Never Trust a Woman that Suffers
I am back already and this will be my home, my lair: 72 stairs, one wooden door painted red, a solitary key, unique. This afternoon I use it for the first time, two turns to the left, very slowly, trying to listen for the sound of the moment the bolt gives way; my welcome home.
The light is magnificent, yellow and flickering as if a body. Through the windows it’s pouring, the rain rushes through them with unusual force, it soaks everything; but it too is serene, calm, even. It seems like this luminosity has been concentrated here for a long time, forever. I am in a nest, in the very middle of a chamber of light, seeing close up the altar of vespertine reflections.
There is no noise.
The silence spreads out, like dust, just inside the tempest of light. There is a fragile swarming of particles that alters the parsimonious being of the air. Before I was here, there was only this: the muteness of the light and the gentle wandering of the stale, scraggly air, tattered by time.
My lair has naked walls, irregular tiles, high ceilings. But, above all, it has windows and silence. Empty. Small. Barely sufficient for one person. So different from the places I have lived in recent years. There are no gardens here, no pianos, no candles hanging like brilliant jewels from the ceilings. There are no dogs, no cats, no plants to water day after day. There will be no paintings on the white walls, no mats in the entryway, no windows. There won’t be any people. Only me.
Only the light and me. And these windows eager to be opened.
I open them. The sounds from the street pours in, all at once. There are voices, blurred shouts in the distance, sirens, footsteps moving in every direction. Whispers. Three floors below, the serpentine streets wind and unwind with no set pattern, they follow their own reading of a language that, being so obvious, becomes incomprehensible. These lighthouse streets, these rainbow streets, these streets, do you remember, Criollo?, where we stumbled and ran, where we cultivated our riddles, where we said goodbye. Donceles. The names like candy in my mouth, on my tongue. Regina. The names like pheasant feathers behind my knees. Mesones. The names like quince spells. Three floors below my feet, just above the epidermis of the pavement, there is a blue-colored map that I almost miss.
I believe I have returned to draw it again. My map. To erase it.
At sundown, the building fills with voices, muffled echoes that filter through the walls and ceilings, together with dinner smells and cigarette smoke. The monotonous sound of televisions. The bursts of laughter from the boys gathered around the entry door and, then, the trampling of their footsteps going up the dark staircase on their way to the rooftop. The clinking of beers. The empty bottle that shatters on the bare cement of the hallway. The wailing of the children. The yowling of the dogs. Someone running at full speed, closely followed by the redandblue sirens of the police. And the sharp sound of someone knocking at my door. Three knocks, silence. Three more knocks.
“Good evening,” the voice behind the black eyes is both firm and timid, “I’m the superintendent. I came to say hello and to see if there’s anything I can do for you.”
The woman wears a sweater with the sleeves rolled up past her elbows, as if she had left something half-finished in the kitchen, but her way of lingering on the other side of the red door indicates not haste but curiosity. Her eyes barely rest on my face only to fly off into the empty space behind me. Indecisive, like a spinning compass, her eyes get lost on the surface of the walls and then at full speed fly out the open windows.
“You’re going to hear stories about the building,” she says, “but pay no mind. It has been a long time since anything happened here.”
“Don’t worry,” I respond, excusing the stories in advance, smiling like her eyes before, like a spinning compass.
“The people,” she begins the statement and then pauses as she insistently looks at the floor. “The strange people that sometimes show up here, I take care of them.”
She says it with pride and unease in her voice, without knowing how to continue. Finally, she does so, in a burst, holding her breath and finding my eyes at the same time.
“And your furniture? Your things?” She asks.
An old man with defeated shoulders pushes between us, barely muttering a dry, almost inaudible good evening, and opens the adjacent door with automatic movements. His rubber-soled boots squeak on the floor.
“Later, with time,” I answer, thinking about my things, my furniture: a chair, a sleeping bag, a suitcase with some clothes, a box full of papers.
The super sighs, disappointed. There is disbelief in the gaze that looks me up and down. The woman cannot believe that I too am counting pennies at the end of every month; that I too have to buy cheap oil to reheat leftovers for dinner or that I too entertain myself in the evenings with nothing more than the radio and cigarettes. This’s why she looks at my hands, she slowly moves from one to the other, gauging the size of the lie, the dimensions of doubt. And my hands, fine and soft like yours, Criollo, with long and bony fingers, they give me away. The super smiles to herself and, despite knowing, continues to treat me with deference.
“Anyway, don’t be afraid,” she says in a low voice as she moves her head from left to right in a sign of silent reproach, hiding her eyes in the pockets of her apron, “it has been a long time since anything happened in this building. The stories that you’ll hear are old.”
My response follows her tired footsteps, without really knowing what had happened. But just when I turn to close my door I realize that I am not really afraid, that now I cannot even remember what she was like, what she felt or in what moment she disappeared. All that is left now is this soft, smooth emptiness, wide-open, unlimited. Anything can happen now, right Criollo? The danger, the madness, the desire to take the world in my hands and squeeze it without stopping, without ever stopping. Someone can stop in the middle of the street to suddenly say, with the speed of a deadly weapon, I am yours, I will always be yours. Stop me, please, stop me.
The air. The lack of air.
Unafraid, I open the red door again and, without thinking, I head for the roof. It’s already night, a dark, overcast night, with thick air, alive like a hyena. The boys are gathered close to the mouth of the stairway. They drink beer, smoke, tell jokes, roar with laughter. And for a moment, just like the super, they cannot believe what they see: a woman passes through them at full speed, good evening, and, with her back to them, rests her elbows on the cement block wall, looking out there, out. They remain silent, they watch her without looking at one another. Then, little by little, they go back to talking. Their words at first sound soft, uncomfortable, frightened. Soon, though, the alcohol and the company return to them their natural thickness, force, and sordine echoes. They rehearse words of men, stories of fate and slurs, of unexpected dangers and unseen victories.
“Yeah, a lot of bread, a lot of old ladies, a lot of drugs,” lists the one that just got back from Chicago.
The others laugh without rhyme or reason, incredulous.
On the edge of the night, unafraid. Nothing can frighten me tonight, nothing. Neither their voices, nor the wind, nor the rain of electric sparks and fast headlights that pierce the darkness. Nor the voice of the Chicago Boy, as they call him, when he approaches with a beer in each hand.
“Would you like one?” He asks as he extends his arm with the same controlled fearlessness in his voice. “It’s nice, sometimes, to drink at night.”
The Chicago Boy has the eyes of someone who dreams, open, without marks from the past. With no fear of falling, he hops onto the wall, close to me. And he is quiet. He doesn’t know what to say nor does he try. The other boys are also silent, bored, perhaps, perhaps at the expectation of something new.
“It’s a really old hotel,” he murmurs. “They say Pancho Villa slept there one night, many, many years ago.”
He has his back to the hotel but I’m looking at the discolored building with its six sad floors that stands catty-corner to our own. Many years ago, I too slept there, right, Criollo? With you. And I looked out at the night through one of those windows, after, when sleep left you soft, open, forgotten to yourself, almost trembling, fragile and sweet like a marshmallow. And I saw you sleeping with your hands under the pillows and your knees tangled up in the sheets like a little boy. You white and those girls white, a luminosity of calla lilies and fireflies.
“I know all of its stories because my mom worked as a maid there for years,” the Chicago Boy says casually.
“Do you remember any?”
I assume it is related to the stories that the super mentioned.
“There was, once, a little French girl,” begins the boy with a sarcastic smile between his teeth, “who spent every day locked up in her room while her jealous lover went around the city doing business. We saw her every afternoon, from the sidewalk; we threw her kisses, or candy, or stones. And the little French girl sent us little paper airplanes with secret messages.”
“And what did they say?”
“None of us spoke French, so we never knew. All we knew was that she was French.”
“Nothing else?” I ask him.
“Yeah, just that,” he says while looking at the tips of his tennis shoes. “Isn’t it funny?”
And the Chicago Boy laughs to himself and goes back to chatting with his friends.
These are all of your notes, Criollo, all of your messages. Napkins, pieces of paper, pages ripped from school notebooks. Now that I read them they sound just as bitter as they did then, when you left them stuck to the door without my noticing. But, just like then, they sound playful, hasty words describing the traffic, the dreams from some nights, long nights, nights without you; the yellow sky of certain afternoons, autumn afternoons, dirty as an egg; and my body, so close, and yes, in the end, like always, yours, Criollo, belonging to you. When I lift my face, the city disappears, your words and the sun dazzle me, leave me blind. I don’t know when you began to use the name that I gave you. But it happened, somehow, without my realizing it. Just how everything happens sometimes, suddenly and, at the same time, naturally; with no alternative and by chance, destiny and fortune confronting one other, without memory.
Under the morning light I look at my dark knees, the dark skin of my arms, and I know, suddenly, where it came from. How your name was born, one night, in the last car of the train, on the tail of your desires. This is the story, this is how it happened:
We discovered the lost station at the edge of town and we stayed there, poking around the adobe rooms, juggling on the abandoned tracks, looking at each other from afar. We were charmed by the smell of rotting wood, by the reflections of our faces in the broken windows of the ticket booth.
“This trip will change my life,” you said. “I’m always going to remember this slanting light, always,” you added carelessly, with the smooth voice of a prophecy.
Then you were silent and, within the silence, as if obliged by something automatic, you opened your mouth several times. You were ready to say something and ready, too, to be quiet forever. Then the train arrived and we got on it. The dream train. A group of old peasants and Indian women with steely gazes boarded our carriage with us. We shyly watched them with unexpected incomprehension. It was difficult to know what could be going on behind those eyes, what ceremonies or what massacres were hidden behind their brown veils. But when the women avoided your eye, when they looked down and with fear held tightly to the body of the lambs under their arms, then I knew that you weren’t like us. The name appeared immediately, whole. Criollo. Then I took your face in my hands and pulled it towards the morass of my face. I made you look me in the eye.
“This trip will change your life,” I predicted in a whisper. “And the orange light of this afternoon on the mountainside will caress you like the edge of a sword.”
We were returning to the city, to the city of intact ruins, to the central city. This city that now surrounds me while I read your notes, all your messages under the torrential light of midday. Here is the traffic, the desperation of some solitary dreams, the unlimited vastness, the tepidness of my body. Your criollo, folded in little paper airplanes that fly over the shadows of the crestfallen beggars, yours, over the uncertain run of the lame dogs, criollo, belonging to you, bedlamadish of the children that chase after one another—barefoot—on the curb.
The vespertine peals of the church bells are barely audible and someone else is here, knocking slowly at my door. It's the Chicago Boy, with a smile and a beer.
“Six in the afternoon and all is quiet,” he says under the lintel of the door, making light of his own presence.
I don’t ask him what he’s doing here or what he’s looking for. I only watch him, his patched jeans, his tight belt, his mischievous eyes, his half-bent knees. Like his mother, he too examines the brilliant nakedness of my house and is awkwardly silent until he finally asks about my furniture.
“We can help you carry your things,” he offers with a smile that seems sincere.
Then I invite him in, to drink his beer with me. While the boy traverses the empty apartment with his gaze, I fill a mug with water. Then we sit on the floor on opposite sides of the room. The afternoon sun casts a faint, bluish patch of light on his tangled hair. Suddenly he is nothing more than a quiet, shy raven, a dark bird accustomed to silence.
“And these papers?” He asks me, pointing to the pile of little paper airplanes with the neck of his bottle.
“Notes in French,” I answer.
He smiles in silence, moves his head like his mother did before: from right to left, like a pendulum, disapproving of the detail.
“The story I told you last night isn’t true. I made it all up,” he says. “It happened, but differently,” he adds.
It was in Chicago. He wrote the notes. Many notes in Spanish for the girl on the second floor. Instead of leaving them under her door, he would wrap the paper around little rocks and throw them at her window. Then he would run through the volley of ice, regretting his boldness but at the same time happy that he had shaken his fear. But he always found them among the mounds of dirty snow the next day, the ink melting into the snow and the pages sailing down the rivulets of cold water until being washed into the gutter. She understood nothing of Spanish.
I let him speak for a long time and then he falls silent, also for a long time. The sounds of the building grow little by little, someone walks quickly down the hall and my neighbor sings under the little bit of water that comes out of his showerhead. It is a happy day, it seems. The Chicago Boy laughs, too. He does it in silence as he unfolds my little paper airplanes.
“They’re beautiful,” he whispers, “the messages.”
As he slowly reads them, he piles them one on top of the other, forming a battered and fragile paper tower. When he finally finishes, he looks at me with his mouth open and his eyes full of questions.
The Chicago Boy must think I’m in pain.
I close the windows, gather the papers from the floor and, as I don’t know where to put them, I turn in a circle almost without realizing it. He watches me do it but doesn’t ask me anything nor does he get upset. Finally, when I find no better alternative, I put them under the leg of a chair as if I were afraid they would float away in a current of air.
“You have men’s hands,” he suddenly says to me, certainly without thinking about it, changing the subject.
I look at them: my hands, your hands, as I never had before, and I nod in silence. The echo of his unexpected informality tickles my ears.
“The cantina downstairs is open,” he mentions as he stands up, putting out the invitation in his own particular way.
The light from the street lamp illuminates the windows with its dying and nostalgic shimmer. A delicate drizzle falls in slow waves over the city. Without answering him, I stand up with unusual agility and follow him.
“In reality the story didn’t go like that,” he whispers in the dark casket of the stairs, “I was the one who found the papers on the street, mixed in with the snow. And I didn’t understand a thing because they were in English. That was all.”
Then we buttoned up our coats and our shadows turned the corner, with the swinging of deadbeats and their little waists.
It's the same cantina, Criollo. The same norteña music filling the air with unhealthy and ridiculous passions. The same dirty mirrors over the bar, just behind the bottles.
And it is so different.
“There are places that never change and there are others that only do so in our heads. You never recognize the places that actually change,” comments the Chicago Boy, with the eyes of someone who has seen many places.
The music of the accordions, so loud, so lascivious, keeps me from hearing his next comment.
The waiter waves to him.
A couple is kissing on the couch in the corner.
With her back to the clamor of the place, a woman wrapped in a vermillion dress begins to slowly cry, watching her own reflection in the mirror above the bar. A statue. Something detained in a chunk of time. Her black hair contrasts with the bright carmine of her lips and the unexpected transparency of the tears that fall one by one down her cheeks, like little jewels.
“You should cry like that,” the Chicago Boy, full of reproach, says to me with a fleeting challenge in each eye.
We both watch her without wanting to, with the ambivalence of someone who wants to see more but at the same time is dying of her own and other’s pain.
“Why not?” I challenge back at him, “women, lacking any alternative, reinvent themselves by suffering.”
But I do not cry. The Chicago Boy entertains himself by studying the liquid in his glass. He doesn’t want to look at the Vermillion Woman and he doesn’t want to look at me.
“Everything returns to where it once was, like the tide,” he says, signaling the coming and going of the liquor on the walls of tarnished glass.
Maybe he is right, how would you know? Then, unable to help it, he turns to look at the woman at the bar.
“My mom falls asleep like that sometimes,” he tells me without taking his eyes off the Vermillion Woman, “out of exhaustion. I did too, in Chicago. I didn’t have anywhere to sleep and in the kitchens at night, no one bothers you.”
I look at his hands; I imagine them in the dark traveling over the golden skin of the girl from the second floor who did not speak Spanish. I imagine his wet lips on her shoulders, her breasts. And his eyes open, shining like solitary fireflies stuck in the night. The lights from a strange city sneaking in through the gaps in the curtains. And the silence. And the soft, so soft, moans.
But we already know that it is not true.
“Surely someone abandoned her,” decides the boy, weary of such a spectacle.
Frightened by the vision of women sleeping on bars, the Chicago Boy rolls his eyes with exasperation. It seems like the loudness, the gratuitous imposition of her misery, disgusts him. Nauseates him. Desires to run out and breathe fresh air. Or desires to fall under her spell.
“Yes, perhaps someone abandoned her,” I respond, doubting it.
Because perhaps today she got up calmly, knowing that something was over. And she began to calmly sip tequila until she saw the afternoon in flames, without recognizing a pleasure that was unfamiliar but that made her feel content, almost sexy, wrapped in her best tailored dress. And perhaps she began to cry later because everything hurt, or because nothing hurt, to see herself alone and beautiful, enduring, like a gift.
“But never trust a woman that suffers,” I add.
The Vermillion Woman has stopped crying and, staggering from table to table, has approached both men and women. For a moment I imagine that this woman that is so svelte, so abused, is just a homeless woman making a living selling religious imagery, or key chains, or sweets, quite the opposite of a few drinks and a few dollars.
But I am wrong.
When she approaches our table, the woman speaks.
“I’m only going to take a few minutes of your time,” she says as she winks, “I promise you’ll enjoy yourselves.”
Then she pulls out a bunch of worn photographs from a red bag. They are colored polaroids of the body of a man. Close ups. A knee, his mouth, his hands over his sex, his naked feet, his hair. One by one, at regular intervals, she passes them in front of our eyes.
“This is his mouth, beautiful, right? These are his hands, oh why I am telling you this, clearly his legs. This is his mop of hair, I caressed it so many, many times, his five toenails, all alike. And this thing here, hanging from the middle, is what drove me crazy,” she laughs, touches her index finger to her right temple, “real crazy, right? With so many little folds, so fragile, as if it doesn’t actually do anything, right?”
And we looked at it closely, his little thing.
“This is his ridged tongue, oh his tongue,” the woman continues, “and these are his closed eyes, when men close their eyes, at that moment, you get it, right? This is his bellybutton, exactly at the center of the universe. And this is his ass, so smooth, so white, so soft, like a pillow.”
The Chicago Boy cannot help himself. With a serious wince, he looks at the Vermillion Woman and he looks at me. Our laughter frightens him; he seems not to really understand but is still afraid. His hands are on his crotch, not with the gesture of a man adjusting himself, but almost quivering, secretly protecting his fly.
“A bunch of vulgar women,” he finally says, but the rest of his words are lost in the sound of the accordions and the garish music of our bursts of laughter.
“Well, he wanted to belong to everyone, and now he’s doing just that,” finishes the woman.
She takes a final gulp from her glass of water, winks at us again, and leaves the bar, swinging her hips.
Surely the woman will have a wicked hangover tomorrow, but now, while she walks down the sidewalk without sandals, jumping in every midnight puddle, she feels extremely good. Free and fiery at the same time. If someone were to ask her age at that moment, she would without a doubt respond: “I’m 17.” A mischievous smile would cross through both gigantic eyes. Then she would continue on her way at full speed, without looking back, as if she were running out of time. Upon arriving at the stairs, she would climb the 72 steps with the movement of a gazelle. Her soft and useless hands would easily find the only key in her full bag. If someone asked her from the other side of the door, where are you coming from? she would look upward, saying: “what’s more important is to know where I’m going, don’t you think?” The hint of an old flirtation tarnishing the atmosphere. Then, taking her makeup off in the mirror, the woman would catch a glimpse of her eyes.
“You aren’t the Chicago Boy,” she would say to herself.
“You aren’t the Vermillion Woman,” her reflection would respond.
From Ningún reloj cuenta esto, copyright ©2002
Translated by Sarah Booker
Cristina Rivera Garza. Author, translator, critic. Recent publications include, The Iliac Crest, trans. by Sarah Booker (The Feminist Press, 2017); The Taiga Syndrome, trans. by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana (Dorothy Project, 2018; Abd Other Stories, 2019), Había mucha neblina o humo o no sé qué (Random House, 2016). Distinguished professor and founder of the PhD in Creative Writing in Spanish at the University of Houston.
Sarah Booker is a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill with a focus on contemporary Latin American narrative and translation studies. She is a literary translator working from Spanish to English and has translated, among others, Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest (2017, Feminist Press; 2018, And Other Stories) and Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country (2020, Feminist Press) and Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone (forthcoming with Coffee House Press). Her translations have also been published in journals such as The Paris Review, Asymptote, Latin American Literature Today, 3:am magazine, Nashville Review, MAKE, and Translation Review.