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Coming Home

Fall 2019 Nonfiction Contest Winner

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“Your father’s coming home very soon,” my Aunt Kimberly whispers for the third time since she started my hair. For the seventh time that day I nod, holding the web of skin between my thumb and pointer. I cannot just say okay, but I understand, I get it. He’s coming home. 

Later that evening, my mother gets the exact date in a letter: December 20th, 2016. My initial reaction lies between dreading Christmas and telling my mother I’m sorry, instead, I say “Congratulations. What should I wear?” 

My mother runs to her closet rubbing her fingertips along a peach-colored sundress. “It’s a celebration,” her voice shrieks two octaves higher while pulling the fabric close to her right cheek. “If only it was summer. I would wear this and show off some skin,” she scoops her hips, gently rubbing against the silk fabric to a melody I can’t really hear yet I know to her it’s beautiful. 

On December 18th, I eat lunch with my grandmother at Johnny Rockets. Laughter engulfs the entire room, despite my smile she leans back in her seat, watching me chew a greasy french fry, her arms crossed over her chest demanding my attention. My eyes scatter across the room looking for brown eyes that aren’t hers and yet she finds me over and over again until I bore my pupils into hers, “Thank you, Grandma.”

“Why did you get that hideous black dress?” She leans her chest over her slightly tampered-with grilled chicken wrap, showing me a glimpse of her bosom and I fixate on the cross, Jesus’ golden body hanging, his head limp over his left shoulder. “Caroline, answer me,” my American name sizzles over her bottom lip, she catches her Spanish accent on the tip of her tongue just so she can repeat herself privately. “¿Cuál es el problema? ¿No amas a tu padre?”

“No, Abuela.” I reach my hand to touch the silver cross shackled around my neck, Jesus’s silver body dangling over my flat chest, yet I feel as if my father, grandmother, and I share a different God. I run my teeth along my bottom lip, dragging my dead skin off of the fresh meat before I smile. “Nothing. I just thought it was beautiful.” 

December 19th, my mother whips out her hot comb for the first time in eight years, “Pumpkin, hold your ears.” My thumb drags along the edge of my copy of This Is How You Lose Her, gliding across my cheek to cup my left ear. “Be careful Mama, it’s hot.”

My mother scats a jazz tune she doesn’t know very well, sections off a part of my head and I see the smoke from my burning hair fill the room in a puff. “Pumpkin, aren’t you excited? You know I can barely control myself anymore,” her voice encases my ears, thick like mist after a downpour, as she pulls the section of my hair closest to my left ear. 

“I’m not mad, or sad, but Mama, I don’t know him and I—.” The hot comb falls onto my left hand, and I stumble onto the floor of our kitchen, my back embodying a screeching cat getting its tail stepped on. “W-why would you do that?!” I cup my left in my right hand, watch my first layer of skin gather itself into hiding, leaving the pink flesh underneath to be exposed for more of my mother’s wrath. 

“How dare you! Say that! You know him.” My blood smells metallic, musty, but my flesh deliciously crawls up my nose like cinnamon and bacon grease. I blow on my broiling skin. “He was gone for ten years because of you. Your hunger. Your needs. You.” She slaps the back of the dining chair. “Now stop your lies and let me finish your hair.”

On December 20th, my mother continuously flips between singing along to old Mary J. Blige songs and talking to her friends on the phone. All I can think about is how I love the drive from New York to Massachusetts and now I’ll never see the leaves change on my way to see my father again. How I should appreciate the last drive I took in the fall, I should have figured out if the shade of red on the trees were mahogany, crimson, or raspberry. Or most importantly how much the scalp of my hair burns, wrapped up in these bobby pins. As I shakily start to pull the bobby pins out of my head, she tells her friend, ‘I’ll have to call you back.’ My mother’s eye darts from the road to my vibrating body, “Pumpkin?” She pulls into the parking lot on the side of the correctional facility, “Baby!” She rips my left hand out of the air when it goes to pull out the next pin. 

“Caroline! What is wrong?” I switch my face to make eye contact with her, my eyes burn like they’ve been gathering acid in my eye sockets. I violently rub my left eye until my rubbing causes my scab to break off of my burn. “Look at yourself. You’re bleeding now!” My mother frantically starts to get napkins and a new bandage. I don’t make eye contact, yet my left eye twitches in her direction.

“I’m so sorry Mama. I-I didn’t mean to.” My mother starts to wrap her arm around my shoulders, but I pull my knees into my chest and fold into myself, flinching against her body heat. She drops the napkins and bandage on my thigh. 

I feel my mother tuck away her concern as her arm pulls away and she stops trying to comfort me. She exhales on my neck, cold, steadily whispers, “Clean up before your father’s processing is done.”

I inhale, gathering the snot dancing on my upper lip, “Okay mama I’m—” the car door slams. “Sorry.”

Steadily I pull my hair down, let the curls cascade over my shoulders. My breathing is attempting to steady itself as I unwrap my bandage, rip away the peeling skin, then wrap the burn again. Inhaling, he’s your dad. The napkins on my thigh smell like grease, yet I wipe away my tears carefully, without looking, pull down the overhead mirror.

Exhaling, you love him. Slowly I start to part my hair down the middle, lightly blow my nose and smile my way to look at myself in the mirror. Inhale. Exhale. I open the car door, bracing myself to see him, “Baby girl!” My eyes connect to his automatically, he looks like he did behind bars. Freedom doesn’t make him look any different. I sprint frantically into his arms. We clash into each other aggressively, yet he spins around as we embrace. “Baby girl I’m home!” 


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