I WAS A BUSBOY when I was fourteen, working after my school day ended, sometimes until late into the night. My manager, Francisco, El Salvadorian and stocky, wore a cross necklace, visible at the end of his shift when he removed his tie and unbuttoned his dress shirt: an undershirt and a gold chain with its cross. The sight always affected me. Francisco sitting at the table near the alleyway where we were allowed to eat and rest, alcohol on his breath. I tried my best for him. I often substituted father figures for my absent one. Francisco hired me on the spot. He paid me under the table.
We worked in the background while the pretty women served the food and drink in the front, aspiring actresses and models, mostly white and young, working temporarily until a marriage proposal or some significant life-changing event. An undercurrent of power and lust vibrated between them and the mostly Latino busboys and kitchen staff, including me. I hated and desired them, and I looked forward to their commands, and to our bodies rubbing against each other when we passed in the tightly spaced kitchen. They mingled with the wealthy clientele, swaying from table to table, chatting up the customers, gossiping about each other. A soft competition going on at all times.
One night I helped cater a celebrity function with Francisco in the gigantic backyard of a Beverly Hills mansion. I’d been warned by the others to be careful of our employer, Julie Campos. She had a reputation for being a real bitch. She told me to take my tray and stand in between these palm trees at the edge of the yard and wait for her signal. Her lipstick matched the maroon of the dress she wore. She had four rings on the fingers of her left hand and two on her right. She called me Darling. Darling, she said, a hand at my shoulder, your job is to disappear.
A long time went by, more than an hour. Behind me, I knew, was a spectacular view of downtown Los Angeles, lights shimmering. But I didn’t turn and look. There was a rose bush and three more trees and in between, a section of tables and people. I couldn’t really see the celebrities because their backs were to me. The tables had been spread with food, bottles of wine and champagne, and wine glasses and glass flutes. Slender white candles flickered everywhere. I heard pieces of conversations. A man with a British accent talked about his vision for his screenplay. A woman said she believed lesbians had lived so many past lives as men that they were not yet comfortable in their newly acquired female bodies. Julie Campos went from table to table, handling the people, whispering in their ears, laughing. The wind picked up, swaying the lights hanging from the trees. I searched for Francisco but couldn’t find him.
I might’ve left had it not been for Francisco. I wanted so badly to please him. After more time, I began to feel as if I was a part of the property. An odd feeling, as if I was no more than a palm tree or a vase or carpet or wallpaper. Money had purchased me. The clinking of silverware and glassware and the constant hum of voices accentuated the impression.
I saw my father sitting in his chair in our living room the year before he left us, staring into the distance as if searching for his own thoughts. He was a landscape gardener, and as a kid, I used to go with him to jobsites, wait in his truck and read books. One afternoon four days before my ninth birthday, we were driving on the outside lane of the 110 freeway, when a man stepped in front of my father’s truck with his arms raised. My father swerved but we hit him. A loud thump, I can hear it now. His body rolled up our windshield. I screamed. My father braked and swerved again. The man’s body rolled down our windshield. My father put his truck in reverse and backed up, parking on the shoulder of the road behind the man. I got out of the truck and followed him to a puddle of black with the man curled into himself. His chest moved. His leg twitched. Then he went still again. It smelled like alcohol and copper from his blood. I was horrified. My father told me to go sit in the truck. I watched out the cracked windshield as the police and ambulances arrived. My father had his face in his hands.
A paramedic tapped on my window. I rolled it down and he asked me my name, so I told him. Do you need anything, Gabriel? he asked. Are you okay? I told him no, and that I was fine. It wasn’t your dad’s fault, he said. He stared at me for a minute more, and then he left. I kept the window cracked. The sky was beginning to get a dusky gold and the air had a chill to it. I prayed for the man and watched as they put him on a stretcher and carried his body off the street.
In my prayer, I talked not to God but to the man: I told him that I wanted him to be safe, that I knew he’d made a mistake by walking in front of our truck, and that I hoped he’d get better. I knew he would not get well and that he’d wanted to die. I think he might’ve been dead already. But I never asked.
Back at our apartment, my heart pounded as I listened from my bedroom wall vent to my parents in the kitchen. They had no idea I could hear them. Usually we spoke English in our apartment, but that night, they spoke Spanish. I learned the man’s age—thirty-nine—and his name, Justin McCord, and that he’d most likely died from a skull fracture. There’d been a suicide note in his pocket. His wife had left him the month before.
Un borracho empedernido, my father said sadly, como yo. A long silence and then my mother began to cry. No es lo mismo, she said.
A chill went through me, spreading into my arms and legs and chest. My father disappeared sometimes for days, but I’d not known why, and I’d not seen him drunk. A periodic alcoholic, he did that away from us. I realized that I didn’t know him at all. The coldness moved to my feet and, for a moment, I had the desire to run into the kitchen and punch his face. I must have known then that he would leave.
Not more than three weeks later, he was gone. He sent money in the mail, no return address. My mother did okay without him. We did okay. I continued to pray to Justin McCord. He became Uncle Justin, and I’d make up stories about him. Uncle Justin had once lived in Thailand. He liked Chinese food and video games and the Dodgers. As a kid, he’d fallen from a tree and chipped his front tooth. Even now—all these years later—Uncle Justin is real to me.
I stood and became a tree at that party. It felt like years passed.
I’ve never told anyone that I was molested soon after my father left. The man was in his late teens. I forget his name. No, I don’t: Miguel, we knew his family. He had me pull down my pants, and he also took his pants down. He told me to touch his penis and move my hand back and forth. I’m afraid of what people will think of me.
I remember bicycling down a hill when I was a kid. I was going fast and I burst out and screamed my first curse word. For a long while, I equated this to free will, and my choice to be wicked. Now it’s a memory of liberation. But no matter what I think, the universe is indifferent.
For months after he left, I woke in the mornings and felt my father’s desertion anew. I longed for him. No matter how I tried, I couldn’t shake my love for him.
At one point, Julie Campos looked directly at me and held my gaze. No signal. I felt deceived. I wanted to float away. My stomach felt hot, my hands clammy, and I knew my face had gone red.
I began to pray to Uncle Justin, asking for something to happen. In the dark, he whispered back to me. He said he was sorry and that he loved me. And then he told me that I should stop praying to him. He was behind me, talking into my ear.
Why? I asked, and I was surprised to feel a tear rolling down my face. I’m not real, he said. Then why are you talking to me? Why can I hear you? He sighed. I’m glad, he said, that you ask. You’re dreaming. Hallucinating. I shook my head. No, I said. I’m awake. I felt stupid, as though I’d failed him, or that I’d misunderstood our relationship. Your father’s not coming back, he said. I know, I said. He sighed again. Well, he said, I should be going. Okay, I said, bye, because I wanted him gone. I felt the weight of his hand on my shoulder, and then the grizzled brush of his stubble against my cheek as he kissed me. I blinked the tears away. He wouldn’t make me cry. I turned to face him, but he’d left. That was the last time I prayed to him.
Eventually Francisco found me. He raised his voice, angry at my predicament. You’ve been standing here this whole time? he asked. Julie Campos, I explained, told me my job was to disappear and wait for her signal. She never gave it.
Francisco’s shirt was unbuttoned, tie gone, and in the dark, I could see the glint of his cross on its chain. He looked tired and his eyes bulged and he smelled like booze. I’m very sorry, he said. If I’d known that she’d made you stand in the same spot for five hours, I would’ve stopped it.
I almost told him what happened with Uncle Justin. I longed to let my tears come like a little boy, and to have him comfort me. He must’ve seen it in my face, because he put his heavy hands on my shoulders and then pulled me into a brief hug. Never, ever, he said, will I understand rich people. He drove me home, his Oldsmobile Cutlass rattling in the black of the night, a Vin Scully bobble-head dancing on his dashboard.
A week later we found out that my father had died in a bar fight, stabbed in the arms and chest. The officer who accompanied my father to the hospital was fond of him. He was good-natured and kind, the officer said, standing in our doorway. An overcast day, spitting a little rain. My mother invited him inside but he declined. How did you know him? I asked. Your father spent a lot of time in the back of my patrol car, the officer admitted.
I tried to remember what my father looked like; what his face was like; how he laughed; how his voice sounded. Most of the time, I used photographs to remember. But now, my father came to me as clearly as the officer standing before me. He looked at me and smiled sadly and like a flash, he left. I felt my body sway and I steadied myself against the doorframe. When did it happen? I asked, but I already knew the answer. The night of the party in Beverly Hills, right around the same time that Uncle Justin told me he loved me.