At the consular offices in Mexico City, the dress code is nearly always casual. Open-necked shirts, light-colored trousers that won’t stick when you get up from a park bench after your lunchtime meeting afuera.
Your father is not as interested in this new posting, but then, he’s always thought the jobs that required a suit and tie were the only ones ever worth living. At your last posting, in Hong Kong, it was suits and ties every day.
You prefer this casual option. Yes, Dad, it has buttons on it. No, Dad, I’m not buttoning that top button.
Your first few weeks are an absolute mess. Dad has decided to come for a visit before his airline miles expire, conveniently a month after your arrival in Mexico.
They put most of the embassy staff up in this cushy high-rise. A clerical error in D.C. has you down as having a wife and a kid when really it’s just you, so you are in an apartment with three bedrooms, each with its own en-suite bathroom.
The first time you step into the apartment and drop your bags, you are equal parts overwhelmed by and thrilled with all the space. You whistle, just to see what it sounds like, and the sound bounces down the hallway and off the back wall of place. You hope your stuff gets here soon.
In Hong Kong, the apartment was practically an efficiency. In the old days, when Hong Kong was still a British territory, they called it a bedsit. That’s about what it was: a bed separated from a tiny sitting room by a paper screen.
You glance at your wall calendar (your first piece of wall art) and mark off some dates. Thursday you will go to the consulate mixer and try to get to know some people to introduce your father to when he arrives. Next Saturday you have booked yourself on a walking tour of Mexico City. The following Saturday and Sunday you have blocked off for shopping and apartment filling.
You practice your Spanish, right there in front of the wall calendar: “Quantos es? Quantos es? Tienes los…uh, area rugs?”
Your father dislikes half-baked anything, whether it be a semi-furnished apartment or chocolate cake or a poorly reasoned argument. He thinks it’s a sign of weakness to be in-between. When he shows up to dinner he prefers the food to already be laid out on the table for him. (When you were a kid, he would show up, like a specter, just as your mother was setting out the dishes for the main entree. Never for the side dishes.)
And he took his desserts in the office, with a cup of decaf. You, the only child, got to bring it to him, but there was never much said beyond “Here, Sir,” and “Thank you, son.”
When Mom died five years ago, you both made an extra effort. After you’d cried on each other at the funeral, he sent emails once a week, instead of once a month, and you did your best to reply within days. But that only lasted six months.
On the calendar, there is a problem. The week your father visits is also the week you are on call. Usually this means you will spend a week fielding calls from hapless Americans when the Embassy and its consulates are not open.
You feel obligated to notify your father, with near-disastrous results: he hedges about whether or not he should even visit, given your “official duties,” and you suddenly remember that he could be like this, that he was always quick to step out of obligations to friends and family at the slightest wrinkle in plans.
He said it was because he didn’t like to trouble people, but you are older now, and so you convince him that everything will be fine and that he should proceed with his visit.
Secretly you are also annoyed that you spent 20,000 pesos on wall art and area rugs, and you think he should see the results.
In Hong Kong, you hardly had any mishaps over the entire week you were on call. There was that one tourist who inadvertently crossed the border into China while on a cruise; another who suffered from street-food poisoning; and an annoying incident involving some frat boys and a taxi girl.
That last one was the office in-joke until you had to talk to the fraternity’s head chapter, months later. The girl filed an insurance claim, something about getting syphilis from the boy, and you had to provide some details. Actually, it probably is still the office in-joke.
There aren’t that many tourists in Mexico City, anyway. Most of them go to the beach communities. (People don’t really come to Mexican cities to have a boozed-up holiday, do they?)
You are tempted to fly to Puerto Vallarta with your Dad, but beaches are also for romance, and he hasn’t dated since Mom died, and well, he’s not one of those people who likes to sit around on beaches anyway.
Actually, you are no longer sure why he is making this trip.
In the hour before your father arrives, you field two phone calls. One lost American; one lost passport. You solve these problems in record time. When you go in on Monday you should check the wall chart, see if you’ve knocked the last guy out of the top position. Maybe you’ll get to put a gold star next to your name. You have always been excellent at both maps and bureaucracy.
Your father shows up at the apartment door right on time, and you take his bags and give him one of those A-frame hugs, because his fanny pack is between you, and he’s clutching a map.
“Welcome! Can I get you anything?”
“Nope.” He waves the map at you. “I’m just going to drop off my stuff and go for a walk. Meet you back here at four?”
He looks around, nods approvingly, leaves. He likes to walk. He hates to bother you.
Your father also likes iglesias, so at four you take him to one in Centro, near the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and have coffee and cake on the Plaza Alameda. Your father wants to talk about Snooki, the girlfriend from the last posting. He liked her, he says, and he is disappointed you broke up. He thought she’d come with you.
Your father has never met Snooki, but he’s seen pictures of her on Facebook, the two of you together, and he really likes how you looked together. He says he thinks you two are marriage material.
Your father is talking to you about marriage, and you want to people-watch. It has always been like this. Your father wants to talk. You would rather do anything else.
You wish it weren’t that way, but you are both too old to change. This you believe firmly. This you have believed since you were twenty. Among the other things you believe:
Three bedrooms, each with their own en-suites, is too much for one guy, even if he has visitors every weekend, which you won’t.
Twenty thousand pesos is probably too much to pay for wall art and area rugs you only spent a day picking out.
Conversations about how one feels and how one is are for other people, not for you and your father.
Nonetheless, you admit it’s always nice to see family members on the first day of their visit, maybe even the first day and the first morning after they get there. It’s like waking up on the day after Christmas morning when you were a kid: You wake up thinking that you dreamed you’d gotten a bicycle. You’d dreamed it so hard, your feet were pedaling, all by themselves, in your sleep.
You wake up and you think to yourself, “Oh, it was all a dream. Oh well. It seemed so real.” And then, a split second later, you remember: Oh! I DO have a bicycle! And there is gratitude, and wonder.
It’s the same with visiting family. “Gee, I kind of miss them,” you think to yourself. And then, “Oh, wait, but they ARE here!”
And then, maybe hours later, it’s like, “Wait, are they STILL here?”
On Dad’s third day, you log two more calls. One from a woman who was convinced someone had stolen her car. She only had a green card. You shrug mentally while telling her you cannot help. And another from a kid who misdialed by a digit. You share a laugh, and the kid is still laughing when he hangs up.
On the fourth day, your father brings up Snooki again, only he’s really talking about your mother.
You tell your father it’s not like Snooki was going to move from Hong Kong to Mexico City to hang out with you. You remind him that, although she was gorgeous and smart and by all external means a perfect match for you, she had her own career and her own life there in Hong Kong. And you tell him that she chose Snooki as her nickname, even after you bootlegged two episodes of “The Jersey Shore” to show her who her namesake was.
This last you say somewhat jovially, hoping your father will drop the subject.
You do not want to hear about your mother, because your father speaks of her so wistfully, and with such great affection, and he thinks theirs was a good marriage of joy and love—while it lasted. He speaks of their time together as if it is a paragon of coupleship.
You have not wanted to hear about your mother ever since she left you and your father.
You were fourteen. You still remember, crystal-clear, the day she left. But you do not like to talk about it, because your father says things like, “You know, it was hard for her,” and “She just wasn’t happy, and we have to respect that.”
You recall she tried, letters and emails and finally, mobile phone calls. You recall feeling like she did not try hard enough. You were furious when your father admitted to passing on your mobile number.
But then she died, and you both cried.
Snooki was gorgeous. (Still is gorgeous, according to Facebook.) But she was not going to move to Mexico City, and you wanted to come here, and you didn’t care enough to fight for her, or whatever it is that heroes in Richard Gere movies do.
You try to explain this to your father, but you do a crap job of it.
Day five of Dad’s visit, and you are getting a head cold. All your father wants to do is talk, and all you need is sleep. Your father notices, and he busies himself around your huge apartment, making you chicken soup like your mother made and, when he’s done with that, straightening the wall art and trying to learn Spanish. You nap, with your father’s rudimentary Spanish lessons as background music. You wake to another lost passport; a woman who is convinced they are out to get her (she can’t say who).
You dream fractured things about your father in Mexican markets, buying all the wrong ingredients, inadvertently. “Tienes los huevos?” he says, at a roadside stall staffed by cows, and they give him a set of bull’s balls, giggling behind their hooves at the gringo with the bizarre culinary ambitions.
Day six, and your father wants to know if you are happy. You say, a little more harshly than you intend, because the night was full of calls of varying idiocy, “What more could I want?” You fling your arm around the apartment. “Huge space! New furniture! A busy life! Visitors!”
He looks shattered, and you want to kick yourself and possibly rip out your own tongue. You always do this. You try and make it up by patting his shoulder and saying, “I love visitors. Thank you for being my first,” but it sounds lame, like something you might tell a visa applicant after you’ve turned him down: “We love visitors to the United States! Thank you for attempting to enter our borders!”
You try again. “Sorry, Dad. I’m just drained from the cold. You know?”
He tells you he’s sorry for the intrusion on your time, and you know he really means it, and you feel further terrible.
How do you fix this?
Dad is napping when the local police call in. The duty phone is the loudest thing on the planet, and your father startles awake, graying hair standing up in the back and sleepy dust crusting his eyes. You mouth, “Sorry,” but the officer is talking in rapid-fire Spanish and you have to put him on hold and get a translator on the line.
You get the story: An American girl has been in a car accident with her freshly minted fiancé, and they are both dead. Aside from their passports, there isn’t much to go on. The duty manual says you have to notify the next of kin. Your memory serves up one of your first classes, with your mentor reminding you that these calls are the most important calls you will probably make in your entire career at the State Department.
“They will need to hear a warm American voice,” she’d said, and you fumble your papers, trying to get organized as you recall the urgency in her tone.
You are a mess. You are all over Facebook, Googling the girl, trolling LinkedIn, looking for the fiancé there, hunting down their alma maters at the same time. She doesn’t have a blog; neither does he. You have to find their parents so you can tell them before they find out on the news or something equally horrible.
They don’t fucking train you enough for this shit. What did you think you were going to say when you actually got them on the phone, anyway?
You glance at your father. He sits upright, hands on his knees, on your new couch. He’s staring at you, eyebrows drawn up in a peak. You do not have time to think of what to do with him.
Suddenly there is only an hour left before your duty tour is up. The urgency to find either set of parents is overwhelming. I gotta find these parents, you keep thinking to yourself, but that does no good, so you start thinking about whether or not you can beat the news cycle, but that doesn’t help either, because then you realize that even if you can beat the news cycle, you probably won’t beat the social-media cycle. What if someone tweeted photos of the accident?
Where are they?
On her LinkedIn page she’s posted a call for anyone who wants to work at her public relations firm in New York to call her. It says she loved working there.
You check the calendar. It is a Sunday, but you call the front desk of the firm anyway, and ask for the Human Resources director to call you ASAP, but…it is Sunday, and the operator doesn’t know even if he is in-country. But she says she’ll try.
On the boy’s Facebook page there is a photo of both of them together. They got engaged in Puerto last night. His name is Jeffrey. He is from Minnesota.
You still don’t know where she is from. Your eyes are on the clock. You leave messages on answering machines connected to people who may be related to them. “Hello, this is Charles Mitchell, calling from the U.S. Consulate in Mexico City. Please return this phone call by ringing the Washington, D.C. office at this telephone number, and ask for me. Thank you.”
You sneak a glance at the couch, but your father has gone to the bathroom.
The key is to leave a message that doesn’t make them feel too anxious. The key is to convey some urgency, but not too much. The key is to sound human, but professional.
The HR director at Lauren’s firm gets back to you. He tells you how you can reach Lauren’s parents. He asks if you want her to make the call. The manual says the U.S. Consulate has to do it. So you tell him you will handle it, and he says, “I don’t know how you guys do it.” You just hang up on him.
Your watch buzzes. 8PM local time. It has taken you the whole day to track down Lauren Beacher’s family. The duty phone rings.
“Duty officer on call, this is Charles.”
You stretch. “Hey, Marcy.”
“You ready for me to take it over?”
You look at the scribbled notes on your log sheet. “WHERE ARE THE BEACHERS?” in huge letters over the top of it, in the neat block lettering you’ve inherited from your father. You’ve looped stars and exclamation points all around the number the HR director finally gave you, along with a few big arrows for good measure.
“Your duty’s up, unless there’s anything left for you to do.”
Marcy is capable. She will handle the call with aplomb and grace. The parents will do better with her warm voice over the line, her efficient New York tones. You loop a couple more stars around the number and consider.
“Charles?” Marcy again, sounding concerned.
The key is to sound human.
Your father is back on the couch. He drags a chair over to sit by you, and he takes your hand. For the first time since the funeral, you do not pull away.
You tell Marcy you will handle the call.
Lauren Beacher’s parents answer the phone together.
Photo by Eneas De Troya