Authors: Jay Cantor
Scared I might be called on in class, I hid for hours in the school bathroom, locked in one of the slat-sided wooden stalls, breathing as quietly as I could, to elude discovery. (
From that day in the schoolyard I had learned my first
lesson: how to hide.
) I wasn’t discovered in the bathroom, wasn’t even searched for, wasn’t even missed. And yet, at the same time, I wanted to be missed, discovered, called on, touched, made much of.
I withdrew more and more into my solitude, playing the role of a sickly child, withdrawn, moody, anxious, whining whenever I could about my illness, my pain—for my sickness was now my only distinction, my secret knowledge, though I could not put it into words. My asthma attacks came more frequently, were more severe when they came. I fell further behind. I was scared of all the other children, beings who were so completely contemptuous of me, who, without warning or reason, might turn on me. Even the girls were bigger than I was! Mornings after breakfast, waiting for my mother to drive me to school, filled me with dread. As soon as the meal was over I ran to the small downstairs bathroom, and threw up bitter lumps of bread and jam.
I was too weak to play their games, even if they had let me. And they had not. If I wanted a friend to play with during recess I had to bribe him. The boy with the freckled face rented me his companionship in return for pieces of chocolate.
To get the candy I sneaked downstairs Sunday mornings when my parents were asleep, to pilfer from the scalloped silver trays that they had set out for their party. I sat for hours on the fluffy white sofa that still retained the odor of perfume from their guests (and my mother’s perfume as well). I watched the dusty light of early morning enter through the tall doors to the patio. It was the only happy time of the week for me. No one was there to taunt me, to scare me, to make me feel ugly, clumsy, pathetic. Solitude soothed me, made me disappear in the play of the sun and dust. I was empty, light. (
I have never entirely left that solitude.
Monday I delivered over the stolen candy, misshapen and covered with white lint from my pocket. My poorer companion sold me so many minutes of catch per piece. It was fair trade. I wasn’t much fun to play with. The ball was too big for me. I tried to catch the way a girl would, trapping it against my chest. But it usually got away, caroming off towards the fence.
“You throw it hard on purpose,” I whined. “You
me to miss. You know I can’t run after it.” This game was an agony of self-consciousness for me. My whole body was hot. I could not stop thinking,
Am I doing all right? Did he tell the other children about the candy? Do they all laugh at me afterwards?
The freckled boy was a natural athlete, everyone’s favorite child, and I hoped to seem more competent—all right, at least acceptable—by being seen playing with him. But the boy kept his round freckled face as expressionless as a doll’s. That way it would be clear to everyone on the playground that I
wasn’t his friend, that he wasn’t contaminated by my cooties just because he was playing with me.
Aside from his bought companionship, though, I had no pals.
I hated myself, small, pale, wheezing, skinny, weak, unable even to throw a ball accurately. I thought myself as contemptible as the others thought me. And at the same time, equally strongly, I hated them all, despised them, thought them coarser and stupider than I was. I had special qualities the others knew nothing about. I was funny, brilliant, knew all the bones of the body, was a great violinist (like a boy in a storybook my mother had read me). I was Martin Fierro, leader of the gaucho army, clever, fierce with a knife. I was a Spanish prince, soon to be revealed as the rightful King of Argentina. I lived in those stories that my parents told me at meals. And unless someone read to me I refused to eat. Like most of my tastes, this one was catered to. I was so sickly that my parents were afraid I’d waste away if I missed a meal. So they gave in to my blackmail, took turns amusing me as they ate their own food. My mother read to me from storybooks, or from whatever book she was studying. My father read to me from
Heroes of Medicine
. (Each hero, as I remember it, lived a version of the same life: persisting, despite the contempt of other doctors, in some folly that history revealed to be an intuition of genius.) Or he made up a story for me, one episode at each meal. The story I liked best was about a pottery maker who was sad and lonely because he had no children. One day he made statues of the children he wanted from a magic clay in his back yard. And the potter’s love and longing brought the figures to life.
Finally my father took me in hand and taught me how to read, one word at a time, and every word a test of my worthiness to be his son. Lists of words, like the lists of bones I’d learned in my prodigy days, neatly arranged in the double columns of a black wire-bound teachers’ manual. We sat beside each other on the white sofa, and I climbed this ladder of words, both of us delighted at my accomplishments, at each step I took, each step of the world I mastered.
But this climb was a perilous one. I trembled inwardly at every word, every new challenge, for one mistake might send me hurtling into a void where I was next to nothing, contemptible to my father, small, worthless, insignificant.—Though the punishment never came from his hands. He never struck me. His punishment was a simple gesture of his disappointment, a thinning of his lips, a slight frown. Or worse: a way of smiling he had, turning his lips up without
showing his teeth. A smile of infinite condescension: I felt myself a deeply offensive person, for even my presence required so much of my father’s tolerance. “No,” the doctor said, annoyed, “that’s wrong, Ernesto, try it again.” And my given name was a terror to me then, for my father used it only when I did badly; when I did well he called me son.
My father brought with him, wherever we went, his own grave air. I had spied on him at parties; there was a distance between him and those he stood talking with, a way he had of holding himself back from people, some final sense of a moral life that he had that would not be budged by smiles, compliments, jokes. This made people want to please him. They failed. But
could please him. My father was generous with his praise when I did well. He had a broad smile for me then that showed all his spotted uneven teeth (perhaps shame had been the first motive for his tight-lipped smile). His smile lit up my world. I was “Brilliant! A genius! Much smarter than I was at your age.” And when he said it, I believed him. I was ecstatic.
But no praise was ever permanent. And that inner distance that had so impressed me when the man was my protector was now awful to me, for my father’s judgment, which could not be conned, was on me. I banged my thigh with my fist. I stood up on the sofa, balancing precariously. I sat down with my legs under me. I marched about the room, filled with confusion and anxiety. For my essence was wagered on my performance, on the next word, no matter what praise I’d gathered in the past. My smiles, my kisses on my father’s rough cheeks, these made no difference to him. Any error and I was once more out of favor, plunged into deeper anxiety, on the brink of nonexistence! And I wanted to please him, I loved him so.
So I began to take a more active part in their newspaper ritual, reading to them, but not commenting yet on what I read—for it was hard for me (I was nine) to get the line of their dialectic right (it was theoretically inconsistent in the extreme, vertiginously so). But it was fun showing off to them. And we were happy being together. (When my father read, he would make up lies, absurd ones, and insert them into the text, to see if we were awake, to make us laugh.) It was a hopeful time for us: the beginning of the war in Spain.
My parents, of course, were both on the side of the Republic and the anarchist miners. My father supported them, for their cause was just. But my mother loved them, for they, too, were a small beleaguered group on the side of justice, an aristocracy of the oppressed, kindred noble spirits. Those nights,
as I orbited the table, they made me so ardent for the cause that I named my dog Negrina.
And chose for friends the children of Spanish refugees who were already flowing into Argentina, even to the mountain province, Cordoba, where we now lived. (We had moved for my health. The air would be crisp, dry, less painful for me than the humid weather of Buenos Aires.) My mother’s sister, her closest friend, had married a Spanish Communist poet, and their son, Fernando Alvarados, a boy a few years older than I was, became my companion. We had much in common: we were outcasts. He lived, as I did, in an unfamiliar, menacing world, my native land. (And he didn’t know yet that I was hateful, smelly, weak.)
It was from him (thin survivor, floating downstream, clinging to a log) that I heard of the heroic resistance of a city, a place where all men were comrades, and, as in stories, shared out their food with each other. There, in that enchanted place, boys only a few years older than we were had run over open fields to capture machine guns and turn the battle. I felt grand when I was with the refugee children, hearing their stories. Death was only a solemn word to me. So tragedy made me feel courageous, exalted.
My parents and their friends, too, were filled with a new exuberance by the war in Spain. Masses were in motion, large issues were being contested. (Death was only a solemn word to them.) My mother’s pale face had more color. She slept more easily, the dark rings had disappeared from under her eyes. Despite our money problems—my father was having trouble finding patients in the town—they argued less.
I felt the energy in them when we went together to street demonstrations. (It was the time of Popular Fronts, and even bad marriages seem full of possibility at the start.) My mother joked with the people standing around her. (Mostly men. There weren’t many women of her class there.) She smiled constantly, a little nervously perhaps, speaking always, it seemed, more rapidly than the others around her, gesturing more sharply. She was a sound film star trapped among silent movie clowns, traveling forever at the wrong speed. Yet people seemed to be happy to be near her (though, like my father, they must have felt themselves a little sluggish in her presence, a little slow). It was a pleasure to be in on her jokes, to laugh with her.
I too enjoyed the marches. I liked being part of a slowly forming crowd, hearing political talk. I held my father’s hand and listened to my mother talk with our companions in a high, excited voice. I liked my mother’s quick rhythms, the tumbling movement of her hurrying intellect. I liked her clever
logic. She showed us (my father, of course, already knew, was beyond her—as I would be someday—into a realm of absolutes) how good and evil subtly changed form in the dialectic. Out of the strong came the sweet, the first became last, and the last (despite their
) first. There was magic for me in her voice as she negotiated the rapid turns of her argument, made categories shift shape, transform themselves, a stick turn into a snake into a dove. Oh, what seemed evil worked often to some good end, and pious sentiments were only a disguise for the most awful acts and many mean deaths. There was a hidden face to things in politics, a truth behind the show, and my mother let us in on the secret, unmasked it for us through her analysis, unwove the veil of lies. Her hands turned in the sunlight. I was lost in the austere beauty of this terrible system, this hard world. Bewitched, I saw how even evil was necessary, and worked against its will for the Cunning of Reason, of History.
My father, too, was happy. He stood more easily with the other men, chatting, almost expansive in the way he laughed or gestured with his cigar. He was wearing a blue suit, and he looked more sharply outlined than anyone else. He had, I felt, with his strong hands, his beard, the dignity of a prophet. Others felt this too, and leaned towards him (he did not lean; he stood straight). You enjoyed arguing with my mother, but wanted my father’s agreement. I too loved my father’s rightness, admired it, wanted it for my own, felt that I participated in it when I nodded assent to his grave shapely sentences.
I let his voice fill me, his seriousness make me still (my mother’s voice made me want to laugh, to hop around). When my father spoke I was grown up, someone who mattered, an actor in the drama.
I let go of his hand, and went over to be with my new friends. We were on the outskirts of town, among the small uneven farm plots, the wire-meshed cages of dirty chickens. I took sharp breaths, whiffing the interesting hot odor of dung fertilizer. The late afternoon sunlight warmed me through my thin jacket as I chatted with the other children. Here I had friends, had escaped for the moment (I
they would catch up with me) my tormentors in Buenos Aires.
We marched. I helped my parents hold aloft cloth banners that floated between two thin wooden poles. No one had thought to punch holes in the cloth, so the wind bellied the banners, bent the sticks. My hands ached from the strain and my arms hurt from holding my pole up even with my father’s. We chanted as we walked, making the birds squawk with our nursery-rhyme slogans, our singsong refrains that kept time with our stamping feet, our swinging arms and legs.
When we came to the main square of Cordoba, towards evening (we took the long way around, through every street in town), we raised our voices, made
our chants angrier, shouted our defiance at the indifferent soldiers who lined the square. Young men with Indian faces, made more dour-looking by their Nazi-style helmets, they stared at us, unimpressed. Our chants moved with wings through the darkening air, rose over the soldiers’ heads, battered themselves against the massive stone cathedral. Our words returned to us transformed, their sound larger, more powerful in the echo, but also strange, wintery, vast, our own words now almost unrecognizable to us.
My mother’s jokes soon became more bitter. You hesitated in joining her. Her rhythm was wrong. (Who was the joke on?) There was something dark and mean in her laughter.