The Foreigner

Sergio Chejfec

Artwork by Shay Xie

I dreamed of a color: blue. Not of green, nor red, but of blue. An imaginary angle, which I perceived only by its effects, crossed the space and colored the whole totality of the plane so uniformly that nothing differed from its crossing. Because what in the dream was space, in reality appeared as a plane. The sides of the fissure stretched back to some point far past where I could see. It was like a set square of color, arranged in a sharp angle, covering things in silence, leaving a waveless wake. I don’t know by what mechanism—maybe there wasn’t one—but in any case, its advance produced a fatal incision that left everything a uniform blue. 
I say I dreamed of a color, but I also dreamed of space (the planet, reality) as though it were a plane, when obviously it isn’t. That pointed blue sailed over a deep, level expanse, incommensurable and enclosed. It seemed to cover the image of space rather than space itself. Blue and space, sea and geography. This was my way, in the dream, of thinking of maps. Pointy, interminable flags covered the maps in blue, erasing everything. But, they weren’t really flags but more uniform trails of color, as though inspired by images. 
After, I woke up knowing neither what day it was nor where I was. A foreign air breathed in the room. Its colors seemed to need some invasion of blue: a residue of the dream, simultaneously strong and vague. I felt scared thinking that that day—that day in particular—would have gone by without any more consequence within me than the worry of not remembering anything. The fear that an anxiously awaited moment will soon be over triggers a profound, fatal anguish. Just as it happened to me this morning, it has happened to everyone almost every day since time immemorial. I assume the strong roots of beliefs and religions derive from this half-waking, half-dream experience: Someone wakes without knowing where and when he’s done so, and even though he immediately realizes the truth, a basic uncertainty will continue working on him for the rest of the day. Sometimes my brother gave great examples of this: “Check out how strange this is—today I woke up thinking I was in Africa. The first thing that occurred to me was to remember a pack of zebras, families of monkeys, groups of natives running with spears, and a blue stain advancing like the wake of an ocean liner. But immediately I noticed that I didn’t know what day it was. Somehow this irreality influenced the geography, making me suspect, for a millisecond before figuring out the truth, that maybe, perhaps even my real environment is also imaginary.” 
I got up and went to the living room, dragging my feet. There, as I watched the level flame of the candles burn each day of the last month, I learned to perceive their color, aroma, and heat as a copy of Ernesto. Now, their not being lit made his absence double or, perhaps, newly full. Last night my mother told me without telling me—she told me with her eyes—that she would put out the candles. It was just like a few days ago, when I figured out what she was thinking and realized she thought of few other things. The candles’ smoke drew a delayed shadow on the ceiling in soot (bodies, even when they’re no longer here, leave impressions of their passing), and I said to myself: ”Who knows how much time will pass before it seems like the aroma of tallow has dissipated?” I was immobile for a few moments, looking up, stunned and wanting to plan the day without managing to. The memory of Ernesto distracted and overwhelmed me. There are few more contradictory things than remembering the dead; the pain gets confused with the memory and the sorrow with the consolation. When we forget their voices, we resort to their faces, and when this too abandons us, we go back to their origin, that is, the mere idea embodied in their person. 
I stood this way a while, with my head tipped up at the ceiling, until I went to shave. The water cleaned the hair from my month-long beard. The razor blade, sharp again, acquired the shape needed to continue shaving. The basin got clogged; new hairs started to float; and a few times I thought to stick my finger in, move the bottom around (I think of Ernesto’s finger pointing at maps), until suddenly I saw the water go down a little. The beard was mine; the candles were my mother’s. Even though she wouldn’t have asked for it with words, I knew that her grief took for granted that the remaining son should take on this basic mourning by not shaving. For this reason—because it was easy for me to see she wanted it, and also because I sympathized, I empathized—I did it naturally, or rather I did what she’d hoped. It was what she would have expected of my father if he’d been alive or what my brother would have done had I been the one who’d died. 
I watched my beard float there, and it was like saying goodbye to the last traces of the moment of his death, of that morning. It was also morning when I found out he was no longer alive. Since that day, touching my cheeks has meant remembering him. Resting my chin on my fist reminded me to abandon whatever distraction—anything, in that moment, actually became a distraction—and to retrieve his absence. An empty bed, one fewer at the table, a missing voice in the universe of the house could have meant a trip, any transitory absence, but my beard, which I noticed growing each morning, signified his death advancing from my skin. 
That’s how this morning, in front of the mirror, I remembered the following: “Isn’t it precisely when we’re abroad that we discover our own things to be more clear and conclusive?” A phrase my brother used to repeat when, after eating, he sat in his chair to smoke, and the smoke seemed to turn into words. He always wanted to have the chance to travel, but he never went after it. Aside from a few simple, misunderstood preparations lost in time, he never did anything to actually leave. He never left the city. It was even unusual for him to leave the neighborhood—understanding by the neighborhood the two or three blocks to the roundabout where he got his cigarettes and where he had a coffee once in a while. He never had the money to go abroad, and, when he could have felt compelled to do so, he didn’t have any political reasons for exile. Besides, there was my mother, but he knew that I wouldn’t abandon her. He never looked for an opportunity to travel, so he never had a real chance; nevertheless, he dreamed all the time about doing it. His life developed within a frame that was at once predetermined and potential, though it seems contradictory. A frame of action and apathy, as though both encouraging and simply waiting for an event. What happened was his death, the only thing he hadn’t dreamed. 
During his preparations, aside from the maps, he read hotel guides—even though they were old. Aided by black and white photos and concise comments, he thought about tourist attractions, followed the highway routes, and even sought details on the treatment of foreigners. His dedication was so great that he seemed to be preparing himself for some sort of quiz show, in vogue at the time. But, since nothing was prepared in reality, so that he never left, he continued saying that he had everything ready until the moment when he changed his mind and started all that research on another region. Little by little, these simulated preparations would grow further apart, until they became infrequent and disappeared. At the time, he still maintained half in jest and half-seriously, that delaying decisions and postponing the departures was the only way to acquire the cruel and delicious habit of staying away from the foreign or, rather, staying here, where he was. 
Sometimes after meals, my mother, facing him at the table, said, “Ernesto, why don’t you work?” and my brother would cover his face with his hands. It wasn’t as though he felt ashamed by the question; the gesture was that of someone who had received a primordial, unnecessary, and incomprehensible aggression. “Ernesto, why don’t you work?” our mother quietly insisted with her soft voice. And he stayed like that until after a while, peeking out from between his fingers, he’d go to his chair, sit, and, expansive after eating, start to talk. He’d say, “Isn’t it precisely when we’re abroad that we discover our own things to be more clear and conclusive?” 
Ernesto’s chair, I think, little by little will stop being a memento. The sentiment with which he studied the maps came from his ambition to travel: He opened them with careful longing, as though he were unfolding the writings of a personal religion; he was capable of spending hours on end studying them and smoking, curved over the table that time and again would witness him cover his face. Sometimes when my mother and I were out of the house, we’d return to find his red mane, his same tilt over the table, absorbed exactly as we had left him a number of hours before. At the end of these sessions, he’d remain fearless for a long while, dazed and satisfied by what he’d observed, telling us later from his chair about what he’d learned. 
Ernesto’s volubility was so excessive that he didn’t even moderate himself when he slept, although when he was asleep he was less absorbed than when he was awake. Nevertheless, he said he almost never dreamed. He ate little, but in a sort of frenzied way. He didn’t have money, so he’d ask us for some in order to buy cigarettes and coffee and never felt any shame about it. He’d sit on his “sofa,” as he called it, and speak while observing us, anxious for us to return his looks, as though the meeting of eyes could restore to him the individuality and independence of his voice, loud and shrill like a bird’s, which for some time already did nothing but refer to the wide geography of the world. 
He maintained that it was his Jewish inheritance that drew him to travel; he also claimed that, being a foreigner, it was clearly natural that he’d want to leave, particularly to go abroad. My mother and I listened to him all day long and didn’t need to see him to imagine him sunk in his chair, gesticulating like a fanatic, as though his voice coming from the depths of his throat and his movements stirring the air weren’t sufficient to make it understood. He aimed for more, more, aspiring to an emphasis that would prove the sum of the geography he referred to and longed for, or that would verify an absolutely immeasurable totality, united only in his head and, for that reason, impossible to describe with the simple help of his arms. Then, although we didn’t look at him, we could see his longing to leave by way of these simple movements, as though they were the first steps of his trip. 
It was a wandering of daydreams, a leaving in dreams, though not a goodbye because he never confused his aspirations with his plans, nor his desires with his predictions. For this reason, despite talking all the time about far-off lands and his need to travel, he never came back from a period of preparations saying that he thought about doing it. It wouldn’t have been surprising to find him one morning smoking in his chair, after looking at some maps, and announcing with his clear voice: “Well, my dears, next week I’m going to Portugal.” My mother and I would not have believed him; everything would have stayed the same as before; we would have taken it as another exaggerated version of his illusions. But, nevertheless, Ernesto never said such a thing. At best he sighed in front of a map of the area, “How I would love to go to Portugal!” And this reticence to describe or comment on his longings became enigmatic: What stopped him from talking about his plans as though they were real? Why not be more emphatic in his dreams? 
Despite being so talkative, Ernesto practiced a focused, thorough, almost juridical mode of speaking. It was as though the distance between his hopes and the truth was so wide and so obvious that expecting to conceal it, whether through gratuitous comments or ironic asides, would have implied recognizing that his desires—that other zone of reality in some way as unmistakable as my mother and me—were merely the merging of uncertainties. For this reason, I think, he felt obligated to hide the unrealizable, in order to avoid having his dreams acquire an either excessive or insignificant size, preserving them from the doubt to which they could be subjected when threatened with their realization. 
There are those who take on the work of confronting their own nature because they aspire to another, to one that, naturally, remains veiled to them. Some have success before cashing out, others don’t. Ernesto was one of those who managed it, although this same achievement, this misunderstood triumph, implied a greater frustration. There was nothing more painful than these questions because of what that new nature—the acquired one, the conquered one, the one that would crown a permanent sequence of sometimes brutal and always tenacious efforts—was for Ernesto. First, he realized it would betray him; later he perceived he’d never manage to dominate it even though it belonged to him, and he soon ended up drowning it in some voluble, floating torpor. In this way, success was the condition of his failure, but failure was the cheapened price of his success; he didn’t fail entirely precisely because he was partially successful to begin with. 
He dedicated his whole life to preparing to travel abroad, but as far as he was spiritually ready, in his way, from very early on, this same energy sometimes consumed his enthusiasm. Other times, it changed back into impotence, but always it remained a daydream. He said it was his Jewish blood that compelled him to travel, that the origin and inheritance incarnated in his person pushed him to nomadism, to always seek to return to this global foreignness that he came from. So, it was natural that he always ended up worn out by his meticulous consultation of maps. The tension turned on those paper continents or countries—each taking up half the table—was so high that they became true mental journeys, withdrawn and communicative at once. Ernesto always returned from these journeys absorbed, as though he just observed some divinity. Our country, since it wasn’t abroad, didn’t interest him, a failing that for good measure merited emphasis given that it was responsible, in some way—I think, according to Ernesto—for coinciding with him in the same territory. Because of this, it prevented him, all the time, from living where he aspired to. 
Yesterday I reminded my mother that today we would go to the cemetery. She knew of course, but she was thankful, without saying so, that I took charge of her obsession. Since Ernesto died, her thoughts are always a mix of mortuary pain and sentimental obligation. She carried the pain every moment of the day; the funeral date structured this obligation from the start. It would remain this way as long as she lived: the month, the year, the birthday and each year and each successive birthday. The thought of returning to the cemetery was the insomnia that worked on her from the moment we finished, last month, burying his body. 
That morning, the calm of the day, the trees, the dispersed visitors and the silent labor of the caretakers created a serene contrast to a brutality, for us, primary and singular: the death of Ernesto as a definitive separation. We walked without speaking. While I could recognize his chair, put things on his bed, and contemplate his maps every now and then to call up the idea of him, the image of his destroyed body in that box for all eternity stayed in my head. I held my mother’s shoulders tightly as, every few steps, she sighed with an exhalation that seemed to come from the depths of her stomach. It didn’t come from the heart, I thought, even though that would be appropriate; neither did it come from her lungs, and I had a feeling that only the stomach could reveal such depth. The fatigue and apparent abandon of her body contrasted with the width of my arm, which reached far past her right side to where, with it, I registered the profound and quiet palpitation of her frailty. After walking for half an hour in near silence, we approached the entrance. There, a group of people were saying goodbye to one another. Many of them had that red look and they parted with long, firm hugs. They murmured something in each other’s ears and cupped one another’s cheeks. Sometimes, after having already said goodbye, some began to talk again, because evidently they had forgotten to figure something out. Others, all in groups of four or five, chatted and touched one another. Many of them said goodbye twice, without realizing they’d already done so. 
The heat had gotten more intense, and surely seeing that family scene made us understand that, though unthinkable, the moment to return to our daily hustle and bustle had come. How do you not feel guilty for continuing to live? I hardly finished thinking it, when I was sure that the two of us—my mother and I—had felt that same thing at the same time. Often, we told each other things without saying them, just as used to happen with her and Ernesto. We were incapable of finding relief, and nevertheless, a certain tranquility seemed promised to us, like a compensation for the accumulated pain and exhaustion. Reaching the entrance of the cemetery felt like some kind of contemplation of our reality moving toward us. In a shady space, a few meters from the building at the entrance, where Ernesto would participate in solitude in the rituals dedicated to his body, there was a bench. When we passed by it, I said to my mother, “What a tranquil place. Why don’t we sit for a while?” She obeyed without responding; she understood that it was a way of delaying our leaving a little, and she thanked me without saying it. We didn’t need to mention the fact that in the coming month we couldn’t come back here. 
Anyway. I perceived this same gratitude in her breathing when I mentioned to her that today we should go to the cemetery. We returned from there a few hours ago. Once we finished the prayer in front of Ernesto’s grave, we walked those paths in the same way. I perceived the same exhalations coming from within her, and we ended up sitting, after having walked around for a half an hour, on the same bench from before. This is how customs start, I told my mother who, like me, contemplated a driver leaning on the door of his car waiting for the person who’d hired him to return. I referred of course to our same path around the cemetery. In so many words, I told her, every time we come, before leaving, we’ll sit here; this way we humanize our behaviors, I noted: delaying the departures, extending the preparations, creating artificial stages of the journeys, frequenting the same paths. 
My mother watched the driver, who didn’t stop looking at the trees and the sky, his hands at each side of his body, his palms open on the car. I watched him too. At that moment I could imagine that Ernesto might be absent from our thoughts, and nevertheless, it was entirely the opposite. The same fatigue that invaded us upon visiting him restored for us his daily life of possibility without attributes and obsession without risk. That same vague atmosphere was in the cemetery, changing the light into a combination of superimposed planes at the bottom of which lay the flatness of the graves. It impregnated the memory of him with the same repetition that articulated his days. Neither I nor my mother feared the distraction; for this reason we could sit there talking occasionally while both of us looked at the same things and thought about Ernesto without saying so. Thankfully, people don’t bring flowers to the cemetery; their absence made the space more orderly for the eyes and the colors less violent. The cemetery was mostly green, and there were no traces of the blue from my dream. 
A little while later, after getting up from the bench, lifting her arms, and caressing my neck with the palm of her hand, she said to me, “customs don’t start; they continue like journeys,” and in some silent way, I made her understand that I understood her. The inheritance that compelled Ernesto to travel was the strength that pushed my mother and me to trace, with our steps in the cemetery, a type of design of his memory: stopping every once in a while to contemplate something, exchanging phrases while the entrance approached us without warning, resting on a bench whose grey granite contrasted with the familiarity of the graves, delaying our leaving. It’s difficult to stop imagining how the facts and the people would be ordered if I had died, and I think it would have been the same: Ernesto accompanying my mother to the cemetery, a little anxious to return to his table and continue looking at his maps, and for that reason, then, less interested in tracing some kind of path in particular or, at any rate, of being conscious of doing so. 
Since, according to my mother, it would be inappropriate to talk about the start of a custom, I have the impression that it would be a mistake to refer to the traces of Ernesto that remain in the house as memories. Every now and then during the first month, I took his maps and, weighing them, rolled up, I tried to guess their contents. I stood a while vaguely thinking about him; he seemed to occupy my consciousness without raising any form of thought. A while after, I unfolded one of the maps onto the table and leaned over to look at it. I can’t stop admiring that my brother, through sheer force of repetition, as a dedicated visitor of his custom, achieved an effect of reality around something absolutely imaginary: those few times that I leaned over one of his maps I thought I was frequenting a familiar route; I thought that I was repeating a trip worn out by excess. Finding myself before the Danube River was like recovering echoes of his comments, but it was also its own, particular sphere of archaic reality; visiting the island of Madagascar was returning to a reality at once much frequented and only glimpsed. 
I remembered Ernesto’s voice, full of emotion and enthusiasm, exclaiming over his maps, “From here, on a clear day, you can see Odessa,” or “Here is where the River Sinha G’og starts,” with his pointer finger pressed on the map with childish and exaggerated force, as though trying to squeeze that paper until the materiality of the geography he was visiting became concrete. A lot of times he lied, in order to establish some kind of preeminence that kept him from the subaltern position that he thought he occupied within the family. Other days he mentioned places or accidents that were almost always apocryphal, things to which he gave, if they even existed, imaginary names that were nothing more than a joke or a play on words. In those cases, he lifted his head and, while he followed his finger and smiled, he gave us a look that wordlessly accepted that this was just an innocent joke. My mother, in contrast to me, didn’t need to watch to know when he was inventing and when he was following the map’s indications. When he asked her, in a manner somewhere between solicitous and flattering—making himself the object of her attention—how she had discovered that he was lying, she said that she figured it out by his “tone of voice.” 
Nevertheless, despite appearances, we never treated him like a child. This might seem like a useless clarification, and also an inconvenient one, but that’s how it was. Firstly, Ernesto always acted like an adult. For example, when he talked for hours without managing any real dialogue, he definitely wasn’t looking for our attention. It was a benign, flexible, irregular soliloquy that, for its duration, could be taken merely for its hypothetical ability to make present that same foreign landscape he’d dreamed of setting off to, that foreign geography where he longed to stay. His wordy repetitions and the recombinations of his maps came from there. With these actions, he always aspired, without knowing it, to construct a monotony consistent enough to acquire the sheen of reality. nevertheless, the volume of his voice seemed related to the width and diversity of the destiny—in the universe—to which he believed he was bound: the maps constituted something precise, an elaborate sketch aimed at representation, and by contrast, light, air, the space filled by the sounds that came out of his throat were the most immediate ground for living with a totality. He was a foreigner himself, the foreign in a state of suspension, some type of Pure Foreigner enclosing his own skin. From there came the impression that when he spoke to us he was addressing the world; from there, this tone of presumption, at once innocent and emphatic, when he referred to his Jewish heritage which compelled him to travel; and of course from there, the amplitude of his movements while gesticulating, the great arch his scrawny arms drew as though they wanted to bear witness to this foreign land, distant, remote, and unable to hear. 
In spite of his enthusiasm, I don’t doubt there was something about foreign lands that made Ernesto disconsolate, and maybe it was that fact that, in the end, prompted him to abandon any serious idea of ever traveling: maybe this was his limitation. Even though it seems trivial, my brother had a contained, circumscribed, and narrow experience of the world thanks to the journeys he traced in his maps. If he had really traveled, the earth would have seemed mysterious to him, and in some ways immeasurable. But in this way, with his maps, which although numerous always ended up showing the same measurable geography, things naturally turned out foreseeable. It wouldn’t have taken long for him to start studying them using mirrors, finding variation and novelty in the same inverted surfaces. I remember his cackling upon discovering a form that at first glance seemed unexpected. Hunched over, his voice overflowing with enthusiasm and emotion, holding the mirror and turning his face to where I was, he’d say to me “Bernardo, just look at which side the Indian Ocean is on!” and immediately he’d return to his contagious cackle that made my mother and me lift our heads, watch him, look at each other, and laugh. In these moments, he was happy, as much as anyone who finds fleeting happiness in surprising circumstances, and it seemed unlikely he’d ever suffer, even though it would only be a few hours before my mother posed her dreaded question. 
Only a month has passed so far, and nevertheless, I see clearly how natural it is to tend to evaluate the behaviors of those who are no longer with us. In this sense, if I said that when he died, Ernesto was twenty-one, all of this would remain a slightly extravagant story, a little sad perhaps. But, if I confessed that he was already fifty-two, the image of him would fill with pity and squalor. For this reason, I feel tempted to hide his age. 
Speaking of time, I remember a comment that my mother made in the cemetery. This morning, I asked her how much time would pass before coming across Ernesto’s maps stopped making us think of him, or rather, remember him. We were walking, and in that moment, to our left, some meters ahead, an older woman was tidying a grave: She brushed off little branches and dried weeds from the few stones that were on the marble. She cleaned the oval portrait of an old man with her shawl. For a moment, when she lay her arm on the headstone, her face resting next to the photo, I thought she’d cry. But she stayed immobile for a fraction of a second, as though she were deliberating, and moved away. Her gestures didn’t reveal pain, but, yes, a solicitousness and routine that spoke, I thought in silence when I saw her, of a feeling of devotion. She walked now in front of us, and I saw her black dress, her black shoes, her black bag, and the tired and unsteady gait of the elderly. 
Well, my mother responded to me, lowering her tone and lifting her chin a little to indicate the old woman who walked in front of us, the memory of Ernesto existed like that woman: moving away and anticipating our path, both guiding and erasing. Thinking about time turned out to be a minor question, and as we saw the attitude of the old woman—stripped of pain and possessed of some form of devotion—we understood how we would have to carry on the custom of thinking about Ernesto. “And when I say think about,” she clarified, “I want to say evoke, imagine, adore.” For this reason, she wasn’t able to guess how much time would pass before we would stop discovering unexpected pieces of her son in those maps. Because since time had unfolded in a normal, vague, and yet fatal way the month before, it was impossible to predict in what moment my brother would have stopped studying those maps in order to abandon us. In the same way, now the two of us—she and I, according to her—were ruled by a tyranny that came from those objects and by a force that came to us from within. Ernesto was a swimmer without a wake, staining reality with his color as he passed, and in this way he occupied our memories, colored them with his imagination. The same Jewish blood that had compelled him to travel now pushed us to trace paths in the cemetery. 
After, we stayed in the cemetery for a long while without speaking, until we stopped walking, sat on the bench next to the entrance, and looked at the driver as he waited patiently.

translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Gartenberg

Click here to read an excerpt of Chejfec’s short story, “The Witness,” translated by Steve Dolph for the Summer 2014 issue, and here for Chejfec’s nonfiction, “Simple Language, Name,” translated by Margaret Carson for the Summer 2015 edition.