By Santiago Vaquera-Vásquez
When Amelia left me, I started coming home late. If it weren’t for the unwanted guest, I would just stay at the office. When I arrive, I always find the huge cage uncovered. Mainly because I never cover it. The door wide open. Because I never close it. Secretly, I hoped the beast would escape through an open window. Sometimes, I come close to cracking open the bathroom window a bit. Not enough to make it look intentional, but just enough for the monster to nudge its way out and finish the job.
Then I remember Mateo and I know I have to keep that fucking bird.
But still. Coming home late at night, to find the gray parrot sleeping on its perch and then awakening when I walk in was often shocking. Especially if I made a stop at the bar for a few drinks. On those nights, I would stumble in, knock things over, and the beast would awake. Then it would speak my dead brother’s name, “Mateo?”
When I first discovered it could do this, I came close to walking out the door and heading back to the bar. Instead, I sat on the couch and started crying. The parrot kept repeating, “Mateo?” “Mateo?” “Mateo?”
That morning, hungover and in need of either another drink or my grandmother’s menudo, I packed an overnight bag for my drive to the valley. I filled up the beast’s feeder and told it I wasn’t coming home until tomorrow.
“Feel free to leave,” I told it.
It just stared at me.
The drive from my home in Redwood City to the house in Chico was about three hours. I wasn’t looking forward to it; had been putting it off for a while. But there were a few things that I had to pack before I put the house on the market. My sister Natalia had been pressuring me to finish. I was convinced that while I cleared out the boxes I wanted to keep, she probably had not even started.
Knowing her, she would wait until the last possible minute before complaining that she couldn’t do it. Then she would blame Mateo for leaving her with such a task.
Traffic over the Bay Bridge was heavy, and it made me unbearably thirsty. What’s that about “water, water, everywhere, and not a drop to drink”? I know that feeling. I thought about pulling off in Oakland and hitting up a bar I knew, or even slipping out the flask I kept in the glove compartment. I continued driving. Once I hit the Sacramento valley, there were dark bars in every little town I’d be passing through. Bars that I had started to frequent on my drives to Chico. Places where people popped in to forget: their work, their pasts, their lives, their guilt.
Mateo had been married. About four years. This said a lot about his ex-wife’s patience. Every now and then I thought about looking for Mireya, to tell her about the accident. But I couldn’t. I was worried she would merely shrug and accept how things had turned out. More than that, though, I was afraid that she would break down. Fall into despair. It would then be on me to lift her spirits. That made me even more nervous. I was in no position to support anyone when my own life was crashing down around me.
It didn’t shock me when Mireya bounced. “It’s like living with a robot,” she once complained. I couldn’t disagree. My brother was always kind of quiet and aloof, and this weighed on her. Though he never confided to me that there was strife between them—he just kept smiling whenever they would visit—I could tell she was the one holding the marriage together.
When she left, I expected him to do what he always did when something tragic happened.
Shrug, walk away, continue with his life.
But then he disappeared.
Following the divorce, he had plans to return to Barcelona for the summer to work on his dissertation. He was gone for three years. We had no idea where he was. Mom was angry at first, thinking that her eldest son had abandoned the family. Had abandoned her. But later she grew frantic trying to find him. We held a memorial for Julián, who died a decade earlier, without him. Natalia seethed through most of it because of Mateo’s absence.
Though I looked up to him, Mateo was always kind of an asshole. Natalia would probably disagree. She would say he was a complete asshole. And then she would pull out her list of grievances. The only person who harmed her more than Mateo? Our mother. When we were kids and mamá was still alive, Natalia always used Mateo as a buffer between mom and her. But as soon as she passed away, Natalia decided that her oldest brother was a cabrón who didn’t care for anyone other than himself.
Eight months after the memorial, he returned. Acted as if nothing had happened: as if he had simply gone out for a walk. He moved back to Chico, to the house where we grew up, and started driving a taxi. My hope was that he would settle back into the life he had before, maybe finish his PhD. His disappearance would be nothing more than a blip, a pause on his life.
When I saw him after his return, I thought he would be the same distant robot person he had always been. But there was something different. I couldn’t figure it out. Even Natalia seemed to think he was a better person.
Then of course, after mamá died, Natalia took it all back.
“I can’t believe I felt sorry for him!” She told me. “Did you really think he was going to change? He’s still the same asshole.”
Natalia harbored a long list of resentments against our older brother; Mateo didn’t seem to care. Or, at least he didn’t let on. Truth was, we never really could tell what our brother was thinking.
It’s like this. We’re not what you’d call a loving family. Emotional distance was our preferred way of being. I had it too, and Amelia suffered because of it. But we were able to keep it together. Somehow.
The only one of us who seemed to have some empathy in our broken family was Julián, Mateo’s twin. And he died at fifteen. If we were unmoored as a family by then, Julián’s death made us lost even more. The fact that our father left us six months before was the first hit that knocked us. As the eldest son, mamá fully expected Mateo to take charge and suddenly be the man of the house.
Mateo. Growing up, he mostly kept to himself, talking only to Julián. They liked to play a lot of weird twin jokes. Mateo would slap his own cheek and Julián would cry out in pain. They would dress in the same way to see how long it would take for people to figure out who was who. They also developed a secret language that turned out to be a mixture of Turkish and Spanglish. The mixing of Spanish and English was easy, this was how we grew up. The Turkish was a little more mysterious. Their favorite movie was From Russia with Love, in particular the part set in Istanbul. They were fascinated by the city. They played spy games where they reimagined our northern California farming town as a neighborhood in central Istanbul. Sometimes they would let us play, but mostly they told us to go off on our own. One day, Mateo came home with a Turkish grammar book from the library. As their secret language developed, they often spoke of traveling to Turkey together.
With Julián around, Mateo rarely paid attention to us. Well, sometimes he would say shitty things. Within the context of how he operated, I’m sure he didn’t think they were awful. Most times he would remain quiet. And that was the worst. His silent gaze as he stared at you, finally broken by him saying “OK” or simply shrugging. We had no idea what any of that meant, whether he approved, disapproved, gave a shit or not. It was this big mystery because he always seemed so disconnected. From us, from life.
On the drive, I kept thinking about Mateo’s distance. I thought maybe it was our dad’s fault. The jefe leaving us like that, disappearing into the mountains in his old station wagon, with a new wife and family in tow. It was a shock for all of us, especially the twins. Julián had been diagnosed with a rare cancer a few months before. Dad sprung his other family on us when Julián was in the hospital undergoing an intense course of chemotherapy. Mom claimed it was that shock that hastened Julián’s death. Mateo became more distant when el jefe left, and then he cut himself off all together when Julián died.
But I also wondered if the blame could really be placed on any one person. Mamá was certainly not easy, and the men in her family were prone to silence and quiet rage. Trapped in a family of strong women, the men retreated into drugs or alcohol. With the death of Julián, mamá stumbled for a few years, clinging to Mateo as her rock. But he wasn’t having it. As soon as he turned eighteen, he pulled the rip cord to family. It wasn’t until he returned to her place after his disappearance that he seemed to open up, if only a little.
Julián died from a rare cancer that took him down in a year and a half. He was fifteen and a sophomore in high school. Mateo and Julián complemented each other. Of the two, Julián was the more talkative and emotional. Mateo was always more taciturn and harder to figure out. He got along OK in school, but it was obvious that Julián was more popular. Mateo used to call him Segundo because he was born second. This pissed off Natalia a lot, but it never bothered Julián. The two were tight, and together they made a good team. Mateo was the rational one to Julián’s impulsiveness. His death hit our family something fierce. Dad leaving us was bad, but Julián shipwrecking us on Cancer Island was fucking horrible.
We were all devastated when he died, and we showed it. However, not Mateo. While we cried loudly in church, and later struggled to keep mamá from throwing herself onto the coffin, he bore it all with a frightening stoicism. Not a single tear.
Seventeen years later, mom died. Cancer. That was pretty bad. Mainly because she never told us about it. To Natalia and me, she seemed the picture of health. Oh, every so often she would let on about some pain or another. I would try to get more information, but Natalia would just tell me not to worry, that mom was probably being a drama queen.
Of course, Mateo knew. When we confronted him about it, he responded, “She didn’t want you to know. She didn’t want you to worry.”
After mom’s death, I thought Mateo would disappear again. But he didn’t. He continued living in the house where we grew up: mamá left it to him. Natalia thought he should sell the place and divide the money amongst the three of us. But he refused. He wanted to live in the house. Natalia was furious: she almost hired a lawyer.
A few months after the funeral, I went to visit. He greeted me with an actual smile and embraced me in a big hug. I was shocked. Mateo was someone who did not like being touched and he was definitely not the hugging type. He had put on some weight; his cheeks were big and puffy. I asked him if he was getting ready for winter, storing food in his cheeks. He laughed out loud.
I was mystified by this whole change in character. And when I stepped inside the house, I was even more astounded. In a corner of the room there was a huge metal cage. Inside, a large gray parrot. “An African Gray,” he told me when I asked him about the thing. His name was Big Bird, but he told me that it also answered to Juan.
“Juan? Big Bird?” I spoke to the gray monster.
The bird opened his eyes and stared at me.
It had the same look as my brother. A look of complete blankness, one that was either judgement, indifference, hatred, or a combination of all three.
It scared me.
“Simón, he’s Juan Big Bird.” He joked.
Mateo told me his bird was going to live for thirty years.
“Neta? That long?” I asked.
“Yes. It’s probably going to be my longest and most stable relationship ever.”
There are times when I wake up screaming. The accident. I had some things at mom’s house that I wanted to move to my place. It was too much to fit in one car, and I considered renting a trailer. Mateo told me to not be silly, he would help. We loaded up my car, and then we packed the rest in his. With me leading, he followed. We contemplated getting walkie-talkies, so we could communicate on the drive. Instead, we just set our phones to speakerphone and talked the whole way.
Soon after we got onto the interstate, a truck barreled past. It took the curve too fast. It spun out in front of Mateo and though he slammed on the brakes, his car hit the truck head on. Both vehicles connected and spun together until the truck flipped over and Mateo’s flew off the highway. I pulled over and ran back to the crash, hoping I could get my brother. I expected him to be sitting outside his car, laughing and saying how sometimes life can be a bad action movie. I found him inside. The door was ripped off and the engine was now in his lap. His head smashed against the windshield. His eyes closed. I even think he was sort of smiling.
Before the accident, the last thing he told me over the speakerphone was this:
I miss Julián. I always thought that fucker and I would grow old together, twin brothers, connected. We once planned on being Siamese twins for Halloween. We had it all worked out, aside from the pants. We thought about asking Moms to make us a pair of pants with three legs. He was in the hospital then and had lost so much weight. I drew a picture. When he saw it, he couldn’t stop laughing. “We’re going to be a hit with the ladies with that third middle leg, my brother,” he said. Soon we were both cackling so hard tears came out. He in his bed with the IV connected to his arm, and me doubled over holding onto the cot where I slept. He died a few weeks later. Pinche Julián. He was my voice.
And then Mateo grew silent. I was about to respond and tell him it was fine, when I noticed the speeding truck.
There’s a photo I have of my brother with the bird sitting on his shoulder. The gray monster was attached to Mateo. My brother has a huge smile on his face as it leans in close to his ear, as if to go in for a bite. It’s one of the few photos of my brother as an adult in which his joy is genuine.
Before getting to the house, I stopped at the liquor store. Provisions for the night. While staring at the bottles in the supermarket and debating whether I wanted to spend the extra for a bottle of bison grass vodka, I heard my name. Turning around, I saw Elena coming towards me, crying. She had been dating Mateo a year before he was killed. Whenever I saw them together, I could see how happy he was. She was patient with my brother and his idiosyncrasies. I don’t know how she did it. She grabbed me in a tight embrace. I stood there, not knowing what to say.
She wanted to have coffee. Unable to come up with an excuse, I had to go with her.
We sat at a table near the window. I looked out at the street, at the cars moving through downtown, the kids coming home from school, the students heading to campus, the people stepping in and out of the stores. Life was moving forward for everyone, but mine felt like it had stopped. I remembered Mateo’s last words, “He was my voice.” They still killed me. Especially on those cold nights when I woke up drenched in sweat, remembering the accident.
“How’s Julián?” Elena asked, taking me out of my thoughts.
“Dead,” I responded absently. Then I looked at her. “Wait. Who?”
She had a look of shock on her face. She asked, “The parrot? Mateo’s bird?”
“The bird? His name is Julián?”
“Yes. Julián Mateo. You didn’t know?”
I didn’t know. Mateo never told me. Asshole. And I kept calling the stupid bird, Juan Big Bird. No wonder it looked at me like I was an insane sack of shit.
According to Elena, Mateo used to tell Julián the bird everything. He would sit in front of the cage and tell him how his day went, what he made in fares, what were the best stories he’d heard, his fears, and his dreams. He talked to the bird as if it were his brother, and he was filling in the parts that Julián had missed since he died. After telling the bird about his day, he would always say, “Forgive me.”
I sat there, dumbfounded. I couldn’t imagine my brother opening up to anyone or anything.
After a while, she looked at me.
“You really didn’t know your brother, right?” She asked.
“How could I? He never opened up,” I responded.
She said that he had told her just that. He wanted to, but he couldn’t. When Julián died, he wanted to suddenly pour everything out. But he didn’t know the right words. He spent so many years bottling up his feelings that he was afraid that if he started to let some go, he would never stop. He decided instead to remain silent.
I asked her if he ever told her what happened when he disappeared from us.
Elena stared out the window a long time, and finally said, “He tried to kill himself.”
It was almost ten years after the death of Julián. His wife had left him a few months earlier, and he knew that his life was a mess. That summer, upon arriving to Barcelona, he bought a ticket to Istanbul.
Elena told me that before Julián died, Mateo was with him in his room listening to the night sounds. The night was alive with the sounds of birds, the twins thought there might have been hundreds of them in the trees. Julián slowly reached out his arm and tapped his brother. Mateo leaned in close and Julián whispered, “Hermano, take me away. Let’s go to Istanbul.”
“OK, as soon as you’re better.” Mateo replied.
Julián closed his eyes and smiled. He died a few hours later.
Mateo arrived in Istanbul wounded; from the divorce, from a decade without his twin, and from all that he kept bottled inside. He had friends in the city, and they let him stay at their apartment. They both worked at different universities and were gone all day. Mateo would sleep in and then spend the day wandering around. He often took the ferry from the European shore to the Asian side of the city to walk around. It was one of his favorite things to do. After a few months, he found a job teaching English over on that side of the city. He rented a room in an old building near the Grand Bazaar. In the mornings, he would walk from his building over to the docks and take the ferry across. It was his routine. For the next three years he lived that way, moving across the city on autopilot.
One night, on the ferry home, he stood at the side of the boat and watched the waves disappearing into the night. He leaned over and thought how easy it would be to just step off, land in the foamy waves and sink into the darkness. He was tired. So tired. After his father left, and his brother contracted cancer, he was expected to be the man of the house, the one who would keep the family together. He just didn’t know how; it was too much for a teenager to handle. He built a wall inside, a border that would be his protection. And with each new tragedy, he would make the wall higher. In the end, it became too high. When he tried to express his feelings to his wife, it was too late. She had waited too long for him to talk. She wanted out.
Staring down into the water, he put his hands on the railing and was about to leap when he looked up and noticed a slow, steady light on the distant shore. And below that light, he could make out a figure. It was a man, dressed sort of like him. He appeared to be looking out in the direction of the ferry. Watching into the night. And he realized that he didn’t want to jump. But he didn’t want to live with all the shit he had bottled up inside, ready to explode, either. He stepped back and watched the light and the man beneath. Though he knew that the person could not see the boat, only its lights as it crossed the Bosporus, he waved. And he believed that the guy waved back.
By the time the ferry docked, the person was gone. Mateo walked to where they had stood, and looked around, at the city, at the crowds, at the water and the ferries crossing, at the night. It was all familiar. But it also felt new, and he was a part of it all. He stood under that light and looked out and waved at passing ferries, in the hope that someone might see him and wave back.
“Sometimes, a slow, steady light can save us,” Elena told me. Then, noticing that I was crying, she reached over and put her hand on mine.
Instead of staying the night in Chico, I decided to drive home. On the way, I thought about Mateo’s years in Istanbul and his gradual reconnection to the world. The flask in the glove compartment: I kept it there for that particular drive. Before arriving to the scene of the accident I always took it out for a quick drink. This time, the flask remained in its place. I got home late. Parking my car in the driveway, I closed my eyes and made a silent wish that Amelia would be home. I wanted to go up to her, take her in a tight hug, and twirl her around. I wanted to tell her that everything was going to be OK.
I unlocked the front door and found the cage. It was empty. This was it, I thought. The bird escaped. But it was in the kitchen, staring out the window into the darkness. It turned when I walked up.
“Julián Mateo,” I said.
The big gray bird just stared at me with its dark eyes.
“Forgive me,” I told it.
“Forgive me,” it responded.