There is also Beauty in Alienation
The visions of a woman in motion are difficult to gauge.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues
I answered the ad in the paper at the end of February. Barely two months into the New Year and I already knew that with my forced diet of sunflower seeds, rye bread, and raw vegetables I wouldn’t survive the winter. Someone had left the classified ads on the floor and there, in tiny black letters, half in Spanish and half in English, was the name of my future, or that’s what I thought when I flew down the stairs, opened the door and ran to the closest public phone.
The secretary gave me an appointment that same day, at one in the afternoon. And, on time, freshly bathed, I appeared at the doors of a modern building, made entirely of windows. I didn’t have to wait more than a minute; the owner of the company was in a rush and she wanted to finish the interview quickly. More than fifteen translators had already passed through her office and the whole ordeal had exhausted her.
“How could it be possible that no one in San Antonio speaks proper Spanish?” She asked me in English while she uninterestedly flipped through the pages of my résumé and I stumbled over the Mexican rug in the doorway.
“I do,” I said to her with conviction, thinking about the sunflower seeds sitting in my coat pocket, salty like my tongue or my poor luck that morning.
I thought she would ask me about my experience with cosmetics, because of the name of her company: “Diamantina Beauty Products, Inc.,” but she seemed to be more interested in my life story. Had I really been born in Mexico? Had I grown up speaking only Spanish and nothing but Spanish during my childhood? Was I familiar with jokes, expletives, riddles? And when in response to all of her questions I recited a romance-themed tongue-twister, para qué quiero que me quiera el que no quiero que me quiera si el que quiero que me quiera no me quiere como yo quiero que me quiera, the woman smiled, satisfied, and invited me to eat with her.
After the meager diet of vegetables and water, the smell of artichokes and linguini and the taste of calamari and mussels almost made me dizzy. We were on the riverbank and through the window we watched the tourist’s slow jog and the sun’s reflections on the water’s imperceptible spine. Even if I didn’t get the job, this food would make up for two months of vegetarian famine, and others of nomadic, solitary strolls along the river walk with no more than two cents in my pockets.
In between bites, the woman entertained herself telling stories about the city, and remember the Alamos, dear, and Mexican corridas are so beautiful. Diamantina had the same dark face and all the good manners of the rich women who had supported me with grants and school loans until the day I received my degree and found myself without a job. And, like them, Diamantina hid her Latin surnames behind her American husband’s name.
“It’s tradition, you know, and all this about going into business where the López Ramírezes don’t sound anything like the Jamesons or Smiths,” she explained to me when she finally told me her full name: Diamantina Skvorc. Even though the Croatian echoes and the lack of vowels hadn’t been so attractive in the 80s, everything changed after 1989. Dear.
I wanted to finish my food before she started to talk about her cosmetics because, definitively, I don’t have the least amount of experience in that area. And Diamantina, so delicate and friendly, didn’t mix business with personal pleasures. But we were already into the apple pie and the double martinis, and she hadn’t made a single reference to any powders, blushes or lipsticks. In their place, she began to talk about romance novels and cheesy poetry. Of the names of the sky and water. In Spanish.
“It’s all my father’s fault,” she mentioned when she realized that her way of speaking my language provoked a slight smile. “He never wanted us to learn Spanish so that we would grow up without accents and without complexes, here in San Antonio, so many years ago, dear.”
When Diamantina raised her glass to toast that, I followed. The center of the table was illuminated with the sounds of jewelry and laughter. Then, without missing a beat and without any obvious logic, she asked:
“Do you like romances?”
I didn’t know exactly what she was talking about, but I found myself thinking about a journey I had made by train from New Orleans to San Francisco the past summer. And I found myself also thinking about Babak Mohamed, the Iranian boy who had accompanied me because after three books and just as many glasses of water, Babak, who was dark with black hair, almost looked Mexican. Or perhaps because, after a dose of unusual silence, Babak’s Spanish, which he had learned in university courses that he had taken in Tehran, almost sounded like the real thing. Perhaps because he, too, was going to San Francisco.
“Yeah, why not, of course I like romances,” I said, convinced, after a moment.
“And are you able to move?” she asked in turn, nibbling the olive from her third martini, looking at me out of the corner of her eye with half a smile. “Immediately. To New York.”
I imagined the city in winter and the image was disheartening. But then I remembered my sunflower seeds.
“Yes,” I said, without a shadow of a doubt in my voice, “there’s nothing tying me down here.”
I had arrived in San Antonio believing that it would be forever, that I would find work and would live in one of those neighborhoods full of colors, but instead I had ended up unemployed, living in an attic in a commune of ex-hippies whose only mission on earth consisted in fighting for the legalization of marijuana. Even though Babak and I agreed with their crusade, we didn’t stay in the commune out of idealism or solidarity, but because the ex-hippies harbored globetrotters without charging them rent.
“Not long ago, my grandmother Diamantina died,” said the businesswoman.
“Excuse me,” I interrupted her without really noticing, struggling to get the attention of the waiter to bring us another round of martinis.
“And I just found out that she left me, her favorite granddaughter, an inheritance.”
Diamantina seemed to enjoy my bewilderment. I didn’t understand why instead of talking about my possible work she was telling me personal things, because instead of signing a contract I was getting uncontrollably drunk on exquisite liquors and riddles.
“It’s a series of letters,” she continued, “nine love letters.” She was silent, building suspense. “Or that’s what it seems like, anyways. I don’t understand them, the handwriting is uneven and they talk about things I don’t understand. Mexico. Family. Secrets. I want you to translate them for me. All the letters. In nine weeks. After that, you are free to go or to stay and work for the company, if you prefer.
That was it.
One letter a week. Room and board included in a central part of Manhattan. And enough money to not work for the next year.
“Agreed,” I said. “When do we leave?”
Diamantina left for New York the next day, but I had two weeks to sell my things (my things!), put my affairs in order (my affairs!), and to say goodbye to my friends (oh, my friends). My ticket would be ready in three days.
Saying goodbye was very easy. The ex-hippies organized a party that weekend and, when the moment to say goodbye arrived, everyone was already in the most distant lands of their imagination. Babak, for his part, went for his run earlier than usual so as to avoid a scene. I left him a note next to his sleeping bag, see you soon, Babak, and although I tried to write some friendly words in Farsi, I soon gave into my ignorance and hurry. Before leaving the commune forever, I carefully combed through my coat pocket and threw the crumbs from my sunflower seed into the San Antonio air.
I arrived at La Guardia one cloudy, March afternoon with my pack as my only piece of luggage. Because no one was waiting for me and because I didn’t have enough money for a taxi, I took the bus. There was still a dusting of snow on the streets and my coat, which had been warm enough in Texas, did nothing against the frigid air of New York. When we crossed the bridge, the radio announced a terrible accident that had just occurred at the airport. They still didn’t know how many had died.
Trembling but unavoidably poor, I walked in the rain until I found the penthouse with its seven bedrooms where Diamantina Skvork lived. She personally opened the door and immediately sent for the servant to bring towels and hair dryers.
“But, child,” she said with feigned alarm, “this is why there are telephones. I could have sent my drivers. These Mexicans.” A burst of laughter interrupted her thoughts while Trang, the Vietnamese chambermaid, made superhuman efforts to dry my hair.
“Of course, you could use a haircut, dear,” said the businesswoman while she turned towards the television where, to my surprise, her own dark face, perfectly made up, appeared next to the pale face of a candidate for some public position.
Democrats as much as Republicans called her from time to time to endorse the candidacy of one or another of them, and, thinking about the publicity for her business, she did so depending on the potential risks and profits. That’s how, from the virtual reality of the television, I heard her story for the first time: the story of a little girl from a poor neighborhood in San Antonio who became, through the work of destiny and the hand of God, the CEO of a prosperous company. The story of the young girl who knew how to appreciate the rough charm of Bob Skvork, a Yugoslavian immigrant who had fled the factories of Detroit to become a husband little less than exemplary, albeit a bit placid. The story of a businesswoman dedicated to bringing out the natural beauty of Hispanic women and who now, thanks to her good luck and some family contacts, planned to expand in response to the demands created by recently arrived Eastern European women.
“They’re all beautiful, very beautiful women,” she insisted several times, more so to convince herself than the public in question.
While Diamantina watched herself closely on the television, genuinely enjoying her own image, I realized that nothing in her apartment, with its huge picture windows, seemed to be at all personal. There were small jade statues and nineteenth-century paintings, old furniture and Persian rugs, beveled mirrors and silk curtains that, instead of making the place feel cozy, made it feel like a museum. Diamantina, self-absorbed, did not seem to care about her surroundings.
“The things one has to do sometimes, dear,” she mentioned, ironically more than remorsefully, when the interview ended.
Then she turned the television off and, before going to bed, took me to my room and placed upon the majestic mahogany desk the wooden box that contained her grandmother’s famous letters.
“For nine weeks, dear, that’s the only thing you have to do,” she announced with a sweet tone in her voice just after she said goodnight.
Without anything else to do, I flopped onto the bed and only then realized that there was a mirror on the ceiling. The discovery filled me with melancholy.
That same night I read all the letters. They were short and sad, about the kind of thing you write by candlelight with your heart in your mouth, hidden from yourself. They were so intimate that it was painful to read them. Yes, Diamantina Skvorc was right, her grandmother’s letters were about love, a desperate love that was nevertheless silent, tenuous like the scent of jasmine wafting beneath the doors, constant, enduring. A brave love, able to surmount any obstacle, ready to die, to be reborn, and then to die again. A love of clouds and water, on the bank of a flowering drain, growing slowly like plants and animals, without a destiny but alive, clinging to the freshness of Mexican harvests. Hurriedly reading one after the other I began to think that, perhaps, Pessoa had been wrong: love letters weren’t so ridiculous.
That night, my first in the Manhattan apartment, I cried for Diamantina, the grandmother. As before, against the train windows on the way to San Francisco, I had cried for something that you see in the same moment that it disappears. Yet I cried about something totally different. Diamantina’s grandmother had let the violet ink run like someone flying a kite. The words were there, connected to one another, and at the same time they were terrified, like flocks of birds in a storm. Love, flesh of my flesh, my love, blood of my blood, love. Again and again, as if she never tired, as if she never thought she could tire, the grandmother repeated the word love like a litany. Strong like a tree, unmovable like a root and, like the earth, dark, wet, ready to bare fruit, her love was all the names. This was not the romance of sentimental passions and happy endings. This was only one voice, a lonely voice, singing itself a lullaby. Oh, Diamantina, so stupid, so in love, so useless. With your hands delicate from doing nothing, with your eyes for only one man. Love, flesh of my flesh, my love. Diamantina, when did you begin to write letters?
The next morning I sat down before the computer. I thought I would translate the first missive so that I could then go out to walk around the cloudy city, but the other Diamantina called before midday and asked me not to make plans.
“Today there is a Yugoslavian, well, Croatian, festival and I need your company, dear,” she warned me without much preamble.
Before hanging up she also informed me that she had made an appointment for me at one of her beauty salons, for an “image change.” Without saying a word, as if she were propelled by automatic mechanisms, Trang took me down narrow passages and spiral staircases until we got to the underground parking deck where a peach-colored Mercedes Benz awaited me. In it, the Salvadorian driver was already waiting, half-asleep behind the wheel, with an impatient smile in each minuscule eye, to take me to my appointment. The dull gray that covered New York from the other side of the window made me almost appreciate Diamantina. In the tepid atmosphere of the car, cradled in the back seat, I felt the hand of fortune touching my forehead for the first time.
In the beauty salon they dealt with me quickly and with great care. A girl from Eritrea, who insisted on referring to me as “the niece,” was in charge of transforming the color, texture, and shape of my hair. Another gave me a manicure and pedicure in total silence. One more, with a fake French accent, did my make-up in light tones that were otherwise invisible. Finally, the administrator of the establishment guided me to a large vestibule where she herself selected clothing for the occasion—a silk dress in a hot red color, the simple lines of which accented the fragility of my frame. When I was finally able to see myself in the mirror I couldn’t say anything, but the first thing that came to my mind were Rimbaud’s famous lines: “J’est autre.” In effect, without exaggeration, I was another woman. My short hair with its new coppery tones made me look years younger, while the delicately applied make-up left echoes of elegance in the air. The final touches, from which one would recognize that I was not an amateur but a professional, were a solitary ruby pendent that highlighted my neck and a light aroma of Bulgari that gave the whole room a certain halo of mere casualty.
“But you are another woman,” exclaimed the girl from Eritrea with sincere admiration when she almost ran into me before she recognized me. “Diamantina is going to like it,” she added.
And yes, she was right, Diamantina liked it. When I opened the door to the bar where the Croatian festival was held, the businesswoman found me with visible satisfaction on her face.
“I knew it,” she said, “there is nothing that a good cosmetician cannot change.”
I looked at her thinking the same thing. Diamantina glowed wonderfully. Her hair was dotted with silver streaks and her discrete makeup gave her a silent dignity, while the diamonds that hung from her neck spoke for themselves, glittering of her power. Her gaze, however, was stronger than all of it combined. Directly, without refuge, her eyes settled on objects with the weight of her will, bending everything her way. It was obvious that Diamantina was familiar with competition but not defeat. With that same triumphant attitude, the businesswoman introduced me to the guests as her niece.
“Her Spanish is perfect,” she would say as an introductory note to those who would listen.
The woman who had made me part of her family without having first consulted me, didn’t really know anything else about me, but that didn’t seem to bother her. After a while she forgot about me and continued to talk with different groups of Croatian businessmen, without a doubt trying to “network.” Her new line of cosmetics for those recent arrivals from Eastern Europe had to be another success. Without ceasing to observe her from afar, with a combination of confused astonishment and disapproval, I entertained myself trying the salmon and crackers and drinking manhattans at the bar. With each sip I remembered that I found myself, despite my incessant disbelief, in the very center of Manhattan; each cherry brought me the sweetness of safety.
“You I wanted to meet, prima del alma,” said a slightly drunk voice over my right shoulder.
When I turned around, I was surprised to find a masculine version of Diamantina’s face. It was her son, José María Skvork. Her only son. His mop of black hair contrasted with his enigmatic gray eyes that he hid behind some gold quevedians. His mouth with generous lips, on the other hand, perfectly suited his hedonistic hands, hands of pleasure, accustomed to not doing anything.
“Look here, I drive all the way from Boston to surprise my mother and, alas, I’m the one who is surprised,” he mentioned while he adjusted a stool so as to sit next to me.
Although he physically looked like his mother, José María’s slight gestures and timid manners distinguished the two. The boy lacked his mother’s conviction and power. His eyes delicately looked at everything foreign to him in Diamantina’s world.
“So your Spanish is perfect?” He asked while ordering a martini.
“That’s what your mother says.”
“And what does she know about that?” He asked, with incredulous sarcasm in his voice.
“Very little, really,” I said, smiling.
He did the same before toasting me. The noise of the place saved us the discomfort of a long silence, full of indifference and nerves. Just like his mother, José María soon forgot about his prima del alma and struck up a conversation with the girl beside him, a redhead with a British accent who had attended the festival for her grandmother and because of her own eagerness to be in contact with her “roots.” After a quick exchange of basic information and a few tepid kisses, the two left arm-in-arm without their roots in mind but with an open attitude of romance.
“Surely they think they’ll find love.” The voice belonged to a man with long blond hair, a sharp nose and deep blue eyes who had surely had a few too many beers.
Though I looked at him suspiciously, he was not perturbed.
“It’s all because of this damned alienation,” he continued, “they meet here and then they quickly forget each other. Everything begins, everything ends, and nothing really happens.”
There was thirst in his voice, cravings of permanence, nostalgia for the real deal. Something old fashioned. Listening to his fiery soliloquy, I had no other option than to think about Diamantina, the grandmother. If she could have traveled through time and attended the Croatian festival, surely she would have sat next to him. She would have remained silent so as to hear herself in his masculine voice without any distractions.
“Listen carefully, dear,” the withered woman whispered to me from her far-off chamber.
And I did. The man against alienation was named Federico Hoffmann and, just as I might have guessed, he belonged to a socialist organization. He was a delicate man, with excessive ideals and lean pockets; a man with a flawless frame and words that soared like a parachute; a man with a German father and a Croatian mother who lived in Brooklyn and worked as an electrician; a man whose reading list quickly made you think of another time, another place, something as out of style as Vienna at the beginning of the century or the Garden of Eden itself. With his slow gestures and piercing gaze, Hoffman reminded me of the German teacher that Louise M. Alcott had to invent so that Josephine March wouldn’t end up alone in some cold place in the Northeast. Imprisoned by his astonishment and with the speed that can be so pleasing sometimes, Federico recounted his life with the detail of a pointillist, with the patience of an antiquarian, and with the candor of a middle-aged man about to fall in love after having one too many beers at a Croatian festival. I, in my own way, did the same thing. In wide, expressionist brushstrokes, with the anxiety of a thief sprinting around the corner and with the nervousness of a woman with a new hair color, I told him things about my life, editing and polishing entire years—fundamental episodes—without a second thought. J’est autre.
“I need air,” I said, interrupting my story almost at its beginning, fleeing the lightness of my own past.
While we put on our coats and scarves and, in between nervous smiles, we prepared to enter the frigid March bosom, I looked for other words, other letters, other vowels to find a way to express the humanity of Federico Hoffmann. But I couldn’t find anything. For a moment a white-colored flurry clouded my vision and filled me with terror. A second later, just when the icy air received us with open arms on the street, I heard his language, your language, grandmother Diamantina, and everything changed. Then we ignored the words and enjoyed the night walk. First we walked aimlessly and, later, we stopped in a McDonalds for a dingy cup of coffee with the vagabonds, unemployed, and tepid, insomniac women. Later, we took a taxi that dropped me off close to Diamantina’s penthouse. The goodbye filled us both with silence. Already on the sidewalk, I looked in the car window and, behind the steam of his breath, Federico Hoffman’s face anticipated verbs in future perfect.
The next day I translated all of grandmother Diamantina’s letters. Thirteen hours there, in front of the screen, searching for the exact words with which to say mi más querido amor, te extraño con toda mi alma. Trang entertained herself bringing me plates of fruit in the morning and fresh martinis in the afternoon while I silently cried. Oh, Diamantina, how can your love continue to grow, to be preserved intact despite the passage of time, despite the lack of an answer, despite all the nights, nights by candlelight, dreaming with your eyes open, waiting so patiently. Tell me, Diamantina, dear, how are you able to keep loving, to stay in one place, to adapt to things and to not let yourself get carried away. How, Diamantina, do you write letters that will never be sent and to keep doing so even while knowing that.
I found Federico days later, in a bar where he and his socialist friends made plans for a conference in solidarity with Puerto Rico. Hardly a few moments after the presentations, with an unprecedented familiarity, the socialists invited me to participate in their weekly meetings, which I later joined with an almost religious fervor. But that night, when they asked me about my work, it pained me to tell them that I translated love letters for a capitalist cosmetician in a penthouse located in the heart of Manhattan. Instead, I lied and said that I took care of the children of a strange matron named Diamantina Skvork. Thus, amidst the uproar that my lie had caused, I accepted the offer to become a worker, from eight to four, in the organization’s press. And yes, with a red bandana on my head, a blue, ex-marine soviet jacket, and a pair of tough work boots, I was there on time, every day, from eight to four.
The socialists had an enormous building next to the river; a building that looked more like an ultramodern office than the dark attics with which they are usually associated.
“After all, this is New York,” I was told while I looked at the mural depicting radical heroes that decorated one of the walls of the building.
Federico also worked there, as an electrician in the mornings, trying to remodel the top floors, and as a radical journalist in the afternoons, in front of the glowing, neatly organized computer screens. It was easy to receive my first promotion, from the press to the offices translating pamphlets. And it was also easy to get to know him, to drink mint tea after work, to take the metro to Brooklyn and to spend nights in his minuscule apartment.
“There is also beauty in alienation,” I mentioned before crossing the threshold of his door to enter his austere world, his backwards world, his world from another century.
Distracted by the speed of the encounter, neither of us understood what a distant voice pronounced through my lips. Instead of noticing, we continued to enjoy what was so welcome: the beginning.
It was so easy, so simple, dear Diamantina: in the same way that I fell in love with your letters, I fell into love with Federico Hoffmann, into his watery blue eyes, into his golden hair. Into his words. And, Diamantina, I’m sorry, but to move closer to him I had nothing more than your words, I had nothing more than you. As if your story somehow were blending bit by bit with my story, as if your desires and your dreams had waited these years, all these years, and these countries, all these intersecting countries, to finally be able to surface, certain ones were so heavy, babbling in the middle of the snow. Because yes, it was there, in the street in the last snow of March that Federico paused in front of St. Patrick’s church and I began to spill the rosary of words, my love, flesh of my flesh, the snowflakes falling on his coat, blood of my blood, dissolving on his white cheeks, my love, interweaving with the kisses and the hugs and the desires for this to never end. Then we ran together to the park where we rolled around in the snow and watched the ferries slowly set sail.
“My family arrived over there,” he said, pointing to Ellis Island, “many years ago.”
Federico and I were just two immigrants together, exchanging words of love in our second language.
I lie. Really it was yours, Diamantina, all of that language was only yours. A product of your nights be candlelight, of your soothing and terrified love, your violet ink, your prayers, protect him Virgen de los Remedios, bless this memory Virgen de Guadalupe, bestow upon me this love, Sagrado Corazón of mine. Invocations, demands, apparitions, miracles, Diamantina. Only miracles, repentant like lightning on afternoons without wind and rain, kind like the field, like grass that waves, naked, in the air, vast like the immaculate sea where they—the dreams—all travel together, all alone.
Your letters also changed things for me, Diamantina. With all of them in mind, I began to creep up on his body. I waited for him from a far-off place like you did, only to have the pleasure of rescuing its forms from the atrophy of the world. Slowly, there appeared an arm, a knee, your old shoes, the almost white ends of your hair. What pleasure, Diamantina! My breathing slowly grew, the café windows fogged up where it spelled out the syllables of your name, your names, all of mine. And, after, tied up in your sheets like a knot, made up on your shores like the water of some seas, covering ankles with the salt of all my nostalgia, the pleasure came as docile and happy, like a childhood friend or a very domesticated dog.
And, yes, Diamantina, Federico was also falling in love. At full force, just like a mythical snowball picking up speed as it rolls down a hill, Federico became insatiable. Overwhelming. He sometimes desired like a child, with no qualms and without any consideration. He wanted everything, especially the impossible, like all those who are in love, but among all the things, he preferred words above all else. Talk to me, he asked me, as if from my mouth would fall a perfect abracadabra. Tell me more. And I did. That’s how, Diamantina, Federico went about falling in love at full force, madly, caught off guard, across time, with you.
And it was because of this, because of you, dear Diamantina, that Federico showed up early one morning at the door of that house in Manhattan where I supposedly worked taking care of children or where I cleaned, I no longer remember what I told him, and with all the correct words in Spanish, he told me that that day in April, before ten, without any warning, he had to marry me. And for you, for your violet words, for your charm that crossed years and languages and cities, I washed my face, put on my coat, took his hand and ran straight to the impersonal office where I legally became his wife. One morning in April, before ten, as my destiny in Spanish had said.
Just at the end of the eighth week, Diamantina Skvork called me into her office to ask about the content of her grandmother’s letters. Before reading the translations, she asked me to give her a succinct description of the facts.
“The time, you know, dear,” she said while she looked over her planner.
This was the story:
The grandmother Diamantina, 17 years old, had fallen hopelessly in love with Pedro González Martínez, a man who worked in the fields and, in all likelihood, had a horse. After several secret dates, Diamantina had opened her heart to him as well as her entire body in the shelter of the dark shadow of a mosque. Aware of her position and, perhaps, also aware of her love, Pedro had crossed the border with the hope of forging a future and with the promise to return as soon as he could. As his only memory he left Diamantina an image of the Virgen de los Remedios, with a poorly drawn heart on the back and their two names locked up, together. Like this: Diamantina and Pedro.
“The letters are a testimony of your grandmother’s waiting,” I said, “and also a testimony of her unbreakable love.”
I shouldn’t have been surprised, but Diamantina Skvork’s silent tears touched my soul. Did this story, then, also have an unhappy ending? I had been walking around so entertained by the grandmother’s love as well as Federico’s that never, not for one moment, in my glorious eight weeks in New York, had I paused to ask myself about the end of this story. What had happened outside of these letters? Was there something beyond all her words? I was quiet, I waited for the businesswoman to dry her eyes and put on her practiced smile, the one I knew. But she only dried her eyes.
“My grandmother,” she said, “my dear grandmother. She also left Coahuila for San Antonio,” she informed me in a calm voice, a strange voice, “she came to marry, not Pedro González Martínez, but Ignacio López Castro, a lawyer in the area.”
Then she was quiet and she leaned out the window, as if on the other side she might find Paradise. I curled up in the leather chair, as if I had just been hurt and I stared at her, as if she were a ghost. Well, well, I said to myself, it’s all for the series of unbreakable loves. Too many romances.
“And what?” I managed to ask, much, much later. “Did they at least live happily ever after?”
She said no. As if it were the big reveal. After having her only daughter, grandmother Diamantina became one of the first divorced women in Texas. Her grounds for divorcing Ignacio López Castro were abuse and adultery, but when the divorce was denied she instead used the same grounds against herself. As proof she offered these letters. That is how she got her freedom and she remained, as she wanted, unmarried and alone. In San Antonio de Béxar, Texas.
“But go on,” the businesswoman demanded, “read those letters out loud so that I can hear my grandmother’s words.”
I did. The words sounded hollow, of course, but they maintained the same rhythm, the same fervor, the same unbridled sensuality. Once out of my mouth, the words fell out round and full on the skeins of air and they were balanced like the cadence of feminine hips. Oh grandmother Diamantina! Rain of diamonds, flock of bright little papers. So seductive and so deceiving. So much changing of direction along with her plans. Unmarried and alone, like she wanted, all the freedom for her, alone, in San Antonio, Texas. I imagined her making visits at all hours, walking down the streets to her house, like Pedro, oh poor Pedro, gathering friends for gossip and lovers for the night. Without anyone to stop her. From one person to another, without any blood ties, floating lightly from here to there, without respecting boundaries. Hearing stories in the church, stories on the street, stories in the beauty salon where she became the owner. Oh, Federico, the voice was right: there is also beauty in alienation. And the beauty has the same consistency as the air. Everything was here, revealed at that moment, without deep darkness or ancestral infernos. The appearance like a face that reveals itself: do not look further, there is nothing else. Only this, the unexpected freedom from a pack and a salary on which I could live for the rest of the year.
On my last day in New York I woke up early. The sun had not come up yet when, pen in hand, I prepared to write a letter to Federico Hoffman, my husband. J’est autre. I couldn’t. Under the lit lamp, my hands cast asymmetrical shadows on the fine mahogany of the desk. The shadows distracted me and something inside my head obliged me to sit up straight. Through the window, the city seemed like a puppy curled up around itself. It slept in peace. I went to the kitchen to make a coffee and there the familiarity of my old face surprised me in the shiny surface of the stove. My hair was dry and I had large bags under my eyes. The haircut that had made me seem sophisticated at the Croatian meeting had faded with the passage of time and, emerging from the straps of my discolored overalls, my head turned from side to side as if hoping for something more. I knew this attitude, it’s true: it was the anxiety of one beginning to move. So I left the apartment and ran as fast as I could to the building of my socialist companions. I asked for a piece of paper, a pen, and an envelope, without being able to catch my breath. I wrote Federico’s name and, though I thought about it for a long time, the words didn’t come. There was no explanation. There was no justification. So I opted for placing the blank note in the envelope and, just before turning my back on all of it, I took off my ring and put it inside as well. It still shone as if it were new.
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.