Here's something I can tell you: he never really knew how to talk to me. Sometimes I picture him, back when I was the kid he couldn’t muster the guts to comprehend. I would sit very focused and important, surrounded by an assortment of odd, lifeless objects, and I would proceed to talk to them about serious business. I was their professor, at five years old, and I was teaching them how to read a book, and eventually I would slap them with a plastic ruler and scold them for being such terrible students and tell them that they were giving me a headache and that they would have to copy down a sentence five hundred times on their notebooks until their hands hurt and rot. Back then, he would observe me from above the edge of his thin reading glasses - not the right type, not the type prescribed by a doctor, but a random pair he would have picked up from a pharmacy counter - and I would realize that he was about to say something, something crucial and life-changing, except he never did. He would then exhale almost inaudibly and shake off his puzzlement with a cigarette and walk away and I would go on teaching pots and plush toys and soda cans in the most unorthodox of ways and that was it. He did rehearse a question once, he almost let it out, I felt like I could hear him struggle to let it out, and the question died away unasked. But that came later.
Except this is not how it really happened. How it did happen is something that I can’t tell you, or don’t know how. We never really understood a lot about each other, not enough to account for inaudible exhaling and pent-up puzzlement. Not at five years old anyways. Not then. Not now.
Here’s something I can tell you: at seven years old, I saw him shave his thick beard in front of our bathroom mirror. I saw him stroke his face with little precision, his glasses sitting sadly on his forehead, I saw him work through layer after layer of shaving cream, and I saw a tiny pool of blood forming on the formica sink, dripping from a deep cut underneath his chin. I saw him tap the faucet and soak a towel with cold water and gently dab the cut with it till the bleeding subsided. I saw him inspect the result in the mirror and I saw him stare at himself so hard I thought the mirror would crack from side to side. I want to say that I feared he would get seven years bad luck if that happened, but I was never that kind of fool, and he was never really accursed for anything. Except of course my knock on his door on a winter night. But that came later.
I see now it was not at himself he was staring. He was staring at someone else inside the mirror. Was he scared, was that a shadow I saw go through his eyes while he was standing there, holding a razor and his breath? Was it doubt, subtle recognition? He slowly came back from his trance, looked at me sideways, and said that I too would have a beard when I grew up. Except I didn’t want to have a beard. I wanted to go with a clean-shaven face. I wanted my skin out in the open, unabashed, a bit defiant. I didn’t want any cuts on it, I didn’t want any of his marks on it. I knew that well enough at seven. I ended up having a beard though. But that came later.
I clearly remember getting lost once. I must have been ten. He didn’t see me wander away, he was too self-absorbed. I didn’t walk away on him on purpose. It was a busy street in a big city and he was not holding my hand tight enough while he tried to shoulder our way through the crowd. It was a split second and he was gone, and for a moment I thought I was drowning in a sea of legs. A split second, and all I could see was adult legs closing in on me, and skyscrapers piercing the cloudless sky. I thought of crying, then thought better of it. I just let go for a second, I let the adult legs push and pull me on all directions like a football, like medieval chariots pulling a body till the members ripped. All of a sudden he was back, he was yelling at me not to let go of his hand anymore. Then he hugged me with love, except it was a kind of violent transfixion. No: he simply looked me dead in the eye and silently recognized something that I myself never did.
By then he and I were used to our silent rituals. We avoided each other as best as possible, which was hard to accomplish in a small house with white walls and pillows on the couch and dust on the pillows. Once we crossed paths on the corridor: it was night, and I was on my way to an unknown corner of the house, and he was on his way back from hell. We crossed paths in the semi-darkness and we crossed eyes and his lips stretched a little as if he was trying to contain a smile. Except it was not a smile, it was laughter, high-pitched, of the maniac kind. Or perhaps it was retching, I can never tell them apart. Or perhaps it wasn’t anything - the lights were off, and so was he. We faced off for less than a second and went our separate ways.
Here’s something I can tell you: at fourteen I broke a leg in a bike accident in front of our house. I could see the clouds move fast, as they do in films, and I heard the door open when he came outside. The driver had run away and left me behind with a crushed leg and my old bike so crumpled it looked like a piece of art nouveau. I remember he touched my face and told me to stay with him, and I remember he looked scared, he knew I was going off, and he trembled before I passed out. I remember the smell of aloe from the shaving cream, I remember seeing the cut on his chin fade into a scarred blur. The next thing I remember is waking up in hospital after undergoing surgery, my leg swollen as a balloon and hanging from a sling hooked onto the aseptic wall. He was standing beside the bed, carefully combing the hair on my forehead, so damped with sweat it looked like a blood-soaked towel. I had to undergo physical therapy for months and months and he was there with me for every session and he would pat my leg gently and encourage me to stand up and walk up to him and hug me when I finally managed to do it.
It didn’t happen that way, though. Here’s how it really went down: he went back inside and called an ambulance and I passed out from the pain. I learned later that the paramedics reanimated me on my way to the hospital, that they gave me a shot of adrenaline so I would wake up, and that my leg wasn’t crushed that bad. And he was indeed there for every session of physical therapy, but he would just stare at me as if he could make me walk out of the sheer command of his eyes.
Here’s something I can tell you. I had sex for the first time at age eighteen. It was awkward sex. I came back home that night and I knew he knew it. I wonder if he smelled it on me. He would look at me with more respect from then on, or perhaps it was less respect. Or perhaps it wasn’t respect at all, but just a kind of quiet acquiescence. He never talked to me about that. But then he never talked to me about anything else.
Except, none of it happened that way.
Here's something I can tell you. At twenty something, I rode my bike up to his house on a winter night. I had the address down on a notebook, copied down over and over a thousand times, so I would not forget. I knocked on his door. He opened it. He had glasses on, and a cigarette, and I had a backpack, and a memory of the last day I really saw him. How old was I then, five? Ten? Fourteen? Did I make up that memory? Had I ever even seen him at all? He stared at me as if he saw me through a looking glass. Was it doubt that I saw, was it recognition? Was he afraid? Did he know who I was the moment he saw my beard? Did he smell it on me? Did he want to run over me, drive away in a frenzy and never look back? We faced off for a minute, less than a minute really, under the badly-lit porticum. He didn’t spread his arms and asked me to come in right then. He just stared and stared and I just stared and thought of crying, then thought better of it. He exhaled inaudibly and ran his fingers through his thick beard and through the thin hair on his forehead. He wanted to ask me something, but the question died away unasked. I wanted to tell him I wanted him to rot, and ask him why he had let go of my hand, and tell him of my first time, and slap him across the face, but I never really learned how to talk to him at all, I never understood. I never meant him any harm, I just wanted his every bone crushed. I wanted him paralyzed, I wanted him puzzled. I wanted to walk away on him, I wanted to back off and pick up my bike and ride away, but right then the only thing I did was suppress a laughter. High-pitched. Maniac. Mad. Or maybe I retched. I could never tell them apart.