When Kate was born, I could see her father in her face. Flattened and oval, her eyes were wider than they were tall. She had fine, dark tufts of hair from the start.
My daughter left people curious. The boldest might ask, “What is she?” as if my daughter were an alien or a freak. I enjoyed seeing the confused embarrassment on their faces when I dared pose the question, “What do you mean?”
Later, in high school, Kate had only the faintest hint of her father left. She was beautiful, certainly, thin and athletic-looking, with perfectly straight reddish-brown hair that had the exact right thickness. If you looked at her long, you might glimpse in her eyes something that suggested an exoticism you couldn’t pinpoint.
Exotic. That’s what I thought of her father when we first met.
* * *
He stood across the crowded living room, with everyone talking at the same time. People were packed into the three small downstairs rooms of my house to celebrate the opening of our first cooperative art gallery. I’d put together one of those outfits I could get away with then – a snug, sleeveless leotard top with a red, yellow and green wrap-around African cloth that showed my ankles, and a long scarf. Earrings I’d found at a thrift store grazed my neck and made tinkling sounds.
I wore my tightly permed hair with a bright green scarf flattening the top. Talk about exotic. I was the exotic one that night.
Harvey, a sweet painter in the co-op, was standing with his stunning new Japanese girlfriend next to a guy I hadn’t seen before. I parted the crowd with my hands and made my way over to where they were talking.
When Harvey was done telling a story, everyone laughed. So did I, though I’d missed the joke.
“Sheila,” Harvey said, turning to peck me on one cheek and then the other. “Doesn’t Sheila look fabulous tonight? Sheila, you are a work of art.”
“Thanks, Harvey,” I said. Eight pairs of eyes turned in response.
“I bet you don’t know Emilio.”
Harvey put his hand on the back of a man with jet black hair and caramel-colored skin.
“Emilio, Sheila. Sheila, Emilio.”
Emilio was wearing an off-white linen shirt, with the sleeves rolled up. His dark brown arms were smooth and completely hairless. I wanted to touch him, to see if he felt as soft as he looked. He spoke with an accent, rolling his tongue softly over the consonants. His eyes, when they fixed on me, looked like black glass.
* * *
Emilio had grown up on an island with palm trees, brushed by tropical breezes at night. Even in winter, he wore beige linen pants and colorful short-sleeved shirts. He worked as a labor organizer, which kept him out late at night. When he wasn’t working, he came to art openings with me and indulged in the free wine. He also enjoyed talking with the other women.
He wore a gold bracelet around his right wrist. The loose gold chain dangled nearly to his knuckles when he sipped Scotch.
As I’d expected, he turned out to be an extraordinary lover. I sometimes caught him gazing at his reflection in the small mirror hanging next to my front door, flicking his fingers through that head of perfectly straight, thick black hair.
Over the years, Kate often asked me why she didn’t have a father. When she was small, I said, “He had to go away, sweetheart.” She, of course, then asked when he was coming back, and I told her we had to be patient.
By the time Kate entered junior high, she was angry at what she rightfully assumed had been my deception.
“You knew he was never coming back,” she yelled at me, the last time she got mad. “All those years, I kept waiting for him. I thought if I got good grades and brushed my teeth and cleaned up my room, he’d come home. But he never did. I thought it was my fault but it was your fault for lying. He probably didn’t come back because of you.”
, I silently promised myself, I would sit Kate down and tell her a different story.
* * *
Nights after we made love, Emilio went out. Later, I learned that he met guys in the back room of a bar and played cards. Occasionally, he would return in the middle of night and make love to me one more time.
Harvey told me once that he had warned Emilio about his life. Emilio assured him that he never went out at night without a gun.
“Your father,” I said to Kate one morning as we sat across from one another at the kitchen table, “dedicated his life to helping others.”
I explained that Emilio traveled around the world, talking to men who picked the sugar cane and the pineapple, and that this was dangerous.
“The owners didn’t want their workers to organize and join unions, because then they would have had to pay them more. Your father was not well-liked.”
Emilio seemed to miss me when he was gone. Being in a foreign country without any friends made him yearn for a closeness we never enjoyed. If I said I wasn’t bothered by the drinking, that would be a lie.
Emilio drifted away from me slowly. At parties, he left my side. My throat grew dry and anxiety began to gnaw at my stomach. I strolled around living and dining rooms packed with laughing people, plastic cups of beer and wine in their hands. Out of the corner of my eye, I would spy him next to a beautiful woman, their heads close as they talked.
He began to leave earlier for the night. By the time he returned, morning light would be seeping under the curtains.
I can say now that Emilio began drinking more. His face grew puffy and oddly discolored. Except in the early morning, the fingers of his right hand were encircled around a glass. At lunch, he gulped beer. Nights, it was something stronger.
We had been planning the vacation in Mexico for months. As I felt Emilio slipping away, I held onto the trip like a lifeline. How could Emilio leave me
, I asked myself, when the gnawing in my belly grew hard. We’re going to Mexico together
During the flight, he sat next to the aisle, talking to a woman in the section of seats terminating at the window. I kept an open book on my lap, never turning the page. They talked about healers in Emilio’s country who supposedly performed operations without the use of instruments or anesthesia. The woman had traveled there and seen this, she said. Cancerous tumors, I overheard her explain, were removed with just the mind. She was on her way to Mexico to see another of these miraculous doctors perform.
The humidity that night made it hard to walk. We’d gotten lost looking for the late Mexican muralist Orozco’s studio. Emilio had grown impatient. For the first time, I realized how different he and I were. Emilio wanted a straight route from here to there. He did not like knowing that he might be lost. I, on the other hand, preferred to wander, assured that the best experiences came as a surprise.
We gave up and landed in a small, crowded café, where a handsome young man was singing and playing guitar. After a glass of red wine, Emilio’s mood began to soften. The singer had long black hair and a sweet smile. He gave me a look that made me wish I was alone.
I finished my first glass of wine more quickly than was sensible and started on a second. Something told me this would be my last evening with Emilio.
The humid air was filled with a sweetness from flowers tumbling down the stucco walls as we made our way back to the hotel. Emilio and I didn’t speak during the entire walk.
I undressed in the dark, assuming Emilio and I would not make love. A moment later, he pressed himself against me from behind. He used his knee to pry my legs apart, first the left and then the right.
What could possibly be the risk now? I was thirty-two years old. I had never gotten pregnant before. Instead of stopping Emilio to squeeze the thick white paste into the white rubber cup, I left the blue plastic case holding my white rubber diaphragm in the bathroom.
After the silent drive from the airport, Emilio pulled up in front of my apartment building and stopped the car. He looked out the front window when he spoke.
“I think we should take a break from each other for a while.”
“All right,” I said, knowing I didn’t have a choice. Even though he hadn’t offered, I assured him that I wouldn’t need his help with my luggage.
* * *
It was a rainy night, like this one. Now that I think of it, that year we had terrible storms. No one knows how much Emilio had drunk. The car crossed the dividing line and plowed into an oncoming truck.
That is, of course, one story. The other story goes something like this. Emilio had gambling debts. He had borrowed money from some shady characters. They took him out for a ride.
That last night Emilio and I made love, there was a moment when I sensed something I’d never felt before. I wasn’t surprised to learn a few weeks after his death that I had a new life growing inside.
* * *
After finishing the story about her father last night, Kate and I stayed up very late, sharing a bottle of wine. The rain has vanished this morning, and the sky is completely clear of clouds. Kate is sleeping in the small bedroom at the front of the cottage. I try not to wake her as I get dressed for a walk.
I’ve been living on this remote peninsula, in a small beach cottage, going on nine months. I had a sense when I moved here that this would be the place I’d finally tell Kate the truth about her father.
After walking down the overgrown path through the dunes, I spy the orange bodies of crabs strewn across the sand – a leg here, half a back over there, the other half close to the water. A large bird probably dropped the shells as it devoured the sweet white flesh.
Not long ago, I came upon the dead carcass of a seal. Staring at the fat gray body, I smelled the sea. I watched sand flies alight on the belly and wondered what my duty to the dead thing ought to be.
In the distance, I see the dark headland of rock, where wind sometimes gusts to a hundred miles an hour. It is said that the wife of a former lighthouse keeper jumped to her death there, the ceaseless wind having made her desperate to fly. Ahead of me the sunlight is flirting with the waves, not the least bit concerned about the consequences.