Every time I go back to Guatemala City I make a stop at Avenida Bolívar, the capital's main thoroughfare, with all the reverence of a mourner at a cemetery. The ravenous traffic, and the blue, green, and red houses, whose doors swing open and shut as the busy, hot-blooded people come and go, are all nothing but shadows; other figures, more substantial, more alive, emerge within me. I feel the urge to cry out, but go along quietly, and if on occasion I have wept then it's been in front of ironmongers, high street stores, electrical goods stores, cinemas, dentists, sugar warehouses, grocers, pharmacies, tortilla shacks, clothing stores, raincoats, and passing buses—doleful, all.
I used to be happy to come back. But when you're into your thirty-fifth year and all the USA has given you is a good salary that gets immediately sucked up by luxury cars and color TVs, along with the humiliation that goes with being Latino, the belief that every knock on the door will be immigration officials, and the knowledge that life is a job you hate, one you only want a break from, and you return home, carry out an inventory of the friends you've lost, confirm you're now a foreigner there, too, then your stomach and head go empty. The volcano's there, but it's different now: less authentic.
My first time back from New Orleans was in 1960. They threw a big party at the house. My sister Nicolasa said: “We're going to hire a marimba band.” We spent an afternoon clearing rooms, stacking up the furniture at the back of the house. Then, while my mother sweated over the tamales at the old stone cooker, we sprinkled the floor with pine chips and put up bright tissue paper and balloons. It was a party like any other: perspiration, inebriation, and desire filled the gaps in the crazy clamor of voices as people tried to make themselves heard over the noise of the marimbas. The whole thing seemed like make-believe; like a space that had been created to last only as long as the marimba, the rum, and Coca-Cola lasted.
It was at this party that I met Aurorita—young Aurora. She was petite, and she dressed well but not fashionably; she did her hair as though the 1940s had never ended. Nicolasa introduced us: “This is our landlady's daughter,” she said. I ran my eye over her spectacles with their golden frames, her perfect white teeth, tiny hands, snub nose, and myopic eyes. I saw hesitation in her, a yearning for happiness, and the worn-down unhappiness of having no one in your life. I must be some kind of degenerate, given that it was precisely these marks of innocence that made me want her. When she said yes to a dance and we made our way side by side to a gap near the front of the dance floor, she knew, and I knew too, that our ultimate destination was bed. It was never to be. As we danced a 6/8, I tried to bring her body close to mine. Her spindly bones yielded, and I felt godlike: earthbound, shaggy-headed, far from fair, but godlike all the same.
The following day Nicolasa interrogated me over my propositioning of Aurorita. I acted cynical, making a show of haughtiness as though it was only a matter of time before a weak woman was mine, when what I really felt was a tenderness bordering on pity for the little old woman. I spent the trip, the idea of which had been to spend time with my family, courting Aurorita, incurring no small loss of money on my part. Things went as far as a kiss, I remember. But I've kissed Aurorita time and again in my dreams, and the saliva on her tongue has a taste like bitter roses. I find it impossible now to distinguish: is it a dream I remember, or a memory I dream? When the time came for me to head back to New Orleans we bid a hasty farewell, like we were being snatched from one another—like the farewells we'd seen between lovers in the movies. I went back to the U.S. all set to save up the money to marry her.
Nico's first letter floored me. "Strange rumors” had, she said, been going around the neighborhood, to do with Aurorita. My sister was obviously itching to tell me more, so I wrote straight back urging her to do so, to tell me everything, “sparing nothing.” The reply, which by its considerable length betrayed how happy Nicolasa was to be telling me these things, for all its length, held no great revelations. Nico said that the woman who owned the shop on the corner had warned me to take care with that “shitty little sparrow.” The butcher changed the subject when Nico mentioned Aurorita, but the old woman in the bakery said that Aurorita had a boyfriend already. Though later reports were to be far more grievous, this initial one was, for me, the most brutal, as it stood for the distance between Aurorita and me, her ring-laden hands, her pale skin, her timid air.
Nicolasa's second letter contained a further discovery: Miss Aurorita didn't have a boyfriend. It was more delicate than that: she had had a lover, and because of the affair had been written out of her inheritance. I wrote back to my sister saying that my time in the U.S. had changed my thinking. Reaffirming my intentions, I revealed to my sister my wish, come the following vacation, to marry Miss Aurorita.
The third letter was written in a flat, police-report-like style. My sister, according to my wishes, had been going around the busy shops and the living rooms lined with comfortable wicker armchairs, and begun letting slip the news that I could well be about to marry. In response to people's stony faces, and their exceeding concern over when precisely I'd be back, she'd smile and give vague answers. The butcher took the bait. He waited for all the customers to leave and told my sister he'd make a formal visit that evening. I experienced what he said, in the letter, acutely; I had the sense that my feet truly existed, that my brain was smaller than my vocal cords, and that my eyes were rolling about in my head. According to the meat seller, Aurorita's story was more complex still. He began by saying he was revealing these things for my own good, out of the affection he'd had for our family ever since we arrived from Chimaltenango. I hated him then for a different reason from why I hate him today: I hated him for the shame he caused me, because the story he told made a fool of me, and a cuckold and an idiot, all at the same time. All of which I was, truly, but to hear it from someone else hurt. Young Aurora, said the butcher, wasn't Miss Aurora at all: she had a child, fruit of relations she'd had with a member of her own family. This I found impossible to accept. I wrote back to my sister begging her to “get to the bottom of things.”
Letter number four sealed it. Over the course of several frank conversations with shopkeepers throughout the neighborhood, my sister had managed to fill in the gaps in the butcher's account. The outlines changed, but not the core of the thing: Aurora had borne a stranger's child, and this child was still alive, passing its days sequestered in a room off her building's inner courtyard, the child's contact with the world restricted to the docile hound whose barks were heard constantly from deep within the edifice. Everyone pretended not to know about the child, thus deceiving young Aurora, who thought she was the one deceiving everyone else.
So I decided it was over between Aurorita and me. I stopped replying to her letters and began drinking. On my next trip to Guatemala, it wasn't hard to find the man, the one everyone fingered as young Aurora's lover. Anyone listening in on our even-tempered conversation about a woman we'd both loved and both ended up losing, would have thought neither of us very manly. And maybe they'd have been right. But you get to an age, or you should, in which tests of manhood become tests of weariness, bullfights featuring domesticated animals. So it was that, one night, he accepted my offer to buy him a beer, to have a drink and tell his story—like mine, not the saddest story ever told. That night I was a different person: I lived, through his words, other people's lives. My character—the fact I'm meek and solitary as a person—is in some measure the result of this conversation. The man before me, glancing around, his fingers twitching as though he were saying the rosary, was well past his prime, very dark in complexion, with an oily black mustache covering thick lips. Someone kept coming back to the jukebox and obsessively selecting the same song again and again. The sound emerged twirling from the machine, edging forward between the tables and presenting itself to this man, this balding, long-sighted man, to whom I was an excuse to delve into memory. It was quite an effort to stay tuned in to what he was saying, given that the noise, his thick-tongued speech and the alcoholic fumes clouding my brain combined to form a clotted mush out of which I had to pick what I wanted to hear. Or perhaps I misremember; perhaps it was that the act of attention, my straining to listen, clouded my intelligence. I do remember this: the man told me his name, and then proceeded with the tale:
“I was born on the coast,” he began. “Near Retalhuleu, there's a town where the Indians go bare-chested. There. It's so backward they still go down to collect water from the river in buckets, and they only have electricity for lighting between six and nine at night. I was born there but I hated the place—tried my hardest in school, got myself top of the class. And I didn't stop there—when I got into high school in Retalhuleu, I was the top student. People from Retalhuleu think it's the center of the universe, you know, even though it was full of ignorant tyrants. For me it was a surrogate for the world I'd created in my mind, one that, to this day really, I'm still trying to find. Before too long, I won myself a scholarship and came to the capital to study.
“And this is where she enters, young Aurora, as my cousin's always been known, and always will be, I suppose. My aunt was a widow, and my family was alive to the fact she was all alone in the enormous house her dead husband, a wealthy trader, had left her—just her, her two daughters, and a Cadillac. My parents wrote her a fawning card, the long and short of which was a request to put me up.
“How was my aunt to know that by saying yes she'd also be ruining her life? She couldn't have, least of all from the sight of me when I walked through the door, such as I was, my suitcase stinking of raw hide and a suit that might have been elegant down in Reu but was pretty shabby to city eyes. Both she and my cousins laughed at the sight of me. I was given a room overlooking the inner courtyard, along with a dent in my self-confidence. And so it remained: I was the poor relation, and they, in the finery and perfume of their dead father's trade, simply turned up their noses.
“I was seventeen, and my cousins just a little younger—Aurora sixteen, Margot fifteen. What was I supposed to make of them? I was studious, but restless at the same time. I was already doing a few odd jobs for the Communist Party by then, and Fridays I'd head down to Seventeenth Street—this was before all the whores were cleared out. I fell for lots of other girls, but never anything that stuck, partly because I thought they were all stupid pinheads in their bright lipstick.
“Our hands touching, a glance, some misunderstanding. I don't remember . . .
“In fact, I remember it very well. We were listening to the news on the radio one day, our arms touched, and I felt suddenly breathless. She blushed, and my last thought was: she's your cousin. Lots of sneaking around behind the old woman's back after that. People say I also had something with Margot, but that's simply not true.
“We created a kind of gloom in that house, it came to have the kind of sticky air you get in very busy bars on the coast. I didn't know Aurora was pregnant. All I remember was my aunt screaming at me, insulting me, quite rightly when someone's bitten the hand that feeds them, and I was out on my ear. I never asked myself how she knew Aurora was expecting. I can't remember. My aunt sent her and Margot on a nine-month vacation to Antigua.
“I remember plucking up the courage to go and show my face again. My aunt listened to the offer of marriage—her answer being to kick me straight out again, hurling abuse after me. I never went back. I took an oath that day, one I've followed through on. My aunt has remained cold. What she did was despicable, forcing Aurora to lie, to pretend she was still Miss Aurora. The worse thing, which I'll never forgive them for, is having hidden the child away all these years, leaving it to rot in myinner courtyard room with only the dog to talk to.”
Who knows what else he said. I don’t want to remember now, now that I'm back on Avenida Bolívar, standing in front of the mansion, which today has become a store. The young man working there shows all the mean tics of the average small business owner. Entering the store, I see how similar he and I are, and feel a profound disgust, as though the boy were a twin cockroach; his head must be teeming with the empty, isolated days that formed his childhood. I see him: my seed repulses me. It shouldn’t have been this way. But what to say to him, when the only thing the block brings to mind, this mansion with all its brown smells, is young Aurora, white, hands crossed in front of the dress she wore to her first communion, after which she was found floating in the bath, having bathed in rose essence, and in tepid water, the steam having risen and steamed up the mirrors, the medicine bottles, the jars of cosmetics, and the small, bitter eyes of the mother who murmured: “This was how it should have been, bitch, this was how it should have been”?
“La joven Aurora y el niño cautivo” © Dante Liano. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2014 by Thomas Bunstead. All rights reserved.