from The Story of a Son
by Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz
introduced and translated by Hanna Löfgren
The Story of a Son, by Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz, is a painful and at times brutal account of a tumultuous time in the life of its protagonist Angel. Born in Colombia, Angel was adopted by a couple in small-town Sweden. His adoptive mother died when he was just three years old, leaving him to be raised by his adoptive father, a cruel and violent alcoholic. The novel opens with Angel, now in his early thirties, returning to his childhood home to confront his father. What follows is the story of a young non-binary person spiralling in a world of alcohol, drugs, sex and loneliness as he struggles to find his place, discover who he is, who he could be, and what it means to love and be loved.
The following is a translation of the first chapter. Please note that, given the pivotal roles that sex and sexual relationships play in Angel’s search for identity and belonging, this chapter contains a sexually explicit scene.
from The Story of a Son
The ground beneath my feet feels foreign, the white snow swirling around my body as if wanting to transform me. I should never have been here.
It is so cold outside that with every breath your windpipe cramps in protest. The green semi-detached wooden house stands anonymously among the rows of houses that can only be told apart by their different shades of watered-down pastel colours. I grip the front door handle so tightly my knuckles turn white; fingernails painted in night blue, a nearly noble shade, my favourite nail polish. An inherited melancholy radiates from the door handle and into me.
When I unlock the door and push the handle down there is no way back. It is dark outside now and my lower back aches after the long drive from Stockholm. Without really knowing how, I am suddenly standing in my hall, no, not mine, his.
There is a familiar smell of freshly-brewed coffee and unrinsed empty bottles and everything looks the same as the last time I was here. The cork flooring in the hall and the heavy, wooden, early-’80s furniture, none of the lights are on. I put the key back under the ceramic frog on the steps outside, from where I have just retrieved it. Then I close the door behind me, leaving it unlocked.
‘Hello?’ I say. Talking in this house is like singing a lullaby into a down pillow.
‘Yes?’ answers a thin, raspy voice from the kitchen. ‘Do you want coffee?’
I bend over to unlace my leather boots, his voice surprises me, I don’t remember it being so small. Out of habit, I place my boots on the shoe rack – in this house everything has its place – and walk into the kitchen.
He is sitting with his cup in the soft light from the kitchen fan, which bathes the kitchen in a warm glow. Everything is pine: the wall panels, the kitchen cabinets, the drawers, the round, heavy table and the lamp hanging over it, the chairs and the spice cupboard. The kitchen looks like a sauna.
‘I see you’re driving an Opel, what kind of a car is that?’ he says as though we were colleagues at a petrol station or something. I desperately try to remember what that article in Svenska Dagbladet said about nature and nurture.
‘I borrowed it from a neighbour,’ I say.
‘Only hobos and bitches drive Opels.’
‘Do you want milk?’ he says, placing a cup of coffee in front of me.
‘I’m allergic to milk.’
‘Well, aren’t you special?’
‘It’s dark in here.’
‘We don’t burn electricity here the way you do in Stockholm,’ he coughs out.
I wrap my fingers around the cup of freshly-brewed coffee. Is brewing coffee a form of care? I look out the kitchen window, a tallow ball is flying around in the wind, always on the same branch of the little apple tree. I blow on the coffee as though playing the part of someone who drinks coffee, which isn’t strange given that I don’t drink coffee. The only sounds are the tick tock of the kitchen clock and the irregular buzzing of the fridge. Does he smell of alcohol? I think, as I take a look at him. No, he probably hasn’t been drinking; he actually looks pretty alert, newly shaved. My well-tried method of analysis leads me to the conclusion that he is in his sober phase.
‘So, what’s on your mind then?’ he says.
From the living room deeper within the wooden fort, four mechanical chimes ring out from the inherited, gilded pendulum clock.
‘You know why I’m here, Dad.’
‘How would I know why you’re here?’ asks Dad, looking out the kitchen window. ‘You haven’t been here in three and half years.’
‘Three years,’ I say.
‘Three and a half years,’ he says, nailing me with his stare. Somewhere behind the abstinence is the shimmer of beautiful icy blue irises.
Three years ago, three and a half years ago. What does it matter? After high school I headed straight to Stockholm, and in the following ten years I only came home for the odd quiet Christmas Eve, if that.
‘Ok if I smoke?’ he coughs.
‘Can I have a cig?’
He hands over the red Marlboro packet and our fingers brush, he twitches. We smoke together.
‘Do you smoke?’ he asks.
‘I’ve smoked since high school.’
‘I can’t remember every detail of your life.’
‘I remember every detail.’
Dad catches sight of a car driving slowly past the kitchen window and strains his neck, sticking his chin out a bit.
‘Claesson’s just got home, he drives a Ford.’
Dad ashes his cigarette in the orange plastic cup, I ash mine in my coffee cup, the clock ticks, the fridge hums and snowflakes hurl against the glass.
‘I haven’t had a drop to drink,’ he says, pulling out another cigarette.
‘I know, it’s January.’
‘Stockholm seems to be wearing you down.’
‘Not as much as Växjö.’
‘Why come here then if it’s so hard for you, boy?’
On the way here, to Växjö, I stopped in a small industrial town.
I opened an app and convinced some handsome blonde to meet up; he told me he wanted to be paid. His fridge hummed even worse than here and every millimetre was covered by some brightly coloured rag rug. Perverted.
The guy looked young, beautiful.
Such a waste of beauty I thought, as my gaze fell on the rugs and the yellowing walls.
‘Do what you want with me but use a condom,’ he said in a monotonous voice. I put it on and he lay down on the bed as if on display.
I pressed myself inside him. I wanted to pull the condom off and feel the tickling, smooth feeling inside him, the warmth. But I did as he had asked and left it on. Felt how his hard, round cheeks met my hips and how he shuddered, the goose bumps sending his light, thin hairs straight up toward the dirty roof.
‘Do what you like.’
I pulled his blonde wavy hair, lay on top of him and licked him on his cheek, which was fluffy like a peach, placed my arm around his neck and put pressure on it, felt how his neck muscles tightened and saw how his light skin turned red, sprayed inside him. I got up and threw the condom on one of the soft toys lying on the bed.
‘Why did you adopt me?’ I look Dad in the eye.
‘It’s stopped snowing, good for traffic.’ He carefully stubs out his cigarette.
‘You haven’t treated me like a parent should treat their child and all because Mum died when I was three...’
He cuts me off:
‘How should a parent treat their child then, professor?’
‘What about love?’ he says with his lopsided smile.
‘A few good days and the rest were shit.’
‘Think carefully about what you’re saying now.’
‘I’ve never hit you.’
‘In your head,’ he snorts.
‘You hit me, called me banana box baby, the n-word, coconut.’
‘You joked with everyone that you found me hanging in a shop window in Colombia when you and Mum went to buy me,’ I say, taking a deep breath. I look at the stairs in the hall leading to the upper floor.
‘You laughed at that too,’ says Dad, lighting yet another cigarette.
‘I want my adoption papers.’
‘What do you want them for? I’ve got no idea where they are.’
He used to come up to my childhood bedroom at night following his episodes of rage. I could hear how guilt-ridden he was by the weight of his steps on the stairs.
‘Can I come in, boy?’
I never answered.
‘I know I lose my temper but it won’t happen again. Sorry?’
I would lie still, hugging my blanket.
‘Good night then, my boy.’
One morning after such a goodnight, I happened to drop my spoon in my bowl of cereal. I froze. His morning silence erupted into a virtuoso cavalcade of swearing directed at my nine-year-old body.
‘I didn’t mean to...the neighbours will hear...I have to get to school...Dad!’
He threw me into the laundry room and I heard him grunting outside the door:
‘I may as well go hang myself so you can live it up on the insurance money.’
I was uncertain what insurance was but I didn’t like it. He often threatened to take his life. Children are deathly loyal, but as I entered my teenage years I started yelling back, like what the fuck was he waiting for, that I was more than happy to help him.
The kitchen clock is ticking, the white snow looks luminescent and I see Dad drink the last slurp of coffee from his cup.
‘Do you want more coffee?’ he asks.
‘I don’t drink coffee.’
‘How are things in Stockholm then?’ He raises his eyebrows.
‘One time you squeezed an entire lemon over my weeping eczema.’
Dad shuts his eyes and shakes his head, mumbling something I can’t hear.
I can see the lemon in front of me and again I am uncertain if it actually happened. I have turned this memory inside out in the hope of finding a reasonable explanation, but all I have found is emptiness.
That night, I had scratched the eczema on the backs of my legs deeply as I changed into my pyjamas. If I scratched the open wounds long enough and deep enough, the pain and worry disappeared and was replaced by a calm and enjoyable sensation. I would recognise the sensation later in the rush of morphine.
Sitting on the kitchen chair, I could feel that the material of the pyjamas had dried stuck to the wounds. Dad hated how I scratched and left flakes of skin in the bed and in the bathroom, in the laundry. Now, he got up and walked to the fridge where he took out a small plate with a sliced lemon on it. I got up and started walking out of the kitchen.
‘Stay here, boy.’
I stopped, trying to stay calm. In my head I went over what I could have done wrong during the evening, but couldn’t work out what it was. The worst was not knowing what I was guilty of, which rule I had broken.
That night I couldn’t understand for the life of me what my misstep had been and I felt the panic bubbling up inside me.
‘Pull your pants down.’
I did as he said.
‘Stand against the fridge.’
I did as he said.
‘You are not allowed to scratch.’
I was silent.
‘You are not allowed to scratch.’
I shut my eyes. Tried to imagine the worst pain imaginable.
I felt Dad place something cold against my thigh and then he squeezed the lemon juice over my open wounds. The pain took me to trance-like state in which my body experienced pain and reacted while my soul had continued elsewhere. Only a pyjama-clad body remained.
‘Do you have evidence?’ says Dad, slamming his cup on the kitchen table.
‘Evidence?’ I ask.
Dad looks down at his yellow nails; I look at my narrow fingers, tapping a painted nail against the coffee cup.
‘I’m the one who always made chocolate brownie cake for your birthday.’
‘You loved that chocolate brownie cake.’
He presses the cigarette butt into the cup of ashes.
‘You should go soon before the traffic builds up.’
Dad is about to get up when I say:
‘I came home to get rid of you; I never want to see you again.’
Dad stares at the cigarette butt and continues pressing it against the side of the cup.
‘It sounds like you’re reading from a book when you talk,’ he says quietly.
I can hear the neighbour playing music, a classical string concerto, the clock ticks, the fridge has stopped humming.
‘How are things in Stockholm then? Huh?’ I am about to say something when he interrupts: ‘I’m the victim here.’
The hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I stare at Dad and see his temples twitch. It is hard to focus my gaze.
‘You were four years old when Mum died.’
Everything stops; I see the specks of dust vibrating, hanging in the air in front of me.
I was completely convinced that I was three when Mum had unexpectedly disappeared. One day she was gone and the next day Grandma came and told me Mum was with God now. The stillness in the kitchen coaxes out a feeling of a woman standing behind me; she is right next to me, but I can’t turn around, she remains a faceless presence.
‘How did she die?’ I ask.
‘Want a beer?’
He gets up and heads to the fridge, which has started humming again.
‘Coffee’s gone cold.’
I remember asking Dad as a child what had happened to Mum, but that he became furious, I had to lie in the laundry room for several hours until Grandma came and got me. Dad turns toward me from where he is standing by the kitchen counter:
‘She was sick. You are always welcome home.’
I look down at the kitchen rug; it must be new I think, strange, given that he never buys anything new. Navy blue and simple, it is nice.
I stare at the kitchen rug and think about Orlando, longing for one of his slender fingers against my neck. I want to lie down on the blue kitchen rug, glide away, but I am pulled back to reality by the silence that emerges when the fridge stops humming again.
I lift my gaze from the mat and notice that Dad is gone.
I think this may be when he has cut his wrists with the kitchen knife.
This jumper is brand new and I hate the smell of blood, no, I don’t have the energy to clean up after him, I won’t do it.
The laundry room. I walk slowly to the door that is standing ajar; I tap it open with my middle finger, strain my neck and look in.
There in the dark, Dad is standing against the wall with his hands behind his back, head bent. My eyes scan his body, looking for blood stains.
‘Are you hungry?’ he asks.
I try to understand the question when he continues: ‘I made lasagne.’
I am speechless; I don’t know how to interpret his sudden cooking or maybe he is lying, I sniff the air.
‘It’s in the fridge. I can heat it up.’
He looks up at me.
‘It’s your favourite.’
We stand like that for a moment; I’m not sure for how long, maybe just a second.
‘Dad, I have to go now. Take care of yourself, please, take care of yourself.’
‘Drive carefully, it’s icy out there.’
Sången om en son
We are grateful to Norstedts for permission to publish this translated extract from Sången om en son.
Sången om en son is reviewed in SBR 2019:1-2.
Joel Mauricio Isabel Ortiz was born in Columbia in 1987 and grew up in Norrköping. He is a writer, actor, director and musical artist.
Hanna Löfgren is a translator from Swedish to English and lives in Australia.