By Alejandro Zambra, from Multiple Choice, which was published this month by Penguin Books. Zambra’s most recent collection of stories is My Documents. Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell.
Pay no mind, my son, to what I tell you; pay me no mind at all. I hope that time, in your memory, will mitigate my shouting, my inappropriate remarks, and my stupid jokes. I hope that time will erase almost all my words, and preserve only the warm, still murmur of love. I hope that very soon someone invents a remote control that lets you lower my volume, pause me, fast-forward through unpleasant scenes, or rewind very quickly to happy days, so that you can experience whenever you want the freedom of acting without my vigilance, the immense pleasure of trying out a life without me. And you could even decide, for example, if it were necessary, to erase me. I don’t mean erase these words, which in and of themselves are liquid, perishable. Rather, erase me completely, as if I’d never existed.
I know that is impossible.
That’s what life consists of, I’m afraid: erasing and being erased. We were on the verge of erasing you, as you may already know or suspect. We didn’t want to have a child. The thing is, we were still someone’s children then. So much so that the possibility of being parents ourselves seemed terribly distant. We also knew in advance that we were going to separate. For us love was an incident, an accident, a practice — best-case scenario, a high-risk sport.
A little while before we found out about the pregnancy, we had considered breaking up. Maybe it will come as a shock to learn that the reason for our fights had been the dilemma of whether or not to get a dog. At first she wanted one, but I thought it was too much responsibility. Then I was the one who wanted it, and she argued that we were fine as we were, that we had to establish ourselves as a couple before getting a dog. In the end we agreed: we weren’t sure we’d be able to take good care of it or have the patience and discipline to take it for walks every day, be sure its dish was always full of food, apply flea repellent every month.
We thought we were too young to take on the responsibility of a dog, but we weren’t really so young: I was twenty-four, same as your mother. At that age, my father already had two children. The younger, four years old, was me. But in my generation — I know you hate that word — having children was something we only began to think about at thirty or thirty-five, if we ever started thinking about it. Anyway, I don’t know if it’s any consolation, but when we found out about the pregnancy we never considered the possibility of an abortion. I mean, we thought about it, we asked about prices at clandestine clinics, we even went to one of them, but we didn’t seriously consider it. It would be inexact to say that we changed our minds, because, as I say, it was one idea among many, but it wasn’t the primary one.
The day you were born was the happiest day of my life, but I was so nervous that I don’t know if “happiness” is really the best word to describe what I felt. I think it is my obligation to tell you, in spite of the absolute love I have always felt for you, in spite of how much you have brightened my life, and I assume your mother’s as well — I haven’t seen her in around ten years now, but I’m sure that for her as well you have been a constant source of happiness — in spite of all that, I have to tell you that during the eighteen years you’ve now been alive, I’ve never stopped wondering what my life would have been like if you had never been born.
It’s an overwhelming thought, an exit that leads to the darkest of nights, to the most complete blackness, but also to shadow and sometimes, slowly, toward something like a clearing in the woods. These fantasies are normal, but it’s not so common for parents to confess them. For example, over the years I have thought thousands of times that if you hadn’t been born I would have needed less money, or could have disappeared for weeks on end without worrying about anyone. I could have prolonged my youth for several more years. I could have even killed myself. I mean, the first consequence of your birth was that from then on, I could never kill myself. When some friend of mine who doesn’t have kids talks to me about his little wounds where, after languidly digging around in them, he’s found infinite desperation and anguish, I don’t say what I really think, which is this: Why don’t you just kill yourself?
I don’t know if my life would make sense without you. I don’t think my life has any meaning other than to be with you.
Everyone gets erased — life consists of meeting people whom first you love and then you erase — but you can’t erase children, you can’t erase parents. I know you’ve tried to erase me, and you couldn’t. I know I have existed, for you, in excess. That I have also existed in my absence. When I wasn’t there, when I went weeks without seeing you that year I spent outside Chile, for example: even then I existed too much, because I wasn’t there but my absence was. That’s why I think it is only fair to tell you that I have also tried to erase you. All parents fantasize about those irresponsible lives, about eternal youth, sudden heroism. It’s the distortion of something we used to say, trying to imbue the words with a certain philosophical density: Why bring children into a shitty world?
Our parents didn’t think that. They believed in love automatically, they married very young and they were unhappy, but not so much more than we were. They worked a ton and they didn’t even try to associate work with any kind of happiness, so their suffering was more concrete. Plus, they believed in God, and they made us believe in God. That’s why we ate our food, that’s why we did our homework, that’s why it was hard for us, at night, to fall asleep: because God was watching us.
But we soon forgot God. We dismissed him as one more character from the stories of our childhood. We didn’t want to be like our parents. We wanted, at most, to have puppies, kittens, and tortoises, even parrots, although the wish to have something as nasty as a parrot has always been incomprehensible to me. We wanted to be children without children, which was the way to remain children forever and thus to blame our parents for everything. What we received when you were born was a little animal that was too alive, and also an excuse, the perfect alibi, a mantra, a multipurpose sentence: I have a son. I was never so motivated as in those first years to ask for raises, to avoid unnecessary commitments, to stop smoking and drinking so much or to smoke and drink like crazy, because in our language the phrase I have a son meant, in a not-so-tacit way, I have a problem. I must admit I knew perfectly well how to add seductive nuances to that phrase: I have a son meant, in some cases, I’m a serious man, I have lived, I’m responsible, I have a history, so go to bed with me. And the next morning, if I didn’t want to stay for breakfast or didn’t want her to stay: Sorry, I have to go, you have to go, I have a son.
Except for those videos your mother got it into her head to show you — I don’t know whether for better or for worse — I understand you don’t have any memory of our life when the three of us were together. When you were seven years old you told me that some of your classmates lived with their father and mother and you thought that was boring because they only had one house. At the time I laughed, I wanted to interpret it literally, but I know there was pain there, a recrimination, though maybe an unconscious one. But by the end, almost all of your classmates had divorced parents. And even so I feel that the abyss separating you and me is deeper and more irrevocable than the abyss that always separates children from their parents.
We never told you why we separated. I’m going to tell you now. The reason for our separation was Cosmo. Yes, Cosmo. It’s a sad story. You have to understand that we were going to break up anyway; for years we’d been looking for reasons, and of course if you hadn’t been born we would have separated much earlier. That afternoon I was furious with you but also unsure: you were barely three years old but you were very self-determined, and when you saw that poor abandoned puppy in the garbage bin on the corner, you picked him up and went right on walking. I told you we couldn’t keep him, but there was no way to make you understand. I was amazed that there was no crying — you were a crier but you didn’t cry then, which in some way revealed to me that you existed, that I couldn’t fool you anymore. You stroked the dog and named him Cosmo, and as we walked home I felt overpowered. I can think of no other word: overpowered. I understood while we were walking that right then a struggle was beginning, and it was one I would lose a thousand times: the struggle that perhaps now, with these words, I’m definitively losing.
I opened the door convinced, willing to respect your decision, and at first your mother agreed. But that night, after some hours of false harmony, the escalation of mutual accusations began, until finally she said: We already have one. I asked how she could possibly talk about you as a pet. She went quiet, and I think I felt the fanfare of triumph, but then, after arguing about many other things that I don’t remember, when we’d already accepted that we would keep Cosmo, I was the one who said exactly the same words, meaning the same thing: We already have one.
Neither your mother nor I was talking about you. We were talking about you, but only to hurt each other through you. We competed for the scepter of who loved you more. For years we had agreed that we did not agree. And that night I left the house. And not long afterward your mother brought Cosmo to my apartment, which ended up being good because, like all children, some weekends you didn’t want to be with your dad but your mother reminded you that you had to take care of Cosmo. You didn’t come to see me, you came to see Cosmo.
Sometimes I think your mother and I should get together and ask your forgiveness. Or take ayahuasca and ask your forgiveness. But it would be better if someone would invent that remote control once and for all, so you can fast-forward and rewind, so you can pause, so you can erase some scenes of the life we have given you. You can’t erase us, but maybe there are some erasable people: your sporadic stepmothers, most of your stepfathers, and your teachers. So you can erase all the bad ones, you can erase everyone who has hurt you. And you can manipulate and distort and freeze the images of us, the ones who have hurt you but whom you can’t erase. So you can watch us in slow motion, or normal, or sped up. Or maybe you won’t see us at all, but you’ll know we are there, dragging out ever longer the absurd film of life.
reading comprehension questions:
1. The comparison between having a child and having a pet aims to show:
I. The contradictions of a generation that, under the pretext of a pessimistic view of the world, chose to have pets rather than children.
II. The importance of passing laws regarding responsible pet ownership.
III. The importance of passing laws regarding responsible child ownership.
(a) I and III
(b) I and II
2. In your opinion, which email folder would be the most appropriate for a text like this one?
(a) Sent Messages.
(e) Unsent Messages.
3. If you were the addressee of this letter, your reaction would be:
(a) I’m not really sure. As I was reading, I thought that this father could perfectly well be mine. If my old man wrote me something like this, I think I would feel sorry for him, which is what sometimes, maybe too often, I do feel. That pity would get mixed in with other, indeterminate feelings, which I would have to analyze in detail, preferably in therapy, but with a good therapist, not a quack like that clown I went to last year, who, when I told him I was desperate, recommended that I cry, and when I replied that yes, when I was desperate I cried, told me that in that case I shouldn’t be worried. In our last session he recommended that I try to face life with a little more “positivism.”
(b) I would hug him and thank him sincerely. I would take the chance to tell him that last week, Marce and I went to a clandestine clinic and we were really nervous, but everything worked out. It would be the perfect moment to tell him that we paid for the abortion by selling some of my mother’s necklaces, and also the big-screen TV, the juicer, and the microwave, so I had to pretend we’d been robbed, and for a minute I was scared to death, because the cops came and I thought they were going to realize the robbery was fake. I’d also tell him that I got the rest of the money by selling his first editions of Chilean poetry to an antique bookstore on Manuel Montt, so he shouldn’t keep looking for them :-).
(c) If only my father were still alive. Maybe if he were alive and he told me all that, I’d be happy. I would think: He’s an asshole, but he’s alive. But my father wasn’t an asshole and he never would have told me something like that; he never would have written me a letter like that. Another thing, while I have the chance, about dogs and cats: parents want their children to be dogs, but children are always cats. Parents want to domesticate their children, but children are like cats: you can’t domesticate them.
(d) I don’t know how I would react. What kind of father says those things to his son? It’d be better if I punched him. Better to beat the shit out of him. Was there really no other way to let out his frustrations than to attack his son? Was it really necessary to tell him he wasn’t wanted? I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t want me either, but I’d rather not know. Why do we have to know so many things about our parents? Why can’t parents just keep their mouths shut?
(e) I would give my father a parrot, but first I would teach it to say: fucking asshole, fucking asshole, fucking asshole.