By Varda Fiszbein
Translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Like every year for more than twenty-five now – almost thirty, I quickly recalculate – we’ve come here to Lidia’s house to celebrate her birthday. Nearly everyone has arrived, except for Jaime and his wife, who always show up late, and Luisa and Jorge, who announced they would be delayed. Aunt Clara fetches Lidia from her room and brings her in only when we’re all present, not before.
Maybe because Lidia is turning forty this year, and half of us are also around the same age, as I wait I start to think about the reason that brings us to this house year after year on the same date, till it’s become a sort of expiatory ritual, a useless one, though, since it’s more like a family sentence we’re obliged to serve because of some unmentioned covenant, one that none of us would dream of avoiding, let alone dare to break.
I cast my eyes over those assembled here, one by one. Several of my cousins sport round little bellies, a product of their prosperity and the sedentary lives they lead, though they also might well be the result of the poor eating habits typical of shopkeepers or office workers, whose terribly long workdays force them to wolf down sandwiches and sweets due to a lack of time or interest in food. I look at their heads, which in some cases reveal overly broad foreheads, suggesting the likelihood of imminent hair loss, while on others a natural tonsure already proclaims baldness as a confirmable fact.
Except for Berta, none of the female cousins still have the original hair color they had back then, when the thing that has brought us here occurred, back in the days when their mothers styled their locks in ponytails or loose curls adorned with fine ribbons. I notice that those who originally were pale-skinned blondes, now, at the close of their thirties, reveal superficial or deep crow’s feet framing their slightly faded gazes, while, conversely, the brunettes’ faces are starting to come apart from the nose down: their chins are sort of sinking, and between their nostrils and the corners of their mouth are deep furrows that no cosmetic magic from a jar can conceal.
It also occurs to me that the younger ones, those who were so small when it took place, might not even retain a memory of what happened to us so long ago, the thing that compels us to be here.
In any case, the husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, or lovers who accompany us and who know only vague versions of the incident, those versions that each one of us has chosen to tell them in hasty, somewhat uncertain, anecdotal form, camouflaged by years and remorse, are the ones who seem most affected.
As for my wife, I can say without hesitation that she really has a hard time at these birthday gatherings. I remember the horror I saw in her face when, early in our relationship, I invited her to come with me to Lidia’s birthday and had to explain the reason why we gathered at Aunt Clara’s every year. Yes, my wife is one of those very few who don’t feel revulsion or that dismissive pity reserved for invalids and the slow-witted. I know without a doubt that seeing Lidia causes her pain, as well as other sensations that I can only suspect, inklings that are hard to comprehend, like, for example, a sort of indignant, retrospective animus toward all of us, including me, of course. And sometimes I even think that her decision for us not to have children – even though she may deny it – has more to do with this and not with the long explanations she gives me about not having enough time or money to raise a child properly.
I’m lost in these thoughts when the bell rings: it’s Jaime, one of those who – I’m sure – remembers everything exactly as it was, because he and I are the two oldest cousins, and that’s why we know perfectly well what happened on that Sunday.
The whole family had gathered to have lunch at Grandma’s – or Bubbeh’s – house, and after eating, the women moved about purposefully from the dining room to the kitchen, carrying dishes, clearing the table, scrubbing pots and pans. The men smoked and chatted on the back patio, while on the front patio we kids were trying to organize some game. We almost always decided on a ball game, even though we knew we’d never manage to have a completely good time. We couldn’t play soccer because the adults insisted on everyone’s participating, so we had to include the girls and the littlest ones, and for one reason or another the game always turned out to be a disaster, with fighting, tears, and punishments.
Lidia and Clara were there, too, even though they weren’t relatives. However, not only did we treat them as if they were, but they actually occupied a privileged spot in Grandma’s heart, and our respect for her made that affection spread throughout the rest of the family, though in a vaguely unpleasant way that awoke unadmitted resentment and ill feeling.
Grandma’s daughters, Mama and her sisters, made remarks like: She loves her more than she loves us, referring to Aunt Clara, and they also said: Sometimes I don’t understand why she spoils that stupid kid so much, meaning Lidia. The men, for their part, spent their time in long discussions of Aunt Clara’s behavior and morality, which they remarked on with a mixture of admiration and malice. She was a widow; therefore they tried to surmise, or pretended to know on good authority, that she had lovers, and occasionally they wondered where she got the money for her living expenses: Maybe the old lady gives her something – who knows? – they ventured hesitantly.
Bubbeh thought they were special, and in their honor she had skipped a generation. Clara was young enough to be her daughter, but she treated her like a sister, and the girl, who could have been her granddaughter, received the same treatment as her own children.
Grandma and Aunt Clara had come over together from Poland on the same ship when one of them already was the mother of five children, and the other was barely more than an adolescent. And since Grandma had spent the whole voyage dizzy and vomiting, and Aunt Clara had helped her, taking care of her and her kids, she was grateful to her and adored her. Grandma even reserved a special expression for her relationship with Clara, creating a tie that was apparently stronger than blood: Aunt Clara was her shif-shvester, her ship-sister, a category she placed above any other attachment, relationship, or feeling.
When Aunt Clara got married and her daughter was born, it was as if Bubbeh herself had given birth to the child. It seems she’s returned the favors from the ship and then some, her resentful sons and daughters said, and when Grandma became a widow, Aunt Clara cried with the same pain she had felt at the death of her own husband, Elías, an insignificant man whom I can never quite recall: short and very quiet, I think he was.
I no longer remember who started kicking the ball. Lidia was sitting on the ground with the other little girls, exchanging picture cards. From where I was, you could see the sparkles: that was what most fascinated them back then, little figures with tiny, shimmery dots, stuck on paper that they kept in albums. In those days girls played with such things: they collected picture cards, exchanged them or won and lost them in some mysterious game whose rules I never learned and never cared to. My sister was also part of that group.
Among the greatest attractions of those family afternoons at Grandma’s house was to annoy one’s sisters and girl cousins, especially the older girls, the ones closest to our own age. We couldn’t have tried it with the little ones, nor did we want to, though the diversion would’ve been easier, but we were too chastened by previous slaps and punishments.
Lidia and a few of the others were already beginning to sprout boobs, which, depending on the movements the girls made, we could see perfectly outlined by the taut, thin fabric of their summer blouses and t-shirts. They were the objective we pursued: with sufficient skill, we could arrange for a certain swerve of their bodies to provoke a slip of a bra strap that might allow us to see more than their shoulders and fragile collarbones. A sudden crossing of legs, provoked by their indignation over getting hit by a well-aimed ball, might provide a glimpse of thigh or even a fleeting bit of lace from panties that bordered a skinny, still unsculpted backside.
All of us kicked the ball toward the girls over and over again, and what we finally achieved was to make them get up from the ground and go on the defensive. The game was becoming rougher and rougher. Eva and Susy started kicking the ball back, like us, and they aimed carefully, with all the strength they could muster: they wanted to hurt us. As for us, we felt so flattered by their response that we grew more fired up with every moment that went by. We reacted by kicking more energetically than was reasonable, even for as aggressive a game as that one. At that moment, Nora picked up the ball in her hand, aiming it directly at Jaime’s head, and if he hadn’t moved away in time, it would have hit him in the eye, leaving me blind, you animal, as he himself said to her. That point marked the start of open warfare.
We, too, stopped kicking and began throwing the ball with our hands, and the girls threw it right back. I think Lidia stood apart; I don’t recall her participating, but she wasn’t scared either, more like annoyed, indifferent. For an eleven-year-old girl, she was pretty calm. Who knows what she would’ve been like as an adult. She wasn’t pretty, but there was something about her that made it impossible to stop staring at her. Maybe it was her eyes, dark and wide-spaced, too serious for a girl her age. At the time I thought it was because she was sad, since she had no father. Another feature that attracted and disturbed me at the same time was that sometimes her neck fluttered: a large vein on one side of her throat pulsed. And it also fascinated me to see those teeth of hers, though now I think it was because of her upper lip, too short to cover the enormous front teeth she had developed recently, like all of us at that age. And that’s how she stayed. Now, at age forty, she’s still the same.
It was Víctor who threw the pitch, hitting Lidia in the shoulder blade. When she felt the impact, she made just one movement, as if to shoo the ball away, and that skinny, pointy, pre-teen shoulder, against all expectations, smashed against the edge of Grandma’s flowerpot, the one with the gardenias. A green-painted, earthenware pot, one among many that stood on the patio and deserved Grandma’s adoration, so many that even today I can’t quite understand why it struck us as such a tragedy. But so it did; of that there is no doubt. I feel like I can still hear the voice that broke the silence after the noise of the flowerpot falling and breaking: They’re gonna kill us, said Silvia, and it’s your fault, glaring at her brother Víctor.
The commotion drew the adults’ attention, and Grandma cast an icy glare at each one of us kids, who had automatically arranged ourselves in a circle as if we’d be ordered to do so by the gym teacher at school. Reflecting on it today, I think it was because of that disciplined submission we’re unable to avoid in childhood, and by jumbling things all together, constantly bringing school habits home and vice-versa, willy-nilly, but, anyway, when we’re little it seems like the right thing to do.
We were all afraid of Bubbeh, us and our parents alike. We knew from the start that when she issued her guilty verdict, anyone – or maybe everyone – could fall into disfavor, and that she would expect punishments that would satisfy her thirst for justice, just as we knew that we would receive them promptly, and that our parents would be the unhesitant executioners, even if they had to pluck up their courage to carry them out.
To this day I still wonder if there was a silent message, a surreptitious undercurrent that made us all act as one without uttering a single word, making us feel protected, or even more than that, warmly supported by the adults when we said that it was Lidia, even before Grandma had a chance to ask. We invented so many excuses, we cried so many times, we wished so many other times that we could have changed what happened, that it’s hard to know for sure.
The first time I mentioned the subject to my wife, who was my girlfriend at the time, it was in order to induce her to accompany me to Lidia’s birthday party. I told her what I believed then, what I continued to believe after the unfortunate incident, and what I might still be convinced of today: we accused Lidia because Grandma loved her so much, and we knew she was the only one who never would be punished for breaking the flowerpot.
But after hearing my arguments, she looked at me curiously, and instead of understanding or agreeing with what I had said, she asked me what Lidia did when she found herself singled out by us. Well, in fact, she used the word harassed, as I recall, and I told her that Lidia denied it, of course, but that we stood firm; liar, we called her, you always act like such a goody two-shoes, we said to her, and she cried and cried, and suddenly all our resolve abandoned us and we stood there, frozen, because we saw that she wasn’t addressing us or the grownups, either, who stared at her indignantly, or even Grandma, but rather that she was talking directly, in a truly desperate tone, to Aunt Clara, her mother: It wasn’t me, Mommy, I swear, it wasn’t me, she begged, not shouting, but in a voice hoarsened by weeping.
My wife also asked me what the other adults’ attitude was like at that moment, referring to everyone beside Grandma and Aunt Clara. I told her what I felt, and it was so clear that I can still summon that feeling now: that I had noticed a sort of flood of relief circulating among them, together with a sensation something like revenge, because the bad girl, the naughty, insolent one who had dared to break one of the inviolable flowerpots on that patio, wasn’t really a member of the family; the crime hadn’t been perpetrated by any of the beautiful, well-brought-up children of good background, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, all of them noble and related to one another, indissolubly bound by genuine blood ties and shared surnames.
Who, then, could have imagined what would happen next? How could we have guessed that Aunt Clara, the ship sister, who seemed so good and kind, always so accommodating, would react that way? And yet it seems Lidia knew: the terror we heard in her voice had a real basis, because it happened.
Her mother crossed the patio so quickly that we almost didn’t realize she was doing it, and she broke through the circle we kids had formed and slapped Lidia so hard that it left one side of her face as red as a tomato and just as swollen, and the impact propelled the girl against the wall, and then Clara, without looking at her, turned around and headed back to who-knows-where, but we all saw her satisfied expression as she walked away. Maybe for the first time she felt as if she’d acted like a real member of the family, rejecting her privileged position and her daughter’s, as if, in order to earn a place among us, she’d had to act like any of our fathers and mothers would have done, delivering a harsh, painful punishment, which in those days and in my family were unquestionably synonymous with fairness.
That was why she was the only one who didn’t see her daughter’s head strike the wall, or see Lidia when the impact knocked her down and she fell slowly to the ground, coming to rest on the patio tiles, her eyes closed. Her neck was in a strange, twisted position, her face pale, except for where the slap had left a red stain on her cheek, a stain that became crimson as it approached Lidia’s right eye. Her arms looked broken, her legs splayed open with knees wide apart, allowing me to see, from where I stood, a bony thigh at the top of which appeared a delicate strip of lace trim. How desperately I had wished for that view a few moments earlier! And to imagine it was revealed to me just when I and the others were far beyond anything having to do with pleasure. Because when my gaze landed on the edge of Lidia’s panties, nothing was registering in my eyes anymore. On the other hand, I couldn’t stop hearing the dull thud her head had made when it hit the brick wall, or her back when she fell to the ground, I don’t know.
Animals! said my wife, shocked, when I told her about it, kids and adults alike, that’s right – they all acted like animals, and the mother, worst of all. That’s a mother? She was so disgusted, her face so angry, that I thought not only would she refuse to accompany me to the birthday party, but that she was about to leave me as well, to break off our relationship on account of the Lidia episode.
The first to approach, without saying a word, was my father: he slipped one arm beneath Lidia’s head, and with his other hand he covered her legs with her skirt, trying to slide it underneath the back of her knees and lift her up, but he stopped short, turned to Uncle Pedro, and asked him to run to the phone booth on the corner and call an ambulance.
Then he gently removed his arms from beneath the girl’s body, and when he stood up, one of his forearms was covered with blood and some other sticky substance that was coming from Lidia’s head. From that moment on, everything was chaos: I couldn’t provide my wife with some of the details she asked me about, like what Aunt Clara, Grandma, and the others did. All I remember is Papa repeating, don’t move her, don’t touch her.
I don’t know how the other family members acted in the days and months that followed. For a long time there were no more get-togethers or meals at Grandma’s house. My mother served me the news at dinnertime; she chose the precise moment I got home from school to give me updates from the hospital, which were invariably disheartening: Lidia is still in a coma, or the girl is still unconscious, she’s lost her vision, she’ll be confined to a wheelchair, all delivered in the same style. Her tone was a whispered, yet guilty, reproach, which turned me and my mother into pitiful accomplices, while my father, thanks to his noble behavior when Lidia was injured and lying on the ground, remained exempt and spared, removed from the matter: after all, he was only Grandma’s son-in-law.
Three days before Lidia’s twelfth birthday, she was released from the hospital. The family insisted on celebrating her birthday, even though she was in a hospital bed. That was the first of these anniversary reunions. We were all compelled to attend that birthday party, which was followed by many others, when Lidia was no longer in bed except to sleep, while she spent her days in a wheelchair like the one she uses now, not as modern, of course, and a different size. The wheelchairs have changed over time.
But by then Lidia was sitting in the wheelchair, just as she is today, just as Aunt Clara puts her there, and by then she was also moving her head like she still does; it flops toward the side, and spittle still dangles from her mouth, which has stayed exactly the same as when she was a girl, because her upper lip is shorter, and whenever she’s with us, or maybe all the time, I have no way of knowing, she makes a hoarse noise that gets on my nerves and sets my teeth on edge.
For a long time now, no one has forced us to come, yet we still do. Year in, year out, we find ourselves here, even if we don’t see one another for months or on any other occasion, but we come to celebrate Lidia’s birthday. Aunt Clara lets us in without looking at us, not even when she opens the door. She just ushers us in as we arrive. Once we’re all sitting in a circle in the living room, she goes to fetch Lidia from her room and brings her in.
When my wife asks me why we repeat this torture, this sorrowful ceremony, wallowing in guilt, in a debt of remorse that we pay in annual installments, as she calls it, I reply with what I really believe: We have to come; it’s necessary, just as we go to relatives’ weddings and funerals, and to the synagogue on Yom Kippur, even if we aren’t interested in getting together on any other occasion. We need to keep attending this birthday reunion; it’s a commitment we can’t avoid, like so many obligations we can’t help meeting, because they belong to that sacred category known as family matters.