Reyes offers an acute portrait of the agonies of maternity and the search for our origins in this tale revolving around Spanish mother Belén and her adopted Colombian son, Federico.
Where do babies come from? From desire, she wanted to tell him, as they read aloud, like they did every night: he leaning over the illustrations, with his head of black pompoms so close to her arm, and she thinking how she had imagined him differently. She was going to name her Paloma, she thought of that ballerina dress she’d had the urge to buy when she imagined her. As Belén envisioned the girl’s feminine, golden skin, honey-colored eyes, and golden curls, the phrase passed by in a split second, and it startled her as if it had sprung forth like a jack-in-the-box: Daddy and Mommy met one fine day, they liked each other, and decided that they would like to spend a lot of time together. That simple, that easy?
Federico turned the page, as was always the ritual: you turn the page and I’ll read it to you. He glided his finger along the teeny ants, as he had called them the first time they were finally alone, the two of them together in that hotel room, and she had understood in her gut what it was to have a son and what it was to love him. The parents from the story had already stripped down, and Belén had arrived at the page with the technical details: The sperm united with the egg and that little seed began to grow in Mommy’s tummy, she read, watching her son’s head and his finger, which ran over the teeny ants of the words again. Tomorrow she would have to cut his nails, not one more day with those claws, but tomorrow was another day, and each day brought its own madness. She realized, from a nearly imperceptible tremble in his knee, that the boy wasn’t interested in finishing the story.
—Should I keep reading, or are you tired?
—Whatever you want, Mommy.
—And what do you want?
—Either way—he answered, but he turned the page unenthusiastically, and she kept reading until the end, which was an image of a newborn baby in the arms of its parents. A happy ending, at least in storybooks.
—What did you think?
Really good isn’t a response, she wanted to say, but she restrained herself. She would have also liked to clarify that babies come from many different places, but maybe that wasn’t so true. From an egg and a sperm, yes, but she couldn’t explain why those specific ones had joined, nor under what circumstances.
—Tomorrow let’s read The Hotel of Five Cockroaches again, yawned Federico and he stretched his legs in his bed, and she had no choice but to go take refuge in the news. Isolated thunderstorms across the whole peninsula for tomorrow, the twenty-first of October, 1996, announced the anchor, and she remembered that she had to buy Federico winter clothes: next weekend, no matter what, and two sizes smaller than she’d bought him last time. She saw on the screen a lifeboat of refugees, and if someone had asked her what country they had arrived from and when they would be deported, she would have had to resort to the same kind of evasive responses her son used when they reviewed his lessons and he seemed to be in another world. What worlds did he visit? . . . The image remained, turning over and over: two black boys, the baby in the arms of a first responder, and the older boy—or was it a girl?—maybe two or three years old. Acute malnutrition, the Telediario correspondent said, but she only saw the eyes, black like fish eyes: eyes of astonishment, or was it fear? The brilliant eyes in their emaciated little faces. A face may change over time, but eyes like that never do. She thought of Federico’s eyes that first day, like two windows looking out on the sea, and she saw his photo, watching her from the nightstand, with the voices ringing in the television, a thousand miles away.
On the other side of the hallway, she sensed her son get up. She heard his little footsteps toward the kitchen, the sound of the fridge and of drawers and a brush of pajamas gliding across the cardboard box. She had thought it was time to throw it out, because Federico hadn’t used it in over two months, but the psychologist had advised that only he could make that decision. And if he never decided? She heard the little sounds of a mouse eating crackers and realized that her son once again felt the need to live as a mouse in his cardboard cave. The images returned: his eyes fixed, the effort he’d made to bring her to that box that was there in the street, and the way he had slipped into it, almost slithered, in a split second. It was the first tantrum he threw in public. She tried to calm him down, first with sweetness, like any mother who finds herself at a standstill with her son: playing peek-a-boo and hide-and-seek, despite the freezing wind and the foreboding weight of what the box might come to mean. It’s dinnertime and it’s cold out and it’s nighttime, she had told him, the foreboding mixing in with the shadows, but nothing she said worked. She pretended to close the door to the building and left him hiding, but she returned after a minute, which seemed like an eternity, and saw him there lying down, curled into a ball, and discovered that her words couldn’t penetrate the cardboard walls. She folded up his body as best she could and grabbed him by the arm, and he started to scream: bad Mommy, stupid, ugly, I don’t wove you, while the neighbors passed by in their hurries, their shopping bags in hand, turning blind eyes and deaf ears. She knew that the moment had arrived for her to put an end to the childish extortions, according to what her friends and the parenting magazines that she now devoured had said, but he thrashed his feet and hands from inside his box, and yelled; you aren’t my mommy, directly at the center of her pain. She gripped her son’s arm with her five fingernails and saw that it hurt him, but not as much as it hurt her, and he repeated the phrase in a howl: you aren’t my mommy, you aren’t, until an old man in his nineties appeared with his dog and gave her a look as if to say, I’ll take care of this. What’s up? He said to Federico, while the dog circled the box. Do you want to make a pirate fort? . . . But how can I convince your mother and how will you be able to help me, because right now with all the screaming. . . And then Federico stuck his head out through a slit and explained that it was a pirate fort, that it was Bobotá. The old man winked an eye, and Belén had no other choice than to go up the stairs with that washing machine box that was now leaping out from her memories and which, judging by the sounds that arrived from the kitchen, it still wasn’t time to throw out. The images returned: the old man, the boy, and she carrying the little house, with the dog behind them, and then three days of Federico living in Bobotá. He took fruits and crackers and went to eat in his cave, with his teddy bear and the yellow truck he still had from the Day of the First Embrace. Maybe it was a memory from his other life, the psychologist told her and recommended that she not worry about it and just let the boy play so that he could explore it. It had been several months since Federico had needed to eat inside the box, until today. Where do babies come from—she thought of the book—De dónde vienes, amor mi niño? and García Lorca came into her mind, and she felt again the prick of the mysteries of her son and of all that she would never be able to get out of him and all that she would never be able to give him: how to cope with the ghosts. Federico’s footsteps sounded through the hallway and she heard him slide into bed. The idea was to do nothing. To leave him there, without doing anything.
Snapshot in El Dorado
When you are of age, you will go where you want and if it’s essential, you can go find out. Essentially, what am I doing here. I thought of the map of the route of Colón de Quinto and I saw the snow, I don’t know why, since there’s hardly ever snow, and when everyone went out to play, I circumnavigated the Mar Incógnito with my finger to Colombia and I sunk my nail into this point with the word Bobotá; they call it Bogotá, precious. In those days I had begun to hate the story of The First Embrace and I hated also the phrases that connected the chapters, the then I saw you, the conjunctions, and you came from the hands of the social worker, and I hated this image that you invented: me, running, happy, slow motion, as if it were easy to call you Mama, Mommy, Mom so suddenly and to give you those hugs from the photos, as if it had been like that, just happy, without this hole in my stomach because that day there were lentils on a white plate with little blue flowers, I always remember this, because I didn’t eat the lentils, no one had ever given me lentils before, and they bathed me with freezing water and they combed my hair with something sticky until it was like wire. I ran my finger over the little wires and they told me that I was going to rumple it, all that work for nothing, and they took me to a room that was all red and we practiced saying Mommy to the woman in the photo; Señora, no, you don’t say that to your Mommy, Señora, no, but rather Mommy, Mama, Mom, let’s practice. And while you told that same story of The First Embrace, different movies passed before my eyes: from the same story, you can make so many different movies, of love and of horror, or of both things at once, and then I didn’t want you to tell me anything again—who would believe in Santa Claus at eleven years old?—looking through the photo albums together didn’t work anymore. It was on summer vacation—fifth grade to sixth?—when the questions began, or when I realized that they began: I left open the drawers to the cupboard to support my feet, like stairs, and one afternoon the platter broke and you were furious, but to me it didn’t matter because those were the days when it didn’t matter to me that you didn’t love me anymore; I only thought of that album, and looked back on the photos from before, the Mowephotos, like you said I called it.
I am wearing red pants, the ones from your photo, as you call it, and you say that with that photo you found out about my existence and your eyes filled with water, they always do, but I zoom in on the black buttons. Black buttons on red cloth: I didn’t know how to undo them, and I feel the wet pants and I see the cloth, and the smell, and I don’t remember if they were short or long, and you continue talking, voice on mute, and it makes me ask, ask myself, if they were long or short—the pants—as if this mattered, and later I ask myself who’s the one focusing the camera and who’s the one ordering the picture-perfect smile, but you continue talking, talking, a radio badly tuned, and you say that it was love at first sight. That was my obsession, to make you fall in love with me, and then later came the opposite obsession, to verify who else, before you, had taken my photo, and I spent hours examining all the evidence to find some detail that would carry me back to those memories that you can’t recall because they are only mine, mine, mine, like those loose photos that give no clue as to what came before and what came after. And from then until we reached BOG, change of voice, change of skin, school years upon school years, writing essays, my house, my city, and my family, memorizing points on the maps, falling behind in math, and you at my back, looking for support: my son doesn’t have a foundation and never went to school, and doesn’t know the letters or the numbers and was malnourished, and I heard this story about myself that you never told me but that you scattered among my teachers without permission, as if I didn’t have ears, as if I were your teddy bear, your kindness quota in this unjust world where you had picked me up. You said that it was cold in Bogotá, how obvious that you haven’t been there in ages, how obvious that you don’t have any idea about Colombia, and I was sweating, and I didn’t know what to do with my coat. Please excuse the inconvenience, we’re working for you: Nuevo Aeropuerto El Dorado 2012, said a sign at the exit and a police officer cross-checked the pink tag against the stub, BOG, and I double-checked the code as if you were watching me, checking that I wouldn’t lose your suitcase. As if you were watching me through that dwarfed door, through that opaque window that opened and then yes: I had arrived in Bobotá.
From Qué raro que me llame Federico © Yolanda Reyes. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Susannah Greenblatt. All rights reserved.