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from the December 2008 issue

The Karma Some Girls Have

“I have often come across the presumption that we Americanos from the south are supposed to produce literature that is invariably political (and much of that literature is, in fact, wonderfully political, engaged in the sorrows and labyrinth and hopes of struggle) and all too often based in some jungle or on the slopes of a savage mountain and, of course, also exotically magical. All right! If that’s what people want I’ll choose… a story that befuddles these expectations and foils them…”—Ariel Dorfman

By the time the lights went out, they felt as if they were yelling at each other, or that was what they would have said if someone had asked them to measure the violence of their argument. But in truth they weren't yelling, and none of the neighbors could hear them, which was something that they had not bothered to think about. Perhaps earlier, when it had all started, it might have worried them, as it always did, but they had reached that point when people say things they don't know they are holding inside them, things that only seem true in the heat of an argument and that people spend the rest of their lives regretting, things that remain imprinted forever in the most vulnerable corner of our minds. It was seven o'clock and not yet dark outside, which was why they didn't notice when the lights went out. Her hair was beginning to hang over her eyes and she was smoking like a vampire and speaking in a terrible, harsh voice, saying things like:

"Of course I'm sick of it, and of course I'm right. You don't get it. You live in a bubble, and you simply ignore the things that don't interest you. If you see a blind man on the street, you notice his glasses, or his dog, but it doesn't occur to you to wonder whether the poor wretch needs help. If someone tells you they're depressed, you're surprised they don't just go to the movies, which is what you would do. Do you want to know what bothers me the most about you? It's the fact that you always try to enjoy yourself. Even when you're supposedly suffering. That's the thing that bothers me the most."

He couldn't stop pacing around the living room, biting first his lower lip and then his upper lip, and saying over and over:

"I what? Oh really? Tell me about it."

After that, the argument ended. They were exhausted. She shook her head a couple of times as she took a few final puffs from her cigarette, put it out, and disappeared down the hall. He stayed there. Finally, he sat down and stared out of the window until his neck began to ache from turning it to one side for such a long time. When his eyes turned back to the living room he realized it was dark. It was not the only thing he noticed, but it was the first thing. He also realized, all of a sudden, that he no longer loved her. Worse yet: she dominated him. That was what he thought: I used to be wild, I had guts, I didn't have these thoughts. I've gone soft because of her, and now when I'm mad I keep thinking about how I should show my anger; she's a shit, it's all her fault and she's not as smart as she thinks she is if she doesn't realize that I'm much more sick of all this than she is.

Then he started to think about other girls. First he thought back to a time when he was less of a wimp; he saw himself with other girls, and he seemed almost heroic in his eyes. These were girls he had been with for less than the blink of an eye and for that reason he seemed so invulnerable and young. He thought about each of his girlfriends: the ones he had never even kissed, the ones he had kissed but was not able to win over completely, the ones who had given him everything but whom he did not care about. The list seemed paltry, so he thought about the girls with whom he could have cheated but hadn't. But he was not absolutely sure that the girls would really have been willing. So then he thought about his friends' girlfriends. He remembered scenes in kitchens and hallways, slightly uncomfortable silences heavy with meaning, furtive, clumsy, intense glances. All of these scenes contained background noise: laughter, music, the clinking of bottles and glasses, voices drowning out other voices.

When he was about to move on to thinking about her friends, he ran out of steam. He went back to hating her for taking away his ferocity, for speeding up the passage of time. He tried to remember what he had thought he would be like at twenty-six back when he was twenty. No, that wasn't the problem. The house. That was it. He was relieved that there was enough space for them to be able to avoid each other, to ignore each other at that moment. But then he felt bitter that one of them would end up with the house. That one of them would have to leave (he would have to leave; it made him mad that he would be the one). They would end up selling it. Sitting there in the darkness, he felt that he knew it by heart; he could walk around without bumping into the furniture, guessing the exact location of a doorknob, of a drawer handle, of a light switch. It didn't matter that she had selected the furniture and the color of the walls. He treated the house like a living being; he walked around the rooms at night and could recognize the slightest sound, every creak in each of the rooms. He conversed with the house at night when he couldn't sleep.

Then he thought about all the things he had not been able to do since he had been with her. He didn't make a list, simply thought about them in the abstract, as a single unit, as one indefinite thing. He was sure she knew nothing about this, either. She didn't even have the courage to think about things and then not go through with them. She was more scared than he was, even if he was the more domesticated of the two. He felt more generous, more vulnerable, more wounded, and more heroic. Actually, he was starting to feel stupid.

No, not stupid. Alone. Alone, like a pizza under the rain. Someone else had said that: Lou, or Dylan, or Cohen, one of those. In the dark, we're more alone, he thought, and those were his own words. He went on: During a blackout you are truly in the dark; there's no escape, you can't turn on the light or the TV, or put on a record, or leaf through a magazine, or open the refrigerator, or anything. You're in the dark, in a darkened house, in a darkened neighborhood. Like now.

There was no noise from outside, not even the clamor of cars circulating chaotically without traffic lights. Nothing. He looked out of the window. He closed his eyes, opened them again. It was the same either way. Then he heard something: a low hum. It was the sound of all those people thinking the same thing he was. It was as if, in the dark, the building had become a hyperactive beehive of mental activity. The same hum came out of every open window, and it made the humid night feel even more thick and silent. That was solitude. That was the sound of what all those people who were thinking the same thing he was thinking were thinking at that moment. That their girlfriends or wives didn't understand a damn thing; that other girls, or maybe single girls, could understand and certainly would be delighted to be with guys like them, to be able to choose.

He thought about this some more and suddenly realized that when the lights came back on, all these people would instantly forget what they had been thinking. They would turn on the TV, turn up the music, make up with their girlfriends almost without knowing it, the moment they saw them preparing some hors d'oeuvres or coming in from the deli with a package of steaming cannelloni. It was as if whatever happened in the darkness was simply a passing phase, something to kill the time. As if it hadn't been them thinking but rather the irritation of the blackout and their forced idleness.

But not him. He would not forget. And that wasn't all. He was starting to see what he would do with his life, from that moment on. He was going to do something simply spectacular, so simple and perfect that it seemed incredible that he hadn't thought of it before. Something epic, solitary, altruistic, and incredibly fun, all at once. He would repeat and perfect an idea that had come to him in a bar that very afternoon, when a girl at the next table ordered an ice-cold mineral water, and she had seemed so maddeningly perfect that he had thought: "Not even a plate of steaming tripe could ruin you, believe me." Or what he might have said to that redhead with the freckles and the gorgeous face he had seen on the bus that morning: "Until I saw you my day was black and white."

That was what he was going to do. Because those two girls were not only extraordinary: They seemed to be almost painfully conscious of their own beauty. And they appeared to require some kind of subtle corroboration from him in order to go on living in that state. Not flattery, but a verbal dose of truth.

There were millions of girls walking around who believed that being beautiful was a problem, whose karma no one seemed to take seriously. He was going to become the champion of all those girls whose beauty exacerbated their self-consciousness and became a problem for them. He would be a kind of crusader of the senses, devoted to inspiring a secret faith in the hearts of all the most painfully beautiful girls who crossed his path, on behalf of the aesthetic imperative of defending the harsh glare of such beauty. He calculated that if he dedicated himself fully to this task for, let's say, twenty years, in the end he would almost certainly become, to a great extent, the facilitator of the beauty of all the women who walked the streets of Buenos Aires, the visionary who had discovered the essential element in all of them, their most profound identity.

The culmination of his apostolate would come when one of these girls, the most incredibly beautiful and intelligent and most eternally youthful of all of them, realized what he was and fell in love with him. She would understand that there was an essential bond between them and she would convince him to abandon his solitary pilgrimage and go away with her and they would live happily ever after.

Infantile? It was an absolutely extraordinary idea. Who said that there were no men capable of fully, electrically, appreciating feminine beauty and the karma that such beauty signified? The bit about the romance that would one day crown his activities was perhaps a touch excessive, but who was he to deny miracles?

He looked at his watch; it was two minutes past ten. He got up from the couch and went back over to the window. He was going to scream, or something. What were those idiots from the electric company waiting for? He started to whisper quietly: "Now, now, the lights are about to come on, just a little longer, soon. Come on, damn it." He felt for the lamp switch. He pressed it but nothing happened. He breathed deeply, counted to sixty, and tried again. Nothing.

That was when the itching started. Suddenly, for no reason, in different parts of his face. He scratched with his fingertips, then his nails, but the itch was deeper, in his bones. He started to massage his jaw with both hands, softly with one, and harder with the other. He was beginning to feel on edge. He felt as if his face was swelling, and suddenly had the imperative need to find a mirror and see if his jaw looked any different.

He went into the bathroom, quietly, barefoot. He stood in front of the mirror and pressed his hands against the glass. He could barely distinguish the black mass in front of his face. He rested his forehead on the glass and closed his eyes, then opened them again. The itching sensation faded as the glass grew warmer against the skin of his face. He wondered why these things happen, why everything had to be so terrible. Or was he exaggerating? There was some justification for starting over, reasoning things out, but just thinking about it made him feel a heavy stone of hatred in his plexus, cold, growing colder. That was her fault too; his hatred had contributed to his domestication.

The light came on. Not in the bathroom but in the rest of the house and in the windows across the street. He heard a rumbling that might have been an expression of joy or indignation, and now he could make out the sound of TVs and radios. He thought: the moment of reflection is over, life goes on. But he didn't move. There was just enough light from the window to make out the objects on the shelf: the cup with the two toothbrushes, his shaving lotion, her perfume bottles.

He took two steps back and looked toward the window. But then he stopped, frozen. The bathtub was full of water and she was lying there. She was naked, her eyes were closed, and her forehead was dotted with condensation. Her wet hair was combed back and dangled over the side of the tub, suspended in the air and dripping water.

He thought: "She's dripping water on the floor." He thought: "She's dead." But the water moved almost imperceptibly with her breathing. He stared for a long time at her breasts as they rose and fell slightly in the water. He thought: "She's sleeping, and she doesn't care that the lights are back on. She didn't even notice that we were in the dark, because she doesn't think, she never sees anything beyond herself." He thought: "I don't love her." He thought: "Does she love me?"

He took two more steps back, grabbed one of the toothbrushes, then kept moving backward until he was out of the bathroom. He flung the toothbrush from there. She woke up. She splashed around comically, stretched her legs underwater, and leaned her head back and a little bit to one side, and said, too loudly, as if she wanted to be heard in the whole house:

"Miguel, are the lights back on?"

© Juan Forn. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2008 by Marina Harss. All rights reserved.

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