By Pablo Pérez
Translation by Jessica Sequeira
The following passages are taken from A Year without Love, a novel in diary form written by the Argentine writer Pablo Pérez about (among other things) his experiences with AIDS. It was written in 1996-97, published in 1998 in the series “Hoy x Hoy” directed by María Moreno, and reedited by Blatt & Ríos in 2012.
I have to write. It’s been a while since anyone called, it’s been a long time since I’ve written, and when I sit down to write something untimely always interrupts. But it’s just a ruse. I’m really sitting here pretending to write in the hope it will stimulate the telephone to ring. When I say ring, I mean it: I have an old dial telephone which doesn’t even give me access to most of Telefónica’s new services because it doesn’t have any buttons.
What I do have is an answering machine, which in reality isn’t mine. It belongs to my aunt Nephertiti, who in the privacy of my writings I dare call Nephritis, like the medical name for a kidney inflammation, depending on how annoyed I am by her presence. She’s obsessed with walking in front of the television while I’m watching (the unpredictable black and white TV is hers too), and she can get as jumpy as a goat, a chatty goat at that, one always pulling some ballet step out of her “genetic memory”. In her mind she isn’t the daughter of my grandfather, an administrative assistant at an insurance company, but rather of an orchestra conductor, a neighbor at the boarding house where she grew up.
According to Nephritis, my grandmother cuckolded Pérez (so she calls him). That would surprise me. But whatever, let her dream of a more “real” family. There’s no doubt in my mind that “Pérez” is my true grandfather. My father is his spitting image, to the point that when I was a boy I would mix them up in photos, foreseeing the growing baldness my father would later try to turn back with herbal teas for hair loss. I ended up drinking them too, afraid it was hereditary. Now that I think about it, if my aunt’s theory is right, her hypothetical orchestra director father must have been bald too, since Nephritis loses hairs all over the house. I find them in my toothbrush, or coiled in forks like spaghetti, or in the mayonnaise.
Today I had to look all over the house for a calendar to figure out what day it is. I feel that writing all this personal stuff down is a waste of time. It’s no minor concern: what I really need is to distract myself, to get away for a while from this sick family. I feel blocked because I don’t have a job, I don’t like to work, and the idea that working wouldn’t even give me enough money to leave this house full of bad memories ends up stripping me of the will to do anything.
The literary world exhausts me too. Everyone is always running around trying to know more, trying to read everything that exists in order to be able to talk about it. I’m going to step to one side and let them pass, because the race is starting to tire me out. It’s possible that I’m wrong in my opinions, but if I think of myself as a resentful person I can allow myself any complaint I like. It doesn’t matter to me if I talk badly about anyone unjustly. What’s really bad isn’t what I write, but the poison my body is distilling, the poison of unhappiness.
Last year I took an anti-depressive, but I don’t anymore. Why take a pill to help me accept this increasingly despicable world? Last year I thought that literature should avoid saying disagreeable things. I wanted to write about a happy world, to transmit optimism, and it’s true that I still feel the need to console myself with the idea of a future Golden Age. But taking AZT to make it through alive doesn’t interest me. We’re in this race and have to endure, we’re in this race and have to endure… but this poison my body produces every day is filling me to the brim to the point that maybe one day it will explode. I live in a world in which it’s more and more common that fathers bury their sons. Bela, Paula, Bernard, Vladimir, Hervé, to name only those I most cared about and by order of disappearance. Everyone cries afterward, very few worry before.
The anger I feel for my family, which doesn’t even seem to have realized anything is happening to me, is inexpressible. Describing it would require true literary prowess: I’d describe a calloused tree, sick from the roots with a sinister evil, which kills the little shoots first while the trunk and big branches remain sleeping… Now that I think about it, the image isn’t so ridiculous. Trees live much longer than any of their leaves or flowers. How stupid of me!
It’s difficult for me to concentrate on writing because it’s hard for me to breathe. My theory is that my brain isn’t getting enough oxygen, so that my ideas rust, corrode and die.
The message Arturo left me yesterday is a change from my more personal texts, personal like RV’s used to be. We’re translating him now; Lionel sent his diaries to me through Diego, typed and spiral bound. I read parts of them, in a fragmentary way, 88 pages in total. There were a few texts from ’82, a few from ’83, etcetera. None from ’91 y ’92, the years in which RV and I went out, very few from ’93 and only two from ’94, the year in which RV died. I was disappointed because he didn’t write anything about me. The only thing that interested me in that haphazard reading of his writings was knowing what he thought of me, and whether my leaving him to come to Argentina had anything to do with his decision to abandon all treatment and let himself die. Had he let himself die? Why did he never write to me? Did he love me? Did he hate me? His writings didn’t answer my questions at all, and I think that’s why I wasn’t interested in reading more of them.
Lionel came to Argentina later on. Alicia Roca, my psychoanalyst, tells me that my latest depression began when he arrived. Thanks to his presence, my pain for RV started to feel real. My Parisian life, which had begun to fade from my mind, came back to me again vividly. Between the two of us, RV and I used to polish off a bottle of vodka per day in addition to several beers, and we never stopped smoking hashish and marihuana. I would start doing the rounds of the gay bars in the afternoon, already an erotomaniac… Maybe RV’s diary will bring back my memories of that period of Parisian loafing, which ended when my sister Paula committed suicide in Buenos Aires on 7 October 1992, a day after Papa’s birthday. I remember that when I found out (they took two days to decide to communicate her death to me, and much insistence on my part for them to tell me she committed suicide), besides crying, the only thing I could think to do was buy a bouquet of roses to take to Notre Dame. That was the first place Paula wanted to see when she came to visit me in Paris. I got there at night, and after knocking and knocking at the enormous entrance gate without anyone opening, I ended up throwing the flowers in the Seine.
RV and Lionel took me out to dinner, and when we finished I requested that they leave me alone. Then I went to MecZone [a leather bar in Paris], where I met up with a guy I’d been with once before. We shut ourselves in a restroom, he had me naked at his feet for a while, and he came after branding me in the groin with the ember of his cigarette. I came while watching him enjoy it. Afterward we climbed up to have a beer, and when I told him that my sister had committed suicide, he didn’t ask me anything: just embraced me and kissed me, and for a while managed to relieve my anguish. A few days later, sick with sadness, I decided to return to Buenos Aires, leaving RV behind. All I could think about was Paula. I’ve never loved anyone more than her, and with her death my whole world crumbled. In the midst of such grief, I didn’t realize that I was being cruel to RV in leaving him the same way I’d left my house, my two typewriters, the pans, the television, the vacuum cleaner and the old-fashioned curtains Elizabeth had given me, among a number of other things.
As I’ve said already, when Lionel arrived in Buenos Aires, I reread those texts a bit more attentively, but still in a fragmentary way. There was more later: nine notebooks a friend brought us from New York. It was too much for me to see his handwriting and drawings in those sacred notebooks, without cross-outs or pages torn out or doctors’ appointments.
I just put on “Sister”, and am now thinking of my sister. Sonic Youth has always formed part of my ritual of writing, along with other bands and soloists I know mostly through Paula, as I’ve only just realized: Pixies, Neubaten, Meredith Monk, Nico… In Paris I’d generally buy a good wine, preferably a cabernet-sauvignon, and if I could a Château Vieux. I’d prepare a joint, put on music, and sit down to write. Sometimes I’d listen to two cassettes at once. While I wrote i am a fetus, I had on two cassettes, the radio and the television simultaneously.
Now I can only listen to a single cassette because one of the decks broke, and besides I haven’t smoked for two months. I decided to give up marihuana to see if my cough would heal once and for all, as that’s also started to take on the features of a ritual act. Luckily, today I have a cup of good wine…Today’s ritual is to transcribe a Paris notebook I found the other day while moving furniture. I’d forgotten I had a secret compartment under my computer table, in which along with some other things I’d stored this notebook I wrote in Paris after learning I was HIV positive. I was in the street at the time because I’d been staying at Bernard’s house, and he threw me out after a big fight.
Elizabeth is napping, lulled to sleep by Radio Clásica. Since her arrival in Paris I haven’t had time to sit down and write. She got in on Saturday at eleven in the morning, and I went to pick her up in the car with Nicolás and Gustavo. We had lunch at home, then went to the Parque Lezama to have coffee at the Británico and walk around San Telmo.
On Sunday I took her to get to know the Ecological Reserve. I haven’t done the rounds there for a long time, in part because I’ve been feeling weak and tired, but also because my tastes change, and now I prefer clothed seduction and walking along the promenade of the Costanera over wild naked sex in the bushes of the Reserve. I think it’s something cyclical in me. Although I’m very much inclined toward the dionysiac and orgiastic, this summer I felt more committed to the enigma of love and the Apollonian. That said, it’s also true that yesterday, taking advantage of Elizabeth’s rest, I went to have a beer with Rafael at Dinki’s and finished my night in the Laprida porno cinema, where I completely forgot these types of reflections and gave into the pure savagery characterizing me.
Today was exhausting (now that I’ve had an Armagnac and am writing, it’s not so bad). I woke up at 7.30 to go take the entrance exam for the French teaching certificate in Modern Languages. I thought it started at 9, but it was actually at 8.30, so I had only half an hour to write a text of three hundred words based on a video of a duel between two gentlemen. I spent ten minutes trying to remember how to say “procedure”, until finally deciding to leave out the legal lead-up to how they’d arrived at the forest. With the rest I had no problem, except I felt like I was in school, ordered about by a preceptor who passed around a list and didn’t let us leave the classroom while we waited to take the oral exam. She’s now on the list of people I hate, which only makes things worse for me, because my hate doesn’t damage her in the slightest. I know that hating is bad for health, but I can’t stop it. Neither can I get into ideas like meditation or Universal Love. That said, I do believe I have one or several angels that protect me.
It was pouring when I left, and I got soaked. When the 17 bus came it was full, there was no air, and people fought for seats. I longed for the calm of home.
When I got back around 3, Elizabeth was acting strange, and while I spoke on the phone she drank two cups of Armagnac and left the house all liquored up. At noon she’d already had a liter of Quilmes. I remembered her relapse in Paris, her apartment full of empty bottles, a broken flowerpot and soil spilled all over the carpet. That afternoon I’d gone to see if she needed anything, and she, totally drunk, started to kiss me and say she wanted to fuck me. I told her I had to go out and buy condoms, which served as a pretext to escape from a totally uncomfortable situation.
This afternoon, when she left, I called my psychoanalyst to ask what I should do. Talk to her, I had to talk to her and say that if she kept drinking we wouldn’t be able to take our trip together to Valparaíso. I’d told her that already, but when she’s drunk I can’t be harsh with her. She asked me to uncork a bottle and serve her a cup of wine, and I did it. Now Elizabeth is trying to sleep, or is sleeping, I don’t know. I was tired of thinking about all this, so I swapped out the murmur of Radio Clásica for “Sister” by Sonic Youth, served myself some Armagnac, and sat down to write.
The diagnosis of bronchofibroscopy isn’t so terrible; supposedly it’s not anything that will attack me inside, just an inflammatory pneumonitis. But it still doesn’t justify a respiratory capacity as low as mine. To make it worse, the treatment for these types of sicknesses usually consists of high doses of corticoids, which imply certain risks in HIV patients. Doctor Rizzo wants to take another look at the diagnosis, and it’s possible I’ll have to undergo a biopsy.
After a difficult week involving a great deal of fear, in which to top things off I lost my voice, I decided to out and enjoy myself. I’d thought of going to the theater to see Damián Dreizik’s musical comedy before returning home at midnight. But Adrián picked me up in his car and we went to see Garnica’s vernissage. I had a little bourbon, and afterward we went for beers with Andrés Moguillanes at the Shamrock. In addition to the beers, we kept drinking bourbon from Adrián’s hip flask. I started to feel anxious and said goodbye to the guys, then went to walk around Santa Fe, where I picked a ticket up off the ground for free entrance at Ángel’s. I went there and kissed a couple of guys, nothing extraordinary.
Today I slept until two in the afternoon, drank some mates, and spent the afternoon trying to edit two notices for NX. One didn’t take me any time; I offered French classes, translations, copyediting, and Spanish classes for foreigners. I need to work in order to be able to leave this damned house. The other is the one that really took me all afternoon. Who am I? What am I looking for? It wasn’t at all easy figuring out how to say it clearly in a personal ad, not only because I was trying to think seriously about what kind of relationship I was looking for, but also because I approached it as if I were writing a poem. I wanted to appear like a masculine guy without stating it explicitly; I wanted my discourse to reflect my personality without defining who I am. In the end I’m not sure if I succeeded entirely in making it clear what I want, but there it is. I’ve already sent it, and it will appear like this: “30, 1,73, 60, Latin type, good body, slave tendencies, sometimes very obedient. Seeking master or male friend, active, protective, well-endowed, for a stable relationship with safe sex.”
Last year I started to draft one that started like this: “Young poet, etcetera, etcetera…” At the time I was in a kind of trance-like state, inspired by the muses, in which I thought that all poets living and dead communicated amongst each other by means of a sort of invisible net, woven from the traces left behind by their poems. I believed it even more because while trying to write the ad, by chance I came across a poem by Ginsberg:
“You send me your poems,
I’ll send you mine.”
Poet professor in autumn years
seeks helpmate companion protector friend
young lover w/empty compassionate soul
exuberant spirit, straightforward handsome
athletic physique & boundless mind, courageous
warrior who may also like women & girls, no problem,
to share bed meditation apartment Lower East Side,
help inspire mankind conquer world anger & guilt,
empowered by Whitman Blake Rimbaud Ma Rainey & Vivaldi,
familiar respecting Art’s primordial majesty, priapic carefree
playful harmless slave or master, mortally tender passing swift time,
photographer, musician, painter, poet, yuppie or scholar
Find me here in New York alone with the Alone
going to lady psychiatrist who says Make time in your life
for someone you can call darling, honey, who holds you dear
can get excited & lay his head on your heart in peace.
Post Office Box 582 Stuyvesant Station, New York
If the magazine didn’t impose a thirty-word limit per ad, maybe I could have written something like this. But I’m not sure I would ever have been able to end it.
The only thing I’m afraid of with the ad I drafted is that guys will start to call who want to hurt me. I’ll have to go to the first interview with my SM friends, so that they can look after me. Or I could have them set up a date with the callers in a bar, where they’ll be submitted to a multi-day interrogation. Because once you’re tied up, you’re completely defenseless: they might kidnap me for as long as they like, they might bore holes into me, burn me, tattoo me, shave my head and finally kill me.
A Sunday in winter. Very gray, very windy. A few hours ago I went to a friend’s house to shower because the heater doesn’t work here. I just couldn’t get started. I spent the whole morning drinking mate and feeling like a statue. When I’m depressed, the first thing I do is prepare myself an immersion bath. Since today I couldn’t do that, I felt jammed, unable to escape from my state of immobility until I decided to call Alberto. After a shower at his house I feel better, and even though I’m still depressed at least I’m writing, almost despite myself.
Once I used to feel like my life and my writing were intimately bound up. Now I feel like my writing is disappearing with my life. It would be too much to say that my life is disappearing; I’m in crisis and I suppose that it will pass. But the other day I said to Nicolás: “From now on I’m going to forget I ever wrote anything…” Am I losing my pride? It seems impossible, and the idea scares me. It’s difficult for me to resign myself to the idea of a humdrum life; I’m afraid I’ll become brutalized and lose all sensibility. I don’t identify very much with my new lifestyle, and that’s the root of the crisis. This Pablo who works, this Pablo who accepts a treatment he’s always made jokes about, isn’t really Pablo. Before, when they asked me what I did, I would answer that I was a poet. Now I say that I’m a teacher, but at times I have the feeling I’m neither of those things. I don’t know what I am. I’m afraid I’m taking the wrong path, and at the same time I don’t want to give in to pride and stubbornness. Writing this diary now is a kind of poetic autopilot I find it difficult to give up. What I can’t prevent is that at some point it might give me up.
I feel alone again. I’m waiting, as always, for someone to call me. Not Luis now, but Martín. Or anybody that will make me forget this pain of not knowing who I am or what I want. Marcelo’s death is another wound, just like the deaths of Paula, RV, Vladimir and Bela. Those deaths force me into the role of survivor, which I hate. They give me the exhausting feeling of fighting for life, when what I really want to do is enjoy life without questioning it. At times like this, sadness is inevitable, and the only way I have to control it is to recognize it, encircle it, investigate it. Writing is useful for that. But the pain never goes away.
Soon it will be eight at night. I need to do something. I don’t know what, something. I can’t think of much to write right now; maybe I would go out if I weren’t waiting for Martín’s call. I feel stupid, dependent, bored, sick, sad, apathetic, lonely. Nothing positive, besides the feeling that deep down I’m basically a good guy, which isn’t very useful right now.
Today I sang in the bathtub, and as I sang I felt a kind of liberation. Earlier I was invited to read at the Frida Kahlo Restaurant, at an event my friend Rafael set up. It felt good to read in public again, and to look over and revise old texts in preparation. It did me some good to unbury the poet in me. I think I understand my feeling of suffocation a little better now. Spadefuls of dirt have been thrown over me, and I haven’t done anything to avoid it. I think society will always be against poets, intentionally or not. Everything in this world is oppressive for those of us with fragile hearts. But suddenly I feel an inner strength, no matter how difficult it is to breathe. I’m not sure where it came from, or if it will last long enough for me to unbury myself completely. For now, at least, I feel that I can, and I have to capitalize on this. It’s a decisive moment because I have the chance to save myself from the real grave, from the death that pursues me everywhere, which at times makes my future look so dark it becomes undesirable. This moment, now, is a brief rest.