Science Fiction & Fantasy

Advertisement

Fiction

SyncALife

As I read Dad’s eulogy, my mind was on the FedEx delivery that’d bring him back to me.

“My father was a thoughtful man,” I said. “In his poems and in his life, he sought to understand people’s complexity. He didn’t believe that people were good or bad. He was most interested in gray areas. With generosity, he saw the world’s ugliness and tried shining a kind gloss on it wherever he could.”

“That was a really beautiful speech,” Manuel said. We weren’t together at that point, but he’d driven down from Davis for the funeral, even though I hadn’t asked him to.

“Thank you,” I said. I didn’t mean it. We both knew the eulogy was too kind, too convenient. More fluff than anything.

At the reception, everyone wanted to make small talk or share happy memories about Dad, but I kept replaying what’d happened the night before. Someone from SyncALife visited the morgue and drilled a small hole into Dad’s head. They took a chunk of gray matter back to their facilities, reanimated a few of the dead cells, and implanted them in a metallic gray robot, about eighteen inches tall, with jointed limbs like a drawing mannequin. It all had to be done before Dad was lowered into the ground at Forest Lawn.

No one at the reception knew I was waiting for my purchase. I couldn’t admit I’d already spent my ten-thousand-dollar inheritance. The guests spoke about how much Dad had loved me.

“He did love me,” I finally admitted, ushering people out the front door of the two-bedroom Highland Park home I grew up in.

“Call if you need anything,” Manuel ventured. He wanted to say more, but I told him it wasn’t the right time.

Before I’d made it back to the door, I caught the bright glare of headlights in my periphery and heard the soft crackle of loose asphalt on tires. A delivery man, his paunch heavy and pushing against his shirt like Dad’s had, made me sign for the package before grabbing it from the back of the truck.

I tore through the tape and Styrofoam peanuts, cradling the robot in my arms. Its limbs were limp and turned into its body, as if curled in pain. The instruction manual said that once it was powered up, it’d be able to support its own weight, but I had to gently stretch its limbs until finally it stood on its own.

“Hello,” I said, as instructed.

The robot didn’t respond. A glowing blue line ran across its “face,” a cell-phone sized screen mounted on its aluminum shoulders. It reminded me of the vital monitors in the hospital, except that the robot was silent. I reread the instruction manual, to see if I’d done something wrong. All SyncALife robots required a few weeks for the artificial intelligence software to fully develop, so their linguistic capacity was limited at first, but they were supposed to respond from the moment they first booted up.

“Dad, can you hear me?” I said. The robot stirred. The sounds didn’t coalesce into words, but the babble and gurgling were unmistakable. It was Dad’s voice.

• • • •

From Dad’s collection, Sins of War and Man:

nightmare

blood bursts from my chest
muddies dirt I slept on
soaks comrades sleeping still as restless night

blood bursts from my chest
springs like holy fountain
into mouth of the Lempa River

blood floods the bank
bodies of dead indios, guerilleros, children,
float in endless red river Styx

covered in blood from my sinner’s chest

• • • •

The cruel thing about grief is that it doesn’t care where you are or how you’re feeling. Out of nowhere, a random memory descends, even if your mind has been running a hundred miles an hour over the hundred things on your to-do list. The memory could be of the most mundane, ordinary day, and still it’ll send an ancient sadness through you. The sort of sadness you imagine humans have felt since creation, but that you never imagined you could experience so deep inside.

That’s how it was with Dad in the days after I buried him. There I was, listening to my manager explain that he’d love to give me a raise, especially after my loss, but that the call center simply didn’t have the budget. I was about to say I really needed the money, and that I didn’t know how I’d pay the bills on my own, when boom: a memory. Out of nowhere. Shell-shocked me. My manager stared me down when I went silent for too long, lost in thought.

“Okay. Thank you,” I said, my financial situation unresolved.

The memory was from when I was nine. Dad and I went back to his hometown of Santa Tecla. It was the first time he and I had been to El Salvador together, the first trip after Mom left, taking the buffer between us with her.

All summer I’d begged him for the Nintendo64. There was nothing I loved more than playing Pokémon Stadium at a friend’s house, and all I wanted was to be able to do that every day, but Dad refused to buy me one. When we got to Santa Tecla and pulled into the parking lot of the gated colonia where Dad had grown up, he opened up his suitcase and pulled out a brand-new console, still in the box.

I thought he was surprising me, but it turned out the N64 was for one of his comrade’s kids. Dad said he’d appreciate it more than me. I went on to spend the whole summer with that boy, playing Pokémon Stadium and Star Fox 64, and we eventually kissed, which led to all the yelling, but that wasn’t the point. Dad was dead and he’d gifted a Nintendo 64 to a kid who otherwise couldn’t have afforded it. Grief made it a tender memory. I missed Dad.

The SyncALife robot was waiting for me where I’d left it. I figured I’d try communicating with it again, since the purchase was supposed to stave off the loneliness and grief that’d seeped in anyway.

“How are you feeling, Dad?” I asked. It was one of the phrases suggested in the instructional manual as a way of speeding up linguistic development.

“Meh cien toe leek um days per tan dough fromage dream,” it muttered. “Eye om nut sheer key in Aries too.”

“I don’t understand you, Dad,” I said. It’d been speaking like this for days, in a jumbled-up soup of sounds that almost sounded like words but didn’t coalesce into anything I could decipher.

“Meh cien toe leek um days per tan dough fromage dream,” it repeated.

“Okay Dad,” I said. “We’ll talk later.”

SyncALife had a refund policy on the off chance the robot never acquired language. All I had to do was flip the switch on its foot, verbally confirm that I wanted to terminate the service, and hit the switch again. A part of me wanted to do it then. Dad was still dead, I still missed him, and even though the robot mumbled in a register that was unmistakably Dad’s, I couldn’t talk to him like I wanted to. Plus, I needed the money.

Hope is priceless, though, so I didn’t send the robot back. I’d do anything for a Dad that was kinder than the dead one had been.

• • • •

When the paramedics called to say that Dad had a fainting episode he was lucky to have woken up from, I stuffed all my clothes into the trunk of my Corolla and drove down from Davis for good.

Manuel asked why I’d willingly put myself back in a bad situation. Dad wasn’t happy that I’d moved in with Manuel. He stopped helping me with tuition and rent, in retribution for “abandoning him,” and though it was a fair price to pay to be away from everything I’d endured under his care, it still stung.

Manuel had a point, but I told him I had no choice. Even then, I had the sense that my decision might lead to a breakup, which was especially ironic since I’d only come out to Dad because of Manuel. But if I could be home to help Dad if he passed out again—well, of course I would. I’ve never been a bad son. At least, not in my estimation.

Dad was a subdued version of his old self then, which meant that he still got angry with me but in a passive-aggressive way. He didn’t shout or throw things, but I still felt his frustration.

To avoid him, I shut the door to my room and watched amateur interior designers give online house tours. Their living rooms didn’t seem lived in, and they all stole ideas from the same sources: Kinfolk, Ikea catalogues, overused Pinterest boards. But there was something pristine and aspirational about their homes. They were quiet, minimalist spaces. So different than the home I’d grown up in.

During one of these videos I got an ad. SyncALife is a state-of-the-art technology that preserves the memories of your loved ones after they’ve transitioned out of this life and into the next. A pair of Stanford grads conceptualized of SyncALife as a malleable, personally adjustable robot that’d mimic the behaviors of the deceased. Initially, the company developed it for children’s pets. Dogs, cats, and hamsters were easier to “bring back to life” since their personalities were less complex than a human’s. But soon it was clear that the real money maker would be technology capable of imitating a dead loved one. They figured out how to reanimate brain cells and coupled them with AI software. Customers’ orders were based on their loved ones, but the company couldn’t guarantee they’d be identical to the deceased, a disclaimer buried in fine print.

Buyers, like me, convinced themselves that SyncALife was selling better versions of the people they’d known, and though the company never promised that much, they also didn’t dissuade anyone from shelling out their savings to cure their grief.

• • • •

From Sins of War and Man:

cruel reminder

more than the break of dawn
or vinyl singing in an empty room
or phantom carcass in bedsheets’ folds

our son reminds me of you
of the cruelties that left
the room empty
the sheets phantoms
dawn broken like me

• • • •

After a few days of gurgled sounds, Dad put words together. Babytalk pulled from the two languages he’d managed to wrap his tongue around in his lifetime.

“No say woo eye em,” he said, this time as I was clearing out his room. This version of Dad didn’t need cologne or polo shirts. “There ease so men y bags in hair. Decking son?”

“There’s a lot of stuff to get rid of, Dad,” I said, assuming he could understand me. The instruction manual said to speak to the robot as I would anyone.

I tied a white trash bag to the bedframe and began to throw things away. Dad watched from the doorway, until I walked over and held his aluminum hand, pulling him into the room. He toddled at my side and let me guide him.

“Can you help me out?” I asked. It didn’t seem like he recognized the piles of objects in the room as his own, but if they really had put Dad’s brain matter into this robot, there had to be a way of drawing out recognition. I handed Dad a bottle of Nautica cologne. It was a cheap fragrance he’d gotten from Ross and used often. The phantom scent of perfume mixed with his sweat assailed me.

“Wise diss?” he asked. SyncALife Dad held it out in front of him, as if it were a piece of space junk. Fascinating, but foreign. He held onto it for a while, which had to mean something.

“How about these shirts, Dad?”

I handed him a small stack of polos that used to press against his stomach. He tossed them aside.

“Dent want dos.”

We went like this for the rest afternoon: me handing my dead father’s stuff to his reincarnated robot and taking his reaction as guidance. I was guessing—it wasn’t always clear whether or not Dad liked whatever he was holding—but still it felt like he was choosing what to throw away and what to keep, taking the burden off me. In the back of my head, I knew it didn’t matter. Dad didn’t need anything. He was dead. I should have thrown it all away.

That night, I went to the grocery store to get some vegetables. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d put something green in my stomach. Probably at the post-burial reception. When I put my debit card into the machine, the cashier looked at me apologetically.

“It says it’s been declined. You can try again.”

I shook my head and pulled out my credit card instead, and swiped it, before rushing to the car in embarrassment. The total was less than twenty dollars but paying the mortgage that month had wiped out my checking account.

Watching spinach sizzle and shrink in the saucepan, I realized I couldn’t drag my feet any longer. If I was going to keep living in the property my father had spent the better part of his adult life paying off, I’d have to supplement my income somehow. The call center wouldn’t cut it.

“What am I gonna do, Dad?” I asked him, though I had an obvious solution in mind. One he would have hated.

“Meh cientoe leek um days per tan dough fromage dream,” he muttered. “Eye om nut sheer key in Aries too.”

“I don’t know what you’re saying Dad. Can you try again? Please Dad. Por fa.”

“Meh siento like I’m desper tanto from a dream. Eye um not sheer quien Aires tu.”

“You feel, what? A dream?” Dad was getting closer and closer to words I understood.

“Me siento like I’m despertando from a dream. I am not sure quien eres tu,”

“I’m your son,” I cried. “Soy tu hijo, Dad.”

“May soon. Mai sun. My son?” he asked. “My son.”

Dad sat there, watching as I ate forkfuls of spinach. It was impossible to tell whether he understood what having a son entailed, but my gut told me he did. SyncALife warned that they had no way of knowing what details from life their AI would cling to, but I hoped he’d at least remember what it meant to be my father. The good parts, the happy moments, at least.

• • • •

From Dad’s collection, Genesis:

Hebrews 13:14

Dream of the Holy Place
Scripture calls the city that is to come
Gleaming through gates as
Peter asks for a hand, proof
Of tender love, of a life lived
In His Name

Cry out when Peter sees
Dirt in the creases of your palm
When he sends you back to
The city that does not endure
That crumbles at your touch

• • • •

Before Dad knew I was attracted to men, our relationship was normal. Or more accurately, as normal a relationship possible between an emotionally repressed, former-guerrillero and his son.

He was an unexceptional sort of man in that he loved me but couldn’t say it plainly. Instead, he did the sorts of things too many men get away without doing: supporting me financially, coaching my recreational soccer team for a couple years, talking to me about condoms and sex and the way a child can derail your life if you’re not ready for it. It was a kind of love, but not the kind I wanted as a boy.

What I wanted was the unconditional, explicitly stated, I’ll-die-for-you sort of love Dad had shown the men he spent his twenties with.

The guerrilleros were working to establish a freer El Salvador with more political space for debate and fewer kidnappings and killings. But to stage such a war meant taking to the overgrown hillsides of the rainforest, where they spent days evading government soldiers and planning counter attacks. As the vines nipped at their ankles, Dad and the other men slept in hammocks next to each other. To pass the time, they read verses of poetry out loud. They embraced, cooked together, and found solace not simply in their cause, but also in each other.

That was love between men. Dad was capable of it, but never showed it to me. As a boy, I figured it’d come one day—when I was old enough and man enough to understand the world as he did. When I learned that most of Dad’s comrades had been murdered in the war, I understood him better. If every “I love you” conjured memories of those I’d lost, I’d struggle to say it too.

That didn’t make his hesitation hurt less, and it definitely didn’t prepare me for his reaction when I revealed my relationship with Manuel. Despite all he’d been through, I never imagined he’d choose violence and call it love.

• • • •

From Genesis:

Penance

O Lord, I hear thy lessons of love
Thy commandments rattle loud in my ears

Thou shall not kill
But my murderous words maim others

Thou shall not commit adultery,
But my palms slide down other men’s wives

Thou shall not take the name of Lord your God in vain
But anger boils on my tongue

O Lord, repentance is not an action
But a promise

I break again and again
O Lord

• • • •

The week Dad began speaking in full sentences, Manuel sent a message saying he was moving down to Los Angeles to start a new job. He chose email, I guessed, because it’d be easier for me to ignore than calls or texts. Manuel respected boundaries, and though I did miss him, I didn’t respond immediately, telling myself I was busy teaching Dad about the world.

We spent evenings revisiting activities we hadn’t done together since before Mom left. On the shaggy white rug, we tossed down Uno cards, laughing when we’d curse the other with a Skip or Wild Draw Four card. We went for walks around the neighborhood, and Dad would stop to pet a dog if we encountered one. Together, we watched 27 Dresses, 13 Going on 30, and old reruns of Fear Factor.

Mostly, I answered his questions: who I was, how to turn on the television, how rain happened. He never asked anything too serious, but with every question, he got closer to asking questions I wouldn’t know how to answer: what he was like when he was alive, how our relationship had been.

Before I knew it, another month’s bills were due. To distract him for the evening, I sat Dad on the couch to watch Saturday Night Live. It was a show he’d liked in life, and as the cold open began, I could tell he was enjoying it. Proof that he’s himself again, I told myself.

I went into my room and got onto all fours, sticking a hand deep underneath my bedframe until my fingers touched the slim edges of a box. Dust covered the top, and I ran a finger through it, leaving a greasy line. I opened it and carefully laid the black wig on my mattress. Next to it, I unfolded the sequined purple body suit.

A familiar routine followed, but it’d been months since I’d done it—ever since I moved back in with Dad—so it felt exciting in a way it hadn’t since the very beginning. I combed the wig, getting every strand in place. Though I left my boxers on, I pulled on my dick and tucked it in-between my thighs before slipping into the one-piece, one leg at a time. The glittering fabric was tight on my hips and chest, and I turned in a circle, feeling the bellbottoms sway at my ankles. Once the hairnet was tight against my skull, I put the wig on and there I was: Selena under the lights of the Houston Astrodome in ‘95. Smiling, shining, precious as a gem.

The camboy website had saved my password, so logging in was easy. I made sure my bedroom door was locked, then I hit the “Broadcast Now” button. The chatroom filled up quickly. There were ten, then fifteen, then thirty people watching. I began to strip off my clothes, slowly, and as more of my skin showed, more usernames popped up in the chat. Take it off sexy, one user typed, after donating a hundred tokens. I listened and pulled the jumpsuit down to my knees. I was hard.

My boxer briefs were tight and black, and the wig swung against the waistband. I ran my fingers through the strands, over my nipples, down my body, and continued taking men’s requests. The tips were flowing, and the idea of all these anonymous men with their eyes on me turned me on. Would love to worship that cock, a user wrote once my underwear was around my ankles.

When I turned the camera off, the jumpsuit splattered with my cum, I didn’t feel disgusted at myself. I felt beautiful. And I’d made the money I needed for the bills.

• • • •

From Genesis:

1 Corinthians 6:19-20

for Flaco

The body is not a temple
But a cage: skeleton dome
Tender muscle base, fluttering heart

When the bomb bursts
Flaco’s cage shatters
Shards of marrow in
Bloody pools of flesh

His fluttering heart loose,
Ground-bound canary,
Of civil war mines

• • • •

Camming brought in enough money to pay the bills as long as I put shows on regularly, so I quit my job. Guilt seeped in briefly, but not because I’d turned to sex work. I’d sustained myself by camming in the months I was financially cut off, but doing it inside my childhood home with Dad in the house—even this growing, learning version of him—felt dirty.

I did it anyway and invested money to buy wigs and outfits to replace all the ones I’d gotten rid of when I moved back home. In a short bob and silk slip dress, I was Hollywood glamor. A pink wig, corset, and plaid miniskirt made me a popstar daydream. For the camera, I became half-a-dozen different women. Sometimes, I didn’t wear a costume. Logging on in nothing but my boxer briefs was also liberating.

Online, I could be whoever I wanted to be and there’d always be admirers. By being everyone, I was no one, and the anonymity of that lack of identity was freeing.

I was in the middle of a show when Manuel’s contact photo popped up—a shot I’d taken of him sitting in a sea of poppies—so I let the phone buzz. When I’d finished wiping cum off my fingers with a tissue, I called him back. He was glad that I’d finally responded to his email.

“Would you want to grab lunch?” he asked. I told him I’d think about it.

The sound of audience laughter came from the living room, so I changed into a new pair of underwear and joined Dad at the couch. He sat silently, occasionally turning from the sketches. Whenever Dad spoke, the blue line on his screen spiked, but as we watched, it flatlined. It was strange, because when we’d watched SNL together before he died, he always had commentary.

“You should watch the old stuff,” Dad had said once. He was glaring at Lady Gaga’s back-up dancers, wearing skirts and gold belts fashioned into corsets. “I used to watch it when I lived in Miami. So much better than this shit. Hans and Franz—we want to pump you up!—in those accents. Even that guy, who dressed as a woman. Church lady. Even that was funny. This stuff . . .” He’d trailed off.

That evening, though, he laughed occasionally, a deep and hearty joy that sent a small quiver through his aluminum limbs. The laugh was the same one he’d always had, but one I had heard rarely. Dad seemed remade. I could come out again.

“I’m bisexual,” I said. I figured it’d be best to say it as simply as possible.

“No entiendo.”

“Romantically, I like men and women.”

“You would marry either, hombre o mujer?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

Dad turned back to the television. The show had ended, and the host was saying the final goodbye with the cast behind him. As the credit rolled, the cast members embraced each other, some dancing to the closing music and the audience’s applause. I had an urge to hug Dad, but it was a stupid thought. He was a robot. He’d be cold against my skin.

• • • •

I came out to Dad, the first time, because I was in love. A giddy, can’t-get-my-mind-off-you kind of love. The sort of love I’d only ever felt for women before, and that I assumed I’d never feel for a man.

The boys before Manuel had come and gone in a flurry of headless torsos pictures and 3 a.m. “u up?” texts. We met in the dark, in the backseat of their cars or the cramped space of their dorm rooms, but it never amounted to much. I convinced myself that I didn’t actually love men. I just loved the feeling of their bodies on mine, or inside me, or slick on my skin.

But Manuel was different. We met the same way—online, under the pretenses of sex. Soon, though, he was coming around often. He’d text me to ask where I was studying, and then would join with an iced coffee I hadn’t asked for, but gratefully accepted. His love was unflinching, unashamed.

I wanted more with Manuel, a real relationship and maybe a future, so I had no choice but to come out.

Here’s what I remember: I said what I had to. My hands were trembling, so I gripped my knees. Dad said nothing, until he said no. No, he said. I don’t believe it. I didn’t raise a maricón. I reassured him it had nothing to do with him, that I couldn’t help what I felt. I was about to tell him about Manuel when suddenly he left. Slammed the door behind him and left for a walk. I thought he’d left to clear his mind, and that when he returned we’d ignore what I’d said. I was okay with the idea that Dad would ignore who I really was as a way of coping. As long as he knew, that’d be fine.

But when he came back, he was still fuming. He came up to where I was sitting on the couch, loomed over me, and began pummeling me with his fists. It was so unexpected, and I could have probably fought back, but I didn’t. I covered my head with my hands and took the blows. I was crying by then, and he only hit me for a few seconds, before shutting himself in his bedroom. I could smell his cologne, even after he’d left the living room.

• • • •

From Sins of Man and War:

on the occasion of my son’s birth

crying wife / squeaky halls / blinding bulb
pink skin / bruised temple / alien face
bloody mask / shrill shrieks / body lean

the most beautiful baby boy
I’ve ever seen

• • • •

“I remember the house,” Dad said to me one day, about three months after he’d been delivered.

“Really?” I asked. He’d had moments like these, where his past came back to him in snippets. It filled me with joy to know that the man I buried was hiding somewhere inside the robot.

“What do you remember about this house?”

“There was a hole once in the drywall. I fixed it myself because I didn’t want to pay a contractor.”

It was a random memory, but it was true. He’d made the hole himself, when I was living in Davis, though I imagined his fist against the drywall for months after he told me about it. When I moved back, I worried that he’d be violent again, but he never was. Maybe he regretted his actions. Either that, or the illness had made him too weak. Maybe I’d ask, someday.

“Do you remember living alone at home?” I asked instead.

“Did I live alone?” Dad said.

“No,” I lied. “I’ve always been here with you.”

• • • •

From Sins of War and Man:

as gunshots pierce the countryside

roosters crow on storm-soaked
farmland, halved-open bulls rot
giving worms wriggling new life

the farm hiding me echoes
who I’ve become
broken animal of a man
reborn but not repaired

• • • •

Manuel and I met at Guisados on Cesar Chavez. The conversation was easy, both of us reaching for the relationship we’d had before the break-up. I apologized for the ways I’d sunk the relationship: saying long-distance would never work, failing to admit that I hadn’t outgrown the shame my father instilled in me, quitting because things got hard. By the end of lunch, I knew we were getting back together. The love that had been there—dormant, untouched—blazed.

We stumbled through my front door, our hands interlocked, and in our hurry to get into my bedroom, Manuel knocked Dad over.

“Shit,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Dad said. He lifted himself off the ground, his joints whirring quietly. He stood at Manuel’s knees. Awkwardly, I introduced them, though my tongue felt heavy. I hadn’t told Dad that Manuel and I were seeing each other again.

“Nice to meet you,” Manuel said.

“Likewise,” Dad said. “I’ll get out of your way.”

In my room, with Manuel pressed against me, all I could focus on was his body. His cock inside me, the way his hips knocked against my ass. Sweat dripped down from his temple, and as he leaned over me, pressing his cheek against mine, the slickness made its way onto my skin. When we were done, we lay in bed together, silent, but smiling into each other’s bodies.

“You must have spent a small fortune on him,” Manuel said.

“Ten grand,” I admitted, only because I knew he wouldn’t judge me, even if he disagreed with my choice. Meeting Dad must’ve conjured the horror stories I’d told about him, the same way Dad’s voice triggered those memories for me sometimes.

“He’s kinder,” Manuel said.

“He doesn’t care who I date anymore. He’s changed in that way.”

Despite what I said, I was starting to think Dad hadn’t ever really returned. He liked what I liked, and passively followed my lead. For the first time ever, I was the man of the house.

“Sorry I didn’t tell you Manuel was coming over,” I told Dad after Manuel left.

“You’re an adult. Sos adulto,” he said, which was true. The anger, yelling, reprimands, ugly stares—none of it came. “Just be safe.”

I had always wanted Dad to be this way, measured and slow to anger, but now that he was, it made me feel as if the person I spoke to daily wasn’t Dad at all. Without the short fuse, and the desire for control, how could I pretend that this was my father?

• • • •

From Dad’s collection, Genesis:

Genesis 1:27

My father loved God more than he loved me, so
I hated God more than I hated my father

Genesis says He created man in his image
And my father was cruel which meant
Father up above was crueler

I rediscovered God after years of
Cold church pews on my flogged back
Learned that His love exists for those
Who follow His word, unlike my father

Father, made in His image
Me, made in his
Son, made in mine

Legacy of hurt created by men
Godly devotion, my antidote

• • • •

According to the instruction manual, SyncALife customers who felt that their loved ones were missing essential pieces of their personality could use mementos to teach their robots about who they used to be.

I knew what I had to do.

Every night, Dad and I read a couple of pages from his collections. Most poems were new to me, though a couple I remembered from readings I’d gone to or from the awkward Chicano Literature course I’d taken as a freshman. The professor was a fan, and though I never said anything about it, he spent a whole lecture talking about a couple of poems from Dad’s second book.

“Do you remember writing that?” I asked Dad after we were done reading for the evening.

“Si. Yes,” he said. “Santa Tecla, 1989.” Or “Miami, 1994.” Or “Los Angeles, 2006.”

He never said more than that—the place and year where he’d written the lines I read out loud—but it was reassuring to know he remembered.

The online forums were right: his personality was coming back. He scolded me for buying fast-food so often, saying the grease was showing in my cheeks. I ignored him, as I had learned to do as a teenager, but began throwing the bags in the trash bins outside so he wouldn’t see them. We still watched Saturday Night Live every weekend, but he became pickier with other shows. Romcoms and reality television no longer interested him. Part of me thought he’d insult me to my face, saying that what I watched was inane, childish, girly. Instead, he silently got off the couch to wander the house. Our conversations became slimmer, more timid.

Still, I liked reading to him. Even when it was clear that Dad could read for himself, I insisted we flip through his books together. We went chronologically, and as we reached the end of his last collection—published a year before his death—I found myself rationing the poems. Instead of two or three a night, I only read one, and despite the slowed down pace, we got to the end of the book. The poem that closed it out was about me.

The room was still. The refrigerator’s muted buzz came from the kitchen, louder than the shallow pulsing of my own chest.

“Que bello, mijo.” Dad struggled to get the sentence out.

“Your words,” was all I could muster.

“Te quiero,” Dad said. I stayed quiet, so he tried again. “I love you.”

Dad had loved me when he was alive, even when he had hated parts of me, but he almost never put his feelings into words, despite being a writer. Hearing them now, the syllables sweet and silky, sent a pang through me.

Again, I resisted the urge to hug him. It’d ruin the illusion. Not the illusion of love, because the love was true, but the illusion that Dad was the same Dad I’d grown up with. He wasn’t, neither in body nor in spirit. Not fully, at least. It didn’t matter then. Sinking into my delusion, I smiled at him and said it back.

“I love you, Dad.”

• • • •

With Manuel back in my life, there was finally another person to invest energy into. He and Dad got along fine, and though Dad didn’t have much to say to him, he didn’t flinch when he came over. I took it as another sign that Dad wasn’t as cruel as he’d been in life.

Loving Dad had always been hard, and loving Manuel was easy. Maybe that’s why I ended up camming more than I needed to. If nothing else, I could show this new version of Dad love by providing for him: a roof to sleep under, a cable subscription to quell his boredom. He required less of my time, and though Manuel kept me busy, I had the urge to give, so I spent hour after hour dressing up and getting naked; touching myself and climaxing to the chimes of tips being sent my way.

Then it happened.

A black bob grazed my shoulders. Sequins fell down to my knees, and small circle of makeup gave my cheeks a perpetual blush. Giving 1920s-Flapper-girl glamour was intoxicating as always. Manuel was on my bed, out of frame, watching me perform.

Hiking the hem up to my hips, I pulled down my underwear but kept the dress on. My eyes were closed, and I had my hand wrapped around my cock, stroking it slowly but deliberately, ensuring that viewers could see my palm slide down my shaft.

The door must have creaked, but engrossed in the moment, only the sounds of the chat rung in my ears. When I heard Dad, it was too late to cover up or feign an excuse.

“What the fuck are you doing?” Dad spit out.

What could I say? Even if I’d managed to formulate my panic, embarrassment, and shame into words, there’s no chance it would have been louder than Dad’s shouts.

“In my house? What is this bullshit? You’re dressed up as a girl. The boyfriend, whatever. I got over that. But this? This? I didn’t raise you to be a pinche maricón, hijueputa.”

It was the first time Dad had yelled, but it was unmistakable. His voice boomed, and though he stood only slightly larger than a doll or action figure, I felt tiny.

“Mare in con,” he said, stumbling on the word, trying to find language for whatever he felt at the sight of me, exposed and dressed like a woman. Immediately, I knew what he was trying to say.

“Mar y cone.”
“Mary con.”

“Maricón.”

He kept repeating the slur, louder and louder.

“Maricón!”

The word became unbearable. The door was still open, so I took him by the head and tossed him outside into the hallway before slamming the door. Unphased, he kept yelling, the words barely muffled.

“Maricón!”

“Maricón!”

I slipped out of my dress, tossed my wig onto my bed, and swung the door open. Wearing nothing but my underwear, I stepped towards him. Manuel watched over my shoulder.

Dad paused, taking in the sight of me chulón, my skin exposed in a way he hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. Quickly, without hesitation or appeals to his logic, my hand wrapped around his leg and turned him upside down. I flipped the switch on the bottom of his foot.

A distorted version of Dad’s voice came from the robot, like he was speaking to me from the other end of a long tunnel.

“Are you sure you want to terminate your SyncALife?”

I dropped him.

Grief had made me bring Dad back, and though I’d tried my best to meld him into the father I’d always wanted, he’d found a way to hate me anyway. It was my own doing, but I was still angry at him for all the ugly words, all the ugly actions. I looked to Manuel for guidance, but his face reflected what I knew: the choice was mine, and mine alone.

“I’m sure,” I said, grabbing Dad from the ground.

I pressed my thumb to the switch. The blue light on his face went out. The house went quiet. Manuel approached me from behind, wrapping his arms around my waist. His chest was fleshy and warm against me. I lowered myself to the ground, cradling the robot in my arms. Manuel’s balmy breath tickled my ear as he whispered that he loved me, and that everything would be okay.

I’d convinced myself that I wanted Dad back, but really, I was reaching for a version of him that had never existed. When he returned, I couldn’t lie to myself anymore. I had to let go. Dad hadn’t changed, but it felt wrong that I had to see him die once more. How cruel, that I still loved him, and that I’d miss him again.

Ruben Reyes Jr.

Ruben Reyes Jr. Photo Credit: Santiago Jose Sanchez. A young Latino man wearing a cotton jumpsuit and a green bandana around his neck stands in a field with trees in the background.

Ruben Reyes Jr. is the son of two Salvadoran immigrants. He is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Harvard College. His writing has appeared in Audible Originals, The Boston Globe, Strange Horizons, and other publications. He lives in Brooklyn.