Thursday, May 04, 2006

Esperanza (Short Fiction--Part Two)

Nonetheless, with his incorporation into the family a weight was shifted off our mother’s shoulders. She spent many hours with Johann. By age six, however, he was determined to play baseball. Our dad, who indulged our mother in many ways, protested that she was transforming his younger son into a mama’s boy. I believe the situation was more complex, although she let up on Johann after that. He was inevitably turning into someone else. He still tagged along on our outings, if reluctantly. At least once a month we would stroll, en famille, through the halls of Cincinnati’s natural history museum. Betsy, Tim and I studied the flora and fauna of the Antarctic. We already knew more than the other kids at school. Our reports and oral presentations rang out with authority.

Tim, in fact, had undergone an evolution from indifferent student into a serious, single-minded young man, the kind the Marines claim to need. At the age of fifteen Tim set out on a jogging regimen of six miles a day, and continued his high school baseball career only with our father’s promise to take him winter camping in Colorado. He had already pitched his state-of-the-art tent in our snowy backyard, and now needed a fuller experience. We had our bitter winters in Ohio, but Tim found the flatness of the land uninspiring. He and Dad did make the trip in February of Tim’s junior year, to the undisguised envy of our mother, who had found the anniversary cruise to the Bahamas dull and disappointing.

His muscles tautened, but it was Tim’s inner transformation that astonished us: by his early teens he simply knew everything one could know about Antarctica, without setting foot there. He passed on his knowledge to Betsy, who was a wild and gleeful girl, liberated by the lucky order which had placed Johann, and not her, in the perpetual shadow of Manuel Suárez. Betsy was an expert on krill plankton, and at age eight could pick out the Adélie from the chinstrap, Emperor and macaroni penguins. At dinner she described for our parents the huge chinstrap breeding grounds on the shores of Deception Island.

Throughout these years we never lost sight of Manuel. At first as a baby in a snug snowsuit, then as a little boy perhaps kissing Julia goodbye each morning: I myself saw a slow panning shot of Manuel skipping off to school past the unvarying whiteness of distant, mammoth, oddly-shaped chunks of ice. He wore a parka, swung his satchel and sang sweet songs that crackled in the air. And later on we worried about the ozone layer, the status of the Antarctic Treaty and its ramifications. But we couldn’t place him anywhere but Esperanza. The intellectual fervor of Tim or Betsy, for example, never led any of us to consider studying Spanish. To our family, Manuel was Antarctican.

In my teens I chose to forget the ten-year age difference and envisioned him as an older brother stationed in the army overseas, inaccessible but out of danger. By my senior year of high school, and against some unspoken rule, I had started fantasizing him as a dark, dreamy, latin-lover type, around thirty. On a Sunday afternoon I might lie on the bed with toes curled, stroking my belly and muttering, “Manuel, Manuel.” I was deathly afraid my mother would catch me.

Tim, on the other hand, was fearless. Not only did he strip himself down to shorts before a five-mile run in the snow, but by his last year of high school he’d travelled out west to scale the high perpendicular faces of rocks and run kayaks down rivers that foamed like rabid animals. HIs brand of recklessness was serious and premeditated, almost choreographed. While Johann threatened to run away and join the army, it was Tim who actually enlisted.

As I progressed through college, mentally pasting a gaucho face onto any guy who went further than a kiss, Tim was stationed at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Fort Greely, Alaska, where they drilled him in arctic combat and survival. I came home whenever he visited us on leave. While our dad told everyone how proud he was, our mother had an anxious look in her eyes. She had faith in Tim, but his leaving had exacerbated another fitful need. Manuel?

In any case she again tried the Consulate General of Argentina, which steadfastly refused to divulge information on private citizens. They wouldn’t even verify whether the boy, almost twelve years old now, was still in Esperanza, and we were forced to concur that Manuel Suárez might have drifted away. Betsy managed to procure from the community college a Buenos Aires phone book. She found twenty-six Carloses--potential fathers--under the Suárez listing, and twenty-three men (or boys) named Manuel.


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