Someone, probably the ticket inspector, told him that his was the only suitcase. No one else was going to Alquila today. There’s no way it can get lost. But Hernández insisted on taking it with him. I like to keep an eye on my things.
On the platform Hernández ate a few biscuits, bought a bottle of water and nervously smoked his way through two or three cigarettes. Then the door to the bus opened, and he rushed inside even though he was the only one waiting. I need to keep it with me, he explained to the driver as he climbed the narrow steps. I have my medicine in here. The driver nodded without looking around, gripping his steering-wheel more tightly.
A superstitious man, Padilla was afraid that something would happen to his bus if he spoke before starting off, just as he never spoke before getting to the mountains to make sure that nothing happened to his passengers.
By then, Hernández had taken over a row of seats and put his suitcase in the aisle. He was excited to be the only one taking the bus to Alquila that day.
Don’t block the aisle, Padilla said as the bus went around a bend. Surprised, Hernández sat up to look at the driver in the mirror. Smiling, he asked, Are you serious?
It’s dangerous for the other passengers, Padilla answered, looking back at Hernández. Rules are rules, he added without revealing the real reason: if he allowed something to block the aisle they’d have an accident or, at best, be delayed.
Pointing to the seats around him, Hernández was ready to argue the point, but Padilla was an experienced driver, and he quickly looked away from the mirror and turned up the volume on the radio. Shaking his head, Hernández decided to ignore him and lay back down.
A few minutes later, while the driver fumed in his seat, Hernández took a map out from his jacket pocket. He had ordered it by mail. Now, he excitedly but carefully unfolded it and examined it for a long time. He was finally going to see her.
Hernández had met Romina three weeks before at a Faculty of Architecture party that had almost ended up with the two of them in bed. I’d love to see you in Alquila, she’d told him in the foyer of his block of flats. Whenever you like.
Since then it had been all Hernández could think about. At twenty years old he was the only one of his friends who was still a virgin – and Romina was his only viable option for getting rid of a label under which he had suffered for too long.
He was so nervous he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get any rest on the trip, even though it would last all night. What if I come too soon? Hernández agonized in silence. What if I don’t last a minute? What if I come as soon as I see her naked?
Hernández folded up the map and put it away then reached for his suitcase, took out a bag and checked that he had everything he needed: four packets of condoms (Who knows how many I’ll waste out of nerves?), a box of Viagra (In case I get stage fright) and sleeping pills for the trip, which had been recommended by another customer in the pharmacy.
Although the box said that two would be enough, Hernández, who couldn’t get the image of Romina’s body or his fears about the potential failings of his own body out of his head, decided to take four. There’s plenty of time after all, he murmured before taking a swig from his bottle and lying back down, hoping that the effects would be immediate.
Just then the driver lowered the ten screens that had thus far been hidden, and a stewardess’ voice started to play very loud. You’re really getting on my nerves, Hernández exclaimed, sitting up with a jolt. Then he raised his voice. I don’t want to watch the movie! But Padilla pretended not to hear, and as soon as the advert for the coach company that paid his salary had finished he turned the speakers up as high as they would go. Covering his ears and clenching his jaw, Hernández realized the absurd situation he was in. He got up and walked down the aisle to Padilla. Please, can you turn it off? I assure you that no one is going to watch the movie, he added a few moments later, tugging the corners of his mouth into the most unconvincing smile imaginable.
That’s not possible, Padilla replied after another brief silence. It’s the rules. And although you may not respect them, I follow them to the letter. He turned to look at his passenger. Hernández’s smile faded from his face. Go back to your seat. You can’t stand here. It’s not allowed.
Fighting the urge to swear at him, Hernández bit back his frustration, turned around and started to walk back down the aisle. Then he quietly asked, Can’t you at least lower the volume a little?
Impossible, Padilla said, accelerating in an attempt to throw his passenger to the ground. I can’t touch the volume. Regulations.
Hernández kept his balance and hurried back to his seat, smiling again, this time out of impotence rather than condescension. He shook his head in anger, mumbled a couple of words that not even he understood and went back to his four seats with his tail firmly between his legs. Fortunately, the pills were already beginning to take effect. Now nothing, not the noise and glare from the television screens or Padilla’s jerky driving, would bother Hernández. As soon as he lay down his mind went blank.
Hernández slept so deeply and was so oblivious to the world that he wasn’t aware of anything more until they got to Alquila. Padilla, who had done all he could to make the journey a waking nightmare, shook his arm saying Come on, you bastard, we’re here. Get up. It’s not my job to wake you up. Then he pushed Hernández’s legs with the sole of his shoe. And I don’t have to wait for you either. Get yourself out, or I’ll do it for you, the driver threatened, kicking Hernández again. Feeling his heels on the ground, the passenger woke up. Fine, fine, I heard you. I’m going. After wiping the drool from his chin and rubbing his face with his hands, Hernández stood up, registered that he was still a little dizzy, picked up the suitcase as best he could and followed the driver, who was mumbling, I hope this place treats you the way you deserve.
Out in the street, fighting the dizziness the pills had left behind, Hernández rubbed his face and shook his head again before looking around. The sun was just coming up, and he couldn’t believe that Alquila was even uglier than it had looked in Romina’s photos.
Moments later someone, maybe the driver who would take charge of the bus after Padilla, told him how to get to the plaza – Not that there’s much point. There’s nothing to see here. Paying no attention to the stranger’s last words, Hernández set out and soon covered the six or seven blocks that separated him from his destination. Around him, light was flooding across the ground.
It’s too early to call her, Hernández said to himself, hugging his bag. He sat down on a bench and went on, I’m not going to wake her up just now and definitely not her parents. But he was just making excuses. He was a bundle of nerves. What the hell am I going to say to her when she answers? I’d better not call her. What if she doesn’t want to…? What if she’s changed her mind? he said as the plaza filled with people hurrying to and fro. He looked up and saw the sun appear behind the green church steeple. Then he raised his voice, trying to conquer his fears, What the hell am I thinking? Of course I’m going to call her.
Why would she have changed her mind? He exclaimed even louder, getting up. She would have told me. But I’ll have breakfast first to give her a little more time, he added, setting off across the plaza in search of somewhere to have breakfast, oblivious to the fact that this was just another pretext. Neither did he notice was how unusual it was for people to be hurrying around so urgently at that hour.
Then someone, maybe the man at the newspaper kiosk, told him that the best place for breakfast was the restaurant run by Doña Eumelia, The one on the other side of the plaza, next to the stationer’s. But hurry up, you don’t have much time. I don’t think it’ll be open for much longer. But Hernández was already walking off, so he didn’t hear the warning. As he went into the restaurant, Hernández smiled, thinking to himself that he’d solved a couple of problems in one: he could eat something and pass the time and also buy some paper in which to wrap up Romina’s present. If she has changed her mind, the present might change it back again, he thought as he ordered eggs. Then he sat down, looking at the window display of the stationer’s, examining the different rolls of wrapping paper. Eventually, Hernández opted for a blue roll and went over to the counter to ask the shop girl, Doña Eumelia’s niece and first cousin, who was staring fixedly at the television, Can I have a metre of this one?
No, the shop girl answered, barely looking at Hernández. That paper is for children. Also, I’m watching the news. And you’re not from around here. I don’t like to deal with strangers, the shop girl said rudely without taking her eyes off the television. Just for children. Damn, Hernández said, smiling. Strangers… then give me a metre of that one.
I can’t, I already told you, the shop girl said irritably, looking at Hernández for the first time.
What if I get a child to buy it for me? Hernández asked, turning to the plaza with an incredulous smile as he tried to make sense of the situation.
Who would use it? You or the child? The shop girl asked, coming over to the counter but still staring at the television, where a local news presenter was saying, It’s going to be another difficult day.
It’s for me not the child. I was just making a joke, Hernández explained. I need to wrap a present –
Then stop asking, liar, the shop girl interrupted him. People come from outside and bring their bad manners with them, she added, turning around and going back to her seat. I’m not going to sell you anything. Too incredulous to be upset, Hernández considered trying again, but the shop girl got up from her seat, hurried back to the counter, pushed past him and poked her head into the other side of the premises where the restaurant was. They’re coming back.
Defeated, Hernández walked back to his table, just as Doña Eumelia was serving him his eggs, which would never be eaten.
Now they’re saying, said the shop girl behind Hernández, who watched Doña Eumelia walk to the threshold and look out at the street, that they’re already here. A couple of seconds later the shop girl and Doña Eumelia had lowered the shutters of the premises they shared, turned off the lights, hurried over to Hernández, picked him up and, saying We’re sorry but you can’t stay here, violently dragged him out back and thrown him out onto the street.
Someone, maybe one of the men running across the plaza, said to Hernández, Why are you just standing there? And someone else added, Run, they’re coming… they’re down here already, they’re everywhere.
Utterly confused, Hernández started to run after the men who’d spoken to him. A couple of blocks later, he heard the first explosions and the rattling of machine-gun fire. Gripped by fear, he felt his joints begin to creak and freeze up.
Romina, thought Hernández, still running. I have to call her. He took out his telephone in the middle of the street and hid in a doorway ready to dial, but someone, maybe a woman running along with two children in her arms, said, Don’t stop. They cut off the service. Utterly bewildered, Hernández put away his telephone, took out the map on which Romina had written her address and started to run in a daze, hearing the shots and explosions get closer and closer. A few paces further on, the woman tripped on a crack in the road and fell to the ground, sending her children tumbling.
Hernández helped her back up, picked up one of her children and ran as he’d never run before. He asked the woman if she knew how to get to Arteaga 17. You’re in luck… we’re close by… Just go around the corner and keep going straight on… It’s five, no, it must be four blocks. Or come with me and help my boy… You can hide at my house.
I’m sorry… really, said Hernández, stopping for a second to look at the woman and the child on the ground. He had no way of knowing that the decision he was taking would end up being the most important of his life. But he wanted to get to Romina’s house. The machine-gun fire and explosions continued in the distance. Turning at the corner the woman had pointed out to him, Hernández moved his legs impossibly fast. His chest felt as though it might burst at any moment, but he found strength he never knew he had. And so he arrived at the house he was looking for and started desperately banging on the door, shouting Romina’s name over and over again.
But no one came to answer. He couldn’t hear a thing behind the door, not a murmur. Romina’s family was hiding in the bathroom, and, although they heard the racket Hernández was making, the head of the family warned them, Don’t make a sound. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. I don’t even want to hear you breathe. We don’t know who’s out there, who’s wandering the streets. Romina’s father stared hard at Romina, who was crying in silence. The more noise Hernández made, the deeper she burrowed her head into her arms. Maybe if we knew who it was, the head of the family whispered, but we don’t know him. We can’t take the risk.
When he had finally accepted the fact that the door he was kicking and thumping wouldn’t be opened, Hernández remembered the woman and the two children he’d abandoned. Lost and scared, he ran back the way he had come, but someone, maybe a woman on the roof, shouted out to him, The other way… run the other way… They’re coming that way.
Before Hernández had absorbed this piece of advice, a man cried out, and the people who were terrorizing the town came around the corner. Turning around, Hernández started to get his legs moving in the other direction, but then he stopped. They were at the other corner, too.
He froze and felt his bladder begin to fail. Hernández waited for the men to come towards him. When they finally arrived, he tried to say something, but someone, maybe the man who smashed in his jaw with the butt of the rifle, pre-empted him.
Before his eyes closed and he lost consciousness, Hernández saw the man who had hit him walk away and then heard the giggling of a pair of small boys, who were also armed.
Clinging on to the world by a thin thread of amazement, Hernández heard a woman’s voice giving orders. Load him up with his things… He must be an outsider.
Hernández felt nothing as they dragged him away, tied up his hands and feet and threw him into the back of a truck.
He came to a couple of hours later when someone, maybe one of the children who had laughed before, poured a bucket of water over his head. But when he finally opened his eyes, no one was there.
All he could see was a mess. They’d emptied out his suitcase in the back yard where he was lying. He looked up at the sun for a moment and felt a prickling across his entire body. He found that his T-shirt had been removed, his shoes taken off and his wrists and ankles throbbed with pain.
A couple of minutes later the woman who had ordered that he be brought with them appeared. Spitting out tangerine seeds, she stepped around the clothes and bent down next to Hernández. In a quiet voice she murmured, You’re not from around here. Then she moved around behind him and cut the ropes with which he had been tied up.
Stand up and follow me, she ordered, and it was then, hearing her voice, that Hernández realized that it reminded him of someone else. He’d heard it before. Maybe it was that woman, he thought. No, it was just like Romina’s voice. Or her mother’s.
Before he could continue with the nonsensical, absurd line of thought to which he clung so as not to have to think about anything else, to get away from where he was, Hernández found himself in a room. He and the woman he was following were met by a dozen adults and three or four children.
Hernández was hit again in the solar plexus and bent over before falling to his knees. Scratching at the earth, he tried to regain his breath, choke back the saliva running out from his mouth and dry his wet eyes. Around him people were laughing.
Someone, maybe the man who appeared to be the boss in that dark room, said, So you’ve come to fuck our wives. Surprised and terrified, Hernández thought, without knowing why or making any attempt to explain it now, that he also knew the voice that was talking to him. He’d heard it before, too.
Maybe it’s the man who hit me in the street, Hernández said to himself, as the laughter around him slowly faded away. No… it’s the driver… the one who brought me… Or, no… it’s Romina’s father, he thought to himself in silence. I heard him on the phone.
I’m talking to you, you son of a bitch! shouted the voice, and this time, instead of hitting Hernández, the man lifted up his head and waved several packets of condoms and a pack of Viagra in his face. You’ve come to fuck our girls, haven’t you?
Before Hernández managed to say anything, the man slapped him a couple of times. Well, as you can see, that’s not going to happen! The rules are different here! he added, hitting him again but this time with his fists. We’re in charge!
And do you know what I’m going to order now? asked the man, finally letting Hernández’s face go and looking around at the others who were there. For someone to be the first to volunteer.
Someone, maybe the one who had tied up Hernández, spoke up before the others.
And the other people there left the room, one by one.
*Image: © Jon Foster.