What Will My Son Remember of This Horrible Year?


Back then he still wasn’t speaking in complete sentences, but he was a big fan of imitating sounds. We would sometimes exhaust our repertory, and then we would move on to invent the laughter and crying of animals. We spent hours imitating a dog laughing, a horse crying, and the game went on indefinitely until we got cheerfully lost in nonsense: a stuttering crocodile, a yawning magpie, a sneezing possum.

I have 1,422 photos on my phone, and my son appears in nearly every one of them. He was born 1,266 days ago, which means that I have taken, on average, 1.12 photos of him every day. To that we would have to add the pictures taken of him by his mother and his maternal grandmother and his uncle, who is a photographer, and … suddenly, it seems unfair or excessive to think that he will have access to those photos and the books his mother writes and the ones I write, books in which he appears ever more frequently, and if he doesn’t appear he is still there, lurking in the background. I feel as if we should destroy those records, make room for a shiny new forgetting. And there’s another, contradictory idea that also looms large, because lately I feel as if I write for him, that I am my son’s correspondent, that I’m pretending to work when really all I’m doing is writing dispatches for my son. Never has my writing been more justified, because in a way I’m writing the memories that he is going to lose, as if I were a nursery-school teacher or secretary to some toddlers named Joe Brainard, Georges Perec and Margo Glantz, and I wanted to facilitate the future writing of their “I Remembers.”

It’s 1978 or 1979, I’m 3 or 4 years old, and I’m sitting on the sofa beside my father watching a soccer game on TV, when my mother comes in to refill our glasses of Coca-Cola. For decades, I have considered that to be my first memory, and it doesn’t, at first, seem suspect: I grew up in a family where not only my mother but all the women attended the men, and in a world where the TV was placed in the living room and was permanently on, and the kids were almost always allowed to watch it, just as they could always drink Coca-Cola. This memory is not linked to any photograph or any family story and maybe that’s why I considered it, until now — until it occurred to me to write this article, I mean — a pure, unequivocal memory. Still, it’s not hard to unravel that confidence: I’m sure that in the 20 years we lived together, my father and I watched 100 or 500 or 1,000 soccer games, and yet I remember this scene as something that happened only once. I have the impression, and my father the certainty — as I’ve just confirmed, over the phone — that my passion for soccer didn’t start so early, but rather when I was 6 or 7 and we were living in a different house in another city, so it’s strange that I would have stayed there in front of the TV.

My memory does not say, in any case, that we watched a whole game or that I was interested in soccer. In fact, it’s just a flash that lasts two or three seconds and transpires in complete silence. That silence, however, is perhaps more suspicious than the memory itself, in particular my father’s silence — he was quiet when he watched regular TV, especially the news, but he was incapable of remaining silent when he watched soccer. Even today that’s a major difference between us: I watch games in a state of absolute tension and only comment once in a while, while my father shouts and cheers as if he were there at the field, giving instructions and cursing out the ref.

I think of the extraordinary beginning of Nabokov’s “Speak, Memory”: the “chronophobiac” boy who watches a home movie from before he was born and glimpses his mother, pregnant, and the waiting baby carriage that seems to him like a coffin. I think of Delmore Schwartz’s devastating primal scream, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities,” one of the most beautiful stories I have ever read, or of the genius ravings of Vicente Huidobro in “Mío Cid Campeador,” or of Laurence Sterne in “Tristam Shandy.” I think of the chilling “invented memory” that gives shape to “The Tongue Set Free,” by Elias Canetti. I think of certain fragments of Virginia Woolf and Rodrigo Fresán and Elena Garro. The list starts to seem endless, and I comb the shelves for books I want to reread — but suddenly I notice that my son has been quiet for too long. I turn to see him sitting on the floor. After several months spent drawing smoothies, he is now hard at work on his current drawings of pizzas and planets and of pizza-planets.

My own first memory is not, to all appearances, traumatic, and yet now I realize it’s possible that in my memory I feel as if I’m being forced to watch that game; I feel as if I’m exposed to the TV and to soccer and to sexism and to sugar and phosphoric acid, so that the scene acts as a foundation and even, possibly, as a justification or an excuse. A generalist interpretation would also lead me to contrast that memory with images from the era: streets ravaged by military violence where some men and women resist with suicidal and idealistic courage — but not my father, who is watching a soccer game with me, or my mother, who is serving us Coca-Cola.

I distrust the satisfaction I feel at knowing such a scene would be impossible in my son’s life, because he has grown up in a world, or at least in a household, where no woman is in the service of any man, and where every morning it’s his father who makes him breakfast in a kitchen whose refrigerator does not hold bottles of Coca-Cola — in fact, he has never tried Coca-Cola (regular or light or Zero), and he has never seen a soccer game, because he has never watched TV and soccer is now played in empty stadiums.

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