One day, one of those days when the weight of deception got too much for me, I almost told Sergio everything. It was a rainy afternoon, and we found ourselves alone at the kitchen counter, drinking coffee.
“I’d like to tell you why I see a psychologist every week,” I blurted out.
He kept sucking on his cigarette, as if he hadn’t heard me. When I repeated my request, he gave me one of his looks that I’ve been very familiar with since he was a child; insecure, wise and vulnerable, the look of someone trying to dig a hideout in the world, a safe distance from uncomfortable truths.
“You mean, there’s a specific reason?”
“Please, don’t tell me.”
“Why not?” I asked, confused. They all wanted to know, I was sure of it. They were spying on me, exchanging glances that spoke of their concern for my mental health. They followed me with their eyes full of questions that they didn’t dare ask, out of an embarrassed respect for my privacy. The reaction from my eldest son surprised me.
“I’m not the person you should be telling this to. In fact, Mom, I don’t want to know.”
“Well, let’s put it this way: I know that you’re not just my mom. You’re a human being with existential issues, and you’re Elena, and a woman, and an extremely complex person. But for me, Mom is more than enough. I don’t want any more than that.”
In other words: just be that essential and invisible presence that I’ve grown up with. Please, Mom.
The existential issue that Sergio didn’t want to know about lost importance, but not the truth that became obvious to me that afternoon, although I had known it forever: parents and children inhabit the same space, the same kitchen counter, but never the same time. We live separated by an invisible river of time, which must never be crossed if we want to keep our lives in balance. With that sudden clairvoyance that illuminates not premonitions of the future but events of our past, I remembered my own reticence to cross the distance between my parents’ life and mine, my efforts to protect the image I had made of them, to keep them unmarred by neglect or madness. Neglect and madness were my things, occasionally, but no one was going to damage the image I had of my parents, especially not them.
Every way of life is a resistance to chaos. My father had taught me that since I was little and he showed me amoebas under the microscope.
I remembered another counter, in our tiny kitchen in Tel Aviv. My father eating alone at the kitchen counter in a shirt and tie, whether it was winter or summer, using his shirt and tie and his old library crammed full of books as a shield against the hairy chests of our acquaintances, neighbors, and the other fathers who went around their Formica homes in their underpants and flip-flops, their muffin tops spilling out in affirmation of the Israeli way of being free from the prejudices of the old world diaspora. Just like my children, my husband, and I do today, back then we also ate our meals in the kitchen, following different schedules. Only on Saturdays did we sometimes get together in the dining room for a family lunch, a vestige of other lunches, before immigration.
That kitchen counter was also a kind of freedom.
Before that counter, during our early childhood in our native Poland, family meals were a torture of good manners that Dad insisted on drilling into me and my brother. He liked to bring up the example of a certain Dr. Livingstone, who, every night, would dress for dinner alone in his cabin. He was the first British explorer who had dared to penetrate the vast, unexplored, African jungle, and he had been thought lost or eaten by cannibals until he was found by a compatriot called Stanley, who after months of gruelling search, finally entered the makeshift dwelling where he found, weakened and sickly, the only white man for miles around. Stanley almost tiptoed in, as if apologizing for his intrusion, removed his British explorer’s helmet, and politely announced, in an impeccable Oxford accent: “Doctor Livingstone, I presume?” That I presume delighted my father, who had a childish weakness for impeccable manners worthy of any occasion, and something in that Anglo-Saxon, unimpassioned composure fascinated him, maybe because it was the complete opposite of his exuberant nature. He used to say that good manners were the bastion of progress and the first frontier between barbarism and civilization. I didn’t realise at the time that the poignant but austere features of our new homeland sometimes made him feel not unlike a Livingstone lost in the African jungle.
Toni, my younger brother, would grumble against the tyranny of table manners, taking Israeli defiance to new levels, asserting that he did not see any need to observe them. He loved to argue. Dad, who had a sharp sense of humor and never lost a verbal skirmish, by knockout or by points, seemed to ponder the question with his head cocked, a thoughtful look and the tiniest flicker of irony in his eyes.
“You might be right,” he said. “You don’t need to observe them, you have a scientist of some repute for a father. I wasn’t as lucky. As a janitor’s son, I had no choice but to learn to eat properly.”
As a boy, my brother was scolded and lectured until he learned to raise the spoon to his mouth without leaning towards his plate. I can still see him at the table, so small, stiff as a board, concentrating intently so as not to spill a single drop of soup. Slurping was forbidden, of course. I myself suffered the humiliation of eating with my arms loosely tied with a ribbon, to eradicate my bad habit of raising my elbows. I remember how torturous it was to cut a piece of roast chicken in that position, with movement elegantly restricted to my wrists. I had to follow the surgical instructions that my father gave me, pointing with his fork to the precise joint where the bird’s anatomy would offer least resistance to my knife. But as oppressive as that lesson in manners was, the art of correctly manipulating my knife and fork and leaving them together at the end of the meal—parallel on the plate like the legs of a señorita who knows how to sit properly—became a natural part of our way of eating, even when we were alone at the Tel Aviv kitchen counter, like Livingstone in the African jungle, with a plate before us and usually a book at our side. I for one was always reading. I inherited my father’s voracious appetite for reading and the habit of never wasting time when something can be done while reading.
But one night Dad had dinner alone at the kitchen counter and I was shocked to discover that he hadn’t read his usual newspaper while eating, he hadn’t even turned on the light. The coming darkness was starting to dissolve the outline of objects, and my father’s face was cold and clammy when I kissed it. I flicked the switch. My heart sank when I saw that the newspaper was intact beside him, with no signs of having been opened.
But there was something worse, something that I didn’t spot immediately, because even with the evidence in front of my eyes it was impossible for me to interpret what I saw. He had eaten everything, the turkey breast and the potatoes. And yet, beside his plate lay his knife and fork, on top of a folded napkin, just as Mom had placed them before going out.
I saw it and I didn’t say anything. My heart was beating with shame for him, with discomfort, with years of enforced manners crying out that what I was seeing wasn’t true, it couldn’t be real. Every way of life is a resistance to chaos: I hadn’t forgotten. I rushed to clear away the plate and the unused cutlery, to scrub them again and again in the sink, as if the stream of water and the abundant bubbles could wash away what I’d seen, remove it forever not only from my memory but from the record of reality, returning it to the status of never having existed. With my back to him, painstakingly washing the plate and cutlery, I chattered away, hurriedly telling him something about my math grades, the latest film I wanted to see with my latest boyfriend, and my brother’s latest exploits. Repressing the question, the question, the only question: What’s the matter, Dad? Are you okay? Because he wasn’t okay and, like Sergio today, I didn’t want to know. I was terrified of knowing. I remember how I felt an immense relief when I finally heard Dad saying he was going to his study because he was very tired. His voice sounded the same as always, if indeed somewhat tired. The next day everything seemed forgotten, the dish soap and my supplications had worked, I thought.
But it wasn’t so. It did not take long before the cracks began to show in our life, which had until then been smooth and compact despite everything. Little by little they became enormous rifts, and our life came crumbling down.
I never knew what had caused that internal collapse in my father that night, what personal humiliation at work, what blow to his stock of hopes. Did the possibility of secret madness lurk in the background of his days too? Did it sometimes drown him as well? Or maybe, I think, maybe that was when he found out there was nothing to be done for his heart, that it was just a question of time, hardly any time at all. Or maybe not. I’ll never know.
Then everything happened, and years went by. We grew up. We flew the nest; my brother stayed close and I went far away. We formed our own families, me once, in Venezuela, him twice, in Israel. My little Sergio will soon start his own.
It really was many years that passed, I lost count of how many. I lost the thread that tied us together as a meaningful unit.
Sometimes that thread reappears where we least expect it. It’s a mystery how some tics, whims, or gestures of those who came before us linger in the world of their own accord, and they’ll never be the tics, gestures, or whims that are really important, those worthy of being preserved in the temple of memory, but instead the most anodyne, irrelevant crumbs of beings who had been extremely complex, and who had had their existential issues and their own personal ways of coping with chaos. They refuse to die out. They obliquely resist the disintegration processes that affect real memories.
I glimpsed it the summer when Toni sent us Batsheva, his teenage daughter from his first marriage (he didn’t know how to deal with her), so that she could spend the holidays with her cousins in Venezuela (a synonym for “jungle” in his eyes), that gesture, tic, or whim with which a ghost appeared unexpectedly in a place as unsuited to spectres as an Arturo’s Fried Chicken in a popular Caracas mall, where they serve a regular, special, or combo meal in an ingenious Styrofoam container spread out on a PVC tray with a pile of napkins. I just had a soda, but Adán, Nina, and even Sergio dived straight into their meals, sinking their teeth into crispy thighs and breasts and sucking the grease from their fingers in front of Batsheva, who watched them in impotent disgust. I would never have suspected that the young punk would do anything but copy them, but it wasn’t so. She shook her crest of blue hair and, stoically ignoring the amused stares of other customers at her outfit and tattoos, she sashayed to the counter to ask for cutlery.
Then, before the astonished gaze of her savage cousins and my own teary eyes, she laid out her pieces of chicken on a disposable plate (she had asked for one of those too) and proceeded to eat calmly, sticking her fork into each mouthful of chicken, which she easily separated with her plastic knife at the correct joint, and raising it to her mouth without leaning forward, her back straight, her elbows down, and her arms parallel to her body, gestures which were probably practiced with the same ease until his last meal by Dr. Livingstone in his cabin in the African jungle, and which Batsheva’s grandfather, who died long before she was born and who was no less lost in another landscape, poignant and austere in its way, had drilled into us through scolding and lectures, even though my brother Toni (now also a scientist of some repute) made a fuss, rebelling however he could against the tyranny of good manners that he didn’t need at all, of course, but that our father did, because he was a janitor’s son and he considered them part of human progress from barbarism to civilization.
The ghost must have made himself visible in my pupils because Batsheva squirmed in her iron seat and clinked her tongue piercing defiantly against her front teeth.
“What’s the matter, Elena?” she said (“Auntie” is not an option for children raised in Israel). “I can’t eat while you’re looking at me like that. Have you never seen a piercing before?”
Translated by Colaboratorio Ávila