Chapter 1 - Mourning
My heart is mourning.
I never thought that entering a space so familiar could cause me such intense physical pain, but that’s just what I’m experiencing right now. It’s hard to move forward, and each breath is more labored and demanding than the last. My eyes burn, my nose is constipated, and I’ve long since given up in my futile attempts to wipe the water from my irritated cheeks, product of all the times I’ve wiped away tears with the back of my hand.
Outside, snow falls in tons, painting everything pearly white. The December sky is gray and cloudy, a reflection of the torment that bends me like a sack of giant stones strapped to my back. In contrast, the house is warm, the heater roaring like the belly of an angry dragon, forbidding the frigid air to freeze us. Christmas lights on the roofs flicker incessantly and, on the return trip, the sight of cars heaped with gifts or numerous smiling families, brimming with joy, slapped me sharply in the face.
The suit I’m wearing suddenly feels like a straitjacket, so I loosen the tie a bit and open the first two buttons, just so the saliva doesn’t collect too much in my mouth and I can try to swallow the huge lump formed in my throat. It doesn’t work, so I have no choice but to endure the new discomfort with resignation. I haven’t eaten properly since all this hell started, what... two weeks ago? I can’t remember exactly, though my empty stomach hasn’t complained.
Maybe, when I step on a scale, I’ll find I’ve lost a few pounds. I wish that was the only thing that has been taken away from me, but the truth is very different, the reality is much more depressing. For me, this year was saturated with grueling challenges; not the kind you must survive to become a reformed version of yourself, but the kind that tear you apart, with no hope of ever recovering from the crushing blows, the eating fear, the consuming stress, and the unrelenting sadness. To say it was unbearable would be the understatement of the millennium.
However, I couldn’t fall apart. I wasn’t alone, those who depended on me needed me whole, without the huge cracks in my armor that, at night, in the isolation of a dark bedroom, I could accept until the energy drained from my body and there was nothing left but a lump of inert limbs in the middle of a rumpled bed, the pillow soaked from silent crying. As morning filtered through the window, I would get up to repeat the whole process, and I was doing fine, but today was particularly overwhelming.
I couldn’t pretend even if I had a gun pointed at my temple.
“I don’t think I can do this, Javier.” My sister, Emily, confesses in a shaky whisper that tears me up even more inside. “I know what we agreed, but…”
She couldn’t finish the sentence because of the painful sob that burst from her slightly parted chapped lips. I understand what she means, but I thought it would be best to face this immediately, rather than postpone it incessantly, with excuses that we will know would be just that: justifications founded on cowardice and disconsolation. I squeeze her hand, her fingers longer and thinner than mine, her lighter skin cool to the touch, and take a deep breath before answering.
“We have to do this, Em.” I remind her and don’t miss her despondent flinch. “We’ll gather what can be donated, just like they wanted, and the rest will be packed up.”
“They’re really gone, aren’t they?” When I connect my gaze with hers, I receive back the same amount of suffering and sorrow I carry on my shoulders. “Isn’t it a horrible nightmare from which I can’t wake up?”
The question comes out as a plea and if she knew that it was like stabbing me in the gut with a dull, rusty knife, maybe she’d have just an ounce more prudence to hide her damned piercing emotions. Okay, that wasn’t fair. Bitterness, lack of sleep, and how unacceptable and undeserved this whole fucking situation is, is making me react irrationally. It’s not her fault, in fact, no one’s fault, as much as my mind has a hard time approving it. It was circumstances out of our hands, leaving us unprepared and helpless. Completely broken is closer to how I’m feeling.
“Come on.” For both our sakes, I ignore her question; otherwise, we’ll be stuck in the same place for the rest of this miserable day.
My parents’ room is intact. The bed on the right side is perfectly arranged, the comforter with blue and gray-toned squares without a wrinkle, four pillows piled on top, the thick wooden frame polished shiny by a layer of cleaner. Not a loose sock on the floor. The white dresser in the left corner is still stocked with colognes of different sizes and colors, creams with names I can’t read without getting confused, a couple of brushes, and a large mirror on top framed by light bulbs, like those used by movie stars.
The small white leather stool tucked underneath. Next to the threshold, the simple rocking chair has several sweatpants neatly folded on the back, with red anthuriums * on shelves flanking it. The walls have paintings by artists I never cared to know; distorted landscapes, black silhouettes of human profiles, and one that always gave me the creeps: a young woman in her early twenties, brown hair falling in waves down her contoured face, with abundant clear drops rolling down her blushing cheeks, a mournful grimace, and vivid scarlet lips.
I never understood why Dad chose to have such a creepy piece, especially here, but his tastes were, to put it politely, particular. Though there are also photos of trips we took in the past, one of Em when she was about eight in a pool, one of me when I graduated from high school, smiling and carefree. Jesus, all the memories ran me over like a train at full power, maybe I should have listened to my sister and just waited a little longer. My chest is compressed, I don’t think I can…
“Shall we start with the closet?” Em suggests, anchoring me back to the present. “I guess it’s the easiest, isn’t it?”
“Uh... yeah, yeah.” I release a shaky sigh, building up a wobbly fortress that, if I’m sloppy, can slip through my fingers. “We should make a list too,” I propose more confidently. “We’ll classify what’s in good condition, the rest we’ll set aside.”
“Do you honestly believe Dad would use anything damaged or old?” She snorts and I let out a short laugh, temporarily relieved by the fleeting humor.
“Well, he always said that judging a book by its cover was a beginner’s mistake.” I shrug, remembering his enthusiastic, extroverted, crazy personality. “He proved his point countless times and bragged about it for months. Maybe we’ll see underwear with holes or a shirt with an iron burn.”
“You’re describing the wrong dad, then.” She rolls her eyes and yes, she’s right. “Our father sure had a lot of those, but Dad? No way, sugar.”
“Shit.” I gasp in horror as an idea manifests in my brain and she looks at me dubiously, tilting her head. “What if they had sex toys?” I squeal in horror, the horrendous sound resembling a pig and Em laughs so heartily that she bends over, holding her abdomen with her other hand. “It’s not fucking funny.” I grumble, but I can’t help but smile.
“Oh, my God.” She snorts once she’s calmed down. “Your expression was priceless, I’ve never seen you so scared.”
“I’m serious,” I give her a gentle nudge and she laughs again. “I’m not touching anything that looks like a penis, Emily.” I warn her, frowning.
“You do realize that not all toys have a penis design, don’t you?” She denies with amusement, finally releasing me to wipe away the pearls that have accumulated in her eyes with the back of her hands, the mascara leaving blurry spots on her eyelids, the furrow of her dark circles, and even on her temples. Nothing characteristic of her, since her makeup is usually impeccable. “There are some so discreet that they could fit in your palm, there are others that…”
“Stop, just stop.” I interrupt her, taking off my jacket to throw it on the chair because, all of a sudden, the temperature is suffocating me. “Let’s get this thing going already.”
“At your command, Mr. Grumpy.” When I roll my sleeves up to my elbows, all traces of mockery evaporate, replaced by a stinging nervousness and depressed anticipation.
I drag open the sliding doors of the wide closet, revealing rows of hanging hooks, garments protected by plastic covers, various boxes grouped in short towers, three suitcases practically lined by stamps and seals, shoes in an organized row on the bottom shelf, and six closed drawers, fixed in the central area. When I notice the oxygen tank meticulously perched on top of a plush carpet, my heart stutters in its beating, and my feet freeze. I stand motionless, staring at the cylinder for an extended moment, resentment and grief settling into my system… again.
Em notices my hesitation, following the direction of my gaze and, possibly guessing that I was seconds away from tossing the damned thing down the stairs, she pulls it out of hiding and leaves it in the hallway, without mentioning anything. When she returns, I dismiss the harmful thoughts, control the feelings leaking from my limbs like toxic gas with rehearsed precision, and concentrate on the heartbreaking assignment. We apply ourselves in tense silence and within an hour, we had several piles cataloged and arranged, scattered around the room, some with post-it notes signed donation, others with store scrawled on them with marker.
I smile as I imagine the heated objection Dad would growl if he saw the mess we’d turned his beloved sanctuary into, as he called it when he wanted some alone time, forbidding access even to our father. Christian Blair-McAllen was a cleaning beast, a neat freak, everything had a designated place, and if any of us dared move anything without his permission, God was to save us from his unleashed fury. But he was also extremely kind, loving, with the most infectious laugh I have ever heard, and an endless source of honest, crystal clear, love. Love that he was never selfish in gifting to Em and me.
His better half, David McAllen-Blair, was the clumsiest man in the universe. His constant stumbles or absent-mindedness produced splashes of coffee just before he had to go to work; there are still messages stuck in the bathroom mirror because he used to forget to comb his hair or shave. He didn’t cook because, behind his masterpieces, the devastation of burnt pans, crumbs, and sticky messes on the countertops drove Dad crazy. Once, when I was thirteen or fourteen, he almost abandoned me in one of my swimming lessons. I waited for hours with one of my teachers until he showed up, flushed with embarrassment and apologizing profusely.
But he was also terribly charming, with a smile so captivating it could set on fire the panties of an old lady with cataracts. He once bragged that this was how he conquered Christian, Dad smiled dreamily in response, so I believed him. When he put his mind to it, he could be very perceptive, detail-oriented, and dedicated. I could never beat him in an argument because, no matter what the topic, he was ready to fight back. His architecture profession was his devotion, he was excellent at it, with a portfolio of happy and amazed clients that did nothing but increase.
Loyal to the core, he wore his wedding ring with pride and bragged about his relationship with Dad at the slightest opportunity, as if the trophies he had earned for his job, which currently still occupy an entire section in the living room, were worth absolutely nothing. To him, Christian was the epitome of something divine, David looked at him with nothing less than adoration, even when he threw those childish tantrums if we broke the rules, sometimes on purpose. I personally enjoyed pushing Dad’s trigger buttons and, if my intuition serves me right, he knew it.
For as long as I have had reason, I envied the beautiful, unwavering commitment my parents had. Now it pains and angers me to have to speak of them in past tense.
I’m sitting on the floor, so immersed in a bulky book with building sketches, neat drawings of random landscapes and people I don’t recognize, pages bent or cracked, other sketches faded or crossed out in a hurry, letters and digits in my father’s distinctive handwriting, that I don’t hear the first time Em pronounces my name. I startle when she snaps fingers in front of me, drawing my attention. She is mimicking my position, cross-legged and also holding a book, with a much more worn and deteriorated cover.
“I found something rather interesting.” She says with a reflective expression and a crease between her eyebrows.
“What is it?” I question with curiosity, noticing the small agglomeration of boxes she has created around her like a fort.
“Journals,” she declares, brushing the dry and slightly scratched surface of the one she’s holding with an affectionate gesture. “Of our father.” I see the movement her neck makes as she swallows, disguising or delaying dejection? I’m not entirely sure.
“Really?” She nods, taking a moment to collect herself.
“Not just one,” she points to the boxes. “These are full of them.”
“A hobby?” A feasible alternative. My father preferred to keep active; it was common to find him assembling scale models of famous buildings or mending some broken appliance, the latter often resulting in some catastrophe and a subsequent reprimand from Dad. But, hey, at least he made the effort. “Or are they from his childhood?” It’s a big mountain of books, there’s about three medium-sized boxes.
“No, I don’t think it’s anything like that.” At the stunned look on my face, she sighs and the next thing she adds puzzles me even more. “Do you remember the accident he had?”
Of course I do. How couldn’t I? It happened exactly five years ago; he was driving late at night after a long conference with his company’s partners, when a truck with a lethargic driver due to a long shift got in his way and the two vehicles collided violently. Dad took the emergency call and I don’t know how he was able to remain impassive during the entire ride to the hospital, when Em and I were about to lose our shit, frightened and anxious.
Upon arrival, it took forever before we were finally informed that he had a severe concussion, fractures in both legs and four ribs, a punctured lung, and the removal of a kidney was unavoidable, but he was alive. It was only then that Dad broke down, comforted by the pithy, but powerful good news. They authorized visitors five days later. He remained unconscious, inert on a bed, bandages on every patch of skin that the nurses changed periodically, casts with wide screws protruding from the sides, tubes and IVs embedded in the fine veins in his arms, the incessant beeping of the heart monitor and oxygen generator.
Christian refused to leave him. My father awoke after six exhausting and unsettling weeks, disoriented and overwhelmed, stiff and sore, struggling to perform even the most basic of tasks. When he could formulate a coherent sentence, without abrupt lapses of mutism or outbursts of irritation at being unable to evoke a specific word, he confessed that there were missing fragments in his mind, inaccessible fractions in his retentive. A ”malfunction in his data storage unit," as the doctor so eloquently explained to us separately.
He knew who we were. He identified us without a hint of uncertainty or suspicion, although he sometimes addressed Em by her old name.
“Yes,” I confirmed quietly. “What’s that got to do with this?”
“Well, I think the journals were his method of keeping some sort of record of his memories.”
“How can you be so sure?” She opens the book and shows me the first page.
“Because all the entries begin with the words I remember“.
I take a look and yes, there it is. Most are ”I remember when...“, others ”I remember that...“, but it’s essentially the same in every introduction to a new chapter.
“Should we read them?” My heart pumping fast.
“I... yeah, I think we should.”
*Anthurium is a houseplant characterized by a very showy inflorescence. For this reason, it will surely be one of the houseplants that blooms the most, as it is continuously blooming.