She had one eyebrow thicker than the other. When things got serious, she would arch it imperiously. With that gesture – which at first seemed distinguished – she highlighted her intelligence and, almost without intending to, her authority. Amanda, my mother, was invincible. She would stand firmly, her forehead raised, and look down from her tower. At that point we would busy ourselves with anything we could in order to avoid her fearsome gaze. My father, for instance, would cough, bite his nails, or rub his eyes as if he was feeling tired all of a sudden. We improvised strategies with a certain resignation. We accepted our defeat in advance.
Amanda was a dentist (she hated the word orthodontist) and worked in two clinics, but her real interests lay elsewhere. She was passionate about the Second World War, and whenever she could find the time – generally during the summer, on those long summer afternoons – she painted watercolours. Like everyone, she was contradictory. She revered the culture of physical exercise, but wouldn’t move a muscle. She valued effort over talent. Not for all the world would she admit a mistake. She got angry every single day, scrupulously. She wouldn’t raise her voice or make a big deal, she would just stare at you with those uneven eyebrows. It was a terribly severe gesture. She intimated that she was not the one doing the disapproving, but rather something prior to her judgement, something incontrovertible.
They built a wall around us. Outside, the world was unpredictable, hostile. With Silvi, my sister, we organised our lives behind closed doors and we had an unshakeable faith in our strategy. The keyword was independence. We entertained ourselves for hours playing with simple toys (each of us had our own) and we shared the space. In this way, we avoided loneliness. And, without even meaning to, we became the owners of the house. Teo looked after us. She was petite and laughed about everything. I remember her cheerfulness, and that very characteristic – her happy-go-lucky nature – shaped us. My sister and I are who we are because of our parents, but also because of Teo. She used to prepare vegetable tarts: spinach and squash. Then a bowl of rice pudding for dessert, which my sister always turned down. Me, I couldn’t care less about what I ate. Teo never told us off. She was the kindest person I have ever known. Her most typical gesture: a kiss on the forehead. Sometimes we watched TV together, children’s shows. Teo would roar with laughter. She didn’t like hot drinks. On winter afternoons, she would stand looking out of the kitchen window (her eyes staring into space), delicately blowing at her herbal tea.
One summer, I must have been about ten, my parents enrolled my sister and me in a sports club. We resisted, but it was in vain. They’d drop us off in the morning, and we’d come back in the evening exhausted, starving. Radical change: now, the world, interacting with the world, was crucial for our physical and intellectual development. Why bother and argue? The words of parents tend to be categoric. Do as we tell you, they shouted. The swimming lessons were given by a guy who looked like an ox. His name was Leonardo Del Vecchio, just like that Italian billionaire. He used to ride a Gilera 200 and wear leather jackets and one of those visor helmets.
When the weekend came, Del Vecchio would ride to the coast with a friend. Once, they made a stop in Dolores. They ate grilled meat under the shade of a willow. After that, they stuck their necks under a trickle of water, gulped in the fresh air and carried on. At kilometre number 249, one of the motorbikes began to malfunction. The problem couldn’t be fixed, the trip had to be interrupted. They spent the night in sleeping bags, out in the open. The spare part arrived at 10 a.m. the following day. Del Vecchio was meticulous in the way he told his stories. And that excess, the abundance of details, made them unforgettable. Listening to him was an experience like no other. For him, the mundane was exceptional. Therein lay his secret. Del Vecchio had a long nose and bushy sideburns, he looked like a national hero, like San Martín on the five peso note.
My father didn’t talk much. Competition makes the world go around, he used to say. An old idea but a true one. Rivalry – and profit – as a driver of growth. Competition, competition, he used to repeat. I absorbed that idea. Now I reformulate it: human relations are – without exception – transactional. I think about it. I am an adult. Do I have a choice? On several occasions experience, with all its brutality, modified my point of view. A rap, a gentle rap on the hand, as a punishment for touching something forbidden or inappropriate. That’s how the mistake, the slip, is marked. I have completely forgotten the machinery of childhood. Years accumulated one on top of another just like abdominal fat. Creases, pleats. I spent my teenage years without realising it: the gregarious spirit – not mine but of others – had kept me alive.
For years, nothing happens until suddenly, in one day, things unfold and everything crumbles. One Thursday, when my mother returned from work, she was different. There was something in her face, a kind of surprise, that made her eyes look wider. The skin of her eyelids was taut, really taut, as if at any moment it might give way. She came in looking determined, tidying her hair with one hand. Then she made a strange gesture: the corners of her mouth abruptly turned down as if gravity had defeated them. That trifle, that trivial action, turned her into an old woman instantaneously. Since she was so perceptive, she saw the change reflected in our eyes. There we were, my sister and I, my always absent father. Terror froze her blood. But since she was not one to give in easily, she immediately acted with great determination. She overcame her stiffness and halted the decline within seconds. Then she hardened her gaze and shook her head. She would not be beaten. This was a tiny tragedy. It lasted no longer than a sneeze.
Her malaise had a dual root. The first, an argument with her least-favourite boss; the second, she’d witnessed an accident. Someone had fallen from the fifth storey. At dinner she recounted these facts, but in reality what she did was enumerate the things she did that day. Meticulously. That’s what she was like. My mother: it’s better to ignore what’s affecting us. Best to think only of the essential. Change directions. She dedicated herself to this with body and soul. She had a unique gift: she was able to alter the meaning of words. The sentences she constructed, obviously, had a different meaning. And this notion, this new meaning, was unstable. Her definition varied according to circumstances. To interpret my mother was simply impossible. On that occasion, for instance, she told us – without saying it – that she’d decided we’d leave the city. Are we moving? asked Silvi, certain that she had misunderstood. Yes. As soon as possible, my old man replied. A change of scenery will be good for all of us.
My father used to work in a bank. A week after that episode, he asked for a transfer which – uncannily – he got right away. In less than a year, we were in Mar del Plata, living in a detached house ten minutes from the harbour. Reality cannot be foretold, he liked saying. I was eleven years old and felt desperate: I was changing schools. I repeat: I was changing schools. In addition, my feet had grown a tremendous amount. I was now a size nine and my sister Silvi couldn’t stop talking about the things she was missing out on.
By the seaside, my father was a different man. He grew a beard that framed his mouth – which seemed to droop more – and made his eyes stand out. A knock-off Conrad. He’d drive us to school in his car. Very early every morning. I’d sit on the passenger seat and my sister, quiet, lost in her thoughts, would sit at the back. We had a maroon Ford Falcon with metal bumpers. To my right, unfailingly, the sea would open up in its immensity. During those trips, we listened to the radio as if it were compulsory. From the speaker came a mixture of music and voices and noise. They would always play the same songs. It was one of the few happy moments in the day: the mercy of repetition. With their commercial airplay agreements, the radio stations corroborated our stability.
I attended a school which from the outside looked like a factory. I observed my classmates from a great distance, you could even say from a cloud. I was in the past, in a past of my own making, designed with all I needed to make it last. The idea of my best moments being re-released appealed to me. Why ever not? There’s a cosmological model that says the universe is cyclical, and my life should be no exception. I thought: everything is a matter of time. You take your passions where you can find them. I said to myself: you have to be up to the circumstances. At every lesson, my mind would drift, especially during maths and physics. The morning would go by languidly and I just thought about all sorts of things. I was saved by the memory of that time when – I now realised – I’d been happy.
P.E. was on Tuesdays, at 3 p.m. We used to go to a sports club in town. Lessons finished at 1 p.m. and I’d take refuge in one of the cafés in town. It was called El Pasillo and was opposite the Provincial Hotel. The waiter – a guy called Nelson – had been a lifeguard for twelve years at La Perla. One day he took pity on me – he saw the desolation written all over my face – and invited me to their training sessions. Come join us at the natatorium, he said, and used that word, natatorium. I started a week later and trained Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
I mostly swam front crawl and backstroke. I also tried butterfly style. From one day to the next, I turned into a sportsman, which is as absurd as becoming an astronaut. I felt it when I walked, moved my arms or turned my head. The pool gave me more than I could have imagined. I would leave with the feeling both of not having been anywhere, and of having been to paradise and back. Water was unreality.
Nelson would look at my feet. He said that having large feet gave me speed. Aquaman is faster than a dolphin. Before the year came to an end, I had my name down for three competitions. I won two of them, and came second in the other one. Round that time, my mother bleached her hair blonde. During the races, when I turned my head out of the water to breathe, I’d spot her albino mane in the middle of the crowd. She was a lighthouse. It distracted and guided me at the same time.
One day, I skipped school. I bought some Halls mints, a pack of cheap cigarettes and a lighter. I had never smoked in my life, but I thought I detected in those who did a total resolution that I decided I could attain if I took up the habit. Smokers knew what they wanted and, above all, how to go about it. There was extraordinary dexterity in the movement of their hands. It was an action that displayed how to handle pleasure: distinction, grace, management of time, resolution or, to be more accurate, independence.
I lit my first cigarette facing the sea. Two puffs and I got rid of it. I found it disgusting. I tasted metal and soil at the same time. My frustration was such that I threw the entire pack away, thinking that what had just happened revealed my limitations; a personality trait, when it came down to it. I have a weak character, I said to myself, lamenting this discovery with all my heart.
In an act of desperation, I went back to swimming. I was absolutely convinced that it would be good for me. Nelson talked to my parents and put me down for a competition at regional level. I trained every day. This made me feel greater than the world that contained me. I, with my modest skills, could deal with things as I pleased, and this experience set me on a course. It was an uncertain one, it’s true, but it was a course nonetheless.
On the second Tuesday of June, a classmate, a boy called Abel Kreimer, agreed to explain trigonometry to me. I was feeling increasingly lost with the subject. I gathered my strength and went round to his place. It was a fancy house with a big garden and a pool. I think his father built ships, or even owned a shipyard. The first thing I saw in the huge living room was a girl playing the piano with great skill. I soon learnt three things. One, that this was Kreimer’s youngest sister. Two, that she had a very odd name: Mattia. And three, that she was practicing one of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces.
Kreimer and I sat at the kitchen table to try and study, but we didn’t last long. Every little thing was distracting us. So we decided to step outside into the garden and lie in the sun. Mattia had also given up on her practice. She was sitting on the grass, smoking. My friend offered me a Marlboro and I accepted. Fate was putting me to the test and this time I could not fail. I placed the cigarette between my index and middle fingers and waited for Kreimer to light it. I did all I could to conceal my disgust. I didn’t want to look like an idiot. The smoke scratched my throat as it descended into my lungs. I realised there was no other way, that I’d have to dedicate myself to the task. I knew now, regardless of what people might say, that addictions are triumphs of the will.
Photograph © Ignacio Sanz