Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman

 

Carlitos loved the United States. He papered the walls of his room with American flags and tourist posters from odd places, like ‘Idaho, Home of the potato’. He said all the words he could in English, for example ‘Hershey’s’ or ‘Chuck Norris’, and when he did, he chewed on the syllables until they sounded the way they did in movies. I suppose he pronounced the language really well, because nobody understood anything. People had to ask him several times what exactly he had said.

It isn’t that Carlitos was trying to take anyone in. Just the opposite. I never knew anyone as authentic. He was incapable of pretending anything he didn’t really think, though he really didn’t think about too many things. If we became friends, it was because neither of us had more ideas than were strictly necessary. That brings people together.

Carlitos’s father, an extremely fat man, was an officer in the Peruvian navy. He had studied in panama, in the School of the Americas, and then somewhere in the United States in a place whose name I’ve forgotten, something like Naples. In the outside world, he moved around preceded by an escort car, dressed in a black uniform and a white visored hat, which helped to hide his bulk. But indoors he was always in his shorts and undershirt. Seeing his enormous belly about to burst through the undershirt, no one would have imagined he was so important.

Carlitos’s mother spent her days reminding him about the time they had spent in North America, recalling it with enthusiasm. Her way of indicating that she liked something a good deal was to say it was ‘like up there’. Carlitos’s older brother did the same thing, always talking about the clothes you could get ‘up there’. When he travelled, he would come back with gleaming sneakers, like the ones astronauts wore, or red jackets covered with zippers in the style of Michael Jackson. Carlitos was too young to have memories of ‘up there’. But he loved going to Disney. He had been there four times since he was very little.

Whenever Carlitos talked about Disney, I would go home to my father and say: ‘I want to go to Disney.’

‘Why? I’ve taken you to Ecuador.’

‘The only thing I remember about Ecuador is that there were banana trees and I got diarrhoea.’

‘You can get diarrhoea at Disney too.’

I’d stamp my feet and whine, but my father wouldn’t yield. In fact, he didn’t even bother to answer me. At the time Carlitos and I began to hang out together, his principal occupation was cheating on my mother. Mama taught at a secondary school outside Lima and would get home when it was almost dark. In the afternoons papa often came home with a woman when he thought I had gone out to play. Her name was Betsy and he’d take her into his room.

All those times – or nearly all of them, I suppose – I was in the house. I almost never went out to play. The neighbourhood kids played soccer, and I didn’t like soccer. I’d stay in the house with Carlitos, who didn’t play soccer either because they didn’t play it in the United States. We spent the afternoons looking at the baseball cards his father would bring back for him from his trips up north. We didn’t understand baseball, so Carlitos and I didn’t have anything to say to each other. We would look at the cards in silence, and who knows what we were thinking? This was why papa never heard us on those afternoons.

On several occasions though, maybe a dozen times, Carlitos did hear my father and his girlfriend. But he never said a word. Not to me and not to his family. Probably because he spoke English with his family and didn’t know how to say these things in that language. In any case, when papa came home with the woman and went to his room to the sound of giggles and whispers, Carlitos would only bend his head and silently pass me another card with the picture of some pitcher or catcher. I was very grateful to him for his silences, and I think this was when I began to value his companionship as I never had anyone else’s.

I had the chance to return the favour, but that was a few years later, when we were about thirteen. By then my parents had divorced and I had begun trying to go out with girls. There was one, Mily, who had already kissed the entire neighbourhood, at least the boys who played soccer, who always had priority in these matters. When Mily set aside her final defence, nobody wanted to go out with her any more because it made a bad impression.

I was in no way concerned by Mily’s résumé. On the contrary, I thought that, given her record, it would be easier to kiss her. And since she had done it so many times, she could teach me to be a good kisser. For weeks I appeared at all the parties she attended. I was inexperienced and thought that to kiss somebody you had to feel profound things. And so I forced myself to fall in love with her. With practice, I succeeded in thinking about her automatically, until the really complicated issue was forgetting about her and concentrating on my studies and exams.

Finally, after several parties and dancing to a good number of slow songs, I tried to give her a kiss in the kitchen of a friend’s house. But she refused.

‘Don’t come near me,’ she said.

‘Why not? You’ve kissed everybody else.’

‘That’s why. I don’t want people to think I’m easy.’

‘What’s easy about it? I’ve spent weeks trying to do this.’

‘I’ll tell you what we can do. Every afternoon I take my dog for a walk in the park. If you come and keep me company, maybe we’ll kiss one day. But don’t imagine anything else, OK?’

For the whole summer I showed up like a slave to join her on her walks through the park, but she never let me touch her. Her dog, a basset hound with a melancholy face, seemed to laugh at me when I appeared. To humiliate me even more, Mily always asked about Carlitos. She wanted to know what he liked. What games he played. If we saw each other a lot. If I could bring him to the park sometime. I did all I could to ignore what she was trying to tell me, but finally I had to admit that she liked my imbecile neighbour.

It had its own logic. I haven’t said so until now, but Carlitos was very far from being handsome. He was enormous and soft, his teeth were crooked, and he had never shown any interest in girls. That’s probably why Mily liked him, because he was the only boy who never tried to take any liberties with her.

Though Carlitos wasn’t to blame for anything, I was furious with him. Simply put, his company reminded me of my failure with Mily. I stopped seeing him. I didn’t want him to interfere with my difficult progress towards a first kiss. Apparently this served only to make Carlitos want to see me more than ever. He rang my bell six days in a row. He asked my parents about me. He telephoned me at midnight. I never responded. It wouldn’t take me long to regret that. Mily’s kiss never came, but at the end of the summer, I learned from other neighbours about the tragedy that had struck Carlitos’s family while I was ignoring him.

That year his parents had sent his older brother to study in the United States. Manuel – that was his brother’s name – had begun to travel back and forth very frequently, too frequently, but no one thought it strange. After all, Carlitos’s father had been promoted to the rank of admiral. His house was filled with armed bodyguards, and in all probability he earned a great deal of money. Sending the boy back and forth wouldn’t represent a huge expenditure for him.

What did surprise everyone was that the police arrested Manuel at the airport, when he was about to leave on one of his trips. This time Manuel had spent barely forty-eight hours in Lima, going out to discotheques at night and sleeping during the day. His family hardly saw him, and even though they were beginning to suspect what was going on, nobody felt like asking questions. They were probably confident an admiral’s son would not be arrested.

At first, no one believed that Manuel’s detention would last too long. It had to be a mistake. Or the admiral would make certain it was a mistake. But it seems Manuel was carrying too much cocaine for the matter to be ignored, or even for him to be given a light sentence. And apparently his father didn’t tolerate that kind of behaviour in his family. He used all his connections to get him a decent cell in a maximum-security prison, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t do more.

Another boy in the neighbourhood told me all this, and when I heard about it, I felt guilty for having ignored Carlitos’s phone calls. I went to see him right away. His mother received me with a sombre expression that I didn’t want to interpret as a reproach for my absence. His father didn’t even know who I was.

I found Carlitos with his GI Joes, which were beginning to seem anachronistic in a boy his age, and his American footballs, which he never used because nobody knew how to play the game. I didn’t know what to say and sat down on his bed. He didn’t say anything either. His room smelled strange, but it always smelled strange.

After a time spent in silence, the clock struck five, the time when Mily walked her dog, and it occurred to me that I could do something to make up for my bad behaviour. I took him to the park and tried to organize some lively talk between the three of us. When I thought everything was off to a good start, I pretended I had to go to the dentist and left them alone. I never found out more, and Carlitos never talked about it.

Some six or seven years later, I ran into Mily at a discotheque. We danced, laughed and recalled the old days. In the end we spent the night together. It was fun, and a little nostalgic. Before I fell asleep, I remembered the episode in the park and asked: ‘Listen, do you remember the afternoon when I left you with Carlitos? Did you do anything? Even just a kiss?’

‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘I tried, that afternoon and many other afternoons, but he only wanted to show me his baseball cards.’

I never knew Carlitos to have a girlfriend. Neither did anyone else, as far as I know. As my interest in women increased and his remained at zero, we began to grow apart.

Of course, from time to time we’d run into each other on the street and exchange a few words, but increasingly they sounded empty, merely the inevitable formulas of courtesy. He would recount the entire plot of the latest movie he had seen, or the most recent matches in some sport I didn’t understand, and actually it was all the same to him whether I listened or not. He recited the complete event, second by second, telling me each point in detail, and if I interrupted him, he would let me speak for a few seconds and then return to his monologue.

Given his general autistic state, people in the neighbourhood speculated about the possibility that Carlitos was gay, which was what they said about any unusual person. But the rumour died almost as quickly as it had started. In reality, Carlitos didn’t seem capable of any kind of sexual behaviour.

When we had all stopped growing, he continued to lengthen and soon became too big to climb comfortably into the spacious 4×4 vans into which his bodyguards would cram him. The urgent need for security – by now his father was an admiral of the fleet – prevented him from joining us for a swim at the beach or simply wandering around with us, so that as he grew his entire body turned into a flabby, shapeless mass, like a mutant jellyfish. But all that physical growth was not accompanied by any hormonal development. Carlitos had no facial hair, his voice was unpleasantly high-pitched and shrill, and in summer his hairless legs looked like those of a gigantic baby in imported sneakers.

When all of us in the neighbourhood matriculated at the university, Carlitos definitively left our orbit. We didn’t even know whether he had tried to go to the university. We knew only that he was working as a cashier and usher at a movie theatre in a nearby mall. He didn’t learn to drive either; every day he came out in his pink mall uniform and got into a van filled with bodyguards. I imagine the same thing happened when he went home.

Carlitos’s life seemed a peaceful one, but peaceful or not it was about to take an unexpected turn. During those years his family suffered a second misfortune worse than the one involving his brother.

It happened on one of his father’s trips to the United States.

Recently, the fleet admiral’s career had stagnated, which meant that the number of his bodyguards had been stable for several years. It was rumoured that he was about to retire, and for a few years he hadn’t travelled to Naples-or-whatever-it’s-called, or gone on any diplomatic military missions. And in these circumstances he took it into his head to visit his school one last time before his retirement.

Perhaps Carlitos’s father wanted to be on record as a distinguished former student. Or probably he simply felt nostalgic. The fact is that, taking advantage of his last vacation, the fleet admiral travelled to Miami to board a domestic flight to his school. He had followed that route hundreds of times. He had an American visa good for ten years. But on this occasion something went wrong.

In the immigration office, when he gave his information, something unusual appeared on the officer’s computer screen. At that time, the Americans weren’t yet taking your picture and fingerprinting you when you came in, but they did ask if you wanted to kill the president or if you had participated in the Nazi genocide, and apparently they had digital files containing all that data.

In any event, they had the admiral pass into a separate little room. He was pleased to agree. Apparently he thought they had prepared an official reception for him. And in a way they had. Two officers questioned him for a long time, but none of the interrogation details became part of neighbourhood gossip. One can suppose he provided the names of important people he knew, at his school and at other military institutions. He must have suggested that they request references for him. While they consulted his file, the officers left him waiting in the little room. Carlitos’s father spent hours there and was still there many hours after missing his connection.

As I’ve said, Carlitos’s father was a very fat man. I suppose that between his nerves and the Miami heat, he perspired a good deal during those hours. And his tension exploded. Or perhaps one of his kidneys failed. The neighbourhood gossip didn’t offer many medical details either. The fact is that when the officers returned to the room, they found him dead, clutching his briefcase. Inside the briefcase he carried only his diploma from the military school and his visored hat. That’s why it took them several days to inform the family of his death.

Before graduating from the university, I moved out of my house to live on my own and left the neighbourhood. Long after it happened, I reconstructed the story of Carlitos’s father on the basis of fragments of conversation with old mutual friends. But even when I heard the story for the first time, Carlitos and his mother had not been in the neighbourhood for a long while. They had disappeared without trace.

In time I married, divorced, married again and divorced again. I had no children, and perhaps that was the reason for my two failures. But I’m not sorry. Though I must confess that the first few weeks of sleeping alone after spending years with a woman are hell.

After my second divorce, I decided to get out of Lima and travel. At least I’d forget more quickly that way. A cousin of mine lived in Los Angeles, and I spent a few days with him, but then I grew bored, rented a car and spent my time touring California. Though perhaps the correct phrase is wandering aimlessly. I wasn’t able to look at anything or talk to anyone. The only thing that made me feel good was driving for hours on empty highways.

One afternoon in Oakland I stopped at a cafe for something to eat. A train passed right over the cafe, and I had the feeling it was about to crash into something, just like me. Suddenly I saw Carlitos at a table, eating a cheeseburger.

His baseball cards passed in front of my eyes. The strange odour in his room. Mily. Echoes of a world that was never ordered again.

I can’t say we greeted each other with emotion, like two old comrades. Rather, I think we were curious. I don’t know how much I had changed, but Carlitos still looked like an oversized version of his cheeseburger. And I would swear his face still didn’t harbour a single hair.

‘I’m a cameraman,’ he told me. ‘For a programme of local shows. There aren’t many shows in Oakland, but it’s OK.’

‘And your mother?’

‘She lives here with me.’

‘You live with your mother? And what do you do when you want to get laid? Do you send her to her room?’

I laughed. But he didn’t laugh. He hesitated for a moment, as if he really were examining that possibility, before answering: ‘no . . . we get along fine. Everything’s OK.’

‘Sure.’

We were silent. I didn’t know how long he’d been out of the country, and I thought he’d ask me something about my life, or about Lima. But instead, after dipping his French fries in the last drop of ketchup, he asked: ‘Have you seen The Bounty Hunter?’

His pronunciation brought to mind his painstaking American English, though after so many years, in a country where it attracted no attention to speak the language, his English no longer seemed to display good diction. It was just dense and chewed over.

I shook my head, and he continued.

‘Jennifer Aniston has an ex-husband who’s looking for her so he can turn her over to the police. When he finds her, he puts her in the trunk of his car, but then she escapes, and he has to handcuff her, and then . . .’

A long explanation of the movie followed, almost scene by scene, which lasted as long as it took the sun to set. Then he talked to me about ice hockey, showing with detailed gestures how the players split heads open.

‘But this is Oakland,’ he concluded, ‘and there’s no ice here.’

‘I understand.’

I looked at my watch. I had thought about ordering another beer but changed my mind. He was scratching his ear. I began to wonder how to say goodbye without sounding unpleasant. Another train passed, making the restaurant tremble.

‘Do you know what Manuel always used to say?’ he asked suddenly.

I hadn’t dared ask about his brother, and now that he had brought up the subject, I didn’t dare ask why he spoke of him in the past tense.

‘What did Manuel always used to say?’

‘That everything that happened to him was fair payment for the good time he’d had. That the only thing he cared about was enjoying himself, and he had, big time.’

‘It sounds like a good philosophy,’ I said, just to say something.

‘It is. I believe that too. You have to enjoy life to the hilt, right?’

‘Absolutely. Absolutely.’

Without knowing why, I couldn’t get up. Neither could he. We remained sitting there, in silence, until the waitress began to place the chairs on the tables. If it had been up to me, we would have stayed longer. 

 

Photograph © Don…The UpNorth Memories Guy

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