My father is the type of man to take more than he gives. One of the few things he likes to give me and my younger siblings is a crisp $2 bill. On pay day, holidays, and birthdays, he’d pull out his wallet, lick his fingers, and spread out the $2 bills meant for us. He’d tell us, “no se los gasten.” These are not for spending, they’re for good luck. As a child, I’d save them in an envelope. On good paydays, we’d get an allowance and a $2 bill. On harder paydays, when we didn’t have enough money for rent and food we’d be asked for the bills we had saved. I was never able to save more than $10 at a time.
In my dreams, I’m often chasing after men who don’t want me. The world is ending around me, the apocalypse is here, the city is burning and I’m running around filled with dread because I cannot find the one man I believe will save me. I’m at a party, everyone loves me, everyone celebrates me, everyone wants my attention but I can’t hear or see anyone because I’m keeping track of the one man that keeps avoiding me. I’m back in high school, looking for a classroom, often a math class, but the halls are a labyrinth of stairs moving up and down when I spot a man and follow after him, convinced he will take me to the right room. In these dreams, none of the men are ever my father. But, they’re all my father. So much of my teens and twenties were spent longing for unavailable, broken men—convinced I was the problem and reason I couldn’t get any of them to choose me because I was unlucky at love.
On days when my father was a happy drunk, he’d empty his wallet and give me and my sister everything that was in it. One Christmas, when I was 8 and my sister was 7, my father handed us his wallet with $400 dollars. My sister and I sat on the front steps of my aunt’s house and counted the $20s. I divided the money, “one for me, one for you.” We felt so lucky. Up to that point, our Christmas presents had consisted of hand-me-downs and non-name-brand toys. We could do anything we wanted with our new money. My mother came out and snatched that money right from our tiny hands. She put it in her purse—probably feeling lucky herself that she wouldn’t need to beg her husband for more money to make ends meet until the next paycheck. My sister and I didn’t even get to keep our Christmas $2.
My father was an alcoholic for most of my young adult life. I binge drank for most of my undergraduate years and stayed buzzed for majority of the time I worked on a graduate degree. I blamed my drinking problem on rotten luck. I didn’t choose my parents or their dysfunctional relationship. I didn’t choose my depression, my anxiety, my low self-esteem. I didn’t know how to change my luck—to be someone other than who I had become, a replica of my father. My mother always saw it in me before I did. When she’d be drunk and desperate, she’d yell at me “te pareces a tu padre.” You’re like your father, she’d scowl. My father beat her for many years so it was usually hard to tell if she resented me because I reminded her of him or if she could somehow tell that I’d live a similar self-destructive life.
Before I had given up trying to figure out why my parents were even together, I asked my mother, “Why did you marry him?” My question was out of curiosity and rancor. Her answer varied depending on how fed up she was with her own life. On days when she’d remember I was a child, she’d say if she hadn’t, then “no hubiera tenido la suerte de ser tu madre”— she wouldn’t have had the luck of being my mother. On days when life and my father beat her too hard, too much, she’d say “asi es la suerte.” By the time I was in high school I was so used to seeing them beat each other, their routine was more annoying than terrifying. It was hard being at a school dance, at a slumber party, at a friend’s house, at the mall, and having to explain to everyone why I needed to leave right now because my little sister called to say my parents are at it again. I didn’t cry anymore. I tucked my tears and anger in the back of my closet where I hid the rest of my secrets, not knowing one day I’d run out of room and I’d be buried underneath a pile of unsorted traumas.
When I moved out of my parents’ house, I put a $2 bill in my phone wallet and moved three hours south. My father prohibited me from going away to college, my mother and my younger siblings accused me of leaving them behind. I left anyway. I needed a different life. I was convinced if I didn’t leave as soon as I could then I would surely die. I was lucky to have been accepted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Some of my more racist teachers and counselors thought so too. My grades had dropped junior year because I didn’t know if my mother, my sister, and I would be granted permanent residency in time for me to apply for financial aid or if we would remain undocumented. At the beginning of the school year, it didn’t seem likely. My parents received a letter informing them that the local immigration office had lost our applications. When my mother showed up to the office with copies she had saved of our applications they told her my father didn’t earn enough money to claim all three of us. The government would deny our application because we were a liability. I was angry and defeated. College was supposed to be my way out. In order to receive our permanent residency in time, my family was sponsored by my then boyfriend-of-six-month’s family. His dad made enough money to account for his own family plus mine. How lucky I got.
I’ve never asked my father why he gives us the $2 bills. But he grew up poor too. Carrying dreams heavier than the change in his pocket. My father is smart. Good at math. Maybe if he’d been born under a luckier star, he might’ve been a teacher. Or an engineer. Or an actor—he does have a penchant for drama. But his father was an alcoholic too. By the time I was born, his own alcoholism, and other addictions, had taken a form of their own. Leaving little room for me in his heart. Maybe the $2 bills were an attempt to change my luck. A way to avoid passing on the disease that turned him into a monster and my mother into his punching bag.
It is indeed lucky I only have emotional scars to show for my time binge drinking. From about 18 through 22 years old, I partied at random houses, drank random pink drinks, and somehow still woke up in my own dorm the next morning in time for class. My drinking was different than my father’s. I was having fun. The people around me were having fun. I was away at college, that’s what college kids do. My drinking didn’t traumatize children. My drinking didn’t lead me to beat my wife. My drinking was different. Somehow better, I thought. But, of course, it wasn’t. The man I was dating at the time definitely didn’t think so either. When I was out with my friends, I was a fun drunk. When I was with him, I was a mean drunk. An angry drunk. A my-pain-is-greater-than-yours drunk. I’d ugly cry, and yell, and swing at him, and scratch, and pass out. And, not remember a thing the next day. I’d apologize and keep it moving. He loved me when he should’ve probably kept it moving as well because I was on a path toward self-destruction and didn’t care who I took with me. I had thought going away to college would’ve meant a better life. At 18 years old, I thought moving out of my parent’s house meant leaving the trauma behind. But I was only focused on the trauma I had seen. I wasn’t prepared for the trauma that lived in my DNA.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression at 21 years old by an old white guy with a brown sweater vest. He said I needed medication to manage it and that I would need to quit drinking. I never went back to him again and instead started drinking by myself—because denial was the strongest drug I had to help me make it through. I was about to move to California for a graduate program and I didn’t have time for depression. I packed my belongings, folded a new $2 bill into my wallet (because I needed all the luck I could get if I was going to start my life anew), and drove across the country with my two best friends.
Months after I arrived in California, my father said he wanted to visit me. He offered to fix whatever needed fixing around my apartment. I was in my early twenties with enough experience and memories to know my father doesn’t show up when you need him. He doesn’t show up without needing something first. I ran away from home once. I was on the track team in high school—I literally ran away from another one of my parent’s fights. I pumped my arms and widened my strides. No clue where I was headed. We didn’t have family nearby and none of my friends knew my father was a wife beater and that my mother put up with it. I stopped running because I heard my mother yell behind me, “me vas a matar.” You’re going to kill me, she exclaimed as she hunched over holding on to her chest. My father had just fucking slapped her across the face, but I was killing her. When we got back to the apartment, I found my father sitting on the edge of the bed watching TV. “Why didn’t you go after me?” I yelled through my tears. When he said he’d go to California to visit me, I felt like the luckiest little girl. I thought, he’s coming for me. And my heart fluttered. And I hated myself even more when he didn’t show up.
Years later, I will imagine having a better relationship with my parents. One where they will come to my rescue. Come get me from California and bring me back to Illinois. Tuck me in and tell me they’ll make it better. But instead, I’ll sit on the bathroom floor, wine bottle in hand, crying, once again, over the man with whom I’m in an emotionally abusive relationship. My mother will text about how her husband is a piece of shit. My father will text me asking for money. My siblings will text asking when I’m coming home. I will ignore all their texts and drink and drink and drink until more years have gone by and I finally decide it’s time to leave.
I have two $2 bills in a mason jar next to my bed, for good luck. I used to keep a $2 bill inside my phone case but I left my phone at a movie theater in Brooklyn once and was more afraid of not being able to replace the $2 bill than I was of being able to replace my iPhone. Thomas Jefferson is on the front of the two dollar bill and John Trumbull’s painting, “The Declaration of Independence,” adorns the back of it. Both Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence are revered in this country for their fight for freedom and truth. My father and I have held these lies in our sweaty palms for so long we don’t know what it’s like to unball our fists and let go. I have caught my parents hunched over our kitchen tables over documents deciding the fate of our country—the tiny apartments that hold all they have, all they treasure. They count bills and pennies and decide what will get paid and what will have to wait—our dreams are the first to be put on hold. I wonder if when my father gives me $2 bills he’s also unburdening himself of a trauma and a responsibility for a country that doesn’t want him here regardless of how “equal” men are created. “Here, toma”—take this. “Maybe you’ll have better luck in this country than I did,” I imagine him saying as if us talking about the sacrifices, the discrimination, the pain we have endured in this country is a regular conversation and not an unspoken reality.
I don’t talk to my father anymore. He still lives with my mother and I still see him during the holidays. But outside of that, I don’t talk to him. I don’t think he knows I’m intentionally not speaking to him. I don’t know if he cares. I have three saved texts from him: “Hows it going baby girl,” “Happy Valentines Day,” and “Happy Girl Day.” I didn’t reply to any of them. He came to visit me once in New York City. He’s a truck driver now so he actually had a delivery stop in Maspeth, NY, and texted asking if that was far from where I lived and if I could meet him there. It took me a day to reply. When he arrived we went back and forth about whether we were going to actually meet. “Baby girl, ¿vas a venir?” For once, he was wondering if I was going to show up. I bought him a bodega sandwich and a coffee. “If you can’t come its okay.” I reassured him many times that’d I’d be there. “Are you coming?” His delivery drop-off was a 20-minute walk from where I lived. I haven’t decided if that was lucky or not. We talked for about five minutes about the weather, about the drive, about the coffee. I was in a bad mood for the rest of the day.
I’m in my early thirties still hoping that with a little luck my father will change into my hero. I cry during films that center a strong and present father figure. Must be nice, I think. How different would my life have been? I wonder. I long for the possibility that something inside me will stop hurting. If only my father had been a better father. I bet we have that in common. He must have wished for a better father too. He must have screamed to the heavens over his poor town in Mexico and demanded a better father. I’ve yelled into dark skies demanding explanations. Asking for curses to be lifted. Begging for mercy. For a redo. For my life to be a dream from which I can wake. But the skies stay silent and we drag our feet back inside where our dreams remind us of our hurt.
Every once in a while, I’ll check for the $2 bill because if something is going to go down, I’ll need some extra luck on my side. I’m every bit as rational as I am superstitious. My family hasn’t been to a Catholic church in years but my father still makes the sign of the cross whenever he leaves the apartment. He touches the crucifix that hangs on his rearview mirror before driving off. My mother leaves Christian music playing in the background day and night because “el diablo siempre esta escuchando.” Because my siblings and I have given up hope in organized religion, we “knock on wood” in case the devil really is always listening. On New Year’s Eve, as the clock strikes midnight, we all shove a dozen grapes in our mouths, making twelve wishes for the year. After our grapes, we are given an envelope with our names on it written in my mother’s hand where along with varying amounts of money we will find a $2 bill. I give my mother the money but always keep the crisp $2 bill because I need it. I need to believe that there is still hope for our family, that we are not too broken to come together again—that I am not too broken. I hold on to these bills because even though I am a grown-ass woman, I still want to be a “daddy’s girl.” But that’s hard to do when he has no use for daughters. Right now, as it feels like the world ends around me, I can’t hold on to my father but I can at least hold on to this $2 bill for a bit of luck.
Sonia Alejandra Rodríguez is a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College in New York City. Her creative work has been published in Huizache: The Magazine of Latino Literature, Hispanecdotes, Everyday Fiction, Acentos Review, and Newtown Literary.