Understanding the Family: A Guide for Clinicians

Lisette and Gabe’s father went missing when they were nine and seven and never came back or called. Lisette remembered him like this: a stocky figure in a white undershirt, exhaling smoke, watching wrestling on TV and winking down at her where she sat on the carpet. Reading the paper with glasses on. Cutting a callus off the ball of his foot. Gradually they and their mother began talking about him as though he was dead.

Their mother gradually faded herself out of his side of the family. She told Lisette she found being around them too painful. “But don’t lose them,” she said. “That’s your family. Especially your abuela.” So once Lisette and Gabe were old enough, they started driving down for summer visits that slowly became more frequent. In that era of constant baby showers—like 2006, right?—they went to Miami nearly every other month.

And every time they descended the peninsula from their sleepy Gulf Coast rat-town for some family celebration or other, they and their cousins celebrated by getting wasted. They drank around the world, expensive or cheap, depending who was buying: Puerto Rican rum, Brazilian cachaça, Irish whiskey, Dominican beer, Colombian aguardiente. They got disgusting hangovers.

One hot night they all stood in Uncle Ruben’s driveway talking and guzzling sweaty Presidentes. A plastic bottle of vodka went around. They were all buzzing about some stupid summer blockbuster Lisette was privately boycotting. Everyone else wanted to see it. One cousin threatened to tell everyone how it ended and people shouted at him to stop. Pretended to put their fingers in their ears, the girls trying to cover his mouth with their hands. They screamed, “No spoilers! No spoilers!”

He laughed and pushed everyone’s arms away with his free hand, the other hand gripping a beer. The arms kept flying back. “The guy gets a gun and shoots himself!” he yelled. The cousin laughed so hard he was almost crying. “The guy commits suicide!”

Natalie put her hands over his face, tripping drunkenly over her own feet and sloshing her drink on her short shorts. “Like Uncle Berto!” she gasped. “Riiiight?”

Someone kicked her. People stopped laughing and the driveway went hush. Natalie clapped her hand to her mouth and stared at her feet. Everyone pretended to look away--and then Lisette and Gabe knew it was true.

Their buzzes wore off a little as their uncle talked. Their dad’s younger brother had overheard the commotion and shepherded them inside the house. Now they sat at the round table in his yellow kitchen. The overhead lamp looked like an upside down white salad bowl and it illuminated Uncle Ruben’s hands as he spoke.

He told them that their dad had turned up in Port St. Lucie over a year ago. They’d given up looking for him by then. He’d been living in a rented duplex with a girlfriend. She’d called, frantic––she’d gone into the bathroom to find incredible pools of blood around Berto, who lay on sheets of plastic over tile and the gun laying beside him.

It turned out that all this time, everyone else (their uncle, the cousins, even their mother) had known about it. Gabe was angry at all of them. He wanted to know why? Why did younger cousins know? They’d all been there the night the woman called, explained Ruben, but they’d been ordered to keep their mouths shut. So ugly. How could they tell them? Ruben especially thought it best not to tell Mima, their grandmother. His mother, their dad’s mother.

“But now you know,” said Uncle Ruben, “and Mima still doesn’t. And your mother and I think it’s better if she doesn’t. To protect her.”

“Okay,” said Gabe, holding his head in his hands, his elbows on the table.

Lisette nodded and didn’t say anything. Her uncle put a hand over hers but Lisette took it away and put it in her lap. She looked from her plump hands to Gabe’s bony ones, to Ruben’s hairy ones. Later, when she remembered sitting at that table, it seemed time had grunted to a pause, and that if there was a before and after in her life, the place where it folded in two had yellow light, a round white table, and foreheads and arms and hands lit up underneath it.

Lisette worried about future phone conversations with Mima. She spoke often of her son in a hopeful voice. Between her own bad Spanish and her complete absence of hope Lisette already had a hard time piecing together good responses.

“You know what I’d say if your father knocks on my door tomorrow?” Mima would say. “Where have you been? Why didn’t you call? No! I wouldn’t say nothing like that. I’d say, Son! Come in. Sit down. Have you eaten anything? Sit down, son. Let me bring you something to eat.”

That night after everyone had gone to sleep, Gabe swiped a half-empty bottle of Bacardi and two cans of Coke left over from the party. They got in Lisette’s car and began the slow escape from Uncle Ruben’s subdivision, a labyrinth of tile-roofed villas lined up five feet apart. Gabe sat in the passenger seat pouring rum into his Coke can.

“Don’t do that while we’re driving,” Lisette said.

“Why not?” said Gabe.

“Because it’s against the law. And you’re getting Bacardi all over my car.”

“So?”

“It’s going to stink.”

“Rum doesn’t stink.” Gabe looked at Lisette while he drank rum straight from the bottle.

“Can you just stop? Can you wait? What if we get stopped by police?”

“This is Miami. We just found out our father killed himself. I’m sure they’ll understand.”

“Don’t be an idiot.”

“Don’t be a dick.”

“I’m not being a dick.”

Once on Kendall Drive Lisette drove until she ended up in the empty asphalt moat around a Bed Bath and Beyond. They parked in the moat.

Gabe handed her a can of Coke and the bottle of rum. Lisette opened the can and drank to open up space. Then she poured in some rum. She drank and poured, drank and poured.

“I can’t stop wondering what he had,” Lisette said finally.

Gabe looked away from her and out into the parking lot. “Demons. The man must have had demons.”

“Demons.” Lisette sloshed her Coke can around. By this time her jaw felt loose in her face. “Not demons. Please. Like what was his diagnosis? People who kill themselves are ill. They’re called, you know, the things they have are called names.” That loose jaw again. “What did he have?”

Gabe put his hand out to get the rum back. “Yeah. I get you.”

“Disorders,” said Lisette. “They have disorders.”

Then they didn’t talk for a long time.

Finally Gabe said, “He’s imaginary to me. I can’t even remember like touching him or hugging him or anything. But that shit is real. Like that could be hereditary.”

“I worry about that too.”

Gabe nodded gravely and patted her upper arm. “I know it. I know it. We have to look out for each other, man.”

“Oh, Gabe,” Lisette said, shrugging off his hand. She had no desire to play along, furrow her eyebrows, nod gravely or any of those things. She felt claustrophobic.

He looked hurt. “We’re the only ones we have left.”

“No, we have Mom. Hello?” Her head felt too slushy inside to keep up the argument. A swarm of aunts and cousins had sat around Uncle Ruben’s living room pretending not to hear what was happening in the kitchen. Gabe gazed into the parking lot.

Her hands were sticky. She came up with an idea.

“Isn’t alcohol sterile?” she asked.

“Why?”

“Because this,” and Lisette opened her car door so she could pour rum over her hands.

“What are you doing?” her brother asked.

“I’m sanitizing.” Lisette rubbed her fingers together under the rum stream. It spattered her microbes all over the asphalt. A part of her, here in Bed Bath and Beyond’s parking lot. “You can use alcohol as hand sanitizer.”

“No you can’t! Stupid! You’re just wasting it.”

Lisette wiped her hands on her skirt and noted they didn’t feel clean at all. “See?” said Gabe. But she hadn’t remembered speaking out loud.

Lisette and Gabe each got copies of Dad’s suicide note. Uncle Ruben mailed them after their conversation, addressed in his feminine handwriting. This note bore a large black blob in one corner. Lisette realized it was a reproduction of their father’s blood. It obscured his writing. Had Uncle Ruben taken the original to a copy place? Had he walked in with an actual blood-soaked and dried suicide note and put money in the copier and set it down on the glass like it was a copy of his lease or tax return or something? It was something he would do, him and his crisp yellow shirts and cabbie hat and hairy knuckles.

Back home, Lisette and Gabe confronted their mother—who wept, and said she was sorry, and that she could barely handle it herself, much less tell them—before beginning to avoid her and each other completely. They stayed busy sleeping, or working, or drinking beer in parking lots. Still, they had friends in common. Lisette knew her brother had shown around his copy of the note. Probably he assumed it made his life seem lurid and important. She’d folded hers up in a Ziploc bag and stored it in an old notebook.

Eventually they ended up getting jobs at the same strip mall. Sometimes they’d meet at the Starbucks there and talk about the things they had always liked to talk about: books and bands and people from high school. For the next couple of years they did not go to Miami at all.

By the time Lisette and Gabe made their way back down I-75, for a cousin’s wedding, it felt as though much time had passed.

Gabe was twenty-two now, majoring in Philosophy at State College, and always wore a black leather jacket, even in the heat. He had bought it from a dishwasher at Tomato Pete’s, one of the many chain restaurants he’d worked. Lisette knew the dishwasher only as My Boy Al because Gabe always called him that. Gabe kept a dollar in each of the jacket’s many zippered pockets. Thus he always carried on his body twenty-six dollars in tip money. He was tall, lank, and acted younger than his age. He had a hard time getting into bars.

At twenty-four Lisette was round, plump, fleshy. Her whole body was shaped like a Valentine’s heart, rounded shapes curving down to points. She had heavy black hair that hung in her eyes.

She worked at the public library part-time as a Page and also at a daycare, corralling toddlers around tiny tables. Lisette always wore thrift store sweaters that smelled like the daycare: stale graham crackers and Lysol. She was finishing a degree in Psychology at USF and secretly evaluated each child according to Jean Piaget’s theories of cognitive development. She read voraciously, working her way through the recommendations on a handout she’d found at the university library, “25 Best Novels for Psychology Buffs,” and re-reading “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” in J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories over and over again. She spoke little and slept less. She shared a small apartment with a girl she never saw and often heard vacuuming the shabby carpet late at night. Lisette rarely cleaned.

Uncle Ruben had urged them to come down, not just because his daughter was getting married, but because “your abuela is old and she won’t be around much longer.” Lisette worried about all of it, but asked her abuela if the two of them could stay with her anyway. “Oh, yes!” Mima had said on the phone, sounding excited and not deathly old. “Gabriel can sleep on the sofa and you can sleep on the pin-pan-pun.”

When they pulled up to Mima’s blue stucco building in North Beach, she was blatantly alive, shunting herself back and forth in the parking lot, craning her neck to look for them and chatting with the security guard. She lived on the top floor of a four-story building. Oak trees with whitewashed trunks shaded the entrance.

Mima’s apartment had been the same for so long that it was like a memory to them, even while they were in it. It was spare, tidy, and overwhelmingly pink: the walls; the vertical blinds; the ceramic floor tiles; the leatherette sofa, its armrests run with fine cracks; the lacquered formica end tables; the crocheted tablecloth.

They hugged Mima and put their bags down, wandered the apartment, touching and looking at all the familiar objects. Two little chickens made of coquina shells atop the big TV. A large photograph of their grandfather, dead since a stroke eight years ago. Next to it, an 8 x 10 of their father, in the yellow light of the late seventies, his arm around someone who’d been cropped from the photo. A framed color copy of Mima and Abuelo’s wedding picture, Mima slender with big eyes and elaborate black hairdo.

One thing had changed. For many years Mima’s had been one of those lucky old buildings with an oceanfront view. High-rise condos and resorts stretched to the left and right across Collins. But now a new hotel was going up across the street. The construction site groaned and buzzed from dawn to dusk and the building’s scaffolded understructure rose like a bar graph going up in front of them.

“This sucks,” said Gabe.

“You’re losing your view,” said Lisette. She realized afterwards that in Spanish she’d said, “You’re losing your sight,” by mistake. But Mima knew what she meant.

“You can still see it a little bit,” she said. She pointed to a thin right-hand margin of glittery blue.

They ate lunch on the crocheted tablecloth and afterwards Lisette helped her grandmother clean up. Her poor Mima, such a big old woman on such tiny feet doing so much work. Lisette noticed that her grandmother always held something---a Cuban mop, a rag, an iron, a glass one of them had carelessly left on the coffee table. All spills, crumbs, heel tracks were immediately disappeared.

Oh, thought Lisette. This is why he used the plastic.

She felt exhausted. At home she let her own room fill with paper and dishes. Everywhere books and stains.

Gabe slumped on the leatherette couch watching TV. Lisette insisted on washing the dishes.

Then she tried to help sweep the floor.

“Stop that, boba,” said Mima.

They passed damp chamois cloths over the pink tile. “Deja eso, boba,” said Mima. “Leave it.”

Then Gabe left to buy cigarettes and Mima cornered her in the kitchen with Cuban coffee. Gabe got out of things by vanishing at the right times. Lisette didn’t like cafe cubano. She sipped at it dutifully.

Everything in the tiny kitchen gleamed with years of use and scrubbing. Everything had its own place. Basket of bananas and picket fence napkin dispenser. White formica dinette set. Lisette sat there now.

It was so clean you wouldn’t think anyone ever stepped here, as though inhabited only by tiny fairies with duster wings, but Mima was the opposite, a mountain of woman, stacks of doughy flesh piling up out of plump sandaled feet with a dainty French pedicure. She swiveled this body across the tiny kitchen in one step, wiped down the counters in a flurry, left the sink a dull gleam of aluminum.

“Don’t you ever get a manicure?” asked Mima.

“No, I—”

“I can take you. I have a lady. She does my hands and my feet.”

“Mima—”

“Que cosa mas grande,” sighed Mima, moving on. “Que cosa mas grande.” Mima started talking about Gladys, her next door neighbor.

“Her daughter committed suicide,” she said, suddenly, lowering her voice and looking at the wall above the stove, as if by doing so she could see through the wall and into her friend’s living room. Mima leaned forward. “Can you imagine?”

Lisette shook her head and pursed her lips. What else to do with her face? They must have brought suicide in with the dust on their feet. Their anxious brains beamed it through the drywall into the neighbor’s living room where it bounced like a mirror off her daughter’s suicide. Too much coincidence to be real.

Mima looked at Lisette’s knees, visible where her skirt rode up, and crinkled her nose. She heaved up and shuffled to the sink again.

“Was there a note?” Lisette said.

“A note,” said Mima.

“Did she leave a note? Some people leave a note. When they do things like that.”

“No,” said Mima, making a dramatic cutting motion with her hands in mid-air. “Nothing. She left nothing.”

On Mima’s refrigerator were a calendar and magnets that had been there ever since Lisette could remember. Mima marked off the days of the week with a pen she kept in a wooden cup by the fridge. Every night she drew a shaky slash through the day she had just lived.

“That is just the worst thing for a parent.” She fanned herself with an FPL envelope.

Lisette nodded.

“Can you imagine?” Mima said again. “But what are you going to do? She has to move on. She has to keep going. She has a dog. She went and got a dog. And it’s so precious, that dog. You know? She can’t just be crying all day, putting up llanto y llanto y llanto.”

Lisette couldn’t believe this conversation. The daughter, the dog. There must be a way to explain the psychology of it. In her Cognitions of Intimacy class they watched Understanding the Family: A Guide for Clinicians, a documentary series hosted by an expert named Dr. Ellory. She imagined him to be single and childless. Every episode began with a graphic of his head rotating like a planet. What would he have to say about this? She imagined a hole between Mima’s kitchen and Gladys’s. If the two women could see each other through it, they’d know. They could sit together and clutch each others’ hands and wipe their eyes. Yeah, right.

For the past two years Lisette had recurring images of her father, as she remembered him at age nine, but covered in blood. She often cursed her vivid imagination, its lurid curiosity. Where had he shot himself? The head? The face? Could they even tell it was him by looking? That much blood gets sticky. Had she read that? And the placement of that note. Did the blood seep onto it or spatter? She shuddered away images of her father calmly shopping for plastic sheeting at Home Depot.

Before Lisette had pitied the myopic scope of Mima’s life. The last July she’d visited, every cafeteria TV blared the news: Fidel Castro so sick and old he’d handed over the reins to Raul. People flocked to La Carreta to bang cazuelas. And Mima barely seemed to register any of it—or much of anything happening in the outside world, for that matter.

Lisette hoped her abuela’s imagination was as clean and orderly as her apartment. On the phone Mima had often speculated: maybe her son had set off to make his fortune, vowing to return only when he could share the wealth. Maybe he had started another family. Had she allowed herself to imagine a worse end for him? Lisette often pleaded the black blood and the plastic sheets out of her imagination. She willed them not to invade her grandma’s.

Now Mima got up and placed her cup and plate in the sink. She glanced at her calendar on the fridge. “Tomorrow is Saturday,” she said, more to herself than to Lisette. “But tomorrow is the wedding. So I have to change and iron the tablecloth today.” Lisette watched her open a drawer and pull out an alternate tablecloth, linen embroidered with roses, and put it on one of the lacquered pink dining chairs. Then she folded the edges of the crocheted lace tablecloth into its center, then folded it in half to contain the crumbs, and carried it to the laundry basket. “Yo no paro,” she sighed. Because Lisette had watched this protective ritual before, she knew that Mima would spend the next hour carefully starching and ironing the alternate tablecloth while watching Primer Impacto.

Gabe and Lisette felt stir-crazy the next morning and walked to the beach across the street. Gabe had insisted on we