From the moment my father returned from his trip and discovered that I had been abandoned, I was shuffled from family member to family member like a hot potato with everyone praying that the music did not stop. It was clear that I was different from my family, although I did not yet know why. With my freckled skin and hair that fell somewhere from reddish blonde to chlorinated-pool blonde, I stood out among my olive-skinned, brown hair, brown-eyed kin. Most of the time, the othering was subtle in a way that made me feel mostly invisible.
My sister, who was born when my father was still a teenager and had a complicated relationship with him, was nice enough when he was around. The moment he left, however, her dislike of me was palpable in that way where kindness has an edge and still allows for plausible deniability. She made it clear that her housing me was not a gesture of acceptance of our kinship but a reluctant act of a dutiful daughter who loved our father. I wish I could give a concrete example but the time spent living with her is still buried deep within hazy memories of getting overly friendly with a neighborhood girl in the treehouse and of a brother-in-law with a bulbous nose, splotchy red face, and hands that held me in places they should not have.
Sometime after that, my father and I moved into the green duplex my future mother and her teenage daughter were renting. This is the house where my father’s lover would notice how much my long hair tangled and hurt, where she would cut it short despite my father’s objections, where she would begin to mother a child who had never been truly mothered before.
It is the house we were living in when the truth about my difference would come to light.
On that day, Dad and I had returned to what was once our house to get some of my things. Many of them were missing: my small toy organ, my Bruce Jenner Decathlon game, Operation. Almost all of my stuffed animals. I ran to the bookcase, relieved to find my books still in place. And then, like a tsunami of grief, it all hit me. After bouncing around other people’s homes, the shock of returning to my own and seeing all of my treasured items gone broke through the stoic shell I had grown as protection. Dad held me as I cried then sent me off to shower while he packed up what he could.
It was then, while I was in the shower, that Aida showed up. In a rage at discovering us in the house, she slammed open the bathroom door. Instinctively, my hands reached for my head, memories of all the other times she had shown up while I showered flooding into me. The smell of baby shampoo will forever remind me of her long red nails and the pain of them scraping my scalp as she did the “motherly thing” and “helped” me shampoo. This time, I knew Dad was in the house and that she wouldn’t hurt me, at least not physically, with him around.
Instead, she funneled the rage into a verbal tirade. In the months since I had seen her, I hadn’t missed the daily doses of her yelling at me (always in Spanish) that I was worthless, that I would end up una puta on a street corner, that I would never amount to anything. But this time she surprised me with a new monologue. This time when she yelled, a secret that had festered inside of her for my entire life erupted:
Tu no eres parte de mi familia. Te compraron como una pieza de muebles usados que nadie quería. Todo lo que has hecho es destruir a mi familia. Gran puta que eres.
(You aren’t even a part of my family. You were bought like a piece of used furniture nobody wanted. All you have done is destroy my family. Whore that you are.)
Unable to resist our familiar ritual, she added in puta before Dad stormed into the bathroom.
What happened between that moment and Dad calling me over to the worn recliner in the duplex is lost to my memory. He held me on his lap and told me that it is true that I was adopted. That when he had come back from Vietnam he felt distant from Aida and did not know his sons. That the Army Chaplain had helped him understand that he needed something to love. And when I was 10 minutes old, he was next to me. That I wrapped my hand around his thumb, refused to let go, and his knees went weak. Since then I have been his whole world and his entire reason for living. He told me that no matter what anyone said, I was his daughter. He held me tight and for the first time, I saw my father cry.