It was supposed to be six months. He promised her. Six months to get his and Ernesto's names out there and he'd be back home. "I'll be back before you even know it! I'll send any money I make. I'll write so often, you'll get sick of me! You know how you say I talk too much? It'll be just like that except with letters! It'll be like I'm right here chewing your ear off as usual." That was what he said to her. She remembered biting her lip to keep the corners of her mouth from creeping upwards. "With our talent and our stunning good looks, we're sure to make it big," he said, flashing that goofy grin that disarmed her so many times before. "You and Coco deserve the best, and I want to give it to you, mi amore."
She refused to give him her blessing. She shut him out for days before he left. Why should she talk to him? He knew perfectly well how she felt. He should be down on his knees begging her forgiveness for even considering it. At some points he was. He put on his comedic dramatic flair, clutched her skirts, and begged her to say something to him. His antics made Coco giggle. It was a performance. He was always performing, even when it was just her. Why did he insist on putting on a show no matter what he was doing? Why couldn't he just say something sincere?
On the day he left, he finally did. Or rather, he sang it.
Coco didn't want him to go either. She took one look at his bags and ran crying into her room. He tried for hours to coax her out. He sat outside her door, talking to her, trying to make her laugh, and playing softly on his guitar. He refused to budge, no matter how much impatient blustering Ernesto blew his way. He wasn't going to leave without saying goodbye to his little girl.
"Coco, I wrote a new song just for you," he coo-ed through the door. "It'll be our special song. I'll only play it for you. But you have to let me in. I want you to sing it with me." She opened the door a crack and ran back to her bed. He let himself in the rest of the way. He began to play, and Imelda took her place just outside of the door.
"Remember me, though I have to say goodbye,"
"Remember me, don't let it make you cry…"
She looked it. Coco was hiding under the covers, but peaked out just enough to watch her Papa. He played it no less than five times. On the second time, she came out from under the covers. On the third, she stopped crying. On the fourth, she smiled through the tears drying on her cheeks. And on the fifth, she sang along. She reached out and held her Papa's face.
Hector put aside the guitar and scooped his daughter up in his arms. "I love you, Coco," he said gently to her. "I want you to always know that. Everything I do, it's to take care of you. I know you can't understand now, but Papa has to go to make a better life for you. You won't miss me. I'll send you so many letters, you'll have to build a whole other room for them." He pecked her on the cheek and she laughed. "I'll be back before your next birthday, mi vida."
Coco grabbed his face again and did a perfect imitation of Imelda's stern-face. "Promise," she demanded.
"I promise," he said, smiling.
She pulled his face in closer and looked him deep in the eyes. "Double promise."
"I double promise, triple promise, a hundred times promise," he declared.
Coco gave him a satisfied nod and hugged him around the neck. Hector smiled tenderly and returned the hug. "I'll sing my song every night for you, mi vida. I hope you'll be my duet partner." He kissed her on the forehead, and his eyes went to Imelda, who now stood in the doorway. He walked over to her and placed Coco in her arms. "I promise the same to you, mi amore," he said. He reached out and wiped the tears off her cheeks while his own eyes began glistening. "When Coco turns five, I'll be right here. A hundred times, I promise." He moved in to kiss her, but she turned her head. She didn't let his heartbroken expression sway her. If he didn't want them to cry, he wouldn't leave them.
He lingered a moment, then moved away from her. She closed her eyes. She refused to watch him walk out the door. She listened to him shuffle across the room and pick up his bags. She listened as he opened the door and Ernesto complained about how long he'd been waiting. Finally she listened as Hector shut the door for the last time.
He was supposed to be gone for six months, and for the first five, it was just like he said. They got letters nearly every day, to the point that Imelda worried he might be spending too much on postage. "He'd better not be skipping meals just to send us these letters," she found herself mumbling one day while picking up the mail. She couldn't help but smirk and roll her eyes. Even miles away he still found ways to bug her.
A new letter from Papa was like Christmas every day for Coco. She'd learned to recognize her Papa's handwriting and would squeal with delight when she found his envelopes. "Open it now, Mama!" she begged. "Read it! Read it!"
"In a minute, quierda."
"No, now! It's from Papa!"
Imelda knew she'd get no peace until she opened the letter. She'd sit down with Coco in her lap, set aside the money he'd sent, and read the letter. He wrote the same way he talked. His sentences were full of charm, wit, and personality. They felt his emotions in every word whether he was excited, proud, exhausted, or homesick. He also included poems which Imelda was sure he was turning into songs. They could be silly,or heartfelt, or downright beautiful. She wished he'd included the sheet music for them. She would have liked to sing them for Coco.
As soon as the letter was finished, Coco would drag Imelda over to the table so that they could write their letter. The first page belonged to Coco. Coco would dictate whatever she wanted to say and Imelda would write that down. She then let Coco draw a picture on the bottom while she got started on her own letter. The first few times, she was very cold and only delivered basic news in the most detached way possible. She was still mad and wanted him to know. But, as the weeks went by and he proved his promises of writing often weren't an exaggeration, she began to soften toward him and her writing reflected that.
But then, promises began to get broken. He promised her six months and toward then end of that six months he tells her he'll be a bit longer. "Ernesto and I were invited to do a few more shows here. It'll push back our schedule by about a week, but I'll still be home soon." A few more shows turned into a few more cities. And a few more cities turned into a few more months. Still, he promised, by Coco's birthday, he'd be there.
His letters grew less frequent and his tone grew more and more exhausted. This gave her hope, he'd finally run out of steam and come home. But then, one day, the letters stopped. Coco was the first to notice. His letters went down to 2 a week at this point. A sparse number compared to the abundance they received at the beginning. They went a whole week without a letter and Coco asked every day, "Where's Papa's letter? When's he coming home?" Imelda's heart hurt all the time. At first, she was afraid for him. What could have happened to him that prevented him from writing? She imagined the worst; that Hector and Ernesto got robbed and were lying dead in a ditch somewhere. She went to the De la Cruz family and asked if they heard anything. Ernesto only wrote about once a month, but it just so happened that they got a letter just a few days ago. No mention of Hector.
Fear turned to anger. If Ernesto was okay, then where was Hector? She wrote to Ernesto. No reply. She tried again and again. She decided that if she wanted to find her husband, she was going to be as relentlessly obnoxious as her husband. Still, she never got a reply.
Then came the most grievous crime. It was Coco's fifth birthday, and there was no sign of Hector. Coco spent it in tears, crying herself into fits of hiccups. "Where is Papa?" she'd say when she could catch her breath. "He promised. He promised. A hundred times." She finally cried herself into exhaustion and Imelda put her to bed, gifts unopened and cake uneaten.
Imelda's heart hardened toward Hector that day. Her anger festered as she stared at cold, empty space in bed beside her and listened to Coco work herself into another crying fit in the next room. You'd better be dead, Hector, she thought. If not, I'll kill you myself. She brought Coco into their room and laid her down on Hector's side of the bed. No more tears, she told herself and she soothed her daughter back to sleep. No more wasting time. If it's just going to be the two of us, I'm going to build the best life possible for the two of us.