Papa Was a Roving Matador: All He Left Us Was Inner Mounting Rage

Some days you slay the bull, other days two feckless grifters slay you. 

I had to go digging under my desk to find them. There, under where I write, is a heap of things I don’t know what to do with. Old yarn, half finished art projects, some Sonos speakers that I refuse to accept don’t really work…and old photos. Somewhere in this stack of dusty images is what I’m looking for. A slight panic rises in my stomach. I hope I didn’t lose his picture.

There, at the bottom, I find it. The print was framed years ago, when I thought I would do a wall of photographs. It’s creased under the glass. I really should take better care of my belongings.

The image is in black and white, taken in the late 1950s. A man dressed in an ornate costume holds a sword. His name is Gabriel Priede España. A cape drapes over one arm. It must have been taken toward the end of the “fight.” If more of the background were reveled, blood spatter would be apparent. The man’s eyes are cast downward, his lips pursed. What was he saying all those years ago? His black hair is swept back, his strong nose so familiar. The man and I look nearly identical. There is no mistaking he is my father, the Bullfighter.

Born in Cordoba Veracruz in 1937, Gabriel Priede España had been a practicing Matador de Toros since 1959. His career had taken him to Europe, where his swagger won him, temporarily, the affections of French actress Jeanne Moreau, ten years his senior. He came to Houston in the summer of 1966, a few years after his brief marriage to Mexican sex symbol Lilia Prado (also a decade older) had flamed out. Gabriel was still drinking and thought he could sell Texans on what should have already been their state pastime, bullfighting. Had he not left Mexico City with his harebrained scheme, I would not have had the chance many years later to become a heroin addict. I guess I owe bloodlust a debt of gratitude.

My father disappeared when my mother was seven months pregnant. She waited for him to return, certain he’d been killed.

My father saw himself as a man about town, making the rounds. It was the days of pearls and bouffant hair, and he wasn’t shy about his approach to women. I don’t know if he was considered handsome. He certainly was confident. His belief was that charisma transcended all other considerations, and he literally grabbed it by the horns.

He met my mother on that trip. She was beautiful and delicate. She wasn’t his intended; she was the sister of his date. His willingness to jump ship for another should’ve been a red flag for her, but who am I to judge? My mother was only 21 years old.

She was ambitious. She had dreams that were more important than being a wife and mother. She would never want me to feel unwanted, but unwanted I was. I imagine she was terrified finding herself pregnant. She had to know it ended her life as she had envisioned it. What choice did she have? Abortion was illegal, and she’d never give her child up for adoption. So on a sweltering June 1968 summer day, she stood there and married the man who had helped ruin her life.

My father disappeared when my mother was seven months pregnant. She waited for him to return, certain he’d been killed. The months came and went. Alone and penniless in Mexico City, she gave birth to me without a witness.

He finally showed up, married to another woman. When it turned out he wasn’t dead, that he was just a dick, he was then dead to my mother. She’s strong like that. She left Mexico City with me barely three months old under her coat. He didn’t approve, but he didn’t do anything about it. He wasn’t that kind of man. He never came after her and only saw me twice. For all his talk, action was not his strong suit.

Every birthday and Christmas I’d get a card from him. It took a few years for me to realize that these cards didn’t have a postmark. The writing looked suspiciously familiar. Someone I knew had written them, penmanship slightly altered but recognizable. I never told my mother I knew she was the author. She wanted me to believe that my father loved me. My father as I knew him didn’t live, he was a figment of my imagination and my mother’s good intentions. It allowed me to build a fantasy that one day he’d come and take me to a place that didn’t exist.

My tenth summer was the one I had been dreaming about. I wanted lakes and adventure, freedom of nature. I had seen Little Darlings. I wanted to go to camp, to row a boat on a lake and to meet boys. My mom could barely afford dinner much less a trip, but that summer a friend had a lake house, and I was to spend my summer being a girl in a rich world. I had been there a week when my father took an action. I had waited by the phone for all of my young life. Finally he called. He had big plans. He wanted me to come visit his “ranch” in Mexico. I had been taking riding lessons on and off for years, just in anticipation of this moment. I came home immediately and took up my vigil by the phone, which never rang again.

I saw him one time after that, in the fall of the year two thousand. I’d had no sign of him since 1980, but with the Internet, I took my own actions, and I found him. He was in Mexico City, and he still spoke only Spanish. An old neighbor lady, raised in Mexico, helped me decipher the garbled message on his answering machine and navigate the opening salvo.

We got him on the phone, and my neighbor translated his elation: I had finally found him! He hadn’t looked for me all these years, he explained, because he was afraid of my mother. It seemed like a strange excuse, but I overlooked it and any other warning signs throughout the three months we communicated. Finally, my dreams were being realized.

I flew to Mexico and to my new destiny. It takes some time to fly over the largest city in North America. As each brightly painted neighborhood whizzed by, my resolve shook. I had prepared: I had practiced Spanish; I was bearing gifts. Still, I became more agitated with each passing second.

I’d spent years listening to tales of children reunited with their parents. It always ends the same way: happy. There might be some hard feelings. Parental relationships are difficult, but ultimately the tale winds up with smiles all around. I felt sure mine would too, but here I was as the landing gear deployed, freaking out. I didn’t want to get off the plane. My feet moved one after the other, walking the plank.

Things seemed strange at the outset. He was smiling and hugging me. Something wasn’t right. The hair on the back of my neck stung. My eyes ached. My breath wouldn’t come. I chalked it up to nerves.

He spoke of my half-siblings, whom I had never met. He bragged that they had both graduated from prestigious colleges. I didn’t comment. I hadn’t graduated from junior high. I might have noticed that he didn’t want to tell me their names, or where they were, but I live in whimsy.

His girlfriend and her lover were impatient. The two of them bludgeoned my father to death.  

It took two days for his mask to slip. He asked me to come for coffee. My Spanish had improved quickly; so when he revealed himself to me, I understood him perfectly. The moments were a blur. His face changed; his demeanor morphed. My dreams melted. Where there had been a sweet, almost innocent man sat an angry zealot. My mind reeled at what he was saying. I prayed for a language barrier. “Look at you, covered in tattoos. Divorced at thirty? Your Spanish is disgusting. You are not a lady; you’re a whore.”

I think I whimpered. It angered him. I was a disgrace. “Don’t make a scene!”

His mind was made up: This was a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life. In my story, the protagonist realizes that the years of wishing for a father had been in vain. I didn’t need a father. I had done just fine with an image. If my mother hadn’t left the real one, I’d be a broken scarred shell. His kind of cruelty doesn’t pass when inflicted on a child, but I was no longer a child. I was a woman. He couldn’t hurt me now, not really.

I left Mexico City the next day. My father appeared at the airport and gave me a letter, in Spanish of course. I couldn’t read it, but I stared at it all the way home. I eagerly asked my neighbor to translate. Surely there would be an apology. A healing was bound to come. The old lady read it through once, and refused to remark further than: “You only need one good parent, and you have your mother.”

Ten years had passed when my brother called. I could hear he had been crying. Our father had been murdered. For him this was a very complicated loss. Theirs was the difficult relationship I had escaped. I told myself, This is merely a story I’ll later want to hide from my son. I keep the memories of my father far from the front of my recollections. I told myself not to get sentimental about it. After all, these emotions are manufactured just for the sake of tradition. They are no longer part of my story.

Gabriel’s girlfriend, a woman whose Facebook stated she intended to open a restaurant, had slowly poisoned him. Hopefully she’s a better cook than she was a chemist. Instead of dying, my father became increasingly ill. His girlfriend and her lover were impatient. The two of them bludgeoned my father to death. This man who faced bulls but couldn’t face his daughter was decapitated and his head stuffed into a refrigerator. His dismembered body was burned in a weed-filled lot in La Paz, another hot day in a long line of dry dust.

The girlfriend cracked after ten days. She called the police and blamed her lover for her indiscretion. Gabriel’s bank account wasn’t as satisfying as she had imagined.

Occasionally, I web-search the killers’ names. It’s like entering a perverted reality to look for myself. I study their photos. I find it upsetting that such unworthy opponents murdered my father.

I’ve often said that the only thing my father gave me was a strong nose and a good story. How many bullfighters’ daughters are on the streets of LA? But I might have undersold him. I can’t say exactly what I inherited from my father, which parts of me I detest and which I adore. I know he gave me something. Today I choose to believe he gave me the best of him, a man he wanted to be but could never evolve to. He was incapable of escaping his upbringing. Did he try? I’ll never know if my imagination is accurate. There are conflicting reports. He broke my brother’s heart, but maybe under all the angst there was a hero he passed on to his children.

Years ago, during a fight with one of my husbands, my heritage was thrown at me. “Of course you’re so stubborn; your father was a bullfighter.”

He didn’t mean it as a compliment, but that’s how I took it. Step into the ring. Stamp your feet. Brandish your razor sharp horns. You don’t stand a chance against me, motherfucker. That’s my birthright.

Gabby O'Neill
Gabby O’Neill is a writer, living and sometimes working in Los Angeles. She is mildly annoyed that her son and both her rescued hounds all now favor her boyfriend. She has a website.
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