Midway through Christmas dinner one year, absent any illness or prior warning that might have led us to suspect some problem with his health—not even a tiny, unobtrusive one—my brother died. He had never been a very active kid. He had frequent dizzy spells, and he didn’t like to play soccer or get drunk with the guys when we went to the Chinese restaurant back behind the school (not so much because the food was cheap as because they would bring us little glasses of liqueur with the check without asking how old we were). But he wasn’t sickly either, not the kind of kid you can tell right off isn’t quite up to snuff. That’s why my parents went into such a state of shock that they couldn’t quite understand what was really happening. Deep down, I suppose they didn’t want to understand. Toni was stone- cold dead, right there in front of them, and if they didn’t get it maybe it was because they couldn’t bear it. Our father worked in a taxidermy store on the Plaça Reial. He was a good father and a good husband, and he didn’t have any vices except an enormous wooden box hidden in the closet containing magazines with naked ladies with airbrushed privates, secured with a padlock that my brother and I would pry open when they left us alone at home. Afternoons, our mother kept the books for a small construction company. We weren’t the image of a happy family that you see in the ads for stoves and refrigerators, but we weren’t drowning in despair either. We lived day to day and didn’t save much because school and the mortgage on our apartment devoured both their salaries. We never went to the movies. My father’s grand weekly indulgence was to buy the sports paper on Saturday to read about the games that were going to be played that weekend. He would buy it on Saturday because that way he had two days to read it from cover to cover; buying the paper on Sunday seemed like an excessive expenditure to him if he only had one day to read it. On Sunday we always watched whatever game they showed on TV, no matter who was playing, and even if the teams came from so far away it was hard to find them on the map. When I hit my teens, mother starting insisting I go out with friends on Saturday and Sunday. She didn’t want me to become what she called a “housebound” kid. “If you spend all day shut up in the house you’ll never have friends, and you’ll never find a girl to marry you.” My brother, two years younger, would laugh; he thought the part about the girls and the marrying was funny. I preferred to stay home, watching soccer on TV with my father.
The thing with Toni happened right after mother brought the dessert tray full of almond-paste candy and wafer cylinder cookies to the table. We had already eaten the first course, pasta shells in a rich broth, followed by the meats and vegetables that had been simmered in the stock, and then a chicken with prune stuffing—when, suddenly, as if it were the most normal thing in the world, my brother’s head started tipping forward, very slowly, until his face plowed into the plate of candy. My parents froze. If you had touched them they would have shattered into a thousand pieces. They seemed so incapable of reacting that, in a critical fraction of a second, I decided that I too would act as if I didn’t realize what had happened. In point of fact, they didn’t look at him. They were staring helplessly at the table in front of them, making an effort not to see him. So they wouldn’t feel bad, at least momentarily, I slipped my hand around Toni’s shoulders and pulled on the neck of his sweater to straighten out his torso. Since all this activity required some justification to make it at least plausible I picked up my napkin and wiped his mouth. It was a delaying tactic that would allow us to turn back whenever we were ready. Any one of the three—my father, my mother, or I, myself—could then burst into tears and declare the obvious truth to the others. But not one of us dared. Certainly none of us must have thought at the time that our intention was to deny his death. All three of us—me pulling at the neck of his sweater and slipping my hand around his shoulders as I wiped his mouth; them, acting as if they didn’t realize what was happening—intended at most to delay the onset of the running around and the crying. It always broke my heart to see my mother cry, and I had never seen my father cry, not even after my sister’s sudden death in her crib. I remember them standing by the small white coffin, my mother dissolving in tears and my father’s eyes red. Now, as I ran my napkin over Toni’s dead lips, I still justified it by thinking over and over again that we were only postponing the moment in which we would face the truth. When my father addressed him with apparent nonchalance—“Toni, I think you’ve had too much to drink”—I understood they were in no hurry to accept the evidence and that father’s comment “Toni, I think you’ve had too much to drink” was addressed more to me than to Toni, who could no longer hear him and would never be able to hear him again. That’s why I went along with his silent entreaty, and to help them act out that comforting fantasy I quickly stood up, lifted Toni out of the chair by his armpits, and said, “Hey, come on, I’ll put you to bed. You’ve had too much to eat.”
I switched the reproach from drinking to eating because I thought that, even unconsciously, my parents would appreciate his not being labeled a drunk in that final moment. And to tell the truth, he had drunk barely half a glass of cava while, in fact, he had eaten the pasta-shell broth, had seconds on the meat course, had thirds on the stuffed chicken, and if he hadn’t simultaneously attacked both the wafer cylinder cookies and the almond paste candy it was only because he had suddenly packed it in. My right arm stretched across his back to the armpit by which I held on to him, and, his left arm draped around my neck, I grasped his hand so he wouldn’t fall and took him into our bedroom. I sat him on a chair, with his head on the desk, wondering whether I should go through the motions of undressing him and putting his pajamas on. But clearly I had to if we were to pretend with any conviction that everything was just as it had always been. If I put him to bed with his clothes on, we wouldn’t be able to act as if nothing had happened. I got to it, then, with all the inexperience of the first time. Only someone who’s undressed a dead person can know how hard it is, because each and every member behaves, logically, as a dead weight, and when you finally think you’ve got an arm in a sleeve, the entire body shifts toward the other side and you have to prop it up any way you can—with your chest, your leg, your back—and go on to the next: the other sleeve, the right pant leg, the left . . .
I was sweating when I left the bedroom. My parents were waiting in the dining room, their faces anxious, begging me with their eyes not to dispel the deceit. “He fell asleep right away,” I said. They breathed a sigh of relief. “He’s just eaten too much,” mother said, too nervous to come up with a new story. “And he drank too much. A whole bottle of cava, between the two of you,” Father exaggerated. “If he gets some sleep now, he’ll feel better later,” Mother said. “But he’ll wake up when it’s time to go to bed and then he won’t be able to sleep tonight,” Father grumbled. “So what?” said Mother. “The important thing is for him to get some sleep now.”
Back in my room, I sat by my brother’s side and, since his face was serene, it seemed as if he could still wake up at a moment’s notice and say, “Hey, come on, the joke’s over. I really got you, didn’t I?” He was in bed, wearing his blue striped pajamas, his hand resting on the hem of the sheet, his eyes wide open. I closed his eyelids. No one sleeps with his eyes open. His skin was cold. And pale? Not particularly. At eight thirty I decided I had been sitting there with him long enough. What was the point? I went into the living room to announce that Toni would not be having supper. Mother raised a finger as if I were to blame: “I told you he had too much to eat.” “It’s not only what he ate. They had a bottle of cava between the two of them!” said Father, obsessed with warning us of the dangers of alcohol, which had taken his younger brother to his grave. I sat down and had four chunks of almond-paste candy; that was all I could eat. Then I went back to the bedroom, looked at Toni for a minute, put on my pajamas, got into bed, and started to read. At eleven thirty our parents came in to say good-night. Holding hands and outlined in the light from the door, they hesitated before coming in. I realized they had become old and fragile all at once. They gave each of us a kiss. First Toni, then me. Mother tucked him in. She spoke softly to me so as not to wake him: “Turn the light out, he probably can’t sleep with all this glare.”
I slept like a log, longer than I could have imagined, and when I woke up I was disconcerted to find Toni exactly as I had left him. The same position, the hand in the same place on the hem of the sheet. But how else could it have been? What was I expecting? For him to turn over in his sleep in the middle of the night and for it all to have been a Christmas delirium? I decided to leave showering him for another day and I dressed him right away, before I got dressed myself. My efforts of the day before to undress him and put on his pajamas were now repeated in taking off his pajamas and putting on his street clothes. I ended up so sweaty that I was the one who had to run and take a quick shower. In the dining room, Father and Mother greeted us with a smile that combined gratitude and impatience. Mother thought Toni was looking better.
With every passing day I got faster at dressing and undressing him, and I was soon able to seat him in a chair and stand him up with a certain naturalness, and even get him to trace a kind of smile or raise his right eyebrow ironically. I spent the two weeks of vacation at home, poring over father’s taxidermy books. Getting him to school was more complicated. To begin with, it was hard to get him on the bus without his falling over and over again, and without looking like I was holding up a drunk. As time went by, though, I got better and better at it. The worst thing was when all the seats were taken and I had to hold him up the whole time, surreptitiously keeping my right arm around his back, holding him up by his armpit, with his left arm draped around my neck so that by holding on to his left hand I could keep him from falling when we hit a curve. At school, I would take him to his classroom first and put him in his seat, explaining that he had had a dizzy spell and that he’d be fine soon, and I would go on to my own classroom. If anyone had any questions, I would tell them about the dizzy spells he had been having since he was a child, which had now become continual. Fortunately, Toni had always been a quiet boy, who had never in his life raised his hand in class to answer a question. The overcrowding in the school took care of the rest. With some fifty students in each classroom, if one is inconspicuous it’s easy to go unnoticed.
One day at lunchtime I rushed out of math class to go and pick him up and he wasn’t there. A classmate who was still gathering his books from his desk at the other end of the classroom told me they had taken him to the infirmary. I found him lying on a cot. The head of the infirmary said we’d have to get to the bottom of all that fainting, in case he had anemia or something.
“He should have a check-up.”
I said OK, and the subject never came up again. In time I’ve perfected my technique for showering and shaving him. Now I get him on and off the bus and subway with great agility. I often have the same dream: I am the dead one, but I don’t know it, and in order not to upset me, my brother pretends that he’s the dead one as he carries me back and forth to hide the truth. It is he who puts his arm around my shoulders, props me up, and takes me through the motions of the daily routines. The dream makes me happy and helps me get through this complicated joint life we are living. There was one critical moment, though, when he started seeing Teresa, a girl who deeply valued his ability to listen, such an uncommon quality in other men, she says. I didn’t think I’d be able to pull it off. Particularly when they decided to move in together and I had to convince her of the vital reasons—which I made up as I went along—why I would have to go and live with them.
Six years later our mother died. Without her our father melted like an ice cream in the August sun, and followed a few months after. With my parents’ death I thought the time had finally come to stop pretending. But no matter how much I think about it I can never quite bring myself to do it. In part because this obsessive devotion to my brother, this living life through another person, has allowed me to avoid having much to do with other people and having to be myself, and in part because I’m not sure Teresa would be able to bear the truth.
Copyright Joaqim Monzó. Translation copyright 2010 by Mary Ann Newman. All rights reserved.