Perhaps the first time there was something altogether amusing in the matter. Even Zapata, el gordo, always so serious, always so gloomy, cracked himself up when García Urquijo, who was gazing out of the window during the first five minutes of the blackout, asked, why two candles, man, we have no idea how long this will last. He said it with his back turned, without addressing anyone in particular. Clutching his whiskey, Ramiro blew out the candle next to him in the same exact moment you extinguished the other one which rested on the bookshelf on the opposite side of the room. Even if it was only coincidental, this perfect synchronicity left you all momentarily in the dark, and in the midst of so many unexpressed fears—the muffled murmur of tanks, intermittent siren blasts at the end of the street, gunshots of an unknown origin stirring up confusion—after the initial surprise, the four of you exploded in laughter.
Perhaps that wasn’t the first time, but rather the first confirmation, the setting-in-motion of an absurd and boundless sequence of events which linked the two of you together in the simplest ways for God knows how long. You had known Ramiro from the years of the First Dictatorship, those long-ago days of pick-up soccer games and fruit popsicles—running through the rubble of the city to arrive on time for the discussions on neo-negativist doctrine at the sector’s communal council in the Plaza Italia. Already at that time there was a bond between you. The shared tastes and preferences of a special friendship, a communion of obsessions and passions which could be explained by the simple reason that you wandered the streets together day and night. You two had been selected for the first positions of the Party’s youth section, unquestionable and efficient profiles, elite leadership, first generation of the rational and idealist.
Nevertheless, now that you are driving through the deserted streets, smoking cigarette after cigarette, tense and smothered by a tide of confusion—in a type of tobacco-induced fear and urgency—you ask yourself how to set boundaries on what is reasonable, what is yours and what is his. Whose was that peculiar custom of knotting a tie (the Windsor knot nobody wears anymore), the predilection for lemon in Campari, the handwriting full of sharp, pointy l’s and m’s? It had gone on for so long and yet it took a foolish candle incident for you to realize; so many years with suspicion on the tip of your tongue, the faint discomfort of observing him and not knowing exactly what bothered you about his gestures. All of a sudden that get-together with friends put you face to face with the mirrored fear which could not be explained in a rational and logical world. In the beginning, the incredulity at the absurd situation of not being able to remark upon that illegible scrawl you saw him scribble on the check fifteen minutes ago, that was your signature. Then the insanity, the horror, obliged you to do what you did, and in this fear which dampens little by little your grease-smeared shirt, there is no regret whatsoever. Dawn will surprise you with a phone call from Zapata el gordo or García Urquijo, come quickly, it was horrible, and then you will take a breath of relief, finding your own image again. In the morning, you will wake with a dry throat and coated tongue: a blessed hangover which you will begin to wash off with a cold shower and a clean shirt, convinced that everything has passed, a nightmare which will end up dissolving itself with the sugar of the morning coffee.
What is happening, you say to yourself advancing toward Arequipa Avenue, is that everything occurred too fast, and after the incident with the candles you didn’t see each other again until a week later. With the nostalgia cultivated and the schedule already set for Fridays, this time in García Urquijo’s apartment, come to my place instead, we’ve only lost power a few times. There they joked about everything, criticizing the regional government (not even Zapata himself, a member of the Junta’s leadership, cared much now) and then sat around with the last cups of contraband coffee García Urquijo’s wife brought out at the stroke of one. Soon the lights of the tiny living room began to take on that frightening intensity they get prior to a blackout. After a few seconds, faces and objects faded, only to leave you all with the lurking hint of your voices. What a pain in the ass, the owner of the house lamented, second time we meet up and again, without light, we’ll have to get out some candles. In the midst of the shadows with cigarette embers sticking out like holes in the darkness that enveloped them, Zapata remembered the incident from last week, that first indication which, without knowing why, placed you on guard.
“Let’s hope they refrain from this foolishness tonight because we don’t have that many matches,” snorted García Urquijo as he appeared phantasmagorically with two candles and started to rib the high-ranking official of the Regional Junta. “The rations have been arriving late these days and even the matches can only be found on the black market, señor Zapata.”
El gordo endured the collective jeers and cutting remarks with resignation while Ramiro moved toward the window laughing softly. Perhaps it was then you realized up to what point you were the remote duplicate of another skin, of another being. You observed his blue striped shirt (identical to the one you bought yourself at a diplotienda in Havana a month ago), the fastidiously specific brand of blond tobacco he lit up, the same Lanvin fragrance. Your eyes followed him when he wasn’t looking, the way he patted his hair down with a sort of mechanical gesture that someone—maybe even Nuria, so long ago now—had described as uniquely yours. That said, how was it possible, how did el gordo Zapata or García Urquijo not notice, or Ramiro himself either? And you had no idea how to extricate yourself from your own movements, fearing they would be reproduced by Ramiro or vice versa, but nevertheless, no one appeared to realize. Perhaps it was also because of the resemblance: a certain ambiguous and subtle likeness more pronounced than simply mere physical characteristics, making those who had just met the two of you wonder (especially as children, but back then all the boys looked similar, the uniforms, that same mark of hunger) if you were brothers.
The get-together ended just past two in the morning with the bitter aftertaste of the coffee and a monotonous drizzle against the windows. Ramiro and el gordo said their good-byes with yawns on their faces, until next Friday, fellows. The pair walked out together, taking the same route because Zapata had the car at the shop until God knows when, now that replacement parts are impossible to come by, and the other comrade, enjoying his brand new Lada, you have to check it out, el gordo said, motioning to Ramiro. You preferred to stay a bit longer watching García Urquijo go back and forth with the glasses and cups, hypnotized by the short trek between the living room and the kitchen and back again with intermittent layovers which allowed him to drop the odd sentence here and there suggesting you looked worn out. “Hey man, maybe you need to take some time off, a week’s vacation, fifteen days, what do I know?” García Urquijo accompanied you to the door, warning you not to forget your safe-conduct pass since you had left it on the dining room table. At that hour the police patrol could be quite punctilious on account of the curfew, and since things had started to look pretty grim, everyone was acting anxious.
Perhaps García Urquijo was right, a few days of vacation would do me some good, you thought as you revved the engine before shifting to reverse and backing out onto the street. Perhaps it was just papier mâché nonsense, something that would come tumbling down with a little bit of sanity, you told yourself, shifting to third until reaching the corner where a patrolman stopped you. You waved the safe-conduct pass before the protocolar salute, and once he realized who you were, who he was dealing with, the assault rifle rested again on the officer’s shoulder, go ahead, Sir. Yes, perhaps a vacation. The moon spied on you through the apices of the buildings, just like now, as you’re speeding, trying to overcome your heart’s frenetic beating, that discomfort in the pit of your stomach, it can’t be, it can’t be.
The week passed by with tense hours of work and uneasy nights. Absorbed with the issues of those communal farms that were causing problems for the Central Government, you tried to negotiate with the rural farmers in the north, who were demanding fewer hours of collective work and personal plots of land. You remembered the identical faces, the same overalls, the odor of soil that eighteen hours of travel to the capital could not remove, the trembling voice of the one who approached you to speak for the others: identical, granitic faces of despair. You didn’t think about Ramiro again (despite the fact that he recently moved a few offices down from you) until the very Friday of the next get-together. That morning García Urquijo called to remind you, but then went on to curse with an ancient fury the recent developments in his area. Apparently, some agitators among the miners had risen up in Cusco. García Urquijo believed it had to do with guerrilla infiltrators, things were getting ugly, he said before becoming quiet as if he were embarrassed by his outburst, and he continued reminding you about the gathering at his place.
Later that night, no sooner had you put the key in the ignition than you felt a quick shock—more surprising than painful—overcome with that horrible sensation of feeling like a plagiary, a replicant. The small anguish of thinking of yourself as the prolongation of another being took hold of you. Now back in García Urquijo’s building, you hesitated in the elevator, a pressing impulse to damn all of it (all of what?) to hell, to return to the Lada and lose yourself alone, to grab a drink under the cloak of a random shadowy bar, return home and disconnect the phone, take a sleeping pill and subside without a trace into your private world, wake up in the morning and feel like yourself again, welcome yourself with open arms, touch your belongings, the watch, shoes, coffee maker, and breathe easy knowing that each object bore the fresh trace of your fingerprints. The doors of the elevator opened, you were already there now. A thick silence and slight fog covered the hallway. Muffled footsteps turned toward the staircase before swiftly disappearing, leaving you alone with your doubts. How absurd, you were sweating, and all things considered, it didn’t make any sense; a pair of trivial coincidences shouldn’t drive you to this state. Perhaps you needed rest, a break from the problems at work—first the havoc created by the guerrillas, and now the communal farms up north—and you yearned for a hermetic solitude. Your mind was playing tricks on you, two or three coincidences couldn’t mean much. Nevertheless, the sensation of facing some type of certainty remained like a blow to the pit of your stomach, like a lump pressing down on your chest.
“We thought you were no longer coming,” said García Urquijo’s wife as she opened the door with a smile.
Silhouetted by the shadow of the living room, Zapata and Ramiro chatted calmly while the former shuffled a deck of cards with the skill of a true gambler; García Urquijo approached them with the drinks. The three of them craned their necks seeing you arrive, leaving you feeling violently removed from everything. You almost made the foolish mistake of asking if you had interrupted them. You sensed being observed, perhaps your embarrassment was noticeable, the silly fragility with which you half-smiled, the contrived insouciance of pulling up a chair at the circular table for the card games. Once again the confusion of starting to lose your identity (more rest, a vacation), of not knowing who you were, set in. Your stomach coiled because when you looked at Ramiro directly in the eyes, you felt as though you were peering at yourself from inside, it was absurd, the exhaustion had inflated everything.
“Just like in the old days,” you voiced those words in an attempt to truly participate in the get-together because you had been an absent presence since arriving, not paying attention to the anecdotes Zapata was weaving, the complaints and catastrophic predictions courtesy of García Urquijo who began to say something about what had happened recently at the Central Chemical Laboratory where his wife worked, a sabotage or similar act, but you were no longer listening as your stare was all of a sudden fixed on Ramiro’s watch, identical to the one that you were trying to conceal by forcefully rubbing your wrist.
“This guy always arrived late to poker and hasn’t lost the habit,” explained García Urquijo to his wife who was entering the room with a glass of whiskey, “you too, with soda water, just like Ramiro, right?”
“And he would always win them,” remarked Zapata inching his chair closer and compelling Ramiro to do the same. A hint of Lanvin reached you along with the bizarre sensation of actually smelling yourself.
“With any luck that habit is a thing of the past,” added García Urquijo winking at you and shuffling the cards before handing them over to Zapata, “take them, fatso, you deal.”
All night you felt as if you were miles away, taking long swigs of whiskey, its fiery amber softening your movements and helping you shuffle the cards with ease. You felt a vaguely meticulous desire to forget about the watch you hadn’t stop scrutinizing since you got there. It was as though Ramiro hadn’t noticed, as if he had never realized anything. And neither had Zapata nor García Urquijo and his wife. An hour and then another, the faint rotation of the hands of the clock on the wall, its pendulum like a blind yet lucid eye, sporadic sirens and gunfire cutting through the night, with the hands you were dealt you could extract nothing of value, barely coming up with two pairs and then almost a full house by luck. Another whiskey, another cigarette, round after round, you found it increasingly difficult to concentrate on the card game.
“One more and we’re done,” Zapata proposed, after stretching a bit and serving himself the last drops of Old Parr.
“Well, let’s see if this guy’s luck changes,” Ramiro signaled to you with his cigarette, shaking the ash off with his pinky.
Just like you would.
“You’ve left us with a small fortune,” García Urquijo laughed, shuffling the cards with renewed enthusiasm. “We should play more often; that way I can pay off my little house in Chaclacayo.”
“OK, one more hand, here’s hoping I win some of it back,” you said, tossing a roll of bills onto the table. And yet you felt an urgent desire to leave, to put an end to the night.
Zapata let out a whistle.
“He wants to recover his cash in only one game, what do you think about that?”
A slight grin appeared on García Urquijo’s face as he tried to hide the enthusiasm dancing in his eyes and the quickness with which he shuffled the cards. It was 1:45 a.m. and wailing sirens filled the night air once again. The owner of the house grabbed the bottle only to place it back on the table, muttering curses under his breath once he realized it was empty.
“Hold up, hold up,” Zapata shouted, savoring his words with a mischievous grin.
They all glanced at him with curiosity, what’s with this fat guy, always so serious and then all of a sudden, damn.
“Do you remember what used to happen when someone started off with a large bet?”
They all confessed bafflement, an embarrassed bafflement because nobody remembered anything. You already wanted to leave, if you had dropped that wad of cash on the table it was simply to wrap things up and split, grab a smoke and sink into the night without your scent on Ramiro, your watch on his wrist, his gestures which were yours. At that moment, Zapata began to avidly stare at the rest of the group, becoming a little disappointed that nobody remembered, but also feeling a touch of pride that he did, hell, it had been almost twenty years. García Urquijo’s wife studied them with mocking eyes, such good friends going way back, you meet up after some time and now no one remembers what used to happen, wow, better leave you guys alone and see if your memory returns, bye bye, her playful excuse to retire for the night after spending a little while nodding off and not being able to follow anecdotes that were not her own. Her husband leaned in close to her and whispered if you’re tired, amor, it’d be better if you went to bed, and she replied, in just a bit.
El gordo settled in his chair, how many expressions would he employ in order to keep the suspense going until someone exclaimed, oh, of course, how could I forget, that’s right!
It was you who immediately figured out what he meant, how stupid this was: a silly ritual during the period of indoctrination, the thick fog of the cigarette smoke, the coffee that was always watered-down and disgusting, the cards with almost blunt edges shuffled time and time again, exchanging hands during countless sessions, the comments in between games, the different variants of poker explored until someone (El gordo? García Urquijo? Poor Pancho Luján who died in that attack?) managed to acquire, no idea how, those contraband dice and you improvised new rules with rejuvenated zeal. Saturdays had been overcome by the routine of pisco and coffee, for you all there was a necessity of meeting up on those weekends while the rest of the guys of the indoctrination center preferred to stay there watching old Chinese films in the main hall or playing ping-pong. Invariably on Saturday nights, free-time Saturdays, without talks from the Party and the fear of escaping the labyrinthine routine in order to encounter the horror that lay in wait outside the doors of the center. The dice eventually outlived their purpose, but then whoever bet more than the usual in poker had to face the one who eliminated the rest in a match of poker with dice, a table tournament, a way of inventing new risks in a life that revolved around the Party’s talk on doctrine, university studies, technical training and the somewhat distant fear of the fanatics who were confronting the Central Government. It was a life without much in the way of films, no theatre, the same books, not much more than news bulletins and documentaries, no real disturbances except the small tanks and blackouts: dice and card games were our inevitable outlets.
So much time had already passed. You realized immediately, but preferred to gaze at the ceiling like someone putting forth a lot of effort to remember. Perhaps you also didn’t want to ruin the suspense el gordo was beginning to weave with subtlety, and because the owner of the house had gone to get the dice without understanding anything. Ramiro looked up at the ceiling with his eyes half-closed, a smile tugging gently on his lips, trying to catch with a glance that nebulous memory. After all, those days and the life you led, the huge lines in the central markets, blackouts, lack of water and electricity for weeks even for all of you (who would have thought?), forgetting this silly tradition was understandable.
García Urquijo returned with the black shaker and a glint in his eye. He jiggled the dice with skill and let them roll: queens full.
“Of course!” said Ramiro planting his hand on his forehead and looking right at you, “how could we forget it?”
Suddenly startled by the collective pronoun that left a vague fear coursing through your chest, you read in his eyes that he was not referring to everyone, just the two of you, a universe of known boundaries, a tacit bridge of complicity and horror, how could we forget it?
All at once you deduced that Ramiro knew everything. Beyond any rationalization, you knew he would be waiting for you on the other side, secure in that profound smile, full of explanations you refused to accept. Yes, you thought, he knew it. Your hand trembled while clasping a cigarette, feeling strangely like it was someone else’s, you also sensed the click of Ramiro’s lighter when you fired up yours. You then slid your hand on the table and started to nervously drum on the tablecloth to calm yourself and try to understand how el gordo, how García Urquijo didn’t notice. A primal desire to take off running engulfed you. From afar you heard Zapata speaking tenderly to the dice and later cursing them when they resulted in low-value hands. García Urquijo grabbed the five white blocks, mustering a low flush, better than Zapata, but Ramiro still had to go and you already knew who was going to face you. And therefore, it was so natural that after the poker hands that eliminated Zapata and García Urquijo, he offered you the dice, deliberately slow in handing them to you, while you felt as though everyone was observing all of your movements, three pairs of hypnotized eyes following the twirl of your hand before it opened like a flower of fingers and you tossed an aces full on the velvet tablecloth. Now everything had started to become like a slow-paced silent film, the whiskey, the stifling heat of confinement and the early hours of the morning. At the other side of the table, Ramiro blew on the hand that nestled the dice before letting them go like a polyhedral cascade, a trail of figures and then the anticipated replication you feared: aces full. Nothing out of this world, both of you simultaneously extinguished your cigarettes in the ashtray on the table. You grabbed the dice with clumsy hesitation and tossed them off quickly, as if they were on fire. Damn, royal flush, Zapata said with stupefaction. Ramiro gave a sidelong glance as he picked up the dice again. A knife-cutting tension electrified the night inundated solely by the constant rattling of the clock. García Urquijo sprawled back in his chair and Zapata snagged a cigarette from your pack. Ramiro retreated again to his ritual of slow hands like mechanical cranks which propelled the dice almost with disdain; you closed your eyes tightly and heard García Urquijo’s exclamation, the low whistle of el gordo, royal flush, another tie, things had gotten crazy. Ramiro flashed a defiant look in your direction when you gathered the dice, sticky sweat drenched your shirt. You threw down the dice on the table and kept staring at the queens full until he picked them up and one more time, the mechanical cranks, two, three, four slow twirls and a pair of kings, just a pair of kings.
You breathed easy, there existed the possibility that all of this was just a bad dream, an irrational midnight panic, fueled by the stress and exhaustion that had accumulated over weeks, who knows? Ramiro cursed under his breath and opened his checkbook in a swagger of mocking confidence. García Urquijo stretched, bending his waist while making a few comments about the uprising of the liberal guerrillas, and Zapata excused himself with a yawn, muttered a few sentences and disappeared to the bathroom. It was then, in that exact moment: suddenly alone, facing each other, Ramiro handed you a check with a sharp zigzagging scribble on it. Your signature, stroke by stroke, your signature.
You stood up in one jump, the surprise chiseled on the face of García Urquijo, tumbler in hand, and el gordo returning from the bathroom and adjusting his tie, it was nothing, nothing, you just felt a bit tired, perhaps it’d be better if you left. You felt frenzied and shaken before heading out, they said their good-byes, somewhat perplexed and puzzled (Ramiro was not, Ramiro smoked calmly, knowingly, indifferent), oh well, until next Friday, they would stay a bit longer, yes, see you later, the smell of Lanvin and your watch on his wrist. Bypassing the elevator in favor of the stairs, you hurried down like a desperate automaton, running, prepared for the absurd, to breathe in the city air before entering the building’s garage. You overcame the fear and turbid sensation of feeling like a complete idiot when you pulled up next to Ramiro’s car. It shouldn’t have surprised you, and it didn’t, that you both owned the same make, model, and color, that your key fit perfectly in the other car’s ignition as if that were a normal occurrence, making it easier for you to take the pliers and cut out part of the brake lines, just enough so that they would last a few streets, until the first slamming of the brakes—drawing upon those somewhat sinister skills you picked up during the First Dictatorship. You felt an indulgent pleasure wiping off your greasy hands on your shirt, surrendering yourself to the night with the violent screech of the tires, and the cigarettes that you took out of the pack while advancing through Arequipa Avenue, in need of returning to your apartment, the bottle of whiskey, awaiting with bated breath confirmation of how irrational this all was. Expecting a call from García Urquijo or el gordo Zapata, come quickly, man. Images of Ramiro walking toward his car after saying good-bye to the others, still commenting on your unexpected exit, apologizing for your understandable exhaustion, would say either García Urquijo or el gordo. The necessary image of Ramiro opening the door of his car, taking a cigarette out of the pack, going into the open jaws of the night, losing himself in the shifting of gears that will take him until Arequipa at a speed of thirty-five miles an hour, the speed limit to be respected—because he would respect it, oh yes, Ramiro would respect it, just like you—later taking the expressway going fifty-five in the lane that ends at his usual exit, the same one you are passing through right now, pushing down all the way on the accelerator. Mesmerized, you imagine Ramiro stepping on the brakes only to become horrified by the feeling of his foot sinking all the way, the noise of a dull moan echoing and then a post or traffic signal or wall, because it would be inevitable, just like it is inevitable to confront that last doubt which makes the hair follicles on your arm stand on end while the car seeks the exit quickly and the brake pedal gives way under your foot: Which one of the two is you? Which one is you, really?
From "Señas particulares, ninguna," © by Jorge Eduardo Benavides. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Gabriel T. Saxton-Ruiz. All rights reserved.