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from the January 2009 issue


“Horacio Castellanos Moya . . . is a melancholy man and writes from the bowels of one of the many volcanos that pepper his country. That sounds like magical realism, but there is nothing magical in his books, save perhaps his powerful style. He is a survivor, but he doesn’t write like one.”—Roberto Bolaño 

I began frequenting the Café Imperial on the same day that I moved into the apartment of my very dear friend Hernando Salcido, a spacious and well-furnished apartment on Jesús y María Street that would be mine for the whole month, as my friend, his wife, and his little girl were summering at their family's beach house in Fuengirola.

I began frequenting the Café Imperial on the same afternoon that I moved my few belongings to my dear friend Hernando's apartment in anticipation of finally having a private and respectable place to roll in the hay with my lustful Rita Mena, the lover for whose flesh I had left San Salvador for Madrid fifteen days earlier—we had been unable to enjoy our god-given right to screw owing on the one hand to circumstances in the filthy hostel where I had been staying and on the other to the eavesdropping Venezuelan woman with whom Rita shared a scandalously small apartment near Entrevías, causing the object of my affections to become shy.

I began frequenting the Café Imperial a few hours after Rita Mena and I commenced our stay at my friend Hernando's with some exploratory screwing on the various sofas, armchairs, and benches in that pleasant apartment, from whose fourth-floor balcony, spent but curious as children nonetheless, we contemplated the roofs of the Lavapiés neighborhood, relishing the fact that my very dear friend Hernando had thoughtfully invested in a powerful air-conditioning unit that would allow us to carry on our sweaty panting for a whole month during that stifling Madrid summer.

But only until Rita Mena departed to fulfill her scholarly duties—she had moved to this city to pursue a master's in journalism—so I decided to go out and explore the neighborhood, to wander the alleys and survey the old bars, the Arab clothing wholesalers, and the outdoor cafés scattered around the entrance to the Tirso de Molina subway stop. Nervous from the sight of so many attractive women in skimpy outfits compounded by the dry, brutal heat, I found myself in front of the Café Imperial, a place I had once set foot in but subsequently fled when I saw the prices and which I now entered only because of my need for air-conditioning and a cold, refreshing beer; it was a stuffy, touristy place, and no sooner was I seated at the bar with a beer in my hand than I laid eyes on a waitress who immediately, and perplexingly, became the object of my desire—truly, the very moment I saw this young lady in a denim miniskirt which revealed her solid yet enchanting legs and clung to her perfectly shaped ass in all its glory; I downed my beer in one gulp as I observed with alarm the milky arms covered with downy brown hair of this girl who was approaching me, holding my stare with her green eyes and a coquetry that obliged me to order another beer in order not to have a breakdown right there at the bar.

"Her name is Marina," the bartender said.

And I moved to the stool that was next to the spot where she picked up drinks before delivering them to her tables.

Her name was Marina, she was from Córdoba, she was twenty-five years old, she was studying acting, she loved the plays of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller though she had never been to America, or so she told me on our first encounter, while I pounded beers and took advantage of each of her trips to the bar—her tray full of dirty glasses and cups—to ask her questions that she always answered on the move, at once hard-working and flirty as if she were aware of the nervousness that was eating away at me and that I barely managed to hide—until the time came for me to leave because Rita Mena would soon be arriving at my very dear friend Hernando's apartment.

I walked down Jesús y María Street babbling to myself and found my true love ringing the apartment's bell insistently—we went straight up with the bag of clothes she had brought to effectively move in to our newly inaugurated love nest and we began telling each other what we had done in the hours we had been apart. On no account did I plan to mention that I had spent the afternoon with Marina from Córdoba; I stuck to generalities about my lazy, drunken afternoon and began to pry as tactfully as possible about what Rita Mena had done with her fellow students, in particular one Argentinian named Lorenzo.

"Here you go again," Rita Mena complained, in a tone that only confirmed my suspicions that this Argentinian journalist was very appealing to the girl for whom I had crossed the Atlantic and with whom I hoped to continue my relationship as long as my paltry savings lasted, or at least until my singular interest in her began to wane.

Thirsty, and feeling like the new kids on the block, that night we inaugurated a ritual that we would repeat time and again during the month in which we were to live in my very dear friend Hernando's apartment; the bars El Tio Vinagre and Móntes were its base, whence we would sally forth to explore every hole in the wall of that neighborhood; and from that very first night we always wound up at the Café Imperial, where we would arrive in the wee hours quite tipsy, pushing our way to the bar through masses of people, dense smoke, and loud, strident conversation. That was when I suddenly ran into Marina from Córdoba, who greeted me pleasantly despite being busy, leaving me with such an idiotic grin on my face that Rita Mena gave me her most reproachful look.

And that night, when we lay with our legs intertwined, exhausted from enjoying my friend Hernando's king-size bed, I had to admit, at the insistence of Rita Mena, that I had the hots for Marina from Córdoba; and it was that same night, after hearing my confession and a persuasive, dogged interrogation on my part, that Rita Mena had to acknowledge that she had the hots for that little Argentinian reporter named Lorenzo with whom she was studying journalism. I made it clear that I had no intention of cheating with Marina; and Rita Mena said she had no such plan with her little school buddy. "Although since you're fifteen years older, I have more of a right to see what it's like to be with someone else," she added.

And on my second afternoon at the Café Imperial, I again spoke with that young lady who now treated me like an old friend, asking me question after question about my country, a land she had never heard of and that was lost to her in a blur of jungles and savages called the Americas; she also asked if the "pretty girl"—that's how she put it—who had come in with me the previous night was my girlfriend and if she was from the same country, an opportunity that I seized upon to learn that Marina had just been cheated on and that she lived—happy coincidence!—on the Tirso de Molina plaza, just two streets away from the apartment of my dear friend Hernando.

And on that second night, when we entered the Café Imperial at the end of our bar crawl, Marina from Córdoba was bartending behind the counter and, by way of welcome, bought us a couple of beers, flirting all the while, the coquette, not only with me but with Rita Mena, who was a little more buzzed than usual: soon I saw they were engaged in an intense conversation from which I was excluded, the thought running through my feverish mind that there was a certain attraction between them which fired my sleazy fantasies, a hunch that Rita Mena confirmed as we drunkenly crossed the plaza which faced the object of our desire's apartment.

Later that night, while Rita Mena rubbed her body against mine with nothing less than virtuosity, I asked if she'd like, for a little break in our routine, to have a three-way with Marina from Córdoba, to which she replied that she would prefer to have a three-way with the little Argentinian she had her eye on, an answer that made no sense, as I made clear, since Rita Mena and Marina already knew and liked each other, whereas I didn't know and was certainly not going to have the least affection for the Argentinian in question. "That doesn't matter, you don't have to make love to each other, only to me," added Rita Mena just before she climaxed.

The following morning, when we entered the Café Tirso de Molina to have breakfast, to our delight we found Marina alone at a table, looking as if she'd just gotten out of bed, much the worse for wear and absorbed in a newspaper. I walked over to her and she raised her radiant eyes to say, "What a pleasure to see you guys," but the pleasure was all ours, especially mine, because now fate was giving me signs, and in such a way that in no time we were chatting away over coffee with an enthusiasm that, in Rita Mena's case, seemed rare to me, because it could no longer be attributed to her buzz from the night before, and thanks to which she was able to convince Marina to come out with us that evening, since it was her night off at the Café Imperial.

And that's how we agreed to meet up at Bar Montes at 9 p.m.

The fact that Rita Mena had taken the initiative to ask Marina out bothered me for the rest of the day; the thought that perhaps her motives in befriending the young lady whom I wanted to bed were not nearly as clear as mine made me wonder if it was part of a strategy to ruin my plans, as I told her while we walked to the Bar Montes at nine that evening, well-dressed and horny. I warned her firmly that she should harbor no illusions that if we were successful in our conquest that night I would engage in a similar arrangement with her little buddy from Buenos Aires.

What a night we had, stopping for drinks in every single bar on Argumosa Street, the seduction blooming in three voices—Rita and I telling our stories from the tropics, tales astonishing to an ingénue like Marina from Córdoba, while she hinted at the romances of a much-desired barmaid and her recently broken heart, and suddenly she and Rita had entered into their own world of complicity and sympathy from which I was completely excluded, an intimacy complete with its own lexicon and trips to the ladies' room in which I obviously could not participate, to such an extent that when we left for the Café Imperial they told me to go on ahead—see ya—they were going up to Marina's apartment to do some girl things, they'd catch up with me; they said all this in unison and with such confidence that I was unable to respond.

I arrived at the Café Imperial and drank my beer, certain that they would never appear, that indecent woman Rita Mena had cleverly maneuvered me out of the picture and I had no other option than to return defeated to my very dear friend Hernando's apartment, barely sustained by the illusion that at dawn perhaps the girls would ring my doorbell and join me in the bed in which, for now, I would find it very difficult to sleep.

© Horacio Castellanos Moya. Translation © 2009 by Samantha Schnee. All rights reserved.

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