The ring he wore on his right hand caught my attention: a thick gold band speckled with small diamonds. It was flashy and feminine, and on the hand of the man seated in the next row, not far from me, it seemed out of place. His neat loafers. The perfect crease in his wool pants. His corduroy jacket. His neck. His clean-shaven face. I averted my eyes only when I realized he was crying. The shock of it: seeing a man cry. He rested his head on his left hand, no doubt trying to cover his face, but it didn’t prevent me from noticing the dampness around his eyes, the vertical trail of his tears. I pretended to look toward the large window with the weary air of someone waiting for a late plane, when that didn’t work, I opened a book. As I tried unsuccessfully to read one of the pages, I asked myself again and again if I had put the book in my carry-on precisely for this, to pretend that I didn’t see a man crying in an almost empty airport well before dawn. Truthfully, it was all I could see. I straightened, with the intention of walking through the empty brightly-lit halls, so it surprised me when, instead of going to the right, I took a couple of steps to the left and touched his shoulder.
“Do you need water?” I asked him.
The man raised his head but stayed silent. He saw me, certainly, but he didn’t see me. His swollen eyes seemed to be reflecting on something dark and complicated. Minutes passed like that. A long time passed. Finally, when he had to accept that there was, in fact, someone in front of him offering him water, he nodded, moving his head only slightly.
I thought that finding the liquid would be easy, but it wasn’t. The more I walked over the smooth tiled floor, passing closed storefronts whose windows only showed my own reflection, the more I became convinced of the absurdity of my offer. Not only had I interrupted him in the middle of an intimate, and by all indication, painful moment, but I had also forced him to expose his puffy, tired eyes to me. I reproached myself for my conduct, and, defeated, returned to the waiting room. I felt like apologizing or explaining, but I pushed it from my mind when I saw him again. The man hadn’t moved. There was his forehead, barely supported by his left hand, and the thick gold band on the ring finger of his right hand, which rested in his lap.
A few steps from him, motionless as well, my body convulsed. The water that I hadn’t found fell onto my shoes, making a small puddle on the shabby carpet.
“Do you need water?” I used to whisper, and following the inaudible response, I would climb onto a narrow wooden bench, stretch my arm out over my head and place a plastic cup on the sill of a small high window that connected the last room of my house with the back patio of another. A small bony hand would take the cup right away, as if frightened of being discovered, and seconds later I could hear someone drinking the water, gulp by gulp, slowly becoming calmer.
“Is there anything I can do?” I would ask him, still speaking softly. At first, he always said no, that he didn’t want me to do anything, but as the days passed and the beatings continued he began to communicate through a strange form of babbling. He asked absurd things. Curious about what usually passed me by unperceived. He wanted me to describe my room, the board games I played in the afternoons, the music I listened to on the radio. Whispering, attempting to prevent them from knowing that someone on the other side of the wall was comforting him, I would respond to his questions in a detailed manner. Telling him more and more.
There was once a man crying in an airport, I told him.
I used to hear him cry at least once a week. As if it were a primitive ritual, the ceremony of his tears would normally begin with a scream: a feminine death rattle that opened painfully slowly, emerging from some dark hidden place. In those moments, I would picture a cave. I thought about moss covered skeletons safely hidden under piles of dead and rotting leaves. I thought about the word origin. Then I would stop thinking and listen, one by one, to the blows. Hand on back, leather on muscle, rope on cheek. Something firm and unyielding against the softness of skin. Something hard and jagged against the blandness of flesh. Something against him. The noise was paralyzing. No matter where I was in the house, when it reached me, I would freeze whatever game, or conversation or digestive process I was in the middle of. I would open my eyes excessively wide. I would clench my teeth, crossing my arms over my suddenly empty stomach. Then I would go to the kitchen to get the glass of water that he was gradually getting used to.
“Tell me about your room” he would ask, timidly, after five or six sips. And I, in a faint voice, a voice that hoped to soothe or convince, would tell him.
I had a large room, that fit two twin beds and a desk and a play tent. There was a window that I opened frequently to see the stars and to let out the moths that sometimes snuck into the house in the folds of the line-dried clothes. I had, between my two normal sized pillows, a round one, yellow, with a large line curved into a smile that wasn’t really a pillow but a bag where I kept my pajamas. There was a radio that I turned on at night, always. The sound of frogs croaking, I described that.
“Is there a frog in your room?” he asked me with surprise as he blew his nose.
“What do you think?” I answered sarcastically, forgetting for a moment that I needed to speak very quietly.
Once at a fair, a psychic foretold many tears. Masculine tears. She said: your life is full of tears that are not those of a woman. I remembered this as I stood in front of the man in the airport. I remembered it when I sat by his side and silently offered him the glass of water that I couldn’t recall finding, but that in my hands I inexplicably carried.
Straining, the man in the airport turned to look at me.
“Don’t worry. I’m not sure if I even want water” he said. I shrugged my shoulders and took my book out of my luggage again, getting ready to scan the pages, knowing I wouldn’t be able to read them. I looked at the hands of my wristwatch: two thirty in the morning. I tapped my toes frantically until I became aware of what I was doing. Then I stopped. I bit my nails carefully and, when I finished, filed their ragged edges again and again against the cloth of my jeans. When there was nothing else I could do, I thought about the house. It was, without a doubt, an odd structure. From the outside, it seemed normal, with a large garden in front of the porch, crowned by a very old cypress. And on the porch, there was an iron bench and colorful flowerpots that fit perfectly with the wide solid avenues of the neighborhood. This all changed when the door opened. Behind it, majestic and twisting, there was a hall. But for someone small, it was more a tunnel than a hall: something narrow and long that seemed unending, and because of that, caused anxiety. At that time, I didn’t know the word but I knew the sensation. The hall also served as a point of convergence, on each side doors opened and closed: to the left, the dining room, to the right, the living room. On the left side, consecutively: the kitchen, then, a terrace. Then my room, the bathroom. On the right side, consecutively: another bedroom, another bathroom. At the end of it all the last room: a damp room, with large rectangular gray tiles, and one small window, covered in opaque glass that let in a little light although you couldn’t see out of it. The window didn’t open either. At least not in the strictest sense of the word. When I pushed the back part of it, it made a small triangular opening, 45-degrees or less, through which the cup of water passed, through which words passed. Sobs.
“My childhood” I said out of the blue, without warning, surprising myself more than anything. “My childhood was marked by a few hearts on the pavement, right in front of the garden entrance to my house.”
The man took a handkerchief out of his left pocket, and after blowing his nose, looked at me again. He seemed to have just realized that someone beside him had said a flurry of words. It seemed like understanding those words filled him with a strange and euphoric pleasure.
“You must have been flattered” he said, paving the way for a conversation.
I answered that I wasn’t.
“It was actually very embarrassing” the book open in my lap, looking out the window. All of this was. The chalk hearts. My name. The name of a stranger. The arrow between them. The drops of blood or who knows what that trickled over the hem of his pants before falling to the ground.
The man took out a small notebook from the right pocket of his jacket. Then, he took out a pen from the inside pocket of the same side and, bent over his lap, he drew something on one of the lined pages with a hesitant hand.
“Like this?” He asked, showing me a heart inside of which two names were encircled: Hnjkö and Jsartv. An arrow between them.
I looked at it out the corner of my eye. The approaching noise of a vacuum cleaner distracted me. Nearby, a man in blue overalls wiped the empty seats of the waiting room with a damp cloth. The scent of ammonia.
“They must be from very far away” was all I responded. “From another planet” I added, swallowing.
The man smiled: a slight twitch of his upper lip, a subtle tilt of his head. He looked at me. A plane landing brought us out of our trance.
“How do you know?” he asked, turning to me, puzzled. I was going to tell him that I didn’t know, of course, that no one could know, but instead of doing so I told him, with an ease that surprised me, about that cool afternoon, a Thursday afternoon if I wasn’t mistaken, when I had met them. We were in a river. I was following closely behind my father, jumping from rock to rock until I found myself almost in the middle of the current, and there they were, motionless on the shore, watching me come closer. Later, when my father showed me the exact way to fling smooth flat stones so that they skimmed the surface of the water and continued, the two figures came closer. Something had overcome them: their desire to understand.
“Hnjkö and Jsartv” murmured the man, looking at me and the ceiling of the airport at the same time, seeing also the river and the stones and the reflection of the light on our footprints: the entire blue sky filled his face. “That’s how I always imagined them” he added.
I was suspicious. I observed him carefully: the bags under his eyes. His pink lips. The shadow of a beard. I was doubtful, certainly. I turned to look at the haggard faces of the passengers that appeared, long before daybreak, through the narrow arrival gate.
“They were the ones that discovered this business of the hearts” I told him, taking advantage of the fact that he was also distracted by the arrival of the passengers. There are some eyes that light up with understanding right away, blinding, and others that take their time, like a snail on a damp wall. Those of the crying man were the second kind. His transformation was slow but clear. Little by little, his gaze migrated before settling, keenly, on the uneven pavement of a street upon which there appeared, every morning, a heart drawn with white chalk.
“They saw it all one morning” I told him. Right before dawn.
Something very much like pleasure filled me when I realized that the man in the airport listened with bated breath, allowing me to continue my story.
I used to ask myself how he could withstand it all. When I would hear the cry that marked the beginning of the beatings, I could see his arms above his head, trying to protect himself from the inevitable, his body forgotten in a back patio of his house. I inhaled the smell of his fear. And saw his tears, I could do all this from the other side of the wall, perfectly still, controlling my breath. To frighten is to horrify, certainly, but what happened in those moments wasn’t contact with horror but instead a more silent and intimate process. Something would overwhelm me and force me to cross my arms over my stomach to comfort or defend myself. An age-old movement. Something left me on one side of the wall, useless and terrified, my shoulder and head pressed against the smooth surface. My thumb unconsciously tracing what was before my eyes. Then: the water. Then: the words.
It was in the newspaper I told him. A man crying, in the empty room of an airport, indeed. In the early-morning hours.
“And why is he crying? he asked me in a whisper, swallowing phlegm and placing the already empty cup of water on the rusty sill of the small window.
“For the same reason you are, I imagine” I answered after a bit. “Because someone is beating him.”
“But the room is empty, that’s what you said.”
I was silent. An ashamed silence.
“Don’t worry about it” he muttered after a moment in a sad voice, contrite. “I’ve never flown in an airplane.”
The walls were painted white: a pearly hue. I told him that. Cockroaches flew from corner to corner in my room, especially in the summer. I hoped to impress him with that type of information, particularly with the cold and scientific tone that I used to tell it. There were ants: long lines of them. The tiled floor was green: a green that was hard to describe. I told him that. A ceramic green. A tiled floor, where marbles fell, loudly. Where I danced to the rhythm of the record player, in suede shoes. I drank lemonade out of large plastic cups. Birds made nests in the branches of the cypress. Passing under the foliage, it was clear that the birds didn’t sing, but instead let out sharp calls, screeches really. The echo of a faraway siren. As if their feet were glued to the trunks, they opened their beaks more to protest or ask for help then to amuse the wind. I dreamed of getting away from there, of turning into an ant that gets lost in a crack or a bird that, through determination or coincidence, frees its feet from the adhesive.
“And why would you want to disappear?” he had whispered to me from the other side of the wall. It had made me think. Finding the answer turned into an obsession of my childhood. An ant. A line of them. A bird. A disappearance. Why would someone want that?
The last room in the house was, more than anything else, a torture chamber. I told him that as well. Even though it was designed for guests, the few that visited us preferred to sleep in mine, in the small twin bed that no one used, instead of passing the night in that dark and humid room. We all avoided it. I thought that would impress him. It was where we stored winter clothes and old board games and decorations. I didn’t know why, even though I was the youngest, it was generally me that had to go to the end of the hall to look for a pair of boots or some Christmas ornaments. When I would go, when there was no other option but to go to into the last room, I went cautiously, tracing my finger along the wall as if I didn’t want to lose contact with whatever I was leaving behind. Once inside, I would stop, paralyzed. It smelled odd in there. Moss. Mothballs. Dust. The sun, that filled the rest of the house, didn’t reach there. It was a different world. It was always nighttime there. Always cold on that planet. Always silent. There, on the other side, someone cried. That is what I told him. A child. Someone that asked for water. No one spoke of him, even though his screams and whimpers entered the house through the small window and then flowed, like the water he drank to calm himself, through the hall, through the tunnel that was the hall, before reaching the main door, no one spoke of it. I told him that. My parents looked at each other out of the corners of their eyes when it started and politely kept silent, a compassionate and stony silence that instead of providing me with relief, provoked fear. I would lean forward and cradle myself. The cry of the boy, the cry that came from the other house, only stopped for a second under the cypress tree in the garden, and once there, it mingled with the screams of the crazed birds. Then everything would return to normal. We would never know when the house’s atmosphere would be disrupted again but we knew it would. Again, and again. Once more. A cup of water.
“Hnjkö had blue eyes” I explained to the man, “and Jsartv, who was always by his side, did too. They looked like twins” I stammered. “I think they were.”
“I bet they liked to mess around” he said. “With their appearance. Tricking people, you know what I mean. Switching.”
“But Jsartv had brown eyes” he added after a bit. “Brown eyes like yours” he said, looking straight at me and, when he didn’t see a reaction, taking my face between his hands with barely contained violence. “Don’t try and trick me.”
I smiled silently. I lowered my gaze. There is a man crying in an airport, I told someone that I never saw. The man carries a dagger inside.
“Inside what?” the infantile voice asked me.
“Inside his body” I told him. Naturally.
The airline employee that approached us to give us information about the status of the delayed flight had smeared eye makeup, and every time she opened her mouth to give us a new explanation, she bathed us in the stale breath of someone who hasn’t eaten in days.
“It seems like we will end up living our whole lives here” the man said, attempting some sad humor, half defeated.
“It’s the weather” the woman in charge repeated, apologetic. Circumstances beyond our control.
From the last room that I couldn’t escape, I wondered if there were other types of circumstances. Other reasons. If something really existed that was or could be in our control. The weather. Hearts on pavement. Crying. A flock of screaming birds, driven insane. Hnjkö. Jsartv. Love.
“An entire life together here” the man repeated after the woman had left. He sighed. In that moment, the silence of the empty airport was total. The light, that light. The reflection. I opened the window. Darkness. Then the echo of the vacuum came back, the whisper of steps.
“An entire life together” he sighed. “Together, here” he pointed at the veins on the back of his wrists. Then he put his left hand on his forehead and, once again, was incapable of hiding what he was doing: something intimate and undeniable and shameful. Something broken in half.
I never asked him how he had gotten there. Nor did I ask him his name or age. The whole time, I only did what he wanted me to do: I described my room, talked about my house, told him stories that had happened in strange and faraway places. An airport. A river. A beach. When I finished, when everything became silent again, I would return to the real world through the hall. I would hang from the branches of the cypress until the screeches of the birds made me run away. Sometimes I ran around the block, looking for his house. Trying to identify it. They all looked the same: they were all solid buildings in whose large gardens roses and geraniums grew. Almost all of them had a tree with a sturdy trunk in whose leaves the same type of bird lived, their feet stuck to the branches. Sometimes I ran just to run. I ran to escape, without really knowing why I would want to do something like that. I would run until the air inside my body exploded and my feet became light and instead of running, I levitated. You are real, I wanted to tell him. That was why I searched for him, to tell him that there was a world outside the last room. That the river and the airport and the beach were real. That I was.
There is a man crying in an airport, I told him again and again. I tried to console him by showing him that someone older, a grown man in a suit that even traveled by plane, could do what he was doing: cry. I thought that, in that way, his weakness or his terror could acquire human dimensions. Something the same between them.
“But why is he crying?” he asked again as if every reason would provoke a different type of crying.
“Same as you” I replied with my heartbeat thumping in my ears. “It’s always the same reason, don’t you understand?
He didn’t see it that way: that is what his silence told me. There were random reasons and those under our control and those out of our control. The weather. Love. Anxiety. I couldn’t describe it with those words then: I lacked the vocabulary. I began to understand or imagine only after, with time. Only here.
“He was the one painting the hearts” I told the man. He did it before dawn, around this time, I added. The day that they found him out I felt an enormous pain. I felt ashamed.
The man crying in the airport stayed silent. He was trying to control his breath, no doubt. He didn’t take his hand away from his face or change positions. His only change was invisible: a deep inhale. A long and smooth inhale, like a gray afternoon.
“They caught him red-handed” I continued. When he looked up from the circle of light formed by the flashlight everything was discovered: a little skinny figure, in thick green glasses, with a piece of chalk in his hand. That’s what he was. An ancient child. A pale and trembling creature. Saliva pooling in the corners of his mouth. A pair of adults pulled him by the arm and when they took him away, he screamed at them in a high-pitched nasally voice, a sound I had never heard before and one that filled me with terror, that he couldn’t go with them. That his plane was leaving soon. That he would be late to the airport.
I looked at the man beside me again and saw that nothing had changed. His left hand on his face, the right in his lap. The crying.
“His cry, like always, broke me in half” I continued. “That time I vomited” I murmured, my voice even lower, even more distant. “From shame” I acknowledged. From the shame of seeing him there, on the street, drawing hearts.
The man beside me uncovered his face. His two hands were now on his lap.
“And then Jsartv came out and sat under the cypress tree and tried to pry the bird from the branch and when he couldn’t do it, he tore at it. Isn’t that true?”
I answered yes. I didn’t say yes but I moved my head up and down, nodding. An age-old movement. The hand that takes the bird and pulls, one by one, the feathers off its wings. The hand that breaks, pierces, mutilates. The hand that hides a face, that weeps. I didn’t ask him how he knew, but I shut the window very carefully. When I was headed to the plane, I realized I was tracing my index finger over the walls of the long hall that led to the door. I saw him in the distance: the slumped shoulders, his slow steps, his corduroy jacket. He was in front of me, shuffling more than walking. I thought about how love has never stopped making me embarrassed. Fearful. And I thought, with relief, that I would soon be in the last room.
Translated by Aviva Kana
Cristina Rivera Garza is the award-winning author of six novels, three collections of short stories, as well as collections of poetry and nonfiction: her fiction includes Nadie me verá llorar, La cresta de Ilión, La muerte me da, Ningún reloj cuenta esto, Verde Shanghai, and El mal de la taiga. Born in Tamaulipas, Mexico, Rivera Garza now resides in the United States. She studied urban sociology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, received her PhD in Latin American history from the University of Houston, and has written extensively on the social history of mental illness in early twentieth-century Mexico. She is currently a professor at the University of Houston where she has created a PhD concentration in Creative Writing in Spanish.
Aviva Kana is a PhD candidate in Hispanic Literature at the University of California, Santa Barbara with a doctoral emphasis in Translation Studies. Her translations of Cristina Rivera Garza have appeared in Review: Literature and Arts of the Americas and PEN America. She is currently in the process of translating Rivera Garza’s novella The Taiga Syndrome.