Life at № 42
Writing [for me] is an exercise. A necessary exercise. Unlike other children, both my ability and desire to communicate were thoroughly limited. This wasn’t always a problem. My earliest memories are of a very quiet place called Stillwater, Oklahoma. People are usually shocked by that. They expect me to say something like Paris, or New York, or Marbella- but no, Stillwater. When I was little my father got a place at a research program at the university there- so off we went. Stillwater, population 38,000.
Life was peaceful. We lived in the suburbs. The carpet was blue. The supermarket had a big red S. There was a Woolworth’s which had a toy section. I liked models of ships. I could only get a new one when I finished putting one I already had together. I went to a Presbyterian preschool. My mother saw a cross and expensive cars and decided those must be the Oklahoma Catholics. Being Spanish she doesn’t really believe there are categories of religion/people other than Catholic and Bad Catholic. She had English conversation classes Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and aerobics Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. I saw my father at night and on weekends. People left me alone, and I was happy to be left alone. I liked colouring books, but not for colouring. I separated pictures into sections and drew patterns within patterns. At that point I was an only child. This was immediately preceding The Time Before.
Arriving in Brazil and The Time Before was a shock. The noise was extraordinary. Smells were very strong. People talked to me for no reason at all. This was new. Communication with my parents had been utilitarian. At school as well. My French grandmother was very demanding. I was no longer allowed to answer anything by nodding yes or shaking my head for no. I had to speak. I was also expected to give elaborate answers to pointless questions. I discovered pointless interaction is exceedingly important to people. It’s called conversation. Mostly nothing is learnt or gained, but people do it anyway. It is, for the most part, an exercise in affirmation- either of ideas/opinions or of status within the group. It’s also often used to feed delusions.
Conformity was highly prised. This is when I first learnt that the more you can emulate the behaviour of others within a group, the less you’re questioned or reprimanded. This can be very tiresome. During my first week I did everything wrong. By the end of the second week my emulation skills were acceptable. You have to look at people when they speak to you. You have to smile when introduced to people. You have to react to what people say (in this case nodding or shaking the head is allowed)- agreement/confirmation is preferred. I realised I was different. Not a little bit different, nearly a different animal. In Oklahoma I laboured under the delusion everyone was like me. Life allowed for it. In Brazil this was not possible. Everything about me was different- from my colour, to my accent, to my clothes, to my interests, to my references, to my reactions- all different.
My “natural” role in that society was predetermined. Male and first born, son of another with those same characteristics, meant a good place in the hierarchy. I discovered perception and reality were not married. Rather, reality was determined by hierarchy. Once a policeman stopped my grandfather for speeding, my grandfather called the Chief of Police to tell him he had not been speeding, and he decided my grandfather must be telling the truth and the policeman was mistaken. This also applied in homes. The owners of a house were always presumed to be telling the truth, whereas what the staff said could always be put in doubt. This was very useful to a child such as myself.
I didn’t understand the concept of family, certainly not in the way they understood it. I felt no connection to any of the people. This made me feel guilty. Many of them seemed highly interested (and invested) in interacting with me. It was exhausting. I was often pressed to vocalise emotions I did not have. Demands to confirm affection and to affirm group values were constant. Not terribly difficult to do because this was a society designed around… let’s call them delusions and cliches. I know that’s the case of most societies, but it’s a matter of degree. This is a place where someone living in a slum with no running water and no access to healthcare can be heard saying they live in the best country in the world.
To be continued