When I was in ninth grade, my father ran away from home. One frostbitten New England morning, he climbed into his gray Toyota and drove toward Guatemala. He left a letter for us written in blue pen on a single sheet of my school notebook paper. Somewhere around DC, he turned back. I have always wondered how his life, and mine, would be different had he kept driving. His longing has haunted me ever since. It is why I am here in Guatemala, living day to day, page to page. I want to understand how my father could possibly love a country more than his family.

I am sitting in a library in the Western Highlands. Tattered spines of paperbacks line the locked doors of the glass wooden bookshelves. Paulo Freire. Rigoberta Menchú. John Updike’s Rabbit Run. The library is one room with three square wooden tables and posted on the white wall, a map of the world. It is an upside-down map: North America is in the southern hemisphere; Australia trades places with Europe. A window the size of a door places afternoon light in clean strips across the cool tiles. Outside, clouds cast shadows over the mountains.

The one librarian’s name is Aracelis. She is rosy-cheeked and wears a pearl white sweater with a fur collar. Her black hair is thick and long like mine. She hovers over my desk, examines the black marks I have scribbled between the thin tan lines in my leather-bound journal. She leans in. My shoulders tense. I have seen her before. I return to this library like I return to this country, over and over. But today, it’s as if my face has a sign that reads: Tell me your story.

“My father lives in the United States, in Arkansas City, and when I was three he left Guatemala to work, but he always called and said he had gifts for us—my mother, my sister, and well…my father, for me, he was just everything, hope, a hero, until one day when it was my sister’s birthday and we had the cake ready, the food, everything, and the telephone rings and it’s him.”

All this she tells me in one long black hair of a sentence. She talks with her hands and her eyes dart left to right. She speaks as if we’d penciled this conversation in our calendar weeks ago, like she’d been practicing it while twisting along the narrow, cracked sidewalks in the pink light of sunrise, the orange light of sunset.

“So he says, look, I’m only calling to say that I have another family now. I don’t love you anymore and I’m never returning.”

We both nod. Me, side to side, and she, up and down.

“I didn’t want to say anything to my sister. So I waited until my mother asked me what was wrong. I had to tell her. My mother sat down and she cried. Then my grandparents. My sister. And me.”

“Maybe he was lying,” I say. “Sometimes life is hard in the U.S. People can’t find work. A man can feel like a failure.”

“No.” She pulls down her sweater. “After that I didn’t want to have anything to do with him. Yo sufrí. I even had to go to the hospital…yes.”

In the window I spot an old man pushing a rickety wagon full of empty gas tanks. The shade from his cowboy hat hides his face. The high sun has moved its attention to another latitude, another longitude. Seated at the wooden table, I want to cry, not for Aracelis, not for her father, but for mine. He could not do what other men did, my father, who has been homesick for forty years. And yet a feeling of gratitude swarms me. Thank God he didn’t have the guts. Thank God my father came back, and that I, his daughter, can relish the warmth of both suns. That is what I felt as I listened to Aracelis that afternoon in the library, when I stared long and hard at the upside-down map.

Jennifer De Leon is the winner of the 2011 Fourth Genre Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Ploughshares, Ms., Briar Cliff Review, Poets & Writers, Guernica, The Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010, and elsewhere. She has published author interviews in Granta and Agni, and she has been awarded scholarships and residencies from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, Blue Mountain Center, and the Sandra Cisneros Macondo Writers’ Workshop. The editor of the anthology, Wise Latina: Writers on Higher Education (University of Nebraska Press, 2013), she is also working on a memoir and a novel.

Artwork by Gabrielle Katina