The wedding ceremony should begin any minute now. Ben and I are sitting on the stair steps of the registry office, sharing a cigarette. He is visibly anxious, even though it’s no big deal, just some paper signing. I myself am kind of curious about the event, it certainly beats all other boring weddings I’ve attended. “I can’t believe I got dragged into this,” Ben grumbles.
Too late for doubts and regrets, it’s 11.26 a.m. and here comes the bride, dressed in her best outfit, a tight blue velvet skirt and a red jacket with embroidered yellow flowers. That’s Ben’s mother. She steps out of a taxi in the company of the bridesmaid, a loud, overweight old acquaintance who goes by the name of Little Rosie. Ben is the best man. And then there’s me, the best man’s girlfriend. That just about covers the guests list. I get introduced to Ben’s mother, who doesn’t appear particularly excited. “Your father’s late,” she tells Ben, as if he was accountable for that. Ben’s father is the groom. “He probably won’t come at all,” Ben whispers to me. I can’t tell if there’s more apprehension or relief in his voice. In any case, he turns out to be wrong. Not three minutes have passed when another taxi deposits Ben’s dad in front of the registry just in time to start the ceremony. We dash inside.
Before the general awkwardness can even be felt, we’re approached by Mr. Smith, whoever he is, and are led to a small, damp room furnished with a big old desk in the middle and a few plastic chairs leaned against the walls. “Shall we begin,” Mr. Smith says, putting on a thick pair of glasses. He orders the bride and groom to stand just opposite his desk, with Ben and Little Rosie a few steps to the right and left. Then he reads out something about paragraphs and laws, while I circle the merry group with my single-lens reflex camera, click here, click there. Ben convinced me to be the wedding photographer. Not that I have ever done this sort of thing before, I’m just one of those amateurs who likes to shoot black and white pictures to hang on the bedroom walls. But Ben’s parents insisted on having something “professional” as opposed to those digital photos everybody takes these days. They couldn’t afford to pay a proper photographer, so here I am. The room is so dark that I can’t focus properly, and only Little Rosie grins proudly at the camera. The bride holds on to her little wedding bouquet as if she was about to crush it, the groom keeps sniffing and clearing his throat, Ben can’t figure out if he should have his hands inside or outside his pockets. The nuclear family, reunited at last.
It’s been 18 years since Ben’s mum and dad split. Ben can’t remember much, he was still a little kid. Though his mum certainly didn’t paint a bright picture of those early years. She used to refer to Ben’s dad as “that monster”. While Ben was growing up, the father showed up occasionally to take him to football games and shopping malls. “It was embarrassing,” Ben remembers. When he was in his late teens he decided to stop seeing his father altogether. “He’s just a fucking old drunkard,” Ben said, “he always stinks of cheap wine.” Which probably accounted for his stroke a few months ago. Ben’s dad was found half-dead by a tourist in a public toilet in one of the main subway stations and was carried to the central hospital’s intensive care. The only person he wanted to see was his son. They hadn’t spoken to each other for years. Ben didn’t have the heart to just ignore the poor old drunkard, so off he went to meet him. And bit by bit the father worked his way back into the son’s life. It didn’t take him long to reunite with Ben’s mother, either. During their second meeting he convinced her to marry him again. It was kind of romantic, in its own shabby way. We all deserve a second chance.
Now the bride and groom are ordered to say “I do”, sign their documents and kiss. Ben’s dad can’t move his lips properly, as his stroke has paralysed the left side of his face, and his hands keep shaking. Never mind, it’s all over in less than a second, Little Rosie applauds and yells “Bravo!”, and I’m not sure I even managed to take a photo. Mr. Smith shakes hands with everyone and orders his files. At 11.58 we are ushered out of the room, to give way to the next happy bride, groom and guests – this time a couple of teenagers and their parents.
Then it’s off to the wedding reception, which Ben’s dad has conveniently arranged to take place in a small cheap restaurant not very far from the registry – so we can walk there, along a traffic-congested road. Little Rosie and the bride rush ahead, followed by a heavily panting groom. None of them talks. Ben and I keep a considerable distance and share another cigarette. “It’s pretty nice weather,” he says. I interpret this as a sign that he has cheered up at last. Before I can enquire how he feels, Ben’s dad calls out “We need some photos here!” To our right there is a little piazza with a disproportionately big fountain, in front of which the bride, groom and bridesmaid have placed themselves with a frozen grin. They insist that Ben should join them, but he refuses to “make a fool of himself”. This causes his father to mutter “bloody brat”, to which his mother replies “watch how you talk to my son!”. I am ordered to record this moment for posterity. Some young hooligans hanging out close to the fountain decide to also include themselves in the photo by jumping up and down behind Ben’s dad, or casually standing less than half a metre next to Little Rosie. Ben has lit himself another cigarette and is looking in the opposite direction.
By the time we enter the restaurant, Ben and his dad are apparently no longer on speaking terms, Ben’s mum complains of pain in her legs because of the long walk, and Little Rosie is criticizing me for shooting all my photos from a great distance. “Everyone will look like little ants!” The place itself is hot and sticky, dominated by a huge loud TV – a recent acquisition, according to Ben’s father. He should know, he comes here almost every day. We are welcomed by the boss himself, a fat, sweaty Mr. Prim, who escorts us to a table towards the back, just underneath the TV set. He congratulates the bride and groom, and offers the drinks “on the house”. Ben proceeds to gulp wine at a surprisingly fast pace, so that even before the food arrives he is considerably drunk. And happy. He is half hugging his mother, telling her how much he loves her, even though she never really cared about him. The father, who can drink only coca-cola ever since his stroke, interferes to defend the mother: “She has made so many sacrifices to raise you”. To my surprise, Ben actually agrees with his dad. “She is the best mother in the world,” Ben says without the slightest sarcasm. Then they switch subjects and start discussing football, or rather reminiscing about one great game they attended together many years ago. Not wanting to disturb the good mood, I concentrate on Little Rosie, who is telling me in detail about her own son’s marriage and divorce, which took place in the same year. In between he and his (ex-) wife had twins. “The cutest boys you’ve ever seen!”, Little Rosie says, and shows me the pictures she carries in her wallet. But now she hardly gets to see them, because her son’s (ex-) wife is “absolutely mad” and refuses to let him or any of his relatives come close to the children. The case is pending in court.
I am hoping that after dessert we can all hug and go our separate ways, but the wedding reception is supposed to go on at Ben’s family’s new place, namely his father’s “duplex”. So Mr. Prim gets us a cab. We drive for what seems like ages, to arrive at an area of town I only know from hearsay. It is usually associated with “poverty and crime” statistics. Ben grew up here, his father and mother lived at walking distance from each other. When Ben first told me of his origins, I found his story so gloomy, it made him a star in my eyes. Now I feel proud to have made it all the way here. Ben is holding my hand and pointing at all sorts of places: his primary school, the house where his best mate lived, the zoo where his mother used to take him on weekends. “It was my favourite place in the world.” Ben especially liked the macaws, he always tried to imitate their squawks. This might explain why he has dyed his hair bright red and blue.
We’re dropped off in front of what the locals call an “island”. From the outside you only see tall walls sprayed with graffiti, whereas inside there is a complex of about ten to fifteen tiny houses squeezed closely together in a semi-circle, with a communal narrow patio in the middle. Somewhere in this chaos of crumbling constructions, rusting roofs, old people, children, pets and chickens, there is Ben’s new home. The “duplex” basically consists of a kitchen and toilet on the ground floor, and two rooms upstairs. The bigger one will be the bride and groom’s “suite”. The smaller one, with a little window that can’t be opened, is for Ben. Which is more than he had at his mother’s, where he slept on the living-room couch. At least until he met me and started spending most nights in my bedroom, much to the dislike of my parents.
Once inside the "island", I’m actually pleased with the atmosphere. There’s hip-hop music coming from one of the houses, a kid is riding his tricycle up and down the patio, roosters are crowing, cats are licking themselves on the window sills and between the flowerpots on small balconies. It feels as if we were cut off from the rest of the world. It’s so different from my parents’ home, where as soon as you step into the garden you hear the big road surrounding the whole residential neighbourhood. We never talk to our neighbours. And nobody has chickens.
Just as we are settling into the groom’s kitchen, Little Rosie disappears into one of the other houses and emerges with a homemade pineapple cake. Only now I understand that she also lives in the "island". She’s known Ben’s parents for decades. “They used to fight so much when you were still a baby, Ben – everybody could hear their screams. But now they’ve become more mature, things are bound to work out.” Champagne is served, courtesy of the supermarket where Ben’s mum works as a cashier, and everybody cheers the bride and groom. Then we fall silent and munch the watery pineapple cake. Afterwards Ben’s dad excuses himself and goes upstairs for his afternoon nap, while Little Rosie and Ben’s mum start cleaning up the kitchen. Ben invites me to check out his new bedroom. We sit at the edge of the bed, which takes up most of the space, and stare at the window. “It’s not all too bad,” Ben says. We agree to use the place as our fallback, whenever my parents make a fuss. They’re always complaining that Ben spends too much time at my place. “We’re not putting up any tourists here,” dad once told me. Not that I had asked for his opinion.
But then we don’t go to the "island" all that often. You have to take three long buses rides to arrive there, and Ben complains that it’s such a waste of time, when we can just stay in my bedroom, smoking joints and watching downloaded cartoons on my laptop. Only occasionally Ben decides to visit his mum and dad, which means that he wants to ask them for some money. I myself enjoy dropping by the "island". Particularly when my parents have organized one of their big weekend meals with relatives or friends. They’re actually relieved that Ben and I disappear, because they’re so embarrassed by my boyfriend.
This Saturday we plan to go to the zoo after lunch with Ben’s family, to check out those macaws. If they still exist at all. Ben hasn’t been to the zoo for ages, but he still has vivid memories of the birds. He used to stand in front of their cage for what seemed like hours, watching them groom each other (it was a couple, he presumes), leap from branch to branch, and occasionally squawk in a friendly way. “Maybe it was their colours, I don’t know, but I always felt much better after visiting them,” Ben told me. He would nag his mother continually to be taken to the zoo, and throw temper tantrums when she refused.
About two months have passed since the wedding of Ben’s parents. The duplex looks much more decent now that Ben’s mother has moved in, she’s eternally sweeping and scrubbing. The whole place smells of chemicals. In the kitchen there is an old cupboard where she has placed the TV set and several framed family photos: Ben as a baby on a couch; Ben as a three-year old, standing between his mum and dad in some park; Ben as a six-year old, holding on to his mother’s skirt in front of their social housing block; Ben as a ten-year old, eating pizza with his father. None of the pictures shows Ben smiling. None of them shows him as a teenager, either. “I got too ugly,” is Ben’s explanation. His mother complains that he wore scruffy clothes and skipped classes to get high with his friends. She used to say: “You’ll end up like your father, you useless bastard!” Finally there’s one photo of the wedding, the kiss of all things. It’s a bit askew, which makes it look artsy. All other pictures of the ceremony were not approved by Ben’s father. He claims that they’re out of focus, though I disagree. These people just don’t understand the qualities of matt paper. Now Ben’s dad has asked me to take some “normal”, i.e. digital, photos of him and his wife, to send to his relatives in Australia.
It’s past midday, lunch is ready, and Ben’s dad has still not shown up. He hangs out all morning at the café down the road, playing cards or watching TV with his pals. It was a bit difficult to avoid alcohol in the beginning, but now he actually craves for his coca-cola. Ben’s mother is telling us about a recent row she’s had with her husband because she doesn’t want to share a bed with him anymore. “He tosses and turns all night!” The room has enough space for two beds, she argues, but he claims that he can’t waste money on such stuff. Even though he has inherited all this money from his older sister, according to Ben’s mother. At least that’s what he told her when they got reunited. Ben uses the occasion to tell his mum about his enrolment at a driving school, which his father promised to pay. “You can’t get a job these days without a driver’s licence,” he explains. His mum agrees. Just then Ben’s father arrives.
As soon as we’re all sitting around the table, the TV is switched on. This doesn’t stop the husband and wife from talking, or rather exchanging accusations. “Your son needs a new pair of shoes,” the wife says. “He should go to work, then he can afford to buy himself a pair of shoes,” the husband replies. “And what about his driving lessons, he’s already enrolled and has to pay his fees,” she says. “Don’t you worry about that, why do you always have to interfere, if Ben wants something from me, he can just as well ask,” he replies, and then turns to Ben: “You’ve got a mouth, don’t you, sonny?” Ben has acquired a facial expression very similar to the one in the framed pictures. He keeps staring at his plate and poking his food. After a longish silence, Ben’s dad asks him about his studies, when is he going to be finished with “that goddamn sound technician apprenticeship or whatever it’s supposed to be”, and when is he getting himself a job. Ben explains that he already gets “occasional gigs”. Which is kind of true.
Lunch is over in a flash, everyone declines a second serving, Ben’s dad disappears into his bedroom, banging the door behind him, and Ben doesn’t want to hang out in the "island" any longer. He doesn’t even want to see the macaws anymore. We decide to return to my place.
“And then he tried to slap me, imagine that!” We’re sitting again with Ben’s mother in her kitchen, listening to the latest episode in the battle with her husband. For the past weeks the couple has done nothing but fighting, and Ben’s mum wants a divorce. She’s moving out today. Ben is supposed to help her carry all her stuff to a small hotel at the other end of town. “As far away from this place as possible,” she says. I’ve borrowed my mum’s car for the occasion, much to her consternation. My parents think I should stay out of “other people’s trouble”. They probably fear that I will be caught in a shooting match.
There are several cardboard boxes piled up next to the entrance and we’re drinking a final cup of tea before we get going. The TV and framed pictures are already packed away, with the exception of the wedding kiss photo, which Ben’s mother doesn’t want to see ever again. Ben and his mum are still debating what to do about the heavy cupboard. He thinks she should just leave the “old piece of junk” behind. She thinks she might need it for her new home, wherever that’s going to be. Plus she doesn’t want to give her husband the pleasure of keeping something that belongs to her. “He’s taken enough from me already.” Ben’s mother says she tried really hard but it just wasn’t possible to get along with Ben’s father. “He doesn’t listen, he doesn’t care, all he wants is a cleaning lady and some entertainment in bed… Even though he can’t get it up anymore, you know?” So last night she finally announced that she’s splitting. Ben’s dad allegedly got out of his mind. Their screams echoed through the "island". “He hasn’t changed a bit,” Ben’s mother says. Ben nods mechanically. On our way to the "island" he actually told me he feels responsible for this whole mess. He should have prevented his mother from remarrying his father. “Sometimes she can be so stupid, it drives me nuts,” he said.
For a change Ben’s father decides to return home before lunch. Opening the entrance door, he complains that one can hardly walk in because of all the cardboard boxes. We are still sitting at the kitchen table, so he casually joins us. “You approve of what your mother’s doing?”, he asks Ben. “You don’t just walk out of a marriage, you know, you have to put some effort, but she wants to be pampered all the time.” He goes on to tell us about all the money he has spent on his wife, covering most of her debts, paying her medical bills, taking her out to eat. Ben’s mother vehemently disagrees, claiming that half the time she had to beg even for “some change” to do the shopping. “He promises and promises but never gives,” she says. The father calls her a liar and a madwoman.
Suddenly Ben rises from his chair and threatens to break his father’s nose if he insults his mother again. The father also rises, looks his son in the eyes and says “What are you gonna do, you punk?”. At which point Ben grabs the old drunkard by the few hairs he has left above his ears. This inspires the father to pick up a knife and say “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.” It’s one of those blunt knives used for butter. It takes me a while to convince Ben to let go of his father before causing another stroke. When Ben’s dad finally walks out of the duplex again, shaking from head to toe, Ben’s mum looks triumphant. “You see what I’ve had to put up with every day?” She offers Ben another cup of tea.
We need about an hour to load the car. Little Rosie kindly offers us a hand, even though she can’t carry anything because of her chronic back pain. She has agreed to testify against Ben’s father if the case ever goes to court. Because of her son’s divorce, Little Rosie has gained quite some experience with court procedures during the past couple of years. When we’re about ready to leave the "island" – “for once and for all,” Ben’s mum hopes, – Ben proposes that we go “check out those macaws.” In spite of everyone’s lousy mood. Then again, it might be our last chance to do it. We invite Little Rosie to come along.
The zoo is tiny, just a dull park with one or the other tree and concrete cages scattered about. We walk around the predators section, basically consisting of some big felines and an old crocodile couple. None of them moves or reacts to our presence. A kid stops just next to us to take a picture of the lion, who looks straight ahead in absolute misery. There’s an eerie quietness all around. “Do you think they’re suffering from muscle atrophy?”, I ask Ben. Little Rosie and Ben’s mother stroll past the cages without paying any notice. They’re talking about ice-cream.
When we arrive to the Birds section, Ben becomes quite agitated. He rushes to find the proper cage. He thinks he can still remember where it was. Indeed we soon spot them, the Scarlet Macaw or “Ara Macao”, as the tag in front of the cage tells us. “Natural habitat: from Mexico to southern Brazil. PLEASE DO NOT FEED THE ANIMALS!” Ben stares at the two creatures perched on a couple of worn-out branches. “I thought their cage was much bigger,” he finally says. He often daydreamed about sneaking in and being adopted by the birds: he would imitate their squawk and convince them that he belonged to their species. The macaws hardly have space to hop around, much less flutter their wings. Which is ironic, as their tag goes on to explain: “Members of the subfamily Psittacinae, Macaws are the most colourful of large parrots. As pets, they need flying space and something to chew on.” These two specimens in front of us don’t look particularly attractive, their feathers are bland and used up or missing altogether, especially around the neck. Ben seems to be on the verge of tears.
Just then one of the macaws starts pecking the other. Only it doesn’t look like grooming at all. The attacked bird tries to walk away, but his opponent is relentless. Finally the victim begins to screech in an awfully high pitch. The birds in the surrounding cages join in.
Copyright © 2008 Clary Antome. All Rights Reserved.