Fall 2008, Volume 5

Memoir by Aliza Hausman

Excerpt from Daddy's Little Girl

I used to think that my father lived in a drawer. Literally. Until I was fourteen years old, my mother kept a drawer for my father. Even though he had been gone for as long as I could remember, a drawer full of his old sweaters, shirts and pants sat in my mother’s mahogany dresser. When the sock drawer threatened to overflow, I asked my mother if I could move my father’s things elsewhere.

No. It’s your father’s drawer.”

On Father’s Day at my elementary school, all the fatherless children would make Father’s Day cards. Every year, I made the same card. On the front, I drew a shirt with a tie. My father didn’t own any ties but every Macy’s commercial leading up to Father’s Day seemed to suggest that he should. When I came home from school, I would show the brightly decorated card to my mother.

“See, Mami, I made a card for Papi in class today. Look, Mami, mira!”

Every year, my mother would pause, a faraway look overtaking her. She wouldn’t look at me.

“Put it in the drawer.”

When I was fourteen, we were evicted from our one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights. The apartment was nestled in a little building at the bottom of two large hills. Down the block was a nicer, more expansive building that my grandmother, Mami Aida, claimed was a brothel with a drug dealing ring next door. Somehow, we couldn’t make the rent in the Heights, yet, we were moving on up…to a big blue house, with a chain-link fence, an asphalt backyard, and a short, stubby, forlorn fig tree. Later, my mother would sneak the decrepit-looking fruit into our oatmeal, our cereal, and our peanut-butter sandwiches. Then she banned Fig Newtons outright because she said we were getting figs for free.

“¿Qué haces?!” What are you doing?!

I froze. My mother had silently crept up behind me while I was packing up the drawer. She was always lurking, always she seemed to be waiting to surprise us with a violent outburst or an even deadlier, more menacing show of affection.

In my hand, my father’s gray and white-striped sweater smelled of moth balls and cologne. I had the sneaking suspicion that my mother liked it that way, the cologne I mean, because she could smell my father even when he wasn’t there. Even though, he probably didn’t wear that kind of cologne anymore.

“I’m packing up Papi’s things.”

“No. You don’t have to do that. Bótalo todo.” Throw it away.

My hands, which had started to move again, stopped. I fought the urge to look up at my mother’s face. I fought the urge to ask my mother why we were discarding Papi’s things. We didn’t ask my mother questions. The red handprints she left on our faces were a reminder never to ask my mother anything.

In my father’s absence, I had filled the drawer with far more than Father’s Day cards and Christmas cards every year. The drawer was brimming with all my hopes and dreams. My father would come and save us, I thought, whenever I opened the drawer. If my mother had known that I cared so much about that drawer, she would have thrown everything out earlier, if only

I couldn’t throw anything away. Instead, I wore my father’s sweaters to school, underneath his old wool forgotten trench coat.

The same year my mother had told me to empty the drawer, I decided to stop speaking to my father. We were visiting the Dominican Republic when it all came down.

Maldición. Coño. Mira, m’hija, you can’t hang up the phone on your father,” he said.

“Oh. Yes. I. Can.”

And I hung up on him again. Again and again, all night. Until my father finally stopped calling.

I had woken up extra early that morning, put on my prettiest dress, wrestled my sisters awake. I had waited.

It was night when my father finally remembered. That it was Christmas Eve. That he had promised that this time, he wouldn’t let me down. He would be on time. He was going to take us all out. Without our mother. I was going to tell him everything. All the secrets my mother had told me not to tell him, I would tell. I would conspire with my father to whisk us all away from her. She would never find us.

I had smiled, quivering with anticipation.

And then he had forgotten to show up.

It was three months after 9/11 and a month since American Airlines Flight 587 from Santo Domingo had crashed in Queens. No one wanted to get on a plane. I had boarded a much-dreaded American Airlines flight toward the Dominican Republic to visit him. I hadn’t seen him in eight years. I hadn’t spoken to him in eight years and yet, there I was boarding a flight that would leave me alone with him for an entire month.

When I called my father that morning to tell him that I was just about to board my first connection to Miami, he, whose face I did not even remember anymore, was abrupt. I wondered whether or not the man who had always let me down as a child would even remember to pick me up at the airport later that night.

“I’ll be right outside when you come out.”

“Where Dad? Where?

Behind his back, I called him Father coldly.

“Outside the airport? Dad? Dad?

“Right outside. You’ll see. I have to go. I’ll see you later, baby. Bye.”


He had hung up on me.

When I finally reached the Dominican Republic, it was almost midnight. I quickly heaved my luggage together and pushed it all towards the exit. I didn’t know how to pack for a month’s vacation. I had never had a month’s vacation to go anywhere. This was the first and last break I would have from college. And I was going to have it in “DR.”

I smiled with hope, searching the crowd, but dismally, found no familiar face.

A half hour passed.

Finally, I spotted a light-skinned woman with “fine” features that seemed familiar. She was pointing at me and gesturing to a man in a yellow t-shirt whose face I could not place at all.

For some time, I stood there trying to get the courage to approach them. All the while I scolded myself. Coward. But what if I went over there, and used my limited Spanish, to determine that they were waiting for someone else.

They were probably just laughing at my latest haircut. No one in DR wore their hair like mine. Just before the trip, I had my shaved head down to a crew-cut.

After all, I was going to war.

An hour later, I was still lost in the sea of faces. I didn’t even know what I was looking for. I hadn’t seen a recent photograph of my father in the last eight years.

I was stranded. I didn’t have any cash. All I had was a credit card that was over its limit. I guided myself toward the payphones to call my father’s cell phone hoping I had the right number. Quickly, I found out that the calling card bought in New York, where I was assured it would work in the Dominican Republic, did not work at all.

The fear inside me mounted as I pushed my luggage back toward the waiting area. Suddenly, I wished I’d paid attention when my mother had tried to teach me Spanish as a child. My hair and the words that would stumble out in broken Spanish would peg me as a foreigner. And that, my mother had always said ominously, would make me easy prey for thieves in the Dominican Republic.

I opened a book hoping that my father would see me, remember how much I loved to read, and approach me. I had spent my childhood buried in books. In books, you could go anywhere and never get hurt.

Pages into pretending to read a novel, my hands were shaking when the man and the woman with the familiar face walked over. He was my father after three hours.

“I knew it was you. Right away. That’s my baby. ¿Qué te hiciste con tu pelo?” No nice haircut, huh?

In the span of eight years, my father’s thick mustache had disappeared and been replaced by an expanding waistline. He looked like an after photograph of John Travolta. Thin then. Chubby now.

The only photograph of my father that I still had was of him in his twenties. The three of us, my mother in a garish red dress, my father in a white shirt opened down to his chest, and me, in a little handmade red dress. We sat on my mother’s bed.

He announced again that he had known my face instantly. I had always been a bookworm.

“Always you were reading something,” he said in lilting English.

Too tired to argue, I fell into his open arms. During the car ride, I stared at him knowing that had I passed his face in a crowd, I would have never known it was my father’s face.

My father drove us to a pink building with red awnings. The buildings were a vivid Technicolor dream, blue stucco apartments sat next to sunlight yellow houses. The shopping malls were, of course, orange. In the years since he had left my mother, my father had never taken me to his home. Stepping out of the car, my legs almost buckled. Now, finally, I would see the home that I had dreamed he would take me to all of my life.

At the door, my father helped my aunt with my luggage. Together, they took it into a small bedroom. Something about the décor, the frilly comforters and the stuffed animals told me that this was not my father’s home.

I turned to him questioningly.

Sheepishly, he responded: “You’ll be staying here the night with your Tía Olga and her daughters. Call me tomorrow and I’ll pick you up.”

Though, I hadn’t covered my ears, I hadn’t heard him either. All I knew was that he was abandoning me, again! I had come to all this way to be left with strangers.

Two days later, he called. His creamy voice sharp with annoyance and fury. “Why have you not called me?! It’s been two days.”

“Dunno, why haven’t you called me, Dad.”

“I’m coming to visit you tonight.”

My aunt looked startled when I thrust the phone back at her.

The suspense was over. He was taking me home to a short, sprawling house. The floors were littered with dust and grime, remnants of broken toys and broken baubles. I inspected the desolation that extended to the bedrooms and was surprised that I could distinguish between the boy’s and girl’s rooms. His children from his second marriage.

In the boy’s room, an abandoned Nintendo videogame console lay next to a television that was turned backwards so that the screen faced the wall. In the girl’s room, there were doll parts and bits of clothing that could have been the dolls or hers depending on the girl’s age.

Again, I found myself looking to him questioningly.

“She took a lot of stuff when she took the children. I haven’t cleaned anything since. I’m going to have to sell the house. Get a little place for myself.”

His voice was full of something like exhaustion and anguish.

I nodded.

At last count, two families had been broken by the weight of my father’s wandering eye.

Christmas Eve, I look at my father in disbelief. It always came back to Christmas Eve. The whole family was going to visit even more family for a big party. Here I would be no orphan. I could already picture the tanned tigres on the street, opened collared shirts, chest hair on display, swigging back cervezas while whistling at passing women. My father had never been much of a drinker, at least.

I caught myself staring at his face often. It was this face that I had always yearned for while growing up. I had built a shrine to it in my heart. His face should have come to my rescue, but it never did.

I wanted to lash out at him, to scream at him for all the pain I had endured. But, somehow, I couldn’t. The same way I had never felt safe to beg my mother to stop beating me, I couldn’t ask my father why he had stopped loving me.

Late that night, we sat out back alone looking up at the stars together in the safety of our silence. Almost happy. I should have felt happy, no? And then I looked at him again, trying to memorize his face, and my tears shattered the silence between us.

“Why did you leave? Why did you leave me?”

My father searched my eyes hesitantly.

I pleaded with him shamelessly.

“Why didn’t you love me enough to stay?”

This was an abandoned child’s interrogation.

He had left when I was four years old, he begins to tell me quietly. Leaving me only vague memories of a father and nightmares of an incident.

In the nightmares, I am always holding a newborn baby in my arms. I hear yelling outside. The baby is struggling in my arms, wailing, and I am begging her to be quiet. Shh, shh, I am so terrified of my mother, even then. For some reason, the two of us are both terrified, my sister and I, we were left on the floor of my mother’s bedroom like forgotten, misbegotten rag dolls.

And then the room is flooded with light. My mother opens the door and takes the baby from me. I struggle to my feet.

And then, suddenly, we are in the hallway of the sixth floor of our building. There are faces staring at us from all directions. I look down at the doorstep and all I see is blood. Tears stream down my face. So much blood. And then, I feel myself being pulled away.

Always, then, there, I wake up.

He says that they were having an argument. It was one of those earth-shattering screaming matches that made even the floorboards tremble. He says that after that, he, her very first love, never came back—at least not to live with us—ever again.

He didn’t remember why she had done it, why she had broken a ceramic platter on his head but I knew and didn’t say.

My father’s countless infidelities would slowly tear at the fabric of my mother’s mental instability throughout my childhood with, and without him, as I grew under her iron fist. At three years old, my voluminous, pregnant mother had grabbed me by the arms asking me to snitch on my father. Where did we go? Where had we been? What had my father said? What had he done?

I didn’t know what she had wanted then but eventually, something made sense to her.

A woman’s name kept coming up.

My mother told me later that I had come home with my father in a rage. I was angry, stomping around the apartment, because he had tried to let some woman take my seat, the front passenger seat of the taxi he drove at night around Washington Heights.

He tried for sympathy. “I went to my sister, to my mother’s house, bleeding. Blood was spilling from my head onto everything, everywhere. The doctor said if it had been a glass platter I would be dead. She hit so close…. I could have died.”

Sympathy. A Christmas wish I refused to grant.

“I could have died, too, Dad. I could have died, too.”

He had left me, and my newborn sister, with this unbalanced woman because “a child belonged with its mother,” he said again hesitantly.

“How could you…how could you have left me with such a monster?”

For a second, my father’s cool veneer, the cavalier attitude he seemed to carry into every situation, wilted. I saw my father hurt in the way I had wanted to make him hurt after retelling him all the jumbled up stories from my twisted childhood. I almost smiled as the words spilled from my mouth like venom frothing over my lips.

She beat us. She beat us every day. With telephone cords. With telephones. With fists. With brooms. With belts. With shoes. With anything within reach. She beat us more during the school vacations that all my friends seemed to love and I had learned to dread. She said the walls were spirits, spirits that spoke to her. She said she always knew when we were lying because the saints told her. So she beat us.

“Why didn’t you save me?”

Slowly, he whispered: “I didn’t know.”

In all the daydreams where I had told my father that my mother was a monster, he had known. He had known all along and he had been waiting for the right moment. He had always been waiting to take us from her. Forever.

It had never occurred to me that he might think we were happy with her. That in the forced telephone calls she would make to the Dominican Republic, where she told us to sound happy or else she would beat us, where she told us to ask for money or else she would beat us…he didn’t know. He never knew.

“But you knew that I needed a father. I needed you. I needed you. Why didn’t you know that I needed you?”

“You didn’t need a father.”

“I did. I needed you. Papi. I needed you. How could you think that I didn’t?”

“I never had a father and I turned out okay.”

BIO:  A native New Yorker, a former teacher, a freelance writer, Aliza Hausman has juggled many hats. Currently, she suffers from a perturbing addiction to literature, films, magazines...and the nice Jewish boy she married.