My father answers the phone. He is twenty-three years old, and, as everyone does in the nineties, he picks up the receiver without knowing who is calling. People call all day long, and my parents pick up and say, “Hello?” and then people say, “It’s Carmen,” or “I’m calling from the post office,” or “I’d like to confirm your appointment.” But at night, if the phone rings and my father picks up, nobody answers. He waits with the receiver to his ear until he gets tired of standing there doing nothing, or asking questions into the void, or sometimes even cursing. He lowers the receiver onto its base, and though the mechanical click puts an end to the silence, he knows there is something more. 

It’s a time when few household appliances can function without cords. Lithium is an imperceptible element hidden inside their batteries—the batteries hidden in turn inside little plastic compartments—silently beating in hundreds and thousands of metal hearts to which no one pays much attention, and, hidden from view, in that neighborhood in El Bolsón, Argentina, and in all the cities of the world, this new energy seems like a simple miracle. 

To keep the phone from ringing, my father unplugs the cord that connects it to the wall before he puts me to bed. Everyone pays close attention to my sleep—my parents, my grandparents, the doctors, the woman who sometimes comes to clean. Sleep can be dangerous. It numbs still-weak muscles, tendons that never healed. “Did the boy sleep well?” they all ask.

The calls are for my father only. If Mom answers, the caller immediately hangs up. But my father, a salesman whose job consists above all of reading the things on people’s faces that people don’t know are written there, is greeted by faceless silence, and stands listening with the receiver to his ear for a long time, terrified by his own disquiet.

Eight months before the calls begin, I am almost two years old, sitting in front of a Grundig TV in my paternal grandmother’s living room. When I get distracted, I crawl and toddle around, investigating every object that lies in my path, everything at my fingertips. To whomever is taking care of me, my mother says, “Please pay attention.” She says it even to my father that afternoon, before she drops us off at Grandma’s house for a couple of hours. Cartoons are on in the living room, but the pixels on the screen entertain me only sporadically. My father is vigilant; he looks over from the dining room table to check on me. He talks to Grandma but keeps watch over my movements, my constant conversation with the things around me. 

If objects don’t clearly express their purpose, I suck them, bite them, bang them against each other. The slippers against the remote control, the remote control against the calculator on the shelf; my grandmother’s watch into my mouth, and then, before I leave it on the floor, I hit it a couple of times against the slippers. I am soothed by the objects whose purpose I can identify. The Russian dolls on the lowest shelf come apart, they go one inside the other and close up again. It’s complicated, fitting the pieces together, but there is a kind of urge toward completeness in those shapes that can split in two that fascinates me even more than the digital numbers on the calculator or the coarse granules of the Grundig screen.

All it takes is a long silence for my father to turn around. Sitting in front of the TV, surrounded by objects scattered about the floor, I stare back at him in fear. He stands up and rushes over to me, because what is happening is not a tantrum—that’s something he understands right away. This is not the silence that precedes a crying fit. He has seen my cheeks puffed out and turning red, but it takes him a few seconds to understand that I can’t breathe. I clench one of my little hands into a fist and clumsily hit at my mouth.

 “What did you do?” he asks.

He tries to open my fist, my mouth. I slip away, he catches me. He forces my fingers open. Suddenly I swallow, I swallow something, and my father looks at me in terror.

“What is that? What did you swallow?” he shouts.

My eyes fill with tears. 

“What did you swallow?” 

“Nothing,” I say, and my voice is so sweet it sounds sincere. 

My voice is a memory that interrupts everything each time it comes back to me. Action and consequence, scene after scene, my father and I will remember everything from this moment on with the sharpness of an alarm that neither of us will ever be able to turn off again. I say “Nothing” and I’m moved by the miracle of my tongue touching my upper palate, the air rushing down my windpipe into my lungs, and the vibration of my vocal cords. 

My father grabs me and I let him; I still trust him. He opens my mouth, wanting to believe there is nothing. 

“Tell me the truth, it’s important,” he says. “Did you swallow something?”

I shake my head.

“You didn’t swallow anything?”

It seems like a different question, but I catch on to the trick and give the same reply. 

In this era when, in El Bolsón and all the cities of the world, almost every household thing that runs on electricity is connected to the wall by a cord, we have to wait for Mom to return before we can hear her opinion. In the meantime, my father thinks, He’s okay, he’s okay—a silent mantra pounding at his temple. Exhausted from imagining the worst, he is reassured to see I am soon distracted again, to see how I play and laugh and accept the tangerine wedge he sets in front of me, how I put it in my mouth and swallow with no trouble.

Except that in the evening, back at home and after dinner, I start to cough. Later, I wake up retching, and just in case, they take me to the emergency room. A doctor listens to my chest. “Everything seems fine,” he says, looking at me kindly. “Come back tomorrow if there are any symptoms.” He pinches my cheek. “Or the day after tomorrow, if nothing comes out in his stool but he’s still retching,” he adds, already at his office door, scanning the waiting room for his next patient.

Mom conscientiously crushes each bowel movement with a fork. She examines me as she saw the doctor do, but with her ears instead of a stethoscope. I squeal with delight at the tickle of that cold ear on my belly, chest, and back, but between peals of laughter I’m still coughing. Mom, who has learned that taking care of someone means understanding what to do and why, listens and listens and doesn’t know what she’s listening for. She gets restless. She needs a second opinion, and books an appointment with the family doctor for the next day.