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Authors: Jonathan Reeder

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Tonio (45 page)

BOOK: Tonio
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‘I'm not sure if the neighbours can see through the ivy,' she says, ‘but I'll close the curtains just to be on the safe side.'

I look at the thick carpet of ivy, which for years now has entirely overtaken the side of Max Nord's house. Miriam draws the curtains and returns to bed. I resume my tender kneading, now under the T-shirt, but they refuse to become the breasts that have always provided me with a mild pre-glow of arousal. They are the breasts that fed Tonio. The nipples harden, not from the action of my fingertips, but as a reaction to the hungry wailing from the next room.

The hand that glides between her legs belongs to me
now
, but it is also the hand that, in the summer of '88, hesitantly hazarded a probe to see if the young mother was sufficiently healed from the birth to receive me. Answering my caresses, she does not show the reactions I am accustomed to with her. My hand is replaced by hers, but neither does it manage to achieve anything. When I try to take over from her, she holds me back, whispering: ‘I keep seeing Tonio. On vacation.'

And from that moment, of course, I also see Tonio before me — not as an infant on his mother's breast, but as a ten-year-old. Indeed, on vacation. Miriam can stimulate and knead me all she likes, but I keep seeing Tonio as he was that summer in Marsalès. His industriousness. He approaches me with a lifelike snake draped over his shoulder. If he squeezes the tail in a certain way, the snake wraps itself around his neck.

‘It's not real. It's my toy snake.'

I see him fishing at the small waterfall that feeds the swimming pond. He hauls out small, silvery fish, one after the other, which he then deftly plucks from the hook and tosses back into the churning water. Tears flow when the campground manager suddenly bans fishing because he fears for the fish stock.

‘I always threw them back. It was only for the fun of it. I do too think about the environment.'

I see him with a paddle in his hand, dancing at the ping-pong table, with those phosphorescent glow-sticks taped to the back of his hands to distract his opponent. Now it's his mother who issues a veto: what if those things break, and all that chemical poison leaks out …

I hear him complain bitterly that he ‘still hasn't made any friends'. I reply: ‘But it's only the first week.'

‘He had a nibble,' Miriam says, ‘but the other boy was two years older, and Tonio didn't like that.'

Early that evening, he comes barrelling up to our property on his hired mountain bike, his face flushed with excitement. ‘I made four friends at once. Playing ping-pong. I treated whoever won. And now my money's gone, so I came to ask …'

‘And those friends of yours, did they treat when you won?'

‘No, cos I didn't win. I'm not so good.'

‘There's an envelope with some change on the dresser in the living room. Go get it.'

I dump the contents onto the outdoor table — a whole pile of French small change. I let Tonio pick out the higher denominations. ‘Hey, remember: you don't have to be the only one who treats. No matter whether you win or lose.'

‘Okay.'

When he gets back on the mountain bike, his trousers hang crooked, weighed down on one side from the coins in his side pocket. An hour later, he returns wearing his helmet and sunglasses, cheerful and even more flushed than before. He empties his pockets and deposits the majority of the money we'd given him back on the table. ‘The other two weren't really friends. So I didn't treat anymore.'

Tonio is surprised when I say he can keep the coins. ‘Because you're so honest.'

‘Adri,' he says, ‘the other two boys, the ones who
were
real friends, well, they asked if I could come to their tent tonight.'

‘Sure. Just be back before dark.'

‘What time is that?'

‘I'd say: quarter to eleven.'

‘How do I know when it's quarter to eleven?'

I fasten my watch to his wrist.

I misjudged the time: it gets dark early in the south of France. Miriam goes to fetch him. Tonio bikes ahead of her, and charges, laughing, onto the property, dry twigs crackling under his braking tyres. ‘They're brothers.'

‘Your age?'

‘They seem to be the same age. I don't know which one's older.'

Tonio sits down across from me at the garden table, and sags lazily in his chair. He's got it made.

3

‘With thanks to Tonio,' Miriam says with a sad little laugh. We lie next to each other, unsatisfied, without the lazy lie-ins of past Sunday mornings. Every caress and touch has become a gesture of comforting, which of course is worth something, too.

‘It'll get worse,' I say. ‘The living Tonio was easy to forget … he did his own thing … But the dead Tonio, he's here all the time. You can't just send him away. He watches over us, and has chosen us to watch over him. We three are stuck with each other until the end of your or my days.'

Miriam lies on her right side. The tear from her right eye chooses the shortest path to the pillow. The one from her left eye first has to take the hurdle of her nose before it reaches the right cheek, and only much later, the pillowcase.

‘If he's always there,' she says, ‘then that must mean we're less lonely, now that we … well, now that we hardly see anyone else.'

‘More than that:
he
guarantees that the outside world stays shut out. Tonio is the wedge between us and the rest. He is our bodyguard … without an earpiece, because he doesn't need any instructions. Bodyguard, hostage, and kidnapper all rolled into one. What else could we need?'

‘That.'

‘What?'

‘That it wasn't even necessary … this whole isolation and all.'

‘There's no turning back.'

4

An acquaintance of ours is a scent researcher, which has nothing to do with the
ENT
clinic at a hospital. He studies, among other things, human tears and their effect (pertaining to scent) on human interaction. He has not yet published on the subject, so his results are confidential, but he did let on that female tears can influence the male libido.

I took a stab: ‘Tears are a stimulant.'

‘Other way around,' he said. ‘They actually impair sexual desire.'

‘I've tasted a tear now and again, of course,' I said. ‘But I've never noticed a particular scent attached to it.'

‘Men experience tears as odourless. But the scent in fact obliterates their horniness. Tears contain pheromones. A kind of lure scent, strangely enough … but not to attract a sexual partner.'

This surprised me. My thoughts took me back to 1973 and my farewell to a girl who had run away from home to be with me, despite the fact that I had already planned a holiday with some friends, where she would only be a fifth wheel. She had gone into hiding at a friend's. I went to say goodbye. ‘It's just for six weeks.' As soon as I entered the room, she started crying, and kept it up until I left. Her uninhibited gush of tears, reinforced with watery snot, aroused me as never before — but maybe her desperate passivity played a role in it.

‘We haven't yet studied the effect of the scent of nasal fluid on libido,' my acquaintance said. ‘Snot from an anguished runny nose could perhaps neutralise the pheromones in tears. But that's pure conjecture.'

‘When I see Miriam's tears flow,' I said, ‘I mostly have an urge to comfort her.'

‘Think about that,' said the scent researcher. ‘I think you're very close to the function of those tear pheromones. A comfort-evoking scent.'

Life has given me a bum rap.

My background, the environment in which I grew up, always taught me that it was right to marry and start a family — even though my own family did not set a particularly good example. My father was a weekend drinker, who combated his fear of abandonment with suicide threats. I remember the time two police officers led my mother and us three children into the darkened house. The electricity had been switched off; in the kitchen, all the burners of the gas cooker hissed at their highest setting. Dad hadn't taken the trouble to hold a match to them. He had opened them with bloodied hands: on the counter, we found the shards of a smashed drinking glass.

The police found my father upstairs, lying on the bed with his head next to the open window, so that to this day we don't know who in fact he had intended that gas for — maybe for the lit cigarette lighter of the rookie policeman, or the unwitting neighbour who responded to our alarm.

Fifteen years later, I met
H&NE
. In the seven years that we lived together, our mothers (and fathers) kept asking about their first grandchild. It was, in actual fact, a
demand
disguised with a question mark. Apparently the family, the concept of a family, had a certain value that could not just be destroyed by a single destructive member.

I can't say I gave in to the interfering insistence of my mother and mother-in-law, God help me. But I cannot deny that family, despite an improperly used gas stove, was the model for my upbringing — a
mould
that does not let itself be renounced without a fight.

So we decided to have a child. I knew full well what I was doing in getting her pregnant. We got married, for the sake of the forthcoming child. It came, and for nearly twenty-two years made us extremely happy. Now Miriam and I are saddled, each until our own dying day, with a life-sized loss, instead of a living son. It was thus a big fat lie, the shelter and comfort that a family was supposed to guarantee. A foetid lie, the child as a buffer against the solitary chill of one's own death.

I see myself next to my mother in front of the glass wall of the Slotervaart Hospital maternity ward. Behind the glass, Miriam shows her mother-in-law the little one — and oh, how little he was — just out of the incubator. My mother looks at him, moved. It never was easy to talk uninhibitedly about sexual matters. My parents did not ‘do' sexual education. (‘What did we know back then?') Now she'd have to face facts.

‘So, Ma, have I made a handsome little sprout for you, or haven't I?'

Since I began experimenting with sex in the late sixties, during my youth and early adulthood, I was always able to dissociate sexual intercourse and all its foreplay and afterplay from the notion of procreation. Of course, it was made easy for me, as more and more girls in my circle used the pill, and were therefore quite literally cut off from procreation. All one's attention could be focused on refining the act itself.

Sex in regard to procreation only started playing a role once we'd decided to have a child. Miriam stopped taking the pill, and quit smoking. I gave up drinking. One Sunday afternoon, I implanted, via tenderness and the tried-and-tested technique, a child in her. On Friday 13 November 1987, a pregnancy test confirmed that an heir was on its way.

The idea that with every new life you also beget a new death is an age-old cliché. They're talking about a new death that neither the begetter nor the woman who gave birth to that new life is supposed to live to see. In my case, I can safely say that in begetting Tonio I also begot my present loss. Reality cashed in the cliché prematurely.

As easily as I used to be able to dissociate sex from procreation and descendants, sex would now be forever linked with loss and absence and pain. My entire notion of procreation had been radically turned upside down. Sex, which was already an act rife with cheap-and-easy ambiguities, had now genuinely, in earnest, become something ambiguous.

5

The dictionary defines
penetrating oil
as ‘very low viscosity oil of a certain formulation, which through capillary action can permeate hard-to-reach spots, and is most often used to free rusted mechanical parts'.

These past weeks, I have aware of my grief as a sort of penetrating oil. It permeates the capillaries of my emotional system (if such a thing exists), and loosens the tiniest details of Tonio's completed life, every forgotten and half-forgotten memory. It all dissolves into a murky soup of wistful melancholy.

Once, after a visit to my parents, we rang a taxi to take us to Eindhoven station. Tonio insisted on riding up front, next to the female driver. Miriam and I climbed in the back, and listened in amazement to what all our son told her. He was three, maybe four, and the confidential tone he assumed with the young woman almost made her blush.

‘… and when we get home, Adri … my daddy … is going to
roughhouse
with me. We do that all the time. Roughhouse.'

Miriam and I glanced at each other, she with raised eyebrows. Yeah, I gave him the occasional playful shove, chased him around once in a while if he didn't want to go to bed, and tossed him in the air when it was convenient — but
roughhouse
, really rowdy play, no, not that I was aware of.

‘So what all do you do?' asked the driver, ‘have a pillow fight?'

‘Tickle to death,' answered Tonio without hesitation. ‘We do tickle-death.'

Oh, sweet boy. How often had he crept up on me to tickle me behind my ear or in my armpit. I'm not all that ticklish in the first place, and did my best to remain unfazed by his attempts to get me to giggle — undoubtedly to tease him (get under your father's skin? Kid, you're gonna need cruder tactics than this), but now, in the taxi, I regretted it. That wiggling finger was meant to get me to slacken, to scream, to provoke revenge in the form of a fake fight. The roughhousing he so yearned for ended in tickle-death for both parties. I'd blown it again.

BOOK: Tonio
13.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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