Nelly’s Search for Meaning

(Corsica 2018)

Nelly was arrested after the incident. He is tanned, fit, handsome and spoiled. He parties often, drinks alcohol, does weed and other drugs. He neither works nor studies. He is depressive, violent and suicidal. Nelly, ladies and gentlemen, is my brother.

Three years before the incident, weeks after he turned 19, Nelly shoved our stepfather to the ground and punched and kicked the fallen man after a minor altercation at their home in the Australian suburbs. A police patrol came. Two tall white men gathered the different testimonies from the aggressor, the victim and the witnesses, told my brother to be wise, wished everyone good night and left.

Only months later, Nelly told our mother that he would cut her head off when she asked him to clean the feces of their golden pet rabbit. The rabbit was a cripple. The first time he escaped from his mesh and wood cage, a German shepherd chased him and crushed one of his legs. The animal doctor, a fat blond woman who had lived her fifty years in the suburbs, said sternly: I cannot mend him. The golden rabbit broke from his cage again months later. He ran for the second time into the German shepherd. The golden rabbit is now dead and our mother’s head is still attached to her neck.

When he turned 20, Nelly tried to jump off the balcony of a hotel in Dubai during the winter holidays. The pizza that moron served us was cold and tasteless, he said when asked for an explanation. It is true that bland pizza can be infuriating.

During the same vacation time, he tried to hit a young Arabic man in the face because, according to his words, the young man had stared at him wildly. As if bad pizza didt no suffice to make a young man’s life miserable.

Our biological mother and our adoptive father, also by all means peculiar individuals, were terrorized. Thread with care, Mother told us, he is irrational and unpredictable, he likes nothing and no one. His disorder is not only mental. Don’t tell him I said this, I beg you, but I think he is possessed by demons.

Things had promplty escalated since our first meeting in Marseilles. It was a sunny day. It is always sunny in Marseilles. That first lunch was almost nice and uneventful. We shared mussels in white wine served with fries which we washed down with beer or soda, took family photographs, gave each other hugs, smiled, laughed and said one after the other: It’s been a while, but it feels like yesterday.

Someone had the bad idea to insist in also breaking bread at night together. I think it was mother, but I can’t remember well. Grandmother, Mother, our stepfather Michel, Aunt Lorca and her daughter Sarah, our friend Adal, who had travelled from South America to be with us, my brother Sebastien, Nelly and I met at their holiday rental, a two-bedroom apartment ten minutes from the old port.

Nelly didn’t talk too much but ate some cheese with bread, butter and sausage. He also played and juggled silently with a tomato. Two hours into the meal, perhaps tired of the meaningless conversation we were having, he decided to make us, and many of the neighbors of the building, listen to some of his favorite music. The boom bounced on the walls and our bodies and occupied the room like a poltergeist of noise. We looked at each other mutely. No one was willing to ignite the fire. I closed the only window in the apartment in a meek attempt to send a message and avert an angry knock on the door from either janitor or neighbor. With one less way of escape, the bouncing racket just intensified. Could you lower the sound a little? our stepfather asked. He obeyed and mumbled before leaving to the room he shared with Sebastien: You can all go to hell. Which made me think, Aren’t we already there?

For the next day, Michel suggested a walk in the Calanques, the limestone cliffs along the bay between Marseilles and Cassis. Let’s get some food and drink some wine. It’ll be fun, said Michel with a big smile. With only one driver for so many of us, that driver being Michel, the group had to be split and be delivered to the entry of the inlets in two carloads. The men went first as there would be some waiting time under the strong Mediterranean sun. it didn’t take thirty minutes for Nelly’s cursing to begin. That cunt, he said, his usual nickname for our stepfather Michel, and the witch woman. Fuck, he said, I didn’t ask for this. I didn’t ask for this shit.

I sat on the grass to enjoy the show, took out a baguette, produced a container filled with fresh hummus, spread the yellow paste on a piece of bread with my index finger and chewed slowly as we waited. Fuck, cunt, shit, again and again. I washed the bread with half a can of beer. The hummus was delicious.

We avoided a catastrophe by calling the walk on the cliffs off and opting for a simple picnic at the beach instead. Sebastien, Adal, Nelly and I went swimming. Nelly stared at an old topless woman and couldn’t help sharing his disgust with us. I must agree that the dangling flesh brown from the sun wasn’t something pleasant to look at. He didn’t eat much that afternoon either.

The drive from Marseilles to Rousillon and Gordes, both ranked amongst the most beautiful French towns, went well the next day, since Sebastien thought it funny to show his left testicle when posing for most photos and because there was warm and tasty pizza served for lunch. He did share with me during the long hours of driving how much he hated his last Asian boss at the clothing store, how he knew much more about the job than that monolid, squinty twat just after a week of being there and how he’d quit because he abhorred that stupid Chinese.

Day four. I woke up before four in the morning to the snoring of Adal, a blaring clamor that made me recall the Israelite trumpets that brought down the walls of Jericho and the milky memories of the dream I was having. Millions of bright sardines, too many for the waters of the Mediterranean Sea to hold, washed ashore and overran the piers and turned the streets and roads of the ancient city of Marseilles into what looked like rivers of mercury. The fish wiggled in pain as their crimson gills collapsed and they suffocated. The sun, as red and bright as their gills, shone with fury over their corpses. The citizens, armed with shovels and buckets, covered their mouths and noses with rags and handkerchiefs to avoid inhaling the pungent miasma of the shimmering, decomposing carcasses.

I am by now convinced that many of the dreams we have are the mischievous heralds of disaster.

That morning at the airport of Provence we drank hot chocolate and coffee served with buttery croissants and pains au chocolat to kill time and hunger. Nelly drank some water from a plastic bottle and ate nothing. Nelly short and his body is mostly made of muscle. I wondered when and what he ate to keep in shape. Ten minutes before boarding, I accidentally spilled Sebastien’s hot chocolate on his clothes and passport and all over the table. Idiots, Nelly whispered, fucking idiots, and went to sit as far away from us as the airport architecture allowed with his headphones on his head. Blood and water came when the soldier pierced Jesus’ body with spear, but there we were, blatantly oblivious of his suffering, proffering insults at each other for a spilled cup of hot cacao.

All of us except for aunt Lorca and her daughter, both of whom stayed back in Marseilles, boarded the small twin-engine aircraft and arrived in Corsica in less than an hour, just enough time to tsake our seats, comment on the flamboyant male-steward’s hairstyle, a leonine blond mane combed in a classy pompadour, and finish eating and drinking the complimentary cookie and cup of hot coffee that he kindly gave us. A runway surrounded by mountains is quite a breathtaking sight. We waited for Michel to rent the car and faced the customary transportation impediment. Since there was no room for all inside the vehicle, some would have to go first and the rest would have to wait and follow. Sebastien stayed behind with Nelly. He wouldn’t stop cursing when you left, Sebastien told me when we met half an hour later at the hotel reception.

Seven people in a three-bedroom apartment split in two floors. There was a swimming pool and the ocean nearby, so no one cared except for Nelly. We met my sister Batista, a seasonal resident of the French island, at an Italian restaurant. Pizza, pasta, salad and pink wine. More photographs and laughter. But calamity was already knocking at our door. I swam in the warm waters under the Citadel, built over five hundred years back during the Genovese reign over the city, the rest of the afternoon. I dreamed of settling there and having babies with the young Brigitte Bardot who was not far away, her gilded skin covered only by an ochre-colored swimsuit, swimming with her handsome parents, only to go back on the cliff after the swim to sit next to my plump grandmother.

That night, Batista made an army-sized stockpot of spaghetti with fresh tomato sauce and herbs for all. The grownups drank wine and beer, the young ones stuck to soda. I went to sleep at ten since we had planned a busy morrow filled with acquatic adventures which included a boat trip, snorkeling and diving.

The rumpus started at around midnight. Michel shouted. Nelly shouted back. Mother screamed. Sebastien was pulling Nelly from one of his arms by the time I arrived upstairs. Adal, Sebastien and I managed to pin Nelly to the floor. He vomited words of hatred. I went to the kitchen and dialed the police telephone number when he left the apartment. I was trying to explain to the relaxed operator at the other end of the line my best version of the events and telling him what might happen if the cavalry didn’t come right away when Nelly came back through the front door. He charged at me like a bull gone wild, his childish face transformed by anger. He pinned me to the wall as I dropped the phone. His fists missed my face twice because I raised my right leg to protect myself. His third attempt got me and almost broke my shoulder. I shoved him back and Sebastien and Adal grabbed him from behind and dragged him out of the apartment. The police patrol didn’t take long to arrive.

The officers, three tall white men and a short dark-skinned woman, took him to the only hospital in town. They smoked and talked to mother and wished her well. The next morning, he was sent away to Bastia, a city 70 miles away from Calvi. He spent three nights in the mental ward of Bastia’s Centre Hospitalier, he was sedated, walked past crazies rocking back and forth, heard them scream at night, saw a man cut his own throat with a shard, was forced to swallow a large dose of tranquilizers and antidepressants and came back in a catatonic state to Calvi to spend the last two nights at Batista’s tiny apartment before his flight back to Australia. I opted out of the last family supper before the end of those holidays. I didn’t feel like being with him in the same room.

Mother’s new obsession is Nelly’s mental health. She talks and writes of nothing else since then. In 2017 more than 3,000 people killed themselves in Australia. That’s between 8 and 9 men or women every day. It is also the first cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 44 years of age. In Japan, where I live, things are much worse. More than 21,000 people took their own lives that same year. Suicide is also the top cause of death among Japanese between their late teenage years and well into their 30s.

I haven’t seen my brother since the day he was arrested and taken away. Months and even years will pass before the day we meet again. I only hope he’ll be ok.

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https://www.linkedin.com/in/francisco-betancourt-fb1982/

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