Humberto sprinted across the middle school’s parking lot. He was in such a hurry he had forgotten to lock the Ford’s doors and grab his wallet. His gait was long and light. It surprised him how sprightly his forty-one-year-old body could still move. For a brief second, he felt exhilarated to allow his body such freedom of movement. Humberto felt unbound, until he had to throttle his speed and enter the long, cool corridor of offices in the administration building, which separated from the main row of classrooms.
They hadn’t told him much on the phone. It was hard to hear the vice principal clearly in the shop. An old Tercel was getting lifted onto the stack for a rotation and the boys were arguing again about Obama—the car had a large HOPE sticker on the rear which had promoted the rantings and debate. The mechanics would debate anything. They took exquisite pleasure in forming their arguments and counterpoints. And when all else failed to change their opponent’s mind, they elegantly told them to go fuck themselves. Humberto had left right before the eat shit and die began.
Was Yessenia okay? He wondered if someone had hurt his daughter. He couldn’t take another loss. They couldn’t.
The secretary nodded while he explained the call and who he was. She clicked away in her black pumps to see if the vice principal was ready. The woman was attractive with her mousy features and curious brown eyes. Humberto felt a shock of guilt for admiring this woman. After everything, he still wore his wedding band.
When the secretary returned to the front desk, she waved for him to follow. She led him to a modest office in the back. Before departing, she whispered, “sorry about your wife.” So she had heard, Humberto thought. They discussed gossip more at those PTA meetings than student performance.
“Thanks,” he said and gave a polite, toothless grin. He still didn’t know how to react, but she seemed to mean well, and he liked looking at her. Her freckles made him think of lazy summer days.
In the office, there were diplomas and certificates all over the walls. There was a large mahogany bookshelf that ran along the length of the wall. Humberto thought all these books were for show. If he asked, he’d bet the VP didn’t even like to read.
Yessenia was in the chair across from the Vice Principal, Mr. O’Hare. Humberto took the seat next to his daughter and scanned her face for signs of damage. She looked so much like Mirta it was hard for him to not feel an immediate lump in his throat whenever he looked at her. It had been thirteen months since Mirta’s death, and yet the pain felt ceaseless. Humberto thoroughly believed it’d never end.
“What’s going on?” Humberto asked. “I got here as fast as I could.”
Humberto was still in his mechanic jumper. There were oil stains on his chest and sleeves. Although he had become inured to the shop smells, he imagined he probably stunk heavily of gasoline and sweat. He felt out of place, especially compared to Mr. O’Hare who wore a navy gabardine suit with a checkered pocket square and gold horn-rimmed glasses. This was the type of man who knew which fork to use at a fancy restaurant.
Mr. O’Hare cleared his throat. “I wish we were meeting under happier circumstances, Mr. Sandoval, but your daughter was caught self-harming. We also found this in her bag.” He delicately held up a box cutter. Had she pilfered it from Humberto’s toolbox? What was Yessenia doing with it? What did self-harm really mean? Humberto’s English had barely improved since moving to the states. Everyone at the shop spoke Spanish, which didn’t incentivize Humberto to practice his English. With the Gringo customers Humberto got his point cross with elaborate hand-pointing and gesturing. He wished for Mirta. She had studied English at La Universidad de la Habana.
“Your daughter set off the entry metal detector this morning. We found this on her person.” Mr. O’Hare daintily put a boxcutter on his desk. Humberto recognized it as the boxcutter he kept in the catch-all for packages. He wondered if he could ask for it back but didn’t. “Her intention may have been to self-harm, but she hasn’t been the most cooperative. She’s going to receive two-weeks of outdoor suspension.”
“Two weeks?” Humberto wanted to ask more questions, have the man explain, but nothing came out of his mouth. Much of his mental bandwidth was being used to translate the English to Spanish and then his responses from Spanish to English. It felt like trying to change a tire on a moving vehicle. Humberto said, defeatedly, “Okay.”
As Humberto and Yessenia walked out of the office Mr. O’Hare said, “Also I’m sorry for your loss. If it were my wife…” his voice dimmed, perhaps uncertain whether to finish his thought. Humberto had learned that the other side of sympathy was a self-centered gratitude at having been spared a similar fate. “Take care. Thank you for coming in.”
On the ride back home, Humberto kept looking at Yessenia. Would the universe take from him again? What was wrong with the girl? Why would she hurt herself? Had he misunderstood Mr. O’Hare? Was she trying to harm her classmates or herself? The moody fourteen-year-old girl next to him picking at her nails seemed so different from the pig-tailed munchkin he used to take to Amelia Earhart Park who’d beg to go higher on the swing. “More, Papi!” She’d demand, smiling her gap-toothed smile. “Pa’riba!”
At a red light, he cleared his throat. He needed to know what was going on with his daughter. “Show me.”
“Show you what?” She leaned away from him. “We’re on the road, Dad.”
Dad? She had stopped calling him Papi when she started at that Our Lady of Lourdes, which Mirta had insisted would be better than the assigned public high school in Hialeah. He hated the sound of the word “dad.” It was more like a chewing noise, empty, incomplete, hard on both ends. When she said it in private, Humberto wondered who it was for? None of her little Gringo friends were listening, which meant something in her really had changed. This was who she was now. Surely the girl that said Papi and insisted on spending every moment outside would have never self-harmed, surely. But that was a girl who still had a mother, a counterpoint to Humberto.
“Basta. Lift the sleeve. Are you trying to kill yourself?”
Yessenia pulled at one of her red slapbands. “No,” she said weakly. “You can’t make me.”
The light was still red. Humberto leaned over the center console and grabbed her wrist. With his other free hand, he rolled down the black cotton fabric of The Ramons jacket she always wore over her school uniform. “Dios santo. What is this?” A Kia behind them honked. The light had changed, and Humberto released her.
There were rows of cuts down her arm like tally marks. The scars and scabs were deep, and he took this to mean she had been cutting for a while. Humberto kept his eyes forward on Le Jeune Road, but what he had seen lingered. He could see the wounds in front of him as if it were an afterimage effect. They stopped at the light on 42nd and NW 6th Street, near the OceanBank cinema. Humberto thought of Mirta’s body in the hospital after she’d been T-boned by the driver. The bones in her legs had skewered through her thighs, her chin had been partially collapsed, and her front teeth had shattered—she had once been so proud of her smile. She’d find any reason to smile, whether it was for a Zebra Longwing that had landed on her shoulder or because the clouds that day looked like a banana rat. Bodies change. Now, buried in the ground, he imagined her body was still changing.
“Why do you do that?” He demanded. His gaze bounced between the road and his daughter.
Yessenia pulled her legs to her chest. She wiped the sides of her eyes. Humberto asked again, louder. She cried into her sleeve. “I miss her.”
He scoffed. He missed her as well. But he wasn’t causing a scene or hurting himself. He couldn’t understand this behavior. If you missed someone, you’d honor them, Humberto thought. You’d do everything in your power to make them proud. Mirta jumped through a million hoops to get her into Lourdes, Yessenia knew that, and still let herself be suspended. Malagradecida. “So do I. But you don’t see me acting like a crazy person. ¿Qué te pasa?
“I don’t know,” she whimpered.
They were almost home. Humberto thought of calling the shop owner to see if he could get an extra two hours before they closed or come in earlier tomorrow. He was already calculating how much his next paycheck would be and if it’d be enough to cover rent, or if he’d need to get another payday loan. Chewy, one of the older mechanics, was always looking to leave early to go fishing on the Rickenbacker. Maybe he’d let Humberto cover his closing shift.
Yessenia’s head was between her legs while she cried. The noise of his daughter weeping should have made Humberto feel sympathy, or pity, for his girl, but instead he felt rage at himself (for raising such a weakling) and at her (for not better managing her emotions). Everyone was upset by what happened to Mirta. Everyone. “Stop crying,” he said, pulling into the duplex’s parking lot. “How are you ever going to find a husband acting like this?”
She grabbed her Jansport from the backseat with the white Tamagotchi her mother had bought her. Humberto didn’t get out of the car. “Make lunch. I have to go and make up the hours I lost because of you.” He could hear his own cruelty. It was almost as though he was observing himself but couldn’t stop. There was something addictive about this behavior. A power he had nowhere else in his life. She was the only one he could take his rage out on. “And don’t kill yourself while I’m gone. Dramática.”
They locked eyes.
Yessenia really was a physical replica of Mirta, especially the way she expressed her anger. Both women clenched their jaws, flared their nostrils, and pinched their brows. Yessenia swallowed. “It should have been you.” She stormed down the driveway, past the aloe vera shrub Mirta had planted, and worked her key into the door’s lock.
That selfish little girl. She didn’t care that Humberto’s paycheck would be short. She didn’t care about missing school. She didn’t care about how her behavior reflected on the family. He lowered his window and called to her. “Ven acá. Come here.” She couldn’t talk to him like that. Who did she think she was? Was this how all her Gringo friends spoke to their parents? “Apologize,” he said. “Discúlpate.”
“For what? For putting a roof over your head and buying you clean clothes? For paying that head shrinker for you? Tell me. For what do I need to apologize?”
“Dad! You’re being really mean—”
“Yours is the worst life ever, right? La pobre. No one’s suffering worse than Yessenia Sandoval. Do you know how much that fucking school costs us?” Humberto listened to the low growl of the engine. For moment, he mistook it for his voice. “We’re not rich, Yessy.”
“I hate you!” Yessenia shouted, tossing her backpack to the ground. That also cost money. Humberto had driven to three Sports Authoritys to get her the right backpack. Her hands gripped the edges of the window. She spit on Humberto. Suddenly, his rage seized him. “I hate you too!” He yanked on one of Yessenia’s braids, hard, and she fell forward, hitting her chin on the car door. Humberto thought he heard a pop. After a breath and a realization of what he’d done the anger chilled. Had he really hit his baby girl? He killed the engine and opened the door. “I’m so sorry—"
“Why do you get to live? And mom dies? Yessenia cried. “You should be the dead one! You! You! You!” She picked herself up and ran into the duplex.
“Yessenia!” Humberto noticed the neighbor who lived in the front duplex was outside, probably pretending to water his guava tree but really chismosiando, listening.
He picked up her Jansport and noticed the Tamagotchi was beeping. It needed food or to be walked or something. Keeping this little thing alive was hard work, he thought while looking at the flashing digital screen.
Back at the shop, Chewy agreed to let Humberto cover his remaining shift in exchange for splitting any customer tips fifty-fifty. Humberto needed all the money he could get. It still astounded him that lawyers could charge $150 an hour. They made his whole day’s pay in sixty minutes. It almost felt criminal.
While rotating a customer’s tires, he talked to Nacho, one of the mechanics Humberto had started with in ’98. Nacho had three daughters, so Humberto felt comfortable talking to him about Yessenia. Nacho loved offering advice, yet a lot of his family success seemed due to luck and his put-upon wife’s involvement.
“¿Qué hago? What do I do? I don’t know how to talk to her,” Humberto said, lifting the car on the rack. “We have the hearing soon.”
Nacho wiped his hands. “Bueno, have you apologized?”
“This again. For what?”
Apologizing was one of the many things Mirta did for him. Every time Humberto had messed up (forgetting to pick her up from soccer or using one of her dresses as a wash rag or not noticing that she had changed up her hair), Mirta would sit on Yessenia’s bed and apologize on his behalf. Sometimes Humberto would press himself against the door, listening. Humberto’s parents never apologized. They would act like nothing had happened and then talk about world events, as if to say that there were bigger offenses happening elsewhere.
Humberto’s spine ached. Years at the shop had ruined his posture and bones. He thought of not rotating any tires and just telling the customer he had. “She’s taking the stand in three days. The lawyer says she can help our case. She was in the car when it happened. He says she can show that it was gross negligence and not ordinary. She saw the driver on the phone. The phone! Can you believe that? And the fucker says he wasn’t on his cellphone. I need her to be normal. She can put the bad man away. And it’s like she doesn’t care!”
“That’s a lot of pressure on a kid.” Nacho picked at a callous on this thumb. The skin came off in a long curling string. Nacho tossed the skin onto the floor. “Were you an hijo de puta to girls when you were younger?”
“No. Why?” Humberto didn’t think so. He opened car doors for his dates, never got handsy, and always understood no meant no, and not keep trying. Gestures that at the time seemed chivalrous, and now that he raised a daughter seemed like the bare minimum.
“If you were an asshole to women, the universe gives you girls.”
Humberto stretched his back. The movement seemed to give him temporary relief. “So what does that say about you? You have three daughters.”
Nacho flashed a devious smile. “And all three have taught me to shut up and say sorry.”
For two days Humberto and Yessenia ignored one another. They were like trains on programmed tracks. Each timed their excursions to the bathroom, and neither lingered in the living room. Humberto wondered if her silence was a punishment. He’d read an article about how Jehovah’s Witnesses practiced shunning. It was supposed to be so excruciating that the sinner would have no choice but to return to the flock.
On the third day, Yessenia was in the kitchen serving herself ajiaco and mumbling to the Tamagotchi, which she bounced in the cradle of her palm like a sleepless new-born.
This would end tonight. Humberto needed to make sure she was prepared to speak to the court and testify. The driver was a celebrity chef, renowned for his upscale Mediterranean restaurant on Alton Road. Despite what the chef had done people still patronized his restaurants, and last month has appeared in the paper with the Miami Beach city commissioner. Humberto was afraid that people would rather preserve a rich man’s dignity than honor some immigrant woman’s life. After passing the breathalyzer, the chef was escorted back to his Coco Plum house. Humberto’s goal was for the chef to be charged with vehicular homicide and receive the maximum sentencing of fifteen years in Florida. This, his attorney had informed Humberto, would not be easy.
He took Yessenia’s plate out of her hands and sat at the table. He’d give the food back once things were set straight
“What are you doing?” Yessenia grasped for the ajiaco. “I’m hungry.”
“Oye, are you ready for tomorrow? Did you look over the papers the attorney gave us? Are you practicing?”
“I’m not going tomorrow. It’s stupid.” She reached once more for the food, but Humberto lifted the plate out of her reach. “Fine. I don’t want any of that nasty shit anyways. I’ll go to McDonalds.” She stood up from the table and walked out.
Humberto followed her as closely as a shadow. “What do you mean? You have to. You were there! You saw him on the phone! Don’t you want to put a bad man away?”
Yessenia was outside now, storming down the driveway, ignoring everything her father screeched. Soon they were on West 65th Street. She waited by the crosswalk for the light to change. Humberto stood beside her. He’d get through to her. He would. “You don’t care that this comepinga is going to get away with killing your mother?”
The light changed and Yessenia bolted down the street.
Humberto tried to match her speed, but the pain in his lower back returned and camped at the base of his spine. “So what do you care about?” Humberto demanded. “Tell me. What’s important to you? Trying to kill yourself? Missing school? That Tamaichi thing?” They were a block away from the golden arches. Yessenia hadn’t said a word. Once they were inside, she got in line to order.
Humberto stood behind her. He used to take Mirta to McDonald’s on their date nights. He felt ashamed that the value meals were all they could afford, but Mirta always reassured him that it was all she needed to be happy. “It’s about the company, not the food. Besides, even rich people eat McDonald’s,” she told him, dipping a fry into his Oreo McFlurry. She once dared him to go into one of the tubes in the jungle gym if he wanted a kiss from her. He got stuck halfway in. He could hear her raucous laughter and snorting as the crew of teenagers yanked at his heels to pull him out.
“Yessenia, please.” His hands were trembling, and his mouth felt overly dry. What would happen if she didn’t testify? Could he convince their attorney to reschedule? Maybe Humberto could talk her into a written statement instead.
There were three people in front of Yessenia. Some were still unsure of what to order and hmmed and ummed.
Humberto grabbed Yessenia’s shoulder—to outsiders he must have seemed like a creepy old man hounding a teenaged girl, but he didn’t care what others saw or thought. “You used to be sweet. I used to tell people I had the best kid. You were so nice and happy. What happened? When you were little, you’d run up to me when I got back from work and give me the biggest hug. Why are you like this?” He rubbed his eyes. The silence was getting to him. Between not getting to say goodbye to Mirta and this he was beginning to realize that silence really was a punishment. He was owed a response. He raised her, spent money on her, worked a bullshit job for her. He bared his teeth. “When did you become such a bitch?”
Yessenia said nothing. When she reached the front of the queue, she ordered a McChicken, value fries, and a soft serve chocolate ice cream. Humberto’s stomach began growling as he smelled the peanut oil and salt wafting towards him from the kitchen.
Yessenia took her receipt and waited by the semi-functioning soda machines.
Humberto followed. “You’re not going to say anything?” She looked away. “You were in the car with her. You saw everything. If you don’t testify, we may not win. No one will hear what happened, what we lost, what it’s like for people like us. Everyone gets to take from us. Fuck us over sideways all the time. Not this time. Please. Not this time.”
Yessenia folded the receipt and looked down at her sandalias. There was dirt on her toes and heels.
When her food was ready, Yessenia took her tray and walked to the outdoor dining section across from the kid’s play area. There was a family eating across from them. One of their kids swam in the ball pit, while the other worked his way to the center of a sundae.
Humberto followed. He sat across from her and continued. “I can leave the room when you testify. Or drop you off and then pick you up.” His breath was quick and choppy. He felt the chapped skin on his lips beginning to crack. Humberto wished he had ordered some fries or a McDouble or something. He felt his blood pressure dropping. “Please, say something.”
Yessenia looked at him blankly and then took a bite of her sandwich. “It’s not going to bring Mami back. None of this will.”
Suddenly the rage of the situation, of his life, of every injustice he had had to ignore for the sake of his citizenship and family pulsed through his body. This wasn’t an offense he could disregard. The fury radiated from his back, up his shoulder, through his forearm and out his palm: He slapped Yessenia across the face.
She tumbled out of her chair and onto the plastic foam floor. “What the fuck?” Yessenia held her face and worked to pick herself up.
The family across from them had seen the whole incident. The mother stormed over to Yessenia and lifted her to her feet. Holding Yessenia, the mother said, “I’m calling the police.” She shifted and scanned Yessenia. “You alright, baby?”
The mother glared at Humberto. “Don’t you dare move.”
Humberto tried to explain but the mother shook her head. She wouldn’t let him speak. He was doubtful he could articulate himself well. And what was there to articulate? He had hit her. There was no ambiguity there. It wasn’t a courtroom; he couldn’t try to make his case in the play area of a burger joint. The way the mother preened and fussed over Yessenia made Humberto feel even more inadequate as a parent. A stranger was better with his daughter than he was.
Thirty-two minutes later the police arrived. Yessenia and the family testified to the assault. “…And then he hit the girl square in the face. We saw it all. I’m sure it’s also on the store’s cameras. I think I saw him kick her too. He was wild, officer, wild.”
“Yes, he slapped me…Yes…Mhm.”
They cuffed Humberto, read him his rights, and placed him into the back of their beat-up Crown Vic.
From the window he could see Yessenia. She was rubbing her cheek and talking to the mother. After a beat, Yessenia fell into the woman’s arms and cried into her chest. The mother rubbed Yessenia’s hair. Humberto could almost hear the cooing sound he assumed the mother was making, like a lullaby. As the car lurched forward, Humberto realized he had gotten what he wanted. Yessenia testified and a bad man was being put away.
Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer, translator, and painter. She is the author of Crossing the Hyphen (Tolsun 2022). Her work has appeared in CRAFT, PANK, Sinister Wisdom, and more. Pendas has received awards from the Academy of American Poets, FIU, and two Pushcart nominations.