So tired of being a man. Could there be a girl inside my body? I’ve no idea. I’d like to be open to every possibility—I think that was the phrase I used to woo my ex-wife, and the one I remember she used when she left me. But as soon as I begin to wonder, I imagine what it must be like trying to pluck my eyebrows. I see myself shredding my cuticles in front of a clothes rail packed with dresses before I have to go to a party, or having to bear the weight of a naked man—my own weight, since I’m the man closest at hand—and all at once I feel completely exhausted. Rather than suffering, I prefer to make someone else suffer. I briefly take it out on Rosa, my Rottweiler puppy. I’m training her in the subtle art of loving me, her master and torturer, and of showing her fangs to the rest of humanity. Yes, I’m a slave to fashion. Rottweilers are in fashion. You see them dragging their staggering owners through the streets of Palermo Viejo here in Buenos Aires. Rottweilers are to dogs what SUVs are to cars: masculinity plus design. (Obviously, the fact that Rosa is female has nothing to do with it.) I want to be clear, or as clear as the drugs I’m on will allow: tired of being a man means tired of having to hold everything up. But is there any other identity that doesn’t have this erectile vocation, like a child carrying the flag at a school parade? No chance: nothing is as primitive as man. Woman is pure culture—self-production, self-generation. Self-made men no longer exist, they’re nothing more than one of the founding myths of North American capitalism, but each and every woman is completely self-made. Man is nature in the raw: his entire identity is based on the effect of the injection of blood into a cavernous organ. And when a man takes it into his head to become culture—he ceases to be a man! He becomes gay (or a “repressed gay”), a transvestite (or a “repressed transvestite”), a woman (read a “repressed woman”). The most remarkable thing about male identity is the constant threats it faces. Being a man is little more than perpetually being aware of the threat of no longer being a man. So today, in 2001—33 years after 2001: A Space Odyssey first appeared, my ideal is not to be a man, or a woman, or gay, or lesbian, but simply a classic. To be everything to everyone, as Jorge Luis Borges used to say. To always be something else—but a note of caution here, to be that something else free of responsibility, with no obligation to live up to anything, and always provided that the change requires no more effort than switching a light on or off, or inserting a chip in a slot in the body.
Flat out in bed. No strength even to get up. I can barely point the remote at the TV. From the living room (I haven’t even had the strength to get up to close the door) I can hear the sounds of the adventures of Mono Liso. My daughter’s decided to have a complete retrospective of María Elena Walsh. (It’s my own fault: wasn’t I the one who bought her all those records and books in the hope that by reading and listening to them “she would have a far richer vocabulary?” than if she only watched Pokémon or Tiny Angels?) I quickly search for something to distract myself with: a documentary on autistic geniuses, a natural disaster, the ex-cop hired by the Institute of Speed Reading and Memory to outline to a couple of dozen impassive extras a foolproof method for memorizing any sequence of words including such items as “artifact” or “perseverance.” But it’s 4:15 in the afternoon, so all there is on TV is The Satanic Doctor No, an early Bond film starring Sean Connery.
At first I watch it with the detached curiosity of someone who finds a complete dead butterfly pressed between the pages of a book. Then something starts to worry me. The images seem far too close to home. It’s as if I were watching a Super 8 home movie of my parents on their honeymoon: Bond in his white tuxedo, those long cigarettes, the green baize of the baccarat tables … (I can’t see my mother: either she had a headache and stayed in the hotel bedroom, or they’re already arguing, beginning the war of words that culminated in their divorce). But it’s not merely what I see, it’s what I hear: “out like a light,” “piece of string,” “in a trice” … I was always so proud of not having a family novel, but now here it is being played out in real time right in front of my nose. My family novel is a 007 adventure with Tutú Marambá as background music. At the age of 42, I discover I’m the love child of James Bond and María Elena Walsh.
Can’t sleep. At 5:30 AM they show Doctor No again. It’s part of a cycle—they’re featuring everyBond film ever made. I call my ex. Wake her up, of course. Tell her that if she wants to know how I became a man she should tune in to channel 35. There’s a noise on the line, as though the handset were going over rapids. Then a man’s voice, much more masculine than mine, comes on and insults me at great length and with obvious pleasure. I think I can hear he has a lisp, but when I try to confirm this, he slams the phone down. Bond, James Bond. Yes, it was thanks to James Bond I learnt to be a man. Until the age of 11, when a child-giant by the name of Jorge Córdoba appeared in my school team with a satchel full of tiny porno mags and changed this male symbolism for the literal representation of sexual butchery, all I knew about being a man came from the Bond academy.
It wasn’t just that he was such an homme à femmes. That was important, of course, but not decisive. Nor was it the arsenal of gadgets they supplied him with before each mission: narcissistic fetishes which, because of the period (small is beautiful), were disconcertingly tiny. No, above all else, Bond taught me that the chief characteristic of being a man is nonchalance—in other words, you possess the world and yet are completely aloof from it. Bond’s Kantian maxim was: behave as though the world is your hobby. The whole world: cars, weapons, languages, women, food, sport, danger, art, politics, clothes … (in his own way, although he is never given enough credit for it, Bond is a wonderful specimen of homo encyclopaedicus). He does everything, and does everything well, as if, unlike the rest of us mere mortals who at birth were forced to cross the river of oblivion, he had taken a crash course in remembering all the knowledge and disciplines the world has to offer. The Bond school of masculinity (the first male dogma promoted by the Western advertising machine) is based on an all-embracing Don Juan principle: to be a man means to enjoy seizing everything (by 1963, Attila the Hun was seriously old hat) but also to be able to renounce it all precisely at the moment of possession.
Bump into my daughter at the bathroom door. We both want to use it at the same time. She yawns; I’m shocked by the dark circles under her eyes. “I stayed up late reading Zoo Loco,” she explains. Sitting on the edge of the bath, bare feet dangling in midair, she watches me open-mouthed while I shave, as if she were witnessing a miracle or a rite being performed by some exotic tribe. My ex used to do the same. She used to say that watching me shave made her think she was coming close to discovering the mystery of what it was to be a man. Masculinity must be a gift, and one that only women can offer. My eyes fill with tears. I swallow some of them along with shaving foam, and this homemade mint liqueur makes me cough so violently I start to retch. I take advantage of my coughing fit to hide from my daughter the fact that I’m crying.
My father on the intercom. He looks strangely rejuvenated; I think he even has more hair than the last time I saw him. He needs money. Up to now he’s been living on what one of his ex-wives was paying him—I can’t remember which one. My father’s lawyer—a shady sort, hands dripping with gold, whom he met in the washroom of some small-town casino or other—had managed to get the judge to declare him a “victim of psychological abuse” and force his ex-wife (the person allegedly responsible for said abuse) to pay him alimony. But her lawyer has appealed, and until the judge ratifies or annuls the first decision, the monthly payments are suspended. I ask him to wait: they’re showing Goldfinger on TV. I can hear him prying open tin lids, opening and shutting drawers, shaking books to try to find any hidden banknotes. Can this really be him? Is this my father? The same father who 35 years ago was making out with the owner’s daughter in the box office of the Atlantic Cinema in Villa Gesell, while the two of us (my brother and I, both of us underage) skulked on the balcony to avoid who knew what imaginary ticket inspector, while on the screen Bond went back to his hotel bedroom to find his girl naked in bed, painted all over in gold, and dead as a doornail.
To me, even if he wasn’t Bond, the real James Bond, my father must have been at the very least his representative in South America. He was a travel agent, and travelled a lot—at a time when 007’s adventures were starting a tourism boom. He was a gambler—at a time when the glamour of roulette wheels was growing and the psychotic fluctuations of finance were on the verge of undermining the mystique of work. He had divorced my mother at a time when divorce was only common currency among Hugh Hefner’s playmates and was synonymous with irresponsible group sex. He liked whiskey and played tennis, at a time when to do both of these at the same time was the height of sexiness. He wore monogrammed custom-made shirts. He had a double, mysterious life, just like a secret agent. “What are you doing?” I shout from the living room when I hear a sudden crash of glass in the kitchen. A few moments later he emerges looking shamefaced, with one hand wrapped in a bloody dishrag. He stands there next to the TV, pretending to be looking at me but out of the corner of his eyes searching for any secret stash of money. On the TV, Bond gets dressed. My father is wearing a pair of jogging pants that are too short for him: they must have shrunk in the wash. “I don’t want to give you money,” I tell him. I suggest he sell me something instead.
I offer him ten pesos for the old Movado pocket watch (which still works) and five pesos for his Dupont lighter (which doesn’t light). He accepts. (when I was seven I would have given my life—the life he and my mother had given me—to possess either of these treasures.) I put them on one of the shelves of the library that my ex, taking advantage of one of my fainting spells, stripped bare before she left. These are the first two items in my next project: my personal museum of masculinity. “I’ve also got those suede ankle boots,” he says, eyes glinting with avarice. I shake my head. “They’ve got buckles on the sides,” he insists, trying to tempt me. “Thunderball is about to start,” I say. “How about a Castrillón shirt?” “No.” “A pack of Kents? A bottle of Lancaster cologne?” I look him in the eye. “You’re lying,” I say. He thinks about bluffing it out, but changes his mind at the last moment. “Yes I am,” he says, “but I could get them for you.” I have to push him to the door. Before I slam it in his face I warn him he’s never coming back inside my apartment wearing those pants.
My God, I’m so alone. I think of all the males I’ve known: friends, friends of friends, workmates (in the days when I worked) and imagine them happy as they wolf down pizza, guzzle beer, and wipe their greasy fingers on their pants. I think: “Perhaps, if I liked football … ” I don’t even say “a lot,” no, just enough to get excited and go crazy and allow myself to be lulled by the anonymous anthem of at least one male homeland. But no, I like tennis. Tennis, that solitary pastime which on top of everything else, you no longer even have to wear whites for. James Bond, tennis … what future is there for someone brought up to believe that masculinity and individualism are inextricably bound up together? It’s obvious that to be male requires there to be more than one man: masculinity in this day and age is a gregarious fiction. (In order to grasp this in time, I should have gone while still at a tender age not to the Bond school but to the Cassavetes academy, where Man is nothing more than the name for a particular kind of bodily and emotional grouping, a sort of herd: a pack.)
The phone rings: I suddenly remember I have a phone. It’s Eric, the dog walker. He’s worried because he hasn’t seen my Rottweiler in the square for quite a while. Rosa! I suddenly remember I have a Rottweiler. I take the cordless phone into the kitchen. I open the door to the toilet and find her lying stretched out on the floor, half-dead, her fangs foaming with ultrawhite Cif and a few shreds of steel wool sticking out from between her teeth. She looks like a canine coke addict. Eric explains how to pump out her stomach. When he’s finished, he advises me to sell her as soon as she recovers. “Sell her?” I ask. “She won’t trust you any more,” says Eric. “Keeping her will be dangerous: they’re a resentful breed.” I ask him if he knows of any self-help group for rottweiler owners. Man is not born to be alone, and if I have to belong to a group, one like that wouldn’t be so bad. He says he doesn’t, but one of his clients, who owns a Dachshund, organizes workshops for the “New Man” or something similar.
My daughter’s birthday. She celebrates it with a classmate born the same day in one of those tent-covered former parking lots that have now become miniature fairgrounds and tomorrow will go back to being parking lots. When I think of how all the noise reverberates round places like that I get cold feet, but I have to go out. It’s a matter of life and death. Rosa has already taken over two rooms and has chewed her way through all the phone cables in the apartment. Apart from the boys in my daughter’s class, I am the only male at the birthday party. Everyone else is a mother. I feel as though I’m in a science-fiction film, but my behavior is impeccable. I talk to the mothers about the school, complain about the cost of equipment, about how badly all the school functions I never go to are organized, about the school meals—there’s never enough fiber—then get involved in a few rounds of kickboxing with the boys. I make two or three of them cry, but comfort them in a loud voice so their mothers won’t be able to blame me when their pediatricians find they have cracked ribs. I remember why I’ve always liked going to this kind of event that all the other men seem to shy away from: I can see the boys, I see the fathers who come to pick them up (always late, always in a bad mood, as if in order to come and fetch them they have had to leave a hot date in a Jacuzzi). I observe the fathers with their boys, trying so hard to be the same, to set an example for each other, and yet again rejoice in the fact that I’m the father of something so strange, so radically alien to my own kind, so Martian, as a daughter.
A knock at the door. It’s my father again. Before opening, I ask what he’s wearing. “Open up,” he protests. I take a look at him through the peephole. The fish-eye lens makes him look like a monster, a cross between a hunchback dwarf and a giant. He’s wearing the same jogging pants as always. I tell him I won’t let him in. He slides an envelope under the door. “It’s for your museum,” he says. In the envelope are two magazine clippings. One is an old advertisement for bodybuilding lessons by mail, which I immediately recognize. When I was little I always saw it in the Patoruzú comic, on the odd pages. It’s a coupon: there are a couple of empty lines to fill in, then cut out and send. There’s also a black-and-white photo, grainy like all the ones in cheap comics, showing a man of around 30 with a broad grin on his face, wearing a white weightlifting belt and stretching out his arms as though he were holding the handlebar of an invisible bicycle. Under the photo is the phrase that used to keep me awake at night as a boy: I was a 97 pound weakling. The man is Charles Atlas, but for years I was absolutely convinced it was my father, or that this was the fake identity my father used in his other life, the life he led when he wasn’t with us. I remember I used to pore over the photo and ask myself: “When will I ever be a 97-pound weakling?” Without realizing it, I’ve started to cry. Out of emotion, I guess. A collector’s emotion. I choke back my tears, and offer my father 20 pesos on the spot, a done deal. “Look at the other one,” says my father from the other side of the door. “Let’s settle this one for twenty pesos first,” I say. “The two together or neither of them,” he says. I’ve no choice. I open the envelope a second time. My God!
It’s my meeting with Willy Divito. the Divito of the Divito’s Girls comic strip. My father once owned a restaurant called Catriel. I used to draw comic books, Divito often had dinner at Catriel. My father organized our meeting, and a paparazzo from the magazine Panoramaimmortalized the occasion. I must have been seven or eight; I’m dressed in my school uniform: I don’t know if that’s because I went to the restaurant straight from school or because it was the smartest clothes I had. I’m at the restaurant bar, perched on one of those high, uncomfortable stools that men sit on to have a drink and pretend they’re at ease. Divito is next to me, with a wonderful tan, in his impeccable Prince of Wales suit, holding a whiskey on the rocks. I can still hear the clink of the ice cubes against the glass. (By now this has become a commonplace of male advertising, but I was there, right next to the original!) Because I’m so young, and despite the fact that it’s my father who is in charge, all I’m allowed to drink is a Coke; a barman took pity on me and served me in a highball tumbler. There I am, hunched and fair-haired, trying to hide behind my glass, sneaking a look at this symbol of virile Buenos Aires, while he, bored by my lack of conversation (Divito drew busty girls with wasp waists; I drew science-fiction stories with characters whose names were all consonants: two artists, two different worlds!) while Divito is staring out of the picture, probably attracted by a waitress anxious to play a bit role.
Why was I never a playboy?
We do the deal. Forty-five pesos for both photos. My father tries to get 50 out of me, but he’s been on the landing outside my apartment for two days now, and he’s ravenous, so he accepts my offer at once and runs off downstairs with the money.
I know why I was never a playboy. Playboys don’t cry. Gunter Sachs never cried. Nor did Roger Vadim. I used to cry my eyes out. The child of a mixed educational background (Bond and María Elena Walsh, hedonistic devil-may-care crossed with nit-picking progressive ideals) it’s only natural I turned out typically counterintuitive: my male ancestors were forbidden to cry: I was forbidden not to cry. Crying has to be something men do. My parents were so proud of my sensitivity. I was a kind of New Man (although not strictly in the Che Guevara sense of the term). At school, my elder brother had discipline problems; I cried (and forged my mother’s signature so that the red warnings scrawled all over my report card would go unnoticed). My mother got depressed; I cried. One of my school-friends was sent to roca reform school for stripping down a car in the street; I cried. A playboy can be many things, but there is one thing he’ll never be: a scapegoat. I was exactly that: the whole world cried through me. Then one day I grew tired of it. I was in the club, heading for or back from the tennis court. I can remember the red clay dust on my shoes, the white Pravia shirt, the terrycloth headband sticking out of my pocket like a lolling tongue. I suppose I must have started crying for some reason: a landslide in nepal, a dog run over by a train (I really must do something about Rosa), a poet friend dumped by the love of his life … I caught sight of myself standing there in my tennis gear blubbering, and said to myself, No, I can’t do this any more. It was as if James Bond were soaking the red carpet of his Aston Martin with tears.
Bianca by Nanni Moretti at the Institute for Italian Culture. Moretti plays Michelle Apicella, first-time math teacher in a progressive Rome high school, the “Marilyn Monroe.” The head teacher, who has a poster of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin in his office, is organizing several days of intensive teaching. He’s called a meeting of all the staff. Michelle peeps in through the door and sees the head teacher proudly waving a James Bond poster, shouting: “James Bond! the be-all and end-all of masculinity!” Horrified, or perhaps reconciled to himself, Michelle escapes in true Moretti style: skating along the corridor in his trademark dancing shoes. I come out of the film in a state of ecstasy. In a single scene I’ve seen the fusion of the two opposing poles of my life as a man: James Bond and Nanni Moretti, Apollo and the Buffoon.
I’m in such a great mood I agree to go with Eric to a meeting of the workshop on new masculinity. Each meeting is held in a different home: the host cooks for everyone (any old thing, his specialty, “something he felt like making,” whatever “makes him feel good”) but everyone else is supposed to bring something they’ve cooked “with their own hands.” (All the words in quotation marks come from the homemade leaflet Eric hands me in the taxi on the way to the meeting.) Strictly forbidden to bring any take-aways. I see Eric has brought a big bowl he’s hiding in a Hugo Boss bag. “I have to keep it hidden, I’ve still not got used to the idea of being seen carrying food,” he explains. What about me, who isn’t bringing anything? A complete disaster: I want to belong to a group and here I am breaking all its rules on the very first day. “It doesn’t matter,” Eric reassures me, “we’re very forgiving with newcomers.” as we get out of the taxi I see he’s folded the Hugo Boss bag in four and put it in his pocket. “I’m ashamed at them knowing I’m ashamed,” he says. I can’t bear it. Centuries of roaming, fighting, pillaging, and raping, and the only booty men have left is fear. “What you should be ashamed of is pretending in front of your peers,” I say, and then with a rush of blood I, the new boy, ring the bell. Eric stares at me from down below, diminished by his cheap male vanity, gripping his little bowl of food like a liferaft. A sudden sadistic fantasy flashes through my mind: I’d like to strip him naked, tie him to a chair with a belt, then whip his disgusting redhead’s skin with another belt, preferably a thin, plaited woman’s one made of snakeskin.
I don’t want to boast, but the truth is the truth, and if you don’t say it the words may rot inside you and poison you or make you explode. The fact is I was the sensation of the new masculinity workshop. They treated me wonderfully, even though nobody had been expecting me. They even fed me. There were six of them—the only one missing was the person who first thought of the idea, the Dachshund owner. It seems he’s suffering from burns after a slight accident in the vegetarian-cooking classes he goes to on Fridays. Apart from Eric (who, as he confessed to me in the taxi, is in crisis over his profession) there are two ex-architects, one ex-graphic designer, one ex-principal, one ex-commercial pilot. All of them extremely charming and extremely lost. Their lives are ruined. They’ve clung on to being men so long that little by little they’ve lost everything, without even realizing it, in the same way that every night we lose millions upon millions of our cells among the sheets—the tiny corpses of dreams we’ll never remember. Wives, girlfriends, children, jobs. They lost everything because they wanted to go on being men! Now they’re desperately trying to reconstruct themselves. Bit by bit, like reformed alcoholics. No sooner had we arrived than they gave me a t-shirt with the workshop’s slogan on it: YOU ARE YOUR FAILURE. Just as forensic experts reconstruct a criminal’s identity from a single hair left on the victim’s body, so they want to rebuild their masculinity from the failure that always left them feeling inadequate. They’re stammer artists, experts at limping, geniuses of cowardice, impotent professionals. After the statutory ten minutes for hugs, we move on to the garage, where we sit on tiny brightly painted chairs (“He used to run a kindergarten,” Eric whispered to me, nodding surreptitiously in the direction of the house owner). At a certain point they all turned towards me and asked: “How about you, buddy? What’s your failure?” I had no idea what to say. (I was completely thrown by that “buddy,” like something out of a TV drama, but later they explained that this was the idea, to let “the Latino-kitsch part we all have inside us come flooding out.”) Two things came to mind, at first in a vague, distant way, but soon with absolute clarity. First, that I only started getting hair on my body when I was 14. Until then, not a thing—I was as smooth as a dolphin. Which explained my horror when as a 12-year-old on a bench at the tennis club, my then girlfriend (a beautiful girl my brother had just dumped) raised her arms and nonchalantly showed me the two dark bushes of hair lying in wait there like scary tarantulas. (I think it’s in Goldfinger where they put a tarantula in between Bond’s sheets). Second, from more or less the same age: at 12, I had not yet gone through that first period of male military service known as “shooting up” (nothing to do with drugs). I was small, broad-beamed, “stumpy”—a word I had read in a Mexican comic book once and which seemed to me the biggest insult imaginable. Though I didn’t have any spots, 12 is an age when small mercies don’t exist, and you feel nothing but shame. My mother was so concerned she had even thought of putting me through the same hormonal growth treatment that had been so successful for Pepito Cibrián, Argentina’s Tiny Tim, who was famous even then for being as tall as a beanpole. For months I was terrified: whenever I saw Cibrián père with Ana María Campoy in a magazine or on TV, I couldn’t help imagining them bending over me wearing white gowns, masks, and latex gloves, with an impatient, evil glint in their tiny mad scientists’ eyes. Was that a failure? Two failures? I still didn’t say a word. First I needed to feel relaxed with my new companions. “It doesn’t matter,” they reassured me. They gave me until the next meeting to think about what I wanted to say, and recommended I wear the t-shirt, because “the slogan,” they said, “helps.”
Half an hour later we were all tied to the chairs, naked, whipping each other with the collection of synthetic snakeskin belts that the ex-wife of the ex-kindergarten head had left in a box in the bedroom. That was my first moment of triumph. The second came when the ex-commercial pilot—a man as big as a barn who was desperate to find a way out of the regime of gym, diet, and steroids he was trapped in because he had wanted to correct a slight tendency to accumulate fat—went to change the music. When I heard the opening bars I shouted: Les Parapluies de Cherbourg! General hysteria. It was as if I had guessed the password to a Mossad spy cell. “So … you … like The Umbrellas of Cherbourg?” they asked hesitantly, just in case what they saw as a miraculous bond turned out to be nothing more than a stupid misunderstanding. “Catherine Deneuve? Nino Castelnuovo? Michel Legrand? Like doesn’t come anywhere near it … I think there’s an organ in my body called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg!” I said. I was delighted I could regale such an educated audience with tales of the afternoons my brother and I spent shut in our room listening to and singing Michel Legrand’s songs over and over again. He must have been nine or ten; I was seven or eight. Between the two of us, we acted all the characters in the film: Geneviève, Guy, Roland Cassard, the abominable jeweller. “Bonjour Guy/ Bonjour Gene-viève … ” “Nous sommes perdus/ paparapa/ Toujours les grands mots / paparapa / C’est abominable … Quelle beauté / Une pure merveille /C’est la caverne d’Ali Baba… . ” With that, we all began to sing. I distributed the roles and corrected their pronunciation. At the end, the ex-pilot and I played the final scene at the gas station, in the snow, where Guy and Geneviève meet again after a long, long time, when they’re both married to other people and have children. But the cherry on the cake was when I told them about the time at a party when I made the mistake of telling an agent for Spanish artists I was crazy about The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. When he heard this, the agent raised his eyebrows and said in a cutting tone: “Well then, you must definitely be gay.” My story unleashed all kinds of similar confessions: it seems that every single one of us had suffered our fleeting homosexual moment thanks to The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. But none of us betrayed our secret passion. Now we all know from our own experience what it means to come out of the closet! We all whooped and hollered. As we were leaving, we unanimously decided that from now on our group is going to be called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The next meeting is at my place.