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Congratulations to 2021 Ottaway Award winner Naveen Kishore! Learn more.
from the October 2014 issue

from “With Absolute Passion”

Days drift away slowly and quietly deep inside Guatemala. No inner musings. No pondering or ideas. Just a numbing silence, which reminds me of Buddhists and their thoughts about beginners’ minds that are forever capable of wonder.

There’s something here that eludes my grasp . . . But in the snapshot instant when the plunging frigidity of Lake Atitlán pitches me into the arms of another reality, I suddenly understand. Perhaps the Mayas really do suspend this land from a tenuous thread of magic. Perhaps we tread irreverently over an altar chock full of incense and ritual flowers, candles of jaundiced tallow and cries from hoarse, inexhaustible throats that jangle one’s nerves and even rattle one’s bones. A land woven on ageless looms, made not of soil, but from pieces of cloth on which the design of the universe is painted in ululating color.

The volcanoes were the first thing I saw, on that dawn straining through the breath-frosted window of the airplane. The tips of their perfect cones broke through the cover of clouds as if to drink in the rarefied air above it. The very irregularity of the countryside awoke me from the moody sourness that had ridden me all night. There was fuming Pacaya; then there was serene Agua, tall and massive, like a big mother. Further ahead, Tajumulco and Tacaná . . . I was about to land in Guatemala, a place to which I never wanted to return.

 I see myself with the eyes of remembrance. Retracing my steps, I am again present in the moment I choose to call “back then.” And since I am now “back then,” the past becomes present. What game is this?

Stamped passport in hand, I step out and feel suddenly overwhelmed by the street. I regret not having told anyone of my arrival, since I am loaded down with baggage and  harassed by scary fellows doing all they can to get my attention with a cacophony of mixed shouts. All talk at once, offering to summon me a taxi. Finally I give in, reasoning that the heaviness of my luggage would dissuade anyone from running off with it.

Too many ramshackle taxis line up; few tourists exit the bowels of the airport. After some heated haggling over the fare, I am overcome by the distance that my absence has carried me: the taxi drivers quote their fares in dollars now, but even in dollars they seem overblown. I express my doubts about the price. He replies with a bitter remark and I receive that as an unofficial welcome to Guatemala.

The streets open in front of my eyes, which see too much at once: billboards overrun  with English phrases, with an ugliness which bowls over the senses; people dressed in the screaming colors that I am no longer used to, but which match the grating sunlight; buses vomiting clouds of smoke, crammed with passengers oozing from the doors into the path of cars and motorcycles, swarming like flies. A din of noise and disorder.

I suddenly realize that coming back is impossible.

There is no going back to the way things were, and, indeed, we are not the way we were. The streets I knew as a child are buried underneath these alien ones, too small to contain the chaos that fills them. Sepia-colored dust stains everything. The face I wore back then is lost too, under the new lines that mark my expression, behind this other gaze on things.

I go in and out of memories as one fighting to stay awake.      

We lived in Zone 6. I had all I desired,  as I rode my tricycle in endless circles over the red and yellow tiles of my mother’s beauty parlor on 15th Avenue.

She and my aunts cut hair, filed nails, and sculpted permanents on the ladies’ heads with an electric gadget. I loved to hide my own head under the hairdryers and feel my hair waving with rapturous abandon. Back on my tricycle, I would roll over the clumps of cuttings on the floor. I took care to flatten each little peak as I half listened to the chatter of the ladies. My happy intimacy was frequently interrupted by the robust laughter of Auntie Ibis and the bits of trifling chatter from the women.  Added to what I heard in Grandmother’s kitchen, those loose threads were slowly knitting the strands of my world.

Fashion ordained complicated coiffures that had to be held up by a big bunch of hairpins and lots of spray. I never ceased to be surprised by the monstrous faces of women with their teased hair standing up, the giant heads they had to bear when in curlers, the unnerving odor of hair tints and permanents. But there was nothing I hated more than the hairstyle called the “Italian boy.” The long and beautiful manes of hair, the splendid braids, would disappear with a blow of scissors, and the nude and whitish necks would be shaved, leaving bits of hair looking like the legs of a dozen flies trapped in a milk bowl.

I loved the bounce of soft curls, the rose-scent of the manicure cream, the nail polish that I tried out on my own fingers and toes, which betrayed the amateur manicurist in me.

Activity at the salon varied with the calendar: the Candelaria, carnival, Holy Week festivals, graduation week, first communions . . . and, of course, Christmas, when we had todelay dinner so that my aunts could join us. Still warm from the hairdryer or with still-sticky gel in their hair, the lingering clients would leave on the run to get home before midnight.

My aunts were teenagers then. The neighborhood boys were always on the prowl, seeking to catch their eyes. My aunts obliged them by standing in the doorway “to watch passersby” (or so they said) with their young bodies sweating out the lethargy and heat of the afternoon.

Each of them had her own clientele. The most chatty and gossipy women went straight to Auntie Ibis. Fibbing and outgoing with hair dyed red, she favored skin-tight attire and also smoked. New or timid clients, or more serious ones, sought out Auntie Aura-or-the-Violets. With her slender, dexterous hands and long nails, she could, like no one else, convert mounds of amorphous hair into splendid “buildings.” Quiet and slight, wrapped in a long ebony mane, she always seemed a little absentminded, as if nothing could perturb her.

My mother did special treatments and watched the till. Even so, my aunts’ purses filled to the brim with a rain of coins. I was always noting  this, since they often shared them with me. I could then run to the corner store. There café au lait bonbons, honey-filled butterscotch, sugar cookies, flaky tortes, and other treats were always waiting for me.

Mother and her sisters weere all christened in honor of the heroines from the novels Grandmother used to read. Sitting in the corridor she re-read those novels endlessly, never failing to cry at the right moments. In an effort to console her, I would tell her, “but Abuelita, those stories are not real.” She would then retort, with a glassy stare, “believe it or not, Irenita, these stories happen to real people all the time.” Her collection of books boasted, at one point, the works of Vargas Vila (who was banned in those days), whence came the given name Aura-or-the-Violets for my Auntie Viole, the one with the long nails.

The taxi driver cuts my train of thought with his small talk. From the window of the car, I see the city’s Central Plaza. It looks forlorn without its iron lamps and old benches. Now it’s just a lake of liquid cement over which the Guatemalan flag, in faded blue, flutters wildly alone in the wind. From the radio a commentator nasally recounts the news. I don’t speak a word, so the taxi driver looks for a new tack. He complains about the government. Then he says he is curious about something. Am I from here?  No, I answer, a lie that does nothing to encourage further exchange. Just then, we enter the Cerrito del Carmen neighborhood. The hills of the old park are now bare and choking among the crowded streets.

It was here that they took my picture with that old doll I used to have. It was a present from my father, one of many that always came at Christmas. He sent them with his secretary, Don Carlos, a nervous little mouse of a man. Giant dolls in big boxes. I could hardly play with them, so, year after year, their static presence increased the silent population inside the armoires. I remember how I was back then, skinny and pale, like I appear in a silly photo they took one day, trying to get me to mount the photographer’s hobby horse. On Sundays kids would climb into its saddle, their ankles stuffed into shiny boots and their round noggins into wide-brimmed vaquero hats. But not me—no, I just clung tighter to Auntie Ibis’s leg. Clever and ingratiating, the photographer persuaded her to pose me with the big doll that they thought I liked so much. So, we sat down on the grass. I was squinting from the sun. The luminous and transparent blades of grass stamped my memory with the perfume of green, sweet, vegetable ink.

On the hills of the Cerrito del Carmen the tall grass my mother used to call “illusions” sways with the wind.  I can still feel how the blades would under the old cardboard pieces we used to toboggan down the hills. Grandmother’s dog would go with us. Chocolate, as we called him, was the only dog she ever allowed in her house full of canaries.

Chocolate would bark at my brother and me as he watched us hurtle to the bottom, where the descent left us sprawled in the dust. There, he always caught up with us, licking away at our ears and noses, tickling and wet. Our giggling and his barking sealed us off in privacy in a place that was yet very public. The wind rocked our kites with muted insouciance. From below we could watch their fragile, crepe wings twitch in the permeating blueness of the November skies. The kite looked back at us with its fixed stare. With our backs wedded to the ground, the afternoons sped past.

The taxi turns onto the Avenue, and then flies down it.

Not just any avenue, mind you, but the one we call Willow Avenue even though the willows are long gone. I used to love traipsing over the cracked sidewalks, dodging the crevasses which were the riverlike abode of lizards, or wrinkle lines in the face of some cosmic monster with the world in its embrace, or even the partitions in a vast pineapple upside-down cake over which I glided, taking care not to fall over the unsteady cliffs into the abyss below. Happiness in those days was easy, and not a dubious promised land.

My old trike was a hand-me-down from my bother. Mother told me once that when they finally bought me a new one of my own, I no longer wanted either, the old one or the new. I have no memory of the new one; maybe it was all just some made-up story, the kind that always starts with “when you were a child . . . ” but for which we never achieve confirmation. Whatever it was, Mother inadvertently smothered the delight of a unique tricycle which at times had even been a horse, and which displayed a golden drop on the chipped steering wheel.

The streetlight brings us to a stop, right in front of the house where we used to live. I peer out pf the taxi window.  On the red door, the old iron knocker with its fingers gnarled into rings hangs with tireless loyalty.  At night, that door at the end of the long and dark corridor, with a beam crossed over to secure it, would put an end to parties, visits, and romances. It was a curfew. Minutes later, the lights would go out and the house retreated into its envelope of shadows.

At that hour, bundled under night shawls with Grandmother, I would give an eager ear to the stories she loved to retell. There was the ciguanaba, the horse-faced river medusa who avenged women by pursuing the rakes who jilted them. There was the llorona, the weeping spirit who haunted the washerwomen of the river because she believed that women  like them had stolen her own children. There was the cadejo, the amber-eyed canine caretaker of drunkards, whom he led home after they staggered out of the cantinas. There was even the sombrerón, a gnome who serenaded long-haired women in order to seduce them. He made them wither to death, and then escaped, leaving a trace of his visit by braiding the manes of the horses in the pastures.

I would listen to her for hours, with bottomless patience, and revisit again and again those barely trodden estates that I had come to know from memory. Paths through a lost world with a watershed into my mind.

“Grandma, if they are real, why don’t they come out anymore?”

“Because of the electric light, my dear. It scared them away.”

She then ruminated for some time, unintelligible phrases that spelled her disagreement with reality. “Nothing works these days,” she kept saying. “Everything is  upside-down.”

The taxi reaches my destination in the Parroquia District. The heavy red block letters shout the presence of the Rondolino Hardware Store. It is here that my mother lives with her other family.

I never thought I would come back. When I left, it was forever. I was dressed in my wedding gown, just as Mother wished. Years later, she thanked me for this allowance: to see me walk out of her house in the white wedding gown. I laugh at myself: luck was on my side, I learned about delusion. Marriage could be full of emptiness, a space full of nothing.

And so I had come full circle. I fled this house and this country, only to return to this country and to this house—Don Asunción’s gloomy fiefdom.

One day when I was five and gamboling about the street in front of my house, an old woman, obviously a beggar, came up to me. Her face was etched in deep folds that at first gave me a shock. Then, this gave way to fascination at her toothless gums. She spoke of the approaching Christmas, and invited me to go with her to play with many children. She spoke of a room full of presents. The falseness of all this should have been evident even to me, since she herself was stamped with misery and filth in the extreme. But I believed it nonetheless. She offered me a hand with long blackened nails, which I accepted without hesitation.

Grandmother used to fix lunch for some traffic cops from a nearby precinct. One of them happened to spot me with the old woman. After entering the house and requesting his meal, he casually mentioned this. Grandmother was alarmed; the policeman, suddenly aware of what this meant, left his soup on the table and took off on his bicycle in a furious effort to find me.

I often wondered how things would have turned out had he not rescued me that afternoon. Perhaps the wretch really would have turned me into soap, as Grandmother insisted. In any case, that same policeman wound up marrying my mother. It was all rather paradoxical, when I came to think of it, how on that day near Christmas my rescuer would be Don Asunción, who later would shatter the crystal cocoon of my protected childhood.

I get out of the taxi feeling insecure. The jumble of suitcases taxes the dignity I want to amplify at the threshold. I am gravid with anticipation, and after an almost interminable moment, Emiliana, a servant with many years working for Mother, answers. She flies into a grand fuss on seeing me, sending two parrots into a commotion of their own, vexing the silence of the patio. She lets go a nervous laugh and, still amazed at the sight of me, rubs my arm with enthusiasm. Then she remembers to cover her mouth, lest I count the teeth now missing from it. But to me, it’s more evident how she has lost the bulk and vigor of her arms, chest, and back. She has shrunk inside a thick bag of wrinkled hide.

I ask for Mother. She answers in Spanish with her heavy Tzutuhil accent, which alternately shortens or whistles words.  She proffers up myriad excuses, from which I finally surmise that Mother is not in, that she went to bring Grandmother home from the hospital.

“Doña Toya can stand it no longer,” Emiliana warns me in her customary melodramatic tone. “She wishes to die in her own bed.”

In the end, she brings ushers me in and offers me coffee.

I almost recoil from this house, alien as it is without Mother’s presence. If not for the seriousness of Grandmother’s condition, I would not even be here. Of her I had nothing left but her last photograph.  She was sitting in the parlor, reading a book with such elegant poise that you would think that this is how she wanted to be remembered. Her hair was neatly cut and curled; her dress was fresh and flowery. Her long earrings, her crimson lips, and her sharply-defined eyebrows. That is how I recalled her: a svelte presence emanating benevolent and clear order to the world. All this belied the troubled stories told about her. The passionate woman, the rigid woman, the violent woman . . . those were all images of a stranger.

Grandmother had sent me the photo with the customary scolding. Why was I so far away? Didn’t I realize I would never see her alive again? And the same question I could never answer, not even when I asked myself: why do people have to leave?  I never heeded any of this; but in the end, it was her that brought me finally back. Through the thread of the telephone line, Mother’s voice warned me: “If you don’t come now, you’ll never see her again.”

The house is silent, but the smell of food cooking is everywhere. How odd it is, I think, that women cook all morning: homemade entrées, sauces of every permutation, a routine that lasts half a day or more. The benign kingdom of women is in the kitchen.

Don Asunción shows up, his figure framed in the jamb of the parlor door.

“Have you seen your Mother?” he asks me without even the barest of salutations.

Confused, I get up from the armchair I had found rest in. I remember—though the memory is indistinct, as if coming from a distant planet—that even before going away I had hardly spoken to him in years. Words between us are scarce and numb.  All I am able to mutter, dryly as I could have wanted: “No, I haven’t seen her.”

His handshake is an exercise in forced courtesy. The hand is limp, callused, and dirty. He parts from my presence more abruptly that he might have wanted. Then he saunters to the kitchen and shouts something at Emiliana; I imagine him unloading on to her the awkwardness he feels, the answerless questions, the sourness occasioned by my presence. I am taken aback by his appearance: small and skinny, white-haired, with thick glasses that make his eyes overblown and prying. He was once a Tarzan of the tropics: swarthy, vulgarly muscular, prone to show off his strength by picking up and carrying others. He toted my mother over his shoulder throughout the house while she, from on high, batted the air with her legs and whipped it with indignant protest.

Son of an Italian peasant who came to the Americas at the beginning of the last century, Asunción passed his childhood in privation. His father traveled often to the great farmlands of the coastal plains in search of opportunity. His absences were extended and hard, since there was a chronic lack of everything in the house. Asunción’s mother had to figure out how to survive with the children until his return. But one day his father took another woman and never came back.

Asunción, as the eldest, felt it was his duty and privilege to be the  substitute father, although he was a mere adolescent. To support his family, he sold bread from his bicycle. He balanced a big basket of his wares on his head, a chore few would consider manly; probably, it shamed him. But he idolized his mother. When she became deathly sick, while still young, she became sacred. There was nothing that Asunción would not have done for her.

When she died, Asunción left the house to his brothers and rented a dirt-floored room near the train tracks, in a quarter of town haunted by the cheapest and most pathetic prostitutes.

But he was not there for the women. He bought an encyclopedia and read it at night under a dim lone bulb. He filled himself with knowledge and assimilated it in an original fashion. From all this he dreamed up apocalyptic universes, eccentric perspectives on the world, wild but oblique observation on no small number of things.

This newfound wisdom gave him a new sense of who he was. With insufferable authority, he expounded on his theories, in all their layered detail, to anyone who stumbled into his trap. Anything he might overhear could trigger him. Once started, he allowed no interruptions, nor did he mind, for his listeners’ sake, the clock.

Destiny marked him for a career in the police barracks, and for this Asunción never forgot his lucky star. The police force existed for his sake, to establish his worthiness before the world. Vested in his smart uniform and this authority, Don Asunción discovered joy insurmountable.

My mind drifts back outside, to the street and its throb of activity. Now that Don Asunción is here, his presence transforms this house and thickens the atmosphere within it. And that old feeling comes back, impelling me toward the door with an urge to leave. That is probably the real reason I married. That union was doomed, and I knew it. But it was, if nothing else, my ticket out of this house.

Instinct prompts me to squelch imaginings about things that cannot be resolved with proper logic, thoughts which can wear you out with their dead weight. It is a hot day, and this place is very quiet. The notion of that street lying beyond the iron door exerts a seductive tug. The house I grew up in is just over there, at the end of the next block, as helpless as a rotting shipwreck among the incessant pummeling of the tide around it.

I make a quick passage through the garden. Go out through the door. Right on the sidewalk, an audacious woman works a flimsy charcoal grill that fills the air with smoky rancidity. These little packing-crate businesses line the streets, unchanging eminders of intransigent unrelenting poverty. The odor and the image sicken me: the woman, stuffed with meat, tossing shredded cabbage in a yellow plastic bowl, serving cups of watery atol to her customers, who eat on  splintery wooden benches and force passersby to detour around them.

“Buenos días, sister,” the woman says to me. She must be Protestant.

The  businesses on the block have increased in my absence. Now one finds a printer, a baker, a coffinmaker, a stationer. The noise, the motion, the tedium of traffic is all enough to make me dizzy. The dust and the exhaust fumes conspire to form withering clouds of suffocation. Propped in doorwells, drunkards sleep in a thicket of their own stink.

I approach the corner with hesitation. There used to be a pharmacy there; now it is Serra’s photo studio, complete with a window display of portraits: newlyweds in strained poses, plump (and mostly naked) babies, debutantes sporting drooping curls and corseted skirts.        

Near the corner, the Mexico Elementary School marked the limit of how far I was once allowed to wander. The headmaster’s daughters, Beatriz and Catalina, lived there. I would see them from afar, walking hand-in-hand with Don Chus, their father. He was a tall man with a regal paunch that spilled over his belt, yet his pants always looked about to drop. He was a man designed in two parts: the top half was bald, bushy-whiskered, and crabby; the bottom half was transplanted from a clown. It was almost as if each half wanted to say of the other, “I don’t know him!” His wife, Doña Estela, was so hefty she looked like a jug with a spare tire around its midriff. The bun of gray hair that sprouted from the back of her tiny head to shade the back of her neck only amplified her odd physique.

One afternoon, we were walking past the school. Doña Estela was in the entrance with her daughters. She and Grandmother chatted as the girls and I looked on in curiosity, imagining what adventures we might have.

Grandmother and Doña Estela agreed on a first visit for me to play with the girls for a couple of hours one afternoon. She adorned my hair with ribbons and I wore my best dress. To demonstrate my cooperation I toted one of my best dolls.  For their part, Catalina and Beatriz were allowed, just this once, to take down the heirloom tea service, which was normally kept at a Do Not Touch height in the cupboard.

We had such fun that Grandmother and Doña Estela, happy with their peaceful days without us bugging them, agreed to the next visit, and then the next, until I would come to their house every day.  My presence in that household chipped away, bit by bit, its rigid character. By the end of the month, I was arriving in the morning and staying till dusk.

On school days, Doña Estela made popsicles to sell to the students. The little balls of frozen, sweetened nance fruit, bars of grated coconut, or the puckering sourness of tamarind yielded their perky aromas and were the stumbling block to my early intentions to make a good impression and behave well, as I was ordered every day.

Since the treats were for sale only, they had the additional allure of being forbidden. So it was that we compulsively stole them. We would promise to eat only a few, but temptation drove us to sin again and again. We opened the freezer and filched the popsicles with stealth, until the whole place was littered with their wax-paper wrappings.

When Doña Estela finally discovered the theft, her enormous body came barreling out of the kitchen, brandishing a wooden soup paddle in menacing arcs. Beatriz, the oldest among us, took her role as our protector seriously; at such times, she grabbed our wrists and jolted us into a furious escape, running for dear life, for the full length of the corridor. Catalina and I, our cheeks red with emotion, cracked up together over the thrill of the escape.

When vacations came, the school itself became the ideal playground. Long halls, patios, blackboards, and colored chalk were all ours for the taking. It was one giant erasable slate on which each day we could etch our fantasies anew. Every twist of its topography hid a secret and a place to hide from the grownups who ruled the rest of the world. There were taboo sanctums, such as the locked offices, or the boys’ bathrooms which, even during vacation, were heavy with the pungent reek of urine. There were scary spots, like “off-limits” passageways and cobwebby, barely-lit rooms where old desks were piled in high stacks.

In the middle of this universe, unpopulated yet endowed with countless doors for our imagination to wander into, silent yet full of voices that whispered in our ears, we snapped the tethers of reality and became the incarnation of our wildest desire.

One day chance rewarded us with the discovery of the most magical place of all: the drama stage and, on it, a scene set. From that day on, no other place existed.

We began our careers as singers, trying out our off-key voices on bits of drinking songs and weepy rancheras borrowed from the radio. We mixed and murdered the lyrics, as we remembered or understood them. In time we became actresses. Then we moved into broader fantasies and ephemeral plots which in time became our substitute lives.

Things began disappearing from Grandmother´s house: necklaces, formal shoes, linens, stockings, lipsticks, hats, and anything else that might serve as a prop to our fantasies. Every performance began with a divvying up of the goods and a debate over who was going to use the black slip that had to be girded from the middle of our flat chests. We also had to decide who would get the fluffy bloomers that rustled when we walked, and who would wear the long strings of fake pearls, the loudest jewelry, the high heels, the green sandals, and the best-fitting hat. We picked the reddest red for our lips, applied rouge in layers, and added beauty marks near our mouths. For the role of leading man, we were naturally short of casting resources; but we at least had an old tie, a beige hat, and a bottle of Old Spice to add ambience.

We crossed the Atlantic among elite society, recreating characters from the black-and-white movies on Channel Three. The transatlantic was, of course, full of handsome gentlemen with whom we invented simmering Hollywood romances. One of us always had to play the leading man.

There was always in this game a devilish seducer. The leading man and his prey practiced a romance with real kisses and caresses. I always wanted to be the lady with Beatriz as my lover, because she kissed so well. Her wet and fierce kisses and full lips had a force that subdued my timidity and sparked my desire. In any case, Catalina was  losing her teeth and I had no great desire to smooch with a toothless lover.

The game was, of course, secret. We knew we were treading forbidden ground, and this gave us a fascination that could not lose its luster. It was not so for the doll my father sent from France that spoke French with the pull of a string, or for the toy dishes, and the little battery-operated blender. Such toys were soon abandoned, tossed here or there with indifference, in favor of our acting game.

The years passed, but the imprint remained. I would forever put love on a stage, wrapped in the intrigue and melodrama of the make-up and attire. I made it a stage like no other, whose execution construction demanded the subtlety of a sinuous curtain. It was a foray into fantasy, a path whose mysteries could course beneath the thin ice of ambiguity and transvestism (was it then that I started loving you?).

I stopped seeing the girls before vacation ended. That day, early in the morning, an unusual activity woke every one. Airplanes flew overhead, the radio cackled on: another government had fallen. The voice urgently announced the curfew. I was not allowed to leave the house for long days that became stagnant. When, after a week, I finally got permission to go out, I took off running to the school. But the gate was locked and no one came to answer my endless knocking and pounding.

By now the rumors had started. Don Chus and his family had gone away; in fact, some were saying, they had run away. “Don Chus,” Grandmother speculated, “was an Arbenzista”—partisans of Jacobo Arbenz were being persecuted during those days, suspected of planning a coup. “That’s why folks never tire of saying that it’s good to steer clear of foolishness” was the only comment I heard from Grandma.

Years went by with no word of the girls. I would discover Beatriz, decades later, reclining in a Turkish bathhouse. She  had turned into an obese woman who, from behind, summoned attention by her very hugeness and rollicking flabbiness. Yet when she rolled over, that old smile, the one worn by the leading man of my youth, redrew itself on her face for me. I felt the pang of the old desire. In her eyes was a spark of taboo camaraderie that briefly rekindled the memory of a precious freedom that, with age, I had unknowingly drowned under compromise.

The house on Willow Avenue now looks feverishly old, as if houses, like people, could become settled and decrepit with age. But it was already falling apart back then, when we lived there. The doors, tunneled and combed by moth larvae, were already patterned into cliff-bound passes and mountain ranges. I gave up studying this miniature geography the day I peeled away at a crack and exposed one of the tubular creepies responsible for this magnificent gravure.

Worn walls, I mused, reveal many layers of paint.

You could peel away this dead skin by trailing a heavy palm over the walls while running down the hall. Each time you did, the wall answered by tickling your hands and yielding a wake of woody confetti.

In the center of the patio, the great hulking pila sink is now mottled with mildew.

With a rod you could trace wild drawings through these spreading nevi, while next to me, Grandmother washed the clothes, wringing them with florid hands, then shaking blasts of fresh rinsewater into my hot face before hanging the garments in the sun.

Yet as soon as the rains came, the house became different.

The afternoon brought a tide of gloom. The corrugated roofing was pelted by thousands of leaden soldiers firing on us from the heavens. My brother and I stayed in, glued to the TV. I would draw on the walls with a pencil, then examine the result. He would regiment hosts of matchsticks into warring armies, without ever giving me a moment of attention. From the kitchen, Grandmother would serve us mashed beans with garlic spread on French rolls and hot chocolate. And so it was that our confinement became our pleasure. With my feet made dirty by my shoeless wandering among the riot of toys on the floor (which I never had to pick up), I was the queen of this little monarchy. In the hair salon, rain seeped in and drops fell without respite.  

We had to find old paint cans to catch the rain that found its way through the roof. You could hear the distinct sound of every drop into the rhythm. They raised a harmony that framed my dawdling, my fantasies, my worlds—all sheltered by the affirming presence of Grandmother, there in the kitchen, or there sewing, or there, at day’s end, waiting for me to join her in bed and tangle my legs around her. Then she would  my nighttime fears with bits of soothing chatter until I wafted over the threshold of slumber.

I reach for the doorknocker and, with certain timidity, knock softly. Round silence answers; I knock again, but harder.

“No one lives there,” calls the newspaper seller from the shade of the tree in front of the house. He hardly needed to bother. I peek through a crack into the ancient parlor, now lit only by a trickle of moribund light that has managed to squeeze through a skylight.

The beauty salon closed one day. The furniture remained, draped under sheets, like ghosts with fathomless pasts. In secret, my brother and I would sneak in to play. We filled the place with commotion as if driven to exorcise its gloom. We took turns spinning each other on the rotating chairs, fired up the massive hairdryers, and wrote in the dust coating the mirrors.

Auntie Ibis was the first to jump ship. One day a mulatto with a French surname showed up and parked his red sports car on the curb in front of the salon. With some excitement, Ibis ran to open the door for the visitor, who came asking for her. He did so again the next day, and the next, and the next. Grandmother grew increasingly uncomfortable over all this. She would not have the mulatto in the house. “Don’t you dare bring him inside,” she scolded Ibis. “Very well, then,” she would give in, “stand around with him, if you must, but outside.” And then, she would  protest again: “As it is, you are practically blocking the doorway! Get inside before you spoil your reputation.”

But Ibis, always the black sheep of the family, paid her no mind. She starting going out with the mulatto and was seen getting into his car even at night, unthinkable for a straight-laced young lady. Occasionally, they even went away together. I overheard the secret that they had even “gone all the way to the beach.” 

Grandmother never came to approve of the visits of “that darkie.” But Ibis was obstinate. She sneaked away, hid herself, whipped up alibis, and lied through her teeth to see him. Grandmother locked horns with Ibis in brawling arguments. The scolding could even culminate in violence; when her anger annealed beyond words, she lifted her ancient switch from its nail and gave Ibis a sound whipping. Nothing riled her like sassiness in her children. But after these drubbings, my aunt gained ground; she got permission to go out, as long as she took along company. This was, almost always, my brother and I. We two used this opportunity that Providence dropped in our laps to get special treatment, such as going to Pecos Bill to gobble hamburgers, fries, and chocolate milkshakes while Ibis and her beau necked nonstop.

Then one day the mulatto didn’t show. Weeks went by with no sign of him. Ibis, in her growing desperation, fell back on the only support she could think of: visits to the occult clinic. Doña Paula, the witch in residence, smoked stinky fat cigars, working them like a flute to summon the mulatto, pausing between puffs to call his name. The two of them even went under the Rodriguitos Bridge and endlessly repeated the litany, “May that rotten son of a bitch come back and throw himself at her feet!”

I came to know every detail of all this. The witch’s sibilant murmur had a way of lingering in women’s ears as they yielded to her with glazed-eyed devotion. I observed their faces with commensurate fascination and tried to assess the turbidity their secrets whipped up in their souls.  I hoped to see, in their countenances, cryptic and forbidden things.

But the day of the mulatto’s return came, as if prophesied. He had come to say good-bye. As this ugly truth become obvious, a scene became inevitable. Well before the mulatto reached the end of the speech he had prepared with obvious care, Ibis began to rock the parlor with her shouts. When we heard this all the way in the kitchen, we went running to witness the commotion. There, with our customers in observance, we found her with puffy eyes, a reddened nose, and her mouth drawn in a savage lament. “Don’t let him go!”  “Don’t let him go!” And then, with resignation, she added, “I’m pregnant.”  

No one knew what to say. My brother and I were driven from the room by a forceful stare from our mother. The few clients who remained in the parlor—those who had not already fled in consternation—had to be shown to the door. The parlor was summarily closed that day, even though it was only mid-afternoon.

The hastily called family conference with the mulatto lasted hours, yet my brother and I discerned nothing about what had really happened. But eventually I learned that the adults in the family were unanimous in their condemnation of the whole affair. My aunt’s reputation was threatened or endangered, so she and the mulatto would just have to marry—that’s all there was to it. The sentence was pronounced over the sinners, to whom it was made clear what was expected of them: that they undergo the necessary formalities in order that people wouldn’t talk. And then, if he didn’t love her, he was free to return home. But the rest of the sentence was non-negotiable.

The neighbors lent Grandmother a hand cooking pots of chicken in onion broth that clouded the house with a bouquet of thyme. They chopped up whole vats of Russian salad with assembly-line efficiency, brandishing their cleavers against parades of carrots, string beans, and potatoes, which they passed through a bath of salt and vinegar on their way to a dousing in mayonnaise.

Ibis looked beautiful the day of her wedding, in spite of the bulge that, six months after conception, was barely concealable within her airy vestments. The party took place in the house, with a lively marimba and the floor carpeted in pine needles. While everyone danced, I hid out under the table and watched the pine needles stick  to everyone’s feet. 

The guests made frequent pilgrimages to the barrel of rum and Coca-Cola, even though this meant a long wait in line to get their share of the well of dark liquid propping a flotilla of ice cubes and lemon wedges. As the afternoon progressed and many became drunk, the laughter and the voices grew increasingly raucous. Some tumbled into a full stupor; my brother in fact would up slumbering under the tables, curled up on a mattress of pine needles.           

It was late at night before the last guests were escorted out. With the house now emptied, Auntie Ibis changed clothes and went out. She looked frail and bewildered, with one hand clutching her little suitcase while the other absently stroked her bulging belly.

The mulatto never loved her. He kept her like some worthless object that no one could want. For him, the obligation to marry her was a humiliation, for which he would make everyone pay, but especially Ibis and the child about to be born to her. His revenge was a violent and endless wickedness which blighted their lives like the tireless pounding of ocean waves on the rocks.

 Aura o las Violetas found a job that paid well enough that she could buy all she had ever wanted. Soon she was hanging out with new friends from outside the neighborhood, daughters of army officers. She developed a creeping contempt for the things of home. She griped that we had no car or telephone, things which were routine for members of that higher class she envied.

She finally left and rented a neat and lovely room in a better guesthouse. Its window had space to nurse a pot of her namesake violets—a touch that she fancied original but which in fact signaled her bond to cloying platitudes. It revealed, in spite of her desire to conceal it, an anguished need for acceptance.  She never figured out that her striving was useless; our society was, and remains, classist and exclusionary.

The parlor shut down soon afterward. Its appearance now appalls me: a form of order preserved under neglect: the mirrors clouded with dust, the perm machine old and disassembled, the heavy-headed dryers like petrified statues, the drawers where skittering roaches have replaced tubes of scented conditioner, and the galling presence of the shampoo sink, lamely retired to a corner.

I was there, back then, when—on my feet behind the counter where we kept the hair care products, the manicure and facial supplies—I saw my brother come in. He stood in the doorway, looking at me through his glasses. He was tense and fatigued, with his backpack still on and his cheeks red. It was almost evening. All afternoon the household had been in a panic because he had not returned from school.

After taking several walks to find him and arguing with Grandmother, Mother had felt bold enough to go over to the little grocery store to borrow their telephone. Normally, we only did this during real emergencies.

“Yes,” they told her when she called the school. “He was given detention, but he left over an hour ago.”

Even so, the hours passed without his return. Grandmother kept saying, “Why did they punish him?  Nasty people . . . How they leave us to wring our hands with worry!”

Mother was going outside, walking all the way to the Cerrito del Carmen Park, and then coming back. She couldn’t calm down. Yet, of all people, it was I, playing in the parlor, fiddling with the contents of the drawers, whom fate appointed to see my brother first. I could hardly believe it: there he was.

Mother’s relief was such that she pounced on him and locked him in a hug while he related how the priest had extended his punishment to the end of the day. It seemed that my brother had refused to give up the postage stamps he had been absently toying with during history class. I listened in on all this and noticed his nervous fingers, stained with ink.

I understood, like no one else could, my brother’s defiance of the priest. At times I felt I was the only one who noticed his retreat into that mysterious private world that only he could inhabit.

He went on about how, with no money to pay for the bus, he had to walk all the way home from the Liceo Guatemala.

“How did you manage to find your way back, all alone, from there?” Mother wanted to know.

I looked at him in awe. I knew I would never be like my brother, defiant and fearless. I would never be able to stand up to the priest, or walk home alone all the way from the Liceo.  Such stunts were beyond my doing. And yet, I began to love him with such tenderness, that even though I was younger than he, I wanted to protect him, because behind his boldness, behind his craven drive for independence, I saw that vulnerability that marks pure beings, those who find it difficult to make transactions with life.

From then on, he was my hero. And beginning with that moment that I saw him framed in the doorway, where I can still see him behind his thick glasses, triumphant in his misadventure at school, spitting in the face of all authority, a million images of his life click past in galloping succession.

Twenty years have passed since the sluice shut on our shared words, leaving a dry channel. It was a strange ending, one in which masons stirred sand and cement with a paddle. When they flung it to the floor, it made a noise that rattled my teeth.

“Will they ever be finished?” I wondered.

Meanwhile, the bricks sat nearby, stacked, each awaiting its turn to join the wall that was being built. For your friends at the medical school your coffin was almost too heavy to bear.

No. I did not want to return; yet I did so, and a year has already passed. I bear the exhaustion of one who has returned from a very long trip. I wear a layer of dust and lug a chest of strange things from different places. And everyone sees in me a stranger. But while I sit up at midnight, in the midst of a chorus of croaking frogs, whose guttural mating chant recalls a tribe of hunters around a bonfire trading stories and epics, in this moment, I feel I belong.

From Con Pasión Absoluta.  © Carol Zardetto. By arrangement with the author. Translation ©2014 by  D. W. Coop Allred. All rights reserved.

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