Brazos En Alto

— Bessie Flores Zaldívar

Tegucigalpa, Honduras

My brother took his first gulps of air on the last new year of the century. Some said, at the time, that it was the last new year ever, period—that the world would end in 365 days. My heavily pregnant mother had finally put me down for the night in a random bedroom of my great-grandparents’ house—where the loud Salsa music could still be heard far enough away that it seemed underwater, with Celia Cruz performing somewhere on the surface. My mother returned to the party in time for the countdown, the music growing louder as she approached until she couldn’t hear anything but the fast drums and laughs of the older men.

The shadows of dancing bodies celebrating last beginnings moved on the fabric of her dress that stretched around her belly. Someone handed her a plastic wine cup, and quickly, she gulped down the twelve grapes in it for each stroke of midnight. She felt a small pressure as she swallowed the last grape but attributed it to excitement or needing to pee again. And she went back to dancing, because even pregnant, my mother had hips that could move mountains. Hips with so much rhythm, the wind was jealous. At 3 a.m., her water broke. I imagine Diego, my brother, floating in his amniotic sac, listening to Celia’s voice distorted by the uterus wall, the same way I could hear it rooms away, in my sleep. Were we not reaching for each other? For the other’s breathing through the music, laughs and dancing?

Perhaps another young wife would’ve looked for her husband, the father of the child, right then. My mother didn’t. She was nineteen. Instead, her eyes scanned the room for the tall silhouette of her father, for a glint of party lights reflected on the back of a bald head. They got in the car and made their way through the streets of Tegucigalpa, usually quiet at this time, except for those that head to work with schedules unforgiving of the sun’s movement and its rules. But tonight, the city was illuminated by fireworks glinting a horizon, opening its eyes and buzzing with drunk men yelling drunk mens’ prayers over the music sliding through window and door cracks. They made it to La Policlina—the only private hospital in Tegucigalpa at the time—at around 3:30 a.m., Diego was born a few minutes later.

He wasn’t the first baby of the year. His picture wasn’t in any newspapers, and this always seemed to be a source of disappointment for him. The date, in general, wasn’t a good one for birthdays. “Your Christmas gift always counts double, so you get no birthday gift,” Diego said, “and you get no party because everyone’s busy celebrating someone else’s birthday—the new year’s. Also, everyone is hungover and broke for the rest of the month.”

All true. Adding to the anticlimactic nature of his birth was the fact that our father didn’t even show up until the next day. Okay, I’m not one to excuse the man—never have been—but I’ll say that this time, at least, there was a reason. Diego’s birth came during one of the most devastating events in Honduran history—Hurricane Mitch. About 10,000 people had died in the final two months of 1998. Areas of the city were still underwater. My grandfather and mother must’ve crossed the bridge that led to the hospital hours before it crumbled, guts of old concrete diving into the river below as firelights turned their slope around in the sky. The next morning, when my hungover father and his primo were driving over to meet his first (and what would be his only) son, the bridge was already gone. Powdered. Destroyed.

When I think of the moment they approached the bridge, I understand that, logically, several meters before reaching it, there must’ve been traffic cones, warning signs, barricades, even police officers preventing access to what would now be a fatal fall into a furious river. El Río Choluteca. Still, I prefer to imagine no warning. That the collapsing of the bridge had gone unnoticed, so as my father drove at full speed, eager to meet Diego, he only realized there was no bridge a few meters before the edge. He pushed the brakes as far as his foot would reach, his droopy, tired eyes opening double their size. The car, like in movies, stopping just inches away from the fall. In fact, some small pavement rocks and debris fall over the verge. The horrible squeaking of the breaks can be heard all the way to the other side, all the way to the hospital room where Diego sleeps. And he wakes, shifts. He knows our dad is trying to reach him.

But that’s not what happened. I’ve been telling myself so many stories about Diego, and his short life, that it’s getting harder to remember what is true and what I’m rewriting. So I try to look at pictures of him like our mami asked me to. I try to choose the perfect one for tomorrow.

In the hall before reaching our bedrooms, there’s a long wooden table full of framed photographs: my first birthday, my sister before a ballet show, my pregnant mother, Diego on the lap of a Santa Claus with acne, my grandparents at their wedding. We look different in these renderings of light-and-chemical reactions. Artificial, sure, with full-teeth smiles and hands on hips. Younger, of course, some with full-hair heads that are now bald, and lean, almost sucked in bodies. But also, completely different people from our real-life, non-mannequin bodies. I mean to say, the face of unfiltered eagerness on my nineteen-year-old mother, her right hand on her belly, is one I have never seen. The intimate look my grandparents share in front of that altar is one I’ve never spied. And my gripping hold of the pink piñata stick has a firmness I don’t recognize. We look unaware.

When my mom gets the call about identifying Diego’s body, a Monday at 7 p.m., I can’t stop thinking about the photo at the end of that hall, on a smaller, square table, all by itself. In it, it’s just the two of us, like it was for most of our lives. We’re standing in front of a blue wall with a gigantic sunflower painted on it. Diego must be three or two in the photo, making me around four or five. Both of his arms are raised like he’s celebrating scoring a goal or asking for help getting undressed. His hands are made into awkward fists. Something about his finger placement suggests he’s still figuring out how hands work. And he is smiling a mischievous child-like smile.

I’m the opposite. My hands are behind my back, my lips are sealed. My hair is pulled back into a tall ponytail. This is how people would describe us for the rest of our childhoods: I was the serious one, he was the funny one. I know this isn’t the right picture for tomorrow because Diego’s face is fifteen years younger than he was at the time of his death. But, is there not something to be said about how, at seventeen, my brother died holding the same pose in that photo. Brazos en alto.

Arms raised, my brother had helped me sneak out two weeks ago. Specifically, I needed Diego—both taller and stronger—to let me stand on his shoulders, so I could jump over the backyard wall. And so there he was, in his long boxers and a faded shirt, arms raised. I thought he must be cold, but I didn’t ask. The cooler nights came as a relief from the unbearably hot days in Tegucigalpa.

“Don’t let go,” I whispered, “don’t you dare drop me.” I could feel his grip tighten around my calves.

The street would illuminate momentarily every time a car drove by and then quickly revert to darkness. When it finally went pitch-black for more than a second, I pressed my hands into the wall’s edge, feeling the uneven concrete surface cutting the skin of my palms.

“Ya, Diego, let go,” I said. Slowly, I tried to lift my right leg over but felt him holding me put.

“Let go!” I said.

“Say we’re even.”

“What? Motherfu—”

“No more washing your dishes and no more threatening to send that picture to mom.”

“Fine, fine. Let go. We’re even.”

He let go. Straddling the wall, I said a quick, “Okay, bye, leave the door unlocked and don’t call me unless they find out,” and dropped to the other side.

“We’re even now!” Diego whisper-yelled.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” I said.

Mariana was waiting for me in an old, brown Corolla parked on the corner. I knew she would be in the passenger’s seat, and Angel, her boyfriend who claimed to be twenty-four but looked closer to thirty, would be in the driver’s.

“¡Esoooo!” she yelled when I got in. “¡Vamonoooss!”

The car smelled like cigarettes, alcohol, and men’s perfume. Mariana turned up the music, an old Reggaeton bop about waking up in a strange bed at 6 a.m.. Turning back, she handed me a room-temperature watermelon Four Loko.

“We have three Coronas and half a bottle of Jose Cuervo,” she said, “Text Jess. Tell her we’ll be there in… uhm… how long, baby, twenty?”

“Ten,” Angel said, pressing into the gas.

I pulled out my phone from the space between my underwear’s elastic and the skin around my pelvic bone. I switched it from silent to vibrate and ring, which I never do unless I’m sneaking out and need to be alerted to my mother’s wrath as soon as it happens. I was going into Jess’ chat when the screen turned dark, and my phone rang. Diego’s name appeared in front of me, and I thought I was dead. So so dead.

¿Que paso, Diego?”

Mariana turned around, looking mortified. She knows my mom well.

“Put it on speaker,” she whispered, so I did. I caught Angel’s eye in the rearview mirror. He looked vexed.

“Forgot to ask you that, if you can, please bring me one of those economical nugget combos that Wendy’s has. They’re open until three, I think. They’re just forty Lempiras… I can pay you back when you’re here.”

“I told you not to call me unless mom was up, you—!”

“Revenge is sweet,” Diego said, laughing, “but not sweeter than a Frosty, which is actually what I wa—”

I hung up.

“What an idiot,” Mariana said, rolling her eyes.

What an idiot, she texted me four weeks before, attached to a picture of Diego in the middle of a street, arms raised, sweat darkening his armpits, as he held a poster that read FUERA NARCOGOBIERNO, written in red marker in his messy handwriting. He’s surrounded by people with red flags and Honduran flags tied around their necks. He’s wearing a black bandana, Rambo-style. His thick black hair stands behind the bandana, some of the longer strands even falling over it. He’s not smiling in this picture; instead, his lips are pursed, his eyebrows lowered, and his eyes are closed. It looks like the sun is hitting him right on the face. I forwarded it to him, right then, adding a, Well, it was nice to meet you, and, You’ve been a good brother, all things considered.

I was lying in bed, scrolling through Twitter, trying to find the original post from which Mariana got the picture. It was from one of those anti-government accounts. The post was two days old. Diego’s picture wasn’t the only one; there were three others. A woman who looked about my age held one that said NOS ESTAN MATANDO in front of her belly. A white rag covered her mouth. A man held up, with one hand, another that read JUSTICIA YA. He looked directly to the camera. The caption for the post itself read: Young people take to the streets to demand the president’s resignation after being accused of involvement in a drug trafficking case.

I was about to check whether Diego had already seen my message when he threw the bedroom door open.

“How?” he demanded, standing by the end of the bed.

“How what?” I said, to annoy him more than anything, and pretended to keep scrolling.

He yanked the phone from my hands. “Come on,” he pleaded.

“It was on Twitter, idiot. Mariana sent it to me. More people have and will see it,” I said. “Just wait till one of mom’s friends sends it to her. If I were you, I’d be soaking up all the sun I could right now.”

He sat down, making the bed shift with his weight. He lifted my right leg and placed it on his lap, and starting pulling my toes until they popped. He always did that. We were both bone-popping addicts.

“Maybe I can ask them to take it down,” he said, “I’m underage, so…”

“You don’t look underage in that picture,” I said.

“Doesn’t matter. Mom hasn’t seen it. She would have called by now. I’ll ask them to take mine down,” he said. “I’ll say it’s for safety issues.”

I shrugged.

“Would you do it?” he said.

“Why me?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “’cause you’re older? You can say that I’m your underage brother, which is true, and ask them to please just take it down.”

I considered this. I knew I could always ask anything of Diego, and he would do it. When I wanted plantain chips, he walked to the store ten minutes away and got them. When I wanted money, and he had some, he would let me borrow it. Even as children, when we were left home, alone and hungry, while our mother worked late nights, he would cook stale, disfigured pancakes for us. In our relationship, leverage was useless except for one thing: dishes. Diego hated doing dishes, and I hated it even more.

“Okay,” I said, “but you owe me. You’re doing my dishes for a month. And if you don’t come through, I’ll send it to mom myself.”

“Okay,” he said. “Deal.”

He handed me my phone and got up, gently placing my leg back on the bed.

“Let me know what they say,” he said, walking out.

“Diego,” I called. He turned.

“It could really be a safety issue, you know,” I said. “Be careful.”

He smiled. “Of course, enana,” he said, “Always.” He winked and closed the door behind him, pulling it up so it wouldn’t groan.

I looked at the photo again, zooming in on the McDonald’s arch in the background. I recognized the place it had been taken, a street full of American chain restaurants. A common place for protests. I never knew how Diego was getting places, but with our mom and grandmother working all day, it was pretty easy to come and go as we pleased after school.

It feels wrong, now, to say this, but I had always assumed Diego’s activities were grounded in his need for chaos. When the coup happened in 2009, he was only ten years old. It was the first time we knew of widespread disaster: the power was cut every other day, and we could hear helicopters flying overhead at night, and when we were out—which wasn’t much since classes were always cancelled—we would see wall after wall covered in graffiti, the blackened bones of restaurants that had burnt down, and face after face of disappeared or murdered people glued to every light post and wall. We were too young to understand any of it, but we knew it was bad, bad enough that our grandmother would sometimes take us to work with her at the small sewing workshop.

We would play with everything that was misplaced—thread, the plastic cone the thread rolled around, discarded fabric, glitter, sequins, buttons, anything. Our grandmother isn’t a simple repairs seamstress; she was and still is the real deal. She fabricates elaborate outfits and costumes. Three or four women work under her, but she is the main cutter. Every outfit begins with her. First in her imagination, and then in her hands and scissors. If we were really lucky, we would steal a small plastic ball to play fútbol outside. She used them as head models whenever she had to make an elaborate headband, mask, or hat.

The workshop was located in a small brick house back then. The droning of the sewing machines, as well as the Catholic sermon music coming from the old radio plugged in behind our grandmother, would provide enough background noise for Diego and I to do basically whatever we wanted all day, unnoticed.

One day, weeks after the coup, I found him in the small—mostly dirt and dead grass—backyard. There were rocks of different sizes by his feet. There was also a golden can of spray paint, the kind I knew my grandmother used to color details that were meant to be gold in costumes, like Wonder Woman’s headband or Aladdin’s lamp.

“¿Que haces?” I asked.

“We need them for when we take the streets,” he said.

I understood. On the radio, they talked about the protestors throwing rocks at glass doors and windows.

Diego uncapped the spray paint and held the lid with his left hand. I knew I should stop him. We would get in trouble, since the house wasn’t even our grandma’s. It was just a place she rented. But I couldn’t. I was transfixed, and he was acting so matter-of-fact, a part of me must’ve believed in his conviction about being ready to go to the streets.

And so I just stared as Diego began spray-painting a U, and then an R, a G, an E. URGE, urgent. The golden spray paint contrasted loudly with the sad, grey concrete wall. I knew what he was writing, or—more likely—what he was copying: URGE MEL. Mel was the former president, the person who had been ousted. The words were a call for his return to power. I doubt he, or even I, understood anything about the politics of the coup or this Mel man. Diego continued, and he was about to start the final L, when our grandmother’s scream pierced our eardrums.

“¡Niño!” she called.

Diego turned around, dropping the lid. He raised his arms above his head, his right hand gripping the can, the golden lid circling his feet. Two of the other women came out, and after the initial scolding, they couldn’t stop laughing. They gave both of us buckets of water and a sponge to try and get the paint off. They would retell the story for years—how Diego thought, at ten years of age, that he could join the protestors whenever they passed by the workshop, his bag of rocks ready. Siempre tan desastroso, mom would say, when grandma retold the events to her. You always want to be wherever the mess is, Diego. Always. To which my grandma would say, It’s the lack of a father figure. Boys need mess—they need other boys to channel all the chaos inside them.

There must have been some truth to her words. Diego was the only boy in a house of five. When the national soccer team scored in playoffs for the World Cup, and he raised the TV’s volume as high as it would go, screaming at the top of his lungs, “¡Gooooooool!,” one of us yelled back, “Turn it down,” and another added, “Ayy, Diego, why you gotta be so loud?”

We were always complaining about his loudness, his roughness. He was a big boy, towering over those around him, stronger than everyone else. When he hugged us, he would, without meaning to, squeeze all the oxygen out of our lungs. But he had not always been a big boy. In fact, growing up, he was shorter than those his age. Our mean cousins and uncles would say to him: You’re most probably going to be a short boy. A short, fat, little man like your father. Un taponsito—a tiny lid.

I knew Diego was terrified of resembling our father in any way, not just physically. On the nights and evenings when the power would be cut, or a car would crash into a utility post, or a thunderstorm would leave the whole city without light, we would lay side-by-side on his bed, or mine, and talk about him for hours.

My brother always smelled like your favorite shirt does when you leave it out, drying under the sun for too many hours. Those moments in the dark, I’d bury my face in his arm or shoulder, smelling him. If we had any candles lit, I’d take in his half-illuminated face. How long his eyelashes were, long enough to replace bridges.

“Someday,” he’d say, passing me the bag of chips, “I’ll be the best dad in the world.”

And I believed him but would also add, “Well, he wasn’t always all bad, was he?”

“No,” he’d say, “but the good doesn’t undo the bad.”

“He was always calling you el campeón,” I’d say. “Do you remember?”

“Yes, for pictures especially… he’d tell me to raise my hands in the air, like Ronaldo, like I’d just scored. Or like Beckham.”

“Yeah,” I’d say, “I remember that.”

The Monday Diego died, he wasn’t up to anything. He wasn’t out protesting, writing on walls or inciting chaos. He was riding the bus back from school. I imagine him with his back leaning against the window, his long legs spread across the brown-leather seat, a hood over his head, and his headphones deep in his ears. I imagine those around him annoyed at how loud he played his music. He was into angry, underground, South American rappers. I imagine him sweaty, the heat inside the bus making his glasses fog and his brow leak. I imagine him complaining to someone in a nearby seat about how it’s insane that the windows are locked, that it’s impossible to lower them. And that person would say back, Yeah, but at least that way rocks won’t hit us, you know, if they throw any. It’s good that they’re making the windows of school buses in that material. And Diego would shake his head, say something about how we shouldn’t have to live in a country so full of rage that people would throw rocks at school buses.

But who knows if any of this is true. What did happen is, at some point, the students heard the noise of a nearby protest, then they smelled the tear gas and burning tires, and by the time the driver realized the magnitude of it, they were stuck, and there was no turning back. The bus was surrounded, on all sides, by cars that honked and drivers that yelled insults at the protestors, who then yelled them back. A student asked the driver to open the door, to let them get out, that the heat was unbearable, that the tear gas was getting in, somehow. Their eyes burnt. Their bronchial tubes were closing, and they couldn’t stop coughing.

“I can’t let you out,” the driver said, “you’d get killed or taken or ran over.”

At some point, in all the confusion, a car crashed into the bus door. The children all screamed, but none were hurt. They were trapped. Outside, everything looked grey, with the occasional glimpse of a person’s hand hitting the bus, yelling something. The bus driver honked and honked and honked. But everyone around him was doing the same.

“There’s children inside!” he called. But no one could hear him.

The children’s faces were turning blues and purples, and their tears burnt their eyes even more. Those that had water bottles poured them over themselves.

And at some point, Diego went up to the driver and said, “We have to get them out, now. Through the emergency exit on the ceiling.”

The driver nodded and got up, following my brother’s lead. Through coughs, Diego explained the procedure to the other students on the bus: He was tall enough to open the emergency exit. The driver would get out before them and be waiting on the roof. One by one, the students would stand on a seat, and then he would lift them from their armpits and raise them until they reached the exit, at which point the driver would help pull them through. When they were all out, he and the driver would help get them down to the street and find a place to hide.

Diego got every kid out, of course. Even those that were as old as him. One by one, he lifted them, like trophies, like el campeón. By the time it was his turn to get out, it was too late. His eyes were shut. He just couldn’t lift himself.

They said it was rare for anyone to die from tear-gas inhalation. That the amount he would have had to breathe in was immense. In fact, they told us, it probably wasn’t the tear gas alone, but also the fumes from all the burning tires and clothes.

There was nothing about it in the news; his picture—just like when someone beat him to ‘first baby of the year’ seventeen years before—was not in any newspaper. I wondered if this time, it would disappoint him. I think it would.

Our mother asks my sister and me to look for pictures of Diego for the wake.

“Everything is on those damn phones now,” she says. “There’s no real photos.”

I think of my brother helping me sneak out, arms raised in companionship. I think of the photo on my camera roll, of him at that protest weeks before, his arms raised in defiance. I think of that photo of us on the table, arms raised like un campeón. I think of him pulling child after child out of that bus, arms raised in surrender.

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