I always thought that my parents’ story was going to end differently than the rest of our family’s. Papi had loved Mami more than I had seen even in movies. When Mami had a problem, she didn’t go to Abuela or to her friends; she went to Papi and cried in front of him, closing the door to the rest of us. She was the strongest woman we knew, but to Papi she was herself. To me, their love was what was going to protect them from the curse. But in Bogotá, Colombia, their love was what made them more appealing victims. Papi was good with business and, because of that, we never lacked for anything. That’s how Papi and Abuela said it. They never admitted we had money, lots of it, just that we were comfortable or that we had more than enough. At breakfast, Papi ate his food methodically, quietly, savoring the last minutes of peace before he had to be an important man out in the world. A man at risk. When I think about Papi, I always think of him like that, quiet and methodical.
There’s three generations of women in this living room: Mami, Abuela, and me. All the men are now gone because of the violence. Abuela serves us valerian tea in the china she reserves for weddings, and, I guess now, for funerals too. Mami has dark stains under her eyes from crying with mascara on. She started crying at the funeral in the early afternoon and it’s nighttime now. Abuela sighs and opens her mouth, but she closes it again. Nada que decir. We all know it. It’s best to keep our mouths shut.
We used to live with Abuela in her big house when I was a little girl. She used to say to me that we lived with her because my parents were still learning. “Learning about what?” I would ask, but she would ignore me or say, “Learning,” and leave it at that. After we moved out to our own apartment, we met her often for lunch or for tea when we went shopping. I figured my parents’ lessons weren’t done because we visited Abuela often. I played with her china dolls and wandered through the hallways full of pictures of men I would never know. I would look at one photograph of Abuelo and study his nose. It was my nose. His curly dark hair was my hair. No one ever talked about the resemblance. Now, sitting in the room where we mourn Papi, I wonder if talking about the parts of the men that had been passed along to the daughters was too painful.
The room is so silent we can hear each other breathing. We can also hear the thunder from outside, and the rainwater washing the blood away from the bodies. I imagine a river of blood staining the streets of Bogotá. Although I don’t want to, my mind drifts to the radio program that I sometimes hear at night when I can’t sleep. The families of missing people record messages for the secuestrados. The wives and the children often say how much they miss their fathers and their husbands and how many rosarios they’re praying for them. They tell them about all the things that are waiting for them when they return home. Most of the time, they tell them about how everything is okay and about how they must not worry.
I think about the program, and a part of me feels guilty that I am relieved that Papi didn’t die in the forest. Papi died in the city, half an hour by car from us. In a way, Papi didn’t die so far away. I start sobbing, and Mami puts a hand on my back and caresses it. Mami joins me and starts sobbing too. She doesn’t want me to suffer alone. Mami holds my hand and squeezes it tight, so tight I wonder if she’s doing it to wake herself up. She holds my hand as if she’s telling me, I’m here, we are here even if we don’t want to be. She stops crying when she hears Abuela speak.
“A curse,” Abuela says. “All the men in our family just vanish.”
“La guerrilla men are not ghosts,” Mami says, more firmly. “Guerilla men are real, Mami. And they are after us. Not curses, Mami. Men.”
The truth is men in our family don’t vanish. They get killed. We claim the bodies, and we keep their shirts after they die, and we smell them. After a while, we only vaguely remember what they smell like, but their closets keep the musky traces. We hold on to their clothes like our most priceless possessions, and we pass them from generation to generation. The women who survive meet their ancestors through the hints of perfume still preserved in the pockets of their shirts.
My family passes a lot of things from generation to generation. My family passes money. It passes fear. It passes violence, too. Men in my family get killed in the dark, in parking lots waiting for their cars, and in the street, away from anyone who can hear them or wants to hear them. Men in my family fear the guerrilla. Fear Pablo Escobar. Men in my family fear whoever is going against men with power. Before they were all killed, despite the rumors of the family curse and the violence, they used to say that our country is crumbling because of those men. Men in my family were too courageous for their own good. Their chests were filled with a pride that didn’t let them leave the houses that had belong to their families for generations, their cities and their lands. Men in my family were too attached to something and now I wonder if that was worth defending.
To Abuela, the men in the family that die become presencias, entities that linger. She told me once, when Mami wasn’t around, that she was sure Abuelo was a presencia and not a ghost. He only visited her once, but she would sometimes feel him around the house—a humming sound, a whisper—during the times when she felt like she couldn’t keep going. She knew it was a part of him that remained, sometimes playfully touching her feet at night so she would think about him when she woke up. The difference between a ghost and a presencia, she said, is that a presencia doesn’t leave. “It’s attached to you. It lives as long as you live, no matter where you go.”
We’re in Abuela’s house. It’s in Chapinero Alto, a barrio that used to be exclusive but now is populated by students and young professionals. Abuela says that the young people don’t let her sleep some nights. They blast rap music and have loud conversations on balconies while smoking and throwing the butts of the cigarettes on the street. Now that Papi is dead, she’ll probably come and live with us. We’ll sell the house where Abuelo died and where Abuela grew up. We will make room in our apartment to fit the men’s shirts.
Abuela stands up to get some food. “Soft stuff,” she says, “for your stomachs.” The soup is clear and with lots of potatoes, just the way I like it. It smells like fresh coriander and parsley and mint. “Eat,” she commands, and I put a cracker in my mouth to please her. Mami doesn’t even look at Abuela and her silver tray. She doesn’t even look at me when I chew the cracker. I take a spoonful of soup; it tastes like minty herbs and chicken. I wonder if Abuela put mint in by mistake.
Abuela grows nervous with the silence. I can tell she wants to say something but is biting her tongue; she knows Mami would protest. Mami doesn’t believe in presencias or in loving ghosts. She thinks loneliness is messing with Abuela’s head. I wonder, sitting in between them, how much it is messing with mine.
“The night your abuelo died, he visited me.” She knows to address me instead of Mami. “I knew he was dead before they called. I felt it.”
“Mamá,” Mami says. “Please don’t.”
Abuela says men in our family visit their wives the night they are killed. It’s tradition. They tell them what happened, and they prepare them to live a life without them. When he visited, Abuelo told Abuela that he had a secret account where he had enough money for them to live comfortably. Bisabuelo told my Bisabuela where in the house he had hidden some money too. The men also told their wives that they loved them, that they thought about them in their final moments more than they thought about their children. They told them about their dreams, what they wished they’d done in life. Men in my family tell their wives that they are sorry they left them alone, that they were always scared of the family curse. Men in my family only visit the women the night of their funerals.
“Tonight…” Abuela began.
“Stop,” Mami said. “Please stop.”
But it was nothing she could stop really. It was tradition. We were supposed to be paid a visit that was meant for our survival. Except Mami worked as an executive for a bank and she had her own money. Except this wasn’t our house. Except Papi never believed Abuela when she talked about Abuelo’s ghost. “It was grief,” Papi would say. “Abuela is the most sensitive woman I know.”
Mami turns to look at me and asks: “Would you sleep with me tonight?”
I see in Mami’s eyes that she is scared. Scared, perhaps, to live a life without Papi. Mami did not ever let me see the doubts in her eyes until now. I am older now than Mami was when Abuelo died. I like to think that I see things more clearly and that I am able to be there for her. I am able to do what Papi would have wanted me to do.
Abuela looks at Mami one more time and leaves the room without saying goodnight.
▴ ▴ ▴
The sheets feel icy cold. Although Mami turned off the lights, I know her eyes are wide open. I hear humming sounds drifting from the door. I feel the sounds floating on the air getting closer and closer to the bed.
“It’s the wind hitting the windows,” Mami says softly. “Go to sleep.”
The room gets warm despite it being a cold night. I turn to the side, and I think about Papi. What were his last minutes like? Was he afraid? Did he want us to grieve him? The police found Papi in the street, covered in blood from several gunshot wounds. When they came to tell us, Mami and Abuela told them about the guerrilla, how they’d been chasing our family and our money for generations. How they sometimes kidnapped our men, and how months or a couple of years later they would be found dead.
The day that Abuelo was killed, Abuela felt someone was in the house. She felt something behind her back, looking at her, wanting to touch her. Abuela told us that she called Abuelo’s office to see if he was okay, but he didn’t pick up because he was busy. She heard the calm voice of his old trusted secretary assuring her that he was okay. Abuela went outside and did the shopping.
The night that Abuelo died, Abuela’s sorrow was different than Mami’s. She had known that something was about to happen. Abuela cried and mourned Abuelo the day he died, but her tears were quieter. It was like it was written, she said. Abuelo’s death was something she couldn’t control. I wonder if Mami heard or felt something that morning before going to work. Was Papi acting any different? Was the air in the kitchen heavier? I turn my head to look at Mami. When would be the right time to ask those questions?
I put a pillow on top of my head to drown the noise that has now traveled to the bed on Mami’s side. I close my eyes and think about what Papi would say to Mami if he visited. Maybe he would tell her about that time when they visited Paris with me when I was a little girl and fed me warm baguettes and taught me words in French that they were just learning themselves. Papi always said that Paris was his favorite vacation because I was little and still did what they told me.
I close my eyes, knowing that this visit is not for me. I feel tired and calm. I feel the cold air brushing my cheeks, lulling me to sleep. The air carries a vague scent of musk that takes me back to Papi’s shirts. I think about Papi touching Mami’s knee like he used to at dinner. I think about him telling Mami that she could live a life without him, that there is a life worth living even if they were not together, because he would always be there, watching.
I can no longer hear Mami sobbing. She’s sitting up now, facing the door, waiting as she did in life for Papi to come back from work. Waiting as she did in the kitchen, with the rosary close to her chest. Mami waits because the love that she feels for Papi is telling her to sit up and listen. In the dark, I’m waiting too.