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from the April 2017 issue

My Uncle

In Pep Puig’s “My Uncle,” a young boy’s world is turned upside down during a visit to Grandma’s house.

 

Even though they’d been brought up pretty much the same, there was a fundamental difference between my uncle and my father. My father was the child my grandparents had always wanted. Plus, they knew for a fact he wasn’t faking it. A man of the house and a man of faith, he was hardworking, brave, and responsible. If there was ever any conflict between him and my grandparents, I never heard of it. But I doubt there ever was one.

Maybe because he was the youngest, my uncle was a whole other story. He’d only been married to my Aunt Pilar for about a year, and they had one on the way, but you could tell he was having second thoughts. He forged his own path.

Still, it wasn’t my uncle who skipped town for the city, as everyone had expected, but my father. My uncle stayed to work the lands my grandfather left us when he died a few years back. My uncle and my father truly cared about each other, but they weren’t friends. It must have been the age difference.

My uncle took a special liking to me. Or at least he acted like he did whenever we’d trek up to town to visit my grandmother in Salomó. He’d hold back the kisses—knowing I hated them—but as soon as I came within his line of sight, he’d hug me until I squealed in pain.

“What’s up, Pepino!?” he’d ask as I smiled, happy and embarrassed at the same time.

Sometimes I’d bring a ball to town with me, and he’d want to play right away. We’d go to the store (my grandmother ran a shoe store), and I’d kick while he played goalie. My uncle had short arms, but he could catch a ball with incredible skill. But every once in a while we’d knock over a stack of shoeboxes and my grandmother would run over and yell at him like he was still a little boy.

He was a little boy, my uncle.

 

So I wouldn’t get bored out of my mind back home, my father would drop me off at my grandparents’ in Salomó for a few days a year, as soon as school was out. In town—to us, Salomó was a town—I had my own group of friends and we’d spend all day playing. The only thing I had to worry about was showing up to meals on time to keep my grandmother happy.

A woman came to Salomó one summer and turned life upside down. Maybe she wasn’t really a woman, but a girl. And the one life she turned upside down was my uncle’s—and maybe mine, too. It might have been because they all had the same last name and all went to church, but the women in town seemed to share a certain physiognomy, which I didn’t find very attractive. This girl was different though. Not only was she tall, blonde, and skinny, but there was something special to her beauty. Anyone could see that at a single glance. She would have had to cover up to go unnoticed. But it was summer. And she wore the dresses she wore. You could tell she was a good girl from a mile away, which is why the women felt bad about talking trash. And the men never talked: they’d just ogle her at a distance, some with hungry eyes, others wishing for her on the sly. But soon enough they’d return their gaze to their card games and dominoes and forget about it.

My uncle got hooked. Hooked: that might be the best word for his predicament.

Allow me to explain: even though he seemed like your average Joe on the field, stubborn and a little rough hewn, my uncle had a knack for reading. He had a wall full of books in his room, half of which disappeared when he got married and moved out. No one knew where that reading habit had come from. One day I asked my father about it and he said reading was my uncle’s way of leaving town. I didn’t quite get what he meant back then, but I did a year later, in the throes of my adolescence, when I started devouring the novels that he had kept on hand at the shoe shop to kill time.

I guess my uncle was a major fan of movies for the same reasons. There was only one movie theater in town, and on Sundays, when the lights would dim, it was not uncommon for the screen to conjure up remarkable women from the dark, and maybe even some men. Ava Gardner. Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Robert Redford. Once the lights switched back on, the gods and goddesses would disappear into thin air. We’d look at each other and know how much we wanted to be like them. But it would never be the same. Books, movies . . . they showed my uncle that the world could be different. But this different world was in the books and movies, not in his life. Maybe the woman who had just arrived at Salomó wasn’t Jessica Lange, but she looked like she’d just descended from the screen to dwell among us mortals. That’s what got my uncle hooked: that she had stayed among us.

I can talk about my uncle’s rapture because maybe it was mine, too. I also got hooked. One morning, I was staring out my bedroom window when I saw her ride by on a bicycle, her golden hair flowing in the wind. Who is this girl? I thought. I had no idea, but I figured out that she was staying in town, or somewhere on the outskirts, when I saw her at the pool the very next day. And the next. And the next.

She’d come down from the hill (not on her bike, but on foot), and I could spot her long before she arrived, a willow basket swinging on her shoulder as she crossed the three diagonal paths downhill, through the carob trees. Like that, from a distance, she was the prettiest thing I’d ever seen. Sometimes I’d be so entranced it was like she’d never make it down.

And suddenly she’d walk through the gate, settling alone under the mulberry at the corner, all the way at the rather isolated, shallow end of the pool. First she’d lay out her towel, then she’d take out a book and sunscreen, drop her dress to her ankles, and sit down to read, legs crossed. After a while she’d lay down, chest to towel, and reach her arm behind her back to undo her bikini top, and later she’d very carefully tie it back on—she knew where she was. She’d sit up, cast a quick glance at her surroundings, and walk to the pool’s edge. After dipping a single toe in the water, she’d dive in without taking a shower first. (Showering was the rule, but I figured that Paco—the concierge—didn’t have the heart to tell her).

I’m about to say something outrageous: her body was perfect. In my childish eyes, when I saw her hips swaying toward the pool’s edge in infinite grace, a dark and melancholy desire, or a precursor to desire, would awaken within me. Sometimes I think that if I saw her now—if I saw her the way she was back then, I mean—I might be a little disappointed. Maybe I’d find her a little narrow in the shoulders, or not quite tall enough, or too broad in the hips. (No, not that: I’ve never found a woman too broad in the hips.)

That thing about the bikini would get the gang all riled up. We’d elbow each other and giggle under our breath, but then they’d let it go and leave her to me. On one of those afternoons, she went to the shoe shop to buy a pair of sandals. I was having lunch in the kitchen and though I had never heard her speak, I recognized her voice: there weren’t any voices like that one in town. My heart skipped a beat. I got up and tip-toed toward the hallway, hoping I could catch a glimpse of her—that’s all. But right when I stuck my nose in, my grandmother turned around and caught me.

“This is my grandson,” she said, “Josep.”

I didn’t want to be rude, so I had no choice but to stay. “Hi, Josep.” She gave me a wide, bright smile. “Hi,” I said, sheepishly. “Josep is the oldest son of my oldest son, who is also called Josep, and he came here to Salomó to visit with me for a few days. Right, Josep?” I nodded. She sat down on the wooden chair, the one for clients and farmers who came to buy espadrilles for the field. She crossed one leg over her bare knee and waited for my grandmother to hand her a sandal. It may have been because she smiled at me, but my legs turned to spaghetti. It was like all that beauty surging through her, which I’d usually only glimpse from far away, was concentrated in that closed-in space, cornered by all those shoe boxes. I walked toward the door in an attempt to hide my burning cheeks and stared out at the road, but I could still see her in the glass. I only turned back around when she went up to pay, and then I stared at her again, like a dog.

“Bye, Josep,” she said.

I was only ten years old but, looking back, I think I fell in love, hard. I thought about her all the time. At night I’d take her to my room with me and hug the pillow like it was her and we were talking. In the morning, as soon as I opened my eyes—or way before that—she was already in my head. She was showing up constantly, between my gaze and the objects surrounding me, her presence invisible, almost ethereal.

The next morning at the pool, she caught me gawking at her. She obviously recognized me from the day before: she smiled and waved. I waved back—and smiled back—before dropping my head. From that moment on, a complicity of sorts was established between us. Every morning, she’d catch me looking at her at some point or other, and then we’d smile and wave, first her at me, then me at her.

My uncle was short, well built, and hairy, with a thick mustache covering his lip in an attempt to draw attention away from his huge nose, which wasn’t really that huge. More of a clown nose. A bulbous nose. In the morning, while my Aunt Pilar worked the cash register at the Palet’s, he would ride down to the vineyard on his motorcycle to check on the vines and water the tomatoes. The vine was on the opposite side of town from the pool. Which is why I thought it strange when I heard the quick roar of his bike getting close. I thought maybe he was running an errand somewhere, but soon enough he was at the door, camouflaged under his straw hat.

And I jumped.

I couldn’t believe he was at the pool: besides the fact that he’d never come before, he had a huge pool at the vineyard all to himself. Maybe I would have thought nothing of it if I hadn’t noticed the way he looked at her at the movies that Sunday. Engulfed by shame, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. But soon enough a shadow blocked the sun above me and I felt a kick on my shin.

“Hey, Pepino . . .” When I opened my eyes the sun blinded me. “Grandma says . . .”

He hadn’t even finished offering his excuse when the motives of his visit became obvious to me. And the sunlight didn’t let me see if he’d gone red or not. He’d come down the hill wearing his swimming trunks already and after setting his shirt and towel down beside me, as if he were just one of the crew, he went up to the pool’s edge and said, “Hey, Pepino, I challenge you to a race.”

Hesitant—actually, more embarrassed than hesitant—I got up and walked to the deep end. There was a diving board in the middle and we stood on either side. “You have to let me win,” he whispered, swinging his arms ostentatiously, like an Olympic swimmer. He said it all like it was a joke, but deep down I knew he was serious. And I didn’t like it. My father had taught me to fight, to try to be the best at everything. Of course I couldn’t be the best at everything, but I could at some things. At running, jumping, and swimming, for example. I found myself compromised: I wanted to show off for her, too.

“Ready,” he yelled, “Set . . .”

We both jumped in the pool at about the same time. Letting my uncle win was no easy feat: the guy splashed his short arms frantically but could barely move forward. At one point I even remember actually considering whether to keep swimming or stop and rescue him. In the end, we tied. Maybe he got there a tiny bit before me.

As soon as he touched the edge, he soared out of the water like he had just broken a record. He spit out a stream like a fountain, slicked back his hair, turned toward her, and gave her his goofiest smile, like he had put on that entire show just for her. She smiled back and even delivered a few generous claps. That was just too much for him to handle. Then he pulled himself together, slid over to the rail, and climbed out to get his towel with a dignified walk.

In the middle of it all, I heard a voice ask, “Who is he?”

I turned toward her.

“My uncle,” I replied. Mortified, I plunged all the way to the bottom of the pool.

That morning my uncle let me ride to the shoe store on his motorcycle. When my grandmother saw us, she yelled at him and asked if there was nothing but air in his head.

“Kid fell in love with a tourist,” was all he had to say, changing the subject.

But Grandma wasn’t up for games and just shuffled back to the kitchen to cook lunch. While I turned red as a tomato, my uncle winked at me and left.

The next day, my uncle went back to the pool and brought a book. This time he said hi from far away with a quick gesture of the hand and sat down on the corner opposite her, under another mulberry tree. There was something different about his posture, something in the way he waved at me with his ironically threatening attitude, as if he were saying I’ll keep your secret if you keep mine.

My uncle really did love reading, but he’d clearly only brought the book to make it seem like he was doing something. He spent the whole time checking her out. Every time she jumped in the pool, every time she climbed out or lay in the sun, he would peer over the edge of his book and then hide again. In the end she got dressed, slid her sandals on without bending over, and perched her bag on her shoulder, taking her time on her way out.

Five minutes later it was my uncle who got dressed, and without so much as a good-bye, he left. I saw him head out the door, and after a while I heard the motorcycle rev up. She was already halfway up the second path, making her way with no apparent effort. I anxiously followed her trek with my gaze, and though I sensed that he was slowing down, he didn’t stop when he caught up to her—thank God—but just waved and went on up the highway.      

He was back at the pool the very next day. Same ritual: hiding behind his book. He tried so hard to be discreet it was even more shameless. I asked myself if it would really matter all that much if anyone in town caught on. Knowing him, he probably didn’t give a damn.

My uncle’s secret infatuation kind of agonized me. If he hadn’t been my uncle, I would have found his antics entertaining and probably would have gotten a kick out of them with my friends. But this was my uncle, and I guess I felt sorry for my pregnant aunt.

On the third or fourth day, he finally went up to her. He stood straight up and stretched out his arms like he was trying to get rid of some stubborn sluggishness. I saw him cross the narrow end of the pool inch by inch so as not to slip. My uncle was a true actor. In fact, he was in the town’s theater company, and he always got the parts that made people laugh. Once at her side, he asked what book she was reading. He flipped through it and gave it back. For a while they sat there, talking, I don’t know about what. From a distance, the racket of my friends playing in the water and my own embarrassment wouldn’t let me catch exactly what they said to each other, but every now and then she’d burst into laughter, and sometimes she’d throw her head back and everything.

When it was finally over, he inched his way across the long end of the pool with his arms out like a tightrope walker and came up to me.

“Her name is Helena,” he whispered and winked. “You know what she told me?” I looked up. “She says you’ve got nice eyes.”

I dropped my head in shame, but from the corner of my eye I could see her looking our way, like she was making sure my uncle had delivered the message.

“You’ve got her in your pocket, Pepino.” He gave me a light kick on the foot, made a euphoric run for the water, and cannonballed in.

He meant it as a joke, of course. He was just pulling my leg. But for some reason I believed it. Not that I had her in my pocket, obviously, nor that a girl like her would think anything of a ten-year-old like me, but I did believe she thought I was cute, and that perhaps, every morning, when she looked at me, she looked because she wanted to. For a few minutes the world around me disappeared. An uncontrollable drunkenness took over my small body and I almost didn’t notice when she packed up her things and left.

Again my uncle’s voice brought me back.

“Pepino, I’m leaving. Do you wanna come?”

I said no. We don’t have to tell Grandma. I’ll give you a ride uphill and you can walk the rest. I told him no. Said I’d head up with my friends. The girl (whose name was Helena) was already halfway uphill, taking her time as usual. After a while I saw my uncle climb out of the pool and I followed the roar of his motorcycle and saw how he caught up to her, and how this time, instead of waving and moving on, he slowed down until he almost came to a full stop. For a few feet they went along side by side. Then they paused and I saw my uncle unfold the towel he was sitting on and hand her a book, and I saw her take it and put it in her bag. Then it looked like my uncle was taking off, but he stopped again soon after. When she caught up to him, she drew up her skirt and climbed onto the motorcycle. And almost as slowly as if they were walking, they rode up the rest of the hill together, and I guess that’s when they went their separate ways, because when I thought that he’d drop her off at home, she climbed off the motorcycle, gestured a thank you, and walked into an alley that led to town while he shot up the highway, as if getting rid of that extra weight had juiced up his bike like never before.

My uncle didn’t show up at the pool for the next few days. The first day I thought it strange, but not the second. I can’t remember what I thought—maybe that he had work, or that someone had told Aunt Pilar and she’d given him a piece of her mind, or that he really wasn’t as into her as I’d thought. When I did picture Helena on that bike, her arms around my uncle’s waist, it seemed totally bizarre. Like maybe I’d dreamed it up.

I didn’t dwell on it too much. I felt liberated without my uncle, but more anxious at the same time. Liberated because I could look at her as much as I wanted again, but anxious because she probably knew how I was looking at her—my uncle had definitely told her—and I had to be more careful, more discreet.

One of those mornings, she got up and walked along the entire pool, turned the corner, and stopped right next to the diving board. Then she looked at me and asked, “Where’s your uncle been?”

I don’t remember what I told her, but I remember feeling embarrassed at how high-pitched my voice came out. Then she asked, “How about a race?”

I froze and didn’t know what to do.

“You don’t have to let me win . . .”

I got up with a hesitant air, which in reality was pure embarrassment, and reached her side. Right then, I realized she was a lot taller than me—my head barely made it to her shoulder—and I slyly got up on my toes.

“Ready!” she said, “Set!” and then she jumped in the pool before she had even said “Go.”

That girl swam like a fish. She might have been a whole yard and a half ahead of me.

When I finally touched the edge, she was waiting, relaxed, with a triumphant smile on her face. She barely even had to catch her breath.

“Pepino!” she exclaimed. “You didn’t let anyone beat you this time, did you?”

I smiled, conceding my defeat, though I felt a bit humiliated on the inside, not so much because she beat me, but because she beat me by a lot. While I struggled to recover, she pushed herself up with her arms and sat down at the pool’s edge.

And she forgot about me for a while.

Her gaze was lost somewhere between the sky and the carob fields, and I honed in on her thighs, her breath moving up and down, her wet hair . . . What was a pretty girl like her doing all alone in this town? I remember thinking there was something sad in her eyes, but maybe it wasn’t just sadness—maybe there was happiness too, because depending on how you looked, she could have been smiling. An urge to stroke her knee took over me, but I could sense an immense space between us, something like the space she’d put between us in that race. Suddenly, I was flooded with melancholy—a pain that I could not yet recognize as deep melancholy. For a few seconds it seemed to me that, with the way her gaze trailed away, maybe she also felt sorry. Maybe she had realized that I was just a kid who couldn’t even take losing a race.

In the end she caught me looking and prodded me with her foot.

On one of those nights, my uncle showed up at the shoe store again, waving his motorcycle key around. I hadn’t seen him in days. When my grandmother was in the kitchen, he took the chance to ask, “What’s new with our visitor, Pepino?”

“Nothing.”

“Is she your girlfriend yet?”

I gave a sheepish smile. But I felt bad that he was treating me like a kid, so I just said, “And why haven’t you come by anymore?”

He looked surprised, almost on guard.

“I’ve had a lot of work at the vineyard lately . . .” he said. “And people talk. I don’t like people talking. She’s all yours!” he winked.

I remember thinking that was the first time my uncle had talked to me on the same level. Man to man. But for some reason I didn’t buy it. Something inside me just wouldn’t let me trust him.

Over the next few days, I decided to change my behavior at the pool. First the race and then that conversation with my uncle had taken a toll on my mood. Maybe I was just acting up, but I felt like to them I was just a child, and I wanted to resist that.

For starters, every time she caught me looking, I wouldn’t smile like a little kid anymore. I would either shift my eyes quickly, or give her a serious look. Once I even held her gaze for longer than normal, challenging her. I don’t know what in God’s name I was trying to prove. Sometimes I’d head over to the diving board and just sit there for a long time, quietly staring down at the blue water, which after a while was no longer blue or any color at all. The board bobbed gently beneath me and I’d imagine myself growing taller by the minute.

The truth is I was hooked on her every move, on whether or not she looked my way. Whenever she seemed to be getting up, I would dive into the water and stay under for a while. Deep down I felt powerful. I didn’t understand how, in that sixty-foot pool, I had managed to put so much space between us. The more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that she really hadn’t beat me by that much, that if we had both jumped in the pool at the same time, we could have almost tied.

“Helena!” I sometimes imagined myself calling out, “How about another race!?” But I was afraid of how my childish voice would sound, so high-pitched.

Surely it was more a question of shame than pride. If I wanted to challenge her it wasn’t really to prove I was a better swimmer than she thought, but because I was dying to be at her side again, to hear her voice, to have her touch me with her smile . . . But I didn’t know how to go about it, and in the end, the time for her to fold up her towel, slip her feet into her sandals, and gesture a good-bye would always come—or not always: sometimes she wouldn’t say anything—and then she’d leave.

Obviously, if it had been up to me alone, the summer would have come to an end with nothing but the familiar never-ending sadness.

She was the one to approach me again. I was sitting at the edge of the pool, with that same tired expression I’d worn for the last few days, and I barely noticed her coming up to me. When I saw her I almost jumped and disappeared into the water, but she was so close that I kept still.

“Are you mad at me, Pepino?” she asked, kneeling down beside me.

I shook my head.

“So what’s wrong? Why the long face these days?”

Deep down it hurt me that she hadn’t figured out what was going on, but I kept my response to a childish smile, and I guess I said there was nothing wrong. Then she held out her hand and said, “Come on. How about another race?”

I didn’t take her hand, but I shot up right away.

“Do you want a head start today?” she asked, as we took opposite sides of the diving board.

“I’m not that little, you know.”

“You aren’t?”

“No, but don’t jump in first today.”

We looked at each other for a second, smiling. Ready! Set . . . This time we both jumped in at the same time and I started kicking my arms and legs with all the fury I could muster (I remember how I wouldn’t forgive myself for not kicking my legs enough the first time). I don’t know if she had sensed just how important that race was to me, but she couldn’t seem to get a lead. We practically swam shoulder to shoulder and finished at practically the same time.

“Good one, Pepino!” she panted. “I see you’ve made a lot of progress.”

“You let me win . . .” I replied.

“You didn’t win! We tied.”

“I got there a little before.”

“Does it really bother you that much for a girl to beat you?”

I smiled. Even though I knew she was just playing, she seemed to be giving me a little room to play back. Then, instead of sitting up like last time, she hung her legs over the edge and let her body float on the water, playing dead, arms stretched out at her sides.

“Can you do this?” she asked.

As if this were my one chance to prove myself, I rushed to fling my legs over the edge, but they weighed so little that I tipped over right away, happy to let her laugh at me. I tried again, acting a little clownish, and fell again. The third time she asked me to take her hand.

“Can you float now?”

“Yes.”

“Isn’t it nice?”

“Yes.”

She told me to stretch out my neck and arms and relax, and with my head in the water, my ears got plugged up until I heard her say something and stuck my head out. “What?” I asked.

“What would your uncle think if he saw us like this?”

I shrugged my shoulders.

“Do you think he’d be jealous?”

I barely even knew what it meant to be jealous, but I smiled and said, “Maybe so,” and threw my neck back over the water, embarrassed but proud of my answer, which she had found highly amusing. I’m not sure how long we held hands, tying our smiles together under the rounded sky. Little by little the sounds of the world faded out, and my friends’ yapping and their mothers’ calls just trailed further and further off, and that perfect moment stayed with me for I don't know how long until the distant sound of my uncle’s motorcycle ripped through the summer’s sweltering air.

I opened my eyes and stood up in a flash, startled. I wasn’t actually at the pool anymore, but was taking a nap at the store, in my room upstairs. While I followed that noise like the buzz of an irritating fly, I got the feeling I’d been hearing it for days, but it wasn’t until that high noon that I snapped out of it.

I jumped out of bed and stood out on the balcony. The streets were deserted. All I could hear was my uncle’s motorcycle ripping through. I followed it with my gaze until it came to a stop.

I threw some clothes on and, sandals in hand (my grandmother was sleeping in the room next door, snoring like a madwoman), I tiptoed down the stairs. But the front door was locked: Grandma probably didn’t want anyone bothering her. I looked for the key but couldn’t find it anywhere. I ran back up to my room and stepped out on the balcony one more time. It was a whole floor above ground, but I was too desperate to stay locked up inside. I swung one leg over the rail and then the other, then dangled my body over the edge and jumped down to the floor.

I dashed downhill and figured I’d think up an excuse later. The sun boiled up the pavement. Followed by nothing but the sound of my own footsteps, I ran through the union farm, and soon enough I was at the town’s back end, shrouded in its vines and carob fields. I took a shortcut through the Dalmau vineyard, and when I got to the road I could make out my uncle’s motorcycle leaning on the fig tree that marked the start of his property. I got close and hid behind a carob tree, beads of sweat rolling down my entire body.

Just about thirty yards stood between me and my uncle’s stone manor, but a stretch of tall and bushy fennel grew in the way, making it seem much farther. The backs of the town’s houses faced me, keeping guard. In the hush of the midday fields, I could feel my heartbeat climb up my throat and beat at my temples. One time I saw my uncle chase off some guys who were stealing figs. He flung stones at them and hollered savage, brute cries.

I don’t know what I found more terrifying: for him to think I was a thief, or to find her inside there with him.

I eventually left my spot behind the carob tree and anxiously called out a soft “Uncle!”

I thought it’d be better to act normal, so it would seem like I was there for a reason. “Uncle!” I cried again. No one answered so I kept edging forward. Convinced or maybe just hoping that I’d find him asleep on the torn-up mattress he kept shoved up against the wall, I made my way to the window. But I crouched down that very second. My heart stopped. Then, inch by inch, I straightened up and stared at what I thought I’d seen. It took me a good while to unglue my gaze. That was the first time I’d seen it. I’d never seen it before, not even in one of those magazines. I waited for something bitter to hit me, but nothing happened for a while. The shock was too great. Then that bitterness started flooding through me and it knew no bounds. It became clear to me that those two had betrayed me. They’d mocked me. I couldn’t keep looking. It hurt too much. I looked down to stop the tears and poked around for a stone on the ground. I took a few steps back and then I flung it at the window and ran off like a madman, leaping through the fennel and towering weeds with a fury that I didn’t even know was in me and that only barely numbed the shock of the shattering glass.

 

© Pep Puig. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by María Cristina Hall. All rights reserved.

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