Whenever anyone asked him how many siblings he had, Teo would say, “there are five of us, but one died.” If this confused whoever asked, Teo would only shake his head and say: “I never met him. He was the eldest and died when he was a baby.” Teo and I were classmates since we were little. I became a friend of the family and spent a lot of time over at their place. When we were young, it was a cheerful house—much different than the one you got to know. Aside from making whatever she could teaching classes at the high school and then the university, your grandma Bel took care of everything. She made sure the chaos never totally overwhelmed them. Xavier was an editor, writer, journalist, and dramaturge, so I figure their day-to-day expenses were paid by Bel’s work and, from what I could gather, the remains of an inheritance. They lived in Butantã, in a house that belonged to Xavier’s father—your great-grandfather, the doctor. When I was a kid, there weren’t many houses on that street. Theirs must have been one of the first. You went there when you were very little—I don’t know if you’d remember. There was a yard with trees, and sunny rooms with high ceilings. The broken furniture never got fixed; it eventually just disappeared. The emptiness expanded, so the interior of the house seemed to grow as the years went by. We’d build cities and ranches on the parquet floors, and they’d stay there for months without bothering anyone. When the wooden wedges in the floor starting to come loose, they became walls and bridges, and we’d transform the tar and sawdust underneath into patches of rocky terrain. Then came the days of balsa planes and plastic monsters, the constant smell of glue and ink. The button soccer board must have stayed there until the house was demolished. Later on there were all these cushions where we’d spend hours lounging and talking, playing guitar, watching TV without the sound, and eating crackers and cream cheese. Nadia Comaneci in the ’76 Olympics and Sonia Braga in Dancing Days. The walls covered in newspaper clippings, the shelves stuffed with books and binders, and photos Scotch-taped to the paint. It was sort of like a bunker, or maybe the reverse: we had sunlight, air, books, TV, the guitar, and Graça’s white cake. In the event a nuclear war broke out, we could survive there for years on end.
I never saw a single picture of this dead brother, and the baby boy’s death didn’t seem to weigh on the family. Bel liked to tell stories about her kids when they were little, but she never talked about that one. So I started to think that maybe it was just a gothic affectation of your father’s part. One day, sometime near the end of that era of cushions and weed, I asked him about that brother. Your father stopped strumming the guitar, got very serious, and said:
“Up until last week even I didn’t really know anything either. I’d heard my dad tell people the same thing: I have five children, but one of them died. And so I started saying it, too: there’s five of us, but one died. I knew that this other son of his was born before he got married to my mom, the result of a fling in his youth. I thought the phrase had a heroic ring to it for those of us who survived. And something supernatural, too, because he always said I have and not I had, suggesting that all five remained with him in the present. Then a week ago I was on the phone with Helinho and I laughed and said, there are five of us, but one’s dead. I think it had something to do with Rafa, who swore he wouldn’t come play button soccer with the rest of us until he passed his college entrance exam. My father was nearby and overheard me. He asked me why I was making light of such a serious subject. You know my father—you know how he is when he gets serious.”
I don’t know if you remember your grandfather, but he adored you. Xavier was a special person. When he was around, anything could turn into a gag or a joke, including his own failures. He was always devising some new way of making money from theater or literature. One time he came up with the idea of printing cheap books and selling them at newspaper stands and distributing them to street vendors. Books with plenty of action and sex, sexy women on the covers and “metaphysical messages between the lines.” They even sold pretty well: they were funny and not at all metaphysical. But Xavier always found a way to lose what money he had and end up owing even more. He also went through a period of trying to do this improvisational musical-dance-theater-circus thing. He’d place announcements in the newspaper for a theater class that was open to anyone but professional actors. He didn’t believe in acting workshops: he preferred magic and pirouettes, makeup, rags, feathers—and always music. Trumpeting fanfare, cello solos, stylish guitar, samba sung a cappella, the dry wooden taps of indigenous music. He’d gather a bunch of people in the garage and put on a traveling show—an andante performance in several movements connected by an invisible plot. In the Seventies he managed to put on a few of these shows. They’d start in the street at six in the evening, marching by the crowded bus stops and the bustling doorways of factories during the evening shift change. The spectators were part of the plot, but they only realized it after the show had gone by. I saw one of those shows, one in which Teo was one of the musicians. It was pretty awesome: sort of like a breeze, or a dream. Even though they were all done up with costumes and props for vaudeville and the circus, the performance was soft and sweet, almost like a landscape. It was the complete opposite of the Theater of the Oppressed: it was a theater of the irrepressible. It decompressed the streets and the hearts of people who got to see it. Nobody made any money off it, and your grandfather invariably lost much of his own. That was why he kept working as a journalist and art critic for several newspapers and magazines. He worked like a dog and lived for leisure—always ready with a bon mot and making the kind of scenes that embarrassed his children, especially as we all got older.
That’s why when he got serious—really serious, not fanatic or megalomaniacal, but serious—it was something that scared us. He changed colors, as though his blood started running the other way through his veins. His eyes got dark and his saliva thickened. We listened quietly and all felt the urge to get up and go when he, always so articulate, started stuttering.
“So then,” Teo continued, “he told me that he, my father, Xavier Kremz, was—forever and before all else—the father of this dead son, Benjamim dos Santos Kremz.” That’s right: the same as your name. Now hold on, listen: I remember everything I ever knew about it, but I never knew that much. I have an unbearably good memory—that’s why I’m so good at my job, all those announcements, jingles, slogans. I’m a professional plagiarist, that’s also how I knew your name was going to be the same as that dead brother’s, the full name on the death certificate I just showed you. At the time it didn’t occur to me that your mother could be the same one—Santos is such a common name. The amazing thing is that what disturbed you just now when you saw the certificates, those papers that Leonor found and wanted you to see—the whole twisted thing is true, it seems. That is, your mother, Elenir, was married to your grandfather and had a child by him, a child who then died—the first Benjamim. An insanity that I only just now learned—Leonor told me before she left. A truly crazy thing. For your grandfather, Elenir was Lili, and to your father she was Leninha.
Starting all over at the beginning will help you understand at least part of this tangled knot. All that business about “there’s five of us” happened just before he went to Minas. Your father spoke in hushed tones, he was so excited. “He said he’d never told me about Benjamim because it wasn’t just a story, like one of his theater projects, or the make-believe of children—it wasn’t just the tribulations of new parents. No: it was the story of his rebirth, the birth of Xavier the adult, the real Xavier, a delivery in which Xavier the boy had to die.” I didn’t understand, and said so. I saw that Teo was still struggling with it himself. “I didn’t really understand either, and my father seemed to regret that he’d started telling me. I asked how old my brother had been when he died. He got emotional when he heard me call his son my brother—his eyes welled up and I felt ashamed. He said that he was less than a month old, that his mother was very young, that it was a difficult birth, they’d used forceps and messed up and crushed the baby’s head. He ended up with birth defects and died before he turned a month old. I saw the whole thing was still very difficult for him.” We sat there in silence. Teo wasn’t one to get emotional. On the contrary, he looked down on sentimentality. I was the sensitive one, and I often suffered the brunt of his sarcasm. He demanded so much from himself, he was always on guard against going soft. But he needed to unload on someone about that conversation with Xavier. He was searching for the right words.
“You know, it was like my father was telling me a secret I already knew. He was lifting the veil from something I didn’t recognize, but always knew existed. He spoke about his love for other people, about his ability to get close, really close, to other people. Only this time he wasn’t talking about his theater or one of his classes, but real life. He was talking about his feelings and the direction that Benjamim’s birth and death had given him. He told me the mother of this brother of mine was a special woman, that after everything that happened he couldn’t stay at his desk at the firm, he needed to start over. He tried to go on, stuttering more through each sentence—but I had to duck out, I had to get away from him. From the way he was talking, it felt like I had something to do with the death of his first son—it was something half crazy. Something saccharine and cloying. In the heat of the moment I got angry; I’m not sure why. If it was so important, why hadn’t he told me about it before? And obviously it was important, a brother who’d died, it was something I’d never seriously considered. Later I got sad, as though this Benjamim had just died a few days beforehand. I don’t know—it was like we’d taken his place, without anybody ever saying his name in our home. But in my father’s heart he loomed larger than us all. It’s very strange. He’ll always be the eldest and the baby—dead, but alive whenever my father looks at any of us, or at anyone else.”
And Benjamim, let me tell you, it really was strange, especially in that house, the way a story like that wasn’t already known to everyone, commented at length, picked apart and sucked down to the bone. Everyone and everything in that house required commentary, nobody was exempt from it. I think it was a conviction of a piece with the times—the belief that we had the obligation to eliminate taboos, that the spoken word possessed that sort of power. Everyone had an opinion about everything in the Kremz household. Sometimes a disagreement would end in a shouting match; other times it was resolved by consulting the encyclopedia, dictionaries, books—or quite often, by Xavier’s dissatisfying conclusion that nobody was getting anywhere, that everyone else was too tired to go on. Your aunts Flora and Leonor were the two most modern girls I knew. I think it was the first house where boyfriends and girlfriends were allowed to spend the night together, and we could smoke whatever we wanted without a fuss. There was a real violence of ideas, an obligation to be alert to what was happening in the world, to submit everything to rubrics of analysis, curiosity, and taste. With that burden of culture and liberalism, I preferred to remain just an add-on to the family, and later return to my private and well-furnished house.
Teo was the youngest. Flora was already working by then; Henrique and Leonor were in college. And by the time he sat for entrance exams that year, Teo still had no idea what we wanted to do. Passing the exam wasn’t the problem. It wasn’t as hard back then as it is now, and everyone in that family was some kind of near-genius. The difficulty was choosing a career. He was the sharpest of our set: he wrote, drew, played, composed. And he did all of it well. He was a math whiz ever since grade school, always a few levels ahead of everyone else. Everything came so easily to him. Maybe that was why he hesitated—and actually, in his senior year Teo began to force himself to be a bad student. After that conversation with his father, it seemed like he put some things together in his head—something clicked with one of his preconceived notions, and he decided he didn’t want to go to college. He was sick of São Paulo and wanted to take a break, travel, see the sertão—things that don’t make any sense today, but which, back then, were still in the realm of possibilities.