The following is a story from The Best Short Stories 2022: The O. Henry Prize Winners, chosen by guest editor Valeria Luiselli and series editor Jenny Minton Quigley. Alejandro Zambra is the author of Multiple Choice, My Documents, Ways of Going Home, The Private Lives of Trees, and Bonsai. The recipient of numerous literary prizes, as well as a Cullman Center fellowship, his stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, Granta and Harper’s.
Many times over his two years of life, the boy has heard laughter or cries coming from his parents’ bedroom. It’s hard to know how he would react if he ever found out what his parents really do while he’s asleep: watch TV.
He’s never watched TV or anyone watching TV, so his parents’ television is vaguely mysterious to him: its screen is a sort of mirror, but the image it reflects is opaque, insufficient, and you can’t draw on it in the steam, though sometimes a layer of dust allows for similar games.
Still, the boy wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this screen reproduces images in movement. He is occasionally allowed to see other people on screens, most often people in his second country. Because the boy has two countries: his mother’s, which is his main country, and his father’s, which is his secondary country. His father doesn’t live there, but his father’s parents do, and they’re the people the boy sees most often on-screen.
He has also seen his grandparents in person, because the boy has traveled twice to his second country. He doesn’t remember the first trip, but by the second he could walk and talk himself blue in the face, and those weeks were unforgettable, though the most memorable event happened on the flight there, when a screen that seemed every bit as useless as his parents’ TV lit up, and suddenly there was a friendly red monster who referred to himself in the third person. The monster and the boy were immediate friends, perhaps because back then the boy also talked about himself in the third person.
The meeting was fortuitous, really, because the boy’s parents didn’t plan to watch TV during the trip. The flight began with a couple of naps, and then his parents opened the little suitcase that held seven books and five zoomorphic puppets, and a long time was spent on the reading and immediate rereading of those books, punctuated by insolent comments from the puppets, who also gave their opinions on the shapes of the clouds and the quality of the snacks. Everything was going swimmingly until the boy asked for a toy that had chosen to travel—his parents explained—in the hold of the plane, and then he remembered several others that—who knows why—had decided to stay in his main country. Then, for the first time in six hours, the boy burst into tears that lasted a full minute, which isn’t a long time, but, to a man in the seat behind them, seemed very long indeed.
“Make that kid shut up!” bellowed the man.
The boy’s mother turned around and looked at him with serene contempt, and, after a well-executed pause, she lowered her gaze to stare fixedly between his legs and said, without the slightest trace of aggression:
“Must be really tiny.”
The man apparently had no defense against such an accusation and didn’t reply. The boy—who had stopped crying by then—moved to his mother’s arms, and then it was the father’s turn. He also knelt in his seat to stare at the man; he didn’t insult him, but merely asked his name.
“Enrique Elizalde,” said the man, with the little dignity he had left.
“Why do you want to know?”
“I have my reasons.”
“Who are you?”
“I don’t want to tell you, but you’ll find out. Soon you’ll know full well who I am.”
The father glared several more seconds at the now-remorseful or desperate Enrique Elizalde, and he would have kept it up except that a bout of turbulence forced him to refasten his seat belt.
“This jerk thinks I’m really powerful,” he murmured then, in English, which was the language the parents used instinctively now to insult other people.
“We should at least name a character after him,” said the mother.
“Good idea! I’ll name all the bad guys in my books Enrique Elizalde.”
“Me too! I guess we’ll have to start writing books with bad guys,” she said.
And that was when they turned on the screen in front of them and tuned in to the show of the happy, hairy red monster. The show lasted twenty minutes, and when the screen went dark, the boy protested, but his parents explained that the monster’s presence wasn’t repeatable, he wasn’t like books, which could be read over and over.
During the three weeks they were in his secondary country, the boy asked about the monster daily, and his parents explained that he only lived on airplanes. The re-encounter finally came on the flight home, and it lasted another scant twenty minutes. Two months later, since the boy still spoke of the monster with a certain melancholy, they bought him a stuffed replica, which in his eyes was the original itself. Since then the two have been inseparable: in fact, right now, the boy has just fallen asleep hugging the red plush toy, while his parents have retired to the bedroom, and surely they will soon turn on the TV. There’s a chance, if things go as they usually do, that this story will end with the two of them watching TV.
The boy’s father grew up with the TV always on, and at his son’s age he was possibly unaware that the television could even be turned off. His mother, on the other hand, had been kept away from TV for an astonishing ten years. Her mother’s official version was that the TV signal didn’t reach as far their house on the outskirts of the city, so that the TV seemed to the girl a completely useless object. One day she invited a classmate over to play, and without asking anyone, the friend simply plugged in the TV and turned it on. There was no disillusionment or crisis: the girl thought the TV signal had only just reached the city’s periphery. She ran to relay the good news to her mother, who, though she was an atheist, fell to her knees, raised her arms to the sky, and shouted histrionically, persuasively, “It’s a MIRACLE!”
In spite of these very different backgrounds, the couple is in complete agreement that it’s best to put off their son’s exposure to screens as long as possible. They’re not fanatics, in any case, they’re not against TV by any means. When they first met, they often employed the hackneyed strategy of meeting up to watch movies as a pretext for sex. Later, in the period that could be considered the boy’s prehistory, they succumbed to the spell of many excellent series. And they never watched as much TV as during the months leading up to the birth of their son, whose intrauterine life was set not to Mozart symphonies or lullabies but rather to the theme songs of series about bloody power struggles in an unspecified ancient time of zombies and dragons, or in the spacious government house of the self-designated “leader of the free world.”
When the boy was born, the couple’s TV experience changed radically. At the end of the day their physical and mental exhaustion allowed only thirty or forty minutes of waning concentration, so that almost without realizing it they lowered their standards and became habitual viewers of mediocre series. They still wanted to immerse themselves in unfathomable realms and live vicariously through challenging and complex experiences that forced them to seriously rethink their place in the world, but that’s what the books they read during the day were for; at night they wanted easy laughter, funny dialogue, and scripts that granted the sad satisfaction of understanding without the slightest effort.
Someday, maybe in one or two years, they plan to spend Saturday or Sunday afternoons watching movies with the boy, and they even keep a list of the ones they want to watch as a family. But for now, the TV is relegated to that final hour of the day when the boy is asleep and the mother and father return, momentarily, to being simply she and he—she, in bed looking at her phone, and he, lying face up on the floor as if resting after a round of sit-ups. Suddenly he gets up and lies on the bed, too, and his hand reaches for the remote but changes course, picks up the nail clippers instead, and he starts to cut his fingernails. She looks at him and thinks that lately, he is always clipping his nails.
“We’re going to be shut in for months. He’s going to get bored,” she says.
“They’ll let people walk their dogs, but not their kids,” he says bitterly.
“I’m sure he doesn’t like this. Maybe he doesn’t show it, but he must be having a horrible time. How much do you think he understands?”
“About as much as we do.”
“And what do we understand?” she asks, in the tone of a student reviewing a lesson before a test. It’s almost as if she has asked, “What is photosynthesis?”
“That we can’t go out because there’s a shitty virus. That’s all.”
“That what used to be allowed is now forbidden. And what used to be forbidden still is.”
“He misses the park, the bookstore, museums. Same as we do.”
“The zoo,” she says. “He doesn’t talk about it, but he complains more, gets mad more often. Not much, but more.”
“But he doesn’t miss preschool, not at all,” he says.
“I hope it’s just two or three months. What if it’s more? A whole year?”
“I don’t think so,” he says. He’d like to sound more convinced.
“What if this is our world from now on? What if after this virus there’s another and another?” She asks the question but it could just as well be him, with the same words and the same anxious intonation.
During the day they take turns: one of them watches their son while the other works. They are behind on everything, and although everyone is behind on everything, they feel sure that they’re a little more behind than everyone else. They should argue, compete over which of them has the more urgent and better-paid job, but instead they both offer to watch the boy full-time, because that half day with him is an interval of true happiness, genuine laughter, purifying evasion—they would rather spend the whole day playing ball in the hallway or drawing unintentionally monstrous creatures on the small square of wall where drawing is allowed or strumming guitar while the boy turns the pegs until it’s out of tune or reading stories that they now find perfect, much better than the books they themselves write, or try to. Even if they only had one of those children’s stories, they would rather read it nonstop all day than sit in front of their computers, the awful news radio on in the background, to send reply e-mails full of apologies for their lateness and stare at the stupid map of real-time contagion and death—he looks, especially, at his son’s secondary country, which of course is still his primary one, and he thinks of his parents and imagines that in the hours or days since he last talked to them they’ve gotten sick and he’ll never see them again, and then he calls them and those calls leave him shattered, but he doesn’t say anything, at least not to her, because she has spent weeks now in a slow and imperfect anxiety that makes her think she should learn to embroider, or at least stop reading the beautiful and hopeless novels she reads, and she also thinks that she should have become something other than a writer; they agree on that, they’ve talked about it many times, because so often—every time they try to write—they’ve felt the inescapable futility of each and every word.
“Let’s let him watch movies,” she says. “Why not? Only on Sundays.”
“At least then we’d know if it’s Monday or Thursday or Sunday,” he says.
“I think it’s Tuesday.”
“Let’s decide tomorrow,” she says.
He finishes cutting his nails and looks at his hands with uncertain satisfaction, or maybe as if he has just finished cutting someone else’s nails, or as if he were looking at the nails of a person who just cut their own nails and is asking him, for some reason (maybe because he’s become an expert), for his opinion or approval.
“They’re growing faster,” he says.
“Didn’t you just cut them last night?”
“Exactly, they’re growing faster.” He says this very seriously. “Every night it seems like they’ve grown out during the day. Abnormally fast.”
“I think it’s good for nails to grow fast. Supposedly they grow faster at the beach,” she says, sounding as if she’s trying to remember something, maybe the feeling of waking up on the beach with the sun in her face.
“I think mine are a record.”
“Mine are growing faster, too,” she says, smiling. “Even faster than yours. By noon they’re practically claws. And I cut them and they grow again.”
“I think mine grow faster than yours.”
Then they put their hands together as if they could really see their fingernails growing, as if they could compare speeds, and what should be a quick scene lengthens out, because they let themselves get caught up in the absurd illusion of that silent competition, beautiful and useless, which lasts so long that even the most patient viewer would turn off the TV in indignation. But no one is watching them, though the TV screen is like a camera that records their bodies frozen in that strange and funny pose. A monitor amplifies the boy’s breathing, and it’s the only sound that accompanies the contest of their hands, their nails, a contest that lasts several minutes but not long enough for anyone to win, and that ends, finally, with the longed-for burst of warm, frank laughter that they were really needing.
“Screen Time” first appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Copyright © 2020 by Alejandro Zambra. Reprinted by permission of the author. Translated by Megan McDowell.