Childhood doesn’t suddenly end one day, like we hoped it would when we were kids. It lingers, crouched silently in our grown-up bodies, and later in our wizened bodies, until one day, many years later, just when we think that the burden of resentment and despair we’ve been shouldering has finally made us adults, it reappears like lightning, striking us with its freshness, its innocence, its unfailing dose of naivety, and above all with the certainty that this really is the last glimpse of it we’ll get. We didn’t think it would be like that when we were young. As kids we dreamt of being independent and doing as we pleased: spending our time however we chose, eating whatever food we liked, going wherever we wanted. Childhood felt like a waiting room, a transitory phase between birth and the life we wanted. Children rarely achieve their dreams, they don’t have the tools, they depend on their parents, and neither Camilo’s parents nor mine seemed particularly interested in helping us achieve ours. They were drunk on their own lives, absorbed in repairing the disasters they were constantly leaving in their wake on their wayward paths to who knows where.
So I was lucky to have a friend who lived so nearby. I would go knocking for Camilo and he would know, just by looking at me, that something was up between my parents and that we should go and find a safe place to spend the rest of the afternoon, a place where no one could find us to send us home. Luckily we were surrounded by public gardens, dozens of trees to hide among.
The Palleiros arrived in Mexico in the mid seventies, when Camilo and I were just five. They were exiles from Uruguay, where the military junta had ordered the arrest of all communists. They moved into the building where I lived, but on the fourth floor just beneath our apartment. Around that time there was an influx of exiled children in Villa Olímpica, some accompanied by their parents, and others by their uncles, aunts or grandparents. Not all families could emigrate at the same time. Not all of them got out intact. Those families who had managed to gather their belongings had to wait months before they could go to the port to retrieve them. And they were the privileged few. That’s why, in most cases, their houses were bare, minimalist, modest: paper lampshades, wicker or reclaimed wood furniture, things picked up here and there. Anything to help them build their precarious nests.
There were more than twenty buildings in our neighbourhood, all separated by woodland paths and stone ramps, perfect for cycling. Every day after school we would scramble outside, making the kind of racket you hear at theme parks or break time. Our screeches and yells came in all different accents, but mostly Mexican, Chilean, Argentinian. Less common was Uruguayan, and perhaps that’s why to me it also seemed the loveliest. At dusk, the mums would come out or wave from the windows telling us it was time to come in. We all trundled home and a hush as dark as night would fall over the gardens.
Camilo and I first became friends further back than I can remember. In my earliest memories of us we’re about six. I can see us chasing a squirrel at the entrance to the car park, in fits of giggles. It may not sound out of the ordinary for two local kids to hang out together each day, but in our case it was. On arriving in the city, Camilo’s parents enrolled him at a school attended mostly by the children of families affiliated with the party, but he was too lanky, too tall, too awkward and too cultured to pass unnoticed (the best possible outcome for any school kid). To make matters worse, he wore glasses and had a funny accent. He would have been more than happy if his classmates had shown their contempt by ostracising him. But instead they would beat him up. And I couldn’t do anything about it, just like he wouldn’t have been able to do anything about me being an object of ridicule and abuse at my private Montessori school, owing to my acute shyness. We shared the fate – at once cruel and kind – of having liberal, progressive and largely absent parents. We also shared a desperate urge to be grown up, to build lives of our own, lives that we imagined free from all domestic strife. And yet, these were two very different dreams; for while I wanted to fly planes, climb mountains and travel by airship, Camilo spoke of nothing but returning to Uruguay. I ask myself now if this obsession came from his parents, but as far as I remember, in their house, where I spent as much time as I did in my own, no one ever spoke about it.
The gardens, just like the buildings in the complex, had their own tenants. Entire families of insects, worms, birds and stray cats lived among the hedges and tree trunks. The birds were by far my favourites. I wasn’t interested in shooting them with a slingshot like the others did to the pigeons. I was happy just to sit and watch them, admiring all their different songs, colours, sizes and feathers. I even liked that some were free and others lived in cages inside apartments, like the kids whose parents never let them come down to the square and mix with the rest of us. It’s true that most of those birds were ‘filthy pigeons’, as Camilo would say, but there were also sparrows and American robins with orangey bills. Inside the apartments you mostly got canaries and companion parrots. Whenever I was sick and lucky enough to skip school I would listen to the birds from my bedroom, amazed by the din they made. We usually drowned them out with our shrieks.
One Saturday afternoon Dad offered to take me to an aviary on the outskirts of town. It was a grey day and threatened to rain at any moment. But I’d spent the whole morning listening to my parents fighting, so anything was better than staying at home. On the way in the car we listened to an old Beatles cassette and didn’t exchange a word. The aviary was an enclosed park, but big enough so that it didn’t feel like the birds were penned in. Different areas simulated particular kinds of climates, from the golden eagle’s semi-desert to the scarlet macaw’s forest. We spent over two hours walking around the aviary under a refreshing drizzle. That afternoon my father also caught the bird bug, and from then on birds became one of the topics of conversation we would fall back on. And it wasn’t just my view of birds that changed that day, but also the way I looked at other humans. Dad and I invented a game that consisted of spying on our neighbours to work out which species of bird they most resembled, either physically or behaviourally. Lalo’s mum, the woman from the ground floor, was clearly an owl with five chicks in the nest; the woman from 305 was a robin in high heels. Camilo quickly got the hang of our game and soon became the undisputed champion at identifying which bird went with which neighbour.
I spent so much time over at the Palleiros’ place that it felt like an extension of my own home. Ernesto Palleiro liked playing the guitar, drinking wine and smoking unfiltered cigarettes. We would listen to him from his son’s room, just as we’d listen to my parents’ rows, barely muffled by the walls and ceiling. Noises from further afield also found their way into my room. I would often wake in the middle of the night to the sound of Camilo crying, cries I would have recognised from miles away, and on hearing them I’d become incensed at his parents for not taking him out of that damn school where they were torturing him. Nodding back off to sleep, I would think about how I couldn’t have been the only one who felt this way, and that in every one of those buildings full of exiles there was at least one kid crying themself to sleep each night.
Shortly before my eleventh birthday my father completed his PhD in Biology, and they offered him a research post at the University of New Orleans. And that’s how, having always lived in the same habitat, we too became migrants, packing up our things and heading north. Camilo and I said goodbye in the lobby, making promises about the future, each of us knowing deep down that we’d probably never see one another again.
That moment marked the beginning of a period of constant upheaval for my family. We set out on a voyage that would take us all across North America and Europe. My father accepted jobs wherever they came up, almost always at prestigious universities, but always for short periods of time. Mum and I followed him as he went. In all those cities my parents fought with the same fervour. Their rows were the only constant in our countless houses, and I’ve come to believe that through those scandalous bust-ups they found a kind of harmony: the more they argued, the closer they became.
We were living by the sea on the North Atlantic coast, where seagulls replaced the pigeons, and when he had the time Dad would take me bird watching. But these birds lived in the wild, in woods and on the state’s peninsulas. One weekend we visited the Cat Island wildlife reserve in southeast Louisiana, where the brown pelican roosts. We travelled by car first, then in a boat belonging to the university, together with a team of biologists – one of them a friend of my father – and two sailors. The atmosphere on board was cheerful and relaxed. The sailors made wisecracks about biologists and the biologists poked fun at the sailors. During the expedition one of them took out a fishing rod. In no time at all, he had a bite. He wanted to catch enough for all of us to have a barbecue once we were back ashore. It’s true that we weren’t exactly a small crew, but the fish were biting that day, and there was nothing to suggest he wouldn’t be able to keep his promise. After about the third or fourth catch, the rod began to bend severely and we had to hold onto our fisherman to stop him from being dragged into the water. That’s when we noticed, to our complete horror, that the animal he was reeling in on the hook wasn’t a fish, but a giant bird.
‘Bring in the line!’ one of the sailors shouted. ‘His bill’s caught on the hook.’
I asked Dad if it was a pelican. I knew the species was endangered and the last thing I wanted was to contribute to their extinction. But he corrected me: the animal striking the boat’s deck with its two immense, unwieldy wings wasn’t a pelican but an albatross.
The sailors looked on, staggered by the sight of the injured bird, while one of the biologists tried to prise open its beak to remove the hook. It wasn’t easy; the albatross was flapping about furiously, trying to escape. You could hear its fear and rage in its squawks. What was an albatross doing here, so far from its natural habitat? The friend of my father explained that it is very rare to see an albatross outside of its usual geographical range but every now and then one is drawn off course by storms and gets lost. The problem, he told me, isn’t so much that they leave their territory, but that when they do it’s almost impossible for them to cross the equator and find it again. Finally the sailor managed to remove the piece of metal, and the albatross, after attempting several wobbly steps across the deck, took flight. The moment it was airborne it spread its wings, savouring all that space, and flew off majestically. But instead of flying away from the boat, it let us watch him for a few minutes more. Someone began to clap and the rest of us joined in.
Cat Island is an astonishingly beautiful place. I discovered this for myself a few months later, when we went a second time, but on that first trip I couldn’t have been less interested in the pelicans. I only had eyes for the albatross. When I got home I decided to write Camilo a letter to tell him that I’d found his bird, but I changed my mind before I even put pen to paper. All that distance and time between us intimidated me.
When I finished middle school my family emigrated to Besançon, in the east of France, and I enrolled at the Lycée Mignet. The students there were permanently on heat. Fully devoted to their various courtship rituals, they did everything in their power to find a partner, which halfway through the school year they would swap for someone new. It was around this time that I wrote the first letter. Three pages written in small, close handwriting in which I explained to Camilo all the major events of the previous years, including the day we discovered the albatross on Cat Island. But I also told him how lonely I was. I liked travelling, getting to know different landscapes and cities. I couldn’t imagine ever settling down. Books were my only stable friendships during those years. I would get home, sit down to read and not move until tiredness defeated me. I often thought about Camilo. I wondered what he would look like now. I myself had changed a lot. I was taller and more ungainly, and my nose seemed to be growing at a disproportional speed to the rest of my face. I wondered if his was now covered in spots like the boys in my school, if his voice was the same or if it had turned into an unrecognisable caw, but none of these questions found their way into the letter. I sent it not knowing if he would even get it. After all, four years had passed and in all likelihood his parents had moved apartments. A month later I received a photo of his new skateboard, over which he’d painted two giant two-tone wings. On the back he’d written: ‘Love, Camilo.’
It was that same year in French literature class that they made us read Les fleurs du mal, so I went to the school library to get it out. When they handed it to me I opened the book at random and there, on the page, was Baudelaire’s poem about the albatross – ‘ces rois de l’azur, maladroits et honteux’ – where he describes the bird as nature’s equivalent of the cursed poet. I read it to my father when I got home, and he in turn, and with much gusto, read me Coleridge’s poem, the story of a sailor who ends up cursed for life for having killed an albatross. He is beset by all sorts of misfortunes on his travels, but the ultimate penance is being condemned to tell his story to everyone he meets, over and over, until he dies. The tale, as dark as any I’ve read, deeply disturbed me. All sailors know that story, my father told me. That’s when I understood the Louisianan sailor’s horror at having caught his hook on the albatross’ bill. I copied out a verse by hand to send it to Camilo as a response to his photo. I hadn’t had a single boyfriend in all that time. I liked to really know a boy before even thinking about kissing him, which drove them all to distraction. I was too slow.
December 1983 saw the end of the Argentinian dictatorship and Alfonsín took power. Half of the residents of Villa Olímpica went home. I knew this because our old neighbours had stayed in contact with my parents all of that time and some, on leaving, tried to sell them their car or apartment. Democracy returned to Uruguay in ’85. We were still abroad. I asked my father to write to the Palleiros to find out what their plans were, but before they’d replied I received an inconsolable letter from Camilo. In it he criticised his family for refusing to go home. Just a few years later we made a trip to Patagonia. My father wanted to see the glaciers and I the albatross, this time in their natural habitat. We travelled to the Falkland Islands, which were known for being home to an immense colony of black-browed albatross. When we went the island was brimming with adolescent birds who had just returned to their place of origin. They had been born there four or five years earlier, and as soon as they had developed into adults, they had then spent the same amount of time flying across the ocean, barely touching dry land. But instinct, that force almost akin to fate, compels the albatross to return home to settle, not only in their country of origin but just a few metres from the place where they were born. On that island we came across a nest with an abandoned egg. They explained to us that this was a rare tragedy. If an albatross abandons the family home it is only ever to save its own life. On hearing this, I thought about my South American neighbours, who, the second they had the chance, returned to the country where they’d almost lost their lives. It wasn’t an easy homecoming. There was no work and the people there looked at them suspiciously, as you look at a disappeared person who’s suddenly returned. But they had left something there: their dreams and ideals, perhaps, frustrated before they’d had a chance to fulfil them. And those dreams had to be retrieved.
I have vivid and conflicting memories of that trip to Patagonia. I had always imagined the albatross as a rare and solitary bird, and seeing them living all together in their colonies seemed almost oxymoronic. But I know from experience that the world is full of rare birds that have no idea how rare they are. Even stranger to me, all the albatross had their minds on one thing – mating. And I found their behaviour just as disconcerting as that of my classmates at parties and in the school playground. The albatross’s courtship is perhaps the longest in the animal kingdom. They can spend over two years dancing around other potential mates before they find the one with whom they fall into step. But unlike my school friends, albatross remain monogamous throughout their long lives.
My father died a year after that trip. They found him in a hotel room in Mexico City, having suffered a heart attack. Mum and I travelled to see him and make arrangements for his funeral in the Panteón de Santa María, which overlooks the Valle de Bravo lake. We received a lot of calls over those days. My mother took them all. I was in no state to talk to anyone. One afternoon she mentioned that Camilo had called. If you think about it, the custom of visiting the place where our beloveds’ bones rest is absurd, but in that errant life of ours, my family was my only nest, my only den. That’s why I visit his grave when I’m in Mexico. And when I do, I always take a handful of bird feed to attract the hummingbirds.
My father would often say that people only gain recognition in Mexico when they make a successful career for themselves abroad. I don’t know if he was right, but it was certainly true in his case. On the first anniversary of his death, the Faculty of Sciences organised a conference in his honour, which they invited me to open. The aula magna was packed full of people from all generations, and that’s where I found him again: in the middle of the crowd. He had changed a lot, it’s true, but it barely took me a second to recognise him. We hugged without saying a word, in front of all those sombre, prestigious professors. I had to attend the official dinner that evening so we agreed to meet up the following day, in a cafe in the Coyoacán district. We spent the whole afternoon recounting our lives to one another. I talked to him about the cities we’d lived in, and I talked, too, about albatross. In turn he explained that he still lived in Villa Olímpica, in the same apartment, putting up with that dismal birdsong. He told me that he’d been in two major accidents, one of them in a car: a friend had tried to race a train and lost. Thanks to him Camilo spent three months in hospital, fighting to save one of his legs. The experience did give him the push he needed to complete his studies in economics but it had been years since he’d worked in anything related. He didn’t have the patience. Instead, he helped out his dad with his business, and in return he got a roof over his head and food on the table. His dad had no idea about the marijuana you can farm under artificial light, and which Camilo grew in his bedroom wardrobe to sell to the neighbours. Villa Olímpica had always been associated with cannabis. He couldn’t have been in a better location. He swore he saved every penny he earned in a special fund to one day return to Uruguay. Despite his numerous efforts to persuade me, I declined his invitation to visit them at home. I felt fragile after the death of my father, and the mere idea of going back to the old neighbourhood terrified me. There’d be time for that. We met a few more times in the same cafe, and each time we stayed until they threw us out. When we left we would walk in circles around the block. We couldn’t stop talking, or staring at each other. We pointed out our physical changes with admiration and surprise: his hair, once dead straight, was now wavy; and he no longer wore glasses. But he was still just as tall and attractive, and his hugs just as perfect.
Without mentioning a word to Camilo I missed my return flight to France to stay near him, and since then I haven’t returned to my studies. You can quantify the effects of tangible accidents, but internal blows leave imperceptible scars that are much harder to mend. I rented an apartment near the university, and it was there that we would see each other, a couple of times a week. My contribution was the space itself with its terrace. He would bring the pizza, the wine and the weed. Our gatherings generally consisted in us sharing details about our lives and laughing till we cried. Every now and then Camilo would fail to turn up or would cancel at the last minute to go out with other, potentially like-minded female friends. He had plenty. I liked that he told me about his love life, as if he knew that with me he didn’t have to watch what he said or put up a guard. And I really didn’t judge him, just like he didn’t judge my decision to wait as many years as I needed to find myself a mate. We both knew perfectly well that, the day I was ready, the mate would be him.
We spent almost six months like this, in sync, just as we had been as children, until one day I finally accepted his invitation to visit him in Villa Olímpica. His father was out of town for the weekend and we settled into the apartment from midday on the Friday. On the Saturday afternoon we went for a walk. Camilo remembered all our favourite games and hiding places. ‘Here’s where you used to bring your dolls. Here’s where we hid our stash of candy. Over there, behind those bushes, is where the water-bomb war started, the one that went on for three days.’ I asked after Paula, Alexis and all the other neighbours who came to mind that morning. Camilo gave me the lowdown on all of their lives right up to the moment they left Mexico. One by one, he’d watched them go. ‘I never heard from them again. I’m the only one left. Me and my parents, of course, but those idiots are too scared.’ We strolled along the stone paths, holding hands like in the old days, but really we were walking in opposite directions: I was regressing to childhood, while he only wanted to escape it.
On Monday I went home and didn’t hear from him that whole week. I respected his silence. He called the following Thursday night to tell me that he’d bought his ticket and would be leaving for Montevideo in a fortnight. I swallowed the news in silence. ‘You don’t have to pretend,’ he said. ‘I know you’re crying.’ I laughed and told him between sobs that he was a poor bastard. That was all I said. I didn’t ask him to stay. How could I if it was all he’d ever wanted? If in reality nothing significant had happened in his life besides those two accidents – which were perhaps another unconscious attempt to escape captivity? Nor could I go with him. All this was unfinished business with his own story, his own family, even if they didn’t want to get involved. I would have liked to ask him what country he was really from: Mexico, where he’d lived for four decades? Or Uruguay, a country of which he didn’t have one measly memory? But anything I could have said that night he’d already thought about a thousand times, over the course of forty years. My interrogation wouldn’t have contributed anything to the conversation he was having inside of himself. No, there was nothing I could say. The only thing left to me to do was help him get ready for the journey and pack, give him a lift to the warehouse he’d rented to store his things, and finally drive him to the airport, trying to prevent Ernesto Palleiro – sitting on the back seat, silent as a funeral mourner – from seeing me cry.
That afternoon, Camilo’s father and I stuck around in the viewing area for a couple of hours until the LAN plane pierced the sky with its two-tone wings. As we waited, I told him about the albatross I’d come across as a child. ‘Albatross,’ I explained, ‘have a very clearly demarcated territory: the North Pacific and the Southern Hemisphere, to be exact. And yet every now and then, in the least likely of places, sailors will find themselves alongside one of those birds, just as happened to my father and me on the islands off Louisiana. They call them the lost albatross, or the wandering albatross. Of all the birds in the world,’ I went on, ‘albatross are the best flyers. They only need to spread their vast wings and they’re carried on the wind’s currents. But it’s also true that if there’s no wind, they can’t fly. Sometimes they go mad trying, or they die of exhaustion and plunge into the ocean. They can also land on boats and sail with them, or set up home in places worlds apart from their natural habitat. When they’re lost, albatross mate at random, with females from completely different species, who, like them, have become wanderers. Ever since I first learnt they existed,’ I went on telling Ernesto, ‘I’ve wondered what drives them them make these capricious bonds, when they’re usually so meticulous in their choice of partner – the need to mate at all costs? Or perhaps the opposite: perhaps a bird going through an experience as extreme as being lost and not being able to find home can only mate with another bird who is just as lost as they are. In the unlikely event of an albatross finding its way home, whether because it is graced with ideal weather conditions or because a boat carries it back inside its original orbit – is it still a wanderer?’ Then I asked Ernesto Palleiro, who by now was looking at me like I was mad: ‘After forty years putting down roots in another country, can you really go back home and fit in as if nothing has happened?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. And he didn’t open his mouth again for the rest of the journey.
Since Camilo left, I haven’t stopped asking myself these and other questions. Perhaps my fascination for albatross isn’t only to do with the likeness between them and my friend. We spend our lives trying to get to know other people, and in the process we lose sight of ourselves. Not much has changed in these last few months. I’m still living near the university, surrounded by books. When the phone rings it’s invariably my mother, usually to ask when I’m coming back to France. Every weekend I travel to Valle de Bravo to visit Dad’s grave. From time to time I go and see Ernesto Palleiro too. I take him a bottle of wine and spend hours listening to him play the guitar. Sometimes we call Camilo. He says he misses us and promises to come back for us one of these days. His father doesn’t believe him for a minute. I, on the other hand, know that he’s telling the truth. One afternoon, not long from now, he’ll get on a plane out of Uruguay, that country he’s chosen to believe is his sole truth, but which I’m sure isn’t his only patria. In our language, the word albatross, as opposed to pelican or heron, only exists in the plural. Camilo and I will go on flying, circling one another, just like we’ve always done.
Guadalupe Nettel’s novel After the Winter is available now from MacLehose Press