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Male Bonding (Part 1)

My brother Javier and I are practically twins, eighteen months apart. However, we look nothing alike. Javier has very straight, jet black hair that looks almost blue, and piercing grey eyes. They are Father’s hair, and Father’s eyes. I have frizzy curls, deep-set brown eyes, and an imperfect crooked smile. When we were very young children in Buenos Aires, my mother dressed us alike in shorts and striped shirts, and strangers on the street would think we were identical twins. “No,” Mother would explain, while pursing her red-painted lips. She would point at my brother and explain, “This one is Javier. The other one is older.”

While we did not share our looks, Javier and I shared the same wicked mischievousness, and we were often partners in crime. We enjoyed the petty naughtiness that children love. One time, when I was nine and he was eight, while we were still living in Calle Wineberg (La Lucila, Buenos Aires), we decided to fake a ransom note and deliver it to one of our neighbors. We were probably inspired by an American action movie we had seen the night before, but I can’t fully remember. I recollect using Mom’s good writing paper and her silver fountain pen to draw a stick figure of a man with a gun pointed to his head. Underneath the drawing, I wrote in my best infantile handwriting, “If you don’t give us all your money, we will kill you.”

We doubled over with laughter as we put the note inside the neighbor’s mailbox and knocked on his door. I deepened my voice and screamed "Correo” (“Mail Call!”).

When the neighbor came out to check his mailbox, Javier and I hid behind the bushes. The man was in his early thirties, handsome, cleanly shaven but with a permanent five o’clock shadow. I thought he would laugh or simply read the note and pitch it in the garbage. Instead, as he read our ransom note, the neighbor’s olive skin turned ghostly white, and he started to shake. He thrust his eyes around as if he were looking for a criminal. He ran his fingers through his thick oily hair, and sweat poured down his forehead. Javier and I hadn't expected this reaction. I felt guilty for scaring the poor man, but I stayed in my hiding place, holding my breath and hoping not to be caught.

I tried to cover Javier’s mouth to keep him quiet, but he kicked me in the private parts and managed to escape my grip. He ran like a wild animal towards the neighbor, frantically waving his arms and screaming, “It’s a joke. It’s just a joke!” Slowly. the neighbor’s color came back to his face. Then he turned red with anger. “Idiota,” he screamed at Javier as he slammed the door.

As a child, ignorant of the world I lived in, I had not guessed that the neighbor would take the ransom note seriously. As an adult, now aware of Argentina’s history and violence in the 1960s, I understand there was nothing funny in threatening that man with ransom and death. Worse has happened in that country.

Fortunately, Javier and I were not always so stupid with our pranks. Usually, we simply rode around on our bicycles, aimlessly wandering through the streets of La Lucila. We rode without helmets, our hands off the handlebar, and we never applied the brakes. We threw ourselves down the hills as fast as we could go, placing our fate on God's hands, and laughing as the wind forced its way through our hair. The strength of the wind crushed against our small bodies, and we loved it.

“I love you,” I would like to have said to Javier as we flew on those hills. But it wasn’t necessary. He knew it.

* * *

Inevitably, as the years passed, Javier and I drew apart. When puberty hit, Javier became obsessed with cars, mechanical things, sports, and girls. These things bored me. Javier spent a lot of time helping Father fix things or tinker with gadgets. When he was not in his law office dealing with his clients, or in our basement writing a Spanish-English dictionary that would never be published, Father was somewhere in the house fixing a door that jammed, a vacuum cleaner that stopped working, a washer that would not spin.

“What a waste of time for you to be doing those things,” said Mother, usually sporting a new dress. “Call the plumber and stop messing around with that.”

Dad would nod at Mom as a way of acknowledging that he had heard what she said, but he ignored her complaints all the same. I knew he was not going to call a plumber or a handyman. It wasn't a matter of money or wasting time, as Mom presupposed. It was about being able to do manual labor and getting his fingernails dirty. Dad's home chores were an escape from his office desk and law practice. At work, Dad was at his client's beck and call, impressing them with his legal acumen solving their expensive legal issues. At home, frugally fixing things that were broken, Dad felt like a clever handyman, and Javier was his faithful apprentice.

On weekends, Javier would follow Dad around the house like a happy lapdog, sucking up the type of "manly" knowledge that boys learn from their fathers. Dad showed Javier how to use power tools, change the car oil, and jump-start a battery. Eventually, as an adult, Javier became a mechanical engineer.

I saw Dad and Javier on Saturdays and Sundays, fixing things and having father-son fun. Sometimes Dad would ask me to join them and help, but I was never interested. Instead, I perfected the art of playing alone, creating a world of fantasy. I wrote bad plays on my mother’s stationery, and I performed the plays on an imaginary stage in the living room, by the chimney. I put a blanket around my shoulders and suddenly I was the King of Persia invading a neighboring country. I put on Dad’s old coat, and I became a hobo wrongly imprisoned for bad debts, masterfully plotting his escape. I put on Mother’s high heel shoes, and I transformed into the Queen of Sheba, bringing a caravan of valuable gifts for the king of Israel. I could tell that Javier and Father stared at me in bewilderment whenever they saw me in these get-ups. However, even though I was the odd man out, neither Dad nor Javier ever criticized me.

After we moved to the United States and attended high school, Javier and I grew even more distanced. He was on the football team; I was in the drama club. He had a ton of friends; I had my nose in the books. But Javier was smarter than me. Learning was easy for him, and even though I never saw him crack a book, he always had perfect grades. He graduated valedictorian of his class. I was not at the bottom of my class, but I was not a stellar student. I excelled in history and English, but I was mediocre in math and sciences. The worst part was my handwriting. Javier wrote in an impeccable script; I wrote in chicken scratch. The teachers would beg me to take my time when taking tests or writing assignments. I once got a failing grade on a science experiment because the teacher could not read what I turned in. I was despondent after having spent a long time on the assignment. The teacher let me redo the homework, but he demanded that I submit something legible and neat.

Dad came to the rescue that day. He lent me his precious Smith-Corona that he normally used to work on his Spanish-English dictionary. He taught me how to load up the paper and how to use the machine. He even showed me how to change the typewriter ribbon and use corrective tape. That simple gesture from Father, teaching me how to type, changed my academic life. I discovered that I enjoyed creating order with the typewriter, and from then forward I typed all my papers and all of my homework. Even math homework. My grades improved dramatically.

Dad became my silent proofreader before I turned anything in to the teachers.

Ernesto Beckford

February 2022

© Ernesto Beckford 2022

Post Script: This story is not autobiographical, but the feelings are based on things I have experienced. My father died five years ago, from Alzheimer’s. I miss him every day.

Links to Collages Used in this Blog

Cubist Male Portrait

Deep in Thought

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