A Better Son

When he finds out about the gastrectomy, Pedro does not buy the first flight back home to Brazil. He hangs up the phone, walks over to the bathroom and knocks on the door more forcefully than usual.

“Hurry the fuck up,” he yells at his roommate. “We can’t be late for work.”

He and Rogério work as barbacks at The Arlington Lounge, a fancy cocktail bar on Arlington Street, across the street from the Boston Public Gardens. That afternoon, they arrive five minutes before their shift and scramble to set up before the manager unlocks the doors. But by eight o’ clock they’ve mopped the floors, stocked the liquor, and polished the glasses. When the doors open, men with too much hair gel and women who will have trouble walking in their high heels by the end of the night, begin filling the tables.

“Dude, we really need that ice,” John, the bartender, yells over Cher’s auto-tuned voice.

“It’s coming, it’s coming,” Pedro calls back, craning his neck towards the cash register where John is now standing.

He stacks the steaming highballs on the shelf under the bar, ignoring the burning glass against his fingertips. As he stacks the glasses, he also counts the beer bottles in the fridge through the glass door. There are only five Heinekens and he can’t decide which will run out first, the ice or the beer. Suddenly, he feels something pointy scratching his neck. He turns around and sees a girl, her entire torso leaning over the bar. She wears heavy eyeliner and is holding a red stirrer straw between her thumb and index finger.

“Um, I’ve been waiting for my Cosmo for like, ever. Can’t you make me one?”

There is something in her voice—a highly rehearsed pleading—that he recognizes. It is the tone of a woman used to getting whatever she wants.

“I don’t get drinks. Ask the bartender.”

“Please?” she insists. “Please?” And as she draws out the first syllable of that second please, a strand of brown hair around her finger, Pedro is reminded of Lisa, his American ex, who went on a yoga teacher training in Goa, and after the training was over, decided to stay there for good. But not before raising his hopes by agreeing to marry him. Had they gotten married, had he obtained his greencard, he wouldn’t have to listen to this drunk bitch whining for her Cosmopolitan. He’d be in Brazil, waiting for his mother to be wheeled out of the operating room. The girl with the heavy eyeliner is still there, waiting.

“Bartender,” and he points over to John at the other end of the bar. Then he points to himself. “No English,” that always seems works even when he has been speaking to costumers in English.

“But you’re right there!”

He turns around and continues to stack the highballs, which have by now cooled off. When he turns back around, she is still there.

She leans over the bar and yells “You’re an ass. But I still think you’re cute!”

“Pedro,” John calls out again, “we’re gonna run out of ice, man!”

Shit, he thinks I forgot about the ice. “One second!” he yells over to John. Then, he takes a Heineken from the fridge, opening the bottle. “Here,” he says, sliding the beer over the counter. “On the house. Now, move over and let me do my job!” He leaves the girl standing there and ducks under the bar, mechanically yelling excuse-mes at the people standing around, waving their dollar bills at John.

In the dish room, the Colombian busboy empties a gray bin into the washer.

“Hey,” Pedro says as he scoops ice into a clear plastic bucket, “Take this ice to bar one,” and he kicks the bucket over to where the busboy is standing.

Fernando, who always moves slowly, seems to move slower still, as if to annoy Pedro.

“Not my job, man,” he says, not even bothering to turn around.

Filho da puta, Pedro thinks and imagines jamming Fernando’s oily face into the ice bucket. The busboy acts as if he doesn’t need this job, as if he’s doing all of them a favor in showing up for his shift. He probably still lives at home with his parents in some two-family house in some Latin American neighborhood, spending all his money on weed and booze. Pedro knows the type: spoiled immigrant.

“Extra five percent tip-out, if you move your culo, idiot.”

Fernando turns around, surprise in his eyes but a smile on his lips. Money, Pedro thinks, it’s all about money in this fucking country.

“Go, man! I don’t have all day. Ice to bar one. Now!” Pedro calls out over his shoulder as he walks out of the dish room, past the couple making out against a wall, the men clinking shot glasses, the rushed waitresses balancing trays over their heads. He runs down the stairs two steps at a time and finally unlocks the door to the walk-in fridge.

Among the colorful cardboard boxes piled high against the metal wall, all is quiet. If Pedro turned off the light, he’d be completely sealed off: from the madness upstairs and Rogério’s pitying gaze, but most importantly, from his longing for escape. He imagines dropping a crate of liquor right in front of the bar—the sound of glass shattering as it hits the floor, the smell of vodka and beer overpowering French perfume and sweat. He relishes the stunned look on John’s face as he unties his apron and walks out the door. He’d cross the Public Gardens, pass the sleeping geese and the empty wooden benches, and go straight to the travel agency at the corner of Newbury and Gloucester Streets. He forces himself to keep going with this daydream, but his mind keeps turning to another image—that of his mother, her frail body in one of those thin hospital gowns, under the fluorescent lighting of an operating room. He leans against the walk-in freezer, concentrating on the shock of the cold metal wall against the back of his T-shirt.

Even though he no longer believes in God, he tries to remember the prayers she has taught him. To repeat those words is like clutching an amulet, one his mother is certainly gripping as well. And so are his uncle and cousins, the neighbors, his parents’ friends. His mother’s hospital room is probably filled with flowers, the rosaries and prayer cards blessed in the hospital’s chapel. Maybe someone will remember to bring some of her favorite crossword puzzles. Visitors will huddle around his father with hushed voices, which grow louder with the certainty that the patient is awake. Hands will prop her pillow. Stroke her hair. Rinse the aluminum chamber pot. Her eyes will stay on the television—too tired to talk, too polite to ask everyone to leave. No one will notice the faint smell of urine, sweat and disinfectant. No one will utter the word tumor or what is to come, quimeoterapia. All will feel blessed. Hopeful. Victorious. Modern medicine once again, sweeping death under the rug. A temporary triumph—everyone in that hospital room, Pedro thinks, except for me.

When he realizes he’s shivering, he quickly gets to his feet and stacks boxes of Heineken, Stella and Corona on top of each other. Tomorrow, he thinks, I’ll send over more money. He will look into hiring a private nurse for when his mother is released from the hospital. That solution comforts him—yes, as long as I keep working my ass off, she can get the best care, the best doctors, the best everything.

He pushes the fridge door open, runs up the stairs, his arms straining with the weight of the boxes, his mind momentarily distracted, the physical exertion cutting the invisible thread that tugs him back home.

“Coming through! Move, move,” he yells at the drunks, jamming the corner of the box against their backs, forcing them out of his way. The faster he can stock the bar with liquor, the more drinks John can make. More drinks equal more tips, so he keeps pushing people out of his way. John rushes over, appeasing customers and opening the removable bar counter for Pedro.

“I know it’s busy, but you gotta take it easy, man,” John says, a warning in his voice. “And what the hell took you so long?”

Pedro pretends not to hear the question. As he sets the boxes behind the bar, he feels his cellphone vibrating. Instead of reaching into his pocket, he grabs the soda gun and pours himself a glass of water, John’s words making him suddenly aware that he can’t push his luck any further with the bartenders. He is the fastest barback. Whoever works with him makes more tips. But Pedro knows they’re only putting up with his slacking tonight because it has never happened before. There are thousands of Pedros in Boston, thousands of men like himself, who’d be happy to work fourteen, sixteen-hour shifts.

Across the room, in the second bar, Pedro sees Rogério working just as furiously. “Que se foda, fuck this,” Pedro repeats under his breath. He puts a hand over his jeans, willing himself not to take the phone from his pocket as it vibrates again and again. His manager yells at him to move out of the way.

“You going to stand there all night, buddy? Let’s make some money. Chop-chop!”

And so Pedro reaches into his pocket. He feels for his phone, hesitating before finally turning it off.

The next night, he is back at work. Rain beats down against the glass windows and the bar has been nearly empty. Pedro sits down next to Tracy on one of the lounge tables, where they always have a drink once their shift is over.

“Such a slow night, wasn’t it, love?” Tracy sighs and takes a sip of beer. “I can’t believe we’re leaving right at one.”

“Fucking weather,” he says. Rogério was sent home early, at nine o’clock. Thank God he’d wanted to leave, Pedro thinks, or they would have both gone home with forty dollars each.

“Hey,” Tracy says her voice softer now, “I just wanted to say that I think you’ve been doing a really great job.”

He isn’t quite sure what she’s praising him for but before he can ask, she continues.

“You know, with everything that’s been going on back in Brazil,” she trails off. “And I know John can be difficult to work with.”

“John is just doing his job,” he replies trying to keep his voice even. Rogério must have told Tracy about his mother’s surgery. “And besides, I’m not easily offended.”

Tracy is quiet for a moment, counting a stack of bills. She takes another sip of her beer. He peels off the label of his own beer, something to do while he waits for his tip out. This is why I’m here, he reminds himself and he pictures his mother once she’s out of the hospital, at home and asleep on her own bed, a private nurse at her side. He meets Tracy’s gaze, notices the pity on her face. He stares her down until she looks away.

“Here, love,” and she hands him some cash. “Let us know if you need anything. Anything at all, you hear?”

How about a greencard? He thinks but catches himself just in time. He nods and lets her squeeze his arm.

“And try to take it easy tomorrow. Go rent a funny movie or something. Try to enjoy your day off.”

He says good-bye to the rest of the crew who are still sitting down doing their cash-outs and steps out onto Arlington Street.

The bar faces the Public Gardens and at this hour, the park is dark and empty. There are no nannies pushing strollers or packs of tourists taking pictures of the geese and ducks that spend all their time pecking the grass. He wonders where they sleep on cold nights like these.

The rain has turned needle-thin and everything—the pavement, the sidewalks, the store fronts on Newburry Street—glistens black and gray. Raindrops cling to the tips of the naked tree branches, reflecting the yellow glow from the streetlamps. They remind Pedro of tiny icicles, frozen in their stubborn reluctance to fall onto the damp earth below.

On Mass Avenue, near Berklee College, students rush past him—baseball caps, sneakers, heavy eye makeup, nose rings—they laugh, huddled together against the rain. He has been like that once. During his last year as a student in Recife, his mother would always set an extra plate at the dinner table in case one of his friends happened to drop by. The Americans, especially here up North, don’t like it if you visit their house unannounced or greet them with two kisses on the cheek instead of a firm handshake.

He crosses the bridge, over the river that cuts through the Fens and finally reaches his apartment. Fenway Park is less than a block away and when the Red Sox play, the fans’ cheers and boos reach his living room. His mother, always wanting to try new things, had suggested they go to a game. He’d taken her, even though she got bored half-way through the first inning, as he’d predicted.

He has never been able to say eu te amo to his parents. In his family, love is never discussed. Instead, you act it out. When his mother asked him to help her with the garbage, he took it out. When his father needed help at the mercadinho they owned, he spent Saturday mornings there, tending the cash register. And once the store tanked and his father couldn’t find another job, Pedro took a leave of absence from his Business course, bought a ticket to Orlando and told the U.S consulate that he was going to Disney World and would be back in two weeks. As soon as he started making a little bit of money in Orlando, he sent some back home. Ever since his first months in the U.S., despite all the money he sends home, he has always made sure there is enough for his own savings so he can one day move to Florida, open his own surf shop, spend the American winter in Brazil.

When he finally crosses the hallway into the living room, after the two kilometer walk, he feels as if he’s run a marathon. The television is going and Rogério is still awake, watching a soccer game with two of his friends who work as line cooks in a restaurant near the Arlington Lounge. They motion for Pedro to come to the living room and join them.

“Come watch the jogo,” Rogério says waving Pedro over to watch the game as his eyes remain glued to the TV set.

Pedro doesn’t even know which match they’re watching, probably one of the European teams he doesn’t really care about.

“No, man, I’m beat. But let me know the score tomorrow,” he says out of politeness. A chorus of boa-noites follow him as he makes his way to the kitchen.

They’re good people, Rogério and his friends, which is why Pedro doesn’t trust himself around them. He might blurt out something about his mother’s health. And that’s what he won’t be able to stand— being away from home, his mother still in the hospital, while he’s constantly reminded that he’s here, that he hasn’t gone back to be with her. He won’t stand for a parade of worried faces and pitying voices. Back at the bar this evening, Tracy’s concern had been enough.

After he eats his ramen, he takes a shower. He pulls on a pair of sweatpants, goes into his bedroom and closes the door. The digital alarm clock reads a quarter to two in the morning. By now, the television is off in the next room and the only sound in the apartment is the banging inside the metal pipe as the heat travels up to his room.

He lies down on the twin bed and pulls the covers over his head. What would Rogério and his friends do in his situation, he wonders. Rogério would have gone back days ago, but he’s very impulsive. Does that make him a better son than Pedro? What about the others? Pedro has heard them talking about going to a Saturday service at an evangelical church in Somerville. Would they turn to their God and meekly accept whatever came their way? Would this God they all believed in provide legal papers too?

There is a trick he has devised, for times like these, when he considers giving up and going back home. He recalls his last year in Brazil: how he worked with his father at the store during the day, went to classes at night, spent his weekends updating inventory and spreadsheets. How at one point, right before he was forced to close the store, he’d briefly considered selling expired yogurt to save on costs. But here in the U.S., all he needs to do is to become indispensable. Invisible, even. He has learned how to keep his head down and save his money.

When he wakes up the next day, it’s past noon. He takes the cordless phone from the dresser and dials the 1-800 number in the back of the calling card only to learn that his balance is too low to complete the international call. He will need to get a new one at the Brazilian store on Harvard Ave. Before putting on his coat, he looks at the photo of his mother that is propped up against the alarm clock. It was taken during his going away party, right before he left Brazil. She is holding a cavaquinho, pretending to strum its strings and making an exaggerated singing face. When his family sent him off at the airport, she did not cry. But later, his uncle told him that she spent the entire day locked up in his room.

Outside, the sky shines a brilliant white and it is warmer than he expected. The store looks exactly the same as when he’d last been there with his mother almost a year ago. In the display window, a mannequin is dressed in a bright yellow soccer jersey. There are Havaianas flip-flops hanging on a wall, bottles of imported shampoos and concentrated passion fruit juice on the shelves. Even the same woman is working the counter, a short black carioca wearing skin-tight jeans and high-heeled sandals. Inside, it is nearly empty. The only costumers are two young girls who stand over a perfume display, spraying cologne on their wrists. Pedro slides his fingers over to the rows of VHS tapes that cover an entire wall, the titles of novelas neatly hand-written on white labels. When his mother was visiting and he was at work, she’d spend the night watching these soap-operas, trying to keep herself awake so she could spend a few hours with him when he got back from the bar.

“If you’re looking for the tape with the latest from O Clone, we’re totally out,” the woman behind the counter says, as she files her nails.

Obrigado. That’s ok,” he says, “I’m just looking around.”

He walks over to the food products, and a white and red container catches his eye. He lingers in front of the rows of Nescau chocolate mix containers, remembering how when they’d gotten back to his apartment, his mother had made them grilled cheese sandwiches and a glass of chocolate milk appeared in front of him.

“I got it at the store when you weren’t looking. You didn’t have any here, did you run out?” she asked.

“What is this? Am I seven again?” he laughed and took the chocolate milk nonetheless.

She ignored his question and went back to the stove, pressing down a spatula against the bread on the frying pan. Pedro missed the smell of sizzling bread and butter.

“You used to drink this every night, up until you were in college, remember?” she asked, her back still turned.

“It’s delicious, mamãe. No one makes Nescau like you.” He didn’t tell her the reason he no longer drank chocolate milk. Not only did it remind him too much of his family dinners, but he refrained from buying such luxuries as chocolate milk. He was here to save money, save as much as he could so when he went to the supermarket, he’d usually buy the cheapest items: ramen noodles, canned beans, rice, occasionally some ground beef. But of course, he did not tell his mother this. And before her arrival, he made sure to get some fresh produce and meat.

She walked over to where he was sitting and placed the two plates of grilled cheese on the table.

Meu filho,” she said, after taking a bite of her sandwich, “I went to Dr. César’s office, you remember him? He always asks about you,” she was fumbling with her napkin now.

“Oh, I remember him. Isn’t he the one who wanted to give me a prostate exam when I was like, twenty-five?” He laughed. He loved needling his mother about the doctor, she was so loyal to people.

“He’s very thorough and for that I’m glad. I went for a check-up before I came here,” something in her voice made Pedro lean in. “I was losing some weight,” It was true, he noticed she was a bit thinner than when he’d last seen her. But she was always trying to lose a few pounds, so he didn’t think anything about it. “Anyway, Dr. César noticed. And there I was, bragging that at fifty-seven, I was fitting into pants I hadn’t worn since my forties!” She paused and took another bite of her sandwich.

After she finished chewing, he asked her. “So what did he say?”

“Well, don’t be alarmed now, he said it’s perfectly routine. But I have to go do a biopsy when I get back. The reason I’m even bringing it up, I don’t want to worry you, meu filho, but the problem is that my plan doesn’t cover the entire exam.”

He held up his hand signaling for her to stop and went in his room. From his top drawer, he took some money he hid inside a sock.

“Here, mom. Will this be enough?” he asked.

“Yes, meu filho. God bless you. And take that frown off your face. Dr. César said it’s just a precaution. I feel perfectly fine.” She stuffed another piece of bread in her mouth and washed it down with some of his chocolate milk, “See?”

Pedro takes three containers of Nescau from the shelf and once he’s standing in front of the cashier, he asks for two twenty-dollar Boss Revolution calling cards.

“Oh, I remember you now,” she exclaims, putting down her nail file. “I never forget a face,” she continues as she spins around and balances herself on a footstool, taking down the card he had pointed out to her. “Weren’t you here a while back, with that dear lady?”

Pedro smiles. He can’t believe his mother had managed to make friends with the cashier in the ten minutes they’d been in the store.

“You know, it was my first week here when you both came in. I really wish all the people who come here were as nice as you. Tell her I said hello, will you?” she asks as she opens the register.

He feels as if the floor underneath him has been removed. Like the time he’d gotten lost at the beach and hadn’t known what to do or how to answer what his own name was, fear overtaking all his faculties. He suddenly realizes he’d never really know how his mother is, not until he sees her with his own eyes.

“Are you ok, honey?” the cashier asks, a concerned look on her face.

“I’m sorry, I’m just tired. She’s fine, doing well. What was your name again? When I speak to her again, I’ll tell her you said hello.”

Later that night, he decides to take Tracy’s advice and rent a stupid comedy on his night off. Tower Records is packed. He walks by a couple arguing about which movie to rent, the woman pouting, yet her voice deep and husky. An older man with a shiny bald spot and dressed in a black trench coat takes a stack of eight movies to the register. Pedro recognizes something in the man’s eyes. A vacantness. A void. Is that his future, Pedro wonders, is that what would happen if he stays in this country—only movies and a life of make-believe for company? He thinks of all the things that could go wrong back home, while he’s in Boston, picking up buckets of ice and opening beer bottles. What if a nurse forgets to wash her hands and gives his mother an infection? His father, who is never one to remember dates or appointments, who is forever misplacing his keys and asking, “What day of the week is it again?” How is he expected to keep this mother’s chemo appointments and medications straight? The visitors, are they really helping with her mood, or just weighing her down? And why, he thinks, as he wanders aimlessly down the video aisles, why is she always asleep when he calls? Is she really resting or is his family keeping something from him? Maybe deep down she’s upset that he hasn’t gone back home and all this talk about staying in Boston, fulfilling his dreams, sending money home, it’s all a test. Of his loyalty as a son.

He finds the Comedy section and tries to find an actor’s face he recognizes. Movie titles in Portuguese are so different from the original English that he doesn’t even bother to attempt to guess which movies he’s picking up and if he’s already seen them. Finally, one he recognizes: the actor, the one from Ghostbusters, is trapped inside a clock, his hands against the imaginary glass. This is one of his mother’s favorite movies, Pedro was forced to sit through it as the actor on the cover was stuck living the same day over and over again. There’s a scene he remembers well: the main character tries to beat death, doing everything in his power to save the life of an old homeless man. Yet nothing works. Neither the hot soup or the visits to the hospital or the mouth-to-mouth resuscitations. The old man always dies. Pedro drops the movie on the shelf. He can’t beat death. But he can witness it.

Soon, he’s standing in front of a travel agency. It’s dark inside, but he still cups his hands to his face and peers in. He sees a glow, a florescent glow, at the very back of the store—past the chairs, the sofa, the desks. It doesn’t matter that it’s past eight o’clock and that the store is closed. That glow means something. Someone is still in there. They could open the door for him. Perhaps it’s the owner or the manager staying late, to catch up on some work. Or an employee who came back to fetch a forgotten cell phone or a set of keys. He will explain to whoever is inside, that it’s an emergency, that his mother is dying. He will tell them that he has no internet at home and that right now, this is the only place he can think of. The only place he can come for help. “Please,” he’ll plead, in case they think he’s raving or if they don’t believe him. “Look in your database. The city is spelled R-e-c-i-f-e. There’s no direct flight, I don’t mind the layover in Rio or São Paulo. Just get me there. Just get me on the first flight out of here.” And if they still don’t believe him, he’ll leave his wallet and run to the ATM across the street, to pay for the ticket up front and in cash.

And so, he keeps knocking. His fingertips are cold, and he can barely feel them, but he doesn’t care. He notices a shadow, breaking the glow underneath the door all the way in the back of the room. He keeps knocking, louder now.

“Please,” he insists. “Open up, please,” he pleads. He pictures himself looking out the airplane window at the immense green sea, dotted by reefs. Whoever is in there will open the door. They’ll open it, he thinks. It is all he can hope for.

About the author

Camila Santos was born and raised in Recife, Brazil. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Literary Translation from Queens College. Her work has appeared in Minola Review, New York Times, Podium, Three Percent, and Words Without Borders. She was awarded a Queens Council on the Arts New Work Grant in 2017 and was also selected for the AWP Writer to Writer program. She is currently writing her first novel.

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