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from the February 2011 issue

Ride of the Valkyries

For Vasco Szinetar

The president sits in the backseat of the car and watches confusedly as his wife struggles to climb in. Her clothes are cumbersome, extravagant, even though she dressed in a hurry. He remembers when she used to dream of wearing such elegant garments, when she was still a bit young to put them to much use: that night in the cinema where Elizabeth Taylor was the girlfriend and Spencer Tracy the confused father; where Orson Welles was the powerful magnate and Libertad Lamarque was young and suffered so; all very different from her, who was uselessly happy then and who was free of these tight and uncomfortable clothes that at the present moment won’t allow her to enter the presidential car. No, in those days she wore clothes that were decent and modest, clothes that befit a girl of her class, that befit a dignified representative of her city: from the Marquesa who spent hours in that bathroom along the river, feeling the spring water sprinkle against her skin, to the distinguished Christian women who occupied themselves by offering charity to the old and infirm. Like her grandmother a century before, who would have seen the prima donnas passing through the city en route to the opera, wearing scandalous finery that dazzled the andinos (who controlled the fate of the city’s music, along with everything else, in those days); like her mother, regular patron of the National Theater, who set her insolent soles on the old plaza dedicated to Washington—so metaphorical—crushing that Yankee swagger beneath her feet. Like her mother’s friends, who looked down on those andinos. But what was one to do? One had to smile, one had to lower one’s head, one had to accept, to be free of certain niceties—in spite of the surprising fact that the campesinos (and all those who stank of the earth) knew who Efraín and María were, and Abelardo, Eloísa and Amadís, and Eulalia too; the campesinos knew who drank, who (forgive the expression) fucked, and could recall the great poets who whistled at the land and life of the tropics. Those friends of her mother, always so nice to her, with such austere and yet such sweet eyes, always so delicate, always smoothly touching up their clothes—clothes much like those that at this very moment won’t let her climb into the car with dignity, but only with the most uncomfortable posture, silly, ridiculous.

“Cars were built by ignorant men who did not know how to treat a woman; men who were rude and who couldn’t understand that to contort the chest while at the same time trying to bend over causes a foreshortening unimaginable even to Praxiteles.” This was her fleeting thought. Worse still, with these clothes she is reduced to having to place her hand, virginally, atop her lap because her servant is always waiting to cast a glance where he isn’t supposed to. Even at these distinguished reaches of life the shameless will try anything.

It must be her clothes, thinks her husband; the clothes she always wanted to have.

Everything would have gone off just fine had a precariously hanging shoe not fallen off the foot of the old woman, a foot that rarely made much contact with the street anyway. The president was already inside the car and he couldn’t—like a prince—take the shoe and return it to her dainty extremity, as the poets advise (although it is a size nine and a half). He can’t because he is no longer a prince; now he is a piercing mountain peak, a colossal eagle, a sun that, like a king, expires in the east. The shoe falls and rolls all the way under the car.  And his wife scrunches her face as she often does when something happens that she realizes, from the start, is going to bring greater confusion.

The first time that he saw that face he had gone to hear a class about fair wages at the university (did he even have a job at that time?). A mutual friend of theirs, who had had no luck dating him herself, introduced them. Concentrating as he was on his own voice, he could not tell, from her smiles and expressions, the age of this new acquaintance, who, scowling like a recently born cat, kicked about and flashed her calves. The friend, meanwhile, understood what to do: she promptly moved away to meditate with Iago, believing that it was she who had brought them together. She would have opportunity enough to charge them for her services. She accepted the defeat, and his indifference, as only a girl educated by nuns knew how, and even today never let on that she’d harbored her ruses, her dark machinations. Later, he often remarked that that old friend never ceased seeming—God forgive him—a bit embittered, even jealous. Who knew if they weren’t getting into the car just then to escape his pursuers, fleeing the presidential residence, because of forty years of her patient waiting, of some carefully arranged plan of hers, a lover spurned. The world of vengeance knows how to wait for its opportunities. 

The midget porter has managed to round up the shoe—which is a frightened chicken—and to return it to its original foot. Not even the midget—this is the last straw!—can avoid lifting his gaze when she raises her bare foot, and this furtive glance in truth cannot help pleasing the old woman, who remembers the days when the club filled up just to see her swim (such was the magnetism of her legs). The only one not to notice her then was the President. With the singular speed of her feminine intuition a lingering question flits across her face: would a plot against her husband have been hatched forty years ago? Was she herself a victim, or perhaps an (unwitting) instrument, of these scripted maneuvers? Just then, and without warning, a question sails out of her mouth.

“Did you like me when we first met?”

The president—from the back of the car, his suit blending in with the black leather seats; telephone in hand, his pant legs lifted to reveal his socks (green? Do they go with the suit?); awaiting the call of perhaps his last friend in the city, taking note at the same time of the instructions of his escort, his Percheron; pouring himself a whisky from the bar and lowering the window on the door—lifts his gaze and looks uneasy. He is not sure what his wife means to say. A plot has been developing against him for some time, and all that’s lacking is that she, too, betray him now after this eternity together and after all his sacrifices: after having kept at bay that voluptuous temptress of a subordinate, that attractive and primal secretary (with her atavistic appeal); after banishing through repentance and prayer all the temptations of Saint Anthony; after pushing out of his head, in that nook of the chapel, the memory of all those women who for some reason or other (all pretense, of course) “needed his services”; after so many nights hidden away in the bathroom, his own hand working himself over ferociously, his repentant face before the mirror; after all that, he was skewered with that question, so ill-suited for the moment:

“Did you like me?”

But of course, my love—what with that comely fuzz that glazes your skin, varying in texture with the area it covers; here, a kind of light suede to brush out with the tip the tongue; there, those defined, dark features that bespeak Moorish roots; over here, taut bristles that could sand down wood; here a thicket, there bejuco imbued with the aroma of a fortuneteller, temple of Apollo, horse of Icarus, Cyprian shrine. But of course, my love—what with that brilliant plaza where we met, illuminated by the splendor of your smile, the air hanging around the force of your Valkyrian arms, and my stupefied look brought on by the luster of your calves. But of course, but of course—that day I tasted the flavor of milk, the thick consistency of honey, the intoxicating sourness of the grape, the voices of the trees. Ah, my love, why don’t you get into the car? Don’t you see that our Pegasus is anxious to return once more to the heavens . . .

“And what kind of questions are these at a time like this? Do you know what’s happening? They’re launching a coup against us! Get in, woman!”

The woman adjusts her cloth-lined shoematerial that one of her daughters brought from Paris just so she could have that dress shoe for cocktails at the club, or for benefits; a careful eye would have noticed, in addition to the grime that had begun to coat the shoes, that the cloth was beginning to come apart at the seams. In any case, they wouldn’t last more than a couple of days, if that’d be any consolation to her. Now risen from the ground, the porter closes the passenger door and gets into the driver’s seat. He starts the car. The President presses the telephone against his ear while it continues to ring on the other end; now he is gulping down a pair of tranquilizers with his whiskey. He lays his head back on the headrest. His wife has settled in, and she has begun to call her friends on her phone, just as she does when inviting them to cards or to tea. The porter shows himself to be a friend as his eyes glaze over—perhaps it’s the fumes of the car, which accumulate fast in that cramped garage. A distant voice picks up and repeats “Hello? Hello? Hello?” but the president is watching the roof of the car.  He fixes his gaze as though he had spotted a stain or a cockroach. His eyes flash, on the verge of scolding the porter, or better yet his Percheron. The porter was beginning to mount a long and labored excuse just when the president’s wife—without meaning to, and commenting to a friend about the emotion of the moment, bumps into the president, whose head falls lifelessly onto the half-opened window. The whiskey spills onto the black leather—another chiding for the porter—while the telephone falls all the way under the seat; his feet quiver, a final shake: the president, alas, expires like a prehistoric animal. His wife, for the first time in her life, doesn’t know what to do . . .

And under the introductory chords of Wagner, sounded by those ethereal soldiers, the helicopters approach, whirring loudly as they fire on the presidential cavalcade.

Read more from the February 2011 issue
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