There is not much to say about my life. I’m 40, single, childless. I had some girlfriends, but they never lasted long because of my obligations; I haven’t even tried anything new over the last couple of years. I was a late child: my mother was 36, my father two years older. I’ve read that women nowadays want to have a baby as late as possible, and doctors can help them, but it was still an exception then. They never said it openly, but I was aware they had me as a replacement for their first son, who died when he was 14, a year before I was born. When crossing a street, he was run over by a car. I don’t know any details. Nothing of his remained in the house. Once I secretly checked all the wardrobes and didn’t find any pictures of him. When I carefully closed the last drawer, I felt a deep gratitude to my parents. How bravely they tried to put the past behind them and give me a clean start! Their effort was in vain; sorrow remained in them and prowled the two-room flat like a ghost. When he died, they stopped going to work; we lived on welfare, they were lying in bed most of the day, the bedside littered with bottles full of cigarette butts, TV running all night long. They moved slowly, it looked as if they had shut themselves in their own world where I couldn’t enter. I remember them talking about my brother when I was little; later, there were only beginnings of sentences like “Your brother...” or “Your brother would...”, before their lips contracted and their eyes saddened. Then they stopped mentioning him, but I knew they were constantly comparing me to him. Whatever I did or said, I would ask myself how he would act; I felt that my brother would have been able to make Mom and dad smile again, so I felt inept and useless.
Time didn’t heal my parents. I couldn’t leave them by themselves; after the first grade of secondary business school, I got a factory job and went through the remaining three grades in night school. I gave the money to mother; when she died five years ago because of a women’s disease, as it was called by father, who wouldn’t let me go to the hospital to spare me the pain, I started taking care of everything.
After mother died, father hid his sorrow well. But maybe a man who couldn’t get himself together after losing a son can’t get any worse from the death of his spouse. Only his eyes expressed an even deeper sadness. My colleagues and neighbors used to tell me my parents were admirable. They met when they were eighteen and remained together for their entire life. People said I was lucky to have them, and my chest would swell with pride. In today’s world of divorces and evaded responsibilities they were a true exception.
After secondary school, I was promoted to an office job. The work isn’t interesting; I get data about a material and copy the numbers from blue documents to the first column, from red ones to the second column, for yellow ones to the third column. I have enough free time to cook lunch and supper and do everything I can to help father in his old age.
In the rare Moments when I’m alone and father doesn’t need me, I turn on the radio, put on my earphones so as not to bother him or wake him up, and listen to a radio station with classical music. I don’t understand it, but violins somehow caress me while I’m staring out the window. When it’s playing opera, I turn it off.
“I won’t be long now”, my father said yesterday, when I visited him in hospital after work. I was sitting on the edge of his bed to conceal him with my body and pour the contents of a small bottle of wormwood wine in his mouth, as he asked me to. He grabbed my wrists and I felt the bones under his skin. The drink almost choked him, but he thanked me when his speech came back: “Yes, oh yes!”
He winked to the open door: “I see how they look at me. At night, nurses on duty thought I was sleeping and talked too loud.”
I hid the bottle in my pocket. I didn’t know what to say. We were silent. I felt like crying when I looked at his cheeks with the skull shining through, his yellow eyeballs and thin grey hair pressed between his head and the pillow. Tubes went into both his hands; bottles on the stand were slowly dripping.
“I’d love a smoke!” he said and gave me a sad look.
I couldn’t do that. When he talked me into it during my first visit, the nurse came immediately, scolded me and made me leave. She threatened that she would bar me from coming. Still, I felt guilty and avoided his glance. I stared at the floor.
“Yes, I know,” he said after a while, so I could look at him again.
He spoke lightly, like it was general wisdom applying to everyone but him, at least it seemed so from his quite carefree voice:
“We come, we’re here, we go. That’s how it is, you can’t help it. We can only try to make it pleasant.”
I reached out to arrange his pillow, but his glance stopped me. He was staring at me, not through me as usual. His eyes shone with a strange gleam I never saw before.
“You were good at school, weren’t you? At first you didn’t do so well, you barely got through half of the first grade, but after that you excelled, right?”
They removed his false teeth, so I had to make an effort to understand him. His cheekbones sagged and collided with the few remaining yellow teeth, which barely protruded from his gums. The front was a gaping purple hole. I remembered his stomach, where I always wanted to huddle as a child; now there were only bones, deep creases and almost a week’s worth of stubble on his cheeks.
“Do you remember when we got financially tight and Mom took the job of delivering papers?”
I nodded again.
“She had to get up at five in February and deliver the papers by bike. Then you took over and did her work every day before school. She didn’t have to go out any more.”
He was looking at me as if he was expecting something from me. I didn’t know what, I was uneasy, so I stared at the tops of my shoes, then at the metal containers under the cupboard. Nurses called them cute kidneys.
We were silent.
“And do you remember when we were a bit in high spirits, when the flu was raging, and you went to the butcher’s for half a kilo of beef and made us a soup?”
“We were all boiling, 40 degrees, weren’t we, and you cooked the soup and poured it into the soup bowl on the table. Remember?”
I didn’t know why he was picking precisely those shared memories that were uncomfortable for me. Why was he asking such weird things, was he losing his mind?
“But you placed chairs on both sides of the bed, to make it easier for us to eat, and then you went to take the bowl. Remember? Wasn’t it funny?”
While I was cooking, father got up stealthily and glued the soup bowl to the table with super-glue. I still have burn marks on my left leg, where I got soup on me after jerking too hard and raising the bowl with the table.
“Admit it, we used to have fun, didn’t we?”
Father looked away and slowly turned his head to the window. From the third floor, one could see the tops of spruce trees and distant hills. Behind my back, one of the other two patients started coughing, and father didn’t speak until he stopped. Father always had a strange sense of humor; it may an awful thing to say, but I never liked his jokes. They meant looking for hidden notebooks in a panic before school, or stepping into a liquid trap, or using the wrong spice when cooking, because father had changed the contents of jars. Many years ago, I realized that those clumsy jokes were probably his only way of expressing affection for me, because he neither had nor knew a different way.
“Last night, when I heard nurses talking, I said to myself: why don’t I have some more fun before leaving this world? Isn’t it healthy, a good laugh?”
He was staring at me.
“Tell me, how did you feel?”
I said nothing.
“Come on, how? I don’t know about school, but how did you feel when you delivered papers and during that soup thing?”
I was so surprised that I didn’t even look away.
“Tell me, will you, I won’t be long anyway.”
I closed my eyes and wondered why I felt like crying there and then. I was sitting next to a dying man’s bed, but I was on the verge of quite different tears. I dared not think why.
“You won’t, huh?” Father looked disappointed. “Then I’ll have to do all the talking. Give me water.”
I held his head and brought the glass for him to swallow once and wet his lips. Some liquid trickled down his neck. I dried it with a cotton swab tucked under his pillow.
After a long pause, he spoke eavenly, with eyes fixed on me.
“Ah”, he continued, “why was I telling you that, you were there. Tell me rather, what is common to all the three memories?”
I didn’t understand.
“Soup, papers, school?”
I shook my head.
“Honestly, you don’t remember? Come on, you were always smart.”
I felt small and useless. I blushed and stared at the floor. I didn’t want to disappoint him on his deathbed, but my mind was empty and I couldn’t find a single word.
“Why did you cook the soup? Why did you deliver papers? Why did you improve at school? Because...”
I answered, but I don’t know where the words came from. They just slipped out of me:
“Because my brother would have done the same.”
“You see, you could do it.”
Father sighed contentedly. He ran his dry tongue over his lips, so I helped him to some more water.
Tears, which had just begun to subside, welled inside me again. My brother... I remembered all the times I tried to show that I was able and good as he was, that my parents could be proud of me. I imagined him with blonde hair (because my hair was black), smiling (because I was constantly worried and waiting for the next occasion to prove myself with fear of failure), smart (because it always seemed to me that my words were vacuous and caused my parents to steal sympathetic glances at each other), in short, the exact opposite of myself, and therefore beyond my reach.
“How did you feel?”
I remembered now, but I didn’t want to answer. It wouldn’t be fair to the dying man. I was staring at the floor again.
“Come on, tell me! I always wanted to know. I’d like to see if I was right.”
I shook my head.
He made a weird gurgling noise, as if letting off steam. I got scared; maybe it was his last breath. When I looked at him, his lips were tightly pressed, his eyes were bulging.
I jumped to pull the string to call the nurse, but he stopped me by a wave of his hand that made the infusion bottle rattle.
I shakily sat down again and waited for his breathing to settle. He sucked his lip under his remaining molars and nibbled on it. He was shook in waves from head to toe.
“Father, does it hurt? I’ll go fetch the nurse...”
I was about to get up, but he waved his hand again. I slowly sat down and watched his struggle to overcome his pain. Finally, he opened his mouth wide, exhaled whiningly and looked at the ceiling for a while. Then he turned to me.
“Mom and I had a nice life. You won’t see me complaining. You turn on the TV and see people butchering each other, working themselves to exhaustion, being in pain, while the two of us lived in peace. We liked to drink a little, lie down a little, and this is how it all turned out. I don’t know what went on then, but when Mom noticed she was pregnant, it was too late for an abortion.
We said: well, abortion is hard work, we’re going to have the child. So you were born. But a child is nothing but hard work. You can’t begin to imagine how lucky you are to be childless. It’s such a...”
He weakly waved his hand and continued:
“Such an employment, so to speak. We couldn’t do it by ourselves...”
He shrugged and was silent.
Outside, the wind was up, branches were rustling. Dead leaves flew by like a flock. Father turned to the window and we looked out for a while.
“We needed help,” he said and turned to me again. “O, your brother! Your brother!”
He was going on about my brother when his cheeks bulged. He raised himself a little, I propped him up and held the cute kidney, but he suppressed the need to vomit and repeated a couple of times:
“Your brother, your brother!”
We froze, cheek to cheek, when he said:
“He never was.”
“I know, he died,” I said.
While I was holding him up with that enameled tin under his chin, he waved his forearms.
“No, he wasn’t even born. He didn’t exist. But Mom and I needed help. Education is a hard thing! At first we left you alone, we didn’t give you food, but you simply stayed. Later we used you, since you were there and willing. Mom had the idea. She said once: wouldn’t it be nice if he had an older brother who took care of him… That’s how it started. I opposed her a little, but she said: priests do it, why shouldn’t we? And how right she was! It all became simpler! In the end, we just had to say “your brother would make us a soup”, or “your brother would work instead of Mom”, or “your brother was very good at school”, and you would jump. No difficulties, no effort; soon we didn’t have to say anything. We’d just cast a sad glance at you, and you’d do everything. How we trained you!”
Vague pupils floated in his yellow eyeballs.
“Why are you holding me like that? Let go! You thought I was going to puke? Where did you get that notion?”
I couldn’t move. Because it wasn’t me; I was watching myself, I was floating to the ceiling a looking at the old man below me embraced by a bald man with glasses. He looked much too old for his age and had patched elbows on his worn-out jacket. The hand holding the cute kidney was shaking.
Another burst of air came from father’s innards, but I understood this time. He was holding back the laughter.
A “nya-ha-ha” escaped from his lips; my hand drew back. Father fell on his pillow, pain cut through his laughter, and I was somehow sitting again, in my own body, although I could still only watch myself, I couldn’t move.
“Yes,” he was almost shouting now, “tell me how you felt! How? How?”
It slipped very quietly, but he heard me anyway:
“Like a dog.”
Another puff of air, another burst of laughter, which he suppressed with difficulty.
“I knew it! Mom and I always wondered how long you would hang on. Whether you’d see through us; after all, you were such a clever boy! But no, there is something in you, something of those people who go to church or politics and grovel there. We piled so much on you, but you came again and again for more and more. Oh, the fun we had, your Mom and I! We were always ready for a joke! Those big eyes of yours, like a dog’s, really! If I had told you your brother licked our shit, you’d have licked it too! You were lucky that Mom wasn’t in the mood to think something up all the time, since we were both a little lazy. Ha, ha, ha!!! And do you know why I’m telling you this now? Do you? Because I don’t need you any more! When Mom’s liver was going to the dogs, you know, she wanted to tell you, the cow! I told her, Mom, don’t do it, your life is over; why would you want to tell him now, I’d have to cope on my own. She promised me she’d keep her mouth shut, but I didn’t trust her. Old women get real strange when they are dying. So, just in case, I didn’t let you visit her. As for me, I went to bars and visited her every couple of days, but sitting by a sick-bed is also hard work. Well, look at me now. The liver! The liver! I’ll croak today or tomorrow, so I said to myself: let’s have a last laugh, ho, ho, ho!!! And you thought I hurt, didn’t you? Ha ha ha ha! I got you there! HA HA HA!”
His laughter was getting louder. He flailed his arms, bottles rattled on the stands, his body jumped together with the metal frame of the bed.
“HO HO HO HA HA HAAAAAAAARRRRGGGG HO HE HA HO HO HO!!!!!”
His mouth gaped wide, his tongue smacked his palate and teeth. Saliva spilled from his gums in an arch and sprayed me. He was roaring with laughter, hitting himself in the stomach; injections dangled in the air, one had bandages stuck in the form of an X; his forearm was spitting blood.
I felt something growing in me. It rose to my throat and I felt as if a formless black mass was about to come out. As if it would come gushing and never stop. It will fill the room, my father and those sick men, they will all, they will all sink in it. It will devour the world. I started gulping quickly, gulping and gulping; my father was roaring while I was fighting the black thing inside me, pushing it back into me, to the bottom of my stomach, to immobility. Suddenly, a terrible pain ripped apart my innards, I bended over, pressing my hands on my stomach, and fell from the chair to my knees. I gasped for breath, and when I could breathe again, I knew father was dead, although he was still screaming with an unwavering force.
I stood up and left. Nurses ran past me in the hallway, looking at me oddly, but they ran off in the direction of the laughter I was leaving behind my back.
I didn’t go to work today. The phone was ringing several times; I let it ring, they couldn’t tell me anything new. I put on the earphones out of habit, but violins wouldn’t caress me any more.
I feel memories gliding through me, every one of them ending with my desperate longing for the love that I wanted to earn. I’m ashamed.
I took a piece of paper and pierced it with scissors, then with a pen, and eventually I started to write. About my parents, about myself. I daren’t stop, maybe I never will. Remember everything, so it never happens again, so as not to miss something, not to get blind all over again.
When I first wrote my brother’s name, I stopped. I remembered how father taught me to swim. He threw me in the water, which swallowed me. I quaked in horror, losing consciousness at the bottom of the pool. I was saved by the thought of my brother, who’d been an excellent swimmer. If he could, then... I had rocketed upwards and lost my fear of water. I said to myself: he existed nowhere but in me. I repeated: “In me... In me... In me...” There was something in that thought, something I still couldn’t understand. It seemed to me I was in the pool again, starting to feel a force in me that would help me reach the surface.