the short story project


Andrea Jeftanovic | from:Spanish

The Need to Be a Son

Translated by : frances riddle

How could I serve myself from such distant

plates, when the home had broken, when not

even mother could be forced from the lips.

How could I dine on nothing.

César Vallejo

I was born to words of condolence, “everything will work out,” “you’ll make it through,” “a child is always a blessing,” “everything happens for a reason.” I ask myself: why didn’t you just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why was this asshole kid in a school uniform at the hospital waiting to meet his son? Why did this idiot girl nearly shred her uterus so she could feel more grown up? Wasn’t there a pharmacy nearby? Hadn’t they ever heard the story of the little seed? Couldn’t they take her temperature to check if it was ovulation day? Horny dogs; and me, an unexpected gift that will never go away. I was born standing up, about to suffocate, threatening to rip apart my mother’s insides, requiring an emergency C-section to save both our lives. Later, like three siblings, we shared the same room, even the same bed. Who cried more, you or me? My bawling kept them from sleeping. My dad took the equivalency test over summer vacation. My mom finished her courses the following year. Neither one did well on the college entrance exams. 

But you weren’t the average teenage couple, you wanted to start a revolution, so I was a double burden, to your youth and to your politics. I was born listening to the music of the nova trova, seventies rock, cultivating an ear for distorted melodies. The first words I learned were: values, ideology, party, people. Words I imagined my parents pronouncing in all caps.

The following summer Dad went to the south for a meeting of the party youth, we didn’t hear from him for three months. A neighbor started hitting on Mom. He brought books, they wrote pamphlets, they went to secret meetings—which I also attended with my coloring book. One morning he came by with a handkerchief over his mouth, worn so loose that more than a disguise, it looked like a sad attempt at seduction. He stayed the night. Through the wall of the bedroom I heard the moans and laughter of two people enjoying each other. In an obvious ruse, he returned the following day with a gift for me, a racecar track that made a lot of noise. I thought a train would’ve been better, with its intermittent whistle and its sinuous wheels. When Dad got home, there was a big fight that all the neighbors heard, the usual words were thrown around like boomerangs: values, commitment, ideology, party, people, in all caps. I’m not sure of the exact order but those were the words they always used: values, commitment, ideology, party, people. I drew a star with five points and made a mark for each repetition.

Once, a friend of my mother’s I’d become very fond of showed up at the house disguised in a beard, a wig, and an Uruguayan accent. I gave him a sidelong glance. As he planned the commando operation, I pictured him snoring in Mom’s bed. From then on, we became the chromosome 21 family: two mothers, three fathers, five grandparents, ever-multiplying aunts and uncles. I lived in several homes, in boarding houses, in abandoned apartments.

There was nothing I hated more than the word mission; it meant that my father or mother would be gone for a long time. Confronted with my sobs and pleas, they repeated the magic words: “the Party’s orders,” “the party’s orders” I said, in lowercase. Those words were the reason for everything: sudden moves, absences, families separated, partners changing. A while later, among the furniture displaced by another move, I read the news of a failed attack and the names of the people captured. I understood then, that muggy afternoon, that my father was imprisoned in a narrow room with the sun bouncing off the beat-up cars outside. I think I fainted as the other kids sweltered in the mirage created by the 4pm midsummer heat. I never dared to go visit him in prison. Everyone came back after the visits shaking their heads, commenting on how skinny he was. I preferred to maintain my image of the nervous man, smoking cigars while his hand drew an arc on his forehead. I had a photo of my dad under my pillow and I talked to him quietly every night.

When he was set free he came to stay with us. I noticed he was softer in his treatment, his gestures, his tone of voice. “What’s going on with you and Mom?” I asked. They both shrugged their shoulders, spit out trite expressions without saying anything that made sense. I imagine it must be difficult to have a kid look at you with such confusion, demanding a response from two confused parents. She peeked into the hall, made coffee, pointed to a spot on the sofa. She told me that they were trying again. “Trying what?” I said. “Being together, doesn’t that make you happy?” But, as was to be expected, that happiness was very fragile. One day Mom came home to solemnly announce: “I’m going to the Soviet Union for a year. They’re sending your father to Romania, it’s dangerous for him to stay here, they’ll put him back in prison. You’ll stay with Marta, you’ll be safe with her.” I stared at her without understanding what was going on inside me. I waited a few seconds then left, slamming the door behind me.

I spent my fourteenth year collecting rubles with Cyrillic writing, stamps with Lenin’s face, all from my mother’s friend’s home, where I was welcomed. You guys traveled all over the Soviet bloc and sent me postcards. My father met with Josip Broz Tito, Marshall Tito, I got an envelope with a Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija stamp and a twenty dinar bill. I became a desperate collector of bills and stamps. I’d hold my breath waiting to intercept the postman. He didn’t even get the chance to ring the bell; I was already there with my hand out to receive the foreign envelopes with three stamps and two seals of entry and exit. I learned more and more names, cities and countries that I located on the world map that hung on the wall. I’d cut out the stamp, soak it in water until the glue came off and add it to the album made from alternating pages of cardboard and wax paper.

As I chopped the carrots for dinner, I asked Marta what her job was in the party. “To take care of the kids of comrades who are on a mission,” she responded as she hummed a song by Silvio. Marta had a seventeen year old daughter, Lili. I’d stare at her, unable to hide my fascination with her long eyelashes, her strong legs. She’d say to me “I’ll tell you the truth.” I asked her about her dad and she pointed to a photocopied image on the wall: the blurry face of a man with a sentence underneath: “Where are they?” I looked at the flyer but didn’t say anything. Out of revenge, she called me a “curfew baby,” which I didn’t find funny.

My first time was with Lili. I still have the scene recorded on my retina, searching for explosives in the backyard shed only to end up ripping each other’s clothes off. We were brought together by an atypical biography, our childhood innocence colored by our parents’ decision to take up arms. I asked if she had any memory of her father, “none,” she answered bitterly, as she handed me a stake. We made a tent against the wall of the shed, we gathered sticks, odds and ends, and we built our home. That was a sacred space, with its own set of rules. A place where the prying eyes of fathers and mothers couldn’t reach us. Lili took my clothes off and noticed the fuzz under my arms and the strip of brown hair that went down my belly and beyond. Sometimes I had an acrid, adult smell. She gave me a sort of crash course in obscene words. She got me pornographic magazines and books, she demanded that I memorize some poem from the Golden Age and then whisper it in her ear. Lili had a calendar in which she marked a day with a circle and the following five days with an ellipsis. Those days we’d go right up to the edge but she’d push me away when I reached the limit. I always felt like I was another mission for her, one she took on with the dedication of a disciplined militant. My romantic apprenticeship was her responsibility.

We formed an organization, she was the boss, and I was the subordinate. We fought against the bad guys, who were the military, in the name of the good guys, who were our parents. Later, we’d turn to the lessons of desire: how to press a hand against the secret spot, push the button with circular movements as if it were the joystick of an Atari, leave a finger in this position, know how to wait, recognize the appropriate wetness, tongue kiss without brushing teeth, reach that intense spasm with your eyes closed in a meadow.

Marta never asked, I don’t think she even suspected the tenor of our time spent together, she saw me as a little boy and her daughter as a woman. Anyway she was always busy, making visits, typing documents. I can picture her seated on the floor, with the Olivetti typewriter on her lap and her cigarettes nearby, talking to foreigners, diplomats, and intellectuals, in two or three different languages, passing from one to the other with a minute twist of the lips. I must admit that in some way that environment was exciting to me. There was hope in that parade of hands tightly gripping documents and walking out the front door. More than one visitor asked if I was a “son.” Marta nodded, throwing me a solemn glance, I felt a mix of self-pity and pride.

Back from her long Russian trip, which lasted almost four years, Mom returned married to the neighbor. She’d changed her way of dressing, she wore a fur hat and silk scarves. I didn’t know whether to greet her with a cold kiss or to throw myself at this beautiful woman. It was hard to pretend to be a family with a man I’d always disliked. At that point I was an early adolescent and I knew that when I sat down to the table they didn’t see me, but my father. His dominant genes made sure that his paternity was obvious even in his absence. I stabbed the food with a fork and brought it to my mouth, my face buried in the plate to avoid awkward gazes. In this way I protected myself from what I imagined were their inner thoughts: “there’s the guy that got her pregnant, that never sent money, off who knows where.” The young revolutionary had become an orderly functionary of an ecological ONG in the United States and he was constantly out of work between projects or consultations. I’d been living with them for a few months when the attack on Pinochet occurred, it was a Sunday, we were having a snack, and the special bulletin from 60 Minutes shocked us. Aware of my gaze, Mom seemed to measure her reaction, hiding her happiness, her guilty happiness. But she couldn’t suppress a “finally something happens to that motherfucker.” I remained focused on my bread and mortadella. The neighbor paced back and forth making enraged comments: “All those years of training and I bet they used a homemade grenade, the lazy bastards.” Another gray Sunday, several dead bodyguards, the ferret-like eyes of Pinochet’s grandson injured by shards of glass. At night they repeated the words: guerilla, Nicaragua, subversives. I was so anxious, I’m not sure why, but I went to see Lili, who was also upset. We locked ourselves in her room, there was no time to take precautions. There was only an urgency, to be inside her, to distract ourselves from the drama. We didn’t look at the calendar, we needed to protect ourselves from the future.

My father came to my graduation, they’d taken the letter L from his passport and he entered through the International Police, older, with the typical wide fatness of the gringos, wearing clothes that were of high quality but out of fashion. At dinner after all the speeches I finally had my parents together again. I asked them to be silent, no to interrupt.

“It’s my turn, I get to talk now, I’ve listened to you for years.”

I have to tell you, your youth was confused by the revolution. First, the daily urgencies: bombings, men hiding in the shadows, nighttime shootings, martial law, curfew, burned books. But you were late to the revolution, twenty years too late, stubbornly insisting on something that didn’t work, because human nature is imperfect. Has there ever been equality among the citizens of one country? Could all the people possibly have the energy and conviction to work for others?

Looking back, I think it was a cocktail of youthful effervescence and raging hormones. Now I doubt your true courage, I think you took unnecessary risks, blamed personal problems on “the cause.” You believed you were messiahs of the future, bearing arms, wearing camouflage, always talking about the future in the first person plural. You played at war, but with lead soldiers on a checkerboard. It wasn’t such a bad deal for you guys, you learned languages, studied postgraduate degrees thanks to scholarships from international organizations. But I think you were both guilty of arrogance, foolhardiness, false heroism. You should’ve just stepped aside and let the dead file past. What did you think you’d accomplish with your weak efforts? In the end, everyone tells themselves the lies they need to live. No, don’t look at me like that. Yes, I confess that I do feel some admiration, but why didn’t you ever see me as a soldier for your troops?

Things didn’t get any better in the period that followed. My father returned to the United States, my mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. I’d sit next to her and we’d study the horizon. I talked and talked. I have an idea for a better world. Let’s get out of this kitchen. Let’s get away from the cups, the spoons, the photos of you as a young guerilla on the refrigerator. No, let’s look at the bus tickets, the maps, the rolling suitcases, the pamphlets, the Che Guevara posters… Lili calls with an “I think maybe, come quick.” In less than an hour I’m at her house. She’s waiting with a test she’d bought at the pharmacy. She gives me a dry kiss and goes into the bathroom. Sitting on the bed, I unfold the test instructions, it says that it measures the presence of a hormone in the urine called Human chorionic gonadotropin or Beta-hCG. The five minute wait seems infinite. I think about my childhood, the postcards, about Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija, about the “Where are theys,” about the bread and mortadella, about the stamps of Stalin, about our love tent, about the Olivetti typewriter. Lili comes out waving a strip marked with a red plus sign between two holes; I never liked addition and subtraction. And of course there’s a firestorm of recriminations. Why didn’t I just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why am I still such a horny dog? I think about my desperate need to be a son before I become a father. I feel the unstoppable urge to heave and wonder what ideology I can use to mask my lack of desire to be a father.