‘I’m sorry,’ says the girl. ‘You’re mistaken.’
I listen to her without batting an eyelid, nodding my head as if being mistaken were the most natural thing in the world. Because there’s no other explanation. I’ve made a mistake. And I do a quick mental run through all the other times I might have made a little mistake and I can’t think of anything that comes close. But I shouldn’t blame myself. I’m tired, bogged down with work and, to cap it all, I’m not sleeping properly. This morning, in fact, I almost called my landlord. Why on earth did he rent out the apartment upstairs to such a noisy family? But what’s uppermost in my mind now has nothing to do with the neighbours or the landlord or my tiredness, it’s all to do with the weird experience I seem to have had just half an hour ago. A mixture of unease and conviction that made me rush out of a shoe shop and run down the street after a woman who I insisted on calling Dina. And the woman ignored me and walked on without paying any attention to me. Because it wasn’t Dina. Or at least, that’s what the real Dina Dachs says, sitting opposite me at her tidy desk, wearing the same innocent smile as she had when she received the offer of a permanent position with the firm just a week ago. ‘No,’ she says, ‘I’ve haven’t left my desk since nine o’clock this morning.’ And then, shaking her head sympathetically, she adds, ‘I’m sorry. You’re mistaken.’
Yes. Now I understand that it must have been a mistake. Because, although I’m still astonished by the likeness, the girl in front of me is just an ordinary girl, well mannered, polite, an efficient secretary. And the woman, the unknown woman I’ve just run after down in the street, had a face that bore the scars of a lifetime of suffering, with a cold, enigmatic stare that never wavered, in spite of me shouting and the crowds shoving past me in a busy shopping street the day before a holiday. And that must have been what caught my attention, what made me think that the woman (who I thought was Dina) was having a turn, a momentary loss of identity and wasn’t quite all there. But now I know that I was only half-mistaken. Because the unknown woman, whoever she was, did need help. And I look at Dina once more, at her angora jumper and her winter coat that’s hanging up on the coat stand and I think of the woman again. She was wearing a green silk dress in the middle of December. A thin party dress with a plunging neckline and she had a violet necklace around her neck. Indifferent to the cold, the traffic, the crowds. I leave it at that. The fact that I’ve mistaken a mad woman for this girl makes me smile. And I shut myself away in my office, leave the shopping on a chair and start to go through my correspondence. It will be a busy month, but it’s only one month. And then I’ll be in Rome, with Eduardo. I’m happy. I have every reason in the world to be happy.
Neither of the two pairs of shoes fits me properly. One pair is too narrow, they pinch my feet and I have to scrunch my toes up. The problem with the others is the complete opposite. I have to scrunch up my toes as well but the end result is very different. The shoes are like barges refusing to be steered and won’t do as they’re told, my feet slipping and sliding inside them. It’s too late to go back home now so I decide that I’ll just have to choose between the two forms of torture. I opt for the second one, but I don’t do it lightly. Half an hour from now I have to go to a work dinner. That’s why I came to the office all dressed up and that’s also why I went to the shoe shop earlier. It was silly of me to buy them. I was in too much of a hurry. I’ll return the ones that are too narrow tomorrow. Because now I realise that I’m not in the least bit hungry and in a half hour’s time I’ll have to sit down and eat. I’ve had to suffer this form of torture ever since I became a successful executive, although it’s nothing like the mirror opposite (starving with hunger and having nothing to eat) and that often makes me feel ashamed. That’s why I choose the slidey gondola shoes (I can’t explain why but they seem better suited for what’s in store for me) and that’s how I turn up at the restaurant, right on the dot, dragging my feet and not in the least bit hungry. I feel sick when I look at the menu. It’s a ridiculous feeling. Boorish. Just as the ten dinner guests seem boorish too, talking about their secretaries in a conspiratorial tone and about their wives with a certain respectful admiration. Just as the shoes, which I slipped off a while ago and left on the carpet, seem ridiculous as well. All I can do is wait for the dinner to be over and done with and hope that at some point someone will mention Eduardo, the last time they saw Eduardo, how well everything’s turning out for Eduardo. Luckily it doesn’t take long for someone to oblige. They ask me about the branch we’ve just opened in Rome and (even though when I mention Eduardo I call him “the boss”) I feel a slight sense of relief at being able to think about him out loud, despite the fact that what I’m saying doesn’t actually have anything to do with what I’m really thinking. But they don’t know that. Nobody, not even our work colleagues, could have the faintest suspicion about my relationship with Eduardo. No one in the office and of course no one at home (I mean his home). And sometimes I like to think that even Eduardo himself isn’t too clear about our relationship. I don’t care what his wife would say if she knew about it, but I do care what Eduardo might think, and that’s my strongest weapon. Eduardo doesn’t think. He doesn’t think of me as his lover, even though that’s the word that would best describe our situation, and I’d rather he didn’t think of me as his lover. Eduardo is scared of words. Words and his wife. That’s why, for once in his life, he’s found the courage to cheat on her, without even managing to say to himself, ‘I’m cheating on her’. As far as the dinner guests are concerned I just went to the same college as my boss. I’m his right-hand woman. That’s what his wife thinks, too. And that’s what I want them to carry on thinking. What’s more, I can play the part to perfection. When anyone asks me who’ll be in charge of the office in Rome I shrug my shoulders. Eduardo’s over there, hiring a team. Eduardo will oversee the work for the first year, commuting between here and there. Then, when he finds the right person, he’ll leave it all in their hands. Most likely it will be an Italian. And I think about an apartment in Trastevere. A life of freedom with no schedules, no family, his wife thousands of kilometres away. Someone tells me that I seem to not be eating, I’ve hardly had a mouthful, and he trots out the line that “a woman who doesn’t enjoy her food…”, and I take the opportunity all of a sudden to remember an important call. A business call, naturally. My feet search out my abandoned shoes, I scrunch up my toes and leave the table. But instead of going to the telephone I go to the toilet. I splash some water on my face and dry myself off with a paper towel. Then, when I’m about to touch up my make-up, I see her again.
I’m sure I did. I’ve hardly eaten anything but then again I’ve had a lot to drink. But she was there for a moment, a few seconds. I saw her quite clearly. Her green dress, her violet necklace, her cold, enigmatic stare. I don’t know whether she opened the door and then left the minute she saw me. I don’t know if she was already there when I came in. It all happened so quickly. I was drying my face with the paper towel, trying out the three-way mirror, checking my hair, my face and she passed by the mirror in a green flash, like a cloud of breath evaporating in the cold air. I readjust the mirrors, opening and closing the wings and, still in a state of shock, I manage to capture her for a few seconds. The woman is there. Behind me, beside me, I’m not too sure. I turn around quickly but only to see the door closing. ‘She ran away when she saw me,’ I think. And I can’t help remembering those eyes. A cold stare – enigmatic – but also, I now realise, full of hatred.
Dina Dachs is just like any other girl. That’s what I tell myself in the morning and again in the afternoon. In the evening I take the file with all the details of the new employees home with me. There are five of them altogether. They all have similar CVs, they’re all the same age and they all have the same prospects for promotion in the firm. Dina has a slight advantage. She speaks three languages fluently, has excellent references and was remarkably adept at filling in our application form. That’s why she was the first candidate I chose. That’s why, I realise now, I remembered her name so clearly that day I ran down the street after the woman in green. But then Dina Dachs is a difficult name to forget, perhaps because it doesn’t seem like a real name. It makes me think of a pseudonym, a stage name, DINA DACHS emblazoned across the front of a variety theatre in gigantic letters, cabaret stars. I’m not sure what to think any more. With the constant din from the neighbours upstairs I can’t get my thoughts in order. I’ll complain about them tomorrow, I’ll have a word with the landlord or I’ll move. And tomorrow I’ll speak to Dina as well. Tactfully.
I’ve spent the whole day watching her, studying her, monitoring her phone calls. I haven’t come across anything out of the ordinary so far, nothing to make me suspect a double life, to explain her strange appearances, first in the street and then in the restaurant. Dina tells me she doesn’t go out in the evenings. She says so very calmly, not knowing that it’s a trap question. She doesn’t mind staying on at the office, doing overtime, getting everything up to date. She hardly knows anyone here in the city. She doesn’t have any brothers or sisters or even parents. No brothers or sisters? No, none. Then I ask her to make a reservation for this evening in a particular restaurant the name of which, for some strange reason, has slipped my mind. I tell her the street, the exact location, the revealing detail that it has carpeted walls and the toilets have three-way mirrors. Dina doesn’t usually eat out but it suddenly occurs to her that she could ask one of her work colleagues. I leave her to it and, discreetly, listen at the door. She doesn’t seem to be pretending. Then I dictate a letter to her, then a second one and a third. They’re made-up letters that won’t be going out to anyone. Their only purpose is to let me observe Dina, trap her in a corner, catch her out in some way. She knows that what I’m dictating to her is completely absurd. She also knows that I’m watching her all the time. At one point, flustered, she instinctively smoothes her skirt down and uncrosses her legs. I make an excuse that the room is full of smoke and open the window. It’s cold outside. It’s a biting cold, almost as icy as the silence that has just come down between the two of us. It’s all getting embarrassing. I’m going to turn around, tell her to go home, she’s done enough for today, she should go home. But I can’t find the words. For the first time in my life I get vertigo, looking down from the fifth floor. Because she’s there. I can’t believe my eyes, but the woman is standing there, on the street corner opposite. I can see her green dress, the violet necklace, her hesitant figure standing out amid the bustle of the street. She looks like a beggar. Her dress strap has slipped off one of her shoulders. Her hair’s in a mess, she’s all dishevelled, she looks like she’s going to freeze to death at any moment. And her arm’s raised, stock still. But from the way she’s standing she doesn’t look like she’s begging. Unless she’s mad. Or drunk. Or unless her arm is pointing at nobody else but me. Here, on the fifth floor, looking out of my office window.
‘Anything else?’ asks a tired voice behind me.
I ask Dina to come over to the window. I make room for her and point to the exact place where she should look. ‘The beggar woman,’ I say. ‘That beggar woman over there.’ A bus stops right in front of the woman in green. I wait for it to move off. The woman appears now and again behind the cars. ‘Have a good look. There she is. No, she’s gone now. Wait…’ Without realising it I’ve clutched her shoulder. She gets annoyed and moves away from the window.
‘I can’t see a thing,’ she says.
She’s angry, cross. As she leaves she does something that no other secretary would have dared to do. She snaps the door shut behind her, almost slams it.
I can’t discuss what’s worrying me with anyone. Eduardo’s still in Rome, with his wife. I know it’s a consolation prize, a non-event, a clever tactic to enable him to engage in his forthcoming project without a guilty conscience. But I also know I mustn’t call him. His wife will be with him. She’ll be in the hotel, in the office, everywhere. I can’t confide in anyone else either because I’m not sure how to go about it. I briefly think about talking to Cesca, the firm’s longest-serving employee. Cesca likes and respects me. But Cesca likes to snoop around, poke her nose into other people’s business, pass around comments, spread gossip. Even so, if the woman in green appears again tomorrow, why would it seem strange if I asked Cesca to look out of the window? ‘Look at that woman. She’s been loitering around here for days now. It’s as if something strange is happening to her.’ And then Cesca, putting on her glasses, would tell me that she’s just a beggar woman, there’s so many tramps on the streets around this time of the year, maybe she’s mad, or a lush, or a prostitute. Maybe all three. And then, looking more closely, Cesca would realise that she reminds her of someone. She can’t quite put her finger on who, but she does remind her of someone. Or she’d call the concierge. And the concierge would go out to investigate. Or perhaps there’s no need. ‘She’s mentally disturbed,’ she might say. ‘Either that or she’s faking it. She always turns up around here at Christmas. People give her money because they’re scared of her.’ But I haven’t seen anyone stop to give her any money. In fact, from up here on the fifth floor, all I’ve seen is her down there in her green dress and her arm raised, pointing towards me, asking me for something, telling me something. And I’ve also seen Dina. Next to me, leaning on the window sill while I pointed towards the beggar woman. I say this to myself several times. The beggar woman down there, in the street. Dina next to me. This should be enough to reassure me and to put it all down to pure chance, a coincidence, a striking resemblance, to realise that it’s impossible for the same woman to be in two places at once. But then there’s that look in her eyes. Brushing my arm off her shoulder, flushing with anger, snapping the door shut. It’s all a question of degree, I reflect. Because Dina Dachs’ look of irritation could so easily become the woman in green’s angry stare. A cold, enigmatic stare. Full of hatred.
But I can’t blame her. For the past few days all I’ve done is shower her with work, telling her to do one thing and then the opposite, calling her into my office or bursting into hers and making sure she’s still there, buried under a mountain of paperwork, grappling with accounts, documents, reports. It reassures me to know she’s busy and that it will still take her ages to finish the day’s tasks, that she’ll probably be the last one to leave the office at night. And meanwhile I think about the woman in green. I wait at the window for the woman in green to appear, holding the telephone in my hand, ready to call Cesca or the concierge. But not Dina. Dina’s not like the other girls. I’ve realised that after spending so much time watching her. Dina’s proud and dignified, and God only knows how long she’s going to endure the pressure I’m putting her under without facing me out. I know that I’m beginning to seriously annoy her and I also now know that Dina’s much more charming than she comes off as at first. She’s one of those calm, reserved women who win you over with time. So I confine Dina to her office and wait. Staring out of the office window, I wait.
She doesn’t make the appearance I was expecting the next day nor the one after that. All the work that I can’t manage I delegate to Dina. From my place at the window I can hear her typing frenetically in her office next door, but I’m not thinking about her anymore and I don’t care what she thinks about my behaviour either. All my senses are attuned to the prospective appearance of the woman in green. Maybe, I think, the poor amnesiac has got her memory back. Or she’s frozen to death. Or the local police have taken her away. I sit in my armchair and decide to call Cesca. ‘I don’t feel well,’ I’m going to say. ‘You’re in charge until tomorrow.’ But I don’t even get to dial her number. Suddenly I feel cold. It’s a damp, biting coldness behind me and it makes me react, realise that I really do feel ill and that it’s sheer madness to keep the window open in the middle of December. A gust of wind makes the pile of papers flutter around the room. I haven’t given that pile of papers the slightest thought for days and I’m not going to be distracted from my mission now. I turn around suddenly, although I already suspect that the sudden rush of cold has little to do with the bad weather at this time of the year or with the state of my nerves. The woman is down there. Across the road, on the corner. She seems resolute, determined, about to cross the road towards me. She dodges between the cars as if by a miracle. With her arm raised, always pointing towards me. The way she’s gone downhill is pathetic. Her green dress is in tatters, leaving her breasts on show and, suddenly, she’s not so much walking as staggering, unsteady and grotesque. What could have made me think that this monstrosity looked like Dina? I try to get a better look and leaning even further over the windowsill I notice something green on one of her feet, only one of them, and then I understand why she’s started to hobble. She’s lost the other shoe by the side of the road. But nobody picks it up, nobody kicks it away, nobody trips over it. Nobody, in short, takes pity on this poor woman and takes her to a place of safety. City life is inhumane, cruel, pitiless. Frozen stiff, I close the window and dial Cesca’s number. ‘I’m exhausted. Could you take over until tomorrow, please?’ And I go home, take a sleeping pill and, for once, not even the neighbours upstairs can stop me falling asleep.
It’s the same story every year on 23rd December. ‘I’m feeling exhausted, Cesca. I shan’t come in tomorrow.’ And every Christmas Eve I do the same running around, the same searching, the same wandering around the shops and department stores clutching a list of all the employees’ names. It’s one of the firm’s traditions. A childish ritual that starts with Cesca pretending to be worried about me supposedly not feeling very well and the wink I can imagine at the other end of the telephone line, then the “what will I get this year?” that I detect from everyone I come across as I leave my office, put on my coat and let the concierge open the door for me. On 27th December they will all find a gift on their desk. Something personal, that hits the spot, an inspired choice that was all down to me, but everyone without exception will thank Eduardo for it, as if they knew that he’s the one who always takes the most delight in this childish game, even though, like now, he happens to be thousands of kilometres away and, as usual, doesn’t have a clue about what they like, what they might need or what they might be interested in. I remember Cesca’s spectacles. She’s always losing them and they turn up hidden in some corner or in the most unlikely places, and I buy her a silver chain. After her, there’s the caretaker, the concierge, the cleaning lady, the messenger boy, the personnel manager, the new secretaries. I suddenly realise that I scarcely know anything about the secretaries, having focussed on just one of them. And I think about Dina. I wonder if perhaps she deserves a bigger present. Something extra to apologise for unfairly taking advantage of her, bullying her, bossing her around.
But wouldn’t that make her even more confused? I decide that all five girls in the office have very similar jobs and all of them will receive a similar gift. I go into department stores, perfumeries, record shops. I’ve got all the cards in my bag, signed by Eduardo and with the employees’ names already written out. That way I can put them together with the presents as I go along, so there’s no risk of any mix ups and in two days’ time everyone can show their surprise and admiration and gratitude for Eduardo’s attention to detail, as if it were the first time ever. The same as every year.
It’s bitterly cold on this December afternoon but I’ve always liked cold December afternoons. Despite the time of year and in spite of the shops’ bright lights, the Christmas carols and the profusion of Christmas trees with all their decorations, there aren’t too many people on the streets. So I can amble along and peruse the shop windows quite calmly, in the same good mood as when I woke up this morning. Sleeping pills. That’s the solution. An artificial sleep has let me recover from all those hectic, tiring days. Now I can begin to see things in a different light. Eduardo was expecting too much, leaving me in charge of the office for three weeks. I’m not up to it. I don’t have the right temperament. My nerves were shot. Who knows what blunders I could have made? But I’m happy now. For the first time in days I feel happy and all of a sudden I realise I’m singing along to a Christmas carol that’s being spat out by some loudspeaker in a nearby shop. People must think I’m mad. I burst out laughing. And that’s when, like a recurring nightmare, I see her again.
I’m not scared anymore and I don’t feel tired. I’ve just had enough. I’ve had it up to here. I’m going to follow her, get a good look at her, reassure myself that she’s just a tramp, ask her if she needs any help. Now she’s leaving the well-lit avenue and turning down a dark passageway. I run and almost catch up with her, then I hold back, keeping a safe distance, watching her walk. She’s barefoot, gliding across the cobbles like a cat. Her hair is a tangled mess. Her dress is in tatters. I don’t call her by her name anymore because I don’t know her name. Suddenly she stops dead, as if she were waiting for me. In spite of the dark I realise that we aren’t in a passageway, as I’d thought, it’s a dead end. But it’s too late to turn back now. My inertia has made me bump into her. ‘Excuse me,’ I say. ‘Just a moment, please. Listen.’ And then I’m mystified to find a piece of green silk in my hand, a bit of moth-eaten material that disintegrates between my fingers, and she turns and smiles at me. But it’s not a smile, it’s a grimace. An awful rictus grin. And her breath! I’m enveloped in a fetid stench. I feel sick, my senses cloud over. When I come to I’m alone, leaning against a wall, with the shopping bags scattered across the ground. I’m not surprised to find them still there. I pick them up one by one. Carefully, almost fondly. Now I know who the woman is. And I think of Dina again. Poor Dina Dachs. Shut away in her office, going back to her apartment, walking along the street. Because Dina, wherever she happens to be at the moment, still doesn’t know that she’s been dead for a very long time.
Or maybe I can still stop it. I forget all about the dictates of reason, which have turned out to be useless, and for the first time in my life I listen to a voice that comes from somewhere deep inside myself. Dina, even though she may not have died yet, is dead. The woman in green is the dead Dina. I’ve seen her decomposing, her impossible appearances in busy streets, in three-way mirrors, in dead end streets. I think of mirages on a hot beach. Maybe it hasn’t happened yet but it’s going to happen. And it’s fallen to me, by some inexplicable chance of fate, to bear witness to these strange events. It doesn’t stretch the imagination to conclude that I’m the only one who can do something about it. And I don’t feel frightened. It’s strange, but I don’t feel frightened, just resolute. So I do what I always do on every Christmas Eve. I leave the employees’ presents in the caretaker’s office, I check that none of the cards have come unstuck, remind him of exactly what needs to be done in two days’ time. The caretaker, as ever, tells me not to worry and sends me off, pretending he doesn’t know that one of the parcels is for him, then he locks up his office and goes home. But I don’t go home. I go outside and I walk a short way down the street, but there’s a light on up on the fifth floor and I know who’s there, typing away, sorting out files, working overtime again as a result of my ignorance and confusion. I open the street door with my key and call the lift. When I get to the fifth floor landing I hesitate for a moment. But I don’t ring the bell. All the lights are out except in one office. I go in quietly, cautiously, because the last thing I want to do is give her a shock. So I knock on her office door and wait.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ says Dina. But she’s really thinking, ‘Not you, again.’
Dina has her coat on and there are piles of papers, letters and files on her desk. ‘I was just about to leave,’ she adds. She opens her handbag and puts in a couple of letters, snaps it shut and then, since I haven’t moved away from the doorway, she says, ‘I needn’t remind you it’s Christmas Eve.’
I draw on all my strength and ask her to stay on for a moment. To sit down. To allow me a few minutes to tell her something. Dina obeys me resentfully. With a sigh of annoyance, weariness, disgust. She drums her fingers on the desk top.
‘I’m meeting friends on the other side of town in fifteen minutes. Please be quick.’
I’m not put out by her arrogance. Nothing that poor Dina does or says could upset me now. But I can’t find the words. How can I explain that it’s not worth rushing? How can I make her understand that, sometimes, time doesn’t follow the usual rules? Maybe it’s all an illusion. We see things as we’ve been taught to see them. Her desk, for example. Can we be sure that it’s a desk with four legs and a desk top? Who can be sure that in fifteen minutes’ time she’ll be on the other side of town? A quarter of an hour. It’s just a convention, isn’t it? A way of measuring, pigeon-holing, tying down or controlling things that are beyond us, things we don’t understand. An artifice to reassure us, so we don’t ask too many questions.
‘I’d appreciate it,’ she says, noticeably irritated, ‘if you would try to be more specific.’
But I can’t. I tell her that I’ve just seen her in the street. ‘Again?’ she says, with a sarcastic sneer. ‘Don’t you think you’re becoming totally obsessed?’ Any moment now she’s going to explode, force me to leave the office, threaten to call the police. That’s why I need to be quick. Yes, I saw her. Today and yesterday too, and the other day in the restaurant, and that first time in the busy street. At first I thought that she had something against me, was following me, searching me out. Later, I thought that it wasn’t her, but someone who looked strikingly like her.
Dina looks at me. She’s running out of patience. I insist that she stays a little while longer. I take off a glove and put it back on. I’m lost for words again. I don’t know how to tell her. I don’t how to let her know that the process is irreversible. That less than an hour ago, in the dead end alleyway, I saw the grimace of death on her mouth with no lips, her fetid stench, her decomposing flesh. All I can manage is to stutter out, ‘Be very careful, please. Maybe we can still stop it. Or delay it, delay it for as long as possible.’
Dina has got to her feet.
‘I’m sorry. Everything you’ve just told me is very interesting. But I have to go. Maybe you don’t have any plans for tonight, but I do.’
Dina hates me. She loathes me or thinks I’m mad. All I can do is let things run their course. I get up too, convinced that any explanation, any warning, is pointless. I feel small, insignificant but at the same time presumptuous and arrogant. I wanted to change the pages of destiny, but this poor girl’s destiny has already been written.
‘Why are you looking at me like that, if you don’t mind me asking?’
Dina’s indignant, standing in front of me, with her handbag over her shoulder and the office keys jangling in her hand. Maybe I’ve made a mistake. But when she slung her handbag over her shoulder so brusquely, her coat gaped open for a second or two and I caught sight of something that for all the world I would rather not have seen.
‘You’re wearing a green dress. A green silk dress.’ Dina Dachs’ eyes are spitting fire. ‘For the record, your position in the firm doesn’t give you the right to…’
I’ve no idea what she’s saying anymore. There’s something in her voice, in her tone, that defies any response.
‘And you can stop spying on me, following me around all the time. You give me the creeps. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.’
Now her words are coming out in a torrent, compulsively.
‘Whatever it is you want from me you’re not going to get it. And if you’re interested in my clothes, well here you are. A green silk dress. Brand new. I hope you like it.’
Dina has taken off her coat, brusquely. Now she looks like the same woman I’ve been seeing again and again over the past few days. There’s only one detail missing: a small accessory that she must have hidden away somewhere. I can picture her in the lift, putting on the necklace in front of the mirror. Or in the taxi. Or the bathroom in the office.
‘Your handbag,’ I say, ‘let me look in your handbag.’
Now, for the first time, she seems frightened. I try to do the impossible: persuade her that she shouldn’t go out into the street dressed like that. That everything I’m doing is for her own good. But words are not enough. Now, more than ever, I know they’re not enough. I don’t know whether I’m going mad or obeying the voice of destiny. Because I grab her and shake her. And she fights back. She clings to her handbag and fights back and tries to open a penknife. She’s frightened and won’t listen to reason. So now, resolute, I have no choice but to stop her, to reveal the awful truth, to shout at her, ‘You’re dead. Do you still not get it? You’re dead!’ But Dina’s not fighting back anymore. Her eyes are staring at me wide with shock and her body slips from my grasp down to the floor, powerless, terrified. There’s no time to waste and I snatch her handbag. I search desperately for a case or a box containing the necklace; maybe without the necklace none of what’s been predicted will come to pass. All I find are sheets of paper. Sheets of paper that are of no interest to me, that I ignore, throw away. Sheets of paper the exact contents of which I’ll discover in two days’ time, together with everyone else in the office.
And then Cesca will shake her head sadly. And I’ll hear rumours, footsteps, I’ll feel cold. The electricity bill, a note pad, a letter… Dear Eduardo… words that I remember well because they’re Dina’s. She’s always spying on me, following me around all the time. She gives me the creeps… And others I recognise even more clearly because they’re mine, even though the letter is signed Dina Dachs and I myself have not yet dared to write them down on paper. I think about Trastevere. Our apartment in Trastevere, counting the days until we meet in Rome… Memories that I don’t remember. I shall never forget our first night, in the hotel on the seafront… Absurd, ridiculous, obscene sentences. Promises of love intermingled with the sound of footsteps, keys, doors opening and closing, the neighbours in the apartment upstairs moving furniture, a man in a white coat telling me, ‘You’re exhausted. Relax.’ And, above all, Cesca. Cesca looking at me, full of compassion.
But that won’t happen for another two days. Right now I’m kneeling down, determined to prevent the inevitable, holding the empty handbag, surrounded by sheets of paper that I’ve not the slightest interest in reading, that I sweep aside angrily with my hand. I remember, ‘In fifteen minutes’ time, on the other side of town.’ And then a light comes on. It’s as if she were there, at a party, a gathering, at midnight and people are exchanging presents. But Dina will never receive the fateful gift. I’ve managed to frighten her, warn her. ‘I’ve stopped it happening,’ I say. I look at my hands. Still in their gloves. Still shaky, still possessed by a strength that I never knew I had. And then I look at Dina, on the floor, with her eyes still bulging in terror, in shock, at what she must have thought was the vision of a madwoman. But Dina doesn’t move. She’s wearing a green dress. Green dress, green shoes . . . And only now, as I get up slowly, do I notice the bruising around her throat and I understand the cold truth that nothing is missing. ‘It’s too soon yet,’ I say out loud, even though no one can hear me. ‘But by tomorrow, or the day after, it will have become a violet necklace.’
The transfer began at two in the morning, while a northerly wind blustered furiously outside. Some of the prisoners didn’t even have time to dress before the Federal agents burst into their cells. Shoving and kicking, they forced them to line up in the corridors, cover their faces with their arms and parade in front of a wall of soldiers who threatened to shoot them if they even dared to look up at their peers. All of them were shivering, some of them were worried about the welcome they might receive at their destination. Others were more confident; they’d already made arrangements at their new prison. Since mid-December, it had been rumoured that their current one would be emptied for a new Mel Gibson film, but this was flatly denied by the authorities even after the declaration of the closure of the facility due to its unsuitability for human habitation had been published in the state’s official gazette.
Almost a thousand prisoners were herded into rented buses and escorted by an army of Humvees to other prisons across the state. The doors of Allende prison remained open and dozens of women crowded around, waiting for dawn so they could find out where their loved ones had been taken.
Rodrigo was sent to the empty prison to check out the cells and photograph the graffiti the prisoners had left on the walls. Rats had taken over the halls, facing down any member of the public cleaning staff foolish enough to try to shoo them away.
When he remembers the sight, Rodrigo wrinkles his nose as though the stink were still in his nostrils.
“It was a pigsty. I don’t know how so many people could possibly have lived there, how they could eat at the stalls claiming to serve ‘tasty tacos’. It was so disgusting. You crossed the exercise yard and headed into a kind of nightmarish market. The wood was rotting, swarming with flies and cockroaches. It stank of drains and disinfectant.”
Rodrigo watched the police remove televisions, fans, cameras, and even industrial machinery. He also saw the women crying with receipts in their hands. The appliances they’d bought for their relatives and hadn’t even finished paying for weren’t on their way to their new cells.
“I spoke to the representative from Social Rehabilitation and asked him if the prison had closed because of Gibson’s film and he said no, it was being closed for health reasons. The fact that the transfer was happening at the same time as the start of filming was a complete coincidence.”
On the thirteenth of January, 2010, Fidel Herrera Beltrán announced to a conference of legal experts that several organized gangs had taken over the Allende prison and were planning a riot during which several prisoners would have their throats slit. Although he never identified the gangs in question, he insinuated that it was linked to the death a few months before of the founder of the Zetas, Braulio Arellano, aka El Gonzo or El Z 20, in Soledad de Doblado, a small rural town close to the port of Veracruz.
Although some protested (Representative Sergio Vaca, for example, described the transfer as a ‘Fidelism’ and declared that he would crucify himself naked if the building were ever sold. A transaction that, fortunately for everyone, never took place) the defunct prison was ‘loaned’ to Mel Gibson for the filming of How I Spent my Summer Vacation (which was released to little fanfare or acclaim in Mexico in 2012 under the name Atrapen al Gringo – Get the Gringo). The sum that Gibson paid for the loan was never disclosed.
And when the Municipal Director-General for Cinema was asked whether the prisoner transfer was carried out at the request of the Australian actor, he said, coincidentally, that the eviction of the prison and filming happening at the same time was a ‘complete coincidence’.
In early February 2010, Lalo had a day off so he went to a casting session for Mel Gibson’s film. He knew that they were looking for dark-skinned people with tattoos who’d been in prison. Lalo only met the first requirement, but he still got the gig. After queuing for five hours, they told him to come to the prison on the twenty-ninth of April at five in the afternoon and that he’d be paid four hundred pesos.
When he arrived, he learned that he was supposed to play a ‘civilian’. The extras also included ‘police officers’, ‘soldiers’, ‘prisoners’, and ‘reporters’. A friend of his, Eliseo, would play a prisoner: he’d ‘stayed’ at the Allende for a couple of weeks for stealing copper wire and the experience had secured him a role. Lalo recognized him among the extras waiting to head into the prison and went over. Eliseo confided his fears: “Hey man, I’m fucked up. I’ve been here before, I don’t want to go back… what if this time I don’t get out?”
Eliseo pointed to the extras he remembered from when it was a real prison: they were all young and skinny with scruffy hair and red eyes. Eliseo pointed to a kid covered in tattoos: “They call that dude the Devil. He’s not even twenty and he’s killed about five people. He must have been let out to work on the film. Mel wants everything to be as authentic as possible.” Lalo was terrified. He chatted to a fat woman dressed in a police uniform who turned out to be a real officer. She told him that a few hours ago she’d been recruited along with a few dozen colleagues. Her superiors had told them that they were being sent on a ‘special operation’. When they got off the bus, they found out that they were going to be extras in a Mel Gibson movie. Lalo looked around him. Giggling nervously, he realized that he couldn’t tell the officers from the ex-cons.
Filming began. The production team gathered everyone in the yard. The instructions were to act out a riot. They had to pretend it was an ‘ordinary visiting day’ and then throw themselves to the ground when they heard shots. They were doing that until three in the morning. Lalo’s stomach was red from rolling around on the cement floor. Then the film team split them up: some (Lalo included) were supposed to huddle together in the prison yard, the others were supposed to run into the surrounding passages. They were filmed from a helicopter. When the sky started to lighten, the crew began to take down the lights and sent everyone home.
They headed down Calle Zaragoza to Rayón and turned onto Independencia, the narrow avenue that runs in front of the cathedral and the municipal palace. There were two hundred of them, women mostly: old, chubby, their skin plump and shiny as dark fruit. They waved their scarves and shouted angrily for the restoration of government support – buses and food – so they could visit their relatives in the prisons to which they’d been relocated following the closure of Allende prison in January 2010. By May, the government programmes had been terminated: the ruling party candidate Javier Duarte’s campaign needed all the resources it could get.
More banners and slogans demanded greater empathy from the judiciary, who’d more or less suspended six hundred and fifty cases ‘until further notice’. Plenty accused Gibson of having swindled the government.
“Go fuck your mother, Mel,” screamed an old woman followed by a girl with green eyes in short shorts. “I was promised seven hundred pesos a day for me and my granddaughter, and so far they haven’t paid us half that,” she complained, red with anger and sunburn.
“How much did Mel pay for Allende?” someone said further back. “They say a million dollars…”
“No, it was much more than that, a lot…”
“Negro took it all for the elections…”
“No, no, Negro wouldn’t do that…”
“Don’t blame the government: it’s the judges and rehabilitation people who are the problem, you know?” chided a woman dressed entirely in red, from her fancy trainers to the tips of her hair.
“They say that after the transfer some people were never seen again, they escaped, or disappeared, like the guy who killed Yunes’ cousin,” murmured a young woman with long hair. “Some of the prisoners haven’t even been brought to trial, like that lady who stole a bike. She’s been locked up waiting for two years.”
“Poor thing,” they commiserated.
“At least I know that my guy deserves it…”
I’ve always enjoyed everyday violence. I remember one incident in particular: broken glass in the dark. I’m not certain that it’s a real memory but when I relive the scene, I find it hard to contain my pleasure: the object falling, shattering to pieces. The crash made and then the whirlwind of voices in the middle of the night. My mother turning on the light to reveal the glinting shards of glass. Her open palm swooping through the air. The sound of the slap, which was very different from the sound of the glass hitting the ground, and the feeling that came with realizing that this was all part of the ceremony. A form of violence that begins with glass and ends with pain inflicted by a mother upon her child.
Many years have passed and the glass, mother and shards are long gone, as is the boy I once was, his face still stinging from the slap. Now I live in Ehio with the rest of the community. Violence is present in this town, but harmony reigns too. Amalia comes by at intervals and we love Amalia very much.
We know when she’s coming back because the air grows thick, the horses whinny and the children scream for no reason. Sometimes they’re the first to know. At first, we think they’re crying because they have a toothache, or they’re just being fussy, but then the shutters start to bang against the walls, the weather vane begins to squeak and we know she’s coming.
When Amalia comes, the red earth on the path starts to shift, it lifts up in mini-tornados and spreads through the air.
When Amalia comes, some of us start to sing.
When Amalia comes, we cross ourselves and give thanks for the wind. We’re quick to put out our offerings before she reaches the houses.
In the fifteen months since she last came, we’ve barely had time to replenish the livestock, reinforce the foundations, rebuild the wall and make holes for all the people who have joined us in the last year. Cristian and the younger men and women built double roofs for all the houses and the rest of us took care of the food and water. The children drew coloured lines along the road so she can find her way. Everyone in town has chosen their offering: embroidered textiles, plaited hair, precious metals, wooden figurines and a few carved teeth. This year, the people in the third house are going to offer up their third child: the youngest one. He’s sick. They’re giving him to her so she can sweep him up and away to a place without pain. They believe; I’ve heard them whisper it to each other after the meetings, that Amalia is the invisible arm of God.
We leave everything in the road and make a big effort with the presentation and layout so she’ll be able to see all the offerings and be tempted to take them with her. But usually, she just takes everything. The years when she leaves something behind, the person who made the offering has to go so as not to bring misfortune down upon the entire community. This year, our daughter Sally decided that our offering should be Gianfredo, our bull, so we’ve painted him red and tied him to a post decorated with flowers. He’s a little anxious. He won’t stop mooing.
We still have time to watch the first trees disappear in the distance. We all stand together and hold hands as we watch her – a ghostly white shadow moving around apparently at random, but we know she’s coming towards us. She always does. We watch the earth move and the first carts get sucked into the funnel. The lighter objects are lifted into the air and spin around in concentric circles.
“Oh, messenger from heaven, Amalia, Lady of the Wind: accept our offerings.”
After the prayer, we let go of each other’s hands and lock up the animals we were able to catch in time. Then we run for shelter behind our stone and cement wall, our fort, and make sure that everyone has a hole to watch through. We stand still and silent. We don’t speak because we like to listen to her approach, the cracking windows, thousands of objects breaking, the first house collapsing. We hear the screams – weak, sickly screams – of the ailing child from the third house. I look at the family and see that they’re crying with smiles on their faces. It might just be my mind playing tricks on me but I think I can hear Gianfredo too. Whether I can or not, there comes a time when she is all we can hear. We all creep closer to our hole to watch. No-one wants to miss it.
Inside Amalia are all the things we’ve left in the road: three cows, a bull, five horses, a pack of cards, a bath full of milk, a sick child, a sculpture made of fruit, a string instrument, a collection of books, and plenty of food and water. There are also all the things that we didn’t leave but that Amalia has taken anyway: rocks, trees, carts, whole houses, fish from the river, a few errant sheep, a wild boar she must have found somewhere, and five dead people whose bodies look as though they’re being borne aloft on a cloud of flies.
They say – I’ve never seen it myself – that when you’re right underneath, right at the point where it all begins, that it’s like a tunnel leading directly up into the sky and that at that moment it’s completely quiet and calm, all you can hear is the music of the floating things. Everything slows down. The people this happens to find it to be a life-changing experience. They are looked upon with new respect from their peers. I’d like to experience it one day myself, to hear the void and understand that sense of fulfillment they talk about. Maybe what you hear inside isn’t silence but glass breaking in the darkness and the sound of a good, hard slap. I don’t know yet. Maybe next year, when Amalia comes back.
Mojito sniffs through the bars of the gate. He gets bored and comes back with muddy feet. I pet his fur. The color of tea with milk, Brenda says, as the dog licks my hands.
She needs me to take care of him while she’s away. I’m hoping she’ll offer to let me stay at her house for the two months, but I don’t say anything and she doesn’t suggest it. Would I take a peek at her panties? Yes.
I try to count the number of living things I have in my apartment. No ficus or pet or even a cactus. Only bacteria and the rotting vegetables in my fridge.
I agree. The bag of dog food weighs more than the dog.
His whines and need for affection keep me up and when I finally fall asleep I sink into an elastic and sweaty confusion that there’s no escaping.
My dreams look like a scene from Counter Strike. The terrorism of old loves. You want to rescue your hostages but it’s too late.
Headshot and out of bed to go to work.
Eight hours in the office means eight hours on the internet. You can’t talk about that.
You can talk about the open carcasses of the computers, the heat of the server room, the coffee maker that sometimes spits out dirt, the shrillness of each ring, message, and alarm that a person hears every day.
The security guard shakes my hand after I swipe the magnetic card. Aníbal spends the night in the building; he’ll be getting off work soon. I know that he hides a mattress in the basement, next to the service bathrooms.
On his netbook he watches tutorials on how to make origami. More animals than flowers.
He makes them out of the gold wrappers of the cigarettes he smokes leisurely all night or quickly, secretly during the day. Every once in a while me gives me one of his animals.
The smoke sticks to his fingers and then to the paper and then to me.
I help with the systems. There are a lot of systems and my hand dips into all of them. Always under different users, like a glove that changes color. I imagine my work like a hand tying up cables inside a bucket of Jell-O.
I’m also the one who checks what my co-workers search on Google. Some are interested in clothes or in some zodiac sign or soccer team. In my opinion our individual identities are defined by the terms we search for.
This week I’m “can you eat banana peel,” “angelface redhead on the beach,” “song that starts with biribiribiribibí,” and “name for the white part of your eye.”
I also Google my name. It relaxes me. It gives me certainty. It’s objective: that’s what I am. My boss on the other hand reads about weightlifting, cocks, and fishing. He also has braces on his teeth. According to his CV he’s one year younger than me. One Friday working late he told me that he wanted to leave everything behind and move to Italy.
But I’ve never seen that in his searches.
There are people who don’t even dare to type their dreams in Google.
The secretary calls and tells me to go up to the boss’s office on the top floor. I say I’m on my way. She’s the vegetarian version of Catwoman who keeps an Excel spreadsheet on what she steals from petty cash. I don’t read her e-mails. One time when I used the boss’s bathroom there was a strong smell of raw fish from the trashcan. The lid was on.
The boss only calls me when his computer freezes or his antivirus expires; and also when they want to scold me for something I did right but they think I did wrong. All systems leak.
Of course only the worst ones sink.
The air-conditioning is always on. The janitors move around the building from computer to computer with buckets and jugs. I stare at the painting of Rosas until the secretary gives me permission to enter the boss’s office.
Without even greeting me, my boss asks me if I want to grow. I say yes. Perfect, he smiles, great. His braces sparkle like a white dwarf star. He hands me a Blackberry and says I’m a good kid. That’s it.
I need an app that will completely uninstall my expectations.
The rest of the workday slides by. I want to configure my Gmail account on my new Blackberry but it keeps giving me an error message. I restart and it seems to have been successfully installed, but then the error message again. I take out the battery, I put the battery back in and turn it on.
Error. I shouldn’t have gotten my hopes up. In systems there’s never room to grow.
At least I manage to set the Tetris theme as my ringtone.
I leave work tired but as I begin to walk I feel my energies return. A little bit of air, unexpected cold, quick trip to the corner store where I make the rounds down the same aisles as always. I pay with exact change. I’m happy when I unlock my door on the first try.
The first thing I do when I get inside is turn on the computer. Then I turn on the light, the gas for the heater, I open Chrome, I start iTunes, I find a yogurt in the back of the fridge and shuffle takes me directly to Brenda’s favorite song. She must already be on the road, driving at night, the last CD spinning infinitely in her CD player.
Mojito falls asleep under my jacket.
Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. The repetition unravels until all of the updates are exhausted. And then again. And Again.
News, torrents, weather forecast, subtitles, 24 hour pharmacies, movie show times. Music. Gmail Facebook Twitter Tumblr. Update. Delete. Share. Send.
Surfing the internet is like a workout routine.
Sometimes it feels like military training.
Just as I’m about to go to bed I get an e-mail. Not the one I was hoping for, never the one I was hoping for. One of my co-workers is mad about something that I supposedly did but I’m sure I didn’t do.
I mark it as spam.
Dried tea bags on my desk at work. Eye drops. Flash drives. Origami. Broken pens. A Plastic fork from the sweet and greasy Chinese takeout. The box my speakers came in filled now with I don’t know what. Breadcrumbs.
Systems are so clean in comparison, even when they don’t work.
But they never don’t work like they didn’t work today.
The chat windows in my Gtalk are full of sentences I didn’t type.
“YOU LIKE TO PUT YOUR FINGER IN YOUR ASS AND SMELL IT. FAG. AIRPLANE GREASE FAT-ASS.” Et cetera.
I try to avoid it but it’s impossible: as much as I move the cursor or sign out of Gtalk the ghost continues to send messages from my username. The majority of my contacts respond aggressively.
Some understand that it’s not me.
I try to explain to my friends what’s happening, but I don’t even know what’s happening. Most of them say okay. Not much else: okay. One of them tells me to post a message on my Facebook wall; I do it. Another one suggests I change my account; no.
I take lunch late and there are hardly any restaurants still open. As I chew a milanesa and cheese sandwich I realize that in my mass apology I must have also written to the person responsible for the messages. A co-worker, most likely.
I search the histories up to the last cleaning, but it’s too late. It’s no surprise. Links break. Servers break. Users break.
It starts with e-mails I never sent and continues with new avatars on my Facebook wall. I’m not sure if I should erase them; a lot of people have even liked them. The images came from my Tumblr account, but under a username no one knows. On the internet there are always traces for people who want to follow you.
I change all my passwords. I write them down in a notebook so I won’t forget them; my handwriting looks as foreign to me as what’s being written in my Gtalk.
For the first few days I forget I changed the passwords until sign-in fails.
Brenda took several days to get online or at least to sign on to Gtalk. It annoyed me to have to wait around in the same space that they’ve been hijacking, with me inside. There were many false alarms: whenever the computer would make any noise, like a hiccup, and it sounded like someone was trying to chat with me. Finally my status isn’t invisible and Brenda talks to me when she finally connects. She just asks me about the dog; but it makes me happy anyway.
She says that she received a pretty strange message from me on her phone, but she didn’t want to respond. It makes me sad somehow. How could she not have known that it wasn’t really from me? Then she starts telling me about her trip and we drop the subject but I’m nervous the whole time that they’ll take over my account in the middle of our conversation.
As the photos she sends upload I think about how every time we see each other she lets me use her computer, without passwords, without protests, without erasing the history. If I’d stayed at her house I’d be safe I think.
She likes to search recipes for carrot casseroles. The rest stays in her imagination. I would like one day to be able to Google “What does Brenda think about when she masturbates” and see the results appear in my browser.
Every once in a while my boss contacts me via Blackberry to tell me to hurry up with the systems I’m managing. Nothing or no one has written to him yet, but it’s possible that the secretary told him about it. I know they talk about me behind my back in the office because they talk to me to my face less and less every day.
At least Mojito barks at me when I get home from work.
Then I remember that he must be hungry.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to recognize that this is happening to me, and not some stranger who’s telling his story on a webpage devoted to secrets. I wonder if the excessive light of the monitors might be driving me mad.
I need an app that impedes me from writing this at night.
I need an app that impedes me from reading during the day.
As I shower I think: I could also track the person who’s tracking me. Something always filters through. I copy all the e-mails, all the chat messages, and all the posts into one document. I use an Excel spreadsheet to record the origin and content of each message.
It has to be a group of people that secretly hate me. I look at the faces of my co-workers and I imagine them thinking up the messages together.
Even the ones who were the victims of the joke.
Some are just insults to my contacts, gratuitous but well-reasoned and true. But there are also the miserable ones. As if my account were drunk with a score to settle and all the time in the world.
The guy who took a drink from a water bottle that was in the trash. The girl who peed in a trashcan because the bathrooms were occupied. The man who has to take his dates to hotel rooms because he still lives with his mom. The lady who’s antsy all day because she has anal parasites that stick to her underwear. The guy who has purple marks on his hands because he bites them when he’s nervous.
Admit that she doesn’t like you. She thinks you’re ugly. All she sees is your bald head. She likes dick, little guy, you know what she does with your presents? Did you really think that you could win her over with those ingenious e-mails? You’re so small that you can’t see how pathetic you are. When you smile you look like you have Down’s. Even your mom has more sex than you. She gives you pecks but with him she watches movies where they stick things in their asses. Everyone knows you’re so desperate that you show up at the clubs you know she’s going to and then say it was a coincidence. Look in the mirror, your crossed eyes, your hands the size of your feet. You’re teeth are so yellow it looks like you eat plaque for breakfast. We’re not laughing with you, we’re laughing at you.
I wake up feeling like there’s a telephone pole stuck in my back. I don’t know how I manage to get up, but I do. I serve Mojito his food and decide not to make any breakfast for myself.
Last night I left a book on top of the modem and now it’s hot like a piece of toast.
I rub it on my face. When I open it, the pages are cold.
The security guard offers me an origami of a cat made from neon green paper. He hasn’t figured out how to make the whiskers, he apologizes. Aníbal is the only employee in the office who still talks to me.
I don’t want to make the dog jealous. I leave the cat on top of the toilet in the boss’s bathroom.
I need an app that keeps me from accepting other people’s animals.
Brenda says I should get off the internet.
I can’t, I tell her, it’s part of my job. And how would we talk during your trip, I think.
It’s true that I can’t, I don’t know how. Is there any place where wifi still doesn’t reach? I wouldn’t know where to hide out. Internet is the next Soviet Union. Someday it’s going to collapse but in the meantime we’re trapped inside and subject to its whims.
Now I’m the one my e-mails are shaming. The precision of detail makes my stomach churn, as if the modem was connected directly into my digestive tract. No one could possibly know so much about me; there’s no one who knows the exact version of all my humiliations.
The computer exposes me like a nerve to all of my contacts, as if suddenly the search engine started showing all my thoughts and conversations when someone types my name.
Things I didn’t even know existed appear, things I thought no longer existed but still exist, things that remain in cache even when I know they don’t exist anymore.
The dog pissed on my collection of pirated DVDs, in the dirty clothes hamper, on my photocopies; also on the laptop. I should shut him in the patio, but deep down I’m happy to be with someone who doesn’t know anything about love, communism, or the internet.
I need an app that can clean the piss off this keyboard.
I try to erase all of my accounts, the ones that are linked to my name and the ones that aren’t. The ones for work and the ones for pleasure. Credit cards, newspapers, magazines, games, porn.
The pages either say they’re under maintenance, or an error message pops up when I finish the configuration, or there’s simply no way to delete the account.
I stop going to work. The computer’s fan sounds like the wind, or a snowstorm when it’s working hard. I’m tired like a computer that gets restarted every once in a while but hasn’t been unplugged in too long. For the first time, I make a place for Mojito under the covers. His snout is cold and his fur the color of tea with milk is warm.
My boss calls me on the Blackberry. Will the systems keep running without me?
I let the Tetris theme play.
I decide to turn off the computer. First I just want to reread one more time the last conversation I had with Brenda, but the connection is down. I keep trying for several hours.
When the internet returns it’s nighttime and all my contacts are connected. A video recorded on a webcam has gone viral from my Facebook account. As it loads I see the final image: it’s me, sitting in front of the computer; on my desk there’s an origami animal that I don’t have yet.
I hear myself squeal like a girl until I come. “Look, you have come all over your hands,” I hear Brenda’s voice on the video. I turn off the speaker but I know what she’s going to say: “Lick them.”
As I close the video the Facebook notifications continue to grow exponentially.
She’s getting naked. Something either very bad or very good is happening. Happening to me. Whatever it is, my parents can’t find out. I’m at a friend’s house. Nothing strange there. But my new friend, half gringa, half local, is taking off her uniform, her sports bra, her thong, her shoes. She leaves on her socks, short ones, with a little pink ball at the heel. She’s naked, her back to me, staring at her closet.
It’s awkward and dazzling. Painful. My head down like an ashamed dog, an ugly, short-legged dog, I try to look the same as I did a moment before, when we were both dressed, when that image, the one of her body, hadn’t exploded like a thousand fireworks in my brain. Diana Ward-Espinoza. Sixteen years old. A meter eighty tall. Star player on the volleyball team at her school in the United States. Radioactive green cat eyes. The bright white smile of the people from up there.
Diana, pronounced Dayana in gringo, talks and talks, always, nonstop, mixing English and Spanish or making up a third language, very funny, making me squeal with laughter. With her, I laugh as if there were nothing wrong at my house, as if my dad loved me like a dad. I laugh as if I weren’t me, but a girl who sleeps peacefully. I laugh as if brutality didn’t exist.
She repeats the words the teachers say like tongue twisters and never gets them right. Maybe it’s because of this, because they think she’s dumb, or because she lives in a little apartment and not in a majestic house, or because her mom is the English teacher at the school and so she doesn’t pay tuition or because she jogs through the neighborhood in tiny shorts, blue with a white line that makes a V on her thighs. Because of all that, or for some other obscure hierarchical logic of the popular girls, no groups have accepted her. She’s blonde, white, she has green eyes, her tiny nose is dotted with golden freckles, but no group has accepted her.
They haven’t accepted me either, but with me, it’s the same as always: fat, dark, glasses, hairy, ugly, strange.
One day our last names are paired up in computer class. One right next to the other. That’s everything. I learn that BFF means Best Friends Forever.
Then we’re best friends forever. Then she invites me to her house to study. Then I tell my mom I’m going to spend the night at Diana’s. Then we’re in her tiny room and she’s naked. She turns around to cover her cream-colored body with a denim dress. She turns on music. She dances. Behind her, the gigantic American flag on her wall.
Covered in a fine white fuzz, her skin has the appearance, the delicacy, of a peach. She talks about boys, she likes my brother, about the exam we have the next day, philosophy, about the teacher, he’s funny, but what the fuck is being? About how she’s never going to understand things like I do, about how I’m the smartest person she’s ever met and about how she, okay, let’s be honest, she’s good at sports.
She stops in front of the mirror, less than a meter away from me, on her bed, pretending to be absorbed in the philosophy textbook. If I wanted to, and I do, I could reach out my index finger and touch her hipbones, sliding down to where her pubic hair starts, I’ve never seen golden pubes, and find out if what glimmers there is wetness.
She ties up her ringlets, like Mary had a little lamb, she paints her lips with a gloss that smells like bubble gum and she criticizes her hair, her ears, a pimple I say I can’t see. But I can’t look at her and she notices and she complains: you’re not even looking at me, stop studying, you already understand what being is.
She grabs my chin and raises my head to make me look at her. I smell the bubble gum on her lips. I hear my heart beating. I stop breathing.
“See this pimple? Here? Do you see it?”
My tongue is stuck to the roof of my mouth. I swallow sand. I nod.
We have lunch with her brother Mitch, her twin, who is so handsome that my jaw falls open when I have to talk to him. He’s had football practice. He takes off his sweaty shirt and doesn’t put on a new one. We eat alone, like a family of three. Diana sets the table, I pour the Coca-Cola, and Mitch mixes the pasta with sauce and heats it in a pot.
I suppose that their parents, both of them, are working. I know that Miss Diana, her mom, my English teacher, has another job in the afternoon at a language school. I don’t know anything about the dad. I don’t ask. I never ask about dads. They tell me that Miss Diana leaves food for them in the morning, that she isn’t a good cook. It’s horrible. We cover our plates in Kraft parmesan cheese and we laugh hysterically.
Mitch has an exam too, but he doesn’t want to study. In the dining room, which is also the living room, there are photos on the walls. Mitch and Diana, little, dressed as sunflowers. Miss Diana, thin and young, in front of a house with a mailbox. A black dog, Kiddo, next to a baby, Mitch. The kids at Christmas, surrounded by presents. Miss Diana pregnant. Diana, in white, at her First Communion.
There’s something sad in these photos, it’s in the lighting, typical of gringo photos from the seventies: maybe too many pastel colors, maybe the distance, maybe everything that isn’t pictured. I feel a sadness that doesn’t belong to me. Mine is there, but this is a different one. This life—the sunflower children, the beautiful baby beside the black dog, everything that looks so perfect—isn’t going to turn out so well. No. Despite their blond heads, their athletic bodies, their pink cheeks and their bright eyes, it’s not going to turn out so well.
There’s something desperate, somber, about Diana, about Mitch, about me, about this little apartment where three teenagers are sitting on the floor listening to music.
We play records: The Mamas & The Papas, The Doors, Fleetwood Mac, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Hendrix, Bob Dylan, Simon and Garfunkel, The Moody Blues, Van Morrison, Joan Baez.
Diana tells me how her parents went to Woodstock and she pulls out a photo album where, finally, there’s a picture of her father. Mr. Mitchell Ward: red mustache, long hair tied with a headband. Ultra gringo, as big and beautiful as his kids, looking at a girl, Miss Diana, almost unrecognizable so smiling, so natural.
Then, behind that page, there’s another photo that makes us all go silent: the dad, dressed as a soldier: Lieutenant Mitchell Ward.
He went to Vietnam.
The two of them, Diana and Mitch, say the words at the same time, like a single person with a voice that is both masculine and feminine.
He went to Vietnam.
He went to Nam.
The shadow reemerges, that suffocating lack of light, a silence like an angry sea. The three of us hug our knees and look at the record player. The Doors play, we like them. We sing a little and Diana translates: People are strange when you’re a stranger / faces are ugly when you’re alone. Mitch puts on Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks and during the song “Madame George” I lie down across Diana’s legs. Mitch rests his head on my stomach. We play with each other’s hair.
No one studies that afternoon. We listen to Mr. Mitchell Ward’s music, we take turns changing the records and putting them carefully back into their plastic sleeves, into their album covers and into their spots on the shelf. The movement is slow and sacramental. I imagine that the kids hadn’t been able to say goodbye to their father and that this, lying on the floor and listening to his beloved records, is the prettiest goodbye in the world. And I’m part of it and my heart bursts.
When “Mr. Tambourine Man” comes on Diana cries. I feel for her hand and I kiss it with a love so intense that I feel like it’s going to kill me. She bends down, she rocks me, she finds my mouth and just like that, listening to Bob Dylan, and through tears, I give, I am given, my first kiss.
Mitch watches us. He sits up, he leans over, he kisses me and he kisses his sister. The three of us kiss desperately, like orphans, like castaways. Hungry puppies licking up the last drops of milk in the universe. The harmonica plays Hey Mr. Tambourine Man play a song for me. We sit in the twilight. This is happening. There’s nothing more important in the world.
We are the world.
We’re almost naked when, from the other side of the door, Miss Diana rummages in her purse, looks for her key, rings the bell, calls to her kids in English.
Diana and I run to her room. Mitch goes into the bathroom. We’ve grabbed all our clothes, but the record is still playing. Miss Diana, brutally, removes the needle and the apartment goes silent. When she opens the bedroom door, Diana and I are pretending to study. Mitch comes out of the bathroom, wrapped in a towel, with his hair wet. No one admits to having put the record on. Their father’s record. The records of Lieutenant Ward, who was in Nam.
Shouting in English. Miss Diana is very red and looks like she’s about to cry or to burst into a thousand pieces. I hear words I don’t understand and others that I do know the meaning of, words like fucking and fuck and records and father. The kids deny everything and she walks over to Diana. Her hand is open, she’s about to hit her, and I, desperate with love, shout for Miss to stop, that it was me, I put the record on. She doesn’t know what to do or say. Her hand is frozen in the air like the Statue of Liberty without a torch and she remembers that she’s my teacher and that I’ve seen her do something she shouldn’t have done, something that stays within the walls of houses, something parents do to their kids when no one is looking.
She leaves without a word.
Diana looks at me. I look at her. I want to hug her, to kiss her, to take her away from there.
She pulls back her hair and says:
“We’d better start studying for philosophy.”
We stay up all night studying or pretending to study. She, who doesn’t understand any of it, falls asleep in the early morning and I, in the dim light, study her. She looks like Ophelia, from the painting, and also like She-Ra, He-Man’s sister. I pull off the covers to look at her whole body: I wish I were so tiny I could crawl through her half-open lips and live inside her forever. Even the chipped nail polish on her toenails moves me, it excites me, it captivates me. I’d kiss her every pore.
I’m no longer me.
I fall asleep. I dream that Diana is being chased by some black dogs, that she asks me for help and I can’t do anything. I hear screams, a man’s screams. Even with my eyes open I still hear them. I want to get up, but Diana hugs me tightly and whispers: It’s okay. It’s okay.
Daylight arrives with its sounds. Clinking dishes, cleaning up, and, finally, the door slamming behind the mother. Diana gets dressed without showing me her body, but as I’m putting on my uniform she turns around, lowers the zipper a little, and writes on my back with the tip of her finger then zips me back up. She smiles. I wear an I love you on my back.
I tell Diana that I have to go to the bathroom. She tells me that I’ll have to wait to go at school. That’s impossible. I got my period in the night, I need to pee, my stomach is upset. I can’t wait.
I have to go.
The apartment has two bathrooms. One, for guests, is in the living room, and the other is through the master bedroom, behind the door that’s always closed. Mitch is in the front bathroom and Diana says that her brother takes a long time and I’m too embarrassed to ask him to hurry up. I can’t do it, much less after yesterday, I can still feel Mitch Ward’s lips on my loser neck and my loser belly. I’d rip off my hand before I knocked on that door.
But I can’t wait any longer, I’m cold, I break out in a cold sweat, I have goosebumps. My legs feel weak.
I have to go.
Diana insists: I should go at school, that I can’t use her parents’ bathroom, that even she isn’t allowed in there, but I know I won’t make it, that I’ll shit my pants on the way to school and the uniform is white and I’ll die.
It’s urgent. I can’t wait any more. I’m not well.
I have to go.
She pulls me out of the house. Let’s go, there are bathrooms at school, we’ll be there in just a minute. My forehead is drenched in sweat. It’s about to happen, I’m going to shit myself. I tell her that I forgot my book and I go back into the house. I press my legs together, god, help me. The only thing I can think about is getting to a bathroom to keep from shitting myself, so that Diana and Mitch won’t see me stained with my own excrement. I have to get to a bathroom or I’ll die. If I shit myself I’ll never love or be loved again.
I open the door to the master bedroom. Inside it looks like an aquarium filled with thick water, embalming fluid. Threads of dust float in the air and there’s a smell that’s stifling, itchy. Sour and sweet and rotten, tear gas, a thousand cigarettes, urine, lemons, bleach, raw meat, milk, hydrogen peroxide, blood. A smell that does not come from an empty room, from a master bedroom.
I’m about to soil my underwear, this is the only thing that gives me courage, the only reason I take another step into that smell that’s now like a living creature violently slapping me. Another step. Another. Now I’m feeling nauseated, now it smells like when there’s a dead animal on the side of the road, but I’m already tangled in the guts of that animal, inside it.
I’m dizzy. I grab onto something and that something is a table and that table has a lamp on it which falls and breaks to pieces on the floor. Then, springing up from the bed, with the speed and force of a wave, a lump knocks me to the ground. I can’t see. The light is weak, sickly. I don’t know what’s on top of me. Some shapeless, terrifying thing has fallen on top of me. It’s on my chest and I can’t move. I try to scream but no sound comes out.
It has a head, it’s a monster. Its face, with angry yellow teeth, is stuck to mine. It smells like carrion. It mutters things I don’t understand, makes animal noises, grunts, snorts, it drools on me. It paws at my neck and squeezes and I see in those red eyes that it’s going to kill me, that it hates me and I’m going to die. I’m going to die.
Please, I say inside my head, please.
Then Diana comes to the door, Diana She-Ra, He-Man’s sister, my savior, comes to the door and shouts something I can’t understand and the beast that’s strangling me raises its head toward her and lets go of me.
I start to scream, I vomit, I piss myself and empty my bowels, there, on the carpet.
The light that comes in through the open door lets me see what was on top of me, killing me. Lying on the floor, it looks like a panting pillow.
She approaches it. She doesn’t even look at me. She picks him up and I see stumps waving just below his thighs and under his left elbow. Diana tucks him in bed like some atrocious child, who in reality is an emaciated, bald man, with bulging eyes and waxy skin. His right arm, the veins of his right arm, are covered in scabs and red wounds. She rocks him and comforts him and kisses his forehead, as he cries and they both repeat over and over I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
I stand up as best I can. Mitch is in the door, looking at me hatefully. I go out into the living room, I dial the number to my house. My dad answers. I hang up the phone.
I walk to my grandma’s house. There, I lie, I tell her I’m sick, that I couldn’t hold it, that I shit my pants at school. Yes, that’s what happened. As I shower, I cry so hard my chest hurts.
Philosophy is the last exam of our last year of high school. My mom writes an excuse for my absence so I can retake the test another day. I get the highest score. I find out that Diana won’t be graduating with us, she didn’t show up for the exam. They say she’s going back to the United States.
I call her. She doesn’t answer my calls.
I wait by the telephone. She doesn’t call.
I never hear anything else about her. Until recently. I open my Facebook page and find a message from a former high school classmate:
“Hello, I’m sorry to give you this news, but, did you know that Diana Ward was killed in an attack in Afghanistan? She and her wife were in the U.S. Army. I wanted to let you know because I remember that you were good friends. How sad, isn’t it?”
Ricardo González loved to go to the cinema. His first major cinematic memory, many years ago now, was of a black-and-white film about cops and robbers. Before that he only went to the cinema occasionally, once or twice a month, but after that film everything changed. As he was leaving the theatre he felt a pressing need to watch the movie again. So he did. He sat in front of the same black-and-white scenes once more, closely following the robbers’ flight from the police. They stole an armoured car but were never able to break into it. Ricardo González knew that the other spectators didn’t know how the movie ended, and he wanted to talk to someone about it. He looked at the person sitting in the seat next to him and who was enthralled by the masterful scene in which one of the crooks stretches out his hand to pick up a guard’s gun, unaware that the guy is still alive. But Ricardo González didn’t know any of the people sitting near him; they were all strangers. In the end everything goes wrong for the thieves and the girl. She and the leader of the gang throw themselves off a cliff. The word “End” came up on screen, and Ricardo realized from what people were saying that the film hadn’t been a hit. It was rubbish, they said, the ending was confusing. Ricardo walked the city for hours, surprised at the audience’s reaction. He thought about the film, wondering whether he had been mistaken about how good it was. The ending wasn’t difficult at all; it was very easy to follow! The boss and the girl commit suicide, that much was obvious. What was it that people didn’t understand? He felt that he didn’t know enough about films to make a definitive judgement one way or the other, so his doubts remained. Maybe if he talked about it with someone, if he met someone in the street and asked them what they thought of the movie… But there wasn’t anyone around he could ask. The best idea would be to go back to the theatre the next day.
As he gave back Ricardo’s ticket, the usher smiled in recognition. “At least somebody likes the flop,” he said behind Ricardo’s back. “The guy who just went in has seen it about eight times.”
Ricardo González sat in the same seat as he had for the previous screenings. He anxiously waited for the lights to go down. He now knew that the actor who played the gang leader was called Rod Steiger, while the girl was played by Nadja Tiller. He followed the plot in a cold sweat. During the final scene, when Steiger and the girl tell the police that they’re “coming down” from the mountain, Ricardo saw that, once again, the audience wasn’t getting it.
“They kill themselves. They throw themselves off a cliff,” he shouted, standing up on his seat and cupping his hands to project his voice.
He was hit by a wave of voices telling him to shut up, but he ignored them.
“The camera is filming from below. They choose to commit suicide instead of giving themselves up to the police. Don’t you see?” he shouted again. That was when he was pulled off his perch by three employees.
“The only good thing about that waste of time was the guy who started shouting in the middle of the theatre,” said a woman in a purple dress as she headed for the exit.
The best thing about going to the movies is sharing in people’s pleasure as they leave the auditorium after a great film, or, if the film is bad, when we shout for our money back. That’s what’s so great about Saturdays. I see the couples going into the theatre holding hands, and I love them because I know that that’s what’s most important. On Saturday people are happy and talk a lot, so I can hear what they’re saying. I can be close to groups of people talking about the film and find out whether I agree with them or not. Sundays are good, too, but different. People go to the movies, but their faces are no longer flushed with joy. Monday is too close, I think. On Sundays I rarely get to find out what people thought of the film.
But if I had someone who liked the movies, things would be much easier. Yes, we could go to the movies every day, we wouldn’t care if the theatre was empty, and then talk about it as we stroll through the city. That would be very good for me, especially on days of the week when hardly anyone goes to the cinema. It’s depressing sitting on your own, but if I didn’t go, what else would there be for me to do? Often, on Mondays, when I’m only accompanied by three or four bitter-looking people, I consider leaving. One day I’ll set out into the city to find people who I know like cinema and then arrange to meet up with them on Saturdays at such and such a theatre. For example, I could look for the girl with the nice hair who comes with her boyfriend and is always smiling. She must know a lot about the movies because she comes almost twice a week. If I found someone to talk to, I’d tell them everything, from the first film to the last. One day I’ll do it. I promise.
You’re a Big Boy Now was only screened for three days. Ricardo González saw it on all three showings on Friday and came back on Saturday. It was on that Saturday that the audience angrily began to ask for their money back just half an hour in. Because no one paid them any attention, they started to throw greasy popcorn cartons around as well as a number of shoes that crashed against the screen. They even had to turn up the lights and inform the audience that the management reserved the right to eject anyone causing a disruption. The lights went down again and people went on making a fuss, but the management didn’t eject anyone. Ricardo, shaking with anger, wondered why they didn’t stop the screening or why people didn’t simply leave if they didn’t like the movie. For him, the film was one long ordeal as he looked up apologetically at the new guy and the debutante, begging the beautiful Elizabeth Hartman and Francis Ford Coppola in the name of all true lovers of cinema to forgive such awful behaviour. Once the film came to an end Ricardo González joined the crowd of unruly people. The girl with pretty hair was there. Ricardo came up behind her to hear her opinion, but she wasn’t saying anything at all; she was just beaming up at her boyfriend. Ricardo González thought incredulously that she was too pretty not to have anything to say after watching a movie as lovely as You’re a Big Boy Now.
If she says something about how much she liked the film I’ll go over to congratulate her. But she’s not saying a word; all she does is smile and smile.
“It was a great film, the best I’ve seen this year.” These words came from very close by. Ricardo González turned around, his eyes wide and his mouth clamped shut, looking for the person who had uttered them: it was a fat young man stuffed into a pair of jeans who continued to enumerate the qualities of the film to his excessively hostile audience. But Ricardo felt no sympathy for the man’s plight. What he felt was admiration. He wanted to run up to the fat man, hug him and shout that he felt similarly about Coppola’s film. But he restrained himself; it would be better to wait until they left the theatre. He watched the man slip away from the crowd and stand under the film poster. Ricardo followed him and was happy to see that he had come on his own. He must also be looking for someone he can talk to about films, he thought as the fat man set off down the avenue.
Realizing that he was letting his best chance of starting a conversation get away, Ricardo González walked behind the fat man, thinking about what he’d say to break the ice. Respect, man, you know your films. That’s how people talk in the city. And when the fat man asked him what he had done to deserve the compliment, Ricardo would tell him that he felt the same way about You’re a Big Boy Now, and they’d pity the poor morons who hadn’t got it. Then they’d go to a soda fountain somewhere or walk along with their hands in their pockets, talking about the best films they’d ever seen: Fellini’s Juliet of the Spirits; the one by Carol Reed called Prófugo de su pasado in Spanish. Do you know it? I think it has an Englishman, a little old Englishman. Profugo de su pasado, starring Laurence Harvey and Alan Bates – it’s pronounced “Beits”. No? And Lee Remick, a stunner with good teeth. In English it’s called The Running Man or The Ballad of the Running Man – more poetic, don’t you think? It’s a fantastic thriller. And they’d also talk about Robert Wise, the films he made before he started to make movies just to win Oscars. They’d talk about La mansión de los espectros – Hill House or The Haunted, something like that. I always get confused between the Spanish and English titles, not to mention the title of the novel on which the film is based. I never know which is which. Hill House, a film about ghosts starring Julie Harris – that’s the way to do it, I’d say with subtlety and respect. And I’d also tell him that I’ve been coming to the cinema since I was a baby, but I’ve never had anyone to talk to about it. This is the first time I’ve ever been able to share my thoughts. He’d wait a couple more blocks and then approach the fat man. Hey, I liked You’re a Big Boy Now, too. All hail Francis Ford Coppola.
The fat man took his hands out of his pockets and stopped walking. A few paces behind him, Ricardo González did the same. The fat man looked over his shoulder as though something had fallen out of his pocket. He looked behind him and saw Ricardo smiling at him. That was all Ricardo could manage, a smile, as he waited for the fat man to come back and shake his hand. You’ve just been to the movies, haven’t you? Seeing that the fat man wasn’t moving, Ricardo thought that he might be waiting for him to come over. But he was wrong about that, too. The fat man put his hands back in his pockets and went on, a little faster now.
It was getting dark; they’d walked a long way. Ricardo told himself, speeding up a little, that he’d say something to the man at the next corner. You know your films. You liked You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you? The fat man got to the corner, looked over his shoulder a second time, and Ricardo smiled again, thinking that now he’d stop. But he didn’t. He crossed the road, hurrying to the right. Ricardo, confused, almost ran to the corner and crossed the road, too. To his amazement, the fat man had disappeared. Ricardo González shielded his eyes with his hands to see if the man walking in the distance in the weak late-evening light was the person he was looking for. No, he wasn’t. Worried, he wondered what might have happened to his friend. Where did you go, man? I wanted to talk to you about You’re a Big Boy Now. It’s a great movie, isn’t it?
Then he saw him. The door to a yellow house opened, and his friend’s sizeable body appeared. His hands were shoved into the pockets his jeans, and he was staring at Ricardo, who had already begun to smile and introduce himself when he caught sight of the others.
“Good afternoon,” said Ricardo. That was a bad start. In this town, people say hello with a “Hey” or a “What’s up?”
The fat man didn’t answer; he just stared. Behind him four young men emerged, followed by a fifth, who closed the door to the yellow house behind him.
“You liked the movie, didn’t you?” Ricardo stammered, coming closer.
“Don’t touch me, you faggot,” the fat man said after hesitating for a moment. “Stay away from me.”
“Let’s smash his face in,” said a boy who looked like the fat man but was incredibly skinny.
“What?” Ricardo González asked. “No, I came to talk to him,” he said, pointing at the fat man. “To discuss the film. I’m telling the truth, ask him. You went to see You’re a Big Boy Now, didn’t you?”
“What’s wrong? Couldn’t you find any of your little friends at the theatre?” asked the fat man, slapping away the hand Ricardo had proffered.
“No, you don’t understand, there’s been a misunderstanding. I just came to talk about the film. You liked it, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t like it.”
And so Ricardo González was beaten up. He felt the first blow at the back of his head while he was still trying to process the fat man’s answer. Then came the fat man’s fist and his face behind it; something hit his back, and the boys started to crow gleefully. If they hit me there again I’ll burst, but there won’t be any blood. I’ll just burst. He said that he didn’t like the film… but that wasn’t him… I came to talk about the film… I think that your mama is calling the boys in for dinner… Look at those ripe mangos… This kind of thing doesn’t happen here… Everyone in this city loves everyone else… Then his body hit something hard, the welcoming cement, on which a puddle soon began to form.
I’ve been coming to the cinema for so long that I can even tell how the people on the screen smell. A little while ago I saw a movie by Peter Collinson, The Long Day’s Dying, a long, long day on which the only thing they do is kill because even when they die they kill: they kill themselves. But a multitude of Saturdays and Sundays and many, many films have come and gone, and I doubt there’s a single person in the city as happy as I am when I see that the people who have come to the cinema agree with me about a film. One of these days I’m going to say hello to all my friends, all the girls who sit next to me, but once begun it would never end. That girl with the pretty hair has disappeared; she must have moved. The guy who was with her keeps coming, only now he’s accompanied by a different girl, one with green eyes and black hair. They’re my friends, too. They give me an affectionate hello when they see me. Many stories have been shown on the screen on many different Saturdays, and I’m happy when people leave wowed by a film by Polanski, or Winner, or Peter Watkins, or Pontecorvo, and also when the guy telling the story is Stuart Rosenberg, the guy from La leyenda del indomable starring Paul Newman. Have you seen it? Yes, Cool Hand Luke. Don’t moan. You know very well that I have to say the original title when they get it wrong in Spanish. I wait eagerly for Saturday to come around, to say hello to my friends and chat as we walk around the city, remembering Kim Novak in The Legend of Lylah Clare by Robert Aldrich, admitting that we’re head over heels in love with Lee Remick, Shirley MacLaine or Anjanette Comer when she played a Mexican alongside Marlon Brando, and also that we loved Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion. And why not occasionally recall the films of the late Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, speculating about the car accident in which they were killed? We make fun of them, but we also remember them fondly. And the weekends, the routine never changes, when we go to second- or third-class theatres to catch anything we might have missed. For example, a short while ago we got to see The Chase by Arthur Penn, and I leave holding her hand, remembering the final scenes in Blow-Up – you know, my love, the one where a man wanders through the city and sees a pair of lovers that would make an excellent photo, the very image of love, but the picture of love turns out to be about crime and death, and the man doesn’t want to let it go because it’s the only important thing ever to happen to him in his sorry life. But that’s impossible, my love, you can’t survive like that. It’s better to join the happy people who have the good fortune not to be thinkers. To survive you have to know how to play tennis without a ball or a racket. So, here we have the city, I live in the city, I watch films, and I’m happy.
What Ricardo González would like most in life would be to talk about a film he saw a long time ago, a cowboy film, Journey to Shiloh, which has war scenes borrowed from another film. It’s the only youthful film about the US Civil War. It’s about seven boys from Texas running around searching for something, but they don’t know what. He’d like to tell someone how great some of the scenes in that movie are, but he doesn’t, he knows that he mustn’t say anything, and when he leaves the theatre he walks the city streets talking to himself and staring at the ground. He knows the pavements by heart, reliving the colours, emotions and words he saw on the screen.
Because Ricardo González still loves to go to the cinema.
For Carlos, for our hunger
As a boy I was hungry, bam. I came home running, jumping, and my mother would say: “Cut it out! Don’t move so much or you’ll be even hungrier,” but I said to her: “No, lady. You cut it out, you’re trapped, you cut it out: I’m a pirate and you, my whale,” bam, bam. My mother was confused: “What game is that? I don’t like it, I don’t like that game at all,” to which I responded: “I’m going to grill you whole, whale, and then I’m going to fill up on meat with you, make a broth of ribs with your ribs,” bam, bam, bam. My mother didn’t like to play along, she said: “Well today you’re having bread and oil, look,” and bam! My stomach started to shout: “Bam, bam! Bam!,” as she broke the bread in half, poured oil over the two parts, and gave me the bigger half. I bit into the bread and my hunger got worse. Such little food wouldn’t calm me, the piece of bread just got me worked up. It was such a little piece, but my mom said: “Boy, eat slowly, enjoy it, break it up, break it into little pieces, look, like this, little bitty,” but I shouted: “No, no, no! I’m hungry!” And I kicked the walls, and I cried, and my stomach shouted “Bam, bam, bam!” Sometimes my mother got furious, she grabbed my arms, she shook me. She said: “This is what there is, don’t you see? This is all there is! Why is that so hard to understand?” and I cried, and cried harder and she cried, and she broke her bread—her already broken bread—in half, and she said: “Here, take it,” and she put it in my hand, sometimes, and sometimes she shoved it into my mouth.
When I stopped crying and we calmed down, I dreamed of pots and plates: pots and plates full of food. The pots piled up in the kitchen and the plates piled up on the table, and as we ate, more pots and more plates appeared, full, overflowing with food. More and more appeared and the piles grew and they filled the whole house, and there were so many pots and so many plates that they didn’t fit inside the house, they rose up through the ceiling and they slid off the roof and scattered everywhere: the street was full of pots and plates and the pots and plates reached the corner and continued their journey down the rest of the streets in town until they made a faraway mountain that protected or looked after us, a huge, enormous pile of pots and plates: pots on top of plates, bam, plates on top of pots, everything on top of everything, and then, at that point of abundance, I started to imagine what was in each pot. I imagined potatoes with parsley; pumpkin and salted meat; fried pig skin and peas, rice with cheese and plantain. The pots were full of noodles with tomato and onion; full of suero and yam, stewed chicken thighs. There were meatballs and lentils: a thousand lentils for each meatball, a thousand meatballs per pot. There were cooked garbanzos. And on the plates, a ton of fish: mojarra, snapper, hake, grouper, bocachico, sierra . . . There were lemon slices between each fish; tomato salads, lettuce and cucumber; coconut rice and raisins. There was also fruit—corozo and guava, sapote and mango, watermelon—I squeezed them with my hands and in my hands they became the most delicious juices. On the plates and in the pots there were sweets: honey and coconut, flan, cream, and tres leches. I ate everything, I ate so much, bam, that I got so fat I turned into a ball. And I got fatter and fatter until I turned into a balloon. And I started to rise up off the ground, bam, and I rose up, and up. And I rose up and up, bam! And from the air I apologized to my mother: “Forgive me, mama, forgive me! I didn’t leave you any food. I didn’t realize, forgive me, it was so little food.”
Years went by and the hunger continued. I had no memory of that childhood by the time I met Franky. In those days I wanted to love. The first time we spoke I’d just been fired from a restaurant, the only job I’d ever had: a lunch counter called Big Mouth. “The food is for the customers,” the owner, doña Eulalia shouted, and my stomach shouted back: “Bam, bam, bam!” She said to me: “Finish cleaning and leave, don’t come back,” so I took off my apron and I dropped it on the floor, and, trying to make myself feel something—annoyance, anger, anything—or maybe as a sign of protest, I threw the broom and mop as far as I could in the direction of the bar. “Eat shit, doña!” to which she shouted back: “You’re the one who’s going to eat shit, you stupid kid,” bam, bam. I shouted at her, I shouted some more. I left the restaurant and of course I started to get hungry, bam, or maybe I was confusing hunger with the emptiness of anxiety.
“You look weird without your apron,” someone said in the street, weeks later, and bam, something opened up inside me: an emptiness that wasn’t hunger, bam, bam, bam! Someone I hadn’t seen had seen me. Then I saw his beard—black—his black eyes, the freckles on his face. He said: “A while ago, a Sunday, at Big Mouth I ordered a coffee with milk, but you brought me an orange juice.” I thought: “Maybe I was craving orange juice and that’s why I got mixed up.” We laughed. I looked at him and looked at him trying to make up for all the time I hadn’t looked at him, surprised I hadn’t noticed him, even when I’d talked to him. Then he said to me: “I’m hungry,” and again. “I’m hungry.” All I could think to say was that if I still worked at the restaurant, I’d give him an almojábama with milk, on the house—in those days I wanted to love. But he repeated: “I’m hungry,” bam, without thanking me for my imaginary gift. “I’m hungry.” Bam! “I’m hungry,” bam, bam, hugging his stomach.
The more he mentioned his hunger, the less he looked at me. And as I looked at him, he looked at his stomach, bam! I was hungry too. I thought: “I have ten big bills left.” I did the math. I said: “Let’s eat, it’s on me.” He smiled for a moment, looked back at me. He said: “Let’s go, yeah, let’s go now,” and he took me by the hand—bam—to guide us down the path to food.
“It’s called Buena Mala. They sell meatballs, stewed chicken, garbanzos. Doesn’t it sound good? I want everything. You’re not hungry? I want to eat everything.” I listened to Franky as we walked: I was hungry, bam, bam, but I was thinking about the ten big bills. “How much will it cost, I wondered, as he, not looking at me, continued: “They also sell bean stew and fish soup. I’m so hungry! I want everything. I’m so hungry!”
We turned the corner and bam! Even hungrier: the place was closed, bam, bam, bam! He bent over and shouted: “It can’t be, no! What am I going to do? I’m hungry, I’m so hungry!” I said to him: “We’ll go somewhere else, I’m hungry too,” but then he pulled away without looking at me: “You don’t understand, look. Look!” and he pulled up his shirt to show me his belly, pulsing—bam, bam, bam!—and across his flesh, a long trail, rough, also made of flesh: a pink trail, purplish in parts, flesh forking onto flesh. His belly looked like skin pulled tight over a huge heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam: to break through the skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, crash into me. I asked him: “What is that, why is it like that?” to which he responded: “It’s my hunger,” and then: “The scar,” and then, bam, bam: “My stomach is bigger than me.”
Then it was me who took him by the hand. I said: “Let’s go this way, follow me,” and I didn’t let go of his hand—bam, bam—his soft hand, bam, bam, until we got to the spot: a restaurant, very expensive in my opinion, serving fried stuff and fast food. There was an empty table beside the coals and the pot of boiling oil and before we sat down the smell of meat overwhelmed us, bam, it made us even hungrier. “I’m so hungry, dear God!” he shouted. “Everything’s so delicious, I’m so hungry!” bam, bam, bam! I was hungry too.
We ordered corn with shredded cheese and mayonnaise; we ordered beef croquettes and cheese empanadas. We ordered a chicken skewer each: each skewer came with fries, peppers, and onion. I looked at him as he looked at the raw chickens that slowly became less raw over the coals. I looked at him as he looked at the raw dough turning into arepas in the pot.
“Bring us two tangerine juices,” he ordered the waiter when the first round of food arrived. He picked up a piece of corn, I picked up the other one. He ate, ate, ate until there was no more corn, bam. Then he continued with the croquettes, he ate and ate. I told him: “Take them all”—in those days I wanted to love. He said: “Okay,” and he took them all, bam. He ate and ate, bam, bam.
I was still on the corn when the empanadas arrived. He took his. I asked him: “How’s your hunger?” He said: “I’m hungry,” bam, and then I gave him the kernels that were still left of my corn. He ate, bam, he ate. I bit into the empanada. “Do you like it?” he asked without looking at me, and still very hungry I said, bam, bam, bam: “It’s good, yes, but I’m getting full.” And so I gave him and he so bit into that second empanada, bam.
The juice arrived with the chicken skewers and the fries. Each bite he took was a bite he swallowed with a sip of the tangerine juice. He ate, he drank, he ate, he drank . . . I was already thinking that I’d have to give him half of my chicken too, or my fries, but finally he said: “Ahhh, how delicious!” and his belly agreed. “How delicious!” he belched, and continued patting his belly, bam, bam, bam. Now satisfied, he looked at me. “You eat like a little bird,” he laughed, as I chewed the last onions and the last peppers off the skewer, and although I thought: “I’m still hungry,” I said: “Yes, I’m not a big eater.” Then he said: “Let’s go, birdy. I have an invitation for you now, let’s go to my room,” bam, bam, bam. I called the waiter, I paid quickly: I gave him one of the ten big bills and he brought back the littlest bill and four coins: bam, bam, bam, bam.
We went to his room holding hands: he slammed the door, he looked at me, he locked it, he looked at me, bam. Franky said to me: “Now I’m much, much hungrier,” bam, and as I, truly hungry, took off my shoes, first—he looked at me—then my shirt, bam—he looked at me—my pants, bam, bam, my socks, my underwear—he looked at me—he bit me gently. He nibbled my cheeks and said: “Chubby cheeks”—he looked at me. He bit my nose and said: “Big nose”—he looked at me. And when he bit my mouth he said: “Big Mouth,” bam, bam, bam. We both laughed at the reminder of doña Eulalia.
His belly wasn’t pulsing when he took off his shirt: it was flat and no longer looked like a heart, or a heart attack waiting to happen, bam, bam. His skin was still marred by the long, long trail of flesh, and the trail didn’t look like a forked artery anymore, bam, about to burst, bam, but like a photo of a river from above. I was getting hungrier, my hunger hurt me, my hunger twisted me, but he looked at me and I looked at him. We looked at each other calmly. In those days I wanted to love.
As he nibbled at me, I bit him—with my teeth, bam, with my teeth. I bit him with my teeth, until he said, without looking at me: “I’m sleepy,” bam. “No more,” and he lay down to sleep, bam, and immediately began to snore. With each snore, a bam, bam, bam.
I also went to sleep. I lay down next to him, I hugged him and I hugged his stomach, bam, my index finger tracing his scar, my finger thinking it was a tongue on Franky’s scar. I slept. I slept some more, but I opened my eyes before he started to say: “I’m hungry.” His stomach was growling—bam, bam, bam!—and his belly was once again an enormous heart, a heart—his stomach—about to burst, bam. He kept saying: “I’m hungry,” and naked he went to the kitchen, and screamed, and slammed the door, and kicked the walls, bam, bam, bam. “The fridge is empty, I’m hungry!” And his heart, meanwhile, his stomach, looked like it was about to burst through his skin and shoot out, bam, and crash into me, bam, into me, bam, into me. “Let’s go out!” he shouted. He didn’t look at me. “I’m hungry!” I said to him: “Let’s go out, okay,” and we fumbled for our clothes, bam, and we got dressed, bam, and we took off.
We got to a café—“The sun is an egg,” it read over the entrance—and before we even sat down, he started ordering: “I want oranges, and an orange juice; a plate of chorizo, botifarra, and blood sausage; scrambled eggs, two, and also two fried eggs, the house tamale, the one with chicken and pork, and a basket of bread with pineapple jam. Bring me a coffee too, a lot, and on the side, a glass of milk.” Then he took a breath and without looking at me asked: “Do you have money? I forgot my wallet.” When the waiter turned around, he called him back: “Wait, he needs to order,” and he pointed to me without looking at me. I said, hungrily, and mentally counting my bills and coins: “One fried egg, a glass of milk, and a slice of toast.”
Each plate the waiter brought was a plate Franky put his arms around, bam, or built a wall around, bam, as he swallowed and swallowed. I said to him: “Calm down, I’m not going to steal your food,” just to make small talk, or as a joke, but he continued eating without looking at me or talking to me. I ate in silence. I ate, ate, ate: there was no more toast, I ate, no more egg either. I drank till the glass of milk was empty. And still, bam! I was hungry. I asked him: “Will you give me a bite?” pointing to the tamale and the blood sausage. He said: “Look,” and he lifted his shirt: his belly was alive. I said to him, “It’s all right, you eat.” In those days I wanted to love.
When he finished eating, he started looking at me. I looked at him and looked away. I was hungry! The waiter said: “Here’s the check,” and bam, I had to give him two big bills. I told him, “I’m leaving, see you,” worried about my money, worried about my hunger, but then he said: “Where are you going? We just had breakfast.” And, before going back to his room, in case we got hungry, we went to the plaza to buy groceries.
Weeks went by and the hunger continued. I wanted to eat. The days were always more or less the same: I ate very little, and with very little money, and when his heart, bam—his stomach—woke up, he ate, ate, ate, and didn’t stop eating. I began to lock myself in the bathroom when this happened: I lowered the toilet seat, I sat down, and took peanuts and raisins out of my pockets—I wanted to eat, bam, I wanted to eat. In the kitchen, meanwhile, Franky scraped pots and licked the plates saying, shouting: “I’m hungry and I want yucca. There isn’t any more yucca!”
One night I locked myself in the bathroom when he wanted to eat. I wanted to eat too. From my pockets I took a smashed bag of potato chips and a caramel and guava cake, also flattened. I was hungry. In the background, far away, I heard the bam, bam, his uncontrollable heart. “The peas are delicious, but there aren’t enough!” I heard him shout. Bam, as I swallowed the chips.
Suddenly, silence. I thought: “He went out to get food,” and, relieved, I opened the door, with half the cake still in my hand. There he was, stomach pulsing. “What are you doing in there?” he screamed, “What were you doing?” I said: “Nothing.” And he said: “You were eating, give it to me. I’m hungry!” I said to him: “No, I’m hungry too.” Bam! He said to me: “You don’t understand, look!” And his heart beat, bam, and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and it beat, beat . . . He said to me: “Look!” And I said to him: “They’re my chips!” And he kept saying: “Look, look, look!”
He lunged to rip the bag of chips from my hand, bam, my chips, bam. My chips! I pushed him, I told him: “They’re mine!” bam, but he kept saying: “You don’t understand, I’m hungry!” and I said to him, bam: “They’re mine, they’re mine!” I gripped the bag and he pulled it and I pushed him as he said, bam: “Look at this! Look!” and the trail of flesh was opening wider and wider and I said to him: “Let go! I’m hungry, let go!” as the flesh opened and opened and he shouted: “Give me one! At least one!” and I insisted: “No, you already ate. No!” and the trail of flesh opened wider and wider, bam, and his flesh opened wider and wider, bam! And it opened wider. He shouted and I shouted: “What’s wrong with you?” but he shouted louder, and his stomach—his heart—“Bam!” And his stomach and my heart! And my stomach and his heart! Bam, bam, bam!
From the light fixture in the ceiling hung pieces of flesh. On my breath and in my clothes, strips of his stomach or heart. Before crying over him—in those days I wanted to love—I thought of my mother, bam, and of the game she didn’t like: she, the whale; me, the pirate. Bam, bam, bam! I remembered her soup, her rib soup. Then I looked at Franky’s ribs, bam, bam, bam! In those days I wanted to eat.
When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.
There are roosters around here somewhere.
Kneeling, with my head down and covered with a filthy rag, I concentrate on hearing the roosters, how many there are, if they’re in cages or a corral. Papa raised fighting cocks, and, since he didn’t have anyone to leave me with, he took me to the fights. The first few times I cried when I saw the poor rooster torn to bits in the sand and he laughed and called me prissy.
At night, giant vampire roosters devoured my insides, I would scream and he’d come running to my bed and again he’d call me prissy.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cocks, dammit.”
Eventually, I stopped crying when I saw the hot guts of the losing rooster in the dust. I was the one who cleaned up the ball of feathers and viscera and carried it to the trash bin. I would say: bye rooster, be happy in heaven where there are thousands of worms and fields and corn and families that love roosters. On the way, some cock fighter would always give me a piece of candy or a coin to touch me or kiss me or for me to touch him or kiss him. I was afraid that, if I told Papa, he’d call me prissy again.
“Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.”
One night, a rooster’s belly exploded as I was carrying it in my arms like a doll and I discovered that those macho men who shouted and jeered for one rooster to rip open the other were disgusted by the shit and blood and guts of the dead rooster. So I covered my hands, my knees, and my face with that mixture and they didn’t bother me with kisses and all that nonsense anymore.
They said to my papa:
“Your daughter is a monster.”
And he responded that they were the monsters and they clinked their shot glasses.
“You’re the monster. Salud.”
The smell inside the cockpit was disgusting. Sometimes I fell asleep in a corner, under the stands, and woke up with one of those men looking at my underwear beneath my school uniform. That’s why before falling asleep I stuck a rooster head between my legs. One or several. A belt of rooster heads. Those machos didn’t like lifting up my skirt to find little severed heads.
Sometimes, Papa would wake me up to clear away a gutted rooster. Sometimes, he did it himself and his friends asked him why the hell he brought his daughter if he was such a fag. He would gather the ruined and bloody rooster. From the door he blew them a kiss. His friends laughed.
I know that here, somewhere, there are roosters, because I’d recognize that smell from a thousand kilometers. The smell of my life, the smell of my father. It smells of blood, of man, of shit, of cheap liquor, of sour sweat and industrial grease. You wouldn’t have to be very intelligent to tell that this is an underground joint, a place hidden away who knows where, and that I’m well and properly fucked.
A man speaks. He must be around forty. I imagine him fat, bald and dirty, wearing a sleeveless white undershirt, shorts, and flip-flops; I imagine his pinky and thumbnails are long. He speaks in the plural. There’s someone else here besides me. There are other people on their knees here, with their heads ducked, covered in a disgusting dark cloth.
“Let’s see, let’s all calm down now, the first sonofabitch who makes a single sound I’ll put a bullet in his head. If we all work together, we’ll all make it through the night in one piece.”
I feel his stomach against my head and then the butt of a gun. No, he’s not joking.
A girl cries a few meters to my right. I suppose she couldn’t handle the feeling of the gun at her temple. The sound of a slap.
“Look, princess. No one cries on me, you hear? Or are you in a big hurry to meet sweet baby Jesus?”
Later, the fat man with the gun walks away. He’s gone to talk on the phone. He says a number: six, six motherfuckers. He also says there’s a good selection, very good, the best in months. He says they won’t want to miss it. He makes one call after another. He forgets, for a while, about us.
Beside me, I hear a cough muffled by the hood, a man’s cough.
“I’ve heard about this,” he says, very softly. “I thought it was a lie and urban legend. They’re called auctions. The taxi drivers pick up passengers they think they’ll be able to get good money for and they kidnap them. Then the buyers come and bid for their favorites. And they take them. They keep their things, they force them to steal, to let them into their houses, to give them their credit card numbers. And the women. The women.”
“What?” I ask.
He hears that I’m a woman. He goes quiet.
The first thing I thought when I got in the taxi that night was finally. I rested my head on the seat and closed my eyes. I’d had several drinks and I was depressed. I’d been at the bar with a man I had to pretend to be friends with. With him and his wife. I always pretend. I’m good at pretending. But when I got in the taxi I sighed and I said to myself What a relief: now I can go home and cry my eyes out. I think I fell asleep for a minute, and suddenly, when I opened my eyes, I was in some unfamiliar place. An industrial area. Empty. Darkness. My brain boiled with fear: they just fucked you over for life.
The taxi driver pulled out a gun, he looked me in the eye, he said with ridiculous politeness: “We’ve reached your destination, miss.”
What followed was quick. Someone opened the door before I could lock it, they wrapped the cloth around my head, they tied my hands and shoved me into a kind of garage that smelled like a rotting cockpit and they made me kneel in a corner.
The sound of conversations. The fat man and someone else and then someone else and someone else. People keep coming. The sound of laughter and beers being opened. The smell of marijuana and some other shit with a spicy smell. The man next to me stopped telling me to keep calm. He must be saying it to himself.
He mentioned before that he had an eight-month-old baby and a three-year-old son. He must be thinking about them. And about these junkies entering the gated community he lives in. Yes, that’s what he’s thinking about. About waving to the guard like he does whenever his car’s in the shop, while these animals sit in the back, ducking down. He’s going to take them to his house to meet his beautiful wife, his eight-month-old baby, and his three-year-old son. He’s going to take them to his house.
And there’s nothing he can do about it.
Further away, to the right, murmuring, a girl cries, I don’t know if it’s the same one who was crying before. The fat man shoots his gun and we all try to drop to the floor. He hasn’t shot us, he’s just shot. It doesn’t matter, the terror has ripped us in half. The fat man and his friends laugh. They come over to us, they move us into the center of the room.
“All right, gentlemen, ladies, tonight’s auction is officially open. So lovely, so well behaved, stand here for me. Closer, princess. Riiiiight there. Don’t be afraid, little mama, I don’t bite. Just like that. So that these gentlemen can choose which one of you they’re going to take. The rules, gentlemen, same as always: the most money gets the best prize. Put all your guns down over here for me, I’ll keep them safe till the auction’s over. Thank you. Delighted, as always, to have you.”
The fat man introduces us like he’s hosting a TV show. We can’t see them, but we know the men looking at us, sizing us up, are thieves. And rapists. They are definitely rapists. And murderers. They might be murderers. Or something worse.
“Laaaaaaadies and gentlemeeeeeen.”
The fat man doesn’t like the ones who whimper or the ones who say they have kids or the ones who shout desperately you don’t know who you’re messing with. No. He likes even less the ones who say he’s going to rot in jail. All these people, men and women alike, have received a punch to the gut. I’ve heard them fall to the floor breathless. I focus on the roosters. Maybe there aren’t any. But I hear them. Inside me. Men and roosters. Come on, don’t be so prissy. They’re just cock fighters, dammit.
“This man, what’s our first participant’s name? What? Speak up, friend. Ricardoooooo, welcoooome, he wears a nice watch and some niiiiiice Adidas shoes. Ricardooooo must have moneyyyyyyyyyyyyyy. Let’s take a look at Ricardo’s wallet. Credit cards, ohhhhhh a Visa Goooooold by Messi.”
The fat man tells bad jokes.
They start to bid for Ricardo. Someone offers three hundred, another person eight hundred. The fat man adds that Ricardo lives in a gated community outside the city: Riverview.
“A view poor folks like us can’t even get a glimpse of. That’s where our friend Richie lives. We can call you Richie, can’t we? Like Richie Rich.”
A terrifying voice says five thousand. The terrifying voice takes Ricardo. The others applaud.
“Sold to the man with the moustache for five thousand!”
The fat man fondles Nancy, a girl who speaks with a thread of a voice. I know this because he says Look at these tits, how delicious, such perky nipples and he sucks up his drool and other things you don’t say without touching, and, also, who’s to stop him from touching her, no one. Nancy sounds young. Early twenties. She could be a nurse or a school teacher. The fat man undresses Nancy. We hear him unbuckle her belt and open her buttons and rip off her underwear, while she says please so many times and with so much terror that we all stain our filthy hoods with tears. Look at this little ass. Oh, what a beaut. The fat man licks Nancy, Nancy’s ass. We hear the sound. The men jeer, roar, applaud. Then the slap of flesh against flesh. And the howls. The howls.
“Gentlemen, this is just quality control. I give her a ten. You can clean her up real pretty and our friend Nancy will be a delight.”
She must be beautiful because they bid, immediately, two thousand, three, three thousand five hundred. Nancy goes for three thousand five. Sexy is cheaper than wealthy.
“And the lucky man taking this lovely ass home is the gentleman with the gold ring and the cross.”
We’re sold off one by one. The fat man managed to get everything out of the guy who was next to me, the one with the eight-month-old baby and the three-year-old son and now he’s a big fish for the auction: money in different accounts, high-up executive, son of a businessman, artwork, kids, wife. The guy is a winning lottery ticket. They’ll probably ask for ransom for him. The bid starts at five thousand. It goes up to ten, fifteen thousand. It stops at twenty. Someone no one else wants to mess with has offered twenty. A new voice. He’s come just for this. He wasn’t interested in wasting time with anything else.
The fat man doesn’t make any comments.
When it’s my turn I think about the roosters. I close my eyes and open my sphincter. This is the most important thing I will do in my life, so I’ll do it right. I soak my legs, my feet, the floor. I’m in the center of a room, surrounded by criminals, displayed before them like cattle and like cattle I empty my bowels. As best I can, I rub one leg against the other, I assume the position of a gutted doll. I scream like a madwoman. I shake my head, mutter obscenities, made up words, the things I said to the roosters about heaven full of corn and infinite worms. I know the fat man is about to shoot me.
But instead, he busts my lip open with a slap, I bite my tongue. The blood drips onto my chest, down my belly, mixes with the shit and piss. I start to laugh, deranged, to laugh, and laugh, and laugh.
The fat man doesn’t know what to do.
“How much for this monster?”
No one wants to bid.
The fat man offers up my watch, my cell phone, my purse. It’s all cheap, made in China. He grabs my tits in an attempt to encourage them and I shriek.
But nothing, no one.
They toss me into a patio. They hose me down and then they put me in a car that leaves me wet, barefoot, dazed, on the highway.
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.