“My name is Alvaro Vasquez and I am an alcoholic.”
About twenty solemn eyes were fixated on me as I forced the last hard ‘c’ out of my mouth and sat back down. A chorus of “Hi Alvaro” met my ears as my bottom met the cool metal of probably the most uncomfortable chairs I’d ever sat on. If their purpose was to get you to stay here, I’d imagine they’d have seating more pleasing to my ass. Oops, I thought. My daughter had always said I should curb my habit of swearing every couple of sentences. I had zoned out of my third Al Anon session yet again. The people here had lost their cherry complexions, their eyes were sunken and tired, and their monotone voice and melancholic histories too easily took me back to my own. One couldn’t really expect me to care about Jessica’s estranged husband, nor John’s broken relationship with his grandson. I had enough of my own shit. Oops. I had enough of my own problems. That simply doesn’t have the same grit to it, now does it, Marissa?
“Papa, mirame!” my eight-year old daughter shouted excitedly in Spanish. She wanted me to turn my attention away from the basketball game so I could watch her dance. She loved to sway around the room to salsa music, especially the tunes her mother would play around the house.
I took another swig of my whiskey and glanced quickly at the tiny brown-eyed girl whose curly mop of hair danced around with her as she belted out her favourite classic song, Yo No Se Mañana. I Don’t Know What Will Be Tomorrow. Someone should have told me to pay more attention to the lyrics. I downed the remainder of my glass and shifted my focus to the jubilant young lady and grinned, “Te veo, mi amor!” I told her that I saw her, that I was watching. And yet, halfway through her routine I asked my wife to refill my drink. She’d walked away and mumbled something awful-sounding under her breath. I couldn’t tell whether it was in English or Spanish. Probably English. It sounded harsh enough. Angrily, I got up from the chair and refilled my drink in the kitchen myself. I had forgotten about my baby Marissa until I heard soft crying as I approached the living room where her mother was consoling her.
“Papa…” her sobs didn’t allow her to finish her thought. But I knew in that moment exactly what she was thinking. What kind of father are you? I knew my wife was wondering the same thing. I saw it in her eyes when she looked at me. Although I was the one standing above her, her eyes somehow looked down on me. It wasn’t just anger. It was disappointment, resignation, and an overwhelming sadness.
“I’ll see everyone this time next week. Keep it up!” the sound of the organizer took me out of the reverie I’d been in. For a moment, I thought I had a second chance to watch my young girl dance. For a moment, I believed I had the opportunity to re-write history - one in which, I hadn’t gotten up for another drink. I hadn’t gotten angry at my wife for leaving me to do it myself. I hadn’t glanced at my daughter and lied to her face, to tell her that I saw her, that I was watching, when truly I hadn’t had a sober thought all evening. The worst part of it all, is that I had been given so many chances and fumbled them all. She had been so lovely, too lovely even. If I could’ve given her any advice, it would have been to never give a man more than two chances, and yet, my beautiful girl had given me hundreds.
“Alvaro,” I heard the soft voice of the Al Anon lead nearby. He’s the only one who doesn’t butcher my name entirely. Emphasis on the first ‘A’. I spent tons of time in Mexico in my youth. That’s what he’d told me when I’d realized I didn’t need to correct his pronunciation.
I lifted my head from my hands and stood up, “How are you, Martin?”
Martin gazed at me with the kindest eyes I’d ever seen and smiled, “Don’t worry about me. I wanted to check on you and how you’ve been feeling. Especially today.” He said the last part after a significant pause. He must’ve remembered. Today was March 15th. To everyone else, a meaningless Sunday. To me, the day I was forced to come to terms with the fact I had never given my then 18-year old daughter a single sober thought. Still, she had given me so many of hers until she had none left. And not by choice.
Marissa Vasquez, 18, was killed by a drunk driver on March 15th, one year ago today. The police officer that showed up to my door with somber eyes caught sight of the bottle of whiskey in my hand that I had not even bothered to pour into a glass. He didn’t even have it in him to look disapprovingly. He simply stared right through me and asked, as if it was his hundredth time asking, “Is your wife home, Mr. Vasquez?”
I still remember the way my wife howled when she saw the officer at our door step and the tears that he’d tried so hard to hold back, inevitably making their way down his chalky complexion. I don’t think I can ever forget the shrieks that followed, the screams of, My daughter is gone! You never paid any mind to her! I’m leaving you, Alvaro, I swear I’m leaving you!”
Once Camila had calmed down, the officer sat with us and delivered the news we’d both already interpreted based solely on his ghostly demeanour at the door. Someone had died. And we didn’t know too many people in Canada at this point. Someone had died, and I couldn’t bear to hear it: Marissa was killed by an impaired driver.
Something in me snapped when he used that neutral term to describe the driver. I jumped out of my seat in a rage and threw the bottle of Johnny Walker against the wall and shouted, “Just fucking tell the truth, he was drunk! He was a drunk!” I caught a glimpse of my inebriated reflection in the full length mirror across from me and fell to my knees, knowing it had been entirely my fault. I was the reason my daughter was gone. She had called me earlier that night to tell me she was performing a salsa routine with her friends at one of the latin clubs in the city. She’d been so excited, despite all the times I had let her down. Please, Papa, you have to come watch us. It’ll be the best show we’ve done. I remember being completely out of it. It was 9 PM on a Friday night, and I’d already had half a bottle of Scotch. The most I can remember saying on the phone was that I’d try. I don’t recall what came after, whether my speech was slurred, whether I sounded completely disinterested. I have no clue. I was utterly wasted and couldn’t give my daughter a single ounce of genuine attention.
“Alvaro, I lost you,” Martin was sitting next to me with his hand placed lightly on my shoulder.
I snapped out of my trance and forced a smile, but I was sure it looked more like a grimace, “I’m doing okay. Sorry, I was just thinking is all.”
Martin had a gentleness that could not be taught and a voice so warm it could melt my icy heart, “I wanted to tell you that Marissa’s friends are performing the routine from last year in her honour. It’ll be in a couple of hours. Camila reached out to me. She’s giving you one more chance, mate.”
“Camila is?” I was bewildered at the fact that my ex-wife would even consider another go at our booze-infested, loveless marriage.
“No, Alvaro,” Martin locked eyes with me and smiled, “Marissa is.”
Hearing my daughter’s name elicited a gut-wrenching feeling that lodged a massive ball in my throat and caused tears to well that I wasn’t able to contain. I couldn’t miss this one.
“Let’s go,” Martin patted my back and stood up quickly, “You can’t miss this one.” He echoed what I had been thinking.
I straightened the black blazer I’d been wearing and tightened my tie. I’d been wearing the same suit I’d worn on the day of the funeral last year. The only difference this year is that I didn’t have a flask of scotch strategically placed in my inside jacket pocket. Just an old handkerchief and photo of Marissa and me cutting her 18th birthday cake together.
We drove to the venue together. I had sweaty palms at the thought of seeing Camila after an entire year of grieving on my own and attending therapy sessions. I couldn’t contain my drinking after the incident whatsoever, and I didn’t blame her for leaving me at that time. I felt I had deserved it. After all, I could have prevented our daughter’s death by being an attentive father. I had no idea how she was, if she was with another man, if she’d greet me with disdain or with that sweet smile she once wore. Although now I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen it. Our wedding day was the only time I could think of, really.
Within an hour, my daughter’s team was announced: And now, in honour of the late Marissa Vasquez, The Women of Salsa!
I felt blood rush to my cheeks in awe as I watched her friends, some of whom I had seen at our home over the years but paid no heed to as they worked on school projects together. Somehow both my hands came together in an overwhelmingly loud applause as the first few beats to Luis Enrique’s famous tune began. The performance was mesmerizing. The girls had put together a slideshow of pictures of Marissa as background to the performance. My eyes filled with tears again as I noticed that there were hardly any pictures of us - most were with her friends, her mother, and some unrecognizable people. I hadn’t paid attention. I hadn’t been there. I hadn’t seen her.
Te veo, mi amor. Those were the words I had said to her when she was just eight years old, dancing for me in our living room. I see you, my love. My eyes were blurry with tears, but I cheered as loudly as I could when the girls finished their routine, and for a brief moment, I could have sworn I saw Marissa on stage. She had a joyous, loving expression on her face. I watched her in her bright crimson dress, the same one she’d been found lifeless in not long ago. But now, she had an abundance of colour in her face, a vibrancy that almost tricked my vulnerable mind into thinking: she could not be dead. She was looking directly at me, with a forgiveness I hadn’t seen anywhere other than with my comrades in sobriety. I couldn’t bear to so much as blink despite my left eye twitching to hold back miniature waterfalls. I didn’t want to shake myself out of the illusion. I didn’t want to risk it. I simply saw her.
Suddenly, I felt a familiar touch by my side and someone take my arm. Camila. I wanted to turn to look at her, but I was too focused on the apparition of my daughter on stage.
“What would you say to her, if you could?” Camila asked, as she squeezed my arm lovingly.
Without turning away, I simply said: Te veo, mi amor. I see you, my love.