Notes from the field

“As I see it, it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while. Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way.”

-David Foster Wallace, from Consider the Lobster

I’ve been reading Consider the Lobster… well, the first essay, that one at the beginning about the porn industry where David, intrepid reporter, Foster Wallace troupes down to Vegas to intertwine his (titanic) neuroses with the least palatable parts of the Adult Video News (AVN) Awards, and in the process creates a massively entertaining essay. Reading the part where, in answer to the porn industry’s stock defence, “We’re just giving people what they want,” DFW responds with the so obvious (that it’s brilliant) truth: “There are parts of ourselves we shouldn’t feed.” Reading it was actually a transcendent experience for me. It offered respite from the claustrophobia I’ve always felt when confronted with the rabbit-hole logic that the porn industry, and all its analogues in the different market sectors, use to justify the grand Autophagia Americana their products are a symptom of. But I think why it touched me was that, like most ex-pats revelling at the ends of the Earth and using their post industrial dollars to live rich for a little while, I’d been feeding parts of myself that are perhaps better left starved...


I’m trying in Spanish to explain all this to a woman named Celia in a Simpsons themed bar in San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Life-sized paper mâché statues of Homer and Marge and Bart and Maggie hang down from the walls and the ceiling. We’re drinking Argentine knock-off Duff beer.

“It’s like… America,” I say in broken Spanish, “if it were a man… would masturbate…” and then, stroke of genius, I ad: “always.”

A statement which causes her to be confused. I sit there and try to think of how to explain that the reason DFW wrote so brilliantly about the saddest parts of America is because, in a way, he was one of them; that I think he’s a kind of modern day Jesus; that he died for our sins so that everyone else could go on living…

The bar’s four TV’s are blaring the Simpsons, and I ask her why the show is so popular in Argentina. “There must be so much about it you don’t get,” I say (insensitively).

“They’re just like the Argentine family,” she replies. “The dad is drunk and he only wants to hang out with his friends. The mom stays at home and does all the work. The son always gets in trouble. It’s because of this people think it’s funny.”

“What about all the cultural references?” I ask.

“Cultural references?” she says.

The episode that’s playing is this one where Carl tells Lenny he thinks the US could use a military dictator, “like Juan Perón.”

“Perón was great,” he says, “when he disappeared you, you stayed disappeared.”

There’s a chorus of “Hijo de puta!” from the bartenders. I try but fail to catch an eye and share a disapproving head shake. I’m in the country working for a magazine on Argentine culture and like any good journalist I know that Perón—husband to Evita , of “Don’t cry for me Argentina” fame, whose grave still overflows with flowers—was no dictator.

Then Carl ads "plus, his wife was Madonna.” And I look down at my Madonna, no virgin she; and she’s been watching me watch the TV. She looks like she’s about to cry. “Listen to me,” she says, “I came here to tell you something.” She glances down at the floor for a second and then back up. “I’m pregnant,” she says. “It’s yours.”

To which, thinking the word for pregnant—embarazada—is a cognate of the English embarrassed, I respond “Why?”

To which she says, “Because you fucked me.”

To which (I think) I respond: “Why would that make you embarrassed?”

But actually respond: “Why would that make you pregnant?” 

To which she responds by staring at me blankly and confusedly.

So I get out my pocket dictionary and look up embarazada and when I see what it means my ears start to ring, the room closes down around the dictionary in my hands and my whole body involuntarily tenses until I can feel my shoulders pressing up against the sides of my neck and I realize I’ve been running my hands through my hair over and over again.

Then all the abject terror is suddenly magnified when I remember that abortions are completely illegal in Argentina.

“Fucking fuck!” I say, because what Celia doesn’t know is that I’d actually been planning to break up with her that night. All the Simpsons talk was really just me putting off that conversation, something I can’t help but do because I share with the Internet generation a deep fear of real world consequences and emotional confrontation.

(The subtext to everything above is that the whole time I’d been in the restaurant, I’d actually been trying to rationalize postponing the break-up until I could do it via Facebook. Isn’t that actually the brave thing to do [I thought to myself]? Isn’t it braver to do the thing I don’t want to [stay with Celia for another day] than the thing I actually do [get up and leave]? Doesn’t she deserve to be broken up with in the comfort of her own home? Wouldn’t it be nicer of me to make sure she was with her family when she reads the news?)

At which point she says, “I just wanted to tell you to your face.”

I look at her and all the possibilities are flicking through my head... What’s child support like in Argentina? Maybe I’ll get a job in construction… At least it (he? she?) will learn Spanish. What about English? When will it come to Canada? Will she have to come as well? How am I going to introduce her to my friends? She’s kind of old for them. What are they going to think of her funny hair? Her silly tattoos?

I glance at the bar mirror, and bathed in the yellow light from the TV, Duff beer in hand, I can’t tell myself from the Simpsons characters swarming all around us.

“I just wanted to tell you to your face,” she says, “that this isn’t easy for me. I already have a daughter... I had another, as well, a boy”—she doesn’t say his name—“who died when he was three. And I loved him, John”—she keeps saying mine. “He had cancer and I had to take him into radiation therapy. All his hair fell out... And his skin was so pale...”

“I stayed in the hospital every night in the children’s ward, where they keep all ones who are dying. And I watched them all die, John. There was a little girl... Do you know what that’s like?”

(I don’t).

She takes a deep breath. Her face looks old, the lines showing, and her eyes are grey and tired. I notice she hasn’t actually touched her beer or any of the food we’d ordered. There’s a paper napkin crumpled in her hand, the knuckles of which are white.

I can hear the pro-choice lines running through my head: It’s your body and I’ll support you to do whatever you want to. Ultimately you have to decide. But they don’t mean anything anymore, they’re just words said by people far away. They’re not about this. This is my child. And it’s right there, three feet away from me, inside Celia. I could reach out and touch it... But instead I pull back and my head fills with panicked iterations: This isn’t real, this isn’t real...

I see Celia’s hand begin to unclench and slowly, carefully, she smoothes out the napkin until it’s flat and perfectly square, then she looks up at me. 

“John,” she lets out a little snort-laugh, “I have a heart condition. I can’t keep it. My friend knows a doctor. I’m going next week... I just wanted to tell you.”

The doctor’s office is hidden in an apartment in rich Barrio Recoleta and they’re playing that Celine Dion song from Titanic in the waiting room. Celia hasn’t told anyone, so I’m the only one there.

The doctor jokes about how none of this would be necessary in Canada, then he takes our five-hundred dollars and goes in behind the curtain with Celia. I sit there trying not to make eye contact with the three other girls waiting their turns. One of them is with her father and he seems to be flirting with someone across the room. I can hear Celia and the Doctor laughing about something behind the curtain then the vacuum starts...

I pick up a Spanish copy of Youth Vogue and then feel guilty so I just sit there and try to concentrate on the noise of the vacuum. I can still hear them laughing but their voices are too quiet to make out any words. 

After some interminable amount of time, Celia comes out. She kind of sits, kind of crumples into the couch beside me, and puts her face in my lap. Her hand finds its way into mine and she holds it tight and stays there and just breathes for ten minutes, twenty, twenty-five...

When we finally walk out into the hallway, I think about David Foster Wallace and realize that I no longer need him to have died for my sins. An unborn child in Argentina has taken his place. Celia and I hold hands as we take the elevator down to the street.

//John Robson


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