1 Side by Side 50 Lígia Gambini The sun was burning his head when he got home. As he stopped in front of the door, he realized he had counted a thousand steps, and he thought that it was a really interesting number. He remembered he had never counted a thousand before, even when he had tried very hard to do it, the most he got was nine hundred and eighty-five; it was strange to think that he had counted a different number of steps walking home from the same place. But now, at least until he recounted them the next day, he was sure school was exactly a thousand steps from home. He could remember each one of them, because with each step he could hear a different musical note of her laughter, and as he first put his right foot inside the hall, he felt that unpleasant sound would not leave him alone anymore. Mom! Dad! I m home! He knew his calling was in vain, because his parents were always at work when he got home but, even then, he always expected to hear an answer from one of them. They had always told him there was a lot of work to do, and he believed them. He didn t even get angry at them when they brought their work home, as they used to do almost every day. As he heard no word, he looked for the keys inside his pocket and turned back to close the door. He locked the door once and, as usual, unlocked it. Then he locked it again, and then unlocked it. He locked it again, and one more time unlocked it, just to lock it one last time. He left his bag on the sofa and went to the kitchen to drink a glass of water before he got upstairs to his bedroom. After fifteen steps he was lying on his bed, and he felt as if the silence of the room made her laughter much louder, and her words echoed in his brain as she said he could not even hold the ball in his hands, and repeated, How stupid you are Daniel! How stupid you are!. He could perfectly see the faces of everyone around her in the football court, laughing at his face and repeating how stupid he was. But he had to agree with them, he was really stupid at football, and knowing that they were saying the truth, he started laughing too.
2 However, as he thought of everything now, he could see nothing funny about it. After all, he didn t care about football, he didn t care about the other boys, and he didn t care about his coach. But he cared a lot about Valerie; at least, he thought, when she was laughing at him she noticed his existence, which happened on really rare occasions. Two or three times he had tried to talk to her near the bathroom and at the cafeteria, but she had given him no attention. She had only said hello, as she did all the time to every girl and boy at school who just expected a word from her. But he expected more, and this was the reason for him to be so disappointed with her attitude that morning, when she had conducted that enormous chorus of laughter. The clock told him it was four o clock, and he got out of bed and started looking through his window, as he knew she would get home in five or six minutes. And when he saw the shadow of her feet crossing the street, his heart started beating so fast that he thought it would break at any time. But it didn t, and this gave him the chance of waiting until she opened the front door of her house and stepped inside the hall. He looked at the clock, it was seven past four, and in three minutes she would go upstairs and in four minutes she would open the window across from his. Then she would put her bag in her closet, and he would see her taking off her tennis shoes and her sweater, and she would call some friend and talk on the phone for a long time, as she did everyday. He hoped today it was a very close friend, because the more she talked, the more he could stay behind the curtains admiring her smile. In thirty-six minutes she was hanging up the phone, and his feet complaint about being too much time in the same position. Now she would take a bath and go downstairs for dinner, and he would only see her the next day at school. Daylight was beginning to fade, and when she had gone upstairs again, it would not be possible to see her anymore, because she would close her window. Danny, we re home! Take a shower and don t be late cause I will cook something very quickly for dinner! Ok, mom. Still thinking of her, he took a rapid shower and got downstairs to the kitchen. His father was working on something on his laptop while his mother cooked five potatoes in a red sauce. He was saying hello when his father told him not to speak so loud, because he needed to finish that damn document and send it to a client through that very night. He then silently opened the tap and 51
3 washed his hands with soap. Then he closed it and opened it again to wash them one more time. He opened it a third time and washed them again. Danny, what are you doing? Don t you think they re clean enough? Do you need to wash them three times? What have you done with them that has made them so dirty that you need to wash them for almost ten minutes? You do these strange things all the time! What s wrong with you, son? Sorry, mom? Have you said something? Nothing, Danny, it was nothing. Just forget about it. In twelve minutes they were eating some vegetables and the five potatoes in the red sauce. As they ate, he could hear the clock saying it was a quarter past seven, which meant that in fifteen minutes his parents would lock themselves in the office and work the whole night long. That silence was too common for him, but sometimes he expected them to ask something about school. They never did, because he had never caused problems at school or at home, but he would feel a little more comfortable if they tried at least to know a little more about his day, because he would be sure they cared about him. And answering some questions would give him less chance of thinking about Valerie that night. At thirty past seven, as usual, they finished dinner with no words about his school life. Actually, they finished dinner with no words at all. As he went upstairs again, he felt tired and sad, and he decided to sleep earlier that night, even though he knew it would be really difficult to get Valerie s laughter out of his head. Her face started running around his brain, and he could think of nothing but her mouth laughing at him in front of her colleagues. Danny, don t stay up too late, ok? And be careful of what you look for on the internet! He gave his mother no answer, as she had given him no questions. He entered his bedroom and closed the door. Then he opened it and closed it again for three or four more times, he was not sure about the exact number. Then, he lay on his bed and started looking at the forty-seven stars which he had glued on the back side of his door. They formed the constellation of Leo, because he was born on the nineteenth of August, and they also formed the constellation of Virgo, because Valerie was born on the twelfth of September. They were side by side on the back of his door, and he hoped they would be side by side at a different place sometime. He fell asleep and dreamt about her, as he did every night, and almost all the time when he was awake. Some time ago he had realized that the more he tried to take 52
4 her off his mind, the more she became the only thing he thought about. He would see her tomorrow, and there was always the possibility of trying to talk to her. Suddenly the clock told him a little louder that it was ten past seven in the morning, and he got out of bed desperately thinking he was five minutes late. As he opened the window and hid himself behind the curtains, he saw that her bedroom door was closed, and he realized she had already gone downstairs for breakfast. She would leave home through the back door, and he would not have the chance of seeing her until lunchtime at the cafeteria. It was Thursday, and as a cheerleader she would wear her red uniform and French braid. He started thinking how beautiful she would look in it, and he almost thought of trying to say to her that she was amazing. But, at the same time, he thought his words would make no difference at all because, when he had gotten there, everybody would have already said it to her. With these thoughts in mind, he took a quick shower and went downstairs to eat his cereal. From the top of the stairs he could see his parents having breakfast at the kitchen, and he realized that silence was even more common when he was not there with them. The lights in the hall were off, and he turned them on. Then he turned them off, and then on, and then off, and then on, and then off, and then on. Without knowing the reason why, he did not stop doing that for more than two minutes, until he felt his father s hands pressing his shoulders in such a hard way that he screamed with pain: Dad, what are you doing? You re hurting me! What am I doing? What am I doing, Daniel? What are you doing, boy! Are you nuts? Do you want to damage it? What are you trying to do? Nothing, Dad, I m sorry! Let me go, you re hurting me, Dad, please! Don t talk like that! I know why you have done these stupid things lately, this wasting a lot of water washing your hands, these repeated movements, almost damaging the lights. You want to call our attention, don t you? Don t we give you enough attention? Don t we buy you clothes, shoes, and everything else you need? Don t we ask you what s going on when you seem to have a problem? Don t we care about you and give you love? Do you think we re not good parents, huh Daniel? His head was aching much more than his arms and he could not find the right answer to his father s questions. He wanted attention, he wanted love, and he wanted to feel they cared about him, but deep in his heart he could not. He had 53
5 tried to comprehend their actions, but he had never been able to understand their behavior, the way they didn t talk to him, the way it seemed to them that everything was all right, when, in fact, everything was absolutely wrong. Exactly the way Valerie didn t notice him at school, his parents didn t notice him at home, no matter what he did. He remembered all the times he had tried to talk to her, as he had tried to talk to them, without having a simple answer. And now he could see in his father s eyes that familiar look he had so many times seen in Valerie s: he was looking at him as if he was a freak. Suddenly he realized that he really felt as being a freak, because he could not control most of his actions, and there was nothing he could do to change the way people looked at him. He would always be the strange guy, stupid at football, stupid with girls, and stupid at everything else. He looked light-pale when he finally got out of his father s hands, and while he ran upstairs he could feel the tears burning his eyes, as they had been doing for a long time since he had realized he was not like everybody else. He saw his father going back to the kitchen, pretending that nothing had happened. After twenty-one steps he opened his parent s bedroom door, and he had time to turn the lights on and off three times only. He stopped in front of his father s desk and opened the left drawer. Then he closed it, and opened it again, and then closed it, and opened it one more time, closed it, and opened it once more. And every time he opened it, his eyes met the bright light which was reflected on that silver barrel. As his hands touched it, they felt the coldness of metal, exactly like his heart had felt the coldness of his father s words. This was the only thing he had time to think of, and then his mind started getting too confused until he could not control his body anymore. While he went downstairs, he held the gun right in front of his chest, with his arm completely sure of what it was going to do. As he entered the kitchen, there was no time for a single word: Oh, God, Danny, what have you done? My God, son, what have you done? Oh no, oh no, what am I going to do now? Danny, what happened to you? He had only time to say to his mother that he was sorry, and as he ran to the front door he turned back only once to see her trying to talk to his father, whose body lay dead across the red floor. As he took the first of a thousand steps, he felt as if the world had lost its sense, or, at least, as if he had lost his senses. As he passed by the people on the street, he didn t even try to hide the gun, because his thoughts were too busy to dissimulate his actions and, besides that, he knew that 54
6 no one would have enough time for noticing him. He walked so fast that he almost lost his count. Now, in twenty-five steps he would be able to see Valerie talking to her girl friends in the playing field. He was right. She looked absolutely fabulous in her red uniform, and her blond French braid was brighter than ever before. She moved her arms and legs up and down, carefully holding her golden pom-poms, as she and her friends sang the football team s anthem. He wanted to hold her and kiss her and love her as he had never loved a girl before. And he wanted her to like him, to talk to him, to notice him just one time! But as he saw the other guys of the football team approaching her, he finally realized that it would never happen. She would never like him, talk to him, or even notice him. Those guys were everything that he wasn t, and he had no chance of getting close to her, because he was a freak. Thirty-two more steps and he was in front of her, looking into her eyes and trying to say how much he loved her, and how he felt obsessed by the idea of being with her for the rest of their lives. And he started crying as he realized that their lives would not take so long. She didn t say hello, or even noticed him. As usual, when he approached her, she was too busy talking to important people, and he knew he was not that important. In fact, he knew he was not important at all. So, he looked at her one more time, trying to memorize each line on her face, in order not to forget them anymore. Nobody, not even himself, could really understand what was happening there until they saw her body falling down to the floor. And after she had fallen, they were so busy shaking her and asking for help, that they didn t even look around to find the one who had shot her. Once more nobody had noticed him. As Daniel watched that schizophrenic scene, he started realizing what he had done to Valerie and to his father, and he was then much more confused about his actions. When the first guy turned back from her and looked at him, he had almost returned to himself. But he didn t give his mind enough time to wake, because he knew he wouldn t be able to face that situation. As he looked at the people around him, the last thing that he realized was that, at that precise moment, nobody was laughing at him, and he liked that final sensation. Once more there was no time for words, and after he had put the gun to his head, he was sure that there was no way of getting back. As his body fell down to the floor, he felt no more pain for his father, or for his mother, or for Valerie, or even for himself. And a thousand and forty-seven steps away from the constellations of Leo and Virgo which lay on the back of his bedroom door, he and Valerie lay on the playing field. And for the first and the last time they 55
7 were together, exactly like those little stars. Their bodies and their souls were finally in the way he had always expected them to be: side by side. 56