Every man is the ruin of a man, I might have thought. This man who appeared in my sight was an incarnation of that maxim, a creature in precarious condition, a body submerged within its own debris. This impression didn’t come from his thin neck, his wretched torso, his twisted legs on the wheelchair, but from a lesser, circumstantial feature: the man at that moment was the ruin of a man because he was completely intoxicated. I could tell by the words he repeated, by his truncated phrases, by the voice which was itself the ruin of a voice. I didn’t look at his eyes, I didn’t get the chance to look into his eyes to see my own image.
I might have thought it, but I didn’t think it because we were walking together, she and I side by side, we were walking towards the centre across that city we believed ours. The man placed that wreck of a wheelchair in our way and asked, unexpectedly polite, if we might push him to the next corner. I didn’t even need to check with her this time. I took hold of the two handles behind the man and struggled with the wheels against the precariousness of the pavement till finally he was pointed in the right direction.
Halfway there, the man stopped us with a broad wave of his arm. He could get to the corner later, what he wanted now was to have a shot of cachaça at this bar just here. He asked us to buy him that cachaça. At this point it’s possible that we, she and I, exchanged glances. The man was too drunk, a cachaça might cloud what little consciousness still remained to him, a cachaça would surely flood the wreckage of him. And yet it was obvious, we must have thought, this man must live a life of unimaginable pain, personal or familial pain, physical or spiritual pain, pain that deserved to be diluted in the maximum possible amount of alcohol.
The two of us left the man on the pavement and disappeared into the darkness of that ruin of a bar. I already had the cachaça in my left hand, my only five-real note in my right, when I heard somebody addressing her, somebody else had something they wanted to ask us for. It was a boy who was too young to be the ruin of a boy, to be his own ruin. He was thirsty, that’s what he said in his high-pitched voice, he was just asking us to buy him some juice or other. The request was impossible to deny, that truth was impossible to deny, but I couldn’t help feeling there was something improper in the obvious swap, something immoral about breaking the promise we had made to the man, allowing the boy’s need to assert itself over the man’s desire. In the darkness, I couldn’t make out her expression, and for a moment I felt, though I said nothing, that any word I spoke would be my ruin.
I wasn’t thinking about whether man is the ruin of a man when I arrived to see my father. I wasn’t thinking about anything. I saw his body being pushed on a stretcher, I heard the wheels squeaking against the floor of the corridor, I noticed the serious expression on the faces of the nurses who were pushing him. In the shadows cast against the hospital walls, his silhouette seemed to take on extraordinary dimensions. My father had grown, as if the illness that ailed him were expanding his outlines, as if the misfortune were increasing the space he occupied in the world. Only later did the doctor explain, squeezing that enormous arm with her hard fingers: the punctured lung allowed the air he inhaled to escape, and the air had spread beneath his skin, which produced a general swelling.
I did not feel any similar swelling in my mother’s back. As I hugged her, my palms flat against her shoulder blades, I felt exactly the opposite, as if her bones were lacking flesh, as if I was hugging nothing. My mother at that moment was a more haggard woman than normal, a body too slender to accept my caress. Our bodies parted as though nothing were parting, and I wanted to tell her something that finally didn’t occur to me. There was a kind of hardness in her features, a kind of harshness in her voice, and I knew her well enough to decipher these scarce signs. In my mother, the impatience so uncommon in her concealed an uncertainty, a bad mood served to hide her fragility.
I spent the night alone in the hospital, though alone is not quite the right word. Somebody once defined solitude as a sweet absence of looks, but not that night. That night, the squares of glass in the doors were two eyes peering at me, stealing my privacy without providing me with any company; sometimes a sleeping man can be the deepest absence of all. My solitude that night was a fear of solitude, a fear of seeing that greater space he occupied now, in the world, in the room, in me, transformed into emptiness.
In the small hours, unable to sleep, I moved my armchair closer to his bed. I pressed my finger against his bulky arm and felt an unexpected softness, and noticed the white outline of my finger marked on his red skin. That air wasn’t the problem, that air would dissipate in time, said the doctor. A noisy piece of equipment was already busy extracting the excess of emptiness from his body, the wind that had invaded him and separated him from his own cells. He looks like a startled frog, somebody said. He looks like a Chinese wise man. I rejected any idea that took him away from what he was, or what I saw in him, any description that made him anything other than my father. The equipment continued to fulfil its function, noisily. All the same I found myself moving the palm of my hand across his forearm, several times in succession, thinking that in this way I might revive his pores, fade away the invading wind that distanced him from himself.
They tell me you write about exile, about lives adrift, about trees whose roots are buried thousands of kilometres away, he said in his harsh accent, his hoarseness aggravated by the static on the telephone line. Yes, I’ve written about an exile, that was the only part of what he said that I dared to confirm, as I tried to take in the strangeness of that image, the monstrous tree that doesn’t lose its roots even when brutally lopped off. I would have hinted at a correction, I think, I would have said that such distances always elude my words, that I’ve written about things that are close and personal, but I was unable to challenge his assertiveness with my hesitancy. His voice seemed to resound from within that strange tree: I have a story to tell you, meet me at the Cambridge Hotel, eighth floor.
And so, there I found myself, standing in front of that man who let me in with no effusiveness, a livid face welcoming me into his home with little more than a slight sagging of his eyelids. No, passing through that doorway, I understood, would not mean coming to know his home. Nothing particularly his own was reflected in that realm of such scarcity, nothing personal in the few objects soberly dispersed. Only what looked like a light blanket thrown over the sofa, a red blanket with oriental patterning, broke the austerity with its bright colour, but even such a bright and red blanket paled in the grey mildness of that setting. The blanket was where we sat, and I tried to silence these thoughts, and he began to speak.
His name was Najati, he came from Syria, he had been exiled in São Paulo for a few months, although nobody had authorised the word for him, although he didn’t expect the solemnity of exile, although he lacked the official designation. Najati was a refugee, one of five million Syrians abroad. One of the many wandering the world with their hands over their ears, he said, their hands blocking out the noise of the bombs exploding in the distance, he said, which never stop exploding. He came from Syria, he came from Homs, he came from a house hidden by orange trees. At the foot of an orange tree he said goodbye to his sons who were going to be piling up rocks in Qatar. At the foot of an orange tree he saw his wife for the last time, his wife who today hears only the bombs, who no longer hears the oranges falling onto the dry earth. His wife’s wave, growing further and further away in the dry fog, in the dust, at the foot of an orange tree, that was what he saw for the last time as the police car turned the corner.
This was my crime, he said, and on the screen of his cell phone I could see him for the first time energetic and rejuvenated – the six-minute sequence I would watch so many times on my own, shut away in my study, listening carefully to that incomprehensible language, not understanding why I was doing it, why on some free evenings I still do it. Najati in the middle of a circular plaza, atop an improvised stage, surrounded on all sides by a huge crowd of brightly-coloured flags, nodding heads, arms raised to applaud him after each ever more intense line. That was 2012, it was spring, explained the aged Najati when the other no longer had anything to say. It was a spring afternoon, the beginning of hope and the beginning of the end, on that same afternoon, at the same time, indistinguishable.
Of the story that followed, about the years he spent in a tent crammed full of common criminals and political prisoners, likewise indistinguishable, about his premature freeing on condition he left the country immediately, with what remained of his clothing and his fibre, of the story that followed, what has stayed with me is mostly the bitter taste of the tea he offered me. It didn’t seem reasonable to ask for a spoon of sugar in the middle of that narrative, interrupting him as he described the persistent blows that left their marks on his body, the panic of the other men, in the dead of night, as they crossed the vast sea in a tiny boat. I don’t know why it seems reasonable for me to interrupt him now, mentioning the tea, mentioning the sugar, and not ask myself whether the sharp furrows I could see on his face, wrinkles like deep rivers, were not marks from the same ill-treatment, and whether the same panic wasn’t still hidden in his eyes beneath those drooping lids.
Sitting there, my gaze flicking between his ruddy face and the red blanket, between his dark face and the darkness of the tea, it was only there that I wondered what this man might be expecting of me. What tiny benefit might he get from confessing to the guy that I was to him, a foreigner and a stranger, about his banishment, his private desert? What impossible word could give him any relief, some sterile comfort? Or was an author for his story what he wanted, and was that his hope, was that his purpose for me in the end? Sitting there, incapable of silencing my thoughts, I don’t know if I’d already come to think that ultimately all men are the ruin of a man. I know I saw him through the dry fog of my eyes, I saw him for the first time, and I thought for the first time that this was not a man, that it was not a man, it was only the ruins of one.
The above story was first published in Granta in Portuguese 1: Fronteiras (Borders).
Photograph © Igor Schutz