Why Have You Forsaken Me?
May 1, 2023 by Fletcher Huntley
We are pleased to share "Why Have You Forsaken Me?" by Fletcher Huntley, selected by Jo Ann Beard for the 2023 Bette Howland Nonfiction Prize. The prize was founded in 2017 by Honor Moore to recognize the work of a graduating nonfiction writer and honor the legacy of Bette Howland (1937-2017), who had mentored Honor Moore in her twenties and with whom she had lost touch. (Honor Moore wrote about their friendship in the afterword to Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage: The Selected Stories of Bette Howland.)
An engrossing, entertaining, and touching portrait of a mother and son connected not by blood but by choice, and by the long-lasting ties of mutual devotion. Huntley is a keen observer and skilled narrator, creating in Carmen an indelibly vivid woman, full of wry wit, maternal manipulation, and profound affection.
Jo Ann Beard is an essayist and novelist. Author of The Boys of My Youth, In Zanesville, Festival Days, Cheri, and The Collected Works of Jo Ann Beard—published in the United States and abroad—as well as essays and journalism published in magazines and anthologies. She has received a Whiting Writers' Award, fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the New York Foundation for the Arts, and a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Why Have You Forsaken Me?
Carmen wanted to know why I had forsaken her. “¿Por qué me has abandonado?” It’s what Jesus said to God when he was being crucified on a hill outside Jerusalem and it’s what Carmen said to me from a ranch in rural Guanajuato, a state in central Mexico, where she answered the phone when I called her one day last fall. The New Testament is perhaps the world’s steadiest supply of rhetorical ammunition, and I found myself, as I often did, in Carmen’s crosshairs with a biblical torpedo aimed at my face. “¡No te he abandonado!” I pleaded, I have not forsaken you.
“I know, I know.” She laughed for a second and then her tone sobered, “You know that’s what el niñito Jesús said right before they killed him.” Experts estimate that Jesus was in his mid-thirties when he died, but Carmen still called him el niñito Jesús, the baby Jesus; his ability to be perpetually infantilized was one of his infinite miracles. According to her, there are no problems the baby Jesus couldn’t solve, dead or alive, baby or not baby.
When I told her I was having issues at work, she asked me if I had prayed to the baby Jesus about it. Why would I talk to my boss when I could go straight to the boss? The boss of all bosses, a semi-mythical adult baby in a proverbial corner office with an open-door policy that, Carmen reminds me, dates back over two thousand years. “Pidele al Niñito Jesús que te ayude a lograr tus sueños,” she advised me. “Pray to the baby Jesus to help you achieve your dreams.”
“You want a Bugatti?” my sisters and I would say to each other the year that Britney Spears released the hit single “Work Bitch.” “You want a Maserati? You better pedirle al Niñito Jesús que te ayude a lograr tus sueños.”
Carmen has been assuring me of the baby Jesus’ assiduous surveillance of my every move for as long as I’ve known her, which happens to span the length of my life. She often tells me about the morning I was born at a hospital in San Diego, where she was being paid fifteen dollars an hour to take care of my three older sisters in the waiting room while my mom was in labor. “My life began that day,” she’s told me on several occasions. That my life also began that day was incidental.
I was calling to give her my flight information for a trip I’d booked to visit her in Mexico, where she had retired a year earlier. She explained that she needed to talk to her doctor in San Diego, where she was still enrolled in Medicare, but she couldn’t figure out how to video call him on the iPhone my sisters and I had given her a few Christmases ago. She used this as a pretext to demand that I come to Mexico and show her how.
“Carmen, I'm already coming to Mexico.”
“I know,” she sighed.
Reiterating the need to do something that was already being done was a tactic she employed often.
“I can’t do it without you,” she told me once while we were driving to Costco in San Diego. “They only sell the frozen salmon in bulk and it’s too heavy for me to carry to the car by myself.” I thought about asking her how she had managed this task when I wasn’t there, or, for that matter, how she carried anything that weighed more than the bag of frozen salmon filets which, it turned out, was not that heavy. But I didn’t want to hear the answer, which was that she didn’t want to do it without me.
Carmen started working for my family a year before I was born, and she lived with us until I was twelve years old, and then she moved out but continued working at our house from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., five days a week until I was twenty-three. I was the youngest of four kids and when I was an infant, she carried me from room to room as she vacuumed, scrubbed, washed, and cooked so I’d never be out of her sight. “And you would just sit there,” she told me years later, “watching me, watching me.”
I fell asleep after the plane took off and I woke up as the plane was descending. I looked outside and saw the baby Jesus from my airplane window. He was wearing robes and was flanked by cherubs, one handing him a royal crown and the other a crown of thorns. El Cristo Rey, as this twenty-meter-tall bronze incarnation is known, sits on top of a dry, shrubby hill near the Guanajuato airport overlooking El Bajío, the broad valley that stretches across the middle of the state. According to former President Vincente Fox, the Cristo Rey is a “rebuke to the repressors of religious freedom” who tried to eliminate the Catholic Church from public life in the early twentieth century.
It’s not hard to understand why they gave up. There is simply too much Jesus to suppress in Mexico, especially in El Bajío, which is known as a bastion of religious conservatism. There’s a baby Jesus on a roadside billboard to remind you not to do drugs and a baby Jesus in a painting at a shoe store protecting the cash register. There’s a baby Jesus doll in a glass case at a church on the town square that is dressed in a button-down and a sweater vest, like a baby psychiatrist. El niñito Jesús siempre está contigo. The baby Jesus is always with you. His mother, the Virgin Mary, or as she’s known in Mexico, la Virgencita de Guadalupe, is sometimes featured too, looking at her creation with downcast eyes and hands pressed together, as if she were praying: “Dear God, let this child outlive me because I hate going to Costco alone.”
Carmen’s brother, Rubén, is a parish priest, so when she told me that he would pick me up at the airport, I imagined he would arrive driving something modest and priestly, like a two-tone ’98 Ford Escort with a rosary dangling from the rearview mirror. So I was surprised to find myself climbing into his brand new white BMW X5, which sported no evidence of religion apart from the sacred purchasing power of the Catholic Church. There was no need for a rosary, I supposed, since the protection it offered would’ve been made redundant by the side airbags and automatic braking that came standard in this model.
I inhaled the smell of rich car leather and thought that maybe I had been unclear with Jesus when I was growing up. I remembered asking for things like health, happiness, and peace on Earth, but clearly, I should have been asking for specifics, like all-wheel drive, a full-grain leather interior, and heated front seats.
We started toward León, the city in Guanajuato where Ruben had served as a priest since he was ordained at the Vatican in the early ’90s. The ranch where Carmen lived was a few hours from the airport and my flight arrived late at night, so she had arranged for her brother to pick me up and house me for a night until the following day. I thanked him for the ride, and he responded by explaining that he had no choice given how dangerous Guanajuato had become. He described how cartels in the area had switched from selling drugs to siphoning gas from pipelines that ran alongside many of the highways in the state, and it was treacherous to drive at night in case you unwittingly bore witness to a crime and fell into the hands of the cartel. “Es tierra caliente,” he told me, carefully changing lanes using the car’s side cameras, “hot land.”
“If they see you, they’ll kill you,” he said, curling the fingers on his right hand into the shape of a gun and looking at me to make sure I saw it. I nodded and frowned to demonstrate that I understood the gravity of gang violence. It was close to midnight and I looked into the darkness outside the window. The hot land was dotted with little lights, presumably on houses where people lived. It’s not easy to segue from a subject that involves assault with a firearm, I thought to myself, wondering what to say next.
“So what year is this car?” I asked.
His face quickly formed a smile I wished had been at least slightly guilty. “2021,” he said, his eyes set on the road in front of us, “¿te gusta?”
“Me encanta,” I offered, petting the oak trim on the door handle as though to say, “He’s a good boy.” I tried to say “a marvel of German engineering” in Spanish, but I don’t think it translated well because the subject was quickly dropped.
Ruben shifted in his seat. “It’s gotten much worse lately” —I hoped he was referring to the quality of German engineering— “the violence.” He told me that the influx of immigrants from Central America on their way to the United States interfered with the power structure of the gangs in Guanajuato, and I did my best to agree emphatically when he talked about the failure of American foreign policy in the region. He went on to explain that Henry Kissinger had tried to promote the LGBT agenda in Central America in the 1970s as a form of population control but had failed thanks to the power of God.
“That’s so interesting,” I said. We sat in silence for a long moment while I nervously scratched my face, thrilled to hear that Henry Kissinger had been an ally all along. I thought I was feeling flushed, but it was just my seat heater turned up too high.
“Your Spanish is perfect,” Ruben said, “Carmen taught you well.”
Some guy had told me that once in line at a taco truck in Bushwick, noting the staccato of my “r” in dos carne asada tacos para llevar.
“Wow, your Spanish is perfect,” the guy had said, “where are you from?”
“Southern California,” I told him, satisfied that my performative use of Spanish had attracted attention, “but I was basically raised by two moms and one of them is from Mexico.”
When I tell the people who inhabit my social circles that I’m from California and was raised by two moms, they usually assume I was raised by a pair of progressive lesbians.
“That’s so cool,” he said with a dreamy smile.
A meaty cloud of taco steam billowed from the truck, and I saw in his eyes a fantasy of a cozy bungalow in Venice Beach full of free love and homemade muesli, “No you don’t understand. One of my moms hired the other one.” Wonder turned to curiosity. “It was a domestic labor situation.” I let the reality settle for a second. “And she hates gay people.”
We exchanged phone numbers, and I ended up sleeping with him that night.
Rubén turned off the highway and we headed into town, where he neglected to fully stop the car at red lights. This, he assured me, was customary nighttime procedure. Armed carjackings are common in tierra caliente, which is why Carmen declined to pick me up at the airport herself. “She doesn’t have bulletproof windows,” he said. I guess she hadn’t asked Jesus for the essentials either. Rubén clicked a button above the dashboard, opening the heavy gates to the church compound, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, and eased the BMW carefully into what appeared to be a children’s gymnasium near the entrance.
“Will you help me with these?” he asked, grabbing one of a few fabric panels that he was putting in over the car, presumably to hide it from view, but also to protect it from a rogue basketball that might scratch one of the bulletproof windows. There was a large crucifix on one of the egg-colored walls and a sign above the bathrooms that announced that it cost five pesos—equal to about twenty-five American cents—to relieve yourself.
We passed through a series of doors that led to the rectory. The first opened into a courtyard with lush foliage that reminded me of a monastery in Europe. Religion, I thought to myself, seems so benign when it involves a lot of gardening. I hoped Rubén did the gardening himself, but I didn’t want to be disappointed, so I didn’t ask.
He opened the door to the house and guided me through the dark, modest rooms. “This is my office,” he said, opening a door that seemed dramatically heavy. A large wooden desk with a pencil holder that flew the flag of the Holy See dominated the room. At least seven Jesuses adorned the walls and surfaces. I stepped closer and saw that little model sports cars were lined up along the front of the desk.
“Estoy viciado por carros,” he told me, “I’m addicted to cars.” I could feel the Jesuses staring at me and I tried not to be judgmental.
He took me up a narrow staircase and showed me to my room for the night, which had an effigy of Jesus hanging above the headboard. This Jesus looked understandably preoccupied with his own crucifixion, so I felt safe texting my boyfriend, Mathias, to let him know that I had arrived safely.
We left the church the next day to meet Carmen at a gas station outside León. As we passed through the courtyard, I waved goodbye to the maid, who was watering the plants in the garden. We sat in the parking lot outside the minimart until Carmen arrived with her sister, Lupe, in a red Mazda pickup truck with a four-person cab and crossbars over the bed. Carmen and I hugged for a long time, and then she stared up at me in wonder. “Mijo, llegaste.” My son, you arrived.
Mi hijo, mi amor, mi ángel, mi vida; my son, my love, my angel, my life. She used the possessive unflinchingly. “You are my son,” she used to tell me, “you just happened to be born from your mother’s estómago.” As an adolescent, I found it strange that she used the word “stomach.” My biological mother was an attorney who prosecuted child abuse cases, and she rejected sexual euphemisms on principle. Terms like “penetrative intercourse” and “labia majora” were common parlance in my house growing up, and to use the word “stomach” instead of “uterus” bordered on unthinkable, suggesting as it did, me as a fetus floating in gastric juices, chiding my pregnant mother for eating another roast beef sandwich.
Carmen did not have children of her own. She had abstained from sex until she was married at fifty-two years old. She recounted the story of how her marriage was consummated to my sister and me a few years ago at a sushi restaurant in San Diego, pausing to wipe her tears with her napkin and take a bite of her spicy tuna hand roll.
It no longer seemed strange that she used the word “stomach.” She’s told me several times that her life began the day I was born. That when she held me for the first time in the hospital, I stopped crying and stared up at her in wonder. That God had brought me to her. That in plain view of a nuclear family in the suburban United States, a miracle had occurred. That I was hers.
I was twelve years old when Carmen set my shorts on fire in the family fireplace, or at least that’s what she alleges. My sister, Flannery, had a friend over one afternoon and they wanted to go swimming in our pool. She asked me if her friend, Nick, could borrow a pair of my board shorts to go swimming and I didn’t see any reason why not. Carmen saw them in the pool and asked why I had allowed him to borrow the shorts.
“He’s gay,” Carmen said with the authority of an expert witness, “you could get AIDS.” I imagined her in a laboratory under white lighting, staring into a microscope and watching perfectly regular cells turn gay and die of AIDS as they came in contact with a culture obtained from my board shorts.
I didn’t know enough about AIDS transmission to disagree with her, or at least that’s what I told myself at the time, so I shrugged and told her I was sorry. A few days later, when I wanted to go swimming, I couldn’t find my board shorts and asked Carmen if she knew where they were. “I burned them,” she responded.
I was stunned by the logistics of the alleged operation. La Jolla, California, an affluent suburb of San Diego, is not a place where one regularly disposes of waste in a trash fire. “Where did you burn them?” I asked.
“In the fireplace,” she responded, scowling.
I didn’t believe her, but I respected the creative freedom that she exercised when it came to making a point. I didn’t want to get AIDS either, so I let it go. At least we were generally on the same side, I told myself, and went swimming in a pair of boxers. I found it paramount at this stage of life to agree with Carmen about everything. If our opinions diverged even for one second, it might mean that I wasn’t really hers, that there had been no miracle, that perhaps God had made a mistake bringing me to her, or her to me.
“Qué milagro,” Lupe said, which is what she always said when I arrived in Mexico or talked to her on the phone: “What a miracle.” The world outside the ranch where she had lived for seventy-six years was full of miracles, which included any technology, like air travel and cell phones, whose functional mechanism was beyond visual apprehension. I had been coming to the ranch every few years since I was seven, but the novelty never wore off. Qué milagro. Lupe had darker skin than Carmen and bulging, sinewy muscles that hugged her tiny frame, which was permanently hunched forward by a lifetime of farm labor. She was named after La Virgencita de Guadalupe and had never been farther away than Jalisco, the state next to Guanajuato.
We got in the truck and started toward the ranch, which was about two hours from Léon. At the first traffic light, Carmen reached over and tugged gently on my beard. “My niño has a beard now?”
“I’ve had a beard for six years,” I told her and swatted away her hand, which quickly found its way back to me and squeezed my leg.
“And why don’t you shave the beard and leave the mustache?” she asked. The mustache was, according to my own observation, the most common form of facial hair in this part of rural Mexico. I wanted to tell her that a mustache made me look like a porn star, but I didn’t know the word for porn star. I can’t talk about anything sinful in Spanish because I simply lack the vocabulary. My Spanish, which I allege is fluent, was taught to me by a single person, a woman from rural Mexico who is forty-two years older than me and recites a prayer to St. Christopher every time she puts a key in the ignition of a car.
Somebody at a bar in Spain once asked me if I wanted to “follar.” “I'm sorry,” I told him in Spanish, “I don’t understand.”
He made two fists and gyrated his hips back and forth, exaggeratedly pantomiming what appeared to be copulation in a sexy game of charades. It reminded me of being a kid and thinking that, to drive an imaginary car, I had to steer wildly from side to side.
“Oh!” I laughed when I realized what he meant, “No, not right now.”
“I want to see your verga,” he demanded later that night in his apartment, where we were about to have sex.
“¿Mi qué?” I asked.
“Your dick,” he said in English.
I googled the word follar the next day and found the Wiktionary entry: “(intransitive, vulgar) to fuck.” Phew, I thought to myself, I’m glad I got that right.
Lupe woke up as we pulled onto the dirt road that leads up to the ranch. It was October, just before the rainy season, and the landscape was muted in color except for the river that runs beside the road, which was flanked by old twisted trees that look like they possess some primordial, untouchable knowledge. The air was clear and dry, and I could see the peñas, rocky outcroppings typical of the local geology, on the other side of the valley, rising above the shrubs and cacti that speckled the hot land.
When I arrived on Carmen’s family ranch for the first time, the pig her family had slaughtered for the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations was bleeding out on the sloping driveway. We walked up to the house and Carmen’s mom opened the creaky front door. “What are you doing here with this blond boy,” she exclaimed, “¡te lo van a secuestrar!” “They’re going to kidnap him!” I turned to face Carmen, “Who is going to kidnap me?” I asked her. “Nobody,” she replied, and told me to go hug my abuelita.
I reminded Carmen of this story as we pulled up the driveway because I know she loves to hear it. “It’s a compliment when somebody thinks you’re going to get kidnapped here,” Carmen laughed, “it means you’re handsome.” She stopped laughing, “No, no, I don’t even want to think about that,” she said, “bendito sea Dios.” Blessed be God.
Lupe went around to the truck bed and heaved a fifty-pound bag of chicken feed over her bony shoulder and took it to the coop on the far side of the driveway next to the pig pen. I grabbed the other bag of chicken feed to demonstrate that I could handle the physical demands of farm life. The gesture was lost on Lupe, who had already gone to grab some old tortillas to feed to the pigs. She ripped them up and threw them into the pen, and the pigs snorted and gobbled the tortillas in a way I pretended did not unsettle me.
“They’re Lupe’s pigs,” Carmen said, noticing that I couldn’t look away from the spectacle, “they love her.”
“Those pigs love you!” Carmen shouted to Lupe, who seemed unamused. I grabbed my suitcase from the truck and walked to the front door. There were about a dozen bird cages attached to the stucco exterior of the house, and their inhabitants fluttered and chirped as Carmen opened the front door.
“They’re Lupe’s birds,” she told me as we entered.
The house was a simple, single-story structure with rust-colored tiled floors and tan stucco walls. The two sofas in the living room were covered in what looked like massive tea doilies.
“Who made these?” I asked Carmen.
“I did,” Carmen said, “I crocheted them.”
A thick layer of clear vinyl protected the crocheted couch covers, which protected the sofas in the event that somebody sat on one of them, which they rarely did. This was not a family that valued sitting.
I had seen Carmen use the sofa only once, a few months earlier, when she video-called me via WhatsApp. Cell service is spotty on the ranch and over the broken line she labored through a few sentences about how she had fallen while walking Lupe’s dog and she was in pain and was struggling to breathe. I told her she needed to go to the doctor immediately.
“Lupe says I’m fine,” Carmen whispered. She harbors a general distrust of women, including herself. I told her that she was, in fact, in excruciating pain and texted Rubén to tell him that Carmen had fallen and needed to go to the doctor. Rubén forwarded the information to Carmen’s other brother, Jesús, who lives next door to Carmen but is not on speaking terms with her because of a land dispute. Jesús told Lupe to walk a mile up the road to Manuel’s house, another brother who lives completely out of cell range, and tell him that Carmen needed to go to the doctor. Manuel took her the following morning, and she discovered she had broken a rib.
“Mijo,” she told me when she called from the doctor’s office to share the diagnosis, “you saved me.”
Carmen is generally healthy for a seventy-four-year-old, but she still comes to the U.S. twice a year for checkups, X-rays, and other standard procedures recommended by her doctor and covered by Medicare. When she’s there, I book her hotels, order her Ubers, and make myself available to translate what the doctors are saying over the phone if they don’t speak Spanish.
“My travel agency closed,” she told me a couple of years ago, “I don’t know how I’m going to buy plane tickets.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that any financially viable travel agency in 2021 was probably a money laundering operation.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “I’ll buy your tickets on the computer.”
She often wonders aloud what she would do without me. “¿Qué haría sin ti?” If she learned to use a smartphone, Carmen would no longer need me, and I’d probably still have a decent Uber rating, which fell from 4.96 to 4.75 during her last trip to San Diego. “Why did you send me such an ugly driver?” she asked me once after a ride back from a consultation for a colonoscopy.
We usually talk every few days, but when Carmen is in California, my phone can barely catch its breath between calls. Every event is an excuse to pick up the phone and dial my number. “Mijo,” she said, exasperated, when I picked up one day, “I’m at DSW and I’m trying to buy a pair of boots, but the woman at the register says I can’t do it without your email address.” I found this business model highly unlikely. My email address was simply my name at gmail.com, but spelling things out loud is one of Carmen’s favorite ways to keep me on the phone. Every letter was a chance to reminisce.
Ten minutes later, when we arrived at the “a” in “gmail,” she could sense the exercise was coming to a close, so she dug deep for a good story. “A,” she mused, “like my cousin Angelina, who just died of a heart attack. She’s not actually my cousin, just a friend of my father. Was it a heart attack? It could have been a stroke.”
“I,” I said, trying to move things along.
“Ah, I,” she responded, “like my father’s brother, Isidro. I never got to know him very well, but he’s still alive.”
By the time I finished spelling my email address, I knew all about Leandro’s kidney infection and the fact that somebody named Cecilia was recently widowed. “¿Qué haría sin ti?” she asked as I wiggled my way out of the phone call. What would I do without you? I asked her a few days later if she liked her new boots; she told me they weren’t very comfortable, and she was going to return them.
The day I signed her advance directive, giving me the power to take her off life support should she enter a vegetative state, we spent hours on the phone discussing hypotheticals. “Only God can take my life,” she told me. While I understood what she meant, I tried to explain that given certain circumstances, I would also be able to take her life.
“Like if you get hit by a bus and you end up in a coma,” I asked her, “do you want me to let you die naturally?”
“If I get hit by a bus,” Carmen reasoned, “God probably wants me dead.”
I was late for class, and I concluded that I would deal with the matter if it came up organically, so I told Carmen we would continue the discussion at a later date and I hung up the phone. Carmen called me more than once every day during her last visit to San Diego, and I complained to my boyfriend incessantly about the amount of time I was spending on the phone.
“It’ll be good when she goes back to Mexico,” I told him.
After I spent twenty minutes spelling out her record locator on her airline ticket, she boarded her flight back to Guanajuato. I texted her the next day: “Carmen did you arrive?”
Twenty-four hours went by without a response and I sent another message. “Hey Carmen, let me know if you got back home.” The messages took on a desperate tone as the hours went by. “Carmen I love you let me know if you got home” And then: “Are you okay? Please say something” “Carmen please respond I love you let me know where you are”
It turned out that she had trouble switching out her SIM card in Mexico, which is why she had been unreachable for three days.
“¿Por qué me has abandonado?” I asked her when she finally picked up the phone. Why have you forsaken me?
Fletcher Huntley is a writer, comedian, and artist who lives in New York. He was awarded the 2023 Bette Howland Prize judged by writer Jo Ann Beard. His essay "Why Have You Forsaken Me?" is part of a larger work about the complicated nature of domestic labor and paid childcare in the United States. His only real goal is to be interviewed by Terry Gross, after which he hopes to die peacefully in his sleep.
The 2023 A Public Space Editorial Fellow is Lydia Mathis.
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Stories Out of School is an annual flash-fiction contest created by the Academy for Teachers to honor "the most fascinating, difficult, and important job on the planet."
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