My brother is adopted but I cannot, and I do not want to say that my brother is adopted. If I say so, if I utter this sentence which for a long time I’ve been careful to silence, I reduce my brother to a category, to one essential trait: my brother is something, and this something is what so many try to see in him, this something are the signs that we insist on searching for, against our will, in his features, his gestures, his actions. My brother is adopted, but I don’t want to add to the stigma attached to that word, the stigma that is the word itself translated into character. I don’t want to add to his blemish and, if I don’t, I cannot say blemish.
I could use the verb in the past tense and say my brother was adopted, thus freeing him from the eternal present, from perpetuity, but I can’t get past the awkwardness of that particular construction. My brother was not something else until he was adopted; my brother became my brother at the instant he was adopted, or rather, at the instant I was born, a few years later. If I say that my brother was adopted it’s as if I were reporting without despair that I lost him, that he was kidnapped, that I had a brother until someone came and took him away.
The only option left is the easiest said; among the possibilities the one that produces less uneasiness, or the one that best conceals it. My brother is an adopted child. There is something technical about the term, adopted child, that contributes to its social acceptance. It has a certain novelty that absolves it from its past troubles, that seems to cleanse it, if only temporarily, from its undesirable meanings. I say that my brother is an adopted child and people tend to nod solemnly, hiding any sorrow they might feel, lowering their eyes as if they didn’t wish to ask anything else. Perhaps they share my angst, perhaps they’ll forget about it with their next sip or their next bite. If that angst continues to reverberate in me it’s because I’m biased in my hearing of the phrase – my brother is someone’s child – and it’s hard to accept that it doesn’t express that usual, tautological truth: my brother is my parents’ child. I am uttering the fact that my brother is someone’s child and a question always springs to my lips: whose child is he?
I walk along the streets of Buenos Aires, I watch peoples' faces. I wrote an entire book from the experience of walking along the streets of Buenos Aires and watching peoples' faces. I wanted them to act as a mirror, to replicate me on each corner, to be revealed as Argentine by the simple ability to camouflage myself, so I could finally walk among equals. I never thought about how it would be, for my brother, to walk the streets of Buenos Aires. What uncertain distress might run through his spine at each recognizable trait, each habitual gesture, each intense gaze, each figure that looks familiar to him. What an immense fear – or cruel expectation – that some day a face might reveal itself a mirror, that an equal might actually appear before him, and that this equal might replicate itself into many more.
Suddenly I understand, or believe I understand, why my brother stopped visiting this city we never knew how to quit. My parents were driven out of Buenos Aires when he was not even six months old. We all felt we'd been driven out of Buenos Aires as long as they were not allowed to return – even though some of us, my sister and me, had never even set foot on its sidewalks. Can exile be passed down? Were we, the kids, as much expatriates as our parents? Should we consider ourselves Argentines stripped of our country, our home? Was political persecution also subject to the rules of inheritance? These questions aren't posed to my brother: he did not depend on parents to be Argentine, to be exiled, to be stripped of his homeland. Maybe it was something we were jealous of, this autonomy of identity, that he didn't need to fight so hard for his Argentineness. He was born there, was more Argentine than us, would always be more Argentine than us, no matter how little this meant. So it surprised us, years later, when he stopped accompanying us on the constant visits we made to the city, extended stays where we attempted to recover something that had been, perhaps, indirectly, stolen from us.
I walk along the streets of Buenos Aires and stop at Congressional Plaza, outside the headquarters of the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. I hesitate a moment at the door, I can't decide if I should go inside or not. I've been there before sightseeing or out of simple curiosity, I've scoured every shelf of the bookstore, I've had coffee in its gallery, I've allowed myself to be pervaded by their testimonies, their stories, their rallying cries. Now I find that I don't want to go inside, that I'm standing at the door and I didn't want to be standing at the door. That I'm standing at the door because I wished my brother were there in my place.
Supposedly the story began in Germany, but if the family was Jewish, and even if it wasn't, if the family had existed since unimaginable times just as any other family existed, all of them offshoots of the same absolute and distant ancestor, it's clear that this starting point was defined arbitrarily and could have occurred at any time, in any ancient place inhabited by humans. Supposedly the story began in Germany because that was where our name came from, and also because, there, in a still mythic genealogy, one of our patriarchs had allegedly been the creator of botany – a flower and a color named in his honor, a flower and a color we also inherited. But these were accessory details, largely irrelevant. The real story of this side of the family began much later, among those who headed toward Romania, buying land in Transylvania and adapting the spelling to the new language. There, in an unrecorded village, the grandfather I never knew was born, the legendary Abraham, not far from where my grandmother, Ileana, would be born, Ileana, whose name seemed strange to me though my father pronounced it with immeasurable love. Both Jews, both anxious at the turn of a century which promised to be macabre, both frightened by the growing anti-Semitism that threatened their neighbors, at some point in the 1920s they migrated together to Buenos Aires. There, in 1940, as news of the war that broke out grew ever more bleak, and when letters from the many relatives deported to the camps had begun to dwindle, there, in 1940, my father was conceived.
For the other side of the family the story is less exact, perhaps due to my mother's narrative style, rambling and wanting, evoking well-worn accounts that had once bored her, perhaps for lack of a climax and central conflict. Their origins dated back to an undetermined region of Italy, but only later did I notice that the name did not back this, suggesting Spanish origins instead. From Spain, I believe, they went to Peru with aristocratic benefits, to become part of the Lima Catholic elite that some washed-up official deemed necessary. Generations of relative material and anecdotal wealth ensued, of particular note the great great-grandmother or great-great-great-grandmother who had wasted away in hunger for the love of a man, an episode my mother considered romantic. It must have been my grandmother Leonor, whom I remember only by the aura of solemnity that surrounded her, when she already spent her days in a wheelchair, who had outlined these personal anecdotes for her. No doubt she also told her, in a tiresome yarn, how she met Miguel, the Argentine businessman who snatched her away from the big city and took her with him to a ranch on the pampas. My mother spent her childhood on this ranch, in the almost exclusive company of her siblings, constantly afflicted, as she would tell over and over, by the dream that someday a plane would crash and save her, and finally take her some place interesting. She saved herself by moving to Buenos Aires, getting lost in the crowds on every corner, in the densely populated corridors of the university.
But I don't know why I try to revive these trajectories, why I waste my time on dispensable details, as far-removed from our lives as any other novel. I guess I always found it odd, hearing these meandering stories, learning about these remote paths, this incessant displacement, the many temporary dwellings, I guess I always found it odd, my parents' attachment to a city they considered their own. If so many before them seemed to be inveterate migrants, if so many had made their homes mere outlines on a distant landscape, risking to forget dear, old faces, childhood hideouts, why had they so resisted leaving the country that frightened them, and why would the pain they felt be different now? I know it was an exile, an escape, an act imposed by force, but isn't every migration forced by some sort of discomfort, some sort of escape, an irredeemable failure to adapt to the land you inhabited? Or am I, with this foolish pondering, with these intrusive questions, devaluing their struggles, belittling their trajectories, defaming the institution of exile that for years demanded utter severity from us?
I see the young couple in washed out image, a black and white photo that time has faded. Something in their appearance alienates them, contributing to the feeling of anachronism – perhaps the size of their hair, the marked pleats of a shirt, the heavy stone bench where they are seated, something beyond this which I don't recognize and that somehow eternalizes them. Because they are my parents, and because they are not alone, because in my dad's arms is a little girl, I know that it was taken in the early eighties, and, yet it seems much more longer ago to me. They are historical beings, these people I see. Their punctual appearance in the photo is a culmination of bygone paths, one of several culminations of these complex lives that intertwine and permeate one another, with a collective past, with the march of an era, with the tortuous cracks of a time. I don't know how well I know them. I cannot decipher their cheerful smiles. I don't quite understand the intricate arrangement of acts and accidents that wound up bringing them together, but I know to this union I owe my existence and the indolent words I write here.
A child will never be the best suited to appraise the relationship between his parents, to understand what attracted one to the other, to unravel their feelings. You can't even wonder what curious confluence brought together a young Catholic girl, of conservative origins, and a Jewish boy from a bohemian neighborhood who adhered to Marxism, because then you reduce them to impervious identities, to hard types. Some drama, undoubtedly, was guaranteed, but suffice it to say that both had studied medicine, both attended the same residency in psychiatry, that soon both would be psychoanalysts, to dissolve any remnant of mystery. Another fiction, then, is created: they were not opposing beings, but two equals united by their criticism of the brutality of archaic psychiatric treatments, perpetuated in hospitals around the world, and their commitment to more humane, more sympathetic, more understanding, less damaging therapy. Between one lie and another travels the drama of this story: no longer the petty dogmas of one family among other families, but the ideals of two young Argentines at the tense summit of their political activism.
If those two young people were equals, certain banal inequalities that persist in replicating in ordinary relationships wouldn't let them see it. I know few stories about how they became close, about the period some might call courtship, but they all seem related to an idea of protection, to the conventional notion that it would be his job to protect her, to provide her with the security that the world would refuse her on her own. A sudden stop on their way to the restaurant, his arm outstretched to restrain her, his palm on her chest, precisely, an act of pure reflex and a heroic gesture she knew to appreciate – their hands intertwining to celebrate the happy ending. After dinner, the invitation for him to come up to her room, not because she wanted it, because she had desires that the old catechism primers would not approve of, but because she was afraid, because she wanted someone to check first that there was nothing under the bed, none of those sinister beings that at that time populated her nightmares.
They didn't go as often to his house, because he was also afraid. He feared shoulders thrust against the door, feared arms rummaging through his things, feared seeing himself face down in handcuffs, the grim images that disrupted his sleep and gave him the chronic insomnia I had witnessed so many times, my father like a restless figure, hanging around the refrigerator. He also feared she would want to look under the bed and there would find the weapons he had agreed to hide.
I don't see any of these fears in the photo, the photo is from another era. The smiles on their faces may be the dissolution of fear, a final detente, an at least partial ceasefire that they finally obtained in some Brazilian square. My sister is not smiling, but she is just a baby – smiling for her would be just a reflex, a spasm no one would seek to understand. Only my brother's face is surprising. His lips stretched outward, tensing his cheeks, as if someone had impelled him to smile against his wishes. His eyes are not clear in this black and white photo, his eyes are squinting and are almost unseen, but I am almost sure there is some distress on his brow, weighing it down.
They sat down at the table, at nine o'clock. Their hunger was great and the food, plentiful, but they found themselves compelled to hold off as long as possible from filling that void, to avoid satiety for as long as possible, as satisfying their hunger would mean acknowledging failure. No flavor would dazzle their tastebuds, no possible pleasure in compulsory consumption. Plates still stacked on the sideboard, cutlery arranged, various casseroles maintaining their warmth in vain, four arms dangling beside their bodies, lifeless fingers pointing to the floor. It was meant to be a dinner party, they both lamented. It was meant to be an intimate and gregarious gathering, an occasion for fanfare and toasts, for engaging in laughter and banalities, in fruitless drunken debates. It was meant to be a dinner party, and not the mere satisfaction of a primal necessity.
No one came, no guest, no one had said a thing. No longer hopeful for a knock at the door, the two of them sat there, without saying a word, questioning the walls with restless eyes, questioning their own shoes. Why had so many deserted them? Who was stopping them or obstructing their footsteps? Had it been a collective abstention, plotted beforehand? The dinner party was for her colleagues, colleagues from the hospital where she had just taken on a senior position, colleagues she ran into every day, who had coffee with her in the hall, with whom she calmly discussed serious cases, with whom she waged terse debates on the reform of that institution which had already, at least inside its rooms, seen worse times. Colleagues for all seasons, companions in daily struggles, why had they disappeared, why had they now gone silent?
No one would ever say it, and, yet, it was so obvious: they thought their apartment was dangerous. True, assemblies were prohibited, all meetings of a subversive nature were forbidden, but could a simple dinner party be classified in that way? Had life been outlawed to that point, their home interrupted, friendships cancelled? Yes, because if that was what others felt, all those people close to them, if they really did think their apartment was a minefield, how could they not say something, not alert them of the risks they were running? Silence, in this case, silence and abstaining, silence and vanishing, in this case wasn't silence a betrayal? Without accusing, without saying a word, the two sat there, denying their hunger, renouncing allies, and never had their vulnerability been so sensitive, never had the windows been so frank, the walls so fragile.
That night was not recorded, neither of them would rise to fetch the camera, neither would endeavor to remember it. For some reason, however, the scene comes to me as an almost static image, a millisecond seized amidst infinity, my parents prostrate in front of the table, shoulders hunched, steaming food untouched. I know I'm dramatizing when I see them that way, I know I'm giving the event an exaggerated weight, a weight their own telling never bore. But I think I'm dramatizing this weight because I can feel it, because in some way I understand, or believe I understand it. I know the frustration of a failed dinner party. I know, perhaps, the unease that hits when you cannot occupy your own space. I'm familiar, even indirectly, with the feeling of a house taken over.
What I don't know, what I cannot understand, is the pain of other dinner parties cancelled that same night, the pain of other deprivations, other abnegations, other insistent questionings. Other arms dangling next to their bodies, their fingers more lifeless than those of my parents, pointing to a much closer floor. I cannot conceive of the suppression of self exploited to the fullest, the systematic destruction of this void that is being, its conversion into a tortured utensil. I cannot imagine, and so my words turn more abstract, the unspeakable circumstances in which silence is not a betrayal, in which silence is resistance, the most extreme form of commitment and friendship. Silence to save the other: silence and self-annihilation. Perhaps they were distracted that night, my parents, but the questions did not escape them. Colleagues for all seasons, companions in daily struggles, why had they disappeared, why were they now silent?