My younger cousin Myrna came out of the womb asking questions. Why does a dog bark? Why is the sun hot? Where is my daddy?
I was four years older than her, so I could tell her why dogs barked or why the sun was hot, but I had no answer to where her dad was. My Tia Concha never spoke about him.
Once while my Tia Concha was driving us to church, a five-year-old Myrna muttered, “Where’s my daddy?”
From the backseat I could see one of Tia Concha’s hands grip the wheel tighter, and the big old car jerked a little.
“He’s a clown with the Venezuelan circus,” she said. “Hey, how about some ice cream before mass?”
This was the first I heard there was a clown in the family. I guess it made sense since we never saw him. Myrna giggled, clapped her hands, then said she wanted vanilla.
After that, Myrna started telling everyone that her dad was a clown. She’d hit herself on the nose and make a high-pitched sound. She even asked for big red shoes for Christmas. She had supercurly hair that looked like our neighbor’s poodle, and both her front teeth had fallen out. She’d skip around in a rainbow wig that was so big it dwarfed her face. The plop plop of the Myrna’s oversize plastic shoes drove my Tia Concha crazy. I could tell by the way her shoulders scrunched up like she was about to sneeze, but she never did tell Myrna to take them off.
At seven, when Myrna and my Tia Concha moved in with my parents and me, she walked up to my father, who was very focused on his lunch, and said, “Tio Manuel. Do you know where my daddy is?” As he choked on his tostada, my mother said, “Myrna, want Sonia’s doll?” and they gave her my favorite doll that cried, drank milk, and burped.
I found this out later when Tia Concha and I got home from the market. I went to my room and there on my bed, on my pillow, was nothing.
“Mama, where’s Gertrude?” I asked, entering the kitchen where she was at the sink washing dishes. “I gave it to Myrna. You’re much too old for dolls, mija,” she said, not looking at me.
“I’m 11, mom. You still have the same doll from when you were a kid sitting on your dresser.” “Sonia, go do your homework.”
I heard Myrna ask again about her dad and my Tia Concha said, “No, he’s not with the circus anymore. Now he’s an astronaut with the Venezuelan version of NASA. They don’t have good phone reception up in space.”
I had never heard about Venezuelans in space. In science class we were learning about the different countries that had space programs, and Venezuela was not on the list. I was going to ask about it, but my mother coughed, and when our eyes met, I saw the look she gave my dad when he had one too many drinks with his compadres. It was the look where her eyes lowered and her lips tried to touch her nose. I decided to keep quiet.
That night and for a few weeks following, Myrna drew pictures of jagged stars and crooked planets on paper and napkins and one time on my forehead with an orange highlighter when I had fallen asleep on the couch. Here I was, an 11-year-old with Pluto right above my left eye. As I scrubbed my forehead hard with a wet towel, I told Myrna there was no way her dad was in space. She started to cry and my mom yanked me into the kitchen.
“Sonia, you don’t say anything about her father, you understand? You let Myrna have her dreams.” Then she told me never to bring it up again and sent me to my room.
When Myrna was nine, I caught her crying in the hallway in front of her classroom as my eighth-grade class made our way to the gym.
She thrust a paper flyer at me. “Daddy/Daughter Dance” was printed at the top in some fancy curly font. “All the other girls’ dads are going,” she cried.
“When we get home, we’ll ask your mom to tell us where your dad is now, OK?”
She nodded and sniffled.
That night at dinner as we all ate frijoles again, I took the flyer out of my pocket and opened it.
“Tia Concha,” I said as she finished slathering sour cream on her plate. “Myrna wants to go to this, so can you tell her where her dad is, please?”
“Sonia!” my mother cried. Everyone stared at the flyer on the table. My dad shook his head and gripped his fork tighter. Myrna’s frown was so low I thought her face was going to droop into the arroz con gandules.
“It’s OK,” Tia Concha said, putting down her fork. “It’s time you know the truth, Myrna.”
Myrna and I leaned in so we could hear every word. The table was really for a family of four, not five, and most of the time plates touched and elbows collided.
“Concha, do you really think this story is one for kids to hear?” my father asked.
“Myrna deserves to finally, really know.”
Myrna’s dad was neither a Venezuelan clown nor a Venezuelan astronaut. He was a Venezuelan undercover agent. For the past nine years, almost all of Myrna’s life, he’d been disguised as a coca plant in the Amazon rain forest, trying to catch drug smugglers. He couldn’t contact anyone in fear of putting his family in danger.
Myrna’s face was like a spotlight, bright and round. “Wow, my dad is cool,” she said before going to bed that night.
“That is cool,” I said. The coolest job my dad ever had was filling vending machines, so sometimes he’d come home with expired Cheetos or M&Ms.
That night, I thought about Myrna’s dad hiding in some jungle, covered in green-and-brown paint to make him look like a plant. It didn’t make sense. Why wasn’t he able to send word home that he was all right? Had he really been on assignment for nine years? Even in the FBI shows I watched on TV, people pretending to be part of a motorcycle gang or the mob were usually done in a year. I figured next time it came up, I would ask.
A few months later, we all moved to a building over on Cicero Avenue. Tia Concha and Myrna had their own place on the first floor, my parents and I on the second. My grandma, who wanted to be near her two daughters and grandkids, moved into the basement.
Our new school was only two blocks away, next to the used-car lot, the one with a rabbit driving a Corvette on the sign, which made no sense to me because there weren’t any Corvettes (or rabbits) in the lot.
My grandma started walking us to and from school. She usually gave Myrna and me a couple of bucks from the slim stack she kept folded in her bra so we could buy cookies from the lunchroom that our parents didn’t want us to have.
After school, I saw this tall, tan guy with curly hair at the used-car lot, wearing pants that were too short. He stood on the porch of the office, which was the size of a porta-potty, holding a weathered sign that read making your dreams come true for only $500 down. He smoked like he was trying to look cool, like one of those guys with black glossy hair and a mustache in the black-and-white movies my mom liked to watch.
He gazed at Myrna as we walked past with our matching book bags and gym shoes. The dark-skinned old ladies at the flea market gave our moms a discount if they bought two or more of the same item.
One afternoon, I noticed how the man in the used-car lot glanced at Myrna as she held my grandma’s hand. He stood between two rows of beat-up rides, leaning against a station wagon with rusty wheel wells. He took a long drag of his cigarette and kept his eyes on Myrna.
“Grandma, why is that man looking at us?” I asked.
Grandma turned and saw the man, then grabbed me by the wrist and yanked me forward. “Home. Now.”
“But—” I said, and she hushed me. Myrna was too busy singing some song to notice anything.
When I was supposed to be asleep that night, I heard the adults talking in the kitchen. I tiptoed to my bedroom door and put my ear up to it.
“That’s enough. I’m going to bed,” my father said.
“I knew it was him right away,” Grandma said.
“Out of all the neighborhoods,” my mother said.
“This isn’t good. You’re sure it’s in a safe place?” my Tia Concha asked.
“It’s in a safe place,” my mother said. I wasn’t sure what she was talking about, but I knew where her safe place probably was—the closet with the broom and the mop and all the cleaning stuff that smelled like lemons. In the last apartment, that’s where she hid the Halloween candy and my Christmas presents, which I ended up opening and rewrapping while my parents slept. I needed to wait till everyone was asleep to find out what she was keeping safe.
“I told Myrna I was getting some tortillas. Give me some tortillas,” Tia Concha said, and then I heard footsteps scatter, the old wooden floors squeaking.
Once our apartment quieted, I opened my bedroom door enough to slip through. I carried the flashlight I kept under the bed in my hand, but didn’t turn it on. I made my way to the kitchen in the dark using the glowing green clock on the oven as my only light.
I opened up the closet door, sneaked in, and turned on the flashlight. I moved the broom to the side, along with the red bucket that smelled of dirt and pine, and a plastic bag filled with other plastic bags. Then I found it—a white tissue inside a sandwich bag, behind a box of detergent.
I sat on the cold tile with the flashlight between my folded legs, and opened the bag. Wrapped in the tissue were two photographs.
The one on top was of my Tia Concha. It was a close-up photo of her kissing a man on the cheek. She looked younger. Her hair was much longer, and I could clearly see the mole on her face. The picture was gray, as if it had faded. The man wasn’t smiling. I couldn’t even see the slightest hint of his teeth. His hair was curly and his eyes were light, and his nose almost stuck out of the frame.
The other photograph was of the same man holding a baby in the crook of his arm like he was holding a sack of potatoes. He wasn’t smiling in that one either. yo amo venezuela was written on his T-shirt, the baby covering the -la with its chubby hand. They were in front of a White Castle drive-through. I held one photograph in each hand and sat quietly in the closet. Why would my Tia Concha want to hide these photos?
I put the pictures back and crawled back into bed. Myrna had a long nose, crazy curly hair, and light eyes with a pop of green in the middle like slices of sour apples. That salesman at the car lot had an even bigger nose, and light eyes and curly hair on his crooked head. Myrna’s head wasn’t all that round either, now that I thought about it.
I fell asleep not knowing what to think and woke up knowing exactly what to do.
The next morning on the way to school, Myrna said she was going to do her geography report on Venezuela so that she could learn about the country where her father was. When we passed the car lot it was closed, but I still felt Grandma was hurrying, more of a waddle at her old age. School went slowly that day as I thought about finding out if that salesman was really Myrna’s dad.
Grandma picked us up after school and we went to Chino’s Candy Store. As we exited with our lollipops, Pop Rocks, and gum, I asked Grandma again, “Why does that guy from the lot look at Myrna every time we pass by?”
I thought she must have swallowed all of her Pop Rocks at once because she started coughing really loud. She reached into her purse and handed a five to Myrna, who was too focused on getting to the center of a Tootsie Pop and hadn’t heard what I said. “Myrna, go get Grandma some chocolate, and you get more candy.” She tapped Myrna on the elbow. Myrna smiled at me as though she had won something and went inside.
“Ay! Ay! Ay!” Grandma cried, and put both her hands on my shoulders. “You ask too many questions! He is no one.”
“Grandma, I saw the pictures.”
Her mouth gaped open, then she puffed out her cheeks and exhaled. “Look, your ma and Tia Concha are going to be mad. I’m telling you this because you’re old enough now. What are you, 16?”
“Same thing. That car guy is Myrna’s dad.”
“Tia Concha said he was an agent in Venezuela.”
“Ay, that is bullshit!” I had only heard my grandma swear once before, when her Avon order didn’t arrive.
“That’s her dad. He ain’t no Venezuelan agent. He’s a Venezuelan asshole.”
Myrna came out of the store, her lips red from the rope of licorice in her mouth. My grandma lowered her voice as Myrna strolled over to us. “Don’t tell Myrna. Her dad never wanted her. Your Tia Concha was the other woman.”
Tia Concha “the other woman”? I had seen the other woman in telenovelas and they all seemed so evil, with their big hair, drawn-on eyebrows, and massive boobs pushing out of shrunken fruit-colored dresses. My Tia Concha wasn’t like that. Why would she be with him someone like him, someone married?
Myrna handed me some blue cotton candy on a stick and gave a pack of Rolo to grandma, who stuffed them in her purse. The day was very sunny, and the cotton candy began to melt over the white stick and onto my fingers. We were coming up on the car lot. Grandma shot me a look and shook her head.
“Grandma, do you know what Stephanie did in school today?” Myrna began, telling a story that involved vomit and gym shoes. I stopped paying attention, watching the pigeons as they hopped in front of us from place to place, eating crumbs off the sidewalk.
Then I saw him, the salesman, leaning against a yellow van with dark windows. He wore sunglasses and a cream-colored suit with stains from his lunch, red and green down the front. He looked like a used Kleenex.
Grandma saw him too and started hurrying again. She was so focused on getting past the lot that neither she nor Myrna, who kept on talking, noticed that I lagged behind. I stopped right in front of him and stared up. He was tall, and I could see his nose was full of long hair. I noticed a dull yellow ring on his left hand.
“Hey,” I said, “I know.” His unibrow twitched.
“What do you know, huh? That you’re annoying me, brat?” His voice was dry and rough.
“Only my dad gets to call me a brat,” I said and stood very still and straight, like I was supposed to do in church. “I know you’re Myrna’s dad.”
“You know nothing,” he said. He dropped his cigarette, and his hand shook as he put it in his pocket. Maybe because I saw one too many movies where people knew stuff they shouldn’t, I stared up those nostrils, at his quivering lip, at his enormous hazel eyes, and said, “Does your old lady know?” I said “old lady” like I’d heard it on TV.
“Hijole!” Grandma yelled. She pulled at my arm. “What’s wrong, Grandma?” Myrna asked.
Grandma snarled at Myrna’s dad. He blinked and hurried away.
“Wait till I talk to your parents,” Grandma said to me, and pinched my arm. She was breathing heavily. Myrna kept asking what I had said to the man. I gazed at her. She looked so much like him.
“Nothing,” I said. “You can have the rest of my candy.”
That night while Myrna slept, my parents sat me down in the kitchen.
“So, you know what we know,” my mother began. She blew into the mug she held, and steam from the tea rose into the air.
“Now, listen. You should get in trouble for what you did, but you won’t because you aren’t going to tell Myrna,” my father said. “Understand?”
“Yes, I get it.”
“This whole thing with Concha and Pedro should’ve never happened in the first place,” my father said, and then sent me to my room.
The next day after school, Grandma held my wrist the whole way home. When we passed the car lot, the man was nowhere to be found. In his place was a short white man with hair as yellow as lemon drops. I never did see Myrna’s dad again, and my mom never used the closet for her safe place again either.
At 13, Myrna asked her mom again about her dad.
“I haven’t heard from him, mija, and I probably never will. He’s gone for good.” Tia Concha would say nothing more about it.
Myrna cried for weeks. Sometimes alone in her room, but most times in mine, sprawled out on my bed as I rubbed her back, or sitting at my desk, staring out the window as I swept away the hair that stuck to her wet face. I never said a word about what I knew, only repeated “I’m sorry” as she mourned for a father she never knew.
One day when Myrna was 18, she and I were lounging in the backyard, the sun warming our skin.
“Sonia, do you know anything about my dad?”
I thought of offering her those earrings of mine I knew she really liked. I thought of all the times her mother didn’t tell her the truth. And all the times my silence was like a lie.
Her eyes didn’t leave mine, her curly hair like how I remembered his. I decided to tell her everything.
Cyn Vargas’s story collection On The Way is being published by Curbside Splendor in the spring. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Columbia College. Her writing has appeared in Word Riot, Literary Orphans, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Follow her work at cynvargas.com and on Twitter at @Cyn_Vargas.