"Second Lives" by Daniel Alarcon Originally published in the August 16 & 23, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.
Once again, the “20 Under 40” fiction selection introduces me to a great story from an author I’d heard of but never read. I’ve been tempted to pick up his short story collection War by Candlelight and his first novel Lost City Radio, but each time I opted for something else.
“Second Lives” follows some of the other “20 Under 40” selections by looking at a foreign land and some of the recent history that led some from that land to find their way to America. This is the story of one who was left behind. His name is Nelson.
My parents, with admirable foresight, had their first child while they were on fellowships in the United States. My mother was in public health, and my father in a library science program. Having an American baby was, my mother once said, like putting money in the bank.
However, this American baby is not Nelson, our narrator. It was our narrator’s older brother, Francisco. When he was born, the parents lived in a poor section of Baltimore, and they were happy:
The district they lived in was one of the poorest in the country at the time, and once the birth was registered my parents were entitled to free baby formula, delivered to their doorstep every Monday morning. They found this astonishing, and later learned that many of the foreign doctors at the hospital were receiving this benefit, too, even a few who didn’t yet have children. It was a gigantic bribe, my father said, the government pleading with its poverty-stricken residents: Please, please don’t riot! Baltimore was adorned with reminders of the last civil disturbance: a burned-out block of storefronts, a boarded-up and untended house whose roof had collapsed after a snowstorm. Every morning, the sidewalks were littered with shattered car windows, tiny bits of glass glinting like diamonds in the limpid sun. No one used money in the neighborhood stores, only coupons; and, in lieu of birds, the skies featured plastic bags held aloft on a breeze. But none of this mattered, because my parents were happy. They were in love and they had a beautiful boy, his photo affixed to a blue First World passport.
Nelson is born several years later, well after the family’s visas expired and were denied renewal, when “their gaze turned, back to their families, their friends, the places they had known, and those they had forgotten they knew.” Nelson is given a Third World passport, which he has never been able to us, though Francisco “feld at the first opportunity.”
The remainder of the story is an interesting, lucid account of Nelson’s youth as he suffered while his brother was raised in the United States.
People talk a lot these days about virtual reality, second lives, digital avatars. It’s a concept I’m fully conversant with, of course. Even with no technical expertise or much interest in computers, I understand it all perfectly; if not the engineering, the nthe emotional content behind these so-called advances seems absolutely intuitive to me. I’ll say it plainly: I spend my adolescence preparing for and eventually giving myself over to an imagined life.
It’s a story that makes a lot of what we complain about in the United States seem trite, even as it depicts (like in the description of Baltimore) some ugly realities Nelson still dreams about.