A true short story by Nathalie Abbing
Through the window I see our neighbour standing outside. Francisco is our new neighbour. He has set up his construction company in the office space next door and has already done a number of jobs for us. Nice man, smiley, typical Portuguese and speaks good English. Now our water heater in the kitchen is broken and maybe he can fix it. Good that I see him now. I tell Paul I´ll ask Francisco. I go outside and indeed Francisco will send a plumber for the water heater tomorrow. I stay a bit to chat. Francisco points at the two men talking to each other by the lamppost on the corner of the street; “They are friends of mine and that one also works for me,” Francisco explains. “But you know,” he begins to laugh, “these two love each other, you know, like husband and wife.” Francisco continues in a whisper, half covering his mouth; “they are uh… gay.” Francisco now tries to look serious, what is hopelessly unsuccessful. I don't quite know what to think of this. If the two friends are a gay couple; Fine, then I can only congratulate them. I understand that life here in Catholic Portugal is quite difficult for people who are openly different from heterosexual. If it's a joke, then it's a very wrong one. It´s not something I can laugh about. I look at the two men who are still talking to each other, oblivious to what just happened. When one of the two looks up, I raise my thumb and congratulate him on their relationship. Francisco laughs even louder now. He rushes to pass on my congratulations to the friends once more. Then he tells them what happened before. The friends now come closer, making some sort of throw-away gesture and slapping one hand on the top of the other as they burst out laughing.
My serious face asks for clarification. “No, no,” Francisco says, still laughing. “No, that was just a joke. They are not gay, they are real men. The problem is elsewhere." He gets serious now and looks in the direction of his office where some of his employees are working. “You know Tiago, right?” Yes, I know him. Tiago and Francisco did some jobs in our house together. A small, quiet man who doesn't say much and barely dares to look at you. He was eager to learn and even though things sometimes went wrong and Francisco made him start all over again, he worked hard and fast. Francisco had told me before about Tiago's hard life. How he grew up in a Church orphanage because his mother was unable to care of him. Francisco does a lot of voluntary work for that orphanage and helps them where he can. He had taken Tiago into his home and taught him everything within his company. In this way Tiago could earn some money for himself and build on his future. Francisco also gave him new clothes and took him shopping. They ended up having to go to the kids department because they didn't have his size anywhere.
“Tiago is gay, really, Tiago is gay and that is a really big problem.” Francisco raises his eyebrows and leans back slightly to indicate the seriousness of his problem. "But my friends will take him to the brothel tonight, then he will be a man," Francisco continued, pointing to the friends who begin beating their chests to illustrate the matter. I was, with my Dutch head, completely flabbergasted. This was no joke, unbelievable, and poor Tiago. He's been through so many problems and he's so vulnerable already. He can never handle this. My heart broke. LGBTQ+ rights, equality and emancipation are high on my list of things I find important. I was faced with a dilemma. I had two choices; I could now end the talk and go home. After all, I had the information I came for, tomorrow someone will come and fix the water heater. Or, I will continue the conversation to give Francisco my point of view and thoughts on this. I have to try and see if there's anything I can do. In any case, try to prevent the intervention that is scheduled for tonight.
I look at Francisco seriously and say; “You can't do that, you can't do that to Tiago. Não é correto, e não é bom para Tiago.” "Yes, but my wife, you know Ana, she saw that Tiago has gay porn on his phone, that's so wrong,” Francisco responds. "The guys are going to help him tonight and then everything will go back to normal." Francisco tries not to laugh anymore but continues to fail, giving one loud clap in his hands with every fit of laughter. The two friends are now spinning in circles as they bend over holding their bellies in spurts of joy. I try it in a different way; “Francisco, you know it doesn't work like that, you can't cure homosexuality. That’s not possible, you are born that way, you know that very well.” Francisco has put his thumb and forefinger on the corners of his mouth in another effort to stop laughing. To support him, I put my hand on his shoulder. “You know well that it won't solve anything and will only make it worse for Tiago.” Francisco now looks at me helplessly, “I know that too, but I have to do something. You know me, I like to joke. And the men on the construction site are always kidding and joking with each other. They don't want to work with him anymore, they are afraid that he will look at them strangely or try to touch them. I can't help it, that's just the way it is, especially in construction and certainly here in Portugal. Here we are all macho men so Tiago has to become a macho man too. It really is a problem.” With a deep sigh Francisco indicates that he is serious about it.
I understand his problem and want to help him. “Listen Francisco, I get what you mean but it's 2022, also in Portugal. Já vinte-vinte-dois, também aqui em Portugal.” I also look at the two friends who have stopped spinning for a while. I hope they understand my Portuguese; “Hoje é tempo de inclusividade. It is the time of inclusivity. A part of the population is different from straight, that's the way it is and that's a good thing. Há muito mais pessoas que são diferentes, e isso bom, todas as pessoas são iguais. Everyone is equal and we should respect each other's. You should make it better for Tiago and not more difficult than it already is for him. Não fazer de vida de Tiago mais difícil. You are the boss of the company. You determine the rules and working atmosphere. Crie uma situação segura para Tiago e sem mais dor. You can create a safe working environment where Tiago is not bullied, where there is no more hurt and where everyone treats each other with respect. É possível, também aqui em Portugal. Tu decide. You decide and it is possible, also here in Portugal.”
“I don't know what to do with it,” Francisco sighs, still unconvinced. “I keep thinking about it too, Tiago with a man and then...,” he doesn't finish his sentence and makes a very dirty face. Francisco takes a step forward and turns towards me to indicate some sort of privateness as he continues; “and you know he lives in our house too. What am I supposed to do with that? Maybe he likes me? I don't know what he fancies. He lives with us as part of the family. Imagine that he then shows up at home with a man. Little Tiago with a man, maybe a big negro. Imagine little Tiago with a big negro." At this thought, he burst out laughing again, but then shakes his head as if to shake the image out of his mind. The two friends have now returned to their old position at the lamppost and are once again busy talking to each other.
I try to reassure Francisco and leave the Portuguese alone for a while; "Tiago is definitely not into you." To indicate that I think Tiago has better taste, I look at his belly, which hangs over his belt from under his t-shirt. “This isn't about you, it's about Tiago being in an environment where he's not safe and where he's being bullied. Right now he needs your support to be able to be who he is. If you force him to be different from what he is, you will hurt him even more. Then you make him feel like he failed and that he can't be who he is. He's already had a tough life, you know that better than anyone, so don't make it any more difficult for him. And, what is the message you are giving your children with this, are you actually saying that they cannot count on you if they are different from others? You don't want that. Imagine how difficult it is for people who are different, especially here in Portugal, and you want your children to be able to come to you with everything.” “Fortunately, I only have daughters and that is different,” Francisco replies. “Look, a woman with a woman, that I understand, women are simply beautiful.” For the first time he looks relieved. “Francisco, you should not take it personally. You're a heterosexual, but whether you like men or women, it shouldn't matter. I don't have anything to do with that. You're a good person and that's important." I think I'll have to leave it at that for a while, but I have one more thing to stress; "Would you please think about it and please make sure that Tiago's night out is cancelled, you could save him from a terrible nightmare."
With this I leave Francisco. I doubt whether the penny has dropped or not. When I get home, I explain to Paul what strange conversation I just had and how worried I am about Tiago. I look through the window and see Tiago, who is busy lugging large bags of cement in and out of the building. Would he already know what awaits him tonight? We promise ourselves to keep an eye on the situation.After a few days, a new water heater and a new tap, we have hot water in the kitchen again. Francisco's plumber did a good job. When the work is done, Francisco comes by to collect the money and check the work. He is extremely satisfied with the result. Paul and I thank him very much and walk him to the door to let him out. Halfway down the stairs, Francisco stops. “About that with Tiago,” he begins, “don't worry about that. They did not go out with Tiago. I've talked to them and told them it's not good for Tiago and they shouldn't do that. You were right, we can't do that to Tiago." We breathe a sigh of relief. Paul and I have been worried about the disaster that was hanging over Tiago's head. Francisco also seems relieved.
He goes on to say; “I kept thinking about it, about what you said. I could not sleep. Then I asked Ana if she thinks I have hurt Tiago with all those jokes and stuff. She then said she thinks I did. That wasn't nice to hear, but I know she's right. I know I must have hurt him and I don't want that. I am not like that. I talked with Ana about this for a long time and then decided to change. The next day Tiago came to me and asked if he was going to be fired and had to leave the house. I told him he could stay. I apologized to him for what I’d done to him and that I want to change the atmosphere at work. No more trauma. I then talked to him further and arranged for him to work in Lagos. There we renovate the house of two men, gay. The guys who work there are quite used to it. I immediately spoke with all the employees about how we should treat each other. What is okay and what not. I want all my employees to have a safe work place. Tiago is doing well there, he's having a good time." We stare at Antonio with big eyes and goose bumps on our arms. But Francisco is not finished yet. “You know the two guys who wanted to take Tiago out with them. One of them went to Tiago in Lagos and had coffee with him and then he also apologized.”
In addition to the big eyes and goosebumps, we now also have a lump in our throat. Well, what else can you say. What a wonderful development. We can't help but hug and thank him. It feels like a great gift and a huge relief. After another hug, Francisco says goodbye and the door closes behind him. Paul and I look at each other. If this isn't happiness then I don't know what is.
Poor Tiago A true short story by Nathalie Abbing.
This book is a memoir. It depicts actual events in the life of the author as truthfully as recollection permits. While all persons within are actual individuals, some names and places have been changed to respect their privacy.
The events in this short story are the motivation for writing the self-help book Vertebrae >
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