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from the February 2017 issue

Playground Archeology


I remember the colors. I remember the textures, patterns and shapes—somewhere in between sight and touch. One fat stripe and two thin ones, stretching into infinity. A carpet? A sofa? All a bit rough, and possibly green. The baby bath was green, too. The bathroom floor was various colors, but mostly green. The dominant color. Was it really, or just in my memory?

I’ve seen the baby bath in a dozen photographs, though only black and white ones. And yet I know it was green, so this must be a real childhood memory. All I remember is what isn’t in the photos. The reason I can still see the colors is that the photos, being black and white, haven’t robbed me of them. Everything else is lost, blanketed in white noise, blurred, distorted. Layer upon layer of paint makes it impossible to dig down to the original. Documenting kills memory. You record, and you forget. All you need to do is take a picture.

The mere attempt to bring anything back to mind creates another veil, for even if the effort comes off more or less, it forestalls any possibility of repeated success. I remember one bit and tack on the rest, drawing on guesswork, clichés, banalities, commonplaces—general knowledge. But the next time I try to recall the same thing, my most vivid memory will be the latest material—in other words the confabulated part. Whatever I’ve invented will seem the most vivid, convincing, and true. I’ll be remembering the memory, instead of the actual experience—I’ll be translating a translation, copying a copy, making a negative of a negative. But it’s not just that: I will also feel intense pleasure dwelling on the very element that isn’t true, and in the process move away from the actual memory. And even if some small part of my reconstruction is real, it’s this element that’s bound to lose the Darwinian battle against fabrication—it’s the one that’ll be forgotten first.

So when a spark suddenly bursts into flame among the ashes of oblivion, it’s wrong to shield it carefully, because that’s the way to stifle it for good and all. When some memory appears at the far end of your hippocampus, and you feel that just one moment of concentration will be enough to bring it to the surface—that’s just when you should avoid concentrating. Perhaps it’ll surface of its own accord, in one form or another— but you mustn’t work on it consciously, as the slightest mental effort will open the gate for a fog of invention.

But my baby bath was definitely green. The one I bought for him is blue. Our carpet is blue, too. Future harmonies are already coming into being, not much different from mine. A theme with subtle variations, but still in the same system of major and minor keys. And yet he might not remember any colors at all, since the photos are in color now. We have photos, we have films—which means he won’t remember a thing. Maybe certain smells? Tastes? Movement perhaps?

I remember walking along. I’m holding my mother’s hand and we’re going somewhere, but where? Is this a single memory, one specific outing, or rather countless walks blended into one Platonic expedition? We must have done a lot of walking, as there wasn’t much else in the way of entertainment back then. Walking is for free. We walk a lot now too, that’s to say he and I do. And those strolls with my mother have only started to resurface now that I’m out walking again—only this time I’m walking on top, hands reversed.

For over twenty years I had no memories of that period at all, and only now are some things starting to come back to me. I think what matters most is the repetition of a setting—a park, a zoo, a playground, even a tram or bus. Then the images come back: I used to walk like that, too; I used to travel like that. I used to walk with my mother just as he’s walking with me now.


*          *          *


But as for those playgrounds, I never liked them. Each of the most popular pieces of equipment has some unpleasant association for me. A swing in the teeth, a carousel in the back of the head, a fall from the slide . . . I think it was only on the climbing frame that I didn’t hurt myself. A life trajectory typical for those days. Hard design—all my friends had their faces scarred by low brick walls, edges and corners. I had no scars, not even after that swing. Somehow my mother managed to keep an eye on me—but that’s another matter.

Nowadays the playgrounds are of a very different standard. Everything’s made of wood, soft—rubber flooring. Nice, unscratched colors. But the mechanics of the playground, its philosophy, remain unchanged. In general, it’s all about repetitive motion—spinning, swinging, bouncing. The physiological purpose is to upset the labyrinth. They’re too young for the hard stuff, but they have to addle their brains somehow. They swing until they pass out, throw up, or go blank.

He’s not too keen on playgrounds, either—despite the padded surfaces and the colors that subliminally and atavistically tickle the thalamus, hypothalamus, and the limbic system. He’s not into playgrounds—he’s into dinosaurs. The only way to get him to go is to trick him, to tell him he could climb the brachiosaurus, for instance.

Dinosaurs are important. They’re a fundamental part of the psychological equipment of every child of preschool age. Dinosaurs are the skeleton key that allows them to let out all their Freudian demons, while at the same time keeping them on a lead made of strong rope. They’re scary but funny, aggressive but friendly. Dangerous, but not dangerous. Better than Hansel and Gretel and their crematorium oven.

The dinosaurs have died out. This is the way to deal with death (because death isn’t visible anywhere else; death itself is an extinct dinosaur). Learn about love through bees, and about death through dinosaurs. Grandpa died—like the dinosaurs—perhaps he was hit by a meteor, or perhaps an ice age got him. We don’t know, and that’s the best. When it comes to death, there is no knowledge, we have to make do with hypotheses.

In my day there were no dinosaurs. I wonder how people explained death to children. Probably through ovens.


*          *         *

“We’re all dinosaurs,” he says. “We’re a dinosaur family.”

“So who are you?” I ask.

“I’m . . . a Gallimimus.”

“And who am I?”

“A T. Rex.”

“Oh, thank you! And Mummy?”

“Mummy’s . . . a Stegosaurus.”

“Great. Listen, Tiger . . .”

“Gallimimus!” he corrects me.

“Oh yes, of course. Listen, Gallimimus, are we going to the park, to the playground?”

“I don’t want to go to the park.”

“Oh come on, how about climbing that big castle . . .”

“The Apatosaurus!”

“That’s it, the Apatosaurus. Or the Diplodocus.”

“What else can Gallimimuses climb?” he asks.

“Maybe the Brontosaurus.”

“Brontosaurus is the same as Apatosaurus.”

“And is Brachiosaurus the same, too?”

“No, that’s a different one.”

“But it’s got a long neck too?” I ask.

“Yes. Can you climb it?”

“I’m sure a Gallimimus can.”

“But T. Rexes are too big . . . ”

“Well, I’m not planning to climb it,” I say. “Come on, Gallimimus, you’re going to climb the Apatosaurus and the Diplodocus and the Brachiosaurus. And maybe we’ll see Zosia again today.”

“It’s not Zosia—it’s Triceratops."

“Cool—we’ll tell her.”

“She knows. Triceratopses know they’re Triceratopses.”

“And what about Zosia’s mom—what kind of dinosaur is she?”

“She’s not a dinosaur.”

“What is she?” I venture.

“Eeeh . . . a Pterodactyl!”

“And Pterodactyls aren’t dinosaurs?”

“ No, because dinosaurs can’t fly, and Pterodactyls can.”

“Could,” I say.


*          *         *


You’re not going to read Spinoza. Triceratopses know they’re triceratopses—there, that could almost be Spinoza. It must do. You’re not going to read anything, watch anything, go anywhere, you’re not going to have a conversation or take any opportunities. For a few years you’ll cease to exist. Though usually it is she who ceases to exist, not you, and only in a few rare cases (when she makes more money than you do, when she’s the one who makes any money at all) does it fall to you.

You land up on the side track. In terms of intellect, you run aground in the shallows of hygiene and toilet. Your full-time job is to supervise someone else’s digestive system—later on there’ll be other systems, too, but this one always dominates—and gradually you yourself turn into a digestive system. What will he eat, where will he do his number two, what will I eat, what will she eat. A simple transferral. It would be easier to throw the next jar of baby food straight down the toilet.

You also start to function as a thermostat. Is it too cold, is it too hot? Take off, put on, do up, undo, untie, tie up—with a spare set of clothing in your rucksack. And suddenly you, too, are always either too cold or too hot; you’re the one who doesn’t know how to dress himself, even though two or three years ago you always felt just fine.

Nothing but dramatic decisions all the time. Banana or yogurt? Sneakers or sandals? And at the end of each day the main question: what are you to do with this freedom, what’s the best way to invest your limited share of it? Two or three hours—and nothing but alternatives, no overlapping. Either read or watch, either go out or catch up on sleep, either exercise or eat. Or talk—but that’s never what you choose, because it would be a waste of your carefully allotted airtime to have both of you doing the same thing at the same time.

And this is the reason, this is what it’s all about, it’s not about sex at all—that you can still squeeze in somewhere now and then—but to have a good talk, especially one where you speak, where you tell her something without feeling how pathetic you are—that’s something you don’t get at home. That’s something you get by the sandpit. 

That’s where your indivisible kingdom lies. Your onanistic fantasy of yore has come true: you are the only male of reproductive age who has survived a nuclear disaster. Sometimes a grandpa turns up, but never a dad. There are plenty of grandmas, but mostly it’s herds of mothers stretching as far as the eye can see. The mothers usually form little troops, but there are also the ones who sit apart, by themselves, being neither exhibitors nor clients at this pitiful stock exchange of good advice. These ones are usually a little less of a mess and a little more frustrated—they don’t seem fully in agreement with all this. You sit down nearby, you switch into “Irony and Distance” mode—so this is what we’ve come to—and the rest happens pretty much automatically. The next day she’s changed out of her tracksuit and the children have become good friends—let them practice their social skills.

And suddenly you realize that every aspect of your life is completely withered, apart from this one, which is blossoming as never before. Suddenly you’re the Casanova of the student canteen again, suddenly it turns out that thanks to a two-year-old everyone takes a spontaneous liking to you. That’s because a child does a man a service, both softening and sharpening his image at the same time. You become more manly, but also a bit more approachable. A family-friendly savage, a domesticated beast, testosterone in a stylish ampoule.

A woman, on the contrary, has nothing to gain from a child—here’s a sandbox paradox for you. Her image doesn’t just soften, but turns to mush. They’re all falling apart completely, suddenly the neediness of their entire lives comes to the surface, suddenly they’re ready to run after you for any old scrap of meat. Right now they feel highly unattractive (although in reality they’re probably just as unattractive as before pregnancy, before our era). After all, the standard is average, of course, sometimes average plus, but by now you’re perfectly happy with that, because in spite of the obvious differences in outward appearance, the mechanisms are the same—you, too, have various stretch marks to show, or rather not to show.

So from March to October you reign away on the playgrounds, after which the party continues indoors, and you meet someone called, for example, Zosia’s mom (in these circles one is always somebody’s mom or dad—personal names are only used much later, if at all) in the ladies’ toilet, since they don’t have baby changing facilities or potty seats in the men’s. You make some awkward comment (such as “ladies first,” as if addressing Zosia) and you lend her some wet wipes. Or you borrow them from her—the effect will be even better.

“We’ll synchronize their naps,” you say a few weeks later, and she agrees easily and without demur, because in the meantime, sex has become another hygiene-and-toilet activity that needs efficient organization and execution (the wet wipes come in very handy).

She agrees (and actually torments that child of hers by rescheduling its naps), even though two or three years ago she would never have agreed. She would never have agreed if she didn’t have a child and, most importantly, if you didn’t have a child, because after all you’re a random guy from a park, but now you’re also Gallimimus’s dad, so you’re probably not going to stab her with a knife, and though you might come without flowers and wine, you do bring wipes. Also, she is Zosia’s mom and, by implication, Zosia’s dad’s wife, so she’s not going to call you after 5 p.m. or want to spend Christmas with you. Or to have a baby.

It’s all based on equilibrium, meaning that if her husband dumps her you will immediately dump her, too. Please refrain from crying. Enjoy it while it lasts. And the child also benefits—at least it gets to see a man now and then before 5 p.m. It’s good to have role models.


*          *         *


“Stop it,” I say. “Not here.”

“Chill out. They can’t see us, they’ve got their backs toward us.”

The season is almost over. The last dregs of August. Pre-school starts in September. Zosia isn’t going for another year, maybe two. My sympathies to everyone concerned.

“What if they turn around?” I ask.

“Well, that’ll be a real tragedy. She’ll help her mom fill out the divorce papers.”

“He understands more than you’d think.”

“Even if he sees something, he won’t remember. I read that our first memories are formed at age four or five at the earliest.”

“Well then, perhaps he won’t remember twenty years from now, but in three hours he will!”

“What’s the matter with you today?”

“What did you expect?” I ask. “You want me to make you lean against the swing and stick it into you right here?”

“Well, as far as I recall, once it did nearly come to that.”

That did nearly happen, she’s right. But that was another epoch—prams and naps. Zosia still has naps. We’ve fallen out of sync.

“How did he get up there?!” I ask.

“Tyrannosaurus!” he screams. “Get me down!”

I run up to him, reach out and lift him off the climbing frame—and that’s when the memory comes back. It’s all a bit confused, I don’t know what came before and what after, I don’t know what I remember for real and what I’m just tacking on.

I’m three years old. I’m up on the same kind of climbing frame—so after all the climbing frame, too, is linked with a traumatic memory. I’m screaming something. (“Get me down?” I’m probably inserting that now.) My mother is somewhere far off. My mother is furious—right now, or only later on? A strange man comes running up to me. It’s definitely not my father—it’s man with a mustache. Yes, he has a mustache, and a wide, unnatural smile, he looks like George Harrison on the cover of Let It Be. (My mother always used to say George was the most handsome of the four.) He reaches out toward me. Does he hug me? Stroke me? Kiss me? My mother comes unglued from the background and dashes toward us. She’s clearly furious—at me or at him, I don’t know.

“My son, my baby boy,” says Harrison (almost for certain).


*          *          *


“Listen, Gallimimus, we don’t need to tell Stegosaurus that we saw Triceratops and Pterodactyl again, OK?”


“It’ll be our little secret,” I say (literally). “Deal?”


“How about we go to a different playground tomorrow?”

“All right.”

“Best we simply forget about them.”


© Maciej Milkowski. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Tul'si Bhambry. All rights reserved.

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