I'm not sure if I'm feeling cold or anxious, because I'm shaking. Standing there between Ben and Theo, waiting for them to draw swords and stab each other like a in a medieval sparring that looks nothing like a gentleman's duel.
As soon as Ben wheeled in, Theo stood up, and perhaps if he hadn't done that, Ben wouldn't be so goddamn pissed right now, looking up at his brother with his jaw set so tight it could pop. He's tall—they're tall, I suppose. I'd guessed that much already, judging by how long the legs of the sweatpants I so often wear to bed are, but seeing it vertically, standing there… It's nothing short of a shock.
"What are you doing here?" Ben asks his brother, looking a lot more confrontational than he was earlier at the movie theater. I guess his never go picking fights with strangers policy doesn't apply to his twin.
"If you talked to mom, you'd know."
"I talk to her." He shifts, not anywhere near breaking point. "You're just not a very notable topic."
And this would be a goodhearted, humored sibling joke if he didn't look so defiant when he said it. Like all eleven players went straight to attack, and Theo let them through—somehow pissing Ben off even more. Whatever's wrong between them, it's seriously wrong.
"I just hopped off the plane from Morocco." He points at the bag on the floor that doesn't scream international travel at all. "I'm feeling kinda jetlagged."
"Just hop back in it, you'll be gone before the sun is even up." Ben lifts an eyebrow, mercilessly. "You already have that down, don't you?"
And that seems to hit Theo.
"Bernardo, can you please?" He puts his hands in his hair, sounding so full-of-it that's making me feel sorry for him. "I came here-"
"Uninvited, and you should be leaving now." Ben grabs his wheel and tries to back Theo to the door.
Theo holds his stance—which isn't too hard, all things considered. I can see jiu-jitsu Ben thinking about a million ways to tackle his twin down, none of which he'll use. But so desperately wishes he could.
"We need to talk." Theo says it, bending down at the waist. He reaches for Ben's pushing rims but stops himself before he can touch it. A sensible little angel must have whispered over his shoulder.
But Ben sees it coming, too. He wheels back abruptly, looking angry and maybe a little insulted. His voice sounds cold when he speaks again: "We really don't."
"But we do." He pleads.
I watch. Ever the intruder. I should've hidden in the bedroom as soon as I realized this would get bad, as soon as the family issues came to light—as soon as he walked inside. This isn't my place. Both literally and figuratively.
"Go back to Minas, Theo." Ben sighs, so completely done with it. "Mom and dad, I bet they'll be ecstatic that you're back.
"They'll roll the red carpet and set up a throne, but be careful not to sit in it for too long. You know how well they like that…" Then he seems to consider his words. "Well, you don't. But trust me."
What the fuck? I open my mouth, silent. My eyes switch between the brothers, especially focusing on Ben—his knuckles are white around the pushing rims. I feel like I could scream right now and he wouldn't pry his eyes off of Theo's. The easy, light atmosphere we had only a few minutes ago is gone for sure. Now there's only tension and aggression.
So I rush to the kitchen with my swift feet, doing my best to blend in with the furniture; what would mom do? Well, maybe Mom isn't exactly the picture of diplomacy; she's usually right at the front and center of family conflicts. So I channel in grandma, the true peacemaker—I slide Ben's lower cabinets open and find the coffee and the tea pot side by side. Tea he got because of me, and the coffee we both drink like water before heading to work. It's no surprise that tea feels like the best pacifier of the both.
I keep my ears tuned in to the living room.
“I’m staying.” I overhear Theo say.
“In the city?” Ben sounds both apathetic and annoyed at the same time. “Don't you have a job or something?”
“I got an offer here.” He says in a defensive tone. “With the university.”
There’s silence for a moment. I think he's a professor, but I can't remember if Ben ever told me about it. I busy myself, get a cookie and recline against the counters as I wait—and listen. If I'm not there, then they can get their shit sorted. If I'm not in this apartment at all, maybe they could...
“Mom didn’t tell me that.” Ben’s voice sounds slightly fainter now.
“Maybe if I were a more notable topic in your conversations…” I realize that they sound exactly the same, now that I can’t see the obvious differences. “I thought that maybe…”
“You’re not seriously considering staying here, are you?”
“You’re smart enough to book your own hotel, Theo.” Ben says, harshly. "So do us both a favor."
A sigh. I bite the cookie, watching as the small bubbles form at the bottom of the kettle and float with a tiny pop. I'm an intruder, I shouldn't be here, overhearing this. It's family business, and none of my own. But I stay.
"Dude. I'm trying here." Theo sounds pleading.
"Yeah, well." Ben snorts. "It's not that simple. Can you go now?"
The sound of Theo picking up his bag to leave.
"And then you tell people I never tried."
Silence again. I can picture Ben moving his wheels back and forth, only slightly, the way he does when he's too restless—as if tapping his feet. The water gets to the boiling point and I turn off the induction stove, reaching for the mugs I set aside.
"You know that girl who just ran to the kitchen?" He says and I stop dead in my tracks—the kettle threatens to burn my hand but I hold it still in the air. "We've been dating for a while."
We have? I guess. My heart skips a beat. I have to shift my attention back to the task at hand; pouring the water inside the mugs rather than my skin.
"She didn't even know you existed." Ben says and something about it sends a shiver down my spine. "So no, Theo. I don't go around telling people about you at all."
I wait a couple breaths before I walk in the living room again, after the door closed behind Theo when he left with no more than a head shake—I suppose. I didn't see it.
I'm carrying the tray Ben uses so often on his lap to bring me coffee in the morning before I leave for work. He's sitting there, still and still facing the door, his shoulders kind of down. He rubs his eyes with the palms of his hands, followed by a deep breath in before he spins his chair around and sees me standing there. Like he'd forgotten I was even here.
I try to shoot him with my best impression of a smile.
"I'll take that if it's at least fifty percent alcohol." He nods at the trail with two mugs, rather than two. I never even poured water in the third one.
"Do you have any whiskey?" I ask.
He sighs and shakes his head no.. "That'll have to do."
I set the tray over the table and pull up a chair. I won't ask—I won't. Some things don't change. But I won't go either; I may be insensitive and clueless most of the time, but I know he doesn't wanna be left alone with his own thoughts right now. I wouldn't. So I made a choice right then, in the kitchen: I'll stay.
And I'll be here if he needs me. If he wants me. If he'll have me.
"You can ask." Ben says after taking a sip, eyes down, as if reading my mind.
"I wasn't going to."
"But you want to." He looks at me over the mug. "C'mon."
I watch the steam and warm my hands around the porcelain. "You're twins-"
"You're gonna waste your question on something so obvious?" He jokes, swaying me with his shoulder and making me smile.
"No. I mean- what happened?"
And for a split second I think he's about to tell me the gametogenesis process that made them twins, but Ben grimaces and then wheels back a bit with a sigh. "This happened."
I let that sink in. By this he means the wheelchair—my heart shrinks down to the size of a pea and all I can do is sit there and listen. We're navigating treacherous waters now.
"After I was shot-"
I blink, feeling like he just screamed it into my ear. "You were shot?"
"Didn't I tell you that?" He frowns, genuinely confused. I shake my head. No, of course he didn't. "Yeah, well. It was carnaval, in Rio. And I was shot—it was an accident. But after that… before I was even off the drugs, Theo left. Just like that. Then almost a year later I'm in rehab-"
He's moving too fast with this, but not fast enough that I can't ask for a break by adding:
"At the Sarah Kubitschek."
He nods. The biggest, most fantastic rehabilitation institute in Latin America. Highly regarded and requested, but also free—Universal Healthcare and all. It's safe to assume that most people with aSCI in this country have been there at some point in their lives, so of course Ben would have, too.
"And he visits me—first time since Rio. And I was willing to overlook it, the months he'd been away. Work, right? He'd said. I bought it." He rolls his eyes, as if saying how stupid, right? "I showed him my new wheelie trick, we raced the corridors. It was... normal. The first time I felt like things would be ok."
I gulp down, my mouth suddenly too dry. He's never talked about rehab before. Or about Before. Honestly, for people who spend as much time together as we do, it's weird that we don't seem to talk about ourselves a whole lot. About who we were before we met that day. Many times I've wondered if I put that curtain, that wall, there by myself and he's simply never crossed it, but now I see that Ben has his own reasons to keep it in place. Reasons that are way more valid than mine.
I sit there and wait.
"I'd been living with our parents and it was… worse than the injury itself. I had no idea how and if I'd make it independently anymore. We talked- well, maybe I talked and hyped myself up all on my own." He shrugs, avoiding my look. "But then Theo says he needs some coffee. And he doesn't come back."
Without as much as a goodbye.
And he tells me just like that, with a shrug, with his eyes lowered, like it's No Big Deal, like I should just take that info and satisfy my curiosity. But it isn't, and it doesn't. I have a million more questions.
He was shot! How?
Theo left. Why?
But he doesn't owe me any more answers, especially not on something so extremely delicate. He's already volunteered enough information today. Enough for a lifetime, really. Just like that.
"Were you close? Before?" I risk another question, one that feels less dangerous. Before the accident. Before the gunshot.
"He's my brother." As if that answered it. And it does. My chest feels heavy, too heavy for the Monteiros. "I lost contact with a bunch of friends, y'know? After. It happens. But Theo—well. We'd never not been in contact before.
They're twins. Twins.
They're twins and Theo left Ben when he was hurt and vulnerable. When he needed him, anyone, most. When everyone else left.
I can't wrap my head around it.
"And you haven't… been in contact since?"
"We see each other." Ben says. "Well, more like we bump on each other on Christmas, or maybe mom's birthday. Like once or twice a year. Sometimes less."
"And he never tried…"
"Not until now."
Over ten years of resentment and hurt and sorrow—I can't imagine that.
"Are you going to…"
"No. I won't."
Because he's still hurt, even after all this time. Not physically, but definitely not the ordering-coffee-indifference he so wants to show me.
I reach my hand across the table to him. The cool, funny, unaffected Ben melting through the cracks—of someone whose humor comes from a lot of pain and is nothing but cool and unaffected. I feel his palm, the calluses from pushing all day, every day. The softness also, because Ben moisturizes like a maniac. My hands are small inside his'. There's nothing I could say right now, but saying nothing is pretty bad.
"You miss him." I state, watching his face.
"Not a whole lot these days."
I call it bullshit. "Maybe you should give him a chance."
"He had a chance when I was learning how to sit up again. Or about a million times after that, too." He rests his head on his hand, pensive. Less confrontational, like a lion after brunch. "And now I finally got a nice job when no law firm would take me because I'd barely fit in their bathrooms. I moved to Japan all on my own when once I thought I wouldn't even move out of my parents' second floor. And that's when he wants to waltz back in and pretend I'm just old me, but sitting down?"
That last sentence hits me hard. I press his hand harder—not once since we met I felt anything like pity towards him, but I do now. Not for his condition, not ever, but for what's inherent to his existence now, his broken family, and what goes on inside his head because of it.
"Ah, Bernardo." I put my hand on his cheek and turn his face to me. I wish I was better with words; I'm a caretaker, but I'm not a talker. I wish I could bandage it up like a regular wound and smile reassuringly like nurses do, but there's no such a thing now.
"I'm not old me sitting down, Liv. People think I am, but I'm really not." He's staring right at me this time, resting his head on my hand like he could really use the touch. "But it's like everyone who knew me then doesn't know that. They missed all of it."
I caress his skin with my thumb. No one has ever told me something this deeply personal, and I've never wanted to get into other people's business this much.
But that's what girlfriends do.
I use the extra key and lock the door behind me. Shoes off, coat off. I unzip my pants and walk to the kitchen, where I find a cold beer in the fridge and twist off the cap with my bare hands. Then I drop on the couch and wait until I hear the shower turning off and a moment later, when the sound of footsteps gets closer.
"Clothes!" I warn with a shout and look away so I don't get a peak of my brother's adult male bits.
The sound of him bumping against the door is unmistakable.
"What the fuck?!" He shuffles around, probably looking for something to cover himself up with. I see his head poking through the bedroom door. "Livia?"
He sighs and walks out, having the decency to wrap a towel around his waist. "This is trespassing."
"Not if I have the keys." I dangle my keychain in front of me. "That wasn't very smart of you."
"It's for emergencies only." Tiberius walks to the kitchen and opens the fridge, getting himself a longneck. "If I disappear for a few days straight, so that you're the one to find my naked dead body and not someone like—mom."
I snort. "I don't know why me seeing your naked dead body would be less humiliating than mom. She's been there before."
"Exactly." He emerges from the kitchen with a worn out band t-shirt and boxers. Probably made a trip to the laundry room. "Humiliating for you. That'll be my legacy."
"Ha ha ha."
He drops next to me and turns the TV on in a sports channel, where two presenters discuss whether or not Neymar is still fit to be the Seleção number 10.
"Man, every time I tune in… they're having these fifth grade level debates." Tib complains.
"They're not completely wrong, y'know."
"Oh, fuck you." He gives me the eye. "There's no one out there to replace him."
"You're only defending him because you had a Neymar Mohawk phase."
He shoves me to the side and I giggle with the memories that come rushing back, from easier times when all we had to worry was football and silly football related hairstyles.
"Well, you had Ronaldinho posters in your bedroom."
"They were warranted."
It's easy being around Tib—we might be as different as day and night, but we have a lifetime of being used to one another. It's comfortable talking about football, family or nothing at all. We sip at our beers and watch as last night's match highlights unfold and collectively wince and curse players for their bad passes and missed goals, like we're such experts.
I'm reclining against the pillows when I ask:
"Do you think there's ever something so bad that it would set us apart?"
Tib slowly pries off his eyes from the TV and scrunches up his eyebrows at the sudden seriousness of my voice.
"What do you mean?"
"I don't know." I shift, regretting ever bringing it up. "Do you think we'd ever fight to a point where I wouldn't wanna see your face ever again?"
"It's not like I wanna see your face now." He snorts and I roll my eyes.
"C'mon, be serious."
He groans and seems to consider it. "No, Liv, I don't think we'd ever do that. Do you?"
I'd say no, but then there's Ben and Theo. Did they think they'd ever be strangers?
"If I ever got injured, or sick. For life." I swallow hard. "Would you leave?"
He turns his body in my direction, worry in his face. "What kind of question is that? Are you sick?"
He's thinking about cancer, the cancer that haunts each and every one of us now. "No, it's not about me."
I sigh and brush my face with my hands. I'm really doing this, aren't I? Fuck, I am."I'm seeing this guy."
He goes from confusion to surprise.
"I think so." I try to form the sentences inside my head before I can proceed "And yesterday I met his brother, and they seem to hate each other. Lots of resentment and… I don't know. I'd never seen anything like that before."
Tib considers it with a head bounce. That's why I came here straight after leaving Ben's; I needed to talk about it. I needed to have a second brain thinking about those things, those family things I can't entirely understand because my own family works like an eternal clock engine; no one ever strays and no one ever leaves. And I'm under the impression that Ben is the one who left—or was sent away, rather.
"Because his brother wasn't there for him when he needed it."
"But he's there now?"
I shrug. Is he? "Maybe? I don't think he wants to find out."
"I think he should." Easier said than done. But Tib has a degree in psychology, maybe he knows what kinds of advice he gives. "So? How's this guy you're seeing?"
I go from pensive from happy in a second. I don't think I can hide it.
"His name is Ben—Bernardo. He's cute and really handsome, and genuinely nice, too."
There are no lack of adjectives I could describe Ben with. Smart and funny, charisma pouring off of him. It's a goddamn miracle he's not taken. Chair or no chair.
"Sounds like someone's in love?" I shove him to the side and deny it. "And better yet, with someone mom would approve of!"
"Yeah, right." I roll my eyes dramatically. There's no one mom would ever approve of, not even the people she herself thinks she would. Least of all Ben, for obvious reasons. I clear my throat. "He's also… a paraplegic."
"A paraplegic." I repeat it, loud enough that I can hear myself saying it. "He's in a wheelchair."
Tib scratches his head once he realizes I'm serious. What does one say to that?
"Wow." What did I even expect, really? Yeah. I sip at my beer, waiting for the inevitable questions. "So he's like, really disabled?"
It's weird thinking of Ben, of all people, as disabled—a word that's definitely not associated with young, hot dudes in my head, and definitely isn't in Tib's, either. And even though I can't know what he's picturing, I can have an idea. It's fucking Telethon, isn't it?
"Yeah." I brush my palms against my jeans, and I can't know if they're sweaty or just moist from the condensed bottle. "But he's totally independent, and fantastic in bed, too."
"But he's paralyzed, right?" He frowns. "How does it work…?"
"The normal way. With a few twists." I'm not about to tell him it's not the normal way at all; I don't want Tib curious about my, our, sex life. Either way, I'm not exactly lying. "It's awesome."
He takes that. I hope he doesn't google it. But it feels great taking it off my chest—that I'm dating a guy, which is a novelty all in itself (not the guy part, but the dating), and that yes, he's disabled—please, don't be surprised when you meet him. Which is also pretty new. I usually keep them to the sidelines.
"Well… that's nice, I guess." Tib finally says.
"He's pretty nice." He is. And the fact that just thinking about him makes me smile should be indication enough—of something. "We should double date one of those days."
Silence as we both stare into the screen. I wish I could read his mind—but I don't really.
"I proposed to Nina." He blurts out.
I jump: "When? And?!"
"Last week. She's thinking about it." He sips at his beer.
And he looks like a pile of nerves, which I hadn't noticed before I unleashed all of my worries on him. I rub his shoulder, warmly.
"You've been thinking about it for what, fifteen years?"
He shrugs, silently. Nina and Tib have been an item forever, with ons and offs, ups and downs. But they always felt like Endgame to me, like that living-in-sin kind of couple that can never bother to sign papers. Marrying seems slightly out of character, but who am I to judge?
"Keep me posted."
Tib warns me: "Don't tell mom."
I wouldn't. And still, I don't ask him for the same favor.