Editor’s Note: We are proud to present “Muchacha punk”—the classic 1979 short story by Fogwill, previously unpublished in translation and now brought to English by Will Vanderhyden—as part of the special feature on Fogwill’s work in this issue of Latin American Literature Today.
In December 1978, I made love with a punk girl. To say “I made love” is just an expression, because love was made long before my arrival in London, and what she and I made, that multitude of things she and I made, were not love, nor were they even—today I’d dare say it—a love: they were what they were and that’s all that they were. What’s interesting about this story is “I slept with” the punk girl. Another expression, because of course everything would’ve been the same had we not renounced our bipedal position, incorporating that—love?—into the realm of dreams: the horizontal, the darkness of the room, the darkness of our bodies’ interiors; all of that. First disappointment of the reader: in this story, I’m a man.
I met the girl on Marble Arches in front of a shop window. It was ten-thirty, the cold soaked the bones, the show was over, not a soul in the streets. The girl was a blonde—I had yet to see her face. She was accompanied by two other punk girls. My girl, the blonde, was slim and moved with grace, despite her punk attire and a particular punk deployment of precisely punk gestures. The cold soaked the bones, I think I mentioned that already. It was two or three degrees below zero and, at Oxford and Regent, the icy north wind whipped my face. The four of us—the three punk girls and I—were standing in front of the same shop window on Selfridges. Within the warm environs promised by the shop’s interior, a computer was playing chess all by itself. A sign indicated the machine’s attributes and price: £1,856. White was winning, the machine’s righthand side. Black had lost initiative, its defenses were being liquidated, and a pawn in the middle was taking the blame. White was on the attack, a wedge of pawns protecting its queen, rook slouching to king’s four. As the three girls approached, it was black’s turn. Black waited fifteen seconds, maybe more; it was move sixteen or eighteen, and any onlookers—not a soul at that point, due to the cold—would’ve been able to reconfigure the entire game, because a small printer was reproducing the match in chess code, and a graphic display, which the machine was composing on its screen after a couple seconds’ delay, showed the image of the board in each previous phase of the match’s strategic development. The girls spoke a slang I didn’t understand, they laughed, and without paying me any mind, continued on their way west, toward Regent Street.
At that time of day, you could look out across the entire cold-swept city and scarcely notice a single human presence, apart from those three girls, moving away. Near Selfridges someone must have been waiting for an omnibus, because there was a shadow inside the red bus stop and someone’s breath had fogged up the window. Maybe someone was leaning against the glass, rubbing their hands together, writing their name, tracing a heart or the logo of their favorite soccer team; maybe not. I verified the individual’s existence a short time later, when an omnibus heading toward King’s Road stopped and someone got on. When it passed, half-empty, in front of our shop window, I could see that the shadow from the bus stop had resolved into a woman, very old and haggard, negotiating her fare. Few cars were passing by. Mostly taxis, hunting for a passenger, all fogged up, creeping along, diesel, vacant. A number of extraordinary cars—Daimlers, Jaguars, Bentleys—passed by. In their driver’s seats sat serious, elderly men, attentive to the intermittent traffic signals. In the passenger seats, ancestral women, made up for a party or the opera, seemed to be supervising them. A Rolls stopped in front of my shop window on Selfridges and the driver took a long look at the computer, (it was showing move twenty seven, white’s turn), and said something to his wife, a grey-haired woman with a sour profile and gleaming hoop earrings. I couldn’t hear him: the bulletproof glass of the car’s windows composed a hermetic space, almost masonic: impenetrable. A short time later, the Rolls pulled away much as it had arrived, and at the stoplight on the corner of Gloucester Street it hesitated, as if flirting with the light that had just turned green. First disappointment of the narrator: on move forty-seven the computer declared a draw.
If I were white, trading a knight for a rook and threatening discovered check, I would have forced black into a favorable exchange of queens, given my pawn advantage and optimal positional situation. I walked away fuming: I’d slept all afternoon and it was still too early to return to my hotel.
The cold soaked the bones. Under my jeans I was wearing an English polar bodysuit, which I’d bought for a friend who was planning to go sailing in Puerto Belgrano, and I’d decided to premier it that night, to test it out against the fierce cold forecast by the BBC. My body felt protected, but the cold stung my mouth and nose. My hands, deep in the pockets of my down jacket, so terrified of an encounter with the frozen air, forced me to resist the ferocious, dog-pack desire to smoke, which howled and quivered in the back of my throat, on my interior.
On my exterior, my ears were disappearing: soon, if I didn’t protect them, they’d end up stumps or chilblains; I attempted to cover them with the lapels of my jacket. Handless, I pulled the points of the lapels between my teeth and, in that way, biting and cold, I got in a taxi that smelled of diesel and driver sweat, and, once situated in the pleasure of that warm stench, I gave the name of a corner in Soho and lit a cigarette.
Outside, not a soul. The cold soaked the bones. The Brit, up front, driving, a statue of odor and drowsiness. Before getting out, I checked that there were other taxis nearby: yes, several. I paid with a bill and only after receiving the change did I open my door. The cold air blasted my face and my chin froze, because my lapels, dripping with saliva, had left behind a light film of drool on my skin, which stung me now with its brittle little globes of frost. There weren’t many people out in London’s Chinatown: a few Arabs and Africans who, as usual, were bouncing in and out of the porn shacks.
On one corner, a group of men—laborers, security guards, maybe homeless—deluding themselves around a tiny bonfire of sticks and paper, improvised by a black man from the newspaper stand. I walked three or four blocks I knew by heart, and not finding anywhere to go inside, on the corner of Charing Cross, I opened the left rear door of a green taxi, got in, gave the name of my hotel, and decided that tonight I’d eat in my room, a hamburger heavy with condiments and a well-salted salad to fortify a thirst so worthy of an Irish beer. What a shame television stops broadcasting so early in London! I looked at my watch: it was eleven; only a half-hour of superb British programming left.
I mentioned the cold, I mentioned the polar bodysuit. Now I’m going to talk about me: the cold, which soaked the bones, was enough to dishearten any inhabitant of and visitor to that ancient city, it was a faraway cold, a British cold, a cold composed of time and distance and—why not?—of even more cold and of fear, it was an arctic cold, an immense cold, a cold spawned by the polar wave forecast and promoted for days on innumerable radio and TV newsflashes. In effect, the radio and the television, the newspapers and the magazines and the people, the workers and the vendors, the bellhops in the hotel and the women you meet buying records—nobody spoke of anything but the cold wave and the astonishing intensity of the coverage of said wave of cold, which soaked the bones. I’m cold sensitive, normally cold sensitive, but I’ve never been so cold sensitive to ignore the fact that the ad campaign for the cold wave had been freezing us to an equal or greater extent than the cold wave itself, now breaking over the semi-obsolete city.
But I was already in the street, I had no desire to go back to my hotel, and I needed to be somewhere that wasn’t my room, sheltered from the cold and carefully sheltered from any reference to the cold. Then, two blocks before my hotel, I saw an establishment I’d noticed a few days before. A pizzeria named The Lulu, which hadn’t been there my last visit. I remembered the location well, it’d previously been a Romanian tourism office, where I once conducted business for some Italian clients. From the taxi, I read the sign indicating the place was still open, I saw customers eating, I noticed the décor was mediocre yet honest, and from the white wicker chairs and tables, I inferred a promising cleanliness. I tapped on driver’s window, paid the sixty pence, got out of the car, and went into the pizzeria. It was a Spanish pizzeria, with Spanish waiters, Spanish owners, and Spanish customers who all knew each other, shouting—in Spanish—from table to table, Spanish opinions, and Spanish phrases.
I promised myself I wouldn’t get caught up in that game and, in my best English, I ordered a pizza with spinach and a small bottle of Chianti. The waiter, who had already endured a reasonable period of exile in London, might have taken me for a traveler from the continent, or a native of one of the Commonwealth’s marginal colonies, a Falklander perhaps.
In my jacket pocket I carried the international edition of the Argentine newspaper La Nación, but I avoided taking it out so as not to reveal my Spanish-speaking character. The Chianti—bottled in Algeria—was delicious: between the wine and the warm air of the locale a symbiosis was established that in three minutes rejuvenated me from the cold. But the pizza was mediocre, hard and tasteless. I chewed it happily all the same, reading clippings of the Financial Times and the tourism magazine they give out at the hotel. I was still hungry and ordered another pizza, telling them to add more salt. This second pizza was better, but the waiter had given me an odd look, maybe because he caught me studying his movements, perplexed by the parallels that can be postulated between the story of a Spanish waiter at an English pizzeria, and that of another Spanish waiter at a pizzeria in Paris, or Rosario.
I’ve chosen Rosario so as not to make excessive reference to Buenos Aires. My beloved Buenos Aires. I chewed pizza number two, analyzing the evolution of the metals’ markets over the last fortnight: madness. The prices the USSR and the nouveau-riche oilmen kept inflating with their ridiculous consumption policies did not bode well for Western Europe. Then, the three punk girls appeared.
The same three I’d seen on Selfridges. My girl chose the worst table, next to the window; her sidekicks trailed along after her. The fat girl, hair dyed carrot-orange, sat down facing my table. The other one, of short stature and the face of a frog, had green hair and a little stuffed bird pinned to the lapel of her overcoat, a bird that I thought must be a nightingale. She repulsed me. Luckily, the ugly girl with the bird and the frog face positioned herself so that she was looking out at the street, showing me only the opaque surface of her greasy overcoat. My girl, the blonde, sat in her little wicker chair looking half at the fat girl and half out at the street: I could only see her profile while I ate my pizza and tried to imagine what a nightingale might be like. Nightingale: I remembered the Banchs’ sonnet. I knew another guy named Banchs, the lieutenant of a corvette or a frigate. It was December; I’d run into him many times during that year, which was drawing to an end. That very morning, while I was drinking coffee, he’d come up to me and started talking about some painter’s opening, and I mentioned the poet to him, and he, himself named Banchs, swore he’d never heard of Enrique Banchs. Then I understood why the lieutenant wasn’t aware of the existence of polar bodysuits (seeing my little Helly Hansen package, he’d been surprised) and I also understood why he was squandering his dollars traversing Europe, trying to get in good with all the Argentine expats and to crash every party where there were Latin Americans in attendance. He smoked Gitanes, in this too he resembled Nono Pugliese.
I never saw a nightingale. I was about to finish the pizza and from behind me came a waft of musk. I looked. The ugliest of the Galicians from the table at the back was sitting down. She was coming back from the bathroom; she’d sprayed her whole horrible body with Chanel, or Patou, or one of those other brands that add musk to all their perfumes nowadays.
What might my punk girl’s scent be? I, like Banchs himself, had condemned myself to wonder and to wonder; I’d almost finished the pizza and the little matter of the metals’ exchange rates.
But something happened outside my head. The owners, the waiters, and the other patrons, all or most all of them Spanish, looked at me. I was the only witness to what they were seeing and that must have increased my value to them. Three punks had entered the establishment, I was the only non-Spaniard able to attest that this had happened, that they hadn’t invited them in, that none of them were punks and there wasn’t a punk among them, apart from the three punk girls, and that not one punk had stepped inside that establishment for at least a quarter of an hour. I was the only one there to bear witness to the fact that the establishment’s lousy pizza and excellent wine could not, from any point of view, be considered punk. That’s why they looked at me, that’s why, on that occasion, they appeared to need me.
I strained to get a look at my girl, but since the body wearing the stuffed bird and frog face were blocking more of her all the time, I turned back to my pizza and my reading, paying no mind to the Spaniards’ complicit glances. When I finished my pizza and my reading, I asked for the check, went to the bathroom to piss and wash my extremities and there, with very hot water, I gave myself a lengthy scrub. In the mirror, I watched contentedly how the rosy tones climbed into my cheeks and forehead. My ears were reborn; I was happy. On my way back, an unjustifiable detour allowed me to brush up against their table and get a better look at my girl: she had eyes of a beautiful celestial, almost transparent, blue and an ensemble of most-pleasing features, features often referred to as “aristocratic,” because aristocrats sought to incorporate them into their progeny, taking them from members of the plebeian class with the secret end of improving or refining their genetic hereditary capital. Wild flowers! Cinderellas of the masses to swallow up the insatiable chromosomes of the lord! Initiating their ova’s journey to a future dreamed up in the most intimate genetic programming of the master!
It’s known that, in periods of change, the best inheritable physiognomic patrimony (that delicate skin, those bright eyes, those noses of precise angles “chiseled” beneath silky lashes and just above lips and gums and tips of tongues whose perfect crimson trembles before the flood, proclaiming the interior beauty of the aristocratic body) tends to retire to some field in Morocco, the majority shareholder of some New Bank, a heroic act in a past war or a National Award in Medicine, thus subsequently spring forth snubbed noses, small eyes, leering mouths, shagreen skins on the twisted little bodies of the aristocracy’s best fledglings, obliging the aristocratic families to resort to the bad families of the plebeians in search of good blood to correct the characteristics and reestablish aesthetic equilibrium for the generations that would catapult their surnames and a small part of themselves to who knows where in some improbable future century.
I liked the girl. She was wearing a man’s suit, loose-fitting, three or more sizes too big. Of average height, she couldn’t have weighed more than 97 pounds. Her skin, so soft (something in her reminded me of Grace Kelly, something in her reminded me of Catherine Deneuve), was beyond enticing. On her feet, perfect astrakhan boots contrasted with the rough confection of her wool suit. A shirt with an Oxford collar, open at the level of her breasts, revealing what I thought was her skin and learned later was a gymnast’s leotard.
To me, she gave not a glance. But her friend, the chubbiest one, the one with dyed orange hair, was giving off a powerfully provocative vibe. I don’t mean to suggest a sexual vibe: provocative, as if seeking an altercation, as if seeking or planning a verbal assault, as if seeking colorful humiliation, as if she were staring down a British police officer. That’s how the fat girl with the carrot-colored hair looked at me. My girl, on the other hand, looked at me not at all. And yet …
. . . She didn’t look at her companions either. She looked out at the street, empty of passersby, her pupils lost in the galloping of the wind. I said it to myself this way: “her gaze lost, tracing the cold wind of Oxford Street.” She was ethereal. This detail, the ethereal, is what, for me, would have best defined my girl, without interposing those punk attitudes and punk details, that sparkled, punk, something like carelessness, nonchalantly punk, that was her. For example: she was smoking hand rolled cigarettes; she brought them to her lips with the exultant gesture of a southern European, inhaling a deep drag of smoke, and releasing it insidiously against the glass of the shop window. Passing by her table, I’d seen a stain on her fingers, saffron-yellow, from tar and tobacco. And never had I seen little hands dirtied by tobacco tar like those of my punk girl! The index, the middle, and the ring fingers of her right hand, from the nails to knuckles, were soaked in that intense yellow that only a serious smoker attains on the first phalange of the index finger, after years of smoking and smoking and not washing. I was impressed. But she was beautiful, she had something in her of Catherine Deneuve and something of Isabelle Adjani, which in that moment I couldn’t define: she beguiled me. I paid the bill, poured the dregs of my bottle of Chianti into the restaurant’s green cup, and, cup in hand—so British—as if I were the regular in some familiar pub, went over to the table of punk girls, accepting the risks. Before making my way over, I had calculated my odds: one in five, one in ten worst case; it was worth it.
“May I sit . . . ?”
The three punks looked at each other. The fat punk reveled in her victory: she must have thought I’d come over to demand explanations for her provocative punk glances. To avoid an offhand rejection I sat down without waiting for a response. To avoid losing my nerve, I poured a sip of wine down my throat. To avoid being affected I looked up, keeping the little stuffed bird out of sight. The fat girl laughed. My punk girl looked at the green haired girl, looked at the fat girl, exhaled her cigarette’s smoke into the nothingness, she didn’t look at me, and without looking at me she took a little sip of the mixture of Coca Cola and Chianti she was preparing on the previous page, but that I, hurrying to write this, forgot to take note of. The punk with the bird spoke:
“What do you want?”
“Nothing, to sit down . . . To be here as a matter of fact . . .” I said in antiquated English. Without a doubt, my strange accent egged on the fat girl’s desire to know:
“Where are you from . . . ?” she barked. The question was strong, aggressive, scornful.
“From South America . . . Brazil and Argentina,” I said, to save them the tiresome explanation that would fill the story with clichés. She was asking me if I was English: she was amazed ‘How could someone come there from Brazil and Argentina without being British?’ I imagined she would’ve imagined.
“Are you by chance English?”
“No. I am, unfortunately, South American,” I said.
“Great country South America,” vituperated the fat girl.
“Yes: far away. So far away. I’ll be going back next month,” I responded.
“Oh yeah . . . I see,” said the fat girl, staring at frog face who nodded as if confirming the most elaborate theory in the universe. Then she spoke, for the first time and just for me, my punk girl. Her voice, in this paragraph, is delicious and resonant:
“What’re you doing here?” queried her verbal melody.
“Nothing, walking,” I said, and I recalled a mode of behavior that always worked well with beatniks and hippies and that, I thought, might also work with punks. I put it to the test: “I like meeting people and so I travel . . . meeting people, you know . . . Traveling . . . Meeting . . . People! . . . Ah . . . Like that . . . People . . .”
It worked: my punk girl’s little face lit up.
“I love traveling too,” she was coming out of her shell, still not looking at me. “I’ve been to Africa, India, the States (she was referring to the USA). I think I’ve been almost everywhere. I’ve never been to Portugal! What’s Portugal like?” she asked.
I composed a Portugal that befit her:
“Portugal is full of wonder . . . There are some charmingly interesting and very good people there. They live a completely distinct vibe from ours . . .” I continued in that vein, and she started getting wrapped up in my story. I perceived this in the discomfort her punk friends began exhibiting. I confirmed it in the light I saw beginning to grow in her little aristocratically punk face. She sighed:
“One time my plane landed in Lisbon and I wanted to go out into the city, but they didn’t let me.” She said: “The people in the Lisbon airport are filthy pig sons of bitches. Is that not . . . Portugal, Lisbon?” Doubt tinged her voice.
“Yes,” I indoctrinated, “but they’re the same in all airports: they’re all filthy flee-ridden stinking sons of bitches.”
“Like taxi drivers, that’s what they’re like,” interrupted the fat girl, waving away the smoke from her Players cigarette.
“Like hotel bellhops, filthy sons of bitches,” conceded the bird-adorned, frog-faced girl, without moving.
“Like booksellers,” said my girl “Sons of bitches!” And she floated in the air, ethereal.
“Yes, of course,” I said, celebrating the accord that reigned among the four of us. Then something unexpected happened; the green haired girl spoke to the fat girl: “Let’s go, let these two do their thing, huh . . .” And she unrolled a five-pound note, set it on the little plate for the check, stood up, and walked away, pulling frog face in her wake. Of course I’d seen them order ten or fifteen pounds worth of food and drink, but I let them erase themselves, it simplified the telling of the story.
“Bay, Maradona,” shouted frog face from the sidewalk, making as if to draw a nonexistent sword or dagger from her waist; it made me happy seeing such hideousness sinking into the cold, even happier thinking I was witnessing further proof that my country’s sporting prestige had crossed over into even the lowliest social strata of London. I asked my girl why she hadn’t waved to them:
“Because they’re filthy pig sons of bitches. See?” she said, showing me the five-pound notes she was removing from her pocket to cover the rest of the check. I nodded. Like a hawk that, through the thickest clouds of a stormy sky, spies the activities of its tiny prey moving about among the weeds, attracted by the flow of pounds, an exceedingly Galician waiter appeared at her side, facing me. He winked, took the cash, accepted the few pence of gratuity my girl let fall on his little plate, and I ordered another bottle of Chianti and two Cokes and in return she made a lovely expression: she opened her mouth, scrunched her nose slightly, arched an eyebrow, and turned her head as if wanting to return the ball to someone who had passed it to her from behind. I took it as an expression of consent. A short time later, the gluttonous way she downed the mix of wine and Coca-Cola confirmed my fleeting presumption: it’d all been an expression of consent. She told me her name was Coreen.
She was ethereal: halfway through the conversation, her eyes were lost, looking out the window of the Spanish pizzeria on Graham Avenue, following the wind in the street. We drank two bottles of Chianti, three of Coke. She mixed the colors together in my cup. I drank the wine for pleasure and the Coke for the thirst provoked by the pizza, the heat of the locale, and my own desire to discover the dénouement of my story of the punk girl. I invited her to my hotel. She didn’t want to go. She said:
“If I go to your hotel, you’ll have to pay for me to stay. It’s rubbish,” she said and invited me to her house. Before leaving we paid in percentages of total drunk; but there’s more I need to say about her. I already noted her aristocratic features. At this point in our relationship (it was twelve-thirty, not a soul in the street, the English cold of the story soaked the Argentinean bones of the narrator), my desire to seduce her had been stripped of any initial snobbery. My girl—aristocratic or punk, this no longer mattered—turned me on: I was already losing myself that expansive heat, that was me, already blind. Already the body of a drowned man without fingerprints, an informant swept away by the current, floating into a fiord where everything turns to nothing. But earlier, when I saw her in front of that shop window on Selfridges, I’d noticed some strange, characteristically punk, details about her soft little face: on her left cheek was a mark, I didn’t know what or why at the time, and the right side of her face had an oddity, above her right nostril there sat—I believed—a piece of gold (I believed) metal that, tracing a curve across her right cheek, ascended to insert itself into a stalk of wheat, that I believed to be gold, disfiguring her earlobe, like a fake earring. From the stem of that stalk, about two centimeters long, hung another chain, thicker, that hung freely down her neck, terminating in miniature Coke bottle of gold metal and red enamel, always swaying to and fro, brushing against her blonde locks, her shoulder, and her chest, or clinking against her green cup creating a music not unlike her voice, and, on occasion, coming to rest, motionless, just above her exquisite white clavicle, curved like the heart of a crossbow, harmonious like a tai chi move. As we talked, I learned that what I’d previously believed to be gold metal was actually eighteen karat gold, and I found out that what I’d believed to be kernel of corn of nearly natural size affixed above her right nostril was a piece of gold shaped like a kernel of corn of nearly natural size, hanging from the mechanism of an ever so delicate zipper, that shamelessly and completely traversed the little left nostril of her lovely nose. She showed me the orifice herself, making a lever out of the saffron-colored nail of her index finger, between the kernel and the skin, to better show off her small star-shaped hole, about four millimeters in diameter. She was quite pleased with her little orifice . . . ! On her left side, what earlier on Oxford Street had appeared to be a mark on her cheek, was actually a deep scar, about three centimeters long, apparently inflicted by some very sharp thing. This slash was transversed by three sloppy stiches, the work of an amateur, or a clumsier than the average first-year English medical student without any emergency room supervisors.
Second disappointment of the narrator: the scar on her left cheek, unlike the little gold adornments on the right, was fake. It’d been fabricated by a make-up artist and my little girl was distressed because it’d begun to melt due to the humidity and the cold and now it needed a touch-up to recover its original color and consistency. Just before we left, she went to the bathroom and when she came back she surprised me, deep in thought at the table:
“What’s wrong?” she asked. “What’re you thinking?”
“Nothing,” I answered. “I was thinking about this fucking cold that ruins scars . . .” But I was lying: I’d thought about that cold only for an instant. Then I’d looked out into the street that led nowhere, and I’d tried to imagine what the few people who, every now and then, produced brief interruptions in the monotony of that empty urban landscape were doing. I touched the frozen glass; I sniffed the brim of her green cup to identify her scent, and thought again about the figures passing by outside the glass, fogged up by the human vapor of the pizzeria. Then I wanted to know why every human being moving down those streets, always seemed to me to be a covert Irish terrorist, carrying messages, instructions, plastic explosives, miniature medical equipment, and all the things they stockpile and transport, in the middle of the night, from house to house, from location to location, from garage to garage, from one place to any other place.
‘Why?,’ I wondered. ‘Why would that be?’ That’s what I was mulling over, while my lovely little girl was nearby, pissing, or washing her hands with warm water, and with just a little tug at the warm little thread of her image, a grenade of visions and associations exploded in a thousand fragments, intimate, intense, but that, being mine, being Argentinean and shameful, were not particularly faithful to her.
Is there a God? I don’t believe there is a God, but something or someone punished me, because when I realized I was being unfaithful to and ignoble with my punk girl and I felt the delicious idea of sin beginning to spread through my body—or my soul—the shape of a cyclist passed by on the other side of the window, and I watched him pedaling, suspended in the cold and I knew he was a man whose fake French passport concealed the identity of an ex-Jesuit member of the IRA who, with his plastic explosives, would someday blow up the pub where I, waiting for some BAT bureaucrat, would meet my end, and then I closed my eyes, pressed my fists against my temples, and I saw her hurrying by on the sidewalk in front of the pub, I got out of there and ran after her, breathing the fresh and fragrant air of London in April, and just as I reached her, we felt the explosion together, and she embraced me, and I saw in her eyes—two blue mirrors—that the man wrapping his arms around my punk girl wasn’t me, but the Jesuit, skin scarred by smallpox, and I guessed that soon, in the middle of the masonry rubble and twisted arcade games, Scotland Yard would identify the fragments of an author who was never able to properly compose the story of his punk girl. But now she was there, stepping out of the text and listening to my answer:
“Nothing . . . I was thinking about this fucking cold that ruins scars . . .” she heard. And then she cocked her head (ciao Irishmen!), fixed me with her blue mirrors and said “thanks,” which, in English (she’d said “thanks” in her tongue with her tongue) and in the middle of that English night, made me feel that she was grateful for my solidarity: me, against the cold, fighting to support the conservation of her precious scar, and that she was also grateful that I was me, just as I am, and that I was constructing her just as she is, as I made her, as I wanted her. She must have noticed my tears. I explained:
“I had the flu . . . plus . . . The cold makes me sad, es un bajón . . . ! (It downs me . . . !),” I translated. It’s a downer! “Let’s go to the hotel!” I said, without tears.
“Not the hotel!” she said, and the story repeats itself. I didn’t insist. I didn’t know then—and I don’t know now—how one can impose one’s will on a punk girl. We went out into the cold. Soaked. The bones. Not a soul. In the streets. I hailed a taxi. It didn’t stop. Another approached. It stopped and we got in. It smelled of driver sweat and diesel fuel. My girl gave a street name and some numbers. I imagined she lived in a lower-class neighborhood, in a basement pigsty, or a frozen garret, and I guessed we’d be sharing the room with half a dozen stoned, foul-smelling punks, who by that point in the night would be lying about on the floor, fighting over the what was left of the food, or, worse, what was left in an unsterilized hypodermic needle that would be circulating among them with the same casual arrogance of our gauchos sucking at their pyorrheal bombillas of cold, used-up maté. I was mistaken: she lived in a luxurious flat facing Hyde Park. On the door to her building it said “Shadley House.” On the door to her apartment—doubly framed in bronze and lasciviousness—it said “R.H. Shadley.”
“It’s the family home,” my punk girl said humbly as we passed into the great hall. To the right, the armory, full of hunting trophies and numerous firearms, long and short, displayed on glass tables and in glass cases alongside others of more medium size. To the left, a room upholstered in Bordeaux satin that shimmered in the light of three crystal chandeliers the size of Volkswagens. The entrance hall opened onto the music room, and the sound of voices. Passing through the doorway, my girl shouted “hello” and a voice answered back in French with a string of expletives. Coming behind, I heard them, mentally recited our ritual Argentine queterrecontra—or comeback—line, and with a quick glance, scanned the room for that dirty French voice. I failed to locate it. Instead, I saw two pianos and a small concert stage with multiple armchairs and two old sofas facing it. Between them, stretched out atop large cushions, half a dozen foul-smelling punks were smoking hashish and arguing in French about something I failed to comprehend. A black man, naked and skeletal was stretched out across the purple rug. Because of his thinness and the greenish hue of his skin, to me, he resembled a corpse, but then I saw his ribs moving spasmodically and I relaxed: epilepsy.
I imagined that in his dreams the black punk must be dying of cold, but on that hellish night I wasn’t going to be the one to cover up some punk, given the fact that he was a punk, blasted on punk drugs, surrounded by his stupid punk friends. We moved into the kitchen. My girl told me that the batrachians in the music room were “her people” and as she shut the door she explained that they were pissed (“angry,” she said) at her because she’d banned them from the kitchen. They argued that she was a “stingy cunt,” believing she’d banned them so they’d stop pillaging the refrigerators and cupboards, but really it was because of the complaints and fears of the house’s servants, who, on various occasions, had encountered half-naked punks eating with their hands in an area of the house that the staff had, for nearly three generations, considered their own, an area where the laws of the Empire would reign forever. That day she’d received fresh round of complaints from the housekeeper. Apparently one of the punks, the Moroccan, had been handling the automatic weapons in the armory and when the old butler reprimanded him, the punk had forced him to sniff the Bedouin dagger he always carried, affixed to his inner thigh with adhesive tape. Coreen was caught in the crossfire and would soon have to choose between her friends and the house’s serving staff. She was on the fence:
“They’re stinking pig sons of bitches,” she said, referring to the two Frenchmen, the Moroccan, the Sudanese, and the American, who, moreover—she said—had “revolting habits.”
I had no way of knowing who they were, but I sat down on a stool to imagine half a dozen possible punks, as she brewed a delicious coffee with cinnamon. When the coffeepot was already simmering, she told me that apartment had belonged to her mother’s grandparents. Her mother was an art critic working in New York. Her father, twenty years her mother’s senior, had married for prestige, taking his wife’s surname when he was knighted by the old queen in compensation for his services as a spy, or police officer, in India. With his ties to the government’s oil company, the old man had made a sizeable fortune and was now spending his remaining years in Africa, managing his estates. My punk girl admired him. She also admired her mother. And yet, multiple times when she referred to her parents and to her older sister, she made a point of referring to them as “stinking sons of bitches.” I thought I picked up that there was a bank account to cover the home’s expenses, the servants’ and drivers’ salaries, and the food, cleaning, and tax bills, and the two girls—my girl and her sister—received a weekly allowance of fifty pounds each. “Stinking pigs,” she’d said again, touching her scar and explaining that it’s maintenance—which had to be seen to every week when the weather was humid—cost twenty-five pounds, and that she couldn’t live like that. She asked my opinion. I preferred not to take her parents side, but I didn’t want to compromise myself either by supporting to her position which, to me, morally, didn’t seem to hold up. So I kissed her.
While I was drinking the coffee, the girl left to work out a few things with her friends. I took advantage to look around the kitchen: we were on the fourth floor, but one of the shelved walls opened onto a cellar of a hundred or more square meters, which functioned as a pantry or storeroom for kitchen supplies. There were hams, cold cuts, and a hundred and forty-four boxes with cans of non-alcoholic beverages and preserves. I saw large boxes containing bottles of whisky, wine, and champagne of various brands. Against the wall facing the stairway, slumbered thousands of wine bottles, lying back across wooden tables of the softest white. There was an aroma of spices. I surmised that it was a stockpile sufficient for an entire family and their Argentine friends to last six moons under siege by Norman invaders, until the arrival of King Charles’s liberating armies, and as the invaders closed in, forcing us to launch our final reserves of granite balls from the great catapult on the western battlement, my little punk princess appeared again and, responding to the din of battle, with two turns of the key she re-latched the door and her contrite little face turned to look at me.
I said—to say something—that the servants’ fears seemed justified. “Nunca se sabe,” I said in Spanish, and clarified in English, “You never know.” She shrugged and said that her friends were capable of anything, “like poor Charlie.” I wanted to know who “poor Charlie” was and she told me he was a relative, who’d gotten famous when he tore the ears off a small baby in Gilderdale Gardens, but who was now growing old, forgotten, in an asylum near Dondall, faking insanity to avoid a prison sentence.
She asked my name and my parents’ name again and laughed. Then, again, she told me about her scar, which had already cost her fifty pounds: her entire weekly allowance, “as a matter of fact.” The bank cashed fifty pounds a week for my girl and her older sister, but that makeup required maintenance. (I’m sure I already wrote this, but she told me again, and I respect my protagonists. Art—I think—should bear witness to reality, so it doesn’t become a kind of clumsy onanism, seeing as there are far better ways to do it.) The scar needed maintenance and said maintenance was made more difficult by, among other things, her enjoyment of swimming and water skiing. Coreen loved skiing and spending long stretches of time outdoors during the humid time of year, and she invited me to smoke a marijuana cigarette: a joint. I declined because I’d had a lot to drink, I felt drunk on ideas, and didn’t want a sudden drop in blood pressure to make them slip away.
My girl soaked the paper of her joint in an unctuous liquid from the miniature Coke bottle hanging from her gold pendant. “Heroin oil,” she explained. She’d been an addict and smoking that liquid that suffused the paper and herb, eased her cravings. She’d been giving up the habit for a year now, she was afraid of relapsing on fixes that’d killed her best friends one night in Paris—blood poisoning—and now she wanted to cure herself and get away from all that because her allowance wasn’t sufficient to support the habit: she had enough problems as it was with her makeup artist. Then she went to the bathroom, leaving me alone in the kitchen again, and I snatched a can of Camembert cheese from the basement, and while eating it with a wooden spoon, gave myself a tour of the kitchen’s appliances: testimonial art. In addition to several vertical ovens, and a great clay-lined woodfire oven for baking bread, in the next room was an electric grill, and a rotisserie that must have been three meters wide with a one-meter circumference. I calculated that a tribe on the road to liberation could use it to roast half a dozen Mormon missionaries for a thousand fervent Watusis desperate for their portion of tasty Mormon missionary. On the other side of the room was the storage space for gas pipes, firewood, charcoal, and spices. It smelled of garlic and yet I didn’t see garlic anywhere, I saw laurel branches and jute bags of aromatic herbs I didn’t know how to classify. Rosemary? Peter Nollys? Kelpsias? No one can distinguish the sophisticated tastes of those maniacal British magnates …!
When Coreen—my punk girl, mistress and lady of the house—came back from the bathroom, she shut the door that separated the pantry and kitchen—which in English she called “the home”—from the rooms where her friends continued spouting off their rubbish. I’m leaving out what was said, but, in summary, she called them flea-bitten sons of bitches; seriously. She lit another joint with the cherry of my 555, and—yippee!—we went to stink up her sister’s bedroom, where we’d be sleeping, because hers was a mess from the night before.
The hallway leading to the rooms was watched over by two large paintings of apparently high quality. I noticed the floor: oak boards extending a length of fifteen to twenty meters. No rug or finish of any kind, the pale polished wood evoked the ship decks on those clippers Disraeli’s posse of nobles had built for their vacations in Gibraltar. What a waste! The sister’s room was spacious, somberly carpeted, and in one corner, the hide of a tiger, in another, that of a zebra and other thick skins that I surmised were from some kind of exotic sheep, as they were bigger than the skin of the biggest sheep I’d ever seen and that any human being could imagine with or without joints soaked in substance X. We got in bed.
Third disappointment of the narrator: my punk girl was as clean as any virgin from Flores or Belgrano R. Not at all anticipated in an English girl and completely discordant with my expectations when it came to punkness.
The sheets . . . ! The sheets were softer than the sheets of the finest hotels I’d ever been to! And I—someone who, because of my ancient profession, often took refuge in high-class hotels and even slept (in cases of reservation snafus that managers tried to fix with such upgrades) in special suites for wedding nights or VIPs—had never felt against my skin fibers as soft as the fibers of those silk sheets, which smelled of lemon or bergamot buds on the eve of their calyxes’ opening.
Third disappointment of the reader: I never slept with any punk girl. Worse: I never saw any punk girls, nor was I ever in London, nor were the doors of such distinguished residences ever opened to me. I can prove it: since March of 1976, I haven’t made love with anyone. (She left, she left for the country house, she never came back, she never called again. She opened the door to other men, others. She’s forgotten us; I believe she’s forgotten me.) Fourth disappointment of the narrator: I won’t say she was a virgin, but she was more awkward than the worst virgin girl from the Belgrano or Parque Centenario neighborhoods. In the middle of it (the love?) she let go, reciting a litany familiar to any visitor to London: “ai camin ai camin ai camin ai camin ai camin,” howling, howling, howling, substituting the well-known “ai voi ai voi ai voi ai voi” of my girls-for-hire, who send the man on the wildest of goose chases regarding the nature of that sacred site toward which the girls of the south say they are going and from which their British counterparts say they are coming. But one does all of this to live and one adapts. Oh how one adapts! For example:
And afterwards she fell asleep. It must have been the wine and the drugs, but she fell asleep smiling, her body the prisoner of a deep softness. I looked at the clock: it was five-thirty and I couldn’t fall asleep, maybe because of the coffee, or what we’d added to the coffee. I scanned the books piled on the nightstand in the punk girl’s sister’s room. Good books! Blake, Woolf, Sollers: good literature. Cortázar in English! (It’s really something to see the late Cortázar beside one of these majestic beds, in English) There were physics textbooks and numerous natural science magazines and Systems Theory journals. I picked out a few to learn about that theory, unfamiliar to me, but apparently justifying a monthly publication, already in its one-hundred-and-thirty-fourth issue. I looked at them. Interesting: my conversation would be enriched for a while.
I was doing this when my punk girl’s sister and her boyfriend arrived. The girl said her name was Dianne and that she was a naturalist, a Marxist, she was studying biology, she hated drugs, she looked down on punks, and she didn’t take it at all well that we were in bed in her room, but she hid it.
When I spoke, her expression grew increasingly severe, as if offended by the fact that a naked man, lying in her bed, would speak to her in such shitty English. She didn’t like me and couldn’t hide it. On the other hand, her boyfriend was kind to me.
He was a biology student, a naturalist, a Marxist, he profoundly despised punks, and showed an intense disdain for drugs and their users. I think if it hadn’t been for the circumstances of the encounter and the irritation of his girlfriend, we would’ve been able strike up a healthy friendship. He offered me some fruit, something delicious, like a loquat, and so refreshing that it eradicated from my gums any residual taste of Coreen. She—despite our loud-voiced conversation, my Anglo-Argentine shouts, my bursts of laughter, and the stray chuckles that a few of my jokes extracted from the biologist—didn’t wake up. I told the kids I should get dressed and go because I was expected at my hotel. They said that wasn’t necessary, that they always slept on the floor for reasons of hygiene and that I could keep reading, as “the light of the light doesn’t bother us.” That’s what they said. The undressed, lay down on a bearskin, and covered themselves up to the eyeballs with a Hindu blanket. Immediately they fell into a deep sleep and I watched them sleep, breathing with a single rhythm, on their backs and holding hands. But I couldn’t sleep; I turned off the light of the light and sat there for a while, awake and listening to the contrast between the symmetrical breathing of the couple, and that of Coreen, more forced and of a more sinuous rhythm. I turned on the light and checked the clock: it was almost seven, the sun would be coming up soon. I stroked my punk girl’s hair, her little face, her lovely shoulders and arms, and was almost ready to make love again, but feared that any involuntary movement might wake her. I took the chance to have a better look at her skin, so delicate and soft. Not at all punk, very aristocratic, my girl’s skin. I studied the little piercing in her nose: it measured six millimeters in width and was shaped like a five-pointed star. Or was it five millimeters and a six-pointed star?
I would never see it again. For the purposes of this story, it’s enough to record that it was drawn with precision, and that it must have been the work of a plastic surgeon, who would’ve charged a fee of no less than fifty pounds. What a waste! I looked at the scar traversing my girl’s left side: it had lost more color and gotten smeared rubbing against my chin, whose two-day beard had become abrasive. I felt sad imagining that the following afternoon, when she woke up, my little punk girl would resent me for it. I wrote a quick note saying that her next service appointment was on me, and I left it fastened with a clip, along with a fifty-pound note I’d bought so cheaply in Buenos Aires, inside the throat of her astrakhan boot. That’s how I took responsibility, and she wouldn’t have to wait another week to reset her scar to kilometer zero. I acted like a man and like an Argentine and although no one will ever know what a punk expects of people, I couldn’t let my punk girl grow bitter the following day and go around to all the London discotheques insinuating Argentines are sons of bitches who mess up scars and don’t pay to have them serviced, further disfiguring the horrible image of my homeland that has been inculcated in the European youth for some time now. I got dressed. Leaving the room, I turned out the lights. I unlocked the door to the kitchen, but locked it again behind me and slipped the key under the door. The punks were still fighting: the African was reproaching the others for not having woken him up for supper. One of them was weeping, I think it was the French guy. Then I heard the strangest syllables: someone speaking in Dutch. Thank God they didn’t see me, and I caught a taxi before I even reached the street, cold like a Russian dagger forgotten in a hotel freezer by a recently graduated Russian geologist near the suspended projects of the Paraná Medio.
The next afternoon, I read in The Guardian that during the night, due to the cold, fourteen homeless people had died, or croaked, their twenty-some homeless English feet kicking the bucket without resentment, in the heart of the city of London. It’d dropped to who-knows-how-few degrees Fahrenheit; I estimated it must have been about ten degrees below zero, a penny more, a penny less. In the hotel I submitted myself to a very hot immersion bath, and with the water up to my nose, in the international edition of Clarín, I read the lovely news of my homeland. I wanted to go back. The next day I flew to Bonn and from there to Copenhagen. By the fourth day, I was back in London, cool as can be, and no sooner had I checked into my hotel then I wanted to find my punk girl. I hadn’t gotten her number and her name didn’t appear in the old city directory. I rushed over to her house. Ferdinand, the sister’s boyfriend, greeted me amicably: my punk girl was in New York, visiting her mother and from there she’d be hopping over to Zambia, to meet up with her father. She wouldn’t get back until the end of April, and he didn’t invite me in, because he was about to leave for the university, where he taught classes in cytology.
Nice guy, Ferdinand: he had a black and white Morris and drove cautiously through that winter afternoon rush hour. He acted concerned because for a year or so the little car’s turn signals had been failing. I suggested it might be a fuse, which no doubt would’ve been the most likely cause in a Morris. He pondered my hypothesis for a while and finally conceded:
“I don’t know, maybe you’re right . . .”
He dropped me at Victoria Station, where I’d be able to buy some gun catalogues and big-game hunting articles for my people back in Buenos Aires. We said goodbye affectionately. The Aldwick gunsmith was an English Jew with a little curly beard and black locks, lubricated with blue reflections. He and the Victoria Embankment bookseller—a Pakistani—wound up ruining my afternoon with their paltry service and veiled disapproval of my accent. The Jew asked my country of origin; the Pakistani asked me where I was from. In both cases, I told the truth. What was I going to say? Was I going to traffic in affectations and deceit when I needed something from them? What would someone else do in my place . . . ? There are a lot of people I’d like to see in a situation like that one, on that saddest of English winter afternoons . . . ! It was getting dark. Irremediable, another night was falling over me. When he heard the word “Argentina,” the Jewish gunsmith gestured with his hands: he reached them out toward me, closed his fists, stuck his thumbs up, and rotated his elbows inscribing a circle with the tips of his fingers. I didn’t really understand, but I assumed it was a ritual gesture related to Jewish baptisms. The Pakistani, when he heard me say, “Buenos Aires, Argentina, South,” straightened his violet turban and adopted the pose of a Greek Zorba dancer (or was it perhaps the pose of a folkloric dance of his own country . . . ?). He spun in the air, made rhythmic sound, clapped his hands, and sang, very flatly, the following line “cidade maravilhosa lhena dincantos mil,” but setting it to the melody of the Evita operetta. Then he spun again, slapped his ass with both hands, clapped, and stood with his mouth half open, showing me his perfect teeth of authentic enamel. I felt envy and asked God that he die, but he didn’t die. Then I smiled at him in my Argentinean way and he smiled in his way and I looked at the slice of London visible through the glass of his shop window: the sky was pure night, I had to go, and I pointed at my watch multiple times to hurry him along. He wasn’t unpleasant, that mulatto son of a thousand bitches, but, like all English business owners, he was smug and lazy: it took him almost an hour to find a simple Webley & Scott catalogue. So it goes!
Translated by Will Vanderhyden
Read more about Fogwill in the feature section dedicated to his work in this issue of LALT.
Will Vanderhyden is a freelance translator, with an MA in Literary Translation from the University of Rochester. He has translated the work of Carlos Labbé, Rodrigo Fresán, and Fernanda García Lao, among others. His translations have appeared in journals such as Two Lines, The Literary Review, The Scofield, and The Arkansas International. He has received fellowships from the NEA and the Lannan Foundation.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo