by Karen Rose
Story originally published February 2014 and made into a short film by the same name in 2016.
He was the worst kind of thief. He didn’t steal cars, burglarize homes, or rob banks. He stole lives, childhoods, and people’s happiness. He robbed souls and confiscated people’s ability to feel joy. He was a dementor – he sucked the decency out of humanity. He replaced these stolen things with hopelessness and despair.
One day after feeling bored with his recent casualties, my father set out on a quest to blaze a new trail of destruction. My father threw me into the backseat of our ’68 silver station wagon and drove over the border from San Diego into Mexico. I was 5 years old.
The scenery changed dramatically in just minutes – from country club golf courses, and yacht clubs, to dirty Tijuana marketplaces. Strolling the crowded streets I marveled at the flies hungrily drawn to the stench of grayish cuts of beef and goat that hung in the store front windows.
My father bought me a Horchata and carne asada torta from an elderly street vendor with no teeth. I removed the gray beef and threw it on the ground when he wasn’t looking. After I finished the Horchata, we made our way back to the car and headed out of town toward the open desert.
The shanties and smells of Tijuana grew smaller through my back window. I felt every jostle the car made over the road and felt the dust particles sting the back of my throat. It was hot – Old Mexico, July kind of hot. The outside air blew into the backseat from the open window that my father left open to blow out the smoke from his Marlboro cigarettes.
I laid down in the backseat in an attempt to escape the dust and smoke that made my eyes, mouth, and nose feel like sandpaper. The car come to a halt and woke me out of my half-sleep. I was so parched I could barely form any sounds. I had fallen asleep with my mouth open and struggled to find enough moisture to speak the words, “Daddy, I have no spit in my mouth.” He chuckled and handed me the last sip of his warm bottle of Coors beer that he had opened in the front seat. I hated the bitter tobacco taste, but my need for hydration and survival instincts won out.
I stepped out of the car onto a dirt playground that sat in the courtyard of a U-shaped building. There was nothing else in the distance with the exception of a smog covered mountain and miles of desert in every other direction.
“Where are we?”, I asked my father. “An orphanage”, he replied. “Wow”, I thought, oddly excited. A woman in a black dress and head cover came out to greet us. I knew she was a nun because I had seen Sally Field’s play “The Flying Nun” on TV. I thought about asking her if she too could fly, but she looked more like Cruella De Vil than Sally Fields, so I decided against it.
She seemed to recognize my father. They shook hands as she sized me up. The nun said something to my father about me being immunized. I was familiar with this term, as it had something to do with the needles the nurses poked us with on the first day of kindergarden.
After several nods and some exchange of Spanglish, my father handed the sister a wad of American dollars and we proceeded into the cafeteria where we were served beans and rice with homemade tortillas.
After lunch, a young boy about my age was introduced to me and my father. His name was Bruno. It was explained to me and Bruno that my father was going to leave me at the orphanage for an indefinite period of time while he took Bruno on a little seaside vacation. Bruno had never left the orphanage and they felt it would be a wonderful opportunity for him to see the ocean.
My heart pounded with excitement, anxiety, terror, and elation. An orphanage. Maybe if they liked me here they would convince my father to let me stay. The sister asked me to follow her so she could show me where I would be staying. The sign on the door said “Infirmary”. I could sound out words pretty well for a 5 year old, but I had to ask what it meant. She explained that this was where children with measles slept, and since I was vaccinated, I could sleep there also.
The nun assigned me the job of filling up the water glasses on each of the bedside tables. I was handed a stainless steel pitcher filled with water. It was challenging at first to lift the heavy pitcher to face level in order to pour the water, but I refused to complain. After all, I could tell this was an important job and I wanted to make a good impression.
I also liked the nickname that I was given at the orphanage. The nuns and the children called me “Guerita de Agua” – Little Blonde Water Girl. I’d never had a nickname before. I was beginning to feel accepted – like I fit in.
I’m not sure how long I stayed at the orphanage. Long enough to feel somewhat comfortable and hope that my father would not return for me. Maybe he would forget about me and I wouldn’t have to return to my life with him north of the boarder.
One day, I saw the sliver station wagon driving up the dirt road. My heart sank. Bruno stepped out of the car, but he didn’t look like he’d just spend a long vacation at the beach. He looked like he was just robbed, burglarized. He looked like a stolen thing. He looked like–me.