Germán Mora

Vanishing Manuel

Watching the evening news on Univision, Manuel heard a soft scratching on his apartment door. He squinted his eyes, surmising that it had to be Luisa, whom he had started seeing a couple of months earlier, soon after mending a dripping pipe in her dorm. While wiping the floor of the room on all fours, she had asked for his phone number “just in case it leaks again.” She had been calling Manuel every day ever since. An endearing gesture, he had thought at first; an infuriating maneuver, he had concluded today.

The door moaned as Manuel pried it open, revealing Luisa, who was wearing a heavy smile and a light-weight cardigan, and whose pink coat hanged from her arm. Earlier today, she hadn’t said anything about stopping by, so Manuel suspected that her surprise visit was a secret scheme to see if he had another woman (there wasn’t one this time). His twin had instructed him to let her loose, an idea Manuel hadn’t found far-fetched. He detested her child-like insecurity. However, he adored her spirited purity.

“What are you doing here, silly?” he asked with a tight smile, his broad body blocking her entry.  Manuel hoped he had sufficiently underscored the word “silly,” a better alternative to slamming the door in her face as his twin kept repeating, his disembodied voice sounding like sandpaper on wood.

Luisa dismissively flicked her wrist, swatting those words away, as if Manuel were the silly one for saying those things. He pursed his lips. She hugged him and told him how much she had missed him.  Her bird-like arms squeezed his protruding gut with a resolve that made Manuel marvel at her spunk.  He hadn’t dated anyone so young; yet, he hadn’t found anyone so persistent at seeking his love.  He invited her in.

Luisa dropped the coat on the floor, sauntered through the apartment, scanned it, and then gave Manuel an approving grin. Manuel sighed, remembering Luisa’s look of alarmed elation when she first saw his place. “This neighborhood is pure bad ass!” she’d said, something that had made him chuckle because his place was no different from the others where he had lived:  same cleaved sidewalks with weeds climbing through them.

Today, however, Manuel felt that Luisa was not excited at seeing his place but rather relieved at finding everything in place.  “Were you expecting someone else?” he asked.

She shook her head.  “Should I be?”

“Don’t be silly,” Manuel said in a paternal tone.

“Be a man, for fuck’s sake,” his brother taunted Manuel in an odious tone. “Don’t you see?  She’s got you wrapped around her little finger.”

That voice again, grumbling in the background like white noise, its severity rising only when a woman was nearby. Manuel recognized that its recent advent had coincided with Luisa’s frequent visits.  “She’s needy,” Manuel thought, “but I am not her lap dog.” He didn’t say that to his twin, of course.  He knew better. Manuel didn’t want to rouse his twin’s wrath. They had settled into a precarious détente lately that had allowed Manuel to live at peace without his brother’s intrusion. Had Manuel said something vindictive, his twin would have emerged enraged:  a mere outline that would have quickly faded in the dark, but his waling, one the other hand, would have become deafening enough to paralyze Manuel with a booming headache.

“Hungry?” Manuel asked Luisa, to which she replied that she just wanted to watch the news and then go to bed. Manuel knew those were her code words for wanting to make love, and a shiver ran down his spine, one that became even more pleasant from knowing that when he would wake up at dawn, she would already be gone to attend her early design class at an arts institute downtown.

“I was gonna make a rice-and-bean wrap,” Manuel said, “but we could just watch some TV.”

Luisa crossed her arms and glanced at the blackened, electric double-burner that rested on the gray kitchen counter as his stove. “Wraps again?  No, papi,” she said, shaking her head. “Something else.  Something good. Let’s go out.”

Manuel was confused. Had he missed her signal or had she just changed her mind? At that moment, he heard his twin’s pettish laugh, so Manuel focused his mind on scrambling for some cash to ignore the laugh.

Manuel and Luisa agreed to go to the nearest restaurant, a Salvadorian eatery that was far from fine but was only two blocks away. Outside his apartment, tucked on the second floor of an old rowhouse, the wind began blasting with the fury of a wave on a stormy day, stirring plastic bags and brown leaves plucked from the few oak trees that now stood bare along the empty streets on this Thursday evening.  To Manuel, the perennial trash that adorned his neighborhood disgusted him, but seeing it up in the air, being whisked away to a different, perhaps better place, comforted him. It was like karma in the form of a natural leaf blower pushing the trash to well-off neighborhoods to piss their residents off for their pomposity.

Sitting in the eatery, Manuel stared at Luisa, her delicate fingers rearranging her silverware into a triangle formed by a knife, a spoon, and a fork. Manuel cleared his throat, and Luisa looked up at him.  He asked, “Do you think spirits could harm those who did them wrong when they were alive?”

“Love this topic,” Luisa said with eagerness.  “Spirits… as in ghosts?”

“I guess,” Manuel said, not truly knowing how to describe his brother. “Sure.”

The waiter came over, laying a hot plate next to Luisa’s triangle and then placing a small cup of vegetable soup and some crackers in front of Manuel (all he could buy with the cash he had on him).  After pouring some water, the waiter disappeared without a word. 

“Ghosts definitely exist,” Luisa said with certainty as she swept some lettuce from her plate.  “But they aren’t corporeal beings. You see, they can’t harm us. They live on a different plane that is parallel to ours. Have you felt one?”

“I’m asking because –” Manuel started saying, just when she was about to bite into her shrimp burrito boat. He stopped mid-sentence, wondering if his twin had planted that thought to torpedo his relationship. Luisa bit into the boat, apparently oblivious to Manuel’s few words. She chewed with hesitation and then poked the boat with her fork, which caused the boat to exude its brown gooey blood. “Yikes! Look! Look at this. It’s so greasy.”

“Pussy,” his twin derided as Luisa swallowed her food. “Look at her. For someone who wasn’t hungry and doesn’t care for the food, she sure eats like a cow.”

The mocking tone of his brother’s voice tightened Manuel’s muscles. Manuel closed his eyes, withdrawing air slowly to shake off the weight of his anguish. After a few moments, his twin’s derisions became a mild moan that Manuel could now ignore. He finished his soup without saying a blip.

Once they returned to the apartment, Manuel threw his jacket on the floor and wrapped his arms around Luisa’s shivering body. He drew her close, her head pressing now against his chest. He whispered, “Do you want to watch the news and go to bed?”

“I feel really gross,” she said. “I reek of burnt oil.  From that awful place.” She peeled herself from Manuel, shaking her head. “I’m sure they reuse their oil. That should be illegal. I literally feel those trans-fats flowing through my veins.”

Manuel saw a silhouette stalking the room and heard a mocking voice saying, “God forbid, she should have a heart attack.” Alarmed, Manuel spun around suspecting it was his brother. “Did you see that?” he asked.

“What?” Luisa said with a frown.

Manuel stepped closer to one of the walls to inspect his own shadow. “I saw something moving.”

“A car just passed by,” she said as she sat on the bed. She glanced at the floor and rapidly swung her legs onto the bed with a panicked look. “Is it a mouse?”

A possibility of a car, for sure, he thought, but the shadow didn’t look like a building or a tree. “Not a mouse. A shadow.”

“Ah! The ghost you were worried about at dinner,” Luisa said with relief.  “Well, ghosts can’t project themselves into this world.  Like a shadow. You see, we only feel their energy. We can’t see them, or smell them, or hear them, but we can definitely feel them.  Like love.”

Manuel was confused by her certainty. Maybe his twin is not a ghost, he thought, so what is he then?  He can’t be just a feeling. “How do you know all that?”

“Common knowledge,” she said as if it were obvious. “I can hook you up with my astrologist if you want to learn more.  She’s really good.”

“Maybe,” Manuel said, watching Luisa diving into the blankets. He joined her, and hoping for some action, he caressed her shoulder.

“Sorry.  I just want to lay down and forget this evening,” Luisa said, her face now sad and sickened.  “I can only think about those trans-fats right now.”

Manuel had seen that stricken face on her before, when she had talked about her father, a mustachioed man from Venezuela who, according to Luisa, had had little interest in her life other than limiting her interactions with grown men. “I’m glad that you’re nothing like him,” she’d added, resting her head in the nook of his chest and arm. Why did she compare him to her dad? Manuel had wanted to ask her, but her sad look had made him keep his mouth shut.

The next morning, Manuel woke at dawn, stressed and damp from sweat, and he was surprised to see Luisa still there, hogging two thirds of the twin bed. She’d decided to skip her class, he concluded, and hadn’t said a word to him. He pushed her gently, but she edged closer, making him feel squeezed in his own bed. He sat up straight to survey the amount of bed real estate left to him and noticed she had cocooned herself in the blanket he had paid for. He held his breath and thought of shaking her to death, but decided to go out and get some fresh air instead.

What surprised Manuel this morning was that he didn’t feel the wintry Baltimore air seeping through his windbreaker and then into his skin. He feared the emergence of his sibling, something that often prevented him from being aware of his surroundings. He walked for almost an hour until he managed to calm his sour mood down. With the clarity brought by the crisp air, Manuel wondered whether he would be able to beat his brother at his own game. However, Manuel knew this much: he had lost again and again, with his brother’s constant chattering and ridicule leaving a long trail of failed relationships. Women, young and old, tall and short, were now all gone. Their faces, mere glimmers of bitterness, gathered somewhere in his head, each a trophy his brother now treasured. This is why he had wanted to take it slow with Luisa, but she was like a tornado in his serene life, swirling his feelings in all directions.

As he crossed the street in front of his place, Manuel thought Luisa might understand his situation, perhaps calling his brother “bad ass” or asking Manuel whether his twin was cute. She’d always been game for anything with a thrill. She might even be jealous. At least you hear him, she might tease Manuel, my sister is gone. Luisa had talked about the ski accident in the Alps only once. That was the first time he had thought of revealing the nightmare his twin had become, but other than I’m sorry for your loss, what else could Manuel have said? The truth? That as a teenager he had learned about his twin, whose size had waned in his mother’s womb as Manuel had devoured him cell by cell. That Father Camargo had told Manuel’s mother his birth had been the work of the Devil. That his mother had started sprinkling holy water on her bed to get protection against Manuel, or that he had to leave her back in Phoenix to limit her anguish. No, he couldn’t have said any of that. His loss hadn’t been equivalent to Luisa’s. The mere comparison would have brought Luisa more pain.

Climbing the stairs of his apartment, Manuel thought that if Luisa was fine with ghosts, why wouldn’t she be fine with his brother. She or her astrologist friend might even help him get rid of his brother.  He thought of telling her his truth, but felt a lump in his throat, for he dreaded hearing Luisa saying that it was all in his head, his sibling a mere imprint etched by the trauma of his loneliness.

He opened his apartment door, and a whiff of stagnation mixed with the rich, nutty scent of instant coffee hit his nose.  

“Is everything okay?” asked Luisa, who was holding two cups and handed one of them to him. She was already in her tight jeans and cardigan, and had arranged her black hair into a pony tail that made her look like an eager teenager – albeit one already in college.

“Needed some space,” he said, glancing at his bed, which was now made. He looked around, noticing that Luisa had cleaned his dirty dishes and folded his clothes. “You don’t have to do any of this,” he said, sweeping his finger around his place.

“I don’t have to, but I want to,” Luisa replied, “whatever I can do to make your life easier.”

Her words made Manuel calm and, at the same, aroused. After drinking the coffee, he caressed her arm and then kissed her thin neck, which smelled like a cedar deck.

Luisa squirmed. “Hey,” she murmured with a smile, “let’s go to the Harbor.”

“Are you sure?” Manuel whispered in her ears.

“I just need some fresh air.”

A shadow flickered over a bare wall, its shape was that of a man, its contours diffuse. Manuel shot a look at it, not knowing if he had cast the shadow or it was that of his twin. Any doubt Manuel had was lifted when he heard, “Yeah, right,” from his twin.

Manuel was now sure:  His twin’s tormenting haunt had returned. Manuel became tense and vigilant at any other disturbance.  He suspected a hammering headache would swell at any moment, but Manuel had experienced those migraines only at his place.  Never outdoors. “Okay,” he said to Luisa, “Let’s go for a walk.”

Unnerved, Manuel hurriedly slip into his coat and followed her outside. By the time Manuel emerged from the rowhouse, Luisa had already made it to the middle of the street, where she flapped her arms like a migratory bird going through its motions for take-off.

“You see her, don’t you?” said his twin in a strange tone, one that didn’t quite sound like his mocking self.

Manuel knew he would be hearing his sibling during the stroll, something Manuel could handle.  Nonetheless, Manuel looked around—only two more souls strolling along, seemingly unaware of Luisa’s show. He breathed a sigh of relief and asked her, “What are you doing?”

“Warming up!”

He rushed to her, latched onto her arm, and led her to the sidewalk, where she started skipping.  Manuel turned around again to inspect whether anyone was watching the spectacle. He wanted her to stop embarrassing him. This was the last thing he needed now, so he resorted to ask her about when her parents would visit her at school.

“Spring break,” Luisa responded, leaning her thin body against his. “I can’t wait to see their faces when they learn that I’m dating my dorm’s handyman,” she added with a chuckle.

“Contractor,” Manuel corrected her.  “I’m a contractor.”

“Okay,” she said dismissively, as if Manuel were splitting hairs. “They think I’m this goody-goody girl, but look at me, spending another night in the hood,” Luisa said with a laugh.

Manuel’s brow furrowed as he watched her walking with a different stride. It was as if she were mimicking the boastful strut of teenagers from a gangster television show. As they approached the corner of Lombard and President, with the view of Baltimore’s Harbor ahead of them, Manuel slowed his stride as the wind, trotting across the Harbor, slapped his face with polar strength. He zipped his coat as far up as he could, but Luisa continued, seemingly not realizing that Manuel lagged a couple steps behind. Once she reached the corner, she looked up and down President Street, yelled, “Let’s cross now,” and charged across the street, even though the traffic light displayed an image of a little red man in standing position.  Manuel paused and saw that Luisa, now standing on the other side, started waving at him while bouncing impatiently, as if she had an invisible bungee cord attached to her back. Her pony tail looked like a comma oscillating behind her head.

Manuel strode across President Street only when the little man on the traffic light turned white, and as soon as he approached the sidewalk where Luisa waited, he heard her joking, “C’mon, old man.  Let’s go.”

Manuel smiled, tightly. When he stepped on the sidewalk and extended his hand to get a hold of hers, Luisa shrieked, turned around, and ran for half a block, only to turn around again and wave at him.  She was smiling mischievously, almost laughing. Manuel sighed, still with a tight smile, and waved back at her. She threw an air kiss to him, and he lifted his arm, pretending to catch it in midair. She laughed. He groaned.

Manuel wanted her to stop, so he hurried toward her, hooking his arm under hers once he reached her.  “I like when we walk together,” he said.

They strolled along President Street, with her pointing at places she would love to eat. Manuel nodded but thought of his wallet, which could produce only a few singles and a five-dollar bill. He hoped she would not ask for anything during their stroll, and to ensure that this would be the case, he steered her away from fancy coffee shops, which dotted Baltimore’s Inner Harbor like landmines of a long-forgotten war. 

To entertain her, Manuel told Luisa about his Mexican parents, who had paid a truck driver delivering avocados across the border to allow them and their baby Manuel to be part of the human cargo transported to a warehouse in Phoenix, where Manuel would grow up. As Manuel recounted his parents’ journey, Luisa slid her fingers along his arm with a tenderness that made Manuel realize she’d gathered that he needed legal papers.

“We’re here for each other,” Luisa said.

Those words brought him solace. No one had been so tenacious about seeking his company, and that thought eased his fear. This was the riddle Luisa had posed. She demanded so little, but to him it was at times too much. Her tenderness felt comforting, but her youthful temerity unsettling.

As his body was settling itself into calmness, Manuel saw a distorted reflection of himself in a glass window of a shopping center housed in a tall building with a dark brown façade.  It was a flicker of a skewed version of his face, a shade darker, its appearance hair-raising. Manuel paused and studied the window, but the reflection was gone. His brother’s shadow had never turned up outside Manuel’s place. He looked around in panic, clenching his fist in anticipation of seeing his twin.

“Everything okay?” asked Luisa.

“Let’s go inside to warm up a bit,” Manuel said hastily.  Maybe it wasn’t his twin, he hoped.

Inside, people strolled from shop to shop while Luisa browsed the windows of those shops, seemingly enthralled by the clothes worn by the plastic women perpetually posing for the passersby. She halted her stride in front of Talbots, smiled playfully at Manuel, and said, “I want to check this one out.”

“Why?” Manuel asked as he started walking away from the store, eyeing every glass and mirror for an unusual reflection.

“C’mon,” she protested.  “It’s just for fun.”

Manuel shook his head, but before he could admonish her for the stupidity of that idea, she’d already stepped inside. Manuel followed her with the intention of asking her to reconsider, but she had already sprung toward a carrousel of clothes above which a sign said, “Sale.” Luisa pushed some of the clothes aside, which made the rack whine, a sound that made Manuel cringe. A tall, blonde woman wearing a navy blue pencil skirt and a silk sailor scarf descended upon them. 

“May I help you with something?” she asked as her gaze shifted from Manuel to Luisa.

“We’re okay,” Luisa replied, without turning her attention from the rack.

“Please let me know if you need any help,” the blonde woman said. She retired to a corner of the store, from which she gawked at them. Manuel felt her glare, and the tightening of his muscles made him bow his head.

Luisa plucked a white blouse with tiny yellow flowers from the rack and pressed it against her body.  She turned to Manuel. “What do you think?”

Manuel nodded, hesitantly, maintaining a watchful eye over his surroundings. 

Luisa turned back to the rack from which she retrieved a pair of dark olive trousers. She waved them at the blonde woman, who gestured toward the other end of the store where a small sign said, “Fitting Room.”

Manuel lounged forward and grabbed Luisa’s forearm. “What are you doing?”

“I want to see if they fit,” Luisa responded matter-of-factly.

“We can’t afford any of these,” he said, pointing at the carrousel of multicolored clothes.

She shook her head and smiled at him. “We’re not buying them, silly,” she whispered. “It’s just fun.”  Luisa leaned forward and kissed him on his cheek. “Haven’t you ever pretended to be someone else, just for kicks?” She turned around and headed toward the fitting room.

From the corner of his eye, Manuel sensed his twin’s sly leer coming from one of the shop mirrors. He marched toward it, but he saw only a familiar face, full of fatigue. “What if she pretends to be dead, just for kicks?” his twin howled in anger, its intensity bursting into Manuel’s head.

Manuel reached for a rack with empty hangers and clenched onto it, his head banging like a jackhammer. He looked up, and his gaze immediately met that of the blonde woman. As his belly churned with discomfort, he turned around and left the store. Once outside, he leaned against the wall and closed his eyes until his headache retreated grudgingly. He felt anxious as he waited for Luisa.  During that time, he heard his twin’s voice, his timbre deep and husky, not unlike Manuel’s. It commanded him to leave Luisa behind for her stupidity, but he couldn’t discern if it was his or his brother’s. He closed his eyes, permitting the cacophony of voices inside the mall to fill his brain and drown this voice. He decided to stay put and wait for Luisa, who emerged empty-handed and smiling from the store a few minutes later.

“Nothing fit me,” Luisa offered as an explanation. “Those clothes are made for skinny girls. You know, the ones that –” She opened her mouth, inserted two of her fingers, and pretended to retch. She laughed. Manuel stared at her, emotionless.

“What’s wrong, papi?” she asked.

Manuel pushed his lips in a childish pout and said, “Nothing.”

“Really? You look so serious.”

He shrugged, turned around, and plodded away. Luisa hurried toward him and hugged his waist.

The wind was still blasting the streets when they surfaced from the mall. The gusts came in surges from the north, each stronger than the one before, as if an army of Artic air was marching southward with a succession of battalions of progressively more deadly artillery.

“Poor thing. You didn’t have much fun in there,” Luisa murmured. “This may help.” She produced from her back pocket a silk handkerchief with a coat of arms embroidered in it.

“What’s this?” he asked, enraged.

“A gift,” she responded, pleased.

He halted his stride, turned toward her, and grabbed her by her shoulders. “What were you thinking?” he asked with a red face. “They could’ve called the police, and then what?”

Luisa glared at him with pursed lips. Holding his gaze, she lifted her hand and placed it on his bicep, guiding his arm away from her shoulder in a rapid motion. Manuel released his other hand from her shoulder.

“And then what?” she asked, defiantly.

Manuel’s belly churned. “We could go to jail, or worse.”

“For a handkerchief?” she asked in disbelief as she handed it to him. “Papi, who cares about a stupid piece of cloth.”

He turned around and began marching back to his apartment.  Luisa followed him.  

“Slap her!” Manuel heard the familiar timbre, its intimate contours making him wonder if it was indeed his own voice, a realization that scared him and forced him to slow his pace. He closed his eyes and let the crisp air fill his lungs.

After a block of silent strolling, Luisa, who lagged a few steps behind Manuel, paused in the middle of the sidewalk. Manuel turned and saw her standing there with her legs spread and her arms on her hips, like a Latina superwoman without her cape and uniform.

“What’s your problem?” she screeched, and her cry prompted the other pedestrians to turn their gazes in her direction, and then in his.

Manuel felt a surge of anger that forcefully pounded in his head. Manuel curled his fingers into a fist and stared at her, speechless.

Luisa tossed her arms into the air and wailed, “Well?”

Manuel’s headache returned with a vengeance, clouding his thoughts. The urge to go after her and punch her was the only feeling that went through the cloud of pain.  He marched toward her like a gladiator facing his opponent. As Manuel approached, Luisa stood fast, defiant, and barely blinking.

“What’s my problem?”  Manuel yelled at her, something that made his head throb even more. “I’ll tell you what my problem is:  thieves.”

“It’s just a fucking piece of cloth,” she shouted back.

Manuel got so close to her that he smelled the anger seeping through Luisa’s skin, an anger that matched his own. He screamed, Puta, making sure the word came out of his mouth like a blast from a cannon.  “Go back to your daddy’s lap.”

Luisa looked at him, motionless, fighting back tears now trickling from her eyes.  She shook her head, turned around, and marched away. “Go fuck yourself.”

Manuel gazed at her stride, long and firm, and felt conflicted: She deserved some punishment for her theft; yet, whatever had drawn him to her began eating at his soul. Luisa was able to cover two long blocks before his headache receded, a recession that allowed his mind to consider the events with clarity: He was the one being punished, not by Luisa’s actions but by his brother’s. Manuel realized he’d made a terrible mistake. He went after her, hurriedly, hoping that an apology and a revelation would prompt Luisa to forgive him.

Half a block away from her, he saw her saying something to a pale man wearing a police uniform.  Manuel slowed his pace. Both of them turned toward Manuel, and Luisa pointed at him. Manuel paused, and his stomach tightened when he sensed the handkerchief, still clenched by his hand. He glared at the man, and when their eyes met, the policeman started running toward him with the determination of a predator. Manuel supposed he could easily outrun the slightly overweight policeman, but when Manuel commanded his body to flee, his legs refused to move. Manuel begged his brother to let him run away, to forgive him, and let him finally have a happy life. Manuel closed his eyes, hoping to break the spell, but a moment later, the pale man grabbed his right arm, twisted it behind his back, and pushed Manuel to the ground. Manuel felt a knee pressing his back, then metal clamping his wrist, and finally a hand snatching the handkerchief from his.

“I didn’t do anything,” Manuel cried.  “I swear.”

***

In the police van, Manuel, sullen and tense, stared at the metallic mesh that restrained him. In the solitude of the confined space, he tried to envision how he could pay the bond. As the van started its march toward the unknown, Manuel released a deep sigh. His body was tired of battling his twin’s impulses ever since they were in the womb. Defeated once again, he felt a trickle of frightening thoughts that shook him to his core: What if his twin had been gone all along, leaving behind just the pieces of their bond? What if those pieces had lodged in Manuel’s soul, piercing it whenever anyone had gotten closer to him?

A sense of dismay grew within him at those thoughts, for he wondered whether his actions were not in response to his twin’s impulses but to his own. Manuel drew his legs toward himself, and then he noticed a tiny hole in the van’s body, through which sunlight softly leaked.  He extended his palm to block the rays and then pressed his thumb over the hole. As the van grew darker, Manuel dismissed those worrisome thoughts as nonsense. He knew his twin, and he recognized the face of revenge, even in the darkness of his soul.


Germán Mora is a native of Bogotá, Colombia. He is the author of over thirty scientific articles and has a PhD in biogeochemistry. He lives in Baltimore, where he serves on the faculty of Goucher College, teaching students to be better stewards of the natural environment and taking creative writing classes with some of his own students.