Step 1: Turn on the cold water and cup it in your hands.
It doesn’t make sense. Someone saw your grandfather and father at a bank together and now they have questions. “What is your relationship to this man? Are you authorized to help him with banking?” Which translates to: We think you’re taking advantage of this old man who is your father and shares no blood with you. Why would a white man choose a brown son?
Step 2: Splash the water across your face.
Now that Adult Protective Services has been called, it is time for the eyeliner, the heels, the dress. You iron your dress carefully, make sure to glide over the wrinkle that is your barrio accent. You hold your rough edges taut, pass over the seams again and again. You have Googled and researched and effectively found that you are up against another institution that is meant to protect but just might fail you.
Step 3: Take a towel and dry off your skin.
Now it is time to explain to this white woman caseworker what is and what is not. You’ve done this before. You know that in order to be effective you must walk a balance beam. You need to inspire respect with your appearance but present yourself in a way that does not threaten her ego in the process. You must work into conversations that you have just graduated from UCLA with a master’s degree, a coded way of saying: You can trust me. I am telling the truth. Don’t take my father to jail.
Step 4: Pick up your tweezers and grasp your stray eyebrow hair.
Beside you, your father is nervous. He is wearing khakis and a long-sleeve white shirt instead of paint-stained clothing. His usually messy hair is nicely combed—he is also performing. He is twisting a napkin over and over between his fingers, watching it slowly disintegrate. “Papi, you haven’t done anything wrong,” you whisper in an effort to convince you both. At times it feels like existing is the actual crime. Papi doesn’t look up or respond; he just keeps twisting.
Step 5: Pull with force and at an angle until the hair comes out.
The caseworker shows up late in a wrinkled pink T-shirt and faded jeans. She doesn’t need the armor like you do; she knows the power she yields. You explain to her how your grandfather and father met forty years ago. You show her pictures of your grandfather the day that your parents married, and pictures of every birthday since then. “He was his only wedding guest. They met here in Tucson. My father lived on the same street. My father invited him to eat at the restaurant where he worked as a cook, and they became each other’s family.” The story sounds unlikely even to you sometimes, but it is the truth. They were two unlikely planets that entered each other’s orbits, braced for collision or to pass by unscathed, but neither happened. You explain to her that your grandfather has helped raise you, how he picked you up from the bus stop after school, how he played tag with you and your brother, how you were his second chance. How despite not having a document to prove it, you are his family.
Step 6: Examine your face in the mirror and see your ancestors.
You explain how he never married or had children, but that your father was his son. You think about him telling you, “A day before I met your daddy, I thought about not being alive anymore. Silly, huh? Then I would have never met you, the sweetest girl in the world.” You think of this legality that defines what is family. How his distant nieces and nephews who never visit will always be more family than you, bound by bloodlines and last names. How when he passes, you will never be able to prove that you were his granddaughter. How “he taught me how to ride a bike” doesn’t hold up in a courtroom. Papi has shrunk in size. At this moment, he is three feet tall. You have carefully gathered the loose inches of height he has lost and piece by piece added them to yourself.
Step 7: Repeat with the next stray hair.
You smile often even though your mind is racing. You have an answer for every question, and an insightful question for every lull. “I’m happy to answer any further questions. I have pictures if you would like to see them. Any documents that you need, I can get them for you. I just want to clear up this misunderstanding,” you say with a gentle smile. She wants to speak to your grandfather. “Really it’s none of your business, and certainly not the government’s business how I live my life, who I call my family,” he says sternly. You stare at him wide-eyed, wanting to yell. She laughs, thinks he’s charming. He continues to answer her questions begrudgingly, the only member of our family who can show how angry he is. Anger does not suit brown skin in the presence of white folks. She asks to speak to him privately. “Anything I got to say to you I can say in front of them.” He nods in your direction. You look down at him sitting in his wheelchair with pleading eyes. You telepathically say, “Please, Grandpa, don’t make this harder.” He looks at you and sighs, “Fine, shut the door.”
Step 8: As you pull out hair, reinforce the arches that frame your face.
You sit on the patio while your father continues to twist the napkin again and again. Part of you wants to reach over and take the napkin from him because to white folks it may make him look guilty. Part of you wants to bring him a hundred more. The white napkin frays more and more with every twist, launching pieces of itself into the air, contrasting against his skin the color of the desert. She comes back out after questioning your grandfather alone. “Mr. Fisher sure is funny.” Grandpa shoots her a sharp look. “He is also extremely well taken care of and happy with all of you.” All of you, as if you were his staff under audit.
Step 9: Remember a time when you hated your eyebrows. You don’t anymore.
You thank her for her time, you give her a brief compliment on her work because you can’t find one for her outfit, and lead her out of the driveway. You slowly walk back to the porch where your father and grandfather are talking about lunch. You sit and breathe for what feels like the first time in weeks. “You will receive paperwork closing this case in a month.”
Tania Perez Osuna (she/her) is the eldest daughter of a Zapotec-Mexican family, which incidentally means she is a translator, a bootleg paralegal, and recovering unofficial therapist. She is from the southern border of Arizona and is incredibly biased about what constitutes good Mexican food. In her work she strives to capture the complexity of joy, as well as the nuanced ways she has witnessed life unfold. Her work has appeared in JMWW and is forthcoming in the 2022 Roots. Wounds. Words Anthology. You can find her giggling during tense moments or on Insta @tsamper9 and at taniaescribe.com.