My father would wait for all of us at home with his freshly moistened leather belt lain across his lap. That leather belt, on a really humid day, would soak up the dampness of five flash thunderstorms and hang plump and heavy waiting for our return. There would be some Schubert playing in the background and his cafesito would be just about finished. There would be an eerie calmness to the air in the living room and we would walk in one after the other, oldest in the front.
Now, my father is a kind man. He is the kind of dad that anyone would want: funny, affectionate, not too strict (pretty lenient, actually), and he always says yes when my mother says no. He has got the kind of smile that makes you feel the way a newborn puppy does. And he would give away the last thing he had to eat if you told him you were hungry. But Dad still gets mad. And just like every other man, he likes to make sure you don’t piss him off twice.
There was the soft clink of fine china as he set down his empty cup. Ever so mellifluously, he would fold up his Listin Diario, and look at each one of us. We knew what that bone-chilling silence meant and it was going to fucking suck.
“Now,” he would say, “I am doing this because I love you.” Or sometimes, “The bible says that you should discipline your children.”
He would not ease into it, either. Before you could say another word, that belt was on the small of your back and it felt like a tire screeching on a thousand sunburns. Frankie, the oldest, would kick and scream like he was on the set of Amistad. He had very little to say, but the screams were terrible. It was all for show. There were no tears there. James, the second, would get it over with real quick. One two three, and the whole thing was over. No fights and no fuss. All you could hear was the crack of the belt on his thighs. Frances, the third—who, I’ll admit still possesses the outstanding ability to make you feel like you are the spawn of Satan—would take it the hardest. She would start to cry before he even approached her. Man, would she put on quite the spectacle. It was three minutes of total agony for her, full of “I hate you” and “Why, God, why!” She would curse the day that my father planted his seed into my mother. She would cry for adoption. She would pray to the gods for vengeance. She wished for the house to implode on us all. She went totally fucking DEFCON 1 when that slack leather belt approached her. At that particular moment, I genuinely believe that she thought my father to be the root of all things evil. And I would almost believe her. This, of course, would pass in a few minutes and she’d be back to her normal self. What an artista. All the while, I was planning my escape route. At seven years old, I knew how to case any room in the house. I looked from left to right and up and down, in search of the easiest way to evade my father. The longer my sister got her ass beat, the more I had to think about it. Thanks, Frances.
Dad knew it would always come to this, so when he would finish up with Frances, he would pause and crack his neck from side to side. He would spread his arms, giving himself a vast five-foot diameter. And I would slowly slip off my Jansport. It was like the scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Neither of us would blink.
“Now, Melissa,” he would say in a serious tone. “If you run, you’re only going to make it harder on yourself.”
I knew that. I knew that when he caught me, his rage would have picked up so much momentum, I would still be seeing those correazos a week later. I knew that he would whip me so hard, I could read the words “Genuine Leather” in very fine print on my left ass cheek. But some days he would give up. Some days he would just stop chasing me and go crack open a Presidente. I would see him later in the yard and he would laugh. But then there were the days where he was incessant and would not stop until he caught me.
This particular time was one of those days. I thought about staying and taking it like my other siblings, of having the courage to just face my problems head-on. It would make things easier for everyone, including my father. I took one step towards him and he put his arms down. I could imagine the relief that he felt upon me throwing in the towel so easily.
So naturally, I decided to not give him that satisfaction. Hell, if he wanted to beat my ass, he was going to have to work for it. Before we knew it, I was already halfway down the marquesina. I ran like a fucking gazelle—all eighty-five pounds of me. At the age of ten I was pure skin and bones, but had a mean crossover and could outrun my German Shepard on any given day.
Don’t look back I thought to myself.
I climbed up the window in the garage and jumped out into the side yard, scrambled up some trees whose scraggly limbs were only strong enough to hold an eighty-five pound gazelle that didn’t want to get her ass whooped. Holding on to those limbs, I looked down to see my father glaring at me from below with that leather belt wrapped once around his tight fist. My dirty toes curled around the skinny limbs and my sweaty palms kept slipping down as I climbed. I could shit my pants right where I hung from the fright. Even though I ran, I was still terrified.
When I managed to climb into the terrace on the second floor, my father was already at the top of the staircase. I climbed onto the ledge on the side of the house and hid until he started looking for me elsewhere. As soon as turned his back, I jumped onto the avocado tree at the side of the house and swung down into the backyard. I circled the yard and darted out of the back driveway.
I lost him! I thought.
Taking a moment to catch by breath, I skipped around the block and to the front of the house. It was one of those days in June where it was so hot that you could feel the skin melting off of your bones. My deep breaths were skidding as I struggled to keep my lungs from imploding. There wasn’t a soul outside but the Haitian guy that trimmed weeds from the sidewalk for the neighbors across the street. I nodded my head at him as I turned the corner on to my block.
Then my heart fell through my ass when I saw my father, damp leather belt in hand—this time tied even tighter around his fist so his knuckles were white from the fury—and darting towards me. I turned back around and ran as fast as my feet could take me, but I was already so tired.
I remember thinking to myself, “How the fuck is this viejo about to outrun me right now?” And then I remember thinking about the times I saw him stealing home at the park in Queens while I chowed down on some pinchos. But this dude was wearing chancletas!
Halfway down the block, I knew it was over. I felt his breathing like it was right over my shoulder and I knew he wasn’t going to give up. My heart caved. I threw in the towel and my knees buckled from underneath me. They sent me flying face first onto the unpaved street and a cloud of pale dust engulfed me.
The first one hit the back of my thighs. I screamed.
That second one hurt even more, just as my friends started to peek over their fences.
That one was right on the small of my back.
FUA! FUA! FUA!
Those were the last three, right on the shoulder blades.
I lay on the floor for a second crying, coughing up dirt and looking at my bloody palms. I felt the wide-eyed stares of my neighbors and their pity on me.
My father grabbed my neck collar and picked me up. He dusted me off and took me by the hand. My hair was white from the polvareda.
“Vámonos,” he said.
We walked down the street hand in bloody hand. He leaned over and kissed the top of my dusty head. My tears had formed two trails of mud down my cheeks.
“I told you not to run didn’t I?” he said.
“You won’t get me next time,” I said under my breath.