A thread of pain ties two brothers in Rigoberto González's 'What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth'

Rigoberto González's memoir is "What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth." (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

The child of Mexican farmworkers, Critic at Large Rigoberto González grew up in a California household of 19 people. He became a writer and moved to New York; his brother Alex returned to Mexico. Both were diagnosed with a similar neurological disorder around the same time, as he recounts in his new memoir, "What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth: A Memoir of Brotherhood" (University of Wisconsin Press, $24.95), excerpted here.

Summer 2014. My mobility had improved under the care of a new doctor. The formula was actually quite simple: rest, diet and exercise. But simple formulas were the easiest to neglect, particularly as an academic. Meetings took precedence over meals, grading and class preparation ate up my sleep time, the commute to the university stressed my body, especially when no one on the NYC subway trains offered me a seat even though I struggled to maintain my balance while leaning on a cane. But as soon as summer arrived I stayed close to home, taking early morning walks, and regulating my eating and sleeping schedules. By now I had distanced myself from most of my acquaintances, so I had all the permission I needed to hide out and focus on my writing, which was the only pleasure I had left. Writing allowed me to vacate this body and its inconvenient limitations. Sometimes I became so consternated when I woke up to the reality of my weaknesses that I scrambled to the computer in order to escape all over again.

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My brother on the other hand, was still dealing with the stress of a troubled marriage, with the feelings of failure that came from being unable to hold onto a job because the stiffness in his elbows and knuckles were making it impossible to perform even the simplest of tasks.

“I can’t even sweep or lift a crate of bread.”

“But I told you, Alex, to rest. I can send you more money. Don’t worry about that,” I pleaded.

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I don’t want people to see me not working. It’s a different world down here — a man who lets his wife do all the labor is no man at all. I see her family judging me whenever they see me. I see my wife judging me each time she comes home from her job. I don’t think she loves me anymore.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Alex, of course she loves you. You have two children together and together you built a home.”

“And what kind of a home is a home without a man?”

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I finally understood the role of parents in the grown-up stage of a person’s life. I finally understood how we had been cheated out of a valuable resource because we had no mother to console us during our heartbreaks and no father to counsel us during our headaches. As his gay older brother with a long history of failed relationships, I had very little to offer Alex. We had traveled very different paths toward adulthood. He was married and had children; I was single. He had returned to Mexico, I had fled to New York. His paradise was sailing out into the open sea; mine was to sink into the whirlpool of the computer screen.

I thought of making a trip down to Baja California Sur to see my brother, to offer him an embrace, but my body couldn’t handle travel anymore. I had begun to turn down professional offers to read or lecture in other parts of the country, which cut into my annual income, and each month I had to scramble to meet my brother’s financial needs. So I did my best the only way I knew how, the only thing I could do confined to my apartment: I wrote. I wrote essays, interviews, book reviews, highlighting other writers, escaping into their words. The momentary haven of their imaginations was more rewarding than the paltry payments but eventually the money added up to a remittance. Meanwhile, I was juggling a fulltime university teaching job, a few online courses and a ghostwriting gig — these last two were freelancing opportunities I had once scoffed at, but I set my arrogance and snobbery aside for the extra income. Rising everyday at 4 AM to sit in front of the computer to work on someone else’s drab life story was draining the pleasure out of writing. I began to resent my weak body, my brother, the stale tasks I had seized upon to earn money. By the end of the year I had not replenished my savings and, wallowing in despair, spent what little I had on alcohol.

Inevitably, the phone call I was dreading came.

“Hey Alex,” I said when I answered the phone.

“I’m so depressed,” he said. “I think I’m going to kill myself.”

My body slumped over on the couch and I dropped the phone. I had no clue what had just happened to my body because I was conscious so I hadn’t fainted. But I couldn’t worry about that. I had to talk my brother through this. I didn’t hang up until I was satisfied that he wasn’t going to harm himself or anyone else around him. The frightening headlines that announced domestic tragedies flashed in my head so I resorted to the most desperate of measures — I told my brother a horrible truth.

“If you kill yourself, Alex, you might as well take me with you. Because I am not going to be left alone in this world.”

I called my brother the next day to check on his emotional state. I called him the day after that and the day after that. And after each phone call I had to drink a few martinis in order to cope with the stress of trying to remain calm while he voiced the most frightening thoughts. I had to keep it together in order to call him the next day. I had to keep it together in order to maintain the semblance of composure as I commuted to work to teach class and sat patiently through meetings while my head spun. Was it my brother or was it the alcohol? Maybe it was both. Meanwhile, I could feel my body declining because I began to neglect my diet and exercise. The weight gain aggravated my joints because of the extra pressure I placed on the cane. My doctor wasn’t pleased.

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“You’re adding to your list of complications, my friend,” he said. “Your blood pressure is up, your cholesterol is up. You’re looking at a dire future if you don’t lose some weight.”

“And lose weight how?” I snapped. “I can barely move.”

“Weight loss is mostly about what you eat,” the doctor said. “And what you drink.” He raised his eyebrows by way of indictment and I blushed.

González, an award-winning poet and author of a dozen books of prose and poetry, is professor of English at Rutgers-Newark and one of the L.A. Times' critics at large.

"What Drowns the Flowers in Your Mouth" by Rigoberto González (University of Wisconsin Press)
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