A Blind Man and his Monkey

Chapter 1

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It has been one year, two months, and seventeen days since your funeral and I still have dreams about you almost every night. The dreams always start the same way: A rainy Saturday morning in early December of the year 1981. Five boys spread out throughout a small sacristy, two sitting on a couch, two leaning against a kitchen countertop, and me, sitting on the floor by a rusty filing cabinet in a corner of the room, my knees resting on my forehead. All five of us weeping loudly.

You were exactly five weeks shy of your fifteenth birthday when you killed yourself, I was almost sixteen, and you were my closest friend and roommate.

I have tried hard to repress the events that led to your death, but my memories have a life of their own and make themselves seen and heard at some of the most inopportune moments. I still see you in all our favorite places and I talk to you in my mind all the time. When I forget you are dead, I become very sad and angry that you don’t answer my questions or join me in my rants. Our conversations have become one-sided, internalized, and void of any real meaning. I miss hearing your voice, laughing at your silly humor, and listening to your colorful commentary about politics, religion, and the painful events unfolding in our fair city and country these last few years.  

I have refused to accept any roommates since your death and the staff have made allowances for me because they know how much I still miss you. I look at your bed every morning and remember how you used to talk in your sleep, often disclosing secrets you never meant to tell anyone. I miss seeing how confused you got when I asked questions related to those confessions.

“Hey, Alex, how is your dad’s broken arm healing?” I would ask.

Confused, you would say, “How in the hell did you know about my dad’s horse-riding accident?”

By the time you killed yourself you had unknowingly disclosed that your cook had a child confined to a mental institution, two of your teachers were having an affair, your parents were having countless arguments about his workaholism or her friends, and your family’s driver may have been connected to the Medellin Cartel. Of course, to be fair, you never spoke in full sentences and I had to guess the rest of the story, but my guesses were always right to your annoyance.

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I have been meeting regularly with Fr. Garcia and he believes I need to keep a journal of my feelings and grief. He fears I am becoming more depressed with time and he may be right. I have become a stranger to my family who can’t barely get a word out of me anymore. When I am home, I am usually hiding under a book on the terrace, sleeping, studying, or quietly eating my meals. Even my brother, Juan, who used to make me laugh as much as you did, has been unable to comfort me, and this is driving him crazy. I feel guilty about this and I fake a quick laugh at his jokes from time to time, but I haven’t had a good laugh since our last weekend at “The Oaks.” My mother believes you took my spirit with you when you died and I silently agree with her, but I don’t ever say it.

I have become so introspected and somber that I feel like a silent spectator in my own life. I still feel guilty that, somehow, I missed the opportunity to help you and I am so angry at you and the whole world that I feel completely void of any love and compassion for anyone. My role in the events that took place after your funeral brings me some comfort, but it is always an ephemeral feeling that doesn’t last, like the sudden smoke of a snuffed candle.

The other day, I was riding a bus from Bello to Medellin’s center, when a phrase, long forgotten, came to my mind,

“In this family we deny, repress, and move on.”

I broke into a sad quick laugh, followed by quiet tears I tried hard to hide from other passengers. Some memories have the power to change our moods and transport us to places and times we would rather forget. I suppose the opposite is also true, some memories lift us back to places and times when we have experienced indescribable joy and peace. The memories of our brief friendship, when we were young and naïve, bring me joy and deep pain at the same time. Some may argue that I am still very young at seventeen, but I feel very old and jaded. I have some of the despicable characters I met after your funeral to thank for the loss of innocence I have gone through.

“In this family, we eat our young with pride and chase them with a cup of black coffee.”    

Several weeks ago, I agreed to write your story, not just because it is “good therapy,” as Fr. Garcia calls it, but also because I don’t want to ever forget you. This process has opened wounds that remain raw, and my mind has had to face for a second time some of the worse people I have ever met. I do hope that when I am done telling this dark and painful tale, I will feel some peace of mind. I am searching for light at the end of a very dark tunnel and I am tired of feeling empty, useless, and angry.

My recurrent dream was a good place to start the story. Five boys spread out in a small sacristy, adjacent to a large and modern church in Envigado, Colombia. As I started writing, I focused on each of those boys faces as a photographer maneuvering his camera to bring his subject into clear focus. But, no amount of zooming in helped me recognize any of their faces. I had only met them briefly the night before at your wake, and I could barely recall their names.

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Do you remember watching Sesame Street when we were growing up? I used to like those episodes where the commentator compared four items, three of which belonged to a set or pattern and one which obviously did not. I still remember the catchy songs, “One of these things is not like the others. Which one is different? Do you know? Can you tell which thing is not like the others? I tell you if it is so.” I felt just like the thing that didn’t belong. The scene in the dream was foreign to me. These people were not my friends and I had little in common with them. Yet, I was there.

I met these four boys the night before at your wake at an upscale funeral home in your hometown. I had lived in Medellin for six years by then, but I had never been to Envigado. In fact, I got lost several times trying to get there. I still managed to arrive almost an hour early. It had taken me almost two hours to get there, but, nothing short of death or dismemberment would have prevented me from attending your wake.

I had met your mother briefly about six months before. When I arrived, the family and a small army of volunteers were setting up the hall, arranging chairs and couches for the visitation, making coffee in the parlor’s modern kitchen, and setting up trays of sandwiches. Your mother recognized me as soon as I walked through the door. She looked frail and exhausted. It was obvious that she was upset. How could she not be upset? You were only fourteen years old and you were her only son. I cannot imagine the pain of losing a child at so young an age, especially the way you died. She must have been consumed with grief, guilt, and regrets.

Your mother ran to me and gave me an uncomfortable hug. I tried hard not to smile, when the hug reminded me of our first meeting almost a year before. It seemed like time had gone by so fast. One moment we are two young teens trying to discover our place in the world, and the next day, I am at your wake, trying to deal with the debris of the dangerous hurricane you left behind. I recognized in your mother that which I had seen in myself as I entered the hall and passed a set of ornate mirrors hanging at the entrance hall. The combination of hours of crying, little food, and no sleep made her look ancient and sickly. The same combination of factors made me look emaciated and pathetically small.

Still hugging me, your mother whispered in my ear, “If I forget to say it later, please know that I am grateful for your friendship to Alex. It meant a lot to him. He talked about you often.”

She started crying softly once again. Her tears falling on my back, while mine were falling freely on the front of my shirt. I remained still, not knowing what to say. Back then, I tended to be very uncomfortable in most social situations, especially in conversations with adults. Ironically, I was a well-known public speaker in our circles, but, when it came to one-to-one encounters, I always felt anxious and insecure. It was as though my brain refused to work properly when the person in front of me was older than 15. Adding to the discomfort was the fact that I came from a family who never hugged or kissed, and who felt uncomfortable showing emotions in public.

After the interminable hug, your mother accepted my offer to help in the setting up of the parlor. My job was to go through a box of framed photographs and to choose six or seven pictures that could be displayed on a table near the front entrance of the funeral home, right underneath the wall of mirrors. The funeral director was a wiry, anxious, eager-to-please, little man, wearing John Lennon glasses. He still had the long hair popular in the 1970’s but considered out of fashion in 1980. His ill-fitted suit seemed too tight around the collar, and I thought he looked like a boy getting ready for his First Communion.

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“Choose pictures that fully capture Alex’s essence.” He said, looking at me, under pressure to return to the kitchen where someone had dropped a tray of sandwiches, creating a commotion only he could fix.

Obviously, the man had never met you. I remember thinking how curious that expression was, “To capture the essence.” Can anything at all ever capture a man’s essence? Is this even possible? Even the clearest picture represents nothing more than a millisecond of a person’s life. It can never capture the soul or tell us about the internal struggles, the dreams and aspirations, the fears that keep us up at night, and the small victories and humiliating failures that define our lives.

I didn’t argue with the man because I soon realized that he and I had something in common. I too was so eager to please that I would have done almost anything he asked me to do. And, like him, I showed a deference for the wealthy and powerful that I seldom showed people whom I considered my equals. This was not a conscious effort on my part, but rather, an unspoken rule I had internalized as I grew up. In our society, the wealthy were often honored with titles like “Don” or “Doctor” even if they had no formal education. They were treated with the respect and fear often shown only to the clergy. As a result, most wealthy people expected preferential treatment, blind obedience, and unquestioned respect.

I chose several pictures that showed you in a favorable light. I had no other choice. None of the pictures showed your obsessive preoccupation with death, your irreverent sense of humor, the depth of your faith, your love for the outcast and the underdog, your beautiful baritone voice, your annoying tendency to pick your teeth in public after every meal, the grandiose gestures you used to show someone your love, your almost pathological passion for all things dangerous, or your tendency to chew with your mouth open and to talk with a mouth full of food. No picture showed your mood swings, the incredible heights and terrifying lows. And no picture could ever show the impact you had on everyone who ever met you.

“In this family we look our best or die trying.”

Your mother introduced me to a group of your friends. Carlos, one of the boys, was your cousin. He had traveled with his family from Miami for the funeral. I was told later that the two of you had been very close until his family immigrated to the United States when Carlos was three years old. The family had kept a beautiful house in the city and a large plantation in Rio Negro, a prominent area of the state. Carlos had not seen you since he was five years old. The family used to vacation in Europe and had not returned to Medellin in many years.

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This was understandable. In the late 1970’s the wealthy in Colombia had reasons to be cautious. Kidnappings had become a popular way for street delinquents and organized groups to fund their criminal enterprises; small businesses were often shaken down for protection money; and the police and military demanded their own pound of flesh in the form of bribes. In fact, the only difference between the military and the cartels was the fact that the military wore uniforms and committed their crimes in the daytime. In any case, your cousin barely remembered you and seemed out of place, although it was obvious that his family was well respected and admired by those in attendance.

Two of the boys were your friends from the Anglo-American school you attended in the city. The American School, as it was popularly known, was an exclusive complex of impressive buildings, sports facilities, and the latest in modern technology. On par with most American boarding schools, the school provided bilingual residential and day school programs for the children of diplomats and the Colombian elite. Since you lived in the neighborhood, you had attended the day school since kindergarten. In fact, John, one of the boys I met that day, had become your friend from your first day of school. He was almost as short as I was at five feet six inches, a whole inch taller than I. He had a nervous energy about him that was quite unsettling. Unable to pay attention for more than a few minutes at a time, John drifted in and out of conversations, often leaving the speaker in mid-sentence. At first, I thought he had a mental disorder, but later I learned that John was high for twelve to fifteen hours a day, the rest of the time he was religiously dedicated to sleep.

Michael, the other school friend, was 16 years old and the son of an American diplomat on assignment in Medellin. I never asked what type of diplomat he was because we had more blond and blue-eyed teachers, vendors, and low-level diplomats in Medellin in the 1980’s than at any other time in history. Some of us at school would often laugh and suggest that the American Central Intelligence Agency needed to hire a more diverse work force. After all, if you are going to infiltrate a Latin American nation, the least you could do was to send us people who looked like us.

The fourth boy was your neighbor and best friend, Cesar, and his name is the only one I didn’t have to force myself to remember when I started writing this story. His role in the events that unfolded after your death has haunted me since your funeral and, I suspect, it will continue to affect me for many years to come.

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