Gerard Cabrera

Mi hermano pegao

 

BIO

Gerard Cabrera is a Massarican from Springfield, Massachusetts. He holds degrees from Brandeis University, Hunter College School of Public Health, and Northeastern University School of Law. He has represented people with HIV in housing and family court, practiced health and regulatory law, and served in New York City government. Currently he works as a court attorney in the New York Family Court system. His work has appeared in literary journals, he has attended Bread Loaf, The Writers Studio, and completed a residency at The Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. Most recently he has been interviewed about his novel Homo Novus on CNN en Español.  Links here.   In Spanish.

          When the news came of the attack, JJ was in New York, on night shift in his cubicle at the 311 Call Center. Temps weren’t supposed to watch the news while on switchboard, stealing time they called it, but his girlfriends had said something bad had happened and so he did some scanning. He learned a man or men had opened fire on Latin Night at a gay club in Orlando. Either the man or men were armed and dangerous, or captured, or dead, or they were inside, alive. Either there were hostages or there were no survivors. The screen showed cops and flashing lights and a banner ad was wishing a celebrity a happy birthday. There was no real information. JJ clicked off and immediately called his brother. His brother was on vacation at Disney for the week. JJ had never been to Florida, but his brother loved it and planned to move there once he had saved up enough money for a down payment on the kind of timeshare he wanted, in Wilton Manors or Fort Lauderdale. And his hotel was in Orlando.

          There had been no answer. That had been Sunday. Now, everything was over. Getting the call. Breaking the news. Borrowing money for the pasaje. The flight down by himself to identify the body, the flight back up with his brother in a box, meeting the funeral director at the airport in Hartford, telling everyone about the arrangements. Placing the obituary for Jaime “Jimmy” Sosa Carrasco, el difunto. He had been the one to plan the funeral mass with the cool nun who let his friends drape a rainbow flag over the casket on the way out of the church, before switching it over to an American flag for the burial. He picked the songs and consulted his parents, who were so out of it they agreed to whatever he suggested. So he had asked his brother’s friends to be pallbearers and each one had said yes. He had asked them to come to the velorio and they had all come. His brother’s friends came, who all looked like they had not slept or eaten the whole time, and the cousins, the aunts and uncles, and neighbors came too. Mi pésame, people murmured over and over, mi más sentido pésame. His mother Ginny and father Victor and sister Elsa stood there, and he stood there. Someone had tried to take a selfie but JJ had snarled a No whose venom shocked even himself. No one asked why it was a closed casket, but they knew the attack had been with a weapon that shot bullets faster than you could count and that the man who killed his brother had been a security guard and had no problem shooting the assault rifle or gun or whatever the name was for the machine that he had used to murder all those happy people.

          They buried him at the VA cemetery. His mother collapsed at the gravesite, as a soldier who looked JJ’s age played taps. His mother wailed with a sound that scared JJ so much he thought she was dying right there. His sister joined in, weeping and confused. His father was drunk and wanted to fight someone, anyone. He cursed and hit the car window, cutting his hand. JJ took him to the emergency room and when they got home his father went to the basement couch and disappeared under a blanket with his cradled bandaged fist. And JJ couldn’t hold up anymore, couldn’t hold it together after all the revolú and drama, the talking to police and FBI and Red Cross and bureaucracy and keeping everyone posted by text because he could not, would not, post anything on Facebook, his brother hated Facebook, didn’t like his business out there in public, and JJ stood there, next to his sister, snot running down his face, sobbing and choking and sweating. Each one of them broke down and they did not hold each other.

****

          Things I remember.

          My brother went by three names. On his birth certificate he was Jaime, and to his American friends he was Jimmy. But in the family he was Pegao, like the crispy rice stuck to the bottom of the caldero. With the sauce from the red beans to soften it a little he loved it best, and when we were little, we would fight over it. He was ten years older than me, hairy and big.

          He joined the army right after 9-11. He must have been about 20. Maybe it was patriotism, or maybe it was to prove something to my father, who had fought in Vietnam, or maybe it was the steady paycheck. I remember him mailing presents from wherever he was stationed. Little souvenirs, for each of us, and once, a small rug, the one in the front hall where we put our shoes. He put in eight years and came back with tattoos and a beard. By then I was desperate to get out, but my big brother moved right back in with us.

          It was like he was stuck. While I took on whatever jobs I could find and took night courses at the community college, he claimed his old room, and bought a new mattress. He found a job in the kitchen at the state hospital during the week, and on weekends he sold frituras and pernil and arroz con gandules from an ice cream truck he converted himself. For two whole years he saved like crazy to buy his own house, but then only moved three streets away. He never asked for anything. He didn’t depend on anyone. It was him and his dogs and his friends whom he never brought to the house.

          And yet every Sunday there he was for the big almuerzo with all of us, after church. It was always tense. Even after he bought his house it was don’t ask don’t tell. I mean we could tell about each other, we were brothers after all, but we never spoke a direct word about it. Always indirect. I was sneaking out to the bars, and when I look back now, our parents must have had their suspicions because my mother would start saying something that seemed to be about him, and my brother would turn red and say something indirect back and then there would be a thick silence. My sister would eat and I’d look out the window, pretending none of it was about me, and my father would finish his beer, then wish everyone buen provecho and disappear to take his nap. To have one son “like that,” was bad enough.

          We did come close to it once. It was right after I got my acceptance letter to college after so many rejections and was packing to move away. I remember he wanted to take me out to celebrate.

          Javier Julio, Pegao said, calling me by my full name which nobody ever did, I think it’s time.

          Time for what? We were at Friendly’s.

          Now that you’re moving to La Gran Manzana.

          I laughed. Too bad you bought your house, Pegao. You could have my big bedroom now.

          You a real comedian, he said. But there are some things you got to know that Mami and Papi aren’t going to tell you, so that’s what I’ve got to do, okay? We don’t pick our parents and they a lot of the time wish they hadn’t picked us. But family ends up stuck with each other and that’s the way life is. Ma and Pa are from the island. The old ways. They never left it behind, you know? It’s who they are.

          He pushed a box of condoms toward me. Por si acaso, he said.

          You’re kidding, I said, staring at them.

          I have eyes, he told me. Look, he went on. I’m being serious. Life’s a bitch, little bro. You’re headed out on your own now and you got to figure out what you want for yourself. Then you got to come up with a way you can get it.

          He pointed to the rubbers. Guarda eso.

          I stuffed them into my jacket. I couldn’t look him in the eye, but he kept going.

          If you can figure out a way, then you go for it. Do your thing. Don’t hurt people. Don’t let anybody take advantage. No juzge a nadie. If you screw up, say you’re sorry and you try again. You keep doing this and you get closer to what you want. You understand?

          The whole thing had annoyed me. Yeah, I answered, but you’re a little late. I already know about the birds and the bees. And besides, I’m not a kid anymore.

          Well guess what, papa? To me you are. A little snot-nose.

          I rolled my eyes.

          So what do you want? He asked.

          A Fwibble, pwease, I baby-talked.

          Pegao gave me a look. I mean, from life, bobo.

          Okay, okay. I want…to get a degree.

          Good. What else?

          I want to…get out of here.

          Aw, it’s not so bad, he said.

          My patience ran out on me and I kind of exploded. Look, bro, I don’t know what’s up with you but I can’t wait to move away! I’m going to have my own life, yo. I don’t want to spend it stuck here with a bunch of viejos.

          You don’t know anything, he told me.

          Easy for you, you’ve lived everywhere! What’s so great about here, anyway?

          We’re talking about you, remember?

          And that is how it was with my brother.

 

***

          In his old bedroom, the window is open. Today the lilac-gray sky is so close that JJ imagines touching it with a finger. He has been staring at two doves perched on a power line, ignorant of death humming and lulling through the cable. From somewhere come sounds: a lonely leaf-blower, a barking dog, an airplane droning high above. He is trying to concentrate. The book he is trying to read is hard, but it’s a classic and he wants to see what the hype is all about. Then he might say something about it to Randall, one of his roommates. Randy with the impossibly beautiful dark eyes, and lips that seem so ready for a kiss from him that it hurts every time he thinks of it.

          He checks his phone.

          The news says it is the greatest mass murder in the United States ever. JJ can’t believe this is true. There must have been worse. They are saying the killer only targeted Puerto Ricans. This is crazy. A hundred theories. The killer was evil, disturbed, or part of a plot. He was straight and married and a father, and someone gave him HIV. He was gay and closeted and his lover dumped him.

          He scrolls and taps some more. A gmail says the whole family has been invited to attend a memorial being planned. There is a survivor who wants to meet Mr. Jaime Carrasco’s family. It will be in Sheridan Square, at the Stonewall Bar where the legendary uprising took place, and where he has watched The Lady Bunny do her show, sipped cheap beer and checked out the crowd before going to his own Latin night at The Monster. A question occurs to him. Would his brother attend a service like this? And another question. What if someone has a gun?

 

          He decides to get up. He goes to the kitchen and drinks a glass of water.

          Ma.

          What?

          Would you like to come back with me?

          What?

          Do you want to come with me to New York? To a memorial next week? All the families are invited. You can say something. You can stay in my room.

          No. Are you crazy?

          Why not?

          She scoffs. What could I say? Con ese gentío mirándome?

          Don’t you think it’s important to say something?

          Then you say it. I have nothing in me, nada. Whatever I said is the wrong thing.

          Whatever you said would be the right thing, Ma.

          Tch. Ask your father.

          JJ snorts, Whatever.

          He bangs the kitchen door behind him.

          Outside, he walks down the middle of the street. It easy to feel paranoid. It is easy to understand being afraid and hated. He remembers the names growing up. Spic, brownie, mira-mira. There is no end to the awful names. But no one had ever called him aidsy faggot or pato or maricón. He tries so carefully to not give himself away, that at home he felt he was living the life of a robot. But now he lives in New York, after all, the one place he feels some freedom. Most of the time. Or maybe it’s just what he wants to believe.

          Where he lives today is so different. He rents with two other guys in the Farragut Houses. It’s in the projects and it is not exactly legal, but they live in a huge three bedroom with an old queen they call Miss Havisham behind her back, who has been there since the 60’s and literally knows everyone. He found the apartment when he saw an ad one day on a school bulletin board. It was handwritten in beautiful penmanship with curls and loops like a Celia Cruz wig, and stuck out even more because it was printed on some sort of pink paper. He can now walk to his job, and to school, where he is working on a degree in English. He wants to work with books, somehow. Maybe sell them, maybe who knows, write one someday. Sometimes he walks over the Manhattan Bridge to Chinatown for three dollar dumplings on East Broadway. Sometimes the roomies cook a meal, putting their money together to buy steaks at the C-Town on York Street. The butcher, a short jolly guy from Honduras has befriended him, and for some reason JJ likes him back. They talk and laugh and the butcher winks and gives him better steak to take home and JJ always leaves with a small pang. He feels he is making a new start, but the homesickness can hit him hard.


 

***

          He goes back into the house. His mother looks at him, her eyes are red from crying.

          Ma.

          Que? I already told you que no.

          Ma, there’s something they told me, the police said, about Pegao.

          My mother looks up. Now she is afraid. I see it in her big sad eyes, the ones my brother inherited, brown with a spark of green and gold.

          Ma, they told me how he tried to save someone. She wasn’t killed because he blocked the balas.

          Who is she? She stares.

          A female impersonator. Like Tootsie. Kind of famous.

          Aha, ya veo. She sighs and shakes her head slowly.

          I go on.

          They say he saved her life.

          My mother is quiet, and then she asks, almost to herself, as if she is trying to solve the crime, I don’t know why Jaime had to go there. And then, Why would he save someone he didn’t know? She is trying and trying. Maybe he just fell on top of him? my mother suggests, weakly.

          Ma. Come on.

          I start to cry again. She is coming to the memorial, I blubber. They say que ella quiere darte las gracias for having raised such a good son.

          Silence.

          Ma, I say, she wants to meet you and thank you and Papi.

          She is fingering a rosary my sister has just finished, counting the beads.

          She puts it into a pile that will be distributed with the prayer cards, which have Pegao’s picture on them, the one of him in uniform. She takes a card and looks at it. One rosary and one card for each person who prays for my brother’s soul.

          Ma?

          Our eyes then meet and I know she knows. She is holding me with her eyes the way I imagine it must have been the first time she held us fresh from being born, when we were all the same and no discrimination was possible.

          Si, yo lo sé, she says.

          I feel so babyish, so incredibly weak, and I can’t help myself any longer. I don’t know anything about my own strength any more, or about my own will, except that I want her to hold me, and I rush to her and do what every boy has done and maybe secretly will always want: I bury my face in the softest place I’ve known.

          Tranquilo, tranquilo, she says. She holds me and I breathe in her perfume and she strokes my hair. Elsa has laid her head on my shoulder and we are all quiet together for a while.

          Sometimes I hate silence, the pressure of what isn’t said, but sometimes silence means something else. And then my mother says, slowly, Maybe I can meet him. She corrects herself, tentative at first, That person, I mean. And then firmer, says, Sí, quisiera conocerla.

 

 

 

 



 

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