Xavier turns off the light and listens to Alex’s breathing beside him, asleep. He, however, cannot help but think of all that has happened. He hears his father’s voice, as if still present, repeating over and over: “Men don’t knock, Xavier, men don’t knock.” Look at the friend who, although dreaming, seems to cry and, unintentionally, will gradually remember…
It had all started a few months ago when Alex and his parents moved into Xavier’s building. As they attended the same school and class, the boys quickly became friends and began talking, playing games, and exchanging confidences. Alex was cool, funny and above all a very good person.
At home we talked about the new neighbors. The mother said that the lady seemed very shy and quiet, just greeting the neighbors. Each time he did so, he bowed his head, as if afraid that they would see his face. Xavier’s father said he saw his neighbor always surrounded by people at the bar or in the park, and playing petanque with a group of men.
One Sunday when Xavier was hanging out with his parents, Alex’s father approached them. He greeted them, said his name was Pedro, and insisted on inviting them for an aperitif. When asked about his wife, he simply answered:
– Oh, this one! Is at home. You better not leave.
Then he added that Helena, Alex’s mother, did not like to walk on the street.
This information, and the disparaging tone in which it was spoken, did not please Xavier’s parents and they kindly declined the invitation.
Each day Xavier sympathized more with Alex. They often did their homework together at Xavier’s and had fun playing PlayStation or watching a DVD, which they later commented on with their colleagues. The only thing Xavier was surprised about was that Alex would never invite anyone to his house.
For some time now Xavier had begun to notice very strange things: Alex hardly spoke and walked as if scared. Sometimes he looked a little stunned, had bruises on his arms and legs, and always said he didn’t remember how they appeared.
One afternoon when they agreed to play together, Alex was late and Xavier went to his house. When Alex answered, Xavier had an unpleasant surprise. The friend had red eyes and a recent bruise on his face. When Xavier asked him what had happened, his very nervous friend only replied:
– Anything. Let’s go, come on.
Xavier thought it was the mark of a slap, but didn’t insist anymore. Down the hall, sitting on a couch, Helena was crying and pinching her nose with a bloody handkerchief. It was such anguish that he noticed in Alex’s face that Xavier told none of this to his parents. He tried to distract his friend and make them have fun together.
He had already forgotten this incident when, on a Saturday, they heard a tremendous knock from Alex’s floor. At first they thought they were moving furniture and anything heavy had fallen to the floor. However, Peter’s shouts rang throughout the house. When they heard a knock, the noises ceased. Xavier went to the window and saw Alex’s father leaving.
Some neighbors went out to find out the cause of the scandal. Xavier’s parents exchanged very concerned looks and asked their son if he had noticed anything strange about his friend. Xavier, a little scared, then told them what he had seen that afternoon. When the son finished the report, the father turned to his mother and said simply:
“This man pleases me nothing.”
One day, Xavier and his friends started talking about their problems at home, and laughing, they were talking about what their parents said. Alex remained silent looking at each other until George, who was very bold, inquired directly:
“And at your house, Alex, who runs the most, your father or your mother?” Who do you get along with best?
After a short silence, the boys continued to talk and laugh, but Xavier saw how very flushed and bothered Alex was.
So Xavier said he didn’t know who was in charge most of his home, for both his father and mother behaved the same way and saw neither of them wanting to be more important than the other.
– “There has to be equality” is what my father says. “There has to be equality between man and woman.”
– But that’s bad. A man has to wear his pants. My father says if you don’t do it, you’re neither man nor nothing, ”Alex answered him, meeting his eyes.
Xavier didn’t reply, but he didn’t know what Alex meant. That night at dinner he told his parents what had happened and asked them what Alex meant by that. I liked the phrase, because men always wear pants, but women often do too. His parents laughed, but soon fell silent and looked at him seriously.
The father then said:
“Look, Xavier, our society doesn’t educate men as it should. Make us believe that we are superior to women just because we were born men, you understand? And that is a lie. And they trick us into saying that we are stronger than them, smarter and better at everything. And it is also said that we are less men, weaker if we are affectionate with our wife, if we tell her our problems, ask her for advice and help, and if we change our mind after talking to her.
“But I don’t understand that having to put on my pants.”
“That,” said the mother, “is a way of saying that men must command women to assert themselves as men, to be masculine.”
“It’s foolish, Xavier,” his father said. “It’s not a body part that makes you a man, nor is it a scream, a punch, a bad word, or a knock.” Men, who are truly men, don’t knock, ”her father said very seriously. “They only beat cowards who take advantage of their strength, or even the affection with which they treat them.” Always remember this, Xavier: men don’t knock…
– But Alex’s father says a man… that what a man should do…
It did not finish the sentence. The father smiled:
“Xavier, Alex’s dad doesn’t know what he says. I suspect you must not be a very good person. And if you’re not a good person, much less can you be a good man, not just a man, you know, son? Even if I have … you know.
They both looked at their mother’s displeased face and the three of them burst out laughing.
Xavier didn’t understand everything well, but didn’t want to ask any more questions. Nor did she do them the day her mother commented that Helena seemed to have had an accident, since she was all hurt and with a black eye, having added:
“Too bad you don’t have family here, or anyone to help you.”
Xavier’s father said nothing and continued to eat, although occasionally he shook his head in concern.
Things between the two friends stayed on the same footing, until one day Xavier confided to Alex that he would like to know his room, to see his books and toys. Alex looked at him slowly, taking a long time to answer, and finally told him that he would ask his parents if he could invite him home. Three days later, very happy, I told him that his mother was waiting for them to have lunch and commented that his father was traveling.
The snack was great and Xavier found Alex’s mother very nice. Helena played games and riddles with them, told them stories, and told them books so gracefully that the three of them laughed like good friends.
Suddenly there was the sound of the key in the lock. The smile faded from Alex’s mother’s face and her hands began to shake as if she were sick. She got up at once and, madly, started pacing. Alex went to her edge, patted her hands gently, and they were both very quiet when his father entered the room. Peter looked at the three of them and, addressing his wife, commanded her:
– Make me dinner.
Then he approached Alex and gave him a party on his head. Xavier found it curious to see how his friend melted all over his father’s caress, as if he were a dog thirsty for affection. But Alex had wet eyes, as if scared.
Over time, things went from bad to worse. In Alex’s apartment there were shocks and shouts more and more often, until one day the alarmed neighbors gathered to decide what to do. Then Xavier knew what was going on: Alex’s father was a violent person and beat his wife. Xavier realized that he was mistreating his son, too: that was the cause of Alex’s bruises, the fear he had seen in his eyes that caused his body to shake.
When they returned home, Xavier told his parents what he had seen that afternoon. They spoke to him more openly.
“There are cowards who beat their wives and children to forget their troubles and think of themselves as more men,” her father told her. “What they don’t know, Xavier, is that with each blow they show their weakness and cowardice, because, you know, they only hit who they think is weaker than them.”
“They’re like monsters, Xavier,” her mother added, “because they don’t reason, they don’t think, and they don’t love anyone.” They only want to control the lives of others because they think they control their own, even if they have to use violence: screams, insults, slaps, slaps, kicks, and even guns. As your father says, men, those who are really men, do not knock. Only cowards do it.
– But I don’t understand, mom. Why is Helena still living with this brute? Do you like it beaten? Why don’t you separate from him like other people do? Is it because you don’t like Alex?
“No one likes to be insulted and beaten, son,” her mother answered. – Helena is still with him because she is alone and does not know what to do or where to go; because she is afraid of the child she loves more than herself; because he is ashamed to acknowledge before her parents that the man he has chosen for a mate is a violent scoundrel who mistreats her. You don’t even know if they would understand it… Anyway, there are a lot of very complicated reasons. Sometimes life, Xavier, is very difficult for women. And even more if they are alone and have children to support.
As he remembered all this, Xavier turned to Alex’s bed, now sleeping peacefully, and thought of the horror his friend had been through that very morning. They were both returning from the park when, upon arriving home, they saw an ambulance, a police car, and a group of people staring at the entrance to the building. At that moment, Pedro was escorted by two agents and, moments later, Helena came on a stretcher. Alex, white with anguish, ran to his mother, who, all hurt, crying, and with a black eye, smiled at him and whispered to him:
– Alex, my son, now everything will be arranged, I promise you.
She couldn’t hug him, because her husband had broken her arm too.
Before falling asleep, Xavier thought of Helen, Peter, and his friend Alex, who, it seemed, would now live with his mother for his grandparents’ land. He also thought of himself and his parents. I wanted to be a man, but a real man. Her eyes closed as she still heard her father’s voice: “Xavier, men don’t knock.”
Beatriz Moncó The men in the pegan Barcelona, Bellaterra, 2005 (Translation and adaptation)