During her last year my mother grew obsessive about the emblems of empire: the Union Jack, the Tower of London, the Queen, and Mrs. Thatcher. As the light in her eyes began to fade, she plastered the apartment with tourist posters of Buckingham Palace and the changing of the guard and magazine photographs of the royal family; her accent became posher and her face took on the guise of an elderly duchess who had suffered a long exile. She was lonely and sad and distant as the end came close.
I am living once more in her apartment. I am sleeping in her bed, and I am using, with particular relish, the heavy cotton sheets that she was saving for some special occasion. In all the years since she died I have never opened the curtains in this room. The window, which must be very dirty now, looks on to Lavalle, and if I open it I imagine there is a strong possibility that some residual part of my mother that flits around in the shadows of this room will fly out over the city, and I do not want that. I am not ready for it.
She died the year before the war and thus I was spared her mad patriotism and foolishness. I know that she would have waved a Union Jack out of the window, that she would have shouted slogans at whoever would listen, that she would have been overjoyed at the prospect of a flotilla coming down from England, all the way across the world in the name of righteousness and civilization, to expel the barbarians from the Falkland Islands. The war would have been her shrill revenge on everybody, on my father and his family, and on the life she had been forced to live down here so far away from home. I can hear her screeching now about the war and the empire, her voice triumphant. I can imagine trying to silence her, trying to escape her.
Her brittle old bones are firmly locked in the family vault, with my father's middle-aged bones, and my grandparents' bones, and the bones of one uncle, and the small, soft, delicate bones of a cousin who died when she was a baby. Recently, I have felt unwilling to join all the rest of them in that dank underworld beneath the ornate angel and the stone cross. I can imagine the vague stench of ancestors still lingering, despite everything, despite all the time they have been dead. If I have enough money left, I will find my own place of rest.
I was the little English boy holding my mother's hand on the way out of the Church of England service on Calle Rubicon on a Sunday morning, my mother smiling at the members of the British colony, my mother wearing her good clothes and too much makeup and putting on her best accent and the weird, crooked smile she used on these occasions. She loved my name, Richard, the Englishness of it, and she hated it when anybody used the Spanish version, Ricardo. As I grew older, she loved me sitting quietly in some corner of the apartment away from her reading a book. She liked the bookish part of me, she drooled over the English tweed suit which I had specially made by a tailor on Corrientes. She mistook my reserve and my distance from her. She thought that it was real, and she never understood that it was fear. She liked my teaching at the university, even if it was only two hours a week in what passed for a language laboratory. And when I lost those hours and worked solely in Instituto San Martin, teaching repetitious English, she never mentioned it again, but saved it up to contemplate in her hours alone in her study, another bitter aspect of the way things had declined. She was disappointed.
Maybe that is what lingers in her bedroom, her disappointment and all the time she had alone to savor it and go over it in detail. Some of that dull energy is left there, and I can feel it when I go into the room and I still call it Mother.
She wanted me to have friends, to move around in groups, but in some deeper manner which I have never understood she taught me to distrust people, to want to slip away and spend time alone. She hated me going to the movies on my own. Do you not have a friend, she would ask. In my first year at the university I did have a friend, who was studying economics, and who approached me one day and asked me to teach him English. His parents would pay, he said. I met him three times a week for lessons. His name was Jorge Canetto and he became important for me then because I fell in love with him and thought about him all the time. I loved how tall and strong he was, and how strangely blue his eyes were against the darkness of his hair and his skin. I loved the slow ease with which he smiled, the softness in him.
My mother noticed that I was happier, and asked me if I had a girlfriend. I told her that I did not. She laughed, as though the possibility caused her infinite mirth, and said I had, I had, she knew I had, and she would find out soon, someone would tell her the girl's name. Soon, she would know, she said. I told her again that I did not.
At five o'clock three days a week in an empty classroom in the university I taught Jorge English. A few times he came to the apartment and I gave him the lesson in the dining room, my mother hovering in the hallway. I taught him how to ask questions in the present tense, I made him learn vocabulary. And I listened for some clue that he might understand. That is the word they use here. Entender. To understand. There are other words too, but this one is still common. ?Entendes? you could ask and this would mean Do you? Are you? Will you?
Sometimes I became tense with worry that I might blurt it out, summon up the courage to ask him on the way out of a lesson. It would just take one moment to say it. "There's something I want to ask you. I've noticed that you never mention girls the way most men here do, and you never look behind at a woman who passes on the street, and there's something I've wanted to ask you, you may guess what it is ... Do you understand. ?Entendes?" And if he had said yes, perhaps I would not have wanted him as much as I did in this twilight time when I taught him English and did not know about him. Maybe I wanted whatever part of him was unavailable. Maybe if he had understood I would have despised him. Maybe I am being too hard.
The generals were in power then, and nobody stayed out late, even though the cafes and bars in the streets around us remained open, eerily waiting for the lone customer who had missed his train to finish up and go, or for time to pass, or for something to happen. But nothing happened. Or, as we later learned, a great deal happened, but I never witnessed any of it. It was as though the famous disappearances we hear so much about now took place in a ghost city, a shadowy version of our own, and in the small hours when no sounds were made or traces left. I knew--or thought that I knew--no one in those years who disappeared, no one who was detained, no one who was threatened with detention. I knew no one at that time who told me that they knew anyone who was a victim. And there are others who have written about this and come to the conclusion that the disappearances did not occur, or occurred on a lesser scale than we have been led to believe. But that is not my conclusion.
My conclusion centers on the strange lack of contact we have with each other here. It is not simply my problem, it is a crucial part of this faraway place to which our ancestors--my mother's father, my father's great-grandfather--came in search of vast tracts of land: we have never trusted each other here, or mixed with each other. There is no society here, just a terrible loneliness which bears down on us all, and bears down on me now. Maybe it is possible that I could watch someone being dragged away in front of my eyes and not recognize it. I would somehow miss the point, and maybe that is what I did, and others like me did, during those years. We saw nothing, not because there was nothing, but because we had trained ourselves not to see.
I do not remember when precisely I began to go directly home after my day at the university. In those years you moved carefully; without knowing why, you watched out. It was something in the atmosphere, something unsaid and all-pervasive, rather than anything printed in the papers or broadcast over the radio. You did not want to be the lone figure in the street at night. But I often went for coffee with Jorge after the lesson, nonetheless. And I waited for some sign from him. I expected him to mention a girlfriend. I observed him when girls passed for some sign of desire or interest, but there was nothing. His clothes in those years were old-fashioned and formal. I liked that about him. I imagined him in one of those old-fashioned bathing costumes that covered the torso as well, and I thought of the shape of him, and that was exciting.
A few times I found pleasure in the city. It would always begin in the same way: a sharp glance at a stranger as he walked by, a turn of the head, and then the watching and waiting as he stopped to look into a shop window and I moved nonchalantly toward him. And then the approach, the discovering if he had a place to go to, and then the setting out, conspirators laden down with desire. Often, because I am tall and fair-skinned and blond with blue eyes, they would want to know where I was from, and I would say that I was half-English, and that would be a subject we could discuss as we made our way home.
I remember one such encounter not for the sex we had, but because of a sound that came into the room as we made love, the sound of car engines revving over and over. I asked my partner--I remember a dark-haired man in his thirties with white skin--what the noise was. He brought me to the window to show me the police station opposite and the cars outside, driverless, but still revving, with wires going from the engines to the basement of the building. They need power, he said, but I still did not understand. They need extra power for the cattle prods, he said. I still do not know if what he said was true, if that was one of the centers in the city to which people were taken, and if we fondled each other and came to orgasm within moments of each other to the sound of the revving of cars which gave power to the instruments of torture. It made no difference then, because I did not pay much attention to what he said, and I remember the pleasure of standing at the window with him, my hands running down his back, more than anything else.
It is only now years later that it seems significant, perhaps the only sign I was ever given of what was happening all around me. I cannot remember the name of my companion that evening, the man I stood with at the window, but I have often wondered how he knew or thought he knew, or if he imagined, what the revving of the cars' engines meant in our city at that time.
One Friday when we had finished our class, Jorge walked into the city center with me. We went into a bar together and had a beer. He asked me if I had been to England, and I said that I had not, but I had often thought about it. I would like to live there, I said, at least I think I would, even though I have no relatives there. I think that you could be free there, I said. I think people are more relaxed about things, about sex, for example. I noticed him looking up from the table at me as I spoke. I could feel my heart thumping. I was going to do it. I was ready now. Everything is easier, I said. I mean if you wanted to go to bed with another man, to have an affair with him, no one would care very much. You could do that. It would be hard to do that in Argentina. He nodded and looked away and then took a sip of his beer. He said nothing, I waited.
I mean, I said, do you know anyone here who prefers men to women, I mean a man who prefers men to women? I almost ran out of the bar as soon as I had said it. I was trying to sound casual, but I had not succeeded. I wanted him to say yes he did, and then make clear that it was himself he was talking about. Or maybe I wanted him to leave silence, leave everything suspended. You mean queers, he asked. No, he said, he did not know anybody like that. He sounded sure of himself. Most men liked women, he said, in England as much as in Argentina. And did I like women, too, he asked. I felt a terrible weight in my chest. I wanted to find some dark corner and curl up. No, I said, no, I did not.
Does anyone else know that, he asked. Does your mother know? Have you never told her? I needed to tell him how much I had wanted him, how much I had dreamed about him, how my hopes had depended on him and now things would change. But he wanted to talk about my mother. I wanted him to go and leave me there.
I don't think that your mother has had things easy, he said. He looked like a parody of a responsible teenager as he sat and tried to discuss my mother with me. And maybe I looked like a parody of something too: a homosexual foolish enough to believe that a man he fancies is homosexual too. You should tell her, he said, and maybe there is something that could be done. I did not ask him if he meant that if I talked enough about it, or sought medical help, I might start watching girls as they passed on the street instead of making embarrassing propositions to fellow students. I was going to tell him that when I was a baby I was homosexual, and I laughed to myself at this vision of myself in a baby carriage.
He asked me what I was laughing at, and I said that everybody always felt sorry for my mother, but they were usually older people. I had never expected him to join the chorus, and I found it funny that he had done so. I told him that maybe he could tell her himself and perhaps he could listen to her every day and he could live with her and I could go home to his house, to his rich parents in the suburbs.
We continued our English lessons; I was glad of the money. More and more he came to the apartment to learn English. My mother often made him tea. I often wondered if he took a secret interest in me, but could not admit this to himself or to me. But, as I later discovered, I was deluding myself. I told him how easy it was to pick up a man in the street. I asked him to check out the toilets in the railway station for himself some day if he did not believe me and see if he noticed anything. He became worried about me. What if I was caught? If I went home with the wrong type? If it was a policeman just checking me out? It would kill her, he said. It would kill your mother. What would it do to me, I asked him. He shook his head and told me that I must be careful.
My mother's health was beginning to give. She was mellow and quiet for much of the time, sitting in an armchair in the square tiled hallway of the apartment, and, much as I do now, examining the sky and the backs of buildings and the cats maneuvering their way along the ledges and rooftops. When she looked at me sometimes she seemed old and frightened.
The hallway looked like a porch with its huge window which gave light to the living room during the day through a glass partition. My mother enjoyed being sandwiched between these two pieces of glass; often, we turned on a lamp in the evening until everything seemed all shadow and reflection. One evening as we sat there, she asked me about Jorge. She said that she liked him and wondered if I enjoyed teaching him English. I said that I did. Did I know much about him, she asked. Had I been in his house, for example, or met his family? I said I had not been to his house, but I knew that his family was rich, that they had their own tennis court and swimming pool and that his father had been involved with Peron.
Had it ever occurred to me, she asked, that he was homosexual? I had never heard her say the word before, and she pronounced it as though she had recently learned it. She looked at me sharply. I looked straight into the glass of the window and saw her shape in the armchair. No, I said to the glass, no, it had not occurred to me. Well, I think he is, she said, and I think it is something you should consider before you become too friendly with him.
I stood up and walked through to the bathroom. I closed the door behind me as though someone were following me. I wet my hands and my face and I stared into the mirror. I stood up straight. I was breathing heavily. I looked at my own eyes and then turned and opened the door. I did not stop walking as I began to speak; she watched me, her expression defiant, unafraid, her duchess look, and that made things easier. I was tired of her acting high and mighty.
Jorge is not homosexual, I mimicked her accent as I spoke. I am the one who is homosexual and I always have been. She did not flinch; she held my gaze. I stood still.
Like you, I said, I thought he was too, indeed I hoped he was. But we were both wrong, weren't we? By this time I was standing in front of her, shaking. I felt like kneeling and burying my face in her lap but I could not do that. She smiled and then shook her head in wry amusement. Somewhere in her expression there was utter contempt. She sighed and closed her eyes and smiled again. It has been so difficult for me, she said, and now this, now this, now this. She stared at herself stoically in the polished glass of the window. I stood there in silence.
So tell me about it, she said. Sit down here, she patted the chair beside her, and tell me all about it. Maybe we should stay up late tonight.
There were things I could not say, things which were too intimate, details which were too explicit. She wanted to know if there was anything she could have done, if there was anything we could do now. I said no, it was always there and it would not go away. And when did it start, she asked.
I looked at her in the glass as I spoke, I told her what I could,
and sometimes she asked a question. What I said became distant
from us, as though I were reading from a book, or reciting a story I
had been told. We were actors that night in the old hallway of the
apartment, me talking and my mother listening to the lurid tales of
a wayward son, my mother infinitely patient, but
not reacting, making clear that she wished to know everything
before she could pass judgment.
Excerpted from Story of the Night, the by Colm Toibin Copyright © 1998 by Colm Toibin. Excerpted by permission.
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