardner Memorial Book Prize, and the Devil's Kitchen Reading Award in Prose. The book went on to be named a best book of the year by the Miami Herald, the New Times, and the Latinidad List. The collection's title story won a PEN/O. Henry Prize and appears in the 2011 O. Henry Prize Anthology; it's the basis for her next book, a novel called Magic City Relic (St Martin's Press, 2015.) NOTE: At the time of publication in Kweli, the working title for the novel was Send a Dozen to Get One Through.
A former sketch comedienne and scriptwriter for NPR's The Writer's Almanac, she has also worked in the non-profit sector as an advisor to first-generation college students from low-income families living in the South Central Los Angeles area. Her writing has appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, Epoch, The Rumpus, The Southern Review, Crazyhorse, Gulf Coast, and other magazines. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Florida State University. Visit her online at www.jcapocrucet.com.