Anna was sitting in OMA eating the second serving of ice cream and hating herself. She was inventing horrible punishments for not having refused the second dessert, like daily thirty minute runs at five am, skipping school lunches and starting a vegan diet. At the same time, she knew that she would never do any of these things and this made her feel even angrier.
She was especially angry at a man sitting in front of her and not only because of the extra serving of ice cream. For some reason, she always overate in his company.
He was holding a cup of coffee with one hand, while typing a message on his smartphone with the other.
To his wife, thought Anna. She was sure that all this texting to his wife and friends was an excuse to look at her as little as possible.
Anna knew that she wasn’t a pretty sight to look at. She had a robust face with a big nose slightly hanging over her thick upper lip, broad eyebrows, growing into one another on the bridge, a low forehead and a heavy square chin. She considered her large breasts her only virtue. She almost always wore tight tops to emphasize this.
Had Anna been bald with no breasts, she would have been a reflection of the man sitting opposite. The resemblance wasn’t flattering for either of them.
“Paula sends her regards,” said Alvaro putting his phone away and looking over her head.
“That’s so nice of her!” said Anna doing little to hide her sarcasm.
“Don’t be like that! Paula likes you!”
“Oh yea! She practically ADORES me!” said Anna pretending to examine the transparent bowl with the drops of the melted ice cream.
“Would she have given you such nice presents if she didn’t!” insisted Alvaro.
Anna fixed her gaze on the narrow steel spoon she was holding in her hand.
“Why don’t you ever wear the sweater Paula gave you last year?”
“I do wear it, but not on the days we meet.”
For some reason, all Paula’s presents were totally unwearable. The large pendant earrings were so heavy they could have stretched the ear lobes down to the shoulders. The graceful silver ring with a stone of a delicate violet color wouldn’t fit even her pinky finger. The leather bag was useless because it didn’t have a normal strap and its short round handles rubbed the shoulder and the armpit.
The presents were always mailed to Anna for her birthday April, 4th. The first one arrived almost five years ago, a month after her father had left them.
Another sign of special benevolence towards her were invitations to all the male birthday parties in the family. This meant that Anna was invited to three parties per year, though there were four men in Alvaro and Paula’s family. Their two youngest sons happened to be twins. Paula’s elder son from her first, very early and fleeting marriage, was seventeen.
Anna had already got used to the fact that her father’s new family had all their parties at the Nogal club. The twin’s birthday parties were always celebrated with the utmost extravagance. Anna tried not to think how much money had been spent on the twins’ last party that was held just two Saturdays ago.
There had been animators singing, playing and dancing with the young guests. There had been acrobats, clowns and magicians with a full set of tricks, including white doves and a rabbit, endless colorful handkerchiefs and coins that were fished out from the least expected places by dexterous fingers.
When all the fun was coming to an end: the two three-storey cakes covered with red and blue glaze had been almost eaten and the twins’ kindergarten’s friends had received their presents, Ignacio, Anna ’s elder step-brother came up to her and twiddling with the keys from his brand new Mercedes, casually asked her:
“Shall I give you a ride?”
This took her by surprise and she started to search for her father perplexedly. She expected that he would, as usually, take her home.
“He’s left for a business meeting. He asked me to take you home.”
“Got it,” said Anna in a slightly disappointed voice, “I thought you wanted to show off your new car.”
“Hah-hah!” grinned Ignacio, showing his impeccably white teeth, “That was a part of my plan as well.”
“No, thank you, I’d rather walk,” The distance between the club and her home was ten minutes on foot. Besides, she didn’t really trust Ignacio’s driving skills – the guy had got his license only a week before.
“What the f٭ck! Don’t be an idiot!” shouted Ignacio, “It’s already eight!”
Getting into an expensive car with a good-looking seventeen-year old, she suddenly regretted that nobody from her school could see her.
Ignacio was a tall green-eyed blond with refined facial features and a clearly outlined sensual mouth. His appearance had been unmercifully exploited from his early babyhood, when he was filmed in diaper commercial. Since then Ignacio’s face and other body parts flashed in different commercials, short films and soap operas almost daily, sometimes on different TV channels simultaneously.
They got home almost unadventurously. Despite her fears, Ignacio wasn’t much of a joyrider. Although he was so absorbed with a story about his latest TV show, that going down the seventh avenue he turned right on the 77 instead of 76 street, where the cars were moving in the opposite direction. To get back to the seventh avenue he had to drive in reverse a few meters. Ignacio might have got upset about his absent-mindedness, for he ran a red light on the next intersection.
Anna was half-listening to Ignacio. She was thinking that it must be cool to be able to drive a car and that she would turn sixteen soon, old enough to get her driving license, especially since her mother’s car had not been used for the last three years, just standing there in the underground car park in hibernation.
Entering her apartment, Anna heard her mother clattering away on the computer’s keyboard.
“Working,” thought Anna sighing with relief.
“Hello sweetheart!” The mother said, turning off the computer. “How was the party? Were there many guests?”
“For god’s sake, mom! Do you really want to know about that?” groaned Anna rolling her eyes, but having intercepted her mother’s begging glance, she reluctantly began to retell the events of the past day. She even told her about Ignacio, omitting the details on his inattentive driving so as not to worry her mother.
Anna didn’t like to worry her mother and was giving out information to her in a strictly edited form. It was easy to get her into a panic about any little thing.
She was listening to Anna carefully and as she was finishing her “report” with the words “and that’s how I arrived home”, her mom suddenly asked her:
“Would you like to drive a car, especially since you already have one?”
“But I don’t have the license!” said Anna. She couldn’t believe what she had just heard –was this her ever-panicking mom who suggested it?
“All you need is twenty or so driving lessons and you will! Just imagine: no more bumpy rides on a school bus, trips to your granny’s whenever you feel like it! You will take me to the doctors’ appointments. Yesterday that bastard of a taxi driver couldn’t wait just five minutes for me to come downstairs!”
“Well, as it turned out, my mom just needs a private driver,” concluded Anna. She thought with sadness that she would have to take her mother to doctors quite often as her condition had deteriorated lately.
Devastated by the divorce, Alexandra missed the early symptoms of her disease. Too depressed to notice that she couldn’t read billboards written in huge letters, she was getting too tired even trying to read a book in bed. She started seeking medical help only when walking had become difficult for her. That’s when she bought herself a big checkered umbrella.
Lately she started contemplating the necessity of a second umbrella and a personal driver. The news about her ex-husband’s stepson getting license and starting to drive excited her. It suddenly occurred to her that her daughter was nearly the same age as Ignacio, which meant…
“Anna,” said Alexandra, “when your father asks you what present you wish for your birthday, you can tell him you want driving lessons. Let him pay for them, I had too many unplanned expenses this month.
“Perfect, mom! What a great idea!” replied Anna cheerfully, thinking that she knew too well these “unpredicted expenses.” For almost three years those were expensive medications.
Sitting in the café, Anna started to worry because the conversation with her father had digressed from the necessary course. Instead of discussing her birthday, he was rambling on about his new diet and visits to the gym.
Decided to get fit, old fart, thought Anna with disgust. The father had been obese for at least twenty years and this sudden change of attitude towards his health seemed strange.
“Do you want a six-month membership for the Spinning Center,” asked Alvaro suddenly.
“Are you saying that I have to lose weight?” Anna’s face turned red. She knew that she had to lose weight, but to hear this from strangers was unbearable.
I just want to say that your birthday is coming soon and in my opinion, joining a gym is not the worst of presents” replied Alvaro smiling appeasingly.
“I won’t be going there – I’m too lazy for that!”
“Yeah” nodded Alvaro, “I even know who you got your laziness from! Was it not for Paula, I would have…
Alvaro fell silent – his daughter couldn’t stand his second wife – her sullen look said it all
“I got an idea,” said Anna breaking a long and awkward pause.
“Go on,” said Alvaro a bit suspiciously.
“Can you give me the money instead of the membership? I mean, the amount it would cost?”
“OK, no problem,” replied Alvaro, “What would you like to spend it on, if it’s not a secret?”
“It’s not – on driving lessons.”
“Well, that’s a good cause. Was it Ignacio who inspired you?” asked Alvaro laughing.
“No, it was Mom,” said Anna with exasperation. Her father’s laughter seemed irrelevant to her.
“Mom?” Alvaro choked on his coffee and was coughing for some time. ”What came over her?”
Anna just shrugged silently and looked away.
A few days after this conversation, Anna was picked up from school by “Don Gustavo,” her driving instructor. The first five lessons seemed an endless nightmare. The engine faltered constantly. She pressed the wrong pedals all the time, confusing the clutch with the brake and the brake with the throttle. She seriously regretted the lack of a third leg, was counting the minutes till the end of the lesson and cursed the day she agreed to all this nonsense.
When the engine stopped faltering at last, Gustavo ventured out of the wasteland, where they had spent the first five lessons, to a normal, though a very quiet street.
Anna was amazed that she got to the new place on her own. Although her every move was performed under Gustavo’s instruction, telling her when to push or release the clutch, change the gear or speed up, he didn’t have to resort to the pedals on his side of the car even once, which was quite an achievement.
On the next lesson Anna took herself home. Her hands and knees were trembling the first ten minutes, especially when she had to join the heavy traffic on the seven’s avenue.
She was about ten blocks away from home when they saw an accident. A minibus had run over a pedestrian just a few cars in front of them.
There was a crowd of people on the sidewalk, most of them were the passengers of the same minibus, whose driver knocked the pedestrian down.
Anna had never seen a dead body before and passing the spot of the accident she couldn’t resist the temptation to have a look at a man who was lying on the road with his face down.
She recognized him right away. He was wearing, as always, the same corduroy brown pants and jacket, worn over a light green shirt. It was her and the mom’s “favorite beggar,” the only one they gave money to.
He was standing always at the same spot, by the bridge over the Black River in the Virrey park, close to the fifteenth avenue. Judging by the spot where he was killed, in front of the entrance to the park on the eleventh, he was going to “work”.
He was an old man in his eighties. His clothes were always clean and his face was neatly shaven. In contrast to other beggars, he never smelled of anything – it seemed that he had just taken a shower. Receiving money, he would shut his eyes and say “thank you,” in a very low, almost whispering voice.
“I love his begging style,” the mom would say having given him another two thousand peso.
“Can it be his hobby?” suggested Anna once, puzzled by the unusual look of the beggar.
“God forbid you to have such a hobby,” was the mom’s instant reply.
That night Anna couldn’t sleep – she couldn’t forget the dead old man. The thought that she would never see him again made her feel very upset. At some point it suddenly occurred to her that it was a suicide: he threw himself under the wheels at his own will, having become tired of his loneliness and constant humiliation of his life as a beggar.
Now it seemed to Anna that she would lie awake till dawn. No matter how hard she tried to switch her thoughts to another subject, they were returning to the misfortunate beggar and the same image of the man lying head down in a small puddle of blood streaming out of his head would appear again and again.
For no particular reason Anna started replacing the old man with other people. The first person she saw stretched on the pavement was Marcela Chavez – it was Anna’s revenge for Marcela’s calling her ‘a fat cow’ in her PE class. The second was her literature teacher, who in Anna’s opinion was discriminating against her and deliberately lowering the grades for her essays. The third one was Paula – for taking the father away.
The fourth one was her father. Imagining him lying in a puddle of blood, Anna fell asleep.
Having woken up, Anna looked at the clock and got a fright: she hadn’t heard the alarm set for eight a.m. Now she had just seven minutes to get ready. Yesterday she and Gustavo arranged that he would pick her up from home at nine.
At nine she was standing in front of her house, energetically combing her tangled bangs with the brush she grasped on the run. She was thinking that she would have to starve for at least two more hours: because of Saturday she decided to take a double lesson.
Having arrived five minutes late (I could have brushed my teeth! thought Anna), Gustavo announced that they were going to Cajica.
“It would be better to take the north freeway,” was reasoning Gustavo studding his GPS, “but we’ll get to it from the fifteenth.”
Anna sighed heavily – she hated the fifteenth for its numerous traffic lights and black fumes exhausting buses.
Ana was lucky. The lights were green all the way till the intersection with the eighty fifth street, where, according to Gustavo’s route, she was supposed to turn left.
Standing at the long traffic light on the eighty fifth, Anna saw a familiar figure – it was her father. Judging by the training suit and sneakers, he was going to the gym.
Anna suddenly felt hot – she remembered that the father had cancelled their today’s meeting already on Thursday. He sent her a text message which she remembered every word of:
“Unfortunately, I can’t meet you this Saturday: we’re leaving for Cartagena to our friends’ wedding. See you another Saturday.”
The traffic light turned green, but the car stood still. She was following a stout figure in the training suit with her eyes, cursing to herself.
“Stuck? Change to the second gear!” shouted Gustavo, steering the wheel to the left.
All the way to Cajica and all the way back Anna was thinking that she had been deceived. The words that hurt her most were “see you another Saturday.” She had suspected for a long time that twice a month was as often as Alvaro could bear to see her. Now she realized that the father had decided to cut their meetings down to one a month.
Anna stopped paying attention to the traffic. The instructor had to press his own gas pedal and switch gears for her quite a few times.
“Today was not your day,” commented Gustavo diplomatically as they were approaching Anna’s house. “Are you sure you don’t want to get some rest tomorrow and catch up on your sleep? It’s Sunday after all!”
“Nah,” replied Anna yawning. For some reason, she was determined to finish all the remaining eleven lessons before her birthday, which was only two weeks ahead.
Going upstairs, Anna heard loud laughter, coming, as it seemed to her, out of their apartment.
“It’s Patricia,” guessed Anna getting close to the door.
Having lingered for a few moments by the door, Anna turned around and tiptoed back to the staircase. She didn’t want to spoil the fun the two old friends were having with her sullen face and disturb their “happy school years” reminiscing.
Anna walked to the Virrey park. Anna sat on a bench across the playground and started watching a couple of pigeons rummaging through the crumbs by her feet.
Her stomach grumbled and Anna remembered that she had not eaten anything since the night before. Loud calls of an ice cream man only intensified the hunger, but no matter how much she tried to ignore the annoying vendor, she bought a cone of the vanilla “poison”, as her mom called all sweets.
Eating ice cream, Anna was trying to blot out her feeling of guilt, which always emerged in such situations, by telling herself that this was her last portion of sweets this week– there wouldn’t be any at home. Eating out with the mom had long become an unlikely occasion. Mom felt embarrassed eating in public: her hands often trembled and the simplest manipulations with cutlery were a challenge. At the same time, she always refused to accept Anna’s help.
Having finished her ice cream, Anna couldn’t make up her mind how to fill the next hour. She didn’t want to go home – she hadn’t told her mom that the meeting with her father had been cancelled and it would be strange to do so now.
I must go for a walk, or rather a jog – I don’t get any exercise, said Anna to herself, but she was too lazy even to get up and move to another bench that was in the shade. But the sun was beating down unmercifully and the fear to get burnt finally overpowered her laziness.
Anna took a smartphone out of her bag and fumbled with it for a while, not knowing what to do with it. Should she call her father and tell him that she knows all about his lie? What for? What will it change? It will just make him make up new lies.
She opened up a news page on her phone, just out of boredom. She mainly just scanned the headlines, leaving out everything that seemed uninteresting to her – the sports news, gossips about celebrities, politics. At last her attention was captured by an article with the headline: “Christian Ramirez’s Parents Demand a Punishment for the Killer of Their Son.”
The article was about the unsuccessful attempts of the parents of a street attack victim to get a mild sentence given to their son’s killer changed. The reason he got away with only a few months in a house of reformation was his minority.
Anna reread the article a few times. She was especially struck by the fact that the killer was her age. He was fifteen, just like her.
If I kill somebody, I won’t get punished, flashed in her mind.
But can I really kill a person? asked Anna herself. To her surprise, she didn’t have a clear answer. That is, she knew unlike the assassin in the article, she would never kill for a mobile phone or any other nonsense. But on the other hand, there were such situations when the murder was the only way of righteous retaliation…
The sun reached the bench where Anna was sitting and started to burn the top of her head with all its cruelty. Anna decided that it was the time to go home.
On her way home, she remembered that now she would have to skip the meal because she already “had lunch with the Dad”. To satiate her hunger, she popped into a bakery and bought a freshly baked baguette.
Munching on a crunchy loaf, Anna was choosing herself a meal from the Crepes &Waffles’ menu she knew almost by heart – he father often took her there. She was sure that her mom would ask her about “what she had been fed with.”
Anna finally decided on a chicken with champignons in a bread bowl and a crepe with coconut ice cream for dessert. She knew that a lie and the truth shouldn’t diverge too much from one another.
Of course mom would be outraged – “again bread with bread and lots of sugar on top of that!”
“Just once a week!” would go on the defensive Anna, looking at the mom with her honest, though slightly apologetic eyes.
It was very quiet at home. Anna peeped through the half open door of her mother’s room: the mom was asleep. For some time she was restlessly wandering about the apartment, not knowing what to do. She didn’t feel like doing her homework. Watching TV seem to be an option either.
In the living room she found a book her mom had left. It was Chronicle of a Death Foretold, by Marquez.
Anna started reading the book from the page which had a paper bookmark. The book which she devoured in less than an hour impressed her deeply. There was a sentence that particularly got stuck in her memory. It said “children are capable of everything.”
This reminded her of the article about the fifteen year-old killer, who like the Vicario brothers, stabbed his victim with a knife. Lying on the sofa, Anna was thinking about the disproportionality between both murders and their punishments. Having turned the body of Santiago Nasar into one bleeding mess, Vicario twins were sentenced to just three years in prison and the killer of Christian Ramirez was walking the streets right now.
She opened the book and reread the last page. Having reached the last words “fell on his face in the kitchen”, Anna shivered. The image of the old beggar lying face down in a pool of blood reemerged in her mind with overwhelming clarity.
It shouldn’t have been him! flashed in her head.
Who then? asked her inner voice.
She already knew the answer.
Anna started rushing around the room, sometimes sitting down on the sofa, then jumping to her feet again. Finally she got tired and sat at the desk to jot down an action plan on a piece of paper she took out of the printer:
1. Get from mom the car key.
2. Tell Gustavo that beginning with the next lesson I will be driving only my car.
3. Take the car every night and drive it to the crossroads of the 15th with …
Hearing the door creak, Anna crumpled the paper up and put it in her school bag. Then, she rushed to the sofa and having plopped herself down, grabbed the book.
Gustavo agreed to switch the cars easily, saying that he had been already thinking about suggesting it to her. Inserting the key, Anna realized that the decision to change the instructor’s car to that of her mom was the correct one: the car wouldn’t start.
“The battery is low,” explained Gustavo.
“So, what shall I do now?” Anna got anxious.
“We’ll have to use my car this lesson, “he said dialing someone’s number on his phone, “Shit, voice mail again. I’ll call him tomorrow, it’s too late anyway: the mechanic’s shop is closing in a few minutes.”
Anna grudgingly got into Gustavo’s car and the whole lesson was thinking that he would surely forget his promise and wouldn’t call anybody. That’s why, at the nearest long traffic lights she asked Gustavo to give her the car mechanic’s phone number.
Anna called him as soon as she got home and asked him to come and change the battery.
“How old are you, kid?” asked a tired sympathetic voice, “Please put an adult on the phone!”
“I am sixteen!” said Anna angrily. She knew she had a childish voice.
“Anyway, call your mom or dad!”
Feeling that she wasn’t getting anywhere, Anna passed the phone to her mother.
“Yes, of course I understand, the car was out of use for three years”, she said after a short pause. “Let’s do it next Tuesday.”
“Why next Tuesday?” screamed Anna. She felt that her plan was falling apart.
“Because I will get paid only on Monday evening. I don’t have the money now.
Anna wanted to cry and stamp her feet, but she knew that this wouldn’t impress her mom. Besides, she wasn’t a child any more to behave like this.
“I have just paid the water and electricity bills,” continued her mom, “I have only some 170 thousand left on my account and we have to survive on it till next Monday!”
Anna felt her brain was seething with so many thoughts she had to contemplate simultaneously. For example, she thought that she had to go to the Law School to become a divorce attorney and defend the interests of the deceived women because her mother was one of them. She had no doubts about it.
The father left her mother the apartment with everything in it and one of his cars in exchange for the promise “never to bug him with money issues”. Anna believed such a deal was horribly unfair, especially considering that the father owned two furniture plants, three apartments and the same number of country estates.
At the same time she was thinking about where she could get the money from. The sum needed for the driving course had been transferred to the driving school’s account. There was no more than fifty thousand in her wallet. She could have turned for help to her granny, but the latter had recently remarried and gone on a honeymoon trip to Hawaii.
So the only person who could help her was her father. Anna imagined a newspaper article with the headline Paid Twice For His Own Death and for a minute felt uneasy. However, she decided not to succumb to a moment of weakness. Just a few minutes later she was typing a message:
Hello dad! How was your trip to Cartagena? mom’s car’s battery has died. The new one costs 300 thousand. Can you transfer money to my account? Thank you!
The answer came the next day, late in the evening:
“The money transferred”
Some seconds late came another message:
“You’ll pay it back when you start earning.” At the end of the sentence for some reason there was a smiling emoticon.
Next morning, on the school bus, Anna asked Jorje, a little fellow in glasses with a deep voice, to call the mechanic and make an appointment for five thirty.
She estimated the time correctly: at half past five she was already parking Gustavo’s car in the underground garage. Anna was glad that her mother wasn’t at home – she wouldn’t approve squeezing money out of the father, especially on such a non- urgent, in her opinion, matter.
Anna dashed into the kitchen with her coat on – she was terribly thirsty.
She poured herself a full glass of water and started gulping it greedily, choking and spilling half of it. She was drying up a small puddle with paper towels, when she got a call from the doorman.
“Señor Luis, the mechanic, is here. Shall I let him in?”
“Yeah, show him to the car”, shouted Anna into the intercom receiver. She stretched her hand to get the car key which was always kept on the shoe cabinet. This time it wasn’t there…
Anna was overwhelmed by panic. She ran to her mother’s study and started rummaging through the drawers of her desk with trembling hands. The key wasn’t there either!
She sat on the floor and saw her reflection in the mirror.
I should take this f٭cking coat off, thought Anna sobbing loudly.