Fredy and I got to talking after he heard me speaking to my daughter Jenny over the phone in Spanish. It was after work and I was two beers in, sitting at the bar down the block from my apartment. Jenny was fourteen and had started to hate her mother. She was always calling me to complain about her. Jenny’s real name was Esperanza, but she’d started to go by Jenny. I thought it was an ugly name. I don’t remember what her problem was with her mother that particular day. It was always something new. I’d try to talk her down, but she wouldn’t listen. She hung up on me and left me speaking into the phone like a moron, going, aló? Jenny? Estás ahí?
Fredy, who was sitting two stools down from me, leaned over and went, “Mi hija tampoco me hace caso, no se preocupe.”
He asked me how old. I said fourteen. His hija was seventeen, which he said was worse, because even when he tried to pull the dad card she wouldn’t listen.
“That’s the worst part,” he said. “When they realize they don’t have to listen to you.”
His daughter was back in Ecuador with his wife and their younger son. He heard about the fights secondhand. His wife would put his daughter on the phone and Fredy would try to talk sense into her. Lately, it wasn’t working.
“I know how that goes,” I said.
I drank a third beer, then a fourth. Fredy continued on about his daughter. I reacted in ways that felt appropriate, a grunt or a nod, an occasional ayayay. I liked the way Fredy talked. He didn’t try to keep his voice down. The whole bar could hear what he was saying, but he didn’t care, so I didn’t, either. I let his voice wash over me. He asked me what I did for a living. I told him I was a store manager.
“No shit,” he said. “So, what, you’ve got insurance, and everything?” I nodded. He let out a low whistle. He told me he and a group of friends had a little home improvement business going. People would call them up and they’d go do anything they needed — fix pipes and clogged toilets, weed gardens, mow lawns. They’d built up a solid customer base, middle-class parent types. Sometimes the wives or sisters got extra cash from babysitting. Fredy reached into his jeans pocket and slipped me his card, a cut-up sliver of printer paper with his name and number written in Bic pen.
“You know who to call if you need anything done,” he said. He waved the bartender over and ordered us another round. Everything started to blur around me, but the drinks didn’t seem to be impacting Fredy at all. “Where are you from, anyway?”
“Dallas.” I knew that wasn’t really the question, but if I’d said Colombia, he would’ve asked me about it. He smiled in a way that made it clear he knew I’d avoided the question. I took a sip from my drink. “My wife’s from Ecuador, though. Just like you.”
“Yeah, she doesn’t shut up about it.”
He laughed. He said he wanted to go back. The plan had been for him to get settled and bring his family over, but the life he imagined for them here wasn’t a good one.
“Just gotta save up a bit more, then I’ll go back. Been sending them money to build a house.”
“Think you could go back after being here?”
Fredy exploded into laughter. “Hermano, I’d go anywhere after being here.”
Eventually he looked at his watch. It was almost nine p.m..
“Shit, man, we’ve gotta get you back home to your wife. She’s gonna be pissed.”
Carlota wasn’t my wife anymore, but it was too late to say that now. It was a game I played with strangers, pretending. It occured to me that I’d gotten myself tied up in this lie, that Fredy and I might actually stay in touch, and he’d find out, one way or another. I was too drunk by then to do anything about it, nor did I particularly want to.
We stepped out of the bar and Fredy pulled me into a hug. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d hugged a man. He held me tight, thumping my back with his hand, as if he knew I needed it. It almost moved me to tears.
“Give me a call, okay, if you need anything. For your house, or anything.”
I nodded. He walked down the road to catch the bus. I waved, then turned around and walked back to my apartment.
Maybe it was the drinks, but something was happening to me on that walk home. A feeling in my chest, like when you lose somebody, which didn’t make sense because it felt like I’d just found somebody. I don’t know. I don’t like to talk about these things.
I’m not sure why I went to the bar that day. I barely ever went to bars alone. It was probably because talking with Esperanza wiped me out. And because I hated going back to my apartment after work. Some days it was fine. I’d put on the radio or the TV to drown it out, and it worked. Other days, when I got off work before dinner, I’d go back to the dark ass two-bedroom and open the refrigerator door. That was the worst: trying to decide what to eat. I guess I was pretty fucking lonely, actually. Some days, no radio sound could drown it out. It was lucky that day in particular was a bad one.
I got Jenny every other weekend. It used to be every weekend, but she started telling Carlota that my place was boring. That stung. But it was nice to have some weekends free.
Driving to Carlota’s place depressed the shit out of me. She lived over in Bethesda with Robert, that white asshole she’d married a few years ago. He was a big-shot D.C. lawyer. On the drive over, the shabby apartment complexes and strip malls folded open and flowered into pure suburbia. Their house was huge, with stone walls and a back porch. Robert’s sons were already off in college. It was just him, Carlota, and Jenny in that house. I think Jenny liked Robert fine. He was a little cheesy, but I guess he was a good guy. I don’t know. I don’t like to think about him much. He was old, sixty-something, easily. I’d given Carlota a hard time about it, asked how it felt to be the Latina trophy wife. She didn’t find it very funny.
I rang the doorbell and waited, rubbing my hands together like a loser. Jenny used to come sprinting down the stairs when she heard me. She was a lot cooler now.
Carlota opened the door. “Ale, ¿cómo estás? Ven, entra.”
She stood aside and I walked into the wood-floored foyer. She bustled around me, gathering Jenny’s things. She did this sometimes, refused to look me in the eye.
“Hm? Working out, I think.” She gestured with her chin to the basement door. They had a home gym and all that.
“Keeping fit, huh?”
“You know Robert.” Carlota stood still for a moment, surveying the living room. There was nothing else for her to do. She went over to the staircase and yelled, “Esperanza, ya está tu papá.”
“Ya voy,” she called back, using her I’m-annoyed voice. Carlota raised her eyebrows at me, and we both laughed.
“Want something to drink while we wait? Something to eat?”
“I’m good, thanks. Thinking of taking Jenny out for some burgers.”
“Good luck with that. She’s a vegetarian now, apparently.” She shook her head, then leaned toward me and said in a whisper, “That girl’s driving me up a fucking wall. She’s got something fresh to say about everything. If you could remind her that I’m a person, I’d appreciate it.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” I thought of Fredy, the thing he’d said about how it only got worse from here. The teenage years, and all that. “Hey, I met an Ecuadorian guy.”
“No kidding. From where?”
“Um, I don’t know. He didn’t say, specifically.”
“He didn’t say, or you didn’t ask?” Carlota pursed her lips. “It’s always the same issue with you.”
I decided not to engage. It pissed me off, actually. She brought every conversation we had back around to this thesis: that I was some sort of terrible communicator because I didn’t ask enough questions. It wasn’t my style, I said. I was a sit-back-and-wait type of person. People always say what they want to say, eventually. If it was important.
“He’s got some business with his friends, doing odd jobs in people’s houses, and stuff. Just occurred to me that maybe you could use him around here.” I gestured around to the cavernous rooms, the high ceilings, the tall windows with views of the garden. “If you need help with any of it.”
“That’s a sweet thought, Ale. No, Robert already has his people.” She lowered her voice again. “He’s very loyal.”
I understood what she was getting at. Robert’s first wife had apparently been very traditional. Super WASPy. It was her job to manage the house, and their boys. She organized everything, and had left behind airtight systems that Carlota honored. She’d died from breast cancer ten years ago. They had to chop her tits off, one by one, which was her worst nightmare. Apparently, Robert had really loved her. I wonder what she thought, looking down and seeing him married to Carlota. And if you’re in love with Carlota, it’s hard to imagine ever having been in love with somebody else.
“Well, you know. If you ever need anything. I’ll text you his info.” I’d saved Fredy’s number in my phone, so I shared the contact with her. There wasn’t really any work Fredy could do at my apartment. But at a place like this, there was always something that needed polishing.
Finally, Jenny came downstairs. She had a backpack on and a pair of jean shorts, the ugly kind with the pockets poking out the front, not that I’d ever comment on her fashion choices.
“Hola, querida,” I said, opening my arms for a hug. She obliged, her small body folding into mine. There was no feeling like it in the world. Even when she was a pain in the ass. It was like coming home. She pulled away.
“Diviértanse,” Carlota said, but Jenny brushed her arms aside.
“I don’t get why it’s so hard for you to call me Jenny. I’ve asked you like a million times.”
Carlota looked at me. I mouthed: the stairs. She’d called her the wrong name shouting up the stairs. Carlota rolled her eyes.
“Jesus, I’m trying.”
“It’s just really not that hard.”
She sighed. “Okay, well. Have fun with your dad. Text me updates, okay?”
But Jenny was already pushing past her, out the door. I raised my eyebrows at Carlota, like, what are you gonna do?
“Take care of her, Ale,” Carlota said as she closed the door behind me.
“I always do.” This was what we said, every time.
We’d had Jenny young. She wasn’t planned, of course. We were kids.
I met Carlota in the neighborhood where I was staying with my uncle, the one who’d waited for me on the other side of the border. She was two years younger than me, but seemed to know everything. She invited me over to watch her take baths. She lived with some cousins. She told me she hated her dad but missed her mom. Unlike most of us, she went to high school. She told me I had to take the GED if I ever wanted to be with her. I was smoking a lot back then, because cigarettes smelled familiar, and there was nothing familiar about Dallas, at first. Carlota smoked her first cigarette with me, in the bathtub, her soft body rippling under the surface of the water. I watched the smoke pool out of her mouth.
“Do you love me?” she’d ask.
“Of course I do, tonta.”
We didn’t do anything, at first. We just talked. The guys gave me a hard time about it, saying I was whipped, but I was, so I didn’t care what they said. Some nights she cried and I stroked her hair. Maybe that’s where it started, her frustrations with me. There were things she wanted me to ask, but I didn’t. She didn’t ask me, either, and I liked it better that way. There are things I don’t like to talk about.
We finally fucked one night in July. It must’ve been a million degrees out. She knocked on my door one Friday and told me she’d saved up babysitting money to rent us a motel room. I took my friend’s car and we drove over. She talked my ear off on the drive, probably because she was nervous. It wasn’t my first time, I’d hooked up with some other girls here and there, little flings that left me hurting in that place I tried to ignore. But with Carlota, we couldn’t get enough of each other. We sweated through the night and the next day. She cried once and I cried twice, and it was her turn to hold me. We drank Dr. Pepper and smoked through the window. Part of me, the part my dad trained, feared I was corrupting her, or something. But I knew Carlota wasn’t like that, she wasn’t this perfect thing to be corrupted, she didn’t do anything she didn’t want to do. That night was the first and only night she said she loved me.
Carlota wanted me to take her to prom that year, but it was against school rules, so she went with some other guy, a football player, of course. She got wasted and came over in the middle of the night. I pretended to be asleep because I didn’t want her to know the truth, that I’d been torturing myself imagining her dancing with him. She looked like a quineañera with her puffy dress and fake pearls.
“I’m knocked up,” she said in my ear. I thought she was kidding, at first. In the morning she said it again. We didn’t have parents to tell us what to do, but I thought my mom would’ve wanted me to marry her, and I wanted to marry her, anyway. It was convenient I didn’t have to be corny about it.
Jenny came seven months after that. We called her Esperanza, because that was what she was. Carlota finished high school. I worked evenings. Finally, Carlota said she’d had enough of our lives there. It was time to go north. I wanted to stay, but knew better than to suggest it. She had some cousin in Maryland who could hook us up with jobs. We took Esperanza on a series of Greyhounds. The cousin turned out to be a druggie. He robbed us of everything we had, then disappeared. We never heard from him again, and we never talked about him.
We separated not long after that. Esperanza was three. Carlota was working as a receptionist, I was taking care of Esperanza and working security at a concert hall at night. I never took the GED. I got drunk sometimes and got into fights. There were a few other women, here and there. Carlota wanted something else. I wanted to go back in time, to Dallas, to that motel room. But she kept looking forward.
After we broke up, I wanted to get the shit out of Maryland. But staying meant Esperanza; staying meant Carlota. So I stayed.
Jenny said she didn’t want hamburgers. She said meat was bad for you.
“For you, not eating meat is probably unhealthy,” I said. “You come from a long line of carnivores, kid.”
“I wish you wouldn’t call me kid.”
“Sorry. Young lady. Better?”
“You’re such a loser,” she said, but she was smiling. She plugged her phone into the aux and played some music, the reggaeton that comes on in the club sometimes. Filthy lyrics.
“Please tell me you can’t understand what they’re saying.”
She laughed. “You forget I’m bilingual. It’s my superpower.”
“If a guy ever says some shit like this to you,” I said, pointing at the car radio, “you get the hell outta there.”
“It’s just a song.”
I shook my head. “It’s part of a bigger culture, Jenny, and I don’t like what this culture is teaching.”
She burst out laughing. “When did you get so woke?”
“I keep up with kids.”
“Come on, Papá, stop acting like you’re old.”
We ended up getting sushi takeout. We went back to my apartment to eat while watching movies. Carlota didn’t let her watch TV while eating. I wanted my place to be that for Jenny, a refuge. I let her choose what we watched. She picked Ratatouille.
“I’m in the mood for a throwback,” she said.
Jenny texted during the whole movie. I felt pretty dumb, watching a Pixar movie basically alone. I made comments, but Jenny would just go “Mm.” I knew she wasn’t listening to me or the movie. Whenever her phone buzzed, she smiled down at it.
“You have any dessert?” she asked when the movie ended.
“I’ve got some ice cream stuff in the freezer. Help yourself.”
“No thanks, mi amor.”
She walked over to the kitchen. As she pulled out the tub I asked, “So, who do you keep texting?”
“Nobody,” she said, not looking at me. “I mean, like my friends, and stuff.”
“Really? Your ‘friends’ make you smile like that?”
“You know.” I pulled out my phone and mimicked her cheesy, dreamy smile.
I laughed. “If you’ve got a boyfriend, that’s fine,” I said. “I was fourteen once too, you know. Not actually that long ago.”
Jenny came back to the couch balancing a bowl of chocolate ice cream. She sighed.
“Just don’t say anything to Mamá, okay?”
“Sure,” I said. “I mean, I bet she already knows. She’s smarter than you give her credit for.”
“I don’t wanna talk about her.”
“Fair enough.” A pang of sympathy for Carlota rang out in my chest. “So, who’s this boy? He go to your school?”
“Yeah. He’s two years above me.”
I tried to keep my face neutral. “What’s his name?”
I took a deep breath. “And are you guys, um.”
Jenny covered her face with a pillow. “I swear I’m going to kill myself.”
“Don’t say that.”
“I’m obviously kidding. I just don’t wanna talk about that stuff.”
“Come on. I’m your dad.”
Part of me was relieved. I didn’t really want to talk about it with her, either. Jenny was adorable; she looked just like a mini Carlota. I didn’t want to think about her in that way. She was my daughter, after all. Intellectually, I knew there was nothing wrong with her kissing her boyfriend, or more. It was normal. But instinctively, I wanted to protect her from it. Sex suddenly seemed something vile and inappropriate, some disgusting act that we’d all been tricked into believing was normal.
“Just remember, your moms was only two years older than you when she got pregnant.”
“I know. She’s always saying that to me. But like, nobody gets teen pregnant anymore.”
She fell asleep on the couch, halfway through Deadpool, the second movie in our marathon, which she’d chosen because Antonio was a big Marvel guy. Jenny, evidently, wasn’t. When the movie ended I picked her up and carried her to bed. She was heavier than before, her warm body slack in my arms. I was glad to be a young dad, right then. I was glad I could carry my nearly fully-grown girl into her bed.
She woke up slightly when I put her down and rubbed her eyes.
“You didn’t have to carry me.”
“But you looked so peaceful.”
She yawned. “You just like feeling like I need you.” She closed her eyes and snuggled into the blanket. I sat beside her and stroked her hair until she fell asleep. She said shit like that sometimes, and it scared me, how easily she saw through me. It was like she was taking care of me, and not the other way around.
I looked around at her room. It hadn’t changed much since she was seven. Pink walls; pink chest of drawers; stuffed animals in the closet. The room was small and square. The One Direction poster I’d gotten her on her eighth birthday was peeling off at the corners. The space was drab, outdated. I never went in there, except to change the sheets before and after she visited, like Carlota taught me.
The next morning, over scrambled eggs, I asked, “Do you like your room here?”
Jenny chewed, considering this. “Yeah. I mean, I guess it doesn’t really matter that much, it’s not like I’m here that often, anyways.”
“I guess that’s true.” I took a sip of coffee and tried not to look affected by what she’d just said.
“My room at Robert’s has a bathroom, which is cool.”
There was only one bathroom in my apartment, between the kitchen and my bedroom. We shared it when she stayed over. Robert’s house rose before me in my mind, the three floors, the back porch, the marble. The sharp, antiseptic smell.
“Does it feel like home to you, there?”
“I don’t know.” Jenny rubbed her eyes. Her face looked young in the mornings, cheeks puffy, no makeup on. A kid, still. “I guess it does, kind of. That’s a weird thing to ask.”
“No, it’s okay, Papá, you don’t always have to be like, sorry about everything. I just don’t think about things that way.” She pressed her lips together. “I live with Mamá, and I stay here with you, too. It’s all home, I guess, if I had to say.”
I got up to get more coffee so she couldn’t see the emotion on my face.
“Hey,” I said when I sat back down, “what about if I had your room repainted? You wanted pink when you were little, but it doesn’t seem like your vibe anymore.”
“No, I guess you’re right. All these people I follow on Insta have these off-white walls that I like. The simple aesthetic is in.”
“When did you get so cool?”
She rolled her eyes, but then she laughed.
I dropped Jenny back at Carlota’s on Sunday night. Every time I saw Carlota there were a million things I wanted to say to her. Most of them started with: Remember when…? But she had the young bride routine down pat. There was no derailing her. She hugged a reluctant Jenny, took her backpack, asked if she’d needed to use her inhaler, and thanked me. The return procedure was quick and rock-solid. There was no space for me to say or do any of the things I wanted to say or do. Like grab Carlota’s hand, look her in the eyes, and say, Remember how it was in Dallas? Remember that motel room? She stayed carefully out of my reach. It killed me a little, every time.
The lights were off in my apartment when I got back. I flicked them on, one by one. Darkness scared me. Always had. The place was lonely without Jenny there. I went around, room by room, sweeping up our crumbs and folding blankets. Carlota trained me well. She’d taken pity on me when we first broke up, taught me how to take care of my own place. It felt pathetic, but I did it every time. Tidied up. It made me feel better, after.
I called Fredy that night. It was the first time we’d talked since we met at the bar, but I’d thought about him a few times, since. On the phone, he didn’t register who I was, at first. I realized somebody as outgoing as Fredy probably befriended strangers all the time, and I was just one of a long list. He said he could come over later that week to paint Jenny’s room.
I picked the paint color at work the next day, between shifts. “Antique White” was the color I chose.
Fredy came over on Saturday afternoon, while the sun was still out.
“Sorry I couldn’t come sooner. Crazy week. Everybody’s got shit they need doing these days.”
“I guess, springtime.”
“Exactly. People want their yards ready for cookouts, all that shit.” He looked around at the apartment. “Where’s your wife and daughter, anyway?”
My stomach flipped. I’d forgotten the drunken lie I’d told him. I didn’t know whether to keep lying my way through it, or to fess up. I decided to cut my losses.
“Actually, Carlota’s not really my wife anymore. Left my ass a while ago.” I ran my hands through my hair for something to do. “She’s married now, to some white DC motherfucker.”
Fredy looked at me for a second, then burst out laughing. “That’s the most pathetic shit I’ve ever heard.”
I forced myself to laugh and throw my hands up in the air, miming defeat. He slapped my shoulder affectionately.
It was early May, one of the first truly warm days. Fredy and I moved Jenny’s furniture into the living room and laid down paper on the carpet to protect it.
“Hey, thanks for helping me, man,” Fredy said.
“The worst is when we’re working our asses off, sweating like idiots, and the dueños are just like, reading magazines in the living room, don’t even look at us.”
We put the radio on and started painting the walls. The window was open to air out the paint fumes. The breeze that came in smelled like summer. I was feeling pretty optimistic, right then. Fredy talked about some of the work he’d done that week, constructing a front porch in McLean, moving out a woman who was divorcing her husband for cheating on her. He got all kinds of gossip from his work.
“People act like I’m not there. They think I can’t speak any English. We learn all the secrets.”
The sun was setting once we were done the second coat. Our clothes were stained with paint and we were covered in sweat. He asked if I had anything to drink. I pulled two beers out of the fridge and we sat on the little balcony that overlooked the strip mall across the way.
“What’s your deal, anyway, man?” Fredy sipped his drink. “You still love her, right? Are you at least getting any?”
I didn’t look at him. “I mean, I use Tinder, and stuff. Nothing serious.”
“You didn’t answer my first question.”
Fredy laughed and clinked his bottle against mine.
“You’re lucky, you know that?”
“Are you kidding?” Fredy gestured around himself. “You’ve got this nice ass apartment, you see your daughter every other weekend, and you’re a short ride away from the woman you love.”
“It’s not like that. With me and Carlota, I mean.”
“That’s not the point, hermano.” He shook his head. “I’d rather my wife be fifteen minutes away and hate me, than 3000 miles away and love me.”
I watched Fredy. He must’ve been in his forties. Face lined and weathered, but bright, youthful eyes. I wondered when the last time he cried was. If I were in his position I’d be crying every night. But that didn’t seem like a helpful thing to say.
“So when you going back?” I asked.
“Honestly, who the hell knows.”
“Still saving up?”
“Kind of.” He shook his head. “It’s pretty embarrassing, huh. Coming here with all these big ideas about bringing the family over, having a nice place, putting the kids through school. My daughter could’ve been like yours. Una gringuita.”
I nodded, because I didn’t know what else to do. “What’s your wife say?”
“My wife? She wants to get the hell out of there. I guess I’m fucked, right?”
I didn’t know what to say. I leaned over and gave his back a little rub, not sure if he would find it weird or comforting. I think he liked it.
We drank for a bit longer, not saying much. I felt for him. I knew there was no way out of it. For the first time, I was grateful I’d crossed so young, and all by myself. I wouldn’t be able to handle living in two places at once. It was a clean break for me. Clean as I could make it. And when Esperanza was born, she was all mine. She was all we had. I’d lay her across my chest and feel her little heart beating against mine. I’d do anything for her, anything for Carlota. For Fredy, that meant leaving them behind. I was grateful I didn’t have to make that choice, because I wouldn’t have been as brave as him. I would’ve chosen wrong.
My phone rang in the middle of the night. Fredy had left at around ten. My alarm clock told me it was 3:19 a.m.
“Esperanza’s missing, Ale, I’m freaking out.” It was Carlota. I sat up in bed, trying to orient myself.
“She’s missing, caramba, I just — she was supposed to be home by midnight, but she’s not back, and I can’t reach her, I think her phone’s dead ––”
“Hold on. Let me come over.”
I threw on a sweater and flip-flops, then sprinted down to the parking garage and pulled away. It felt like I was dreaming. I probably shouldn’t have been driving. I’d had a lot to drink with Fredy. But my whole body was on high alert, buzzing with adrenaline and fear. There were barely any cars on the road. I zoomed down the highway. When I pulled up at Carlota’s, she was waiting outside, wearing pajamas.
“Any luck?” I asked when I got out of the car.
Carlota shook her head. She was crying. I tried to pull her into a hug, but she pushed me away.
“Look, he’s —” she paused and sighed. “He’s in Minneapolis. A work thing.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
Carlota explained that Jenny had gone to hang out with friends. Her curfew on Saturdays was midnight. Her dance friends were older, some of them had cars and could drive. I knew where Carlota was going with this line of thought, so I stopped her.
“She’s probably with Antonio,” I said.
“She’s got a boyfriend?” Her jaw fell slack. I knew she was hurt. She didn’t like Esperanza keeping secrets from her. I was surprised Carlota hadn’t figured it out by herself. But she was a busy woman. And it’s not like Esperanza made it easy.
I pulled out my phone and opened Instagram. Jenny didn’t post anything too personal — she probably had a secret account that she hid from us — but I clicked through enough of her friends to find Antonio’s profile. Last name: Cabal.
“What are you doing?” Carlota asked. I realized I’d gone completely silent.
“I’m finding the boyfriend. Do you think his parents are listed in the school directory?”
Carlota went inside to get her laptop. She pulled up the directory and searched the name. His home phone number was listed beneath it.
“I’ll call,” I said.
A groggy woman’s voice answered the phone. I asked if she was Antonio’s mom. She was. I explained that we were trying to find our daughter, and that she was probably with him. As we talked, Carlota watched me with big, desperate eyes.
“If you could give me his cell phone number, that would be great. We’re not trying to cause trouble. We just want to make sure our daughter’s okay.”
She gave me the number. I typed it into my Notes app. “If you get a hold of him, tell him he’s in big trouble,” she said.
I hung up, then dialed Antonio. He picked up on the fifth ring.
“Yo,” he said.
“Antonio. This is Ale, Jenny’s dad.” Carlota motioned for me to put the phone on speaker, which I did. She stood beside me and grabbed my arm.
“Oh, my god. Sir, I’m so sorry. We fell asleep.”
“Is Esperanza okay?” Carlota yelled into the phone.
“Yes, ma’am, she’s fine, we’re both okay. We were just — watching the stars, and I guess we fell asleep. I’m so, so sorry.”
Carlota rolled her eyes at me.
“Listen, Antonio,” I said. “Just bring her home, right now. We’ll figure this all out.”
“Of course, sir.” There was a rustling sound in the background. I could hear Jenny whispering something.
Carlota clutched my arm and called into the phone, “Esperanza, te juro que me vas a explicar todo, porque si no...”
I looked at Carlota, her eyes wild with worry and anger. I wanted to tell her to calm down. I wanted her to trust Esperanza. I took the phone off speaker and pressed it against my ear.
“By the way, Antonio, your mother says you're in trouble.”
“Fuck. I mean––sorry. We’ll be home in like twenty minutes.”
I hung up the phone, then looked at Carlota. Her face was bright red.
“Watching the stars? I’m going to kill that girl. Jesus, she’s fourteen!”
I tried not to think about what Jenny and Antonio had been doing. “At least she’s safe. And not dead in a ditch, or something.”
She slapped my arm. “Why would you say something like that?”
A hot pit of frustration flared up in my stomach. “Can’t you give me a little credit here? I mean, Jesus, why do you think she doesn’t tell you anything?”
It was satisfying to say, the way it’s always satisfying to hurt someone, and to be in the right—and the burst of guilt that follows. Carlota put her face in her hands and shook her head.
“Sorry,” I said, even though I wasn’t, really.
“I can’t believe she has a boyfriend. And I can’t believe you didn’t tell me.”
“I just want her to feel comfortable telling me things.”
“Okay but, the whole co-parenting only works if we’re honest with each other.”
“Sorry.” We sat in silence for a while longer. Eventually I asked, “Did you end up calling Fredy?”
“Fredy, from the bar. The guy with the fix-it business. Whose number I gave you.”
“Oh, no, I didn’t. Like I said, we’ve got our people here.”
I nodded. “Right. He was at my place earlier today, repainting Jenny’s room.”
“That’s a nice idea.”
Carlota glanced at me. She smiled the same smile that got me all those years ago. She had little crows feet snatching the corners of her eyes and her dark hair had lost its shine—it used to glitter under the Texas sun, making my stomach flip––but she looked better now, even better than before. She pulled a cigarette out of the pocket of her sweater and lit one.
“Since when do you smoke?”
“Only on rare occasions.” She lit one and inhaled, then handed it to me. I hadn’t smoked in over a decade, but I took it, I couldn’t explain why. I guess because she was offering, and I’d accept anything she offered.
Before I could stop myself I said, “Do you ever wish we could just go back?”
A rich, watery blue had begun to wash over the night sky. It would be morning soon. For a split second, I imagined that this was my house, our house, that we lived here together, that we were normal parents in a normal suburban home with a normal, misbehaving daughter. The air smelled of wet grass and springtime.
“Dallas. That shitty ass room we stayed in. The studio. When we painted the walls to make it feel homey. Esperanza crying through the night.” I puffed on the cigarette again. “It felt like this, sometimes, when she kept us up with her crying and we would watch the sun rise, do you remember?”
Carlota didn’t respond. After a while she said, “I thought you meant back. Like, back back.”
It took me a moment to realize what she meant. Images started flashing in my mind, and I tried to stop them before they took over. I had practiced this: taking deep breaths, focusing on the present moment, the feeling of the ground beneath me. I am here right now, I repeated in my head.
Her hand reached out for the cigarette, but it was mine now, it had my mouth on it and each inhale was bringing me further and further away from myself. She pulled out another and lit it for herself.
“Estamos jodidos, ¿no?” She laughed and dragged on her cigarette again. “I’m pregnant, you know.”
“Yep. Took a test a few days ago. Robert and I have been trying for a while now.” She took another drag, which didn’t seem like a good idea to me, but I knew better than to comment on it. “I hope it’s a girl. I want a son, but I’d love to see Robert with a little girl.”
It hurt me every time I talked to Carlota. I knew that if I could, I’d go back to that night in the motel in a heartbeat. I’d do it all over again, and I wouldn’t be unfaithful, I’d take the GED, we’d stay in Dallas, I wouldn’t let the hangover of my childhood hurt us the way it had. There was nothing I could do about it now. Carlota had moved on. She was the love of my life, and I wasn’t hers. As always, she was gazing forward, and I was looking back.
“Congratulations,” I said. I thought of Jenny, and the parents she was coming back to. There was that guilt again, that we hadn’t given her a good life. And somewhere, too, a burst of pride, that I could never admit to Carlota. That I was her dad, first and foremost, and that I would never leave her behind.
Carlota leaned her head against my shoulder. I remembered the thing Fredy said about distance, and love. I understood that the life I’d been living was small and backward-facing. I decided I’d call him again in the morning. No pretexts this time. No money exchanged. I’d just call and see if he wanted to get a drink. That was a thing that people did.