We’ve all tried to leave some part of our past behind. In the following story by Claudia Hernandez, the two main characters don’t just flee from their past, migrating from their war-stricken home country. Their past also kicks them out, turning its back on them, seemingly for good. But when one of them is forced to return in order to sell his parents’ house, he unexpectedly sees his childhood best friend, who welcomes him with open arms. In this story, as in many of her others, Hernandez shows us that those who migrate leave behind ghosts of their former selves.
Hernandez, born and raised in San Salvador, says that when she started writing about migration she discovered “a space that is always in the past, where people live without aging.” A creative writing professor at Central American University, she has published four books of short stories: De Fronteras (Of Borders), Otras Ciudades (Distant Cities), Olvida Uno (Forgetting) and La Cancion del Mar (Song of the Sea). “Old Friends,” translated by Daniela Ugaz and John Washington, is to be included in a forthcoming anthology of migration fiction to be published in Spanish
by Sur Plus.
My brother and I had only one tie to the city that pushed us away: the house we were born in. The sooner we could sell it, the sooner we’d be free of its grasp. We had no other reason to go back. Our parents had died waiting for permission to return, our friends had also left or had become different people from those who had once loved us, and we had made a life in this new city, this new city that had given us refuge, schooling, work, schedules, children and lovers.
We knew we wouldn’t get very much for the house. And yet, for our parents’ sake, we still paid a woman to keep it clean inside, though we never did much of anything about its exterior. After years of neglect, the yard must have looked like a virgin jungle, the front of the house slowly being devoured. I told my brother to accept the first offer without haggling and to come back as soon as possible. I didn’t want him to have to deal with that climate and the snooty neighbors who wouldn’t forgive us for not dying there for a cause only my father had defended, or for finding happiness in a new place while they endured the hardships of our old home.
It made more sense for my brother to go and sell the house than for me to do it. He was still pretty little when we left. He didn’t have too many memories, resentments, or fears. He wouldn’t suffer if someone he didn’t remember gave him a mean look or made some false claim about us. And the whole thing would only take him a couple of days. Then he could come back and we’d forget that the past had even happened. Or maybe one day we’d look back at that night when we’d fled, crying and in a hurry, but we would come to understand that life, like nature, doesn’t take something without giving something better in return. We would remember that we were lucky to be able to grow up far from the chaos, far from the constraints and dangers of that city, and we would give thanks for whatever it was we were doing here and we would plan to have dinner together the next week. Except that my brother never came back.
He called me once he had arrived to tell me that the vines that used to crawl up the house had dried and, in many places, were completely dead. The house didn’t look good, but it also wasn’t the worst looking house on the street. The neighborhood had aged. But inside, he told me, everything was as it had been. The key turned easily in the lock. The furniture my parents had decided not to sell to the neighbors, in case they went back one day, was all in the same place. And the cleaning lady kept alive the same smells and quiet of each room. He even recognized the patterns of our old sheets. There was something, some still-lingering memory, about the way they felt that made him decide to sleep in the house instead of the hotel-room he’d reserved.
My brother was never the melancholy type. Of all of us, he was the one who mourned the least for all the things we left behind, and who most easily adapted to our new way of life. I never would have guessed that two days later he’d be asking me to help restore the place and come live in it again. I told him he was crazy, that there was nothing in that house worth what we had here. It was then that he told me that at night—after the cleaning lady had finally, after so many years, gone back to sleep in her own house with her family—he had seen the imaginary friend he used to play with when our parents wouldn’t let us outside because the streets were too dangerous.
He woke to a strange silence. He didn’t have to turn on the lights to see because, without even opening his eyes, he knew who was sitting on the edge of his bed. Without hesitation, he smiled. He opened his eyes only out of respect, looked at the friend, who had his back turned, and he couldn’t help feeling happy to see how much he had grown. His friend was always bigger than him, but now he was huge. Gigantic and brown. His head almost reached the ceiling. And he was wider even than the bed, and yet he weighed very little, not much more than a bag filled with air. My brother didn’t say a word. He didn’t have to.
He made room for him on the bed. He slept happily and woke happily and then went about the demands of the day. My brother longed to chat and play all night with him, even though he supposed they should stick with only looking at each other, and so let themselves ease back into their old comfort.
On his way back to the house one day, my brother bought a toy train. When they were little, they’d always wanted a train. But my mother preferred cars, and she preferred real little boys who had mothers she could wave to on the way out of school and invite over to drink coffee out of tiny cups or serve orange juice with watermelon in large glasses. And though she never saw him, my mother didn’t like the imaginary friend. But if she could have seen him, she definitely would have barred him from the house. She blamed him if my brother hurt himself or didn’t finish his math homework. She didn’t realize that the friend helped my brother get bottles down from the cupboards without using a stool, or made him laugh so hard his stomach hurt. She also didn’t know that the friend slept with my brother when she couldn’t stay by his side or when he was scared of the dark and the gunshots ringing in the distance.
My father didn’t have anything against the friend, but he did have something against his wife who was always saying he had to do something about him when he was struggling to get our family out of that bind we were in. And so, to not have to deal with it, my father told my brother he couldn’t talk with his friend anymore, that he couldn’t play his silent games with him, that he couldn’t see him at all and finally, that he couldn’t pack him in one of our suitcases when we were preparing to leave.
Later, my parents were amused by this friend and my brother’s insistence on remembering things that had never happened. I always thought it was magical. I would have liked to have had a friend like that, but I was the kind of girl that only played with what was there, and only remembered things that happened. I thought it was wonderful that my brother was different. And I was glad that he was happy, but I didn’t want him to live in that house again, even if, as the cleaning lady told me a few days after I demanded that he come home, he was doing well, was less tense, his eyes shone, his skin had more color and he was enveloped by a halo of silence that seemed very much like the silence of a scheming child.
When I asked her what my brother was up to, she told me he had ordered a larger bed and had told her that he was staying. He calculated that he could live a number of years with the money he’d made here as a financial advisor, and planned to find a part-time job simply for the sake of discipline. Then he wired me the entire sum of money he had decided the house was worth. He no longer expected me to live there with him.
He refused to talk to me anymore. Every week the cleaning lady tried to soothe me, telling me that my brother was smiling, that he was always smiling. I supposed he started remembering the private language he had had with his friend, because she told me that she heard him talking as if he were laughing, and sometimes he didn’t realize he was using that language when he talked to her, but this didn’t matter because they were coming to understand each other and he had even taught her some of the language. The first thing he taught her, she told me, was how to say good night.
As much as I tried to get her to come to reason, she never got it. She told me that my brother could make his own decisions just as I could make my own. When I told her that he was giving everything up, she told me that I clearly didn’t have a clue how great the friend was. She’d never seen him either, but my brother—who never was a great drawer, though he could get an idea across—had drawn the friend for her. The figure looked to her sometimes like a jewel, sometimes like a globe. She thought him beautiful. And she told me to come so I could meet him as well. She could put together a dinner for all of us if I just named the day and the hour. She figured I would still remember how to get around the neighborhood. When I arrived I would just have to look for the house with the green, newly budding vines growing up its sides.