It was the whole matter of the gifts that made her think back to that night. Whenever they fought and he threw her out of the house, he always made her return the gifts he’d given her. The boots, especially, which had been her first birthday present from him. She remembered that time because, before locking himself on the balcony, Iván had thrown one of the boots out the window, and the next morning, when the doorbell rang and he’d thought immigration was coming for him, she’d accepted from a neighbor’s hands a long, red boot that looked like one of those Christmas stockings you hang from the chimney and fill with candy. “Is this yours?” the man had asked, raising the boot he held between two fingers, as if insanity were contagious and he could catch it from her through that minimal contact. She thanked him. She didn’t even remember the moment Iván had opened the living room window. Later, when she went to the supermarket, she found a bra discreetly hung from the building’s fence. A white bra, soaked through by the recent snow.
Not that the blanket she had on the table now was strictly a gift, but still, it made her think back to that night and try to reconstruct the fight they’d had. It always started more or less the same way, though it didn’t end the same. She saw—or heard—herself shouting through the glass door that led to the balcony:
“The last time they saw him he was running naked through the street and throwing himself at cars. He wasn’t trying to kill himself, but he ended up dead. Pneumonia and cardiac arrest. Come on, Iván, get inside. Pneumonia is no joke!”
He brings a finger to his temple and signals to her that she’s crazy. For a moment she thinks it’s true, that there’s no way she can be sane when for months now she’s had a packed suitcase sitting next to the door, when she’s already gone up and down the three flights of stairs countless times carrying that same suitcase that can hold all her belongings (not true: her belongings take up two suitcases; in the second one she has the less important things, the ones she wouldn’t mind leaving behind if he threw her out again, or if, again, he started to break, destroy, and trample everything in his way while screaming that every screw in that house belonged to him, because he’d earned it with his talent. “Talent” is his favorite word. “Talent” and “mediocre.” He has talent, while she is mediocre). She can’t be sane, no, not when she’s already dragged that suitcase countless times down the sidewalk thick with snow, between black streams of mud and grime that spatter the cars. The snow after the snow: what happens when the immaculate is besmirched, exhausted. Is that how everything ends up? Spat out and trampled? Just a week before, she’d gone down the three floors with her suitcase, lugged it to the subway—where there were more stairs—sat down on the metal bench, and let three or four trains go by. The cold of the seat started seeping through her leather jacket and she kept crying, not out of sadness but rage, rage that her eyes looked stubbornly toward the bridge, hoping he would come after her. “I’ll count to ten and I’m gone.” But then she counted to twenty, looked back at the clock with its fluorescent hands and let one more train go by, just one, because it was already getting dark and the freezing wind had made her cheeks go numb.
In the end she always got onto a train. She’d spend the night in a hotel or take a full trip around on the subway—the complete journey took an hour and fifteen minutes—and then she went back home. At first he wouldn’t open the door for her, he’d say “go away” until she got tired of repeating that she had nowhere to go and begging him please. Other times, he was drunk and naked when he opened the door, chopping red chili peppers, the kind that deaden the mouth. If she tried to take the bottle from him he pointed the knife at her, but not the way a criminal would, no, just by accident, moving it distractedly in her direction while he said that it was his house, and in his house he had the right to drink all the whiskey he wanted.
“He’s right, I am crazy.” Then she remembers that he is the one who’s naked on the balcony, and that it’s five below zero outside. She’s on the other side of the glass door holding a down quilt in her hand, showing it to him as if it were an angel’s fluffy wings. He shakes his head no, latches the door, yells:
“I want to catch pneumonia!”
She threatens to leave. She knows he is barefoot on a thin layer of ice, the hardened and slippery snow that won’t melt until spring. When he finally opens the door, she takes the chance to throw the quilt over him as if he were in flames. She wraps him up and he lets himself be guided to the bed. He’s shivering. His skin is red: not white like one would expect, but reddened and dry. “You’re crazy, Iván,” she repeats, while she closes the window and tries to remember how it was that they ended up that way, with him naked on the balcony and her feeling, once again, that she had to protect him. The French writer. Wasn’t that it? He’d told her that bisexuality was a stupid fad. That these days, all the girls thought they were lezzies. His way of speaking annoyed her, and he knew just the right words to use to unleash another fight. Their arguments often started around subtleties of languages. “All feminists are bitter.” Although after a while the attack would turn on her again: “You like to play at being modern, but men and women just aren’t the same.”
And yet, the day had started off well. She came home happy from her walk in the park; he was waiting for her with lunch; they were both moved watching the documentary on Pulqui; they sharpened pencils and set them out on the desk. When it came down to it, what difference did it make if she was right? Why fight so fiercely to change him if they could be happy just like that, eating mangos and Belgian chocolate on the sofa, him shirtless, her resting on his chest, breathing in that acidic smell—unpleasant in a way, but so concrete that it could exist outside of him, like his shoes or his clothes. And yet, she couldn’t stop herself: she cited that French writer, a bisexual woman in 1900. He told her that writer was another idiot. “But have you read her?” No, he didn’t need to read her to know she was an idiot. “Idiotic and mediocre like your ex, and like that friend of yours, the guy who died of pneumonia.” A nd from there to the other thing—broken objects, suitcase down the stairs—it was only a step.
From beneath the quilt Iván asks her to close the curtain. He’s no longer shivering, but his voice is muffled in the pillows.
“Male na, you’re mine, right?”
She says yes and walks over to the window.
“We’re never going to break up because you’re mine, right?”
Before closing the curtain, she pauses a moment and looks out. The sky has that dirty shine of northern winters.
“It’s snowing,” she says, and she stays there, her back to him, her eyes seeking out the weak snowflakes that can only be seen against the light, under the street-lamps.
A baroque church in a public plaza in a provincial city. A plaza like so many others in the south. In the north of the south, she should say. It’s just that now they no longer live on a foreign continent; they don’t even live together. Now she’s on the terrace of a bar, night already fallen, stars teeming behind the church tower, and maybe they’re what makes her think of snow. Because the docile snow of windless nights doesn’t fall, it seems to emerge from the air and hover, just like these summer stars.
Had the waiter looked at her strangely when he took her order? Strangely, or with pity? A woman with a bandaged wrist, her face dry but taut from old sobs, her arm purplish. Had he looked at her because of that, or simply because she was a woman drinking beer alone? Laughter issued from the surrounding tables; someone was talking about a soccer match. From time to time a group rushed past wearing feathered headbands and beating drums. A black, almost funereal car pulled up outside, and three brides got out. Two in white dresses that were as inflated and baroque as the moldings on the church; the third wore a lilac dress. Lilac dress, lilac tiara, lilac, satin-lined shoes. A bride charter, she thought. She wasn’t envious, nor did she feel bad for them. She realized she was thinking what for. Why go to all that trouble? But maybe the thought was only directed at the high-heeled shoes and those ugly dresses, probably rented, and all that squandering on photographs and dreams. She looked at her plate, smeared with white sauce. The beer bottle’s label had gotten wet and could almost be pulled off in one piece. She wanted to order another one, but she was afraid of the waiter. Her arm hurt, too, where Ivan had grabbed her to drag her out of the house. The bruises always surprised her; it could almost be said that they fascinated her. In the moment she didn’t feel pain. Humiliation, yes, and impotence, but not pain. Later she was surprised when she saw them, so large: the blood accumulated under the skin looked like landscapes on the moon.
She was staring outside again. In her worst moments, she felt like life was a kind of video game. Not a movie with an elaborate script, but a Pacman, something absurd that you operated with a joystick and four buttons. The bride in lilac was leaning against a lamppost. The photographer was saying “Big smile, big smile!” How many cherries had she eaten by now? How many lives did she have left?
A boy came over to her table and showed her something, cloth of some kind. She jumped; she’d been absorbed in the sight of the cans tied to the limousine’s bumper, everyday pea cans without labels, now lying mute on the cobblestone street. She didn’t hear what the boy said, but she made an automatic gesture of refusal—not of the skinny kid with the indigenous face or whatever it was he was selling, but rather of an image of herself. A thousand kilometers from her house, staring at brides in front of a church, bruised, idiotic, and too ashamed even to call the waiter over; her last savings spent on a sleeper bus, a dirty hostel, and the most expensive empanadas in the city. That’s how it was: an impulse, a single moment of stupidity, and game over.
What had the boy said to her? “Go tell it to your mother?” that was the first thing she thought she heard. He’d moved a little farther away and was looking at her, leaning over an empty table, with an expression that she interpreted as contempt. Or had he said “fuck your mother?”
“What?” she asked.
“I said, they’re made by my grandmother.”
Only three hours earlier she had risked her life on a motorcycle behind a crazy man without a helmet who shouted into the wind: “You fucking bitch, I hate you, we’re going to kill each other. We’re going to kill each other, you fucking bitch.” Once, she had loved that crazy man, and one time she had even saved him from pneumonia. She’d warmed his back with a hair dryer to relieve the cramping, calculated when he should take his medicine. On the motorcycle, the hot wind whips away the words from his mouth and they pelt her face like hail. She prays a Hail Mary, the white lines shoot past the tires in a nearly continuous line, a pallet truck honks its horn. “Slow down,” she says, and grabs tight to his waist. She’s disgusted by touching him. She doesn’t know him, doesn’t remember him. And he: “Shut up, you fucking bitch, shut up. What are you here for? To fuck up my life?” He was a gentleman; he gave the helmet to her, almost forced her onto the bike with the backpack on her back and the bag between her legs, before dropping her at a bus stop on the highway. And all that for what? To be afraid of a seven-year-old boy holding a brocade quilt?
“Let’s see, come here,” she says. “Show me.”
The boy comes over; he tells her he has other colors.
“It’s very pretty. Show me the others.”
He spreads them out one by one. He does it eagerly, as if he didn’t know what he was going to find inside, as if each blanket were a top hat that something magical was going to emerge from. “Butterflies, flowers,” he says softly.
“There’s a panda one, too.”
He has the cutest smile she’s ever seen, and his eyes very black. She asks him if he’s going to carnival that night. He says no, that he’s never gone to a corso parade. He talks to her about his brothers and sisters who are waiting for him in the plaza; he wants to know when she’s going back to Buenos Aires and how many hours the trip is. In the distance they can hear the beat of drums from another land. Finally she tells him “I’ll take the one with flowers. It’s for the trip, you know?”
“It’ll keep you warm.”
She pays him, and nothing in the world could have made her haggle over the price. She has just decided to buy everything she’s offered from that moment until she takes the bus back the next afternoon. In any case, she no longer has anything: no computer or savings or many other things that have broken over recent years. And she wants to have even less. She wants to get to the bottom of this thing. She’s going to spend everything she has left—including the money for lunch and the towel rental—on gifts. Gifts, she thinks, and that’s when she remembers the boots. The flowered quilt isn’t what interests her, it’s the boy’s smile, the friendly way his eyes light on her. “Thanks,” she says, and he seems to understand something because he offers her another moment, lets her help him fold the quilts, each of them holding two corners and meeting in the middle like in a handkerchief dance.
By now the brides are gone. She didn’t see them get into the car or hear the cans on the cobblestones. The moon had risen, and its light obscured the stars. More things have accumulated on the table: a prayer card with St. Mary of La Rábida, a spoon carved of carob, a bag of candy, a cactus made of matches, a straw of nickel silver. The bar is closing; the chairs turned upside down on the empty tables looked like desert flowers. She calls the waiter over and asks for the check. While she pays, he says that it’s a nice night.
“Nice night, isn’t it?”
Before going back to the hostel, she sat on a bench in the plaza. On the same bench, two girls were talking about a third one who had just sent them a text message. She didn’t want to look at them openly, but she could tell they were very young. Before long they’d be lilac-wearing brides, and maybe they’d even charter the photographer together.
“It’s her own fault,” one of them said. “He was all over her and she let him. She shouldn’t be crying now.”
“Anyway, why does she care?” said the other one. “She’ll never see that guy again.”
For a delirious moment, a video game moment, Malena considered the possibility that the guy was Iván. She looked at the tanned legs of one of the girls, the one in the miniskirt, and she wondered if Iván could sleep with her. Right away she wondered if she could. She was interrupted by a woman selling handmade socks. They exchanged almost no words, but she bought a pair of thick socks made of llama wool.
She went back to the hostel on foot. It was Saturday, and no one was there except for two girls putting on makeup in front of a lighted mirror they’d propped against one of the bunks. Both of them rummaged in the same vanity case full of broken makeup. That it was broken she knew without needing to look inside—she could see the plastic smeared with grey shadow and glitter. From her bed she could smell the crumbled powders, the Maybelline lipstick and the body mist. It was the same smell her mother’s vanity case gave off.
She didn’t worry about locking up the computer—it was broken anyway. Her backpack was marked with Iván’s footprint and some grass stains. She was dirty, and she felt dirty, but she didn’t have the two pesos to rent a towel, and in any case she didn’t want to get her bandage wet. After buying the socks, she’d given the last of her change to a man guarding cars, who also accepted the bag of candy. She only had a peso and twenty cents left for the bus from Retiro to her house, but she had the strange feeling that only now could she start to have something.
The receptionist knocked on the door and invited her to watch a horror movie in the common room. She excused herself. Her fall (that’s what she’d said when they asked about the bandage) and the wait at the hospital had tired her out. Before lying down, though, she checked her email on the hall computer. Five new messages. All from Iván. The last one received at 00:37.
She had a rough night, unable to sleep on her right side as she usually did. Every time she turned over in her sleep, the pain jolted her awake. She had planned to sleep late, but by seven the others were already starting to get up: slamming doors, talking, packing. At nine, she got up for breakfast. The last thing she wanted to see was a bunch of teenage backpackers who had stayed up all night, with their under-eye circles left over from the party and the alcohol, and that chalky exhaustion that follows joy. She felt a hundred years older than them, and she would have gone somewhere else for breakfast if not for the fact that she only had 1.20 pesos.
Coffee, milk, and two croissants with butter and jam. She eats staring blankly into the yard where there’s a foosball table and some clotheslines. She hadn’t put in her contacts and she’s wearing her old glasses, crooked from being sat on so many times. She has her hair pulled sloppily back in a bun she put up without even looking at herself in the mirror. Nor did she wash her face, and she feels sweaty. At the table diagonally across from her, a dark-skinned guy in green Bermudas with a G.I. Joe look is watching her. Watching her, because “looking” is not the right word.
“What happened to your wrist?” he asks seriously; his face is totally clean, his hair perfectly gelled, his eyes penetrating. If he’d danced until six in the morning, no one would know it. He looks cool as a cucumber, and totally wide-awake. Couldn’t he leave her alone? She doesn’t like to talk at breakfast.
“Stupidity,” she says.
She waits a little, takes another sip of coffee, looks at him.
“I put my hand through a window. It was an accident.”
What she had really wanted to do was push the living room window, the one right over Iván’s desk, and knock everything off of it, pens, computer, glasses. What she really wanted was to become Iván, break up for good, to break: abandon all attempt at sanity. But she’d calculated wrong and her hand went effortlessly through the glass, as if sinking into water.
“I didn’t even feel it,” she tells the stranger.
He doesn’t hesitate; there is something so incisive and worldly in his aplomb, his way of pronouncing words, that he seems to be giving orders instead of asking questions.
“You were that angry?”
She smiles, also without wanting to, and that improbable, ill-humored laughter is like a thread that pulls the words from her and makes her tell, for the first time, the truth. She doesn’t remember her exact words. Only the expression on the face of that angular, strong-armed stranger—younger than her—and the way he arched his brows. Quite a confession to hear at nine in the morning at a backpackers’ hostel. And she thinks, she thinks, that at one point she even told him what Iván had said to her once: “I never hit you with my fists. You just bruise so easy.”
They sit talking for a while. He has to check out of the hostel; he’s leaving in two hours for Humahuaca, but she asks him to wait, she wants to show him the gifts she bought the night before. She goes back to her room and takes the opportunity to put in her contacts and let her hair down. Suddenly, an image comes to her: she sees the stranger enter the room and corner her against the wall. He grabs her by her good wrist but doesn’t press his body against hers. He’s going to lick her hand, the soft fold between her fingers. The narrow tongue like a mollusk or warm spoon. The thought scares her. She quickly takes the bag from her backpack, goes back to the common room and spreads the gifts out on the table. “You bought all this?” he asks. They laugh. She looks at his hands as he inspects the wool socks. Is it me, then? Is it ok to desire this pain?
“You can have the socks,” she says suddenly. “So you’ll think of me when you’re in the mountains.”
He goes to his room and comes back carrying a gigantic backpack, almost as tall as he is. She doesn’t feel anything when she finally hugs him, awkwardly, over the straps and the hanging canteens. She waves at him until the last bit of backpack disappears through the door. The hall is emptying, but she waits until she’s alone before sitting down in front of the computer and looking at her email. A new message. From Iván. Don’t you see that this hatred is the size of my love?
She closes her mail but doesn’t get up from the chair. The bag with the gifts, minus the socks, is still on the breakfast table. It’s not even noon, but the sun is already streaming into the rectangle of the inside patio, and its whitewashed walls gleam. When she looks outside she sees something falling from the sky. Slow, white, weightless. What is it? She goes out to the patio, and between the bare clotheslines she looks up at the shining, cloudless sky. A rain of dust, a dry rain. She sweeps her foot over the ground, and it leaves a long track.
“Ash,” she says, and she wishes she could tell someone. Iván, the man on his way to Humahuaca.
She looks around, she looks with surprise at the empty rooms. Then she opens her arms, waits, lets the white specks land softy on her bare shoulders. Ash, no, she thinks. Not ash; snow.