A man tries to honor his dead lover’s final wish in this short story by Juan Carlos Cortázar.
You went back to him. The last months of his life, that’s how he said it, no embellishment. You went back—a year earlier you’d been the one to leave, you’re a piece of shit, you’d shouted—and the two of you made up. If it were HIV, even, he’d have more of a chance, but with this, no, nothing, a few months and that’s it, he said, and you went cold. Up to that point you’d never had anyone close to you die; two and a half years together, you’d never lasted that long before, by far your longest relationship. Why had he asked you, not anyone else, to come back? Because he trusted in your gratitude; he’d paid for university, where you studied advertising, he even paid for the last semester after you left him. Because he believed you were still in love with him, or because he maintained that of all of them, you were the one he’d loved most. Because he wagered that you would feel moved, that with your twenty-one-year-old’s innocence you would feel bad: he was dying alone—his last boy disappeared around the time of the first medical tests—abandoned in his lovely apartment on Javier Prado.
Now Germán is dead, buried. His family—mother and brother, but also aunts and uncles, cousins—didn’t go to the wake. This was to be expected: you were going to be there, you who had taken care of him in the final months, bringing basins and bedpans to the bathroom, tracking medication schedules, adjusting pillows and running sponges over his body, but most of all talking to him. The burial, the family didn’t go to the burial either. Nevertheless, a few weeks later, two or three, not to let too much time pass, his mother’s lawyer calls. Over the phone, the lawyer’s voice, deliberate and elegant, one of those that explain everything delicately, that never interrupt or cut you off; a refined man, with good manners. The señora would like to have her son in the family plot, next to his father, who’s already there, his grandparents, in a little while next to herself, and later next to his brother. Nothing about how, in a long while, he’ll rest next to you. You explain that Germán himself decided on the spot, that he chose Jardines de la Paz in Lurín because he knew about the family’s arrangements, but that remaining with them, side by side, wasn’t what he’d wanted. That it’s true he bought two places thinking of you, of how you were the only one he’d really loved, but this last part you don’t say. That at the end of the day, you emphasize, he’s buried just eight meters from his family.
The lawyer persists: you ought to understand, young man, what you had was—how to put it?—fleeting, casual, one of those things that happen, but what she has is a mother’s love. And you think about the handful of times she called and if you were the one to answer, she hung up. During the three birthdays you spent together, wine and finger foods on the black marble counter Germán had gotten made to open up the kitchen toward the living room; the places at the dining table set uselessly with plates, napkins, and silverware; the vase of flowers at the door, his mother’s favorites. You: enough already, they’re not going to come and you know it; you should talk to them about it, set things straight, stop waiting for them. Him: no, things are fine this way, you’re too young, when you’re older you’ll understand. And the rest of the year: Sundays are for mother, for going to accompany her at family lunch—which you were never invited to—one can’t abandon family. As if they hadn’t abandoned him, their son, brother, or nephew, first. It didn’t matter, every Sunday Germán was the fine tennis player and professor, the bachelor brother, the kind nephew, and, above all, the devoted and grateful son.
What the señora has is a mother’s love, insists the lawyer, a sacred thing. Understand that and don’t cause problems for yourself—the informal tú slips into the lawyer’s refined diction, into the you understand? punctuating the end of every sentence. He himself, Germán, he chose the spot, you repeat to the lawyer, the family can’t go against his final wish, you say. But you know they can, of course they can, and they will, and that’s why you spent days overturning the apartment, boxes, desk, kitchen, until you found the paper Germán signed stipulating where he wanted to be buried; and the receipt from when he paid for the spot—two spots—you found that, too, between the pages of the issue of Caras he triumphantly brought back one day, saying that his mother had given it to him. On the cover, a TV host, white with a beard, arms wrapped around a younger guy from behind, wavy hair and neat beard; kind of dark, the boyfriend, though not as dark as you—the guy probably wasn’t from the Northern Cone—they were fighting for civil unions, said the host and his boyfriend, Brandon was the boyfriend’s name, and more photos inside, holding hands, cheek to cheek, defying the entire country with how solid and stable their relationship was, how a relationship like this deserved to be shown to society. And that time you thought, you were left with: solidity, stability, a nicely trimmed beard, Brandon’s perfect teeth. Couples that deserve to be shown. The magazine, the two men right on the front cover, his mother herself had set it aside to give to her son. Who knows—a display of generosity, of an open mind now that things are changing, said Germán. You, mute, thought about the Maikels and Johns, the Damians and Toribios, all those boys—you yourself—who had lasted months, a couple years, so different from Brandon, with not ten but fifteen, eighteen, twenty-year gaps. And about Germán, his taste for picking up boys and bringing them to the apartment on Javier Prado, with its view of the trees and that upscale supermarket, meeting them over the reggaeton playing in some place in Centro, as he had met you, his hand moving down your body until it arrived at the elastic on your only pair of Calvin Kleins, meeting those boys and immediately taking them to the apartment to sleep with them, live with them for a while, with you, boys who, when seen by his colleagues or neighbors in the building, caused whispers you imagined but never managed to hear.
Mother that she is, the señora is not going to back down, she’s not going to give up is what I’m saying, you understand? presses the lawyer. His mother cares so much now, when he’s already under the grass. Green grass, perfect, extending for kilometers, hectares, so smooth it looks like plastic. In the middle of the desert, in the middle of a waterless city, all dirt and rock, gray sky and gray buildings, a fake oasis, made to order, a calculated explosion of green life for the dead, rotting away. If they had gone to the burial, the mother, the brother, the aunts and uncles, they would’ve been clad strictly in black, they would’ve cried, you imagine them receiving condolences. What a pretty portrait they would’ve made with the level green grass in the background: mother, brother, uncles and aunts, even a sobbing Brandon would’ve fit nicely into the photo. And Germán, if in the end he hadn’t decided what he did, Germán would be lying meekly in his dead person’s spot, having quietly taken his place, part of the family portrait, making no noise. And even though he’d kept it up almost until the end, suddenly—an effect of the illness, posthumous rebellion, or wanting to fuck with everybody, you don’t know—the outburst: not letting himself be buried next to his family and, to top it off, willing the apartment on Javier Prado to you. But you say none of this to the lawyer, and you repeat that he’s buried where he himself decided to be buried, that you have it in writing and his signature must have legal value. You grow bold, you go further: you’re not going to accept the family coming in now with their concern when in life they spurned him. Look, you don’t have to accept or reject anything, replies the lawyer—his voice now stiff, direct, in charge—you, I’ll remind you, are legally nobody. And you know it’s true, you’re nobody, just the boy who lived for almost three years with Germán and who, at the end, came back to accompany him as he died. The boy who, in the end, inexplicably, Germán tried to benefit by using legal maneuvers to leave him secure with the apartment. The boy who took care of burying him there, a mere eight meters from the unassailable family patch where mother and brother, colleagues, and even readers of Caras wanted Germán, silent, to rest forever.
“Ocho Metros” © Juan Carlos Cortázar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2020 by Jennifer Shyue. All rights reserved.