An unexpected letter brings a revelation about family trauma in this excerpt from Javier Stanziola’s novel Hombres enlodados.
The envelope and paper smell of empire.
The dirt-colored envelope is longer and wider than the ones sold in the little Chinese stores. Its corners and folds house a blinding white page, not like the thin, bone-colored kind they sell in the Arrocha Pharmacy on Vía España or the light tan ones of Balboa notebooks. It is an imperial white that covers a width that I am accustomed to but spans a luxurious length, superfluous. On the surface of that haughty white, I see an “Esteemed JJ,” and I still can’t believe that the national postal system has managed the miracle of successfully coordinating and executing the process of picking up a letter at the airport stamped in East Ham, London, transporting it to the correct post office at the entrance of one of the many suburbs in the east of Panama City, and then cataloging and safeguarding it in the mailbox of Entrega General. Some good came out of the Revolution after all.
“I have just hung up the phone,” the paper keeps on giving.
I loved hearing your mom’s voice, speaking with your brother, and, of course, knowing that you were there sitting on the couch listening in and scrutinizing everything without saying a single word. As I promised when your mom put you on the phone and you remained true to your vow of silence, I am writing you a couple of lines. This is not to give you tourist reports or to detail the political balancing acts of the Iron Lady and her henchmen, and least of all to show off having found El Dorado on Oxford Street. Simply put, there are many things worth repeating and expressing with ink. There are plenty of complex and complicated feelings between the two of us that words cannot explain, leaving behind and nourishing so much useless pain.
First things first. The opportunity to be part of your life and your brother’s, to play the stepfather role, was a privilege for me. My departure had nothing to do with you or your brother. In fact, it had nothing to do with your mother. If that hasn’t been made clear, I want you to forgive me.
Here is where it gets complex, complicated. My escape follows the same pattern of thousands of seditious people from around the country who have sought exile, peace, and a new start in another country, wherever, for the past twenty years. But I’m a bird of a different flock. Now that you are a man, I want to explain to you the tenor of my departure. I want to explain that in addition to political, religious, and ideological exiles, there are also sexual exiles.
For more than thirty years I was a member of a wolf pack that found peace in its own chaos, proclaiming that man-on-man action amounts to an air bombing and torpedo attack against humanity. I invested three thousand hours dreaming up fantastic escape plans from the very same thick and oxidized iron bars of the cell I built so I wouldn’t become another prisoner of a foreign war I still do not understand. A war waged by fearful men. In vain did I try to accept the vigilance of my jailer—myself—only to vanquish him and end up throwing myself to the floor, humiliating myself, and begging for anyone’s touch.
My life in your house was no more than another prison I built so as not to fall into the claws of a mysterious, incredible, and mythological beast in a man’s skin. In that house, in the room opposite yours, beside the most beautiful woman I have ever kissed, I soothed my anguish by dreaming that I grew the wings of a hummingbird and escaped the bourgeois rhythm of dinner at six, television at seven, and Klim powdered milk at nine before burying my face in my pillow. When those wings would not take me far enough, I transformed my whole body into a vulnerary capsule that transported me to a world of yachts replete with leading men from French films, glasses overflowing with champagne, baguettes, and strawberries lathered in cream. Only like that, JJ, did I manage to get near the world of free people, a world where one laughs with delight and hope, just like your mom showing those big teeth and wrinkling her nose. A world where you feel what you feel and you cry when you feel like crying. Like Danielito, who cries with fervor and desperation, letting a stream of snot slide over his lips to then loudly inhale it back into his nose and announce that he can’t breathe from so much crying. In that you had a point, JJ. There was nothing more invigorating than watching your brother cry. I loved seeing you run across the kitchen, to the bedroom, and to the living room in search of your mom, “Mom, Mom, Daniel is turning purple again.” And your mom rushing out, “He’s drying up. My baby is drying up.” Your mom would toss poor Danielito in the air hoping that on the way down he would regain the breath he had lost from all the crying. With her defeated, it was my turn, “Don’t dry up, champ. Daniel!” “Throw him, Gustavo, throw him!” And again, that scandalous bawling, this time awash in tears.
I recall your face lit up by that little light bulb that Daniel turned on with a battery and wire one day of blackouts, among the many, that caught us without candles or lamps. “So you don’t get scared in the dark, J.” I like remembering his healing eyes asking you why you couldn’t walk straight if you didn’t have blood or scars on your legs. “I’ll cure them,” your brother would promise while resting his warm plump hands on your legs, waiting for his magical intervention to demolish your full-on swing, Celia Cruz on Calle Ocho in Miami. But nothing, JJ. You, as always, remained sunken into the armchair trying to escape, complaining about your fate, wasting away your life in front of books about sinful Greeks or inventing stories about fish in a tank.
Last Friday my boss, before firing me on the pretext that tourist season was over, asked me, with that heavy accent all East Londoners have, what someone as posh as me was doing working reception at a third-rate bed-and-breakfast. Severance pay in hand, I told him the truth. I don’t know if he understood, I don’t even care, but I explained in my best cockney that wet dreams end up mixing up and producing a creamy red, sticky, toxic mire. Instead of drowning in it, instead of anesthetizing myself with Valium, instead of swimming in a septic tank and fed up with fine hair and beauties, I decided to drown myself in reality. Now at last I can appreciate all the accidents marking my bare flesh the only way I know how—through the honest eyes of another naked man. Now I can let the foolishness of doing whatever and being whoever I want to tickle my fancy and take me on adventures without consequences or problems.
If the mornings condemn me to a servant’s uniform, disinfectant, mops, an atrophied mind, and a mouth wide shut, the nights give me calloused fingers running down the curve of my back. Protected by Compton Street, the night no longer obligates me to search for street corners or plead for darkness. The nocturnal reality now affords me the luxury of giving away my breath to whomever desires it and clinging to wide shoulders covered in pink silk in order to not fall back into my imagination. Come dawn, when it is time to say goodbye, I can look into their faces, their haggard eyes, and tell them face-to-face, without complexes or sissiness, “I liked it, I want more.”
If one day you decide to stop hiding behind a pen and burn the books you’ve turned into manacles, call me. You can’t make a life out of trying to escape your destiny, because the process of trying has its own rules, its own architecture, that from being so precise end up controlling you. One thing’s for sure: forewarned is forearmed, JJ. Contrary to the experience of political exiles and migrant workers, your sexual exile won’t last for a handful of years or end with the return of heroes. Your exile will be heart-wrenching and eternal, with everyone who now professes to love you thanking you for distancing yourself. Only then will you spare them from the dissonance of loving you and despising you at once. Your cycles of nostalgic days and reflective nights will ceaselessly repeat long after generals fall, the economy decides to create jobs, and income inequality becomes a curious thing of the past. The hate, disgust, and fear that provoke your eyes, lips, and sweat will not leave with the dictatorship or the tolerance campaigns or good intentions. Among so much hissing of sacred words, testosterone, and mental laziness, there’s no one in our pack who will mount a surefire coup d’état against fear—rooted deep in the darkest corners of our minds—and the ravages of extinction.
The day that you decide to open your cell and fly far, you’ll be leaving behind the prisoner you are today. And you will never see him again.
From Hombres enlodados. © 2013 by Javier Stanziola. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2021 by Alexander Aguayo. All rights reserved.