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from the January 2012 issue

And If You See That I Don’t Come Back

Look at you, you’re soaked! I’ve been waiting hours for you. Out to buy cigarettes in the middle of all this! We need to talk. What about the cigarettes? Don’t tell me you didn’t get any . . .

Actually, no, I decided it would be better to come back without them than to just take off. I figured the cigarettes would find their own way back. But I knew you’d be upset to see them coming home alone so late, as dangerous as the streets are and all. Don’t look at me like that! I went out to buy cigarettes and I bought them but not one made it back alive. That’s just how things are in this steep, drenched, armed city.

You were in the middle of telling me something when I left, I know. I’m sorry but I needed to smoke. Besides, I couldn’t understand a word of what you were saying then. You were yelling (without raising your voice, as only you know how) and when you yell like that it makes me want to smoke (and kiss you on the lips, but that I won’t say out loud).

At any rate . . . I started down Tenth, carefully so as not to fall and roll all the way down to Plaza Bolivar. I zigzagged down the hill like any prudent climber would. On the fifth zig I ran into Marcelo, who asked me for cigarettes, which of course I didn’t have, so I gave him a few coins. Marcelo always spits when he talks, a sort of tolerated salivary aggression. Two hundred zags further down I ran into the guy who sells me tobacco, on Seventh, next to the military base. He asked after you and as always, he extolled your beauty. (Your wife is such a fine woman. Oh, yes, sir, she is. To you. I honestly haven’t seen her in quite some time. You know: Love is blind. Now, is that why you wear glasses? Yes, that’s just it. Good day, sir.)

As soon as I bought the pack I lit up. I kept walking and sat down in a little park, the kind where I like to just sit and watch. Your words rang in my head. I took out three cigarettes from the pack and sat them on the bench next to me so they could feel like observers, like me. I drew eyes and a mouth on each of them. On the first I drew an open mouth, it was talking; the one in the middle was dozing off, not listening to a word the first one was saying, who was droning on. The last one’s face was lit up, looking off in the distance, searching its pockets for matches to light (and smoke) that bloody cigarette who wouldn’t stop yammering on. I left them like that on that bench where I like to sit and watch people who are not my own age. Don’t look at me like that. Sometimes, around half past twelve I sit alone⎯feeling lonely⎯surrounded by a handful of elderly folks walking slowly by. They settle into nearby benches and peruse newspapers filled with photographs of dead people and supermarket inserts. On other days I watch children eat sand and scream while they punch each other in jest. They make me feel like an outsider, too, like a cinema spectator only allowed to place one foot in the theater (the rest of his body must stay at the door, watching the film through that little glass window). Right there I smoked another cigarette, in the doorway of the cinema, watching from afar that movie starring you and the rest of the real people in this city.

I remember I was smoking as I left the little park of isolation. I remember that it took me over fifteen minutes to decide; don’t ask me why, but my head was full of your words, as if my own had ceased to exist. It took me a while to realize that I no longer have my own words. Next I started to get that feeling you get when you want to go home. So I walked purposefully, fleeing like a brave man who turns around with the face of new guilt. I didn’t rush. I knew that you would wait for me, but I took a shortcut anyway and ended up crossing that busy street, the one that’s perpetually filled with dark suits, fancy ties, fitted trousers, straight, blown-dry hair, and empty briefcases of shiny leather. And by mistake⎯this I swear⎯I bumped into one of those dark suits and burned its hand. I put my cigarette out on a hand that held an empty briefcase of shiny leather. I froze, I couldn’t move. And he, the guy inside the suit, looked at me with outrage and thanked me. He thanked me! Then he disappeared into the throngs of rear ends snugly fitted inside fitted trousers and I felt less isolated than usual because the gratitude of that suit (one of those suits with a person inside) was so reassuring. I thought about how long it had been since anyone had thanked me for anything⎯you never do⎯so I wasted ten more cigarettes on the hands, backs, and rear ends of some pleated trousers and one dark blouse. I also put one out on the ankle of a high heel and an ear partially covered by a police cap. The ear also thanked me, I heard it commending me but I didn’t pay much attention because I had the sudden urge to run, out of happiness I suppose. (If you want to put one out on me I will put one out on you. That way we can thank each other mutually.)

It was then that I realized I should come home and finish off the demolition. It wasn’t right, me just going out for cigarettes and then not coming back. I’m sure you would have loved that. You’d arm yourself with some hackneyed saying, the perfect excuse to blame me for everything, starting with the first crime ever committed by mankind. Oh no, if I go out for cigarettes I come back. Even if it’s just to ruin your story about me running out on you. I would never stand for it: You telling the story about me in a bar, letting those people think I was a bloody cliché. No such luck. To run out on someone you’ve got to be brave, but me, I'm a coward. Even if it’s only to make your blood boil, I come back. I always come back.

I started walking quickly up the cobblestone streets, which seemed more like an endless staircase of one-centimeter-thick stone steps. And it started to rain. And I had an overwhelming urge to smoke, but I was in a hurry. I didn’t have time to look for a park and a bench and some elderly folks, a place where I could isolate myself. It was raining hard. The raindrops stung. I couldn’t stop to smoke, I needed to get back here right away, so I lit a cigarette while I was walking. I took a few quick drags to make sure it was lit, and just when I was starting to enjoy it, drip. Drip. A raindrop exploded on the cigarette, right on the tip. It burst discreetly; the shrapnel cut through the rolling paper too easily, as if it were wet tissue paper. The cigarette (which didn’t have time to feel a thing) went out, it was soaked. Far from losing my cool⎯you know that I don’t⎯I took another one and lit it. I let the broken, soggy cigarette fall into the gutter that runs down between the stones. It floated off like a soldier in the army reserve, dead before he even got to the front lines of combat.

I lit another one from a thin, momentary flame. I inhaled. It took me exactly the same amount of time it takes to consider the likelihood of a raindrop falling square onto one’s cigarette and, drip. This time it landed not on the tip but right in the middle, a raindrop so immense that it tore the cigarette’s belly open, exposing a crater of tobacco, its guts pouring out, wailing. Hit, flooded, sunk.

Disconcerted (but not overwrought), I asked for a light from some high-schoolers smoking next to Doña Auri’s corner store. They looked at me intently. I tried to smile but my hands were shaking. There were only a few blocks left and I managed to walk alongside the walls of those big old houses, sheltered under the wooden eaves. When I had no choice but to cross the street I ran, always making sure to cup my hand over the cigarette, which was smoking down perfectly. I think that’s why it pained me even more, because I was sure it wouldn’t happen again, that somehow seeing them drown before my eyes was just a coincidence, like us (like the situation of this poor country), something ephemeral, a rough spot.

The goddamned drop was enormous. It fell at top speed from the tip of a roof tile that protruded a few centimeters from the eaves. It jumped, more accurately, calculating the wind speed, my movement and the angle of the slope. It was spot on. This time it was ripped from my mouth. I ended up with the filter hanging from my lips as if I’d been holding on to the head of a guillotined body.

Seriously. And even if you think it’s pure fabrication, that such sheer bad luck and dead-on targets make no sense, the truth is that they all died in the rain, drowned by suicidal, sniper raindrops. It’s worthless to tell you that I tried, that I ran, I dodged, I jumped. It’s helpless to confess that I’m sorry, to take responsibility, to claim that these things happen to me just as other, more normal things, happen to you. You, the “social smoker,” can blame me for all the mistakes, you’ve got all the evidence, the jury is on your side. (Besides, the judge doesn’t like me.)

This is the last one. If you want we can share it. Or would you rather I run down to the corner to get you a pack. What’s that suitcase for? I can ask the neighbors, they always have some rolling tobacco. Are you going on a trip? Perhaps I should just go down to Doña Auri’s (I don’t understand. Why the tears?) and I’ll get you something to eat and those cigarettes you like, the blue ones. I promise this time I’ll bring them all back, even if every raindrop in this city shoots me down. Drip.*

* This is the drip of a tear. Tears don’t get you so wet and they sound like a door being shut.

“Y si ves que no regreso” © Luis Nuño. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Maureen Shaughnessy. All rights reserved.

Read more from the January 2012 issue
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