Pablo Ottonello

Artwork by Ifada Nisa

I couldn’t say a gym would be a bad place to raise a kid. According to her I enjoyed scampering around in the machines and watching—from a safe distance—the weight lifters. It made me want to work out, although at first it was too risky. My baby brother would just sleep in his portable crib that we’d set up by the front desk. My mom would ask me to watch him while she’d talk to the trainer and say hi to all her male friends who lifted weights at the gym. That crib with my brother in it—sometimes sleeping, sometimes howling like a banshee—was how you knew if Amalia was at the gym at any given moment.

Its name was New Style—like that, in English. It was close to home.



I maintained vehemently that I wanted to lift weights. My mom, who was a doctor, explained it was something only grown-ups could do, and that in a kid my age it could cause growth disorders. When I turned seven I signed up for tae kwon do. Tae kwon do was on the second floor. The teacher, a guy who couldn’t have been more than thirty, also worked out downstairs with my mom. He’d spot my mom when she was lifting—Amalia was hardcore—and, like the other guys at the gym, he would praise her feminine prowess, like when she did a bunch of reps and her veins would turn into blue highways.

I made it to a yellow belt. The teacher, who’d become friends with Amalia, worked as a stunt double on TV. He’d let her know each time he was going to appear on a program. The nights the teacher was going to be on TV we’d leave New Style a little early and eat while watching. My dad would wait at home for us for dinner, watching with us although he didn’t particularly love seeing Amalia’s friends on TV. Maybe he just didn’t care. My mom would talk about the abs on the guys at the gym. A bunch of times I’d seen her looking at their ripped stomachs. You’ve got such great tissue, she said one afternoon to the tae kwon do teacher. She felt his tummy up. Working out was key. That was a kind of liturgy. There wasn’t a single one of them that didn’t look in the mirror while they did it, like how you keep your eye on a meal as it’s cooking. The more you work out the healthier you are, the longer you live, my mom would say, over and over.

I believed it all.



New Style went out of business in the mid-nineties. It was right on Avenida del Libertador and too big, said my dad, to just be a gym. He had started working out as well. I was now ten, and the gym was a way of seeing them together. Both of them had busy jobs, and it was hard, otherwise, to get them together. My dad, Eduardo, traveled around the country. Amalia was a doctor and worked at the Muñiz Hospital. She was always talking about the patients with AIDS. When I was seven she explained to me how AIDS could not be cured, how it weakened you so badly you could die of just a cold. I learned what it stood for: Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. I learned, from my mother, that AIDS was caused by drug addicts and homosexuals. Homosexuals had sex with each other’s butts, and butts are made of violet veins. Homosexuals broke these veins and passed around AIDS like popcorn at a movie. One time we went to pick her up at the hospital. Martín was asleep in the backseat. This is where Mom works, said Eduardo, indicating the cubic construction of what looked like broken eyes where they kept the infections.

She got blood tests once a month. She had boxes of latex gloves in the backseat of her white Renault 18 that she used for work. She had boxes of cheap condoms, on the seats and the floor mats, which she would put on the transducers, the highly sensitive plastic penises you could use to see inside women. My mom knew how to read that extravagant TV like a military radar. The uterus is where the baby lives, she told me so I would have an understanding of her field. My job is to look and see how everything is going inside the baby’s house. Tiny carrots would beat on the screen. What you see there, Señora, is the baby’s heart, Amalia would say. This made some of the mothers happy and some of them cry because being a mom was the worst thing in the world. Amalia was the Muñiz Hospital interpreter for these pregnant girls who came with their terrible stories to this metal bed after being smeared with gel. One time the carrot didn’t beat. Amalia had to explain that the baby was there, but dead. What do you mean, dead? asked the mother of the mother. Dead, Amalia said. The pregnant girl cried. Her mother cried. Amalia kept the transducer pressed against the girl’s swollen belly; on the radar there were just extinguished battle lines. If you ask me, Amalia told me later, the girl seemed relieved.



We quickly found another gym. In our family, the house was a place to eat and sleep and lie around doing nothing. The gym was where things happened.

My dad didn’t enjoy working out; you could tell. He did everything very slowly and barely said a word to anyone. It took him time to make friends. In that sense he was different from my mom, who always had a bunch of male friends to help her lift her weights and straighten her clothes back out whenever they got dislodged while she was exercising. The guys would look at her butt staying firm inside her Spandex. They’d look at the routes of her veins raised like graves on biceps that could just as easily be—why not?—men’s biceps. Amalia had less and less fat in her body and permitted her friends to venerate her. She’d spend the day at the hospital under fluorescent lights and the evening at the gym, used by now to the geography of the regular praise she was receiving from her trainer and the weight lifters and the amateur athletes who all looked at her the way you look at a woman. The remixes of Tina Turner made her feel the power of a healthy body. Being among men did her good. It had always been hard for her to make female friends.

Eduardo was tall but not rhomboid like the guys from the gym. He had the typical flaccid white-collar chest of someone who had suddenly started working out intensively. I was twelve by now, old enough to note the canine mechanism of territoriality. Why, in other words, was Amalia always surrounded by men? Those guys are checking out your ass, Amalia, my dad would say, because you show it off to them. Eduardo never quite accepted Amalia’s independence. He was not a modern man, and a woman’s place was in the house. He was just like that, while his wife had learned to alternate between hospitals and gyms with two kids in tow: me, beginning to do shoulder press reps with one-kilo dumbbells as well as running on the treadmill, and Martincito, who played on the stationary bike, which was enormous for him. My brother was an adorable cherub with fat cheeks and blond curls. To exonerate herself, Amalia exaggerated decency. I’m a professional and I’m a mom, she’d say, but she kept on acting like a trophy.



My dad had a friend who’d help him exercise and tell him how great he was doing, getting slimmer by the week. Her name was Mónica, but Martincito always called her Snockala, and that name stuck. Snockala carried a sewing tape measure. My dad would put his arms out so she could wrap the tape around them and give him a number. His arms were what got biggest. We’d switched gyms. The new one was also on Libertador, towards the city center. It was on the second floor. Snockala would jot down the number on a little piece of paper, along with the weight and height, which was always the same, one meter eighty-seven. Amalia didn’t mind that Snockala was measuring her husband. Due to proximity they’d sort of become friends. She would come over for dinner along with her English husband, Jackie, who smoked a pipe and looked like a sailor and spent the evenings talking to Eduardo about what a coup it had been for him, a man of sixty, to wed Snockala, who was thirty-three and had the long legs that were in fashion then. By this time Amalia was already a fanatic of the gym, one of those women of thirty-five with the hyperactive conviction that they would never get old. Physical activity is a natural antidepressant, she would say. That was what she was: endorphins and protein shakes. She’d buy those big plastic bins that Menem’s era had introduced to the shelves, mixtures of vitamins and amino acids custom-engineered for high-performance athletes.

Her energy was incredible.



I was scrawny. Amalia said I had to eat better, protect myself from the cold and get a lot of exercise so I’d one day hit the growth spurt I deserved. The Spartan criteria of physical beauty developed by Amalia had me in a marginal zone of gangly boys with no tone to their muscles or breadth to their shoulders, no potency or color to their skin, with just stick legs and the minimum muscles necessary to meet the basic requirements for life and inspire pity. Amalia embodied the Enlightenment ethic of nineties-era gyms where women ceased to be fatties raising kids, climbing onto treadmills, or signing up for aerobics classes where they would shout out among women that new freedom of tight Spandex and silicone.

She started wearing Spandex pants she’d brought back from a trip to Miami, and although I was only twelve, I was aware that it wasn’t only my dad, who followed her around everywhere—for fear of leaving her alone—but rather everyone, men and women, who checked out Amalia’s ass. She was a doctor, had two kids, a husband, and a house with a big yard. Amalia, like Copernicus, had changed the relations of things. Everyone praised Amalia.



I turned thirteen and Amalia gave me a punching bag. It had been years since I last did tae kwon do. She was worried about me getting into fights at school. You’ve got to learn how to defend yourself, she said. It all started one afternoon when I came home with a bump on my head. It was actually nothing. One of my friends, Peter, had stolen my wallet, and then he and Christian and Andrés had passed it off to one another, never dropping it because they all played rugby for the school team. I tried to grab it from them, but they were too quick. The bump on my head was because Christian got mad when I inadvertently ran into him. He grabbed me by the shirt and slammed me up against a locker. The metal was noisy, but the impact barely even hurt. The bump came up on my forehead like an anthill in the Pampas.



The important thing is to learn to be strong, Amalia would tell us, again and again. Now the gym was called Body Max and had imported machines with instructions in English. It was always filled with people. Most of them were women. Around that time was when that new kind of woman really came about, women between about thirty and forty-five, completely recovered from the act of giving birth, with defined abs and sober navels, slender strong arms and as their shoulders the hardy defense systems of Gabriela Sabatini. They chewed imported mint gum and drank vitamin drinks that Amalia had long since discovered and been recommending at the gym before. Amalia had been a pioneer. Only now did she start meeting women younger than herself with fewer wrinkles and better muscular response to the stimuli of hoists and dumbbells. Amalia doubled down. She added extra hours of training and became methodical about her exercises. She learned and invented sequences that enhanced the performance of her fibers and burned more fat in less time. She knew how to sequence exercises so as to minimize her resting time and never have to stop. One night, when there were only a few people left in the main hall of the Body Max, I saw her raise her shirt and flex her abs. Those six symmetrical fragments had abolished any previous marks of maternity. Then she tensed her shoulders and her triceps and looked herself in the eye. She didn’t think anybody was watching, and she looked to seduce herself. Her triceps were growing like roots or like slumbering boas. Then she slapped a towel over her neck, breathed out, clapped twice and went into the locker room.



She made friends with a group of cyclists who trained at the Body Max. The one who seemed to be their leader went around all day wearing Spandex. His name was Berni. I hadn’t met many gay people around the gyms. I asked Amalia if Berni was gay. She said not at all, that Berni was a man. I knew that gay guys liked to go around wearing Spandex with their balls scrunched up tight. So I was almost certain that Berni was gay. He’s not a fag, he’s a cyclist, said Amalia.



I started doing badly in school. Eduardo said it was too expensive a place for me to get so little out of it. I was fourteen and didn’t care what my parents told me. All I wanted was to pick up girls, learn to be a good kisser—with tongue—and rack up stories to tell the other kids. I was a scrawny kid with the body of a bird, sort of stupid-looking, and besides, the fourteen-year-old girls were all going out with seventeen-year-olds who stayed late in dance clubs drinking alcohol and smoking, and who had cars. No girl wanted to date a boy who looked like a bird. Of my peers, the ones who had kissed with tongue were the ones who played rugby and the ones who had facial hair. I wouldn’t be able to grow a beard until I was twenty. At that time I was smooth as a kidney.

I started missing class in the afternoon to go to the Sparta, the new family gym, which was run by Pepe, an old staple of Argentine weightlifting, fattened now by the passage of time. Pepe knew perfectly well I was playing hooky in order to improve my muscles. He wouldn’t rat me out. I had to bulk up immediately. The stakes were my virginity.

One of those afternoons, just after lunch, I ran into Amalia.

She didn’t see me. I was upstairs. There was almost no one at the gym. She was with Berni, the Spandex cyclist. Berni was helping her work out. I kept going on the stationary bike as though nothing had changed. I didn’t go down to say hi. I didn’t want Amalia to make me go back to school. The week before a letter had come reporting my behavioral issues, leading both my parents to give me a sermon of extraordinary length. Martincito was there too but just watching cartoons on TV. Every so often he would laugh as Eduardo and Amalia pretended to be serious parents. Now, I kept going on the stationary bike. If Amalia found me, Amalia found me. That’s what I was thinking when I saw Berni take her by the waist and kiss her. The kiss was discreet, not one of the French ones with tongue that they did on TV, the kind I rehearsed in the mirror and on the back of my hand. Amalia subsequently brushed his balls tight inside their Spandex. It was just a second. Nobody, except for me, was aware something had happened.



Meanwhile, my dad tried to teach me things. I was well into my adolescence now and didn’t care at all what he said. And I lost all respect for him. I don’t have behavioral issues, I told him when he brought it up. It’s that they’re too authoritarian at school. Insolent, Eduardo said. He sent me to my room and cut off my allowance.

Eduardo kept going to the gym with Amalia. Ever since he’d met him at the Body Max, Eduardo had thought Berni was an idiot, but he didn’t mind him talking to Amalia because he figured he was gay. For my dad, a guy in Spandex must be gay. One Saturday the four of us went to the gym. Martincito, who was ten, goofed around going backwards on the treadmill. From the stationary bike Amalia told him to try running so he could tone his legs a little. Eduardo said, Don’t be a baby. He loved that phrase. You’ll hurt yourself, kid, he said. I was down below, with dumbbells weighing five kilos, working on my biceps. I was fourteen and needed to bulk up quick or I was never going to get laid. Berni, the guy in the Spandex, was doing squats with a hundred kilos on either side of his Olympic bar. Rocky, one of the competitive bodybuilders from the Sparta, was whooping him on. On his other side was Pepe. The rest of the family came downstairs to where the machines were, Martincito hopping two stairs at a time. Amalia said hello to Berni as though she didn’t know him. With his corseted testicles and a muscle shirt that showed off his lats, which looked like cobra heads—twice the size of my dad’s—Berni reached out and squeezed her arm. It was a gesture I’d see President Menem perform on TV. Eduardo smiled at him. He didn’t really give a rat’s ass about the gay guy wearing Spandex. My parents worked out in their respective sections. Martincito was around somewhere. His skull never got crushed by a dumbbell because miracles exist.



The first time they split up they didn’t say much. They called us in and Eduardo took a blue plastic comb and started combing Martincito’s hair as he spoke. Martincito was curled up in his lap. He was eight and I was twelve. Without knowing why he did it, Martincito burst into tears. I didn’t get what was going on either, but I also cried. Eduardo spoke. It took him a lot of effort to disguise what he was saying as ho-hum. He did a long intro on the lives of grownups and the construct of the couple. Amalia would go live at our grandma’s house until she and Eduardo became friends again.



The second separation proved definitive. Martincito, now eleven, asked if Mom would be going to Grandma’s house. Eduardo said no. It was a harsh no, followed by an awful silence, which poor Martincito finally broke with the howl of a wounded child. I didn’t want them seeing tears on me, as well, so I held them back. Amalia, as though not registering the situation, waited for Eduardo to finish talking. Then she gave Martincito the kind of kiss you give when someone’s died, and then she gave me a kiss. You boys will have to be very strong, she said, with no conviction, like it was something she’d read once in a magazine. She was wearing the Spandex she wore to work out in and an athletic top. Then she said it was getting late and that they’d be expecting her at the gym. And so we too fell victim to the tremulous tragedy of divorce.



In that talk—I remember it like it was yesterday—Eduardo made it crystal clear that there were no third parties involved. I thought of Berni and his balls tight in that Spandex—evidently gay. Since I was still quite innocent, I felt reassured by Eduardo’s clarification. I didn’t understand yet that, like a Minister of Economy denying devaluation—as would happen years later with Domingo Cavallo—Eduardo was in fact merely confirming what he denied. Eduardo clarified that neither of them had a lover, when it was in fact precisely these leaks in the marriage that had sunk the whole endeavor.


All four of us would take turns going to the gym so that Mom and Dad would never run into one another. Martincito started working out. Like me, he knew everyone at the gym and got into it quickly.



Amalia’s lover wasn’t Berni. His name was Alejandro Barrientos. Eduardo, who was intelligent but not particularly perceptive, had absolutely no idea who he was or where he’d come from.

Barrientos was the owner of a clinic where Amalia did ultrasounds. He was a radiologist but never practiced. As Amalia would say later, he was too much of a brute to take good X-rays. He was younger than Eduardo, played tennis, and said he was the Argentine national champion of Basque pelota. Later on, when I would finally get to know him, I would realize that in reality he was one of those guys that had what is known as a cocaine-taking temperament, a scammer and a compulsive liar. Like any good narcissist, he instantly made me adore him.



One day Amalia picked us up in a white Peugeot. Barrientos was driving. He was balding, smaller than me, with a suntan. He tried to make meeting the kids of his new wife as pleasant as possible. Martincito got in the car without a word. Have I mentioned he’d turned twelve? I was fifteen.

I liked Barrientos for my mom. Amalia was happy, although more and more distracted, as though all the life changes had completely spent her intellectual capacity. Nothing had changed that much. She was working at Barrientos’s clinic and some others nearby. The rest of her time she spent at the gym and going out with her new boyfriend, whom she called her husband. I worried about Martincito, who was still pretty young, but he could be soothed by TV.



Eduardo began to come back to life after Amalia, going out with gold-diggers. The first one was named Griselda, and what happened with her was an outright ransacking. He bought her a Honda Shadow with leather fringe on the handlebars. Us he threatened to take out of school if we didn’t do our homework. With me in particular he said he was overall quite disappointed. I felt like telling him that the one who was disappointed was me, but I didn’t. Also, if I got to thinking about my feelings, I felt like telling him that the gay guy in the Spandex wasn’t all that gay. Didn’t say that either. It didn’t make me feel like a better person keeping the secret. Some secrets are like acid. The next years would be difficult between me and Eduardo.


I was almost sixteen and still hadn’t had sex. The only good thing that I learned from Griselda, Eduardo’s first girlfriend—a power station that consumed the family patrimony—was the knowledge that women also enjoyed sex. Especially if they said they didn’t. One night she gave me a cigar and explained that when she felt like it she could be very slutty in bed. In her words: “I’m no saint.”



No one wants to get old. It must be even worse for women. Now Amalia said she was forty-two. By now no one knew how old she really was. She worked out more than before, four or five times per week. Barrientos didn’t want to leave her on her own and worked out with her, just as my dad had done. In a few months Barrientos had lost weight and regained some of his youth. The initial stage of couples, like the initial stages of a presidency, is always good. They drank champagne. Behind everybody’s back, as I would realize piecing things together many years down the line, Barrientos also did cocaine. That was why his eyes got red when he was fighting. Not because he had Basque blood, like Amalia said, or because he was moody. It was the blow.

We had a talk about drugs. It gave him paternity practice. I was fifteen and wanted to know what Barrientos had done and what he hadn’t. He said that in his time smoking pot was totally normal. Then he got nostalgic and said how going out at night used to be different, and he swore that he could count on one hand the times he’d done harder drugs. He kissed his index finger, making a cross to lend himself veracity. He confessed he couldn’t recommend cocaine. Aside from Basque pelota, he was national champion of lying.


Martincito had fallen asleep, and I was fully immersed in the blue penumbra of the TV, as though facing a sea of tiny electric tones in the living room at Barrientos’s house. On Saturdays we spent the night with them. The house was in the suburb of Pilar. Each of us had our own room with a big bed in it, which we didn’t have at Eduardo’s. Amalia had started drinking champagne, and she let me drink, too, so that I would learn. They called this initiation into the culture of alcohol.

That night she showed up in a robe with a large glass. She sat down on the edge of the couch. Martín woke up and saw her and smiled. She tenderly raked her fingers over the nape of his neck. Martincito fell asleep again on her lap. I turned down the TV, accepting the fact that my mother couldn’t sleep and felt like talking. She’d gotten the divorce papers. She had her own very particular way of crying: she remained silent as she secreted thick saliva. Her voice got squeaky. She tried to talk but couldn’t. Spit stuck to where her mouth would open. Martín wrapped his arms around her. It killed me to see her this way. She fixed her eyes with the sleeve of her robe and started shit-talking Eduardo.

“He’s not a man,” she said. “A man doesn’t do a thing like that.”

She complained of the division of their holdings. She waxed legal, gave figures and enumerated bonds. In walked Barrientos, also wearing a robe, with the bottle of champagne. Without sitting he topped off her glass, took a sip out of the bottle and swilled it around like you do with mouthwash. He sat down on my side of the sofa. He handed me the bottle.

“Dry, just the slightest sparkle, and smooth. It’s really something, go on,” he said.

I took a sip: it was ice-cold. You tasted the bitterness to it on the sides of your tongue, as though that were the seat of the ministers responsible for cataloguing flavor.

“This is a man,” said Amalia. She gestured towards Barrientos, who—unable to contain the percussion of minigases—belched. As though it were a topic she’d been meaning to return to, a part of a declaration of principles, as though her sons needed to know, Amalia added:

“The size of a dick doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is the way you use it.”

She put her hand on Barrientos’s arm, which was hairier than my dad’s. They gazed into each other’s eyes.

“Any takers for fruit salad?” asked Amalia.



It took Amalia a couple of months to finish organizing her books at Barrientos’s place. The fireplace, on for hours, composed, every so often, opaque explosions, like cracks in the ice of a glacier. The quebracho wood smelled like vacation. Putting up her library was the proof that Amalia wasn’t ever going back to Eduardo’s. I helped her get her things in order. Among her books I found The Geisha Manual, a sexual biography of a Japanese prostitute that listed sex tricks for the Western woman. The bookmark was at Chapter VII: Fellatio. The illustrations were like those in a medical book, with the satirical comedy of the Kama Sutra. It had arrows, explanations, and footnotes.

“What is this?” I asked.

Barrientos, who was also present, was making little piles of the books that didn’t interest him, so as to clear some space for Amalia’s disembarking. Martín looked over, evaluating us, and, concluding we had nothing to offer him, plunged back into the blue mantra of the TV.

As though speaking to a patient, Amalia held the book open in her hands and said that fellatio was an act of love and good for the couple. She exploited that medical tone to explain (despite my protests) that on the band of tissue under the glans penis there were immense populations of bulboid corpuscles, which were nerve endings connected to the brain: dots emitting electricity. The brain transformed those pulses into pleasure. The woman needed to learn to stimulate the penile gland so that these electric charges attained total luminosity. That influenced conception and, at its core, was a technique for perpetuating the species. According to the geisha, most women used only twenty percent of their tongues during fellatio. The tongue was more than that. The chapter suggested using a greater surface area and making use of the differences in roughness. It explained this with graphics. The tip of the tongue was not the same, explained my mother, sticking her own out like a reptile, as the sides, which were more rigid and firm, ideal for removing dead cells from the shaft of the penis. Fellatio renewed, lent vitality, helped with procreation, explained the geisha.

“At the hospital, when I was on call, I got sick of seeing broken frenula,” said Amalia. Barrientos raised his eyebrows and came up to give her a kiss on the cheek.



The couple’s latest form of entertainment was trying to get pregnant. They did a bunch of tests on Amalia and began a course of treatment. The uterus was where the baby lived, as Amalia would say, but now there was something inhospitable about her own quarters. Apparently there wasn’t anything that could alter the bleeding of her inert eggs. This lasted for months. Meanwhile Barrientos went into a critical stage. He borrowed money, his clinic started faring poorly and his cocaine got out of hand. Out of hand and up his nostrils. Amalia didn’t say a word to him, preferring to attribute his outbursts to his Basque roots and the fact that she was not getting pregnant. On these points she was insistent.


Everyone was asleep except me. Barrientos came home alone in a green Alfa Romeo, which he’d bought after the Peugeot. I was lying on the couch watching The Chosen One, a film in which Carmen Electra was a kind of siliconified sexual angel. As Barrientos turned the car off and then shut the door, Carmen Electra was emptying a bottle of milk over her breasts. She went up to her lover and dribbled the last little bit down her thigh. Her lover drank the sips that reached him, tributaries of the actress’ outstretched thumb, using his tongue to stem the milk’s flow. The bottom of her foot was only slightly paler than her shins and her calves, which were a golden brown. I very reluctantly changed the channel (I could have jerked off pretty magnificently had Barrientos not arrived). I put on a tennis match. Yevgeny Kafelnikov was winning against Thomas Enqvist, with a commentary by Gonzalo Bonadeo. Some sets later, Kafelnikov would win the match, and with that victory, the 1999 Australian Open. I went up to the kitchen door. Barrientos didn’t see me. Atop the wood table, along the length of an electric bill, he disseminated white powder. He got it into a line with a credit card. His snort sounded like a reverse sneeze. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath like that might help him fully digest it. I stood still in the doorway. I was fifteen and didn’t completely understand what had just happened. Then he saw me.



His way of resolving the situation was elegant. He said nothing about the drugs. He remembered I was learning to drive, and without removing his black leather jacket, which was very heavy, he asked if I wanted to take the new car out for a spin. I got dressed, and we went out. The house was two hundred meters from the Panamericana, fifty-two kilometers outside Buenos Aires city limits. At one in the morning there wasn’t anybody on the roads. They hadn’t yet installed the speed cameras. With the lamps and the haze in the atmosphere the pavement had turned bluish.

I got in the driver’s seat and put the car into first. Barrientos gave instructions.

“Feel that V6. It’s a beast,” he said. “A rapist.” I accelerated with the clutch depressed. The RPM gauge went effortlessly up to 5500. The neighborhood streets were quiet: dirt with pebbles. It wasn’t a gated community, just a residential area. Barrientos didn’t talk much, but he tensed his jaw and moved his tongue back and forth in his mouth. When the car died on me he explained how the clutch and transmission worked.

“The clutch is like a woman: you have to have the magic touch,” he said.

We switched seats and drove out to race the car down the highway.


During that period, Eduardo was recovering from his postnuptial depression and had thrown himself into a kind of non-reproductive sexual perestroika with young girls who would set up camp in our family home like recipients of artists’ residencies, their art being coquetry, noisy loitering, and the revindication of the youth of a man of forty-three whose spirits just needed a tune-up. He got refined, turned into a gourmet. He tried all the sushi delivery places and went on mini-vacations with his girlfriends.



As time went by, things got more complicated for Amalia. I don’t know what exactly went wrong in the uterine life of my mother. The fertility treatments all failed. Barrientos got more and more intent on having a kid until finally he had one, with Graciela, his personal assistant at the clinic. Amalia took this hard. She could stand neither the betrayal nor the maternal frustration of not being able to give him the child he’d so desired. Poor Mom. They always say it’s hard to be a woman, and that must be true. Amalia threw a thermos full of hot water at Barrientos. It sliced up his cheekbone, and the water burned his neck.

Graciela’s case was a bit more complicated. Amalia hunted her down at the clinic, tripped her, trapped her heel, separated her shoulders and jammed them into the floor like she knew judo. When she bit her on the cheek it cut through her flesh, staining first her white suit and next the just-swept and just-disinfected floor (it was eight-fifteen in the morning), as well as Graciela’s face, where the blood began to darken and coagulate. Amalia’s mouth was so red it looked like her gums might have exploded. It was Graciela’s blood, of course. The lavender scent was from the product Barrientos made the cleaning people buy to go over the tiles. Amalia later told me that she thought about strangling her, but also about not going to jail. Graciela wouldn’t stop bleeding. So as not to kill her, Amalia spat some purple mucus on Graciela’s nose and clamped down the urge to stomp all over her stomach, which was still flat, which was were the baby lived, already completing its initial operations of resting and feeding upon the fertilized egg. She got in the car with her suit covered in blood, the stains resembling a map of Tucumán. Two hours later she called the clinic to ease her conscience and make sure Graciela hadn’t lost the baby. They told her Graciela’d gotten three stitches and been given painkillers, and that all bandaged up like that she looked like a mummy. Thankfully, the baby was just fine.


I found out all of this a long time after. At the time, Amalia only mentioned that the breakup had been difficult.


“She’s completely out of it,” said Martín.

He was still really young and doing stupid stuff. We spent half the week with Eduardo in our old house and the other half at Amalia’s new place in Acassuso. For a while she stopped working. Her psychiatrist prescribed some pills to keep her going. And so Amalia found a kind of pharmacological peace. I don’t know who was paying her bills.

“She’s out of it,” said Martín. “Look.”

He switched the TV station. Amalia didn’t seem to need to blink. She breathed very little and didn’t move. The couch was the one that had been in Barrientos’s house, white and gigantic. She spent almost the whole day on it, in her pajamas.


Martín had his friends over. They did stupid stuff to Amalia. Once he put cat shit on her head. It took Amalia a while to realize where the smell was coming from. She sought it out with the tip of her nose. Petrona, the lady who took care of her, reproached Martín in a kind of Guaraní. How could they do something like that to their mother? Petrona said as she pried the poop out of Amalia’s curls. I laughed too. Amalia spent the day there, televisive. She seemed to have her senses switched off. The cat (Emily) had been a suggestion of the psychiatrist’s, to help her with her social problems. It was good for her to have another living being to feed, he explained.



We didn’t realize it was called depression. It didn’t occur to us her isolation might be dangerous. We just got used to seeing her like that, immobilized by pills, her words slow in coming. We saw nothing out of the ordinary in her always being in her PJs, in her never shaving, or in her armpits smelling sour. Once a day Petrona made her take a shower. Sometimes she was fine with it, and it was like a game. Sometimes she would snap at Petrona and, suddenly switched on again, would shower on her own, as though she’d regained her health and energy.

Petrona took Amalia’s food to her in the living room, on a tray. It would sit there stiffening until Amalia finally decided to eat. First Emily would nibble at her mashed potatoes and drink her water. Amalia would let her eat, and then, when the cat was done, she’d eat. When the effects of the Clonazepam wore off she’d mosey around the house and walk up to the grocery store. The combination of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications worked well, but they gave Amalia a sort of all-encompassing neutrality. The psychiatrist, Bulnes, met with Eduardo and the two of us. He ordered a personality test to make sure Mom wasn’t dangerous. We met with a social worker. She asked what our relationship with Amalia was like. The social worker was as formal as a notary public. To me, having already French-kissed by this point, it all seemed stupid and inferior. She’s a normal mom, I said, with two kids. Does she interact with you guys? What can you tell me about the mother-son relationship? All the questions were more or less like that. Hard to answer.


Eduardo acted like he didn’t care about Amalia’s health. We asked him to come and visit her. He agreed. They met in the living room. Amalia greeted him, put her arms around him and cried. Eduardo noticed she was dirty, had hair on her legs, and that her muscles were reduced and soft like thawed chicken breasts.

“Aren’t you going to the gym?” he asked.



“Look,” said Martín.

From behind the sofa, he pointed the remote at the TV. He did his same shtick about changing the channel and Amalia never noticing.

“She’s a zombie again,” he said.

He turned it to Channel 52, Venus. A girl dressed up as a secretary was blowing a guy dressed up as a businessman. His white penis, which looked like a fish with a red mug, stood out against his suit pants. The girl was licking his bulboid corpuscles.

“I got the porn channels,” said Martín. “She’s paying for it. It’s ten pesos more a month.”

The images flickered over Amalia’s eyes.

“She doesn’t say anything,” said Martín. “But she likes it.”

All of a sudden Amalia reacted. She turned her torso and gripped the edge of the couch in both hands. We were frightened.

“Do you guys use condoms?” she asked.



When Petrona finished her shift, Amalia’s house became a no-man’s land. Martín would invite his friends over to wreak the havoc he couldn’t at Dad’s place. They’d buy beer and those little bottles of flavored vodkas. Their drunken burps would taste like pineapple. Martín was still really young—he’d just turned twelve. One night I found him with a cigarette in his mouth. I asked him to give me one, too, and we smoked in the kitchen. The smoke clouded the fluorescent lights. Amalia was asleep on the couch with the TV on. There were friends of Martín sleeping in various places around the house. We took a beer into the living room and sat down with Mom. He offered me some flavored vodka. I stuck my nose in that glass orifice and declined. There was one kid sleeping with his arms around her. We transferred him to another couch. His fly was unzipped. He’d been jerking off next to Amalia, whose pajamas were unbuttoned. On TV, abstract like Martian soil, vaginal penetration. I looked at Martín.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “She’s completely out of it.”

Martín went with the others to sleep in the rooms upstairs. I stayed back alone with her. I switched the station. Gonzalo Bonadeo was recounting the highlights of the ’88 Olympics in Seoul.

translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft