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Authors: CESAR AIRA

How I Became A Nun

BOOK: How I Became A Nun
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HOW
I BECAME
A NUN
César Aira

Translated from the Spanish by
Chris
Andrews

A New Directions Book
HOW
I BECAME
A NUN

 

1

 

MY STORY, THE STORY of “how I became a nun,” began very
early in my life; I had just turned six. The beginning is marked by a vivid memory,
which I can reconstruct down to the last detail. Before, there is nothing, and after,
everything is an extension of the same vivid memory, continuous and unbroken, including
the intervals of sleep, up to the point where I took the veil.

We had moved to Rosario. For the first six years of my life, Mom, Dad and I lived in the
province of Buenos Aires, in a town of which I have no recollection and to which I have
not returned since: Coronel Pringles. The big city (as it seemed, by contrast) made an
enormous impression on us. Within a few days of our arrival, my father kept a promise he
had made: to buy me an ice cream. It was to be my first, since ice cream was not to be
had in Pringles. Dad, who had been to the city as a young man, had on various occasions
sung the praises of this delicacy, which he remembered as a glorious treat, although he
was not able to put its special charm into words. He had described it to me, quite
rightly, as something the uninitiated could not imagine, and that was all it took to
plant “ice cream” in my childish mind, where it grew, taking on mythic
proportions.

We made our way on foot to an ice-cream store that we had noticed the previous day. In we
went. Dad ordered a fifty-cent ice cream for himself, with scoops of pistachio, sweet
cream, and whisky-kumquat; for me, he ordered a ten-cent cone with a single scoop of
strawberry. I loved the pink color. My frame of mind was positive. I was a devoted
daughter. Dad could do no wrong in my eyes. We sat down on a sidewalk bench, under the
trees (there were plane trees back then in downtown Rosario). I watched how Dad was
doing it; in a matter of seconds he had disposed of his scoop of green ice cream. I
dipped my little spoon in with great care and lifted it to my mouth.

No sooner had the first particles dissolved on my tongue than I felt physically ill. I
had never tasted anything so revolting. I was rather fussy about food and had mastered
the art of feigning disgust when I didn’t feel like eating, but this went beyond
anything I had ever tasted; it more than justified my worst exaggerations, even the ones
I had refrained from acting out. For a fraction of a second I considered pretending. Dad
had set his heart on making me happy, which was unusual, given his distant, irascible
nature, averse to displays of affection, so it seemed a sin to spoil the occasion. I
briefly envisioned the horrific prospect of eating the whole ice cream just to please
him. It was only a thimbleful, the tiniest, kiddie-size cup, but at that moment it might
as well have been a ton.

I don’t know if my heroism would have stretched that far, but I didn’t get a
chance to put it to the test. The first mouthful provoked an involuntary grimace of
disgust; Dad couldn’t help but see. The grimace was almost exaggerated, expressing
both the physiological reaction and its accompanying emotions: disillusion, fear, and
the terrible sadness of being unable to bond with my father, even in the pursuit of a
simple pleasure. Trying to hide it would have been absurd; even today, I couldn’t
hide it if I tried, because that grimace is still there on my face.

“What’s wrong?”

Everything that was going to happen was audible in his tone.

Under normal circumstances I would have burst out crying at this point and been unable to
reply. Like many hypersensitive children, I was perpetually on the verge of tears. But
that horrendous taste, having descended into my throat, rose again like a backlash and
sent a sudden shock through my body.

“Uggh …”

“What?”

“It’s … awful.”

“It’s what?”

“Awful!” I shrieked in desperation.

“You don’t like the ice cream?”

I remembered him saying as we walked to the store, among other remarks infused with
pleasant anticipation, “We’ll find out if you like ice cream.”
Naturally he said this assuming that I would. Don’t all children? Some adults even
remember their childhood as little more than a perpetual begging for ice cream. Which is
why there was a tone of incredulous fatalism to his question, as if to say: “I
don’t believe it: even in a simple thing like this you’re going to let me
down.”

I could see the indignation and scorn building in his eyes, but he controlled himself. He
decided to give me another chance.

“Eat it. It’s yummy,” he said, and to prove it he scooped up a spoonful
from his cone and put it into his mouth.

It was too late for me to back down now. The die was cast. In a way I didn’t want
to back down. I was beginning to realize that my only hope, having come this far, was to
prove to Dad that what he had in his hands was revolting. I looked in horror at the pink
of the ice cream. Farce was beginning to impinge on reality. Worse than that: farce was
becoming reality, right in front of me, through me. I felt dizzy, but there was no
turning back.

“It’s awful! It’s sickening!” I tried to whip myself into a
frenzy. “It’s foul!”

He said nothing. He stared into the empty space in front of him and quickly ate his ice
cream. I was obviously getting nowhere, again. So, in a panic, I changed tack
abruptly.

“It’s bitter,” I said.

“No, it’s sweet,” he replied with a forced and threatening
gentleness.

“It’s bitter!” I shouted.

“It’s sweet.”

“It’s bitter!!”

Dad had already given up hope of getting any satisfaction from the outing. Sharing a
pleasure and a moment of companionship: it was too late for all that now, and he must
have been wondering how he could have been so naïve, how he could ever have thought
it possible. And yet, just to rub salt into his own wound, he set about trying to
convince me of my mistake. Or to convince himself that I was
his
mistake.

“It’s a very sweet strawberry-flavored ice cream—delicious.”

I shook my head.

“No? So what flavor does it have then?”

“It’s horrible!”

“I think it’s delicious,” he said calmly, gulping down another
spoonful. His calmness was the most frightening thing of all.

My attempt to make peace was typically convoluted:

“I don’t know how you can enjoy that junk,” I said, in what was
supposed to be an admiring tone of voice.

“Everyone likes ice cream,” he said, white with rage. The mask of patience
was slipping, and I don’t know how I managed to hold back my tears.
“Everyone except you, son, because you’re a moron.”

“No, Dad! I swear!”

“Eat that ice cream.” (Coldly, sharply.) “I bought it for you to eat,
you little moron.”

“But I can’t …!”

“Eat it. Try it. You haven’t even tried it.”

Opening my eyes wide at this slur on my honesty (only a monster would have lied for the
fun of it), I cried, “I swear it’s horrible!”

“Of course it’s not horrible. Try it.”

“I tried it already. I can’t!”

Then he had an idea. He reverted to a condescending tone. “You know what it is? The
coldness gave you a shock. Not the taste, but how cold it is. You’ll soon get used
to that, and then you’ll realize how delicious it is.”

I clutched at that straw. I wanted to believe in that possibility, which would never have
occurred to me in a thousand years. But deep down I knew it was hopeless. It
wasn’t the coldness. I wasn’t accustomed to ice-cold drinks (we didn’t
have a freezer) but I had tried them, and I knew it wasn’t the coldness. Even so,
I clung to that explanation. With extreme care I took a tiny scrape of ice cream on the
tip of the spoon, and mechanically raised it to my mouth.

It was a thousand times more disgusting than the first taste. I would have spat it out,
if I’d known how. I’ve never learnt how to spit properly. It came dribbling
out between my lips.

Dad had been watching my every move out of the corner of his eye, all the while eating
big spoonfuls of his ice cream. The three different-colored layers were rapidly
disappearing. He flattened what remained with the little spoon, making it level with the
edges of the cone, which he then proceeded to eat. I didn’t know that the cones
were edible; to me this was an act of savagery, and it burst the banks of my fear. I
began to shake. I could feel the tears welling up.

With his mouth full, he said to me, “Try it properly, idiot! A big spoonful so you
can actually taste it.”

“Bbb … but.”

He finished his cone and threw the spoon on the ground. A wonder he didn’t eat that
too, I thought. With his hands free, he turned towards me, and I knew that the sky was
falling.

“Now eat it! Can’t you see it’s melting?”

It was true: the peak of the ice cream was turning to liquid, and pink streams were
running over the edge of the cone, dripping onto my hand and my arm, then down onto my
skinny legs below the hem of my shorts. There was no way I could move now. My anxiety
was mounting exponentially. Ice cream seemed the cruelest instrument of torture ever
invented. Dad snatched the spoon from my other hand and dug it in. He lifted a big
spoonful up to my mouth. My only defense would have been to press my lips shut and never
open them again. But I couldn’t. I opened my mouth wide, and in went the spoon. It
came to rest on my tongue.

“Shut your mouth.”

I did. Tears were already misting my vision. As my tongue pressed against my palate and I
felt the ice cream dissolving, my whole body was seized by a convulsion. I didn’t
go through the motions of swallowing. Disgust flooded through me; it was exploding in my
brain like a flash of lightning. Another big spoonful was on the way. I opened my mouth.
I was already crying. Dad put the spoon in my free hand.

“Go on.”

I choked, coughed, and began to wail.

“Now you’re being stubborn. You’re just doing it to annoy
me.”

“No, Daddy!” I stammered unintelligibly. It came out as, “Da no dy no
no da.”

“Don’t you like it? Eh? Don’t you like it? You’re a moron, you
know that?” I was crying. “Answer me. If you don’t like it,
that’s OK. We’ll just chuck it in the trash, end of story.”

He said it as if the story could end there. The worst thing was that, because he had
eaten his ice cream so quickly, his tongue had gone numb and he was talking in a way I
had never heard him talk before, with a slur that made him fiercer, harder to
understand, and much more scary. I thought his tongue had gone stiff with rage.

“Tell me why you don’t like it. Everyone likes it except you. Tell me the
reason.”

Astonishingly, I was able to speak; but I had so little to say. “Because it’s
horrible.”

“No, it’s not horrible. I like it.”

He took my arm and guided my hand, with the spoon in it, toward the ice cream.

“I don’t,” I implored.

“Just eat it, then we’ll go. What was the point of bringing you?”

“But I don’t like it. Please, please …”

“All right. I’ll never buy you another ice cream. But you’re going to
eat this one.”

Mechanically I dug the spoon in. I felt faint at the mere thought that this torture was
going to continue. All willpower had deserted me. I was crying openly, making no attempt
to hide it. Luckily we were alone. At least Dad was spared public humiliation. He was
quiet now, sitting still. He was looking at me with the same deep, visceral disgust I
felt, staring at my strawberry ice cream. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t
know what. That I didn’t like the ice cream? I had already said that. That the ice
cream tasted foul? I had said that too, and it was pointless, because I couldn’t
get it across; it was still there inside me, impossible to convey, even after I had
spoken. For him, the ice cream was exquisite, because he liked it. Everything was
impossible, and always would be. I buckled and broke under the weight of tears. There
was no hope of any consolation. The incommunicability cut both ways. He couldn’t
tell me how much he despised me, how much he hated me. This time, I had gone too far.
His words could not reach me.

BOOK: How I Became A Nun
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