REAL MEN DO NOT HIT
James turns off the light and hears Alex’s breathing.
Unfortunately, it will take longer for him to fall asleep
because he can’t stop thinking about everything that
happened. He can still hear his father’s voice, as if he were present, repeating again and again:
‘Real men do not hit, James, real men do not hit.’ He looks at his friend, who seems to cry in
his sleep, and starts to remember...
A few months before, Alex and his parents had moved into James’s building. As they
attended the same school and the same class, the boys quickly became friends and began
playing and exchanging confidences together. Alex was funny and, above all, a very nice boy.
At home, James spoke with his parents about the new neighbours. His mother said that the
lady seemed very shy and quiet, and that she barely greeted the neighbours. In fact, each time
she did it, she lowered her head, as if she feared people might see her face. James’s father
said that the husband was always at the bar or in the park, surrounded by noisy people and
playing cards with a group of men.
Then, while James was walking out with his parents on a Sunday, Alex’s father
introduced himself. He said his name was Peter and insisted on inviting them for an appetizer.
When James’s parents asked about his wife he merely replied:
“She is at home. It’s better she doesn’t go out much.”
Then, he added that Helen, Alex’s mother, didn’t like to go for walks in the street. As this
piece of information, and the depreciating tone in which it was said, didn’t please James’s
parents, they kindly declined the invitation.
Meanwhile, James and Alex became inseparable. They often did the homework together
at James’s home and amused themselves by playing PlayStation or watching a DVD. James
found it strange that Alex never invited anyone to his house, and he had also begun to notice
that Alex hardly spoke and that he acted as if he were scared. Sometimes, he seemed a bit
dazed, and there were bruises on his arms and legs, but he always said he didn’t remember
where he had got them.
One afternoon, when they had agreed to play together, Alex was late and James went
to his house. When Alex opened the door, James saw, to his dismay, that his friend’s eyes
were red and that there was a bruise on his face. When James asked him what had happened,
Alex only replied:
“Nothing. Come in, come in.”
James thought that was the mark of a blow, but he didn’t insist on it. Down the hall,
sitting on a couch, Alex’s mother was crying and clutching her bleeding nose with a
handkerchief. James noticed such anguish in the face of his friend that he didn’t say anything.
Instead, he did his best he could to distract him.
He had already forgotten the incident when, on a Saturday, they heard a tremendous
noise coming from Alex’s flat. At first, they thought that they were moving some furniture
around, and that something heavy had fallen to the ground. But Peter’s yells resounded
throughout the house, and only ceased when he went out and slammed the door. James went
to the window and saw Alex’s father walking away. Some neighbours came to the hall to find
out what was going on. James’s parents exchanged very worried looks and asked their son if
he had noticed anything strange in his friend’s behaviour. Somewhat frightened, he told them
what he had seen that afternoon. When he finished, his father turned to his mother and said:
“This man’s behaviour doesn’t please me at all.”
Then, one day, James and his friends began to talk about the problems they had at
home, and they made laughing comments about what their parents said. Alex remained silent,
staring at them, until George, who was very daring, asked him directly:
‘Who do you get on with better, Alex? Who is the bossiest of your parents?’
After a short silence, the boys continued to talk and laugh, but James noticed that his
friend had blushed and seemed annoyed. James added that he didn’t know who was the
bossiest of his parents because they both behaved alike.
“What my father says is that men and women are equal.”
Alex replied, looking him in the eyes:
“But that’s wrong. My father says that men have to wear the pants at home; otherwise,
women will tramp upon them.”
James didn’t reply. The truth was he didn’t know what Alex meant.
That night at dinner, he told his parents what had happened and asked them what Alex
had meant. He thought the sentence was funny because men always wore pants, although
women did it often too.
His father then said:
“Unfortunately, James, our society does not educate men as it should and makes us
believe that we are superior to women simply because we were born men. That’s a lie.
Besides, they deceive us by saying that we are stronger, smarter and better at everything than
them. If a man shows affection for his wife, if he confides his troubles to her, asks for her
advice and help, people say that he is weak, that he is less of man.”
“But what does it mean ‘to wear the pants’?”
“That” explained his mother “is a way of saying that men should boss women around to
prove they are real men…”
“It is just silly, James” continued his father “because people are not defined by a part of
their body, neither are they defined by their screaming, punching, hitting or swearing. Men
who are real men do not hit. Only cowards do so... I suspect Alex’s father isn’t a good person.
And if he isn’t a good person, he can’t be a good man.”
The following day, his mother commented that Helen, Alex’s mother, seemed to have
had an accident, because she had bruises all over and a black eye:
“It’s a pity that she doesn’t have any family here or anyone to help her.”
James’s father said nothing and continued eating, although, occasionally, he shook his
One day, when James told Alex that he would like to see his room and his books, Alex
stared at him and took long to answer. Finally, he told him he would ask his parents if he could
invite him to his house. Three days later, a very happy Alex told James that his mother
expected them both for tea and commented that his father was away.
Tea was great and James found Alex’s mother very friendly. Helen played games and
riddles with them, and told stories with so much fun that the three laughed as good friends.
Suddenly they heard a key in the lock. The smile on Alex’s mother face disappeared and her
hands started to shake as if she were sick. She stood up immediately and started to pace the
room as if she were out of her mind. Alex went to her side, took her hands and they both
stood silent as his father entered the room. Peter looked at the three of them and ordered,
addressing his wife:
“Go and cook me dinner!”
Then he went over to Alex and ruffled his hair. James found it curious to see the
happiness in his friend’s face, although he also noticed the moist in his eyes, showing how
scared and hungry for affection he was.
When things started going from bad to worse, the neighbours gathered to decide what
to do. It was then that James knew what was really happening: Alex’s father was a violent
person who beat his wife. James realized that Peter also mistreated his son, which explained
his friend’s bruises and fear.
“What I don’t understand is why Alex’s mother continues to live with that man. Does
she like to be beaten? Why doesn’t she divorce him like other women do? Is it because she
doesn’t like my friend”
“No one likes to be insulted and beaten, James” his mother replied. “Helen continues to
live with him for a number of reasons: loneliness, impossibility to go somewhere else, fear for
herself and her son, embarrassment at acknowledging to her family that the man who she
chose as partner is a violent creature who mistreats her. She doesn’t even know if they would
understand her... Anyway, there are many reasons and very complicated ones. You know,
James, life is sometimes very hard for women. And even more so when they are alone and
have children to support.”
While remembering all this, James turned to Alex’s bed, now sleeping peacefully, and
he thought of the horror that his friend had gone through that morning. They had just
returned from the park when they saw an ambulance, a police car and a group of people
looking at the building’s entrance. They saw Peter come out escorted by two officers and, a
moment later, Alex’s mother also came out lying on a stretcher. Alex ran to his mother, who,
while very seriously hurt, smiled at him and whispered:
“Alex, my son, I promise you that everything is going to get better from now on…”
She was not able to embrace him, because her husband had broken her arm.
Before falling asleep, James thought of Helen, of Peter, and of his friend Alex who, it
seemed, would now live with his mother in his grandparents’ hometown. He also thought
about himself and his parents. He wanted to be a man, but a real man. Just as his eyes were
about to close, he thought he heard his father’s voice again: “James, real men do not hit.”
Los hombres no pegan
Barcelona, Bellaterra, 2005
(Translation and adaptation)