I Am What I Can’t Remember

Jacques Fux

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

1.   Everything I Remember About Not Remembering

I can’t remember the day I was born. Or the day that I was conceived. I can’t remember my development, or having stayed in a warm and comfortable place for nine months. I can’t remember breastfeeding even so much as once (and look, I was breastfed until I was one). I can’t remember the taste of my mother’s milk. I can’t remember my brit-milah (but I would think it hurt a lot). Nor do I remember my first sip of wine, which was at eight days old. I can’t remember the first period of my life built on sleeping hours and hours happily nourishing my tiny body. I can’t remember physical, skin-to-skin contact with my kind, loving parents. I can’t remember my own smell, or the smell of my house, and of my great-grandmother, who took such care of me. I can’t remember opening my eyes and my mouth, which led to babbling, crying, whining. I can’t remember night or day, my breathing, or that of my loved ones. I can’t remember my chubby feet, my swollen knees, my round thighs, or my toothless mouth. I can’t remember the hugs, the kisses, the touches, the whispers, the conversations, the smiles, or the tears. I can’t remember others’ love, or my own.

I can’t remember crawling. Crawling everywhere, discovering that the world could be so much bigger. So much more full of things, smells, and dangers. I can’t remember my knees hurting after all that crawling. I don’t have the slightest recollection of the day that I sat up on my own. Of clapping. Of smiling. Of being loving and playful with those around me. I can’t remember wearing diapers. I can’t remember taking them off. I can’t remember my own smell when I hadn’t yet learned how to go to the bathroom. I can’t remember the world’s bad smells or good smells, and the new things I started to perceive. I can’t remember my first step in Bahia. I also can’t remember my first stumble, from the first time I was abandoned for a tiny fraction of a second, when finally I understood being startled. I can’t remember a pinch from a vaccine, hiccups, or hunger of any kind. I can’t remember sitting on the laps of my parents, my grandparents, my great-grandmother, neighbors or fake friends. I can’t remember anyone’s breath. I can’t remember my first meal. My first mashed banana. My first apple slice. My first serving of baby food. I can’t remember sitting in the high chair facing the highly anticipated airplane of food. I can’t remember formula, or bedtime stories, or not being afraid of anything or anyone. I can’t remember the isolation, I can’t remember having hopes and dreams, I can’t remember any restful night or day. I can’t remember learning what love was.

I can’t remember speaking incorrectly. I can’t remember a time when I was illiterate, like my grandparents still are. I can’t remember knowing if the words I was pronouncing and hearing were in Yiddish or Portuguese. I can’t remember the pain, clearly visible in my great-grandmother’s eyes, because of her special daughter. I also can’t remember my parents suffering through the same pain because of my brother. I don’t have any memories of my brother as someone different. I can’t remember feeling cold, hungry, tired, sleepy, sad, or hurt. Those feelings didn’t exist back then, or else I was totally blind to them. I can’t remember love, even though it's the one feeling that did exist.

I can’t remember my first encounter with another person, one who didn’t exist just to love me. I can’t remember learning that life could have another purpose outside my own existence. I can’t remember when I realized I wasn’t my parents.

I can’t remember the very first day I went to school. I can’t remember biting, punching, or fighting with classmates. I can’t remember being anyone’s classmate at all. I can’t remember the games, the smiles, the running, the spectacular somersaults. Nor can I remember how hurt I was when my mother left me alone at school for the first time. I can’t remember my despair, my weeping, my hiccups, and my stomach aches from crying so much. I can’t remember the teacher thinking she could play the part of my parents. I also can’t remember the day school became essential and that the friends became fundamental as well. I can’t remember the considerable attention that my parents paid to my brother, or the complete absence of uncles and grandparents in my upbringing. I can’t remember (and I would like very much to relive it), my great-grandmother’s special affection. The love that she shared with my mother and that she continued with me. I also can’t remember her becoming unable to show love and affection.

I can’t remember the first time I was scolded (nor the second, nor the third). I also can’t remember having learned something from this scolding, slap, pointed finger, serious look, or stern voice about the need to behave myself. I can’t remember the teachers from my childhood, but I imagine they should have been sensitive, loving, and silly. I can’t remember coloring, playing with toys, or throwing things in protest to demonstrate that I had my own will, or shouting, or being stubborn, only quieting when I wanted to. I can’t remember beginning to write, infinitely repeating the letters of my name, discovering the distinct and paradoxical sound of the last letter of my last name. Or understanding the heavy past of my family and my culture. I can’t remember discovering the bright, new world that unfolded with literacy. An unimaginable world for my grandparents and great-grandparents. I can’t remember coming to class and sharing the names and professions of my parents, grandparents, and uncles. I can’t remember making a family tree or hearing the origin of my ancestors and my friend’s ancestors. I can’t remember realizing that my teachers weren’t Jewish, that the world wasn’t Jewish, and that tattoos with strange numbers on your grandparents’ arms weren’t a normal, common, everyday thing. I can’t remember ever finding the name “Auschwitz” peculiar, or understanding that genocides weren’t normal, common, everyday topics either. I can’t remember connecting the words savagery, poetry, and love.

I can’t remember having learned the alphabet. Or carefully repeating the sounds of the vowels and consonants. I can’t remember having learned the strange sound of the letter h or having discovered the sensation of the w. I don’t remember feeling any coveted or sensual desire for another. That wasn’t yet a part of me. I can’t remember competing for a teacher’s attention. For her love and admiration. I can’t remember the fights, disappointments, the frustrations that only happened in school. I can’t remember the first time I saw a difference between boys and girls. I can’t remember the day that I looked at a girl and noticed something change in me. Like a more intense sparkle in my eye. Like an initial heat moving through my body.

I can’t remember the first time that I came home disappointed. I can’t remember the day that I discovered that all the other students were also special, and that the professors loved some of these special students more than the others. And I wasn’t special. I can’t remember the day one friend chose someone else over me. I should have completely erased from my memory the day that a girl chose to look for someone else, ignoring my perfection. I can’t remember understanding that the world could collapse one day. That I could be upset. That I could suffer.

I also can’t remember the day I discovered my parents weren’t perfect. That my dad wasn’t a hero. That my mother had chosen my father before she chose to conceive me. That I was only her second choice, or maybe her third. I can’t remember the day that I noticed my parents’ flaws. I can’t remember the day I first perceived their scents. A scent that wasn’t quite mine. I can’t remember the day I felt ashamed of my parents. When I could conceive the terrible differences and limitation of my brother. I was ashamed of being ashamed, and hid myself. I started to hide the stories of my house. I can’t remember the day I started being jealous of other families I thought to be normal, or the day I started wanting to be someone else. I don’t know how much time it took to create these fantasies. And how much time after their inception I discovered that they were impossible, and made no sense. When I discovered that everyone had to live his own pain and his own stories.

I can’t remember learning Hebrew. I can’t remember learning that Hebrew wasn’t spoken correctly in Brazil. I also can’t remember the day that I started to forget this language deliberately. Or when I perceived that Yiddish wasn’t spoken out in the streets. I can’t remember the day that I understood Yiddish words to have a negative connotation. A connotation of pain, of longing, of the diaspora of my family and feeling like neither my language nor my body could belong to one place or another. A useless attempt at cultural preservation. Of remembering times and epochs when my ancestors had been constantly on the run. Also I can’t remember when I understood that to speak this language was to discriminate against the people and the country that had welcomed my family. I also can’t know if they truly felt welcome, if they were happy, if they lived in peace. I can’t remember conversing with them about it. Nor do I know how they passed on to me culture, history, family values, and the pain of Judaism. I also can’t remember the first time I ate gefilte fish.

I can’t remember the passion I had for the morning prayers. I can’t remember the reason I sang the Hebrew verses (of which I understood nothing) with such fervor and happiness. I can’t remember the certainty I had regarding the existence of God. Of the Jewish God. I can’t say that when I prayed I believed that my God could hear me. I also can’t say for certain when I deceived Him, and when I was vile and petty, longing for God to forget me in those moments. I can’t remember the day that God abandoned me nor the day that I abandoned Him. Forever. I can’t remember having killed Him, or when He killed my uncle. I don’t know who did it. I can’t remember my family’s pain—my grandparents’ or my cousins’. I can’t remember the day I understood that my parents and I were just human.


2.   Everything I Remember About Not Remembering

I can’t remember most of the day that I began to consider love to mean suffering. I can’t remember the day I first loved the first girl that didn’t love me back. When I started to turn melancholy. I can’t remember feeling certain that I was the best and most intelligent of anyone. I don’t remember feeling stupid, arrogant, and brazen. Being a wallflower. Hiding within myself. Cursing others. Finding out that the world was not good or good enough for me. I also can’t remember the day that I liked being embedded in the goy world, and that I started hating and loving Judaism simultaneously. When I started detesting fasting and remembering, constantly, the unhappiness of my people. I was enchanted by the possibility of living in a strong, new, aggressive country. I can’t remember the day that I had, for the first time, a grudge against the synagogue and many of its members. I can’t remember why anymore. I can’t remember the aversion I had to their scents, clothes, and stinginess.

I can’t remember why I found the Catholic world to be different and better. I can’t remember the reason for considering the Jewish world strange and worse. I can’t remember why I started to read. I no longer remember the first, second, or third book that I read. I can’t remember how they made me feel. I can’t remember why I found carrying a book around in my hands so special. I can’t remember liking any of the books I read for high school.

I can’t remember what motivated me to like mathematics. To like physics. To like sports. I can’t remember why I stopped liking all the theory. Or why I went back to liking it. I can’t remember when I liked love, and when I started to hate love. I can’t remember how many girls I loved. I can’t remember how many stopped loving me and how many never really loved me at all. I can’t remember when I instantly started to admire any girl with a different culture and also why, at the same time, I wrote them off for not being Jewish. I don’t know when all this changed. Or if it really did.

I can’t remember the first time I dealt with insanity. Another’s insanity. The love-struck kind of insanity. Everyone’s insanity. My own insanity. I can’t remember the pitfalls that were a confirmation of my own ignorance and my own limits. I can’t remember why I always ran when something got complicated. I can’t understand what kept me from facing life and its trials. I can’t remember why I always mocked life’s difficulty. I can’t remember learning anything from it, only fantasizing, falsifying, and fleeing.

I can’t remember that day I noticed the bad. The bad in others and the bad in myself. I can’t remember the day that I was, for the first time, stingy, stupid, and self-centered. Characteristics that resonated with me. And others that resonated with the whole world. I can’t remember the day that I discovered only another person could do wrong by me. That only someone else was capable of betraying my confidence. That someone else could steal my love, my dreams, and my most intimate desires. I can’t remember the day that I became someone’s someone else.

I can’t remember the things that I forget on purpose, in order to live. I can’t remember the loves that I silenced for fear of them resurging. I can’t remember what caused all of my hate. My anger for the Jewish world and the non-Jewish world. I can’t remember idealizing the beauty and the sadness of the Shoah. I can’t remember when I became a victim of being loved by others, or when I understood how stupid I could feel being put in that position. I can’t remember why I accepted everything. I can’t remember the reason I discovered Macabéa. Or why I missed Borges. Or saw myself as a Steppenwolf. Why I fell in love with Capitú’s eyes. Why I suffered in Siberia. Why I masturbated in Ireland, in the United States, in Greece, and in Rome. Unfortunately, I can’t remember (and how I would like to live it over again) the sensations of reading a book for the first time. The book. The emotions of passing, page by page, the love and pain of Riobaldo. The tears that should have emptied into the desert. I can’t remember the day that I understood that literature changed life. That art is literature. I can’t remember the day that I understood art doesn’t serve anyone. That art could be beautiful, strong, and stubborn.

3.  Everything That Made Me Able to Forget

I can’t remember the books that I read. I can’t remember which books I imagined reading. I can’t remember the books that I dreamt I read. I can’t remember the life that I lived. The memories that I made up. The facts I recalculated. The pains I mimicked. The dreams I didn’t have. I can’t remember the dreams that I tossed away. The fears that held me back. The pains that didn’t leave a scar. The verses I wrote. That I invented. That I copied. That I would have liked to have written. That I will never be capable of writing. I can’t remember all the idealizations of love. All the writing I left for another. All the love that I had only for the mirror.

I can’t remember having learned not to try, the same as being rejected so many times. I can’t remember having left love behind, with the other disappointments. I can’t remember having given up on writing, since I didn’t believe writing was important. I also can’t remember what motivated me to continue writing and to continue longing for love.

I can’t remember most of the lives I stole. The dreams I reimagined. The verses I plagiarized. I can’t remember everything I once knew. I can’t remember everything I never knew. I don’t know how to account for all of the knowledge I have. Or the knowledge that I think I have. Or that I imagined I have. Or that knowledge that I write to demonstrate. Needless to say, I can’t forget anything I can’t remember.

translated from the Portuguese by Hillary Auker