The Requena Sisters

 

Working in a store, Belgrano, Buenos Aires. Photo: Juani Puyo, Unsplash.

They say that Amelia and María Luisa Requena stayed together right to the end. They died within a few minutes of each other, just the way they’d been born. This came as something of a surprise, given the way things were looking at one point.

It seems that the trouble began when Amelia fell in love for the first time at the age of seventy- nine. She had a fling with a violinist who was well-known throughout the neighbourhood of Belgrano for his tuneless busking. Amelia did things for him that would have been unthinkable at any other time in her life.

Or at least, whenever I’d seen them, the twins had been joined at the hip. It was an amusing sight: a pair of elderly women in duplicate. They were identical. Their short, straight white hair brushed to one side, their tiny bodies, always impeccably dressed, carried with dignity and a slight stoop. They both wore thick glasses and orthopaedic shoes. The only feature that set them apart was their eyes. And their temperament.

According to family legend, the kind that often shrouds itself around old women, María Luisa had been born seven minutes earlier and had blue eyes. Amelia had been reluctant to come out of her mother’s belly and had held up the labour. Her eyes were dun. These very first steps into the world appeared to fit with the dominant, independent and practical character of the elder and the hesitant insecurity of the younger, who seemed little more than an extension of her mother, or sister.

I heard all about them from my grandmother, who lived nearby. And when I began studying literature at the university, María Luisa was my Spanish Grammar teacher. Even though she’d reached retirement age many years before, her course was still prestigious and she taught with the ease and lucidity of the great masters. She was a wonderful orator; her subject may have been dry and technical but she kept us in her thrall. Her classes were always full. The only anachronistic quirk was her insistence on the rules of grammar; she still thought of the language in terms of its Latin roots and considered Ancient Greek constructions to be the best model for syntactical analysis. She’d badger us to read the dictionary every day. During breaks we’d shake our heads, convinced that she’d never heard of the Internet or noticed that computers had taken over the world. When she dismissed her classes, she always said she’d see us next week “God willing”, slung her handbag onto her shoulder, gathered her papers and took her sister’s arm. Amelia accompanied her everywhere, like a shadow, or a guide dog. Except for those months when María Luisa came alone looking distraught and dishevelled.

My grandmother met them when they were about seventy. They told her, or she heard some other way, that the professor had married young and it had been a success. The couple had travelled the world and worked hard to build up their savings. Amelia, in contrast, never appeared to have had any suitors. She refused to live anywhere other than her childhood home and never showed an interest in any vocation but housework. People in the neighbourhood thought that she might prefer women: a prospect regarded with horror at the time. That, people thought, was why she locked herself away to look after her parents. But later, when she was seen stopping to talk to the violinist in the afternoons, the rumours changed tack: Amelia Requena wasn’t a lesbian, she’d gone cuckoo for a tramp.

Amelia was born and died in the same house in Belgrano. María Luisa went the same way. After she was widowed at the age of fifty, she sold her flat and moved back in with her family. When the time came, the sisters buried their parents and made the house their own. Now they became even more inseparable than they had been before. Over the years they established an extraordinarily consistent routine. I think that my grandmother, who was an only child, was a little jealous. She used to talk about them a lot, saying how lucky they were to have someone. Certainly she followed their daily movements with surprising avidity.

María Luisa would shower first while Amelia made breakfast. They’d watch the news together to get the latest on the weather, price fluctuations and traffic. Then they did the shopping, had lunch and took a siesta followed by tea. In the evening, they’d tidy the house, write letters or do their accounts. Next came dinner, reading, and an early bedtime in their shared bedroom. Amelia would say her prayers and turn off the bedside lamp at nine on the dot, just as she’d been taught as a girl. María Luisa read Spanish novels until quarter to ten and gave herself fifteen minutes to get to sleep.

On Mondays and Thursdays they went to the university and ate lunch at the café opposite. Other mornings were spent at doctors’ surgeries. On Tuesday and Friday afternoons they did errands outside the house. Saturdays were reserved for the cinema, the first afternoon showing (it was half-price), while on Sundays they went to eleven-o-clock mass. On their birthday, they always invited the same friends and cousins for afternoon tea with pastries and sandwiches.

Their first major argument occurred shortly after they had turned seventy-nine. Amelia wanted to take a different route to the greengrocer’s. They faced up to each other right there on the corner of Virrey Loreto and Cabildo. María Luisa started to tremble: her sister had never crossed her before. She wanted them to follow their usual routine but for no good reason that she could see Amelia was determined to keep on going down Virrey del Pino. Voices were almost raised but instead teeth were gritted so onlookers wouldn’t be able to tell what was going on. María Luisa declared that they’d be turning but Amelia, revealing a hitherto unsuspected stubborn streak, refused. She strode off the way she’d chosen.

Until that day, my grandmother had never seen either of the Requena sisters cry, but she did when María Luisa told her all about it. The elder sister was indignant, tears were streaming from her eyes, my grandmother informed me enthusiastically. I think she enjoyed the fact that the sisters had been introduced to a solitude from which she’d suffered terribly for years.

Some time later, we heard that it took them quite a while to make up. In the period immediately afterwards their routine went haywire. They started to do things on their own. First the shopping, then the bathroom and cinema schedules got disrupted. They stayed together for the outings on which it was necessary to keep up appearances. Like going to classes and mass. But on these occasions they only spoke to one another when etiquette so required.

What most got on María Luisa’s nerves—I imagine—was Amelia’s unexplained joy and that she refused to share it. Although she was dying to know, she refrained from asking why Amelia seemed willing to let their lives together unravel in that way. It was particularly galling for her to hear her sister singing in the shower, whistling while she ironed or chatting to a friend for an excessive amount of time on the telephone. Amelia had begun to watch ridiculous television programmes, laughing at the screen and saying things to no one in particular. She started buying chocolates and butter biscuits, and even drank the occasional glass of wine in the evening. She’d barely ever done any of these things before, especially not on her own. But the worst part, of course, was the fact that Amelia had started to leave the house without saying where she was going or when she was coming back.

Maybe because of the resulting stress, or for some other reason, María Luisa’s health began to deteriorate. She’d started to limp, perhaps because her partner wasn’t there to balance her out. I remember it very clearly: halfway through the year, my fellow students and I began to notice that her memory was failing. She’d try to correct well-written sentences, then contradict herself, arrive late to class and take far too long with her marking. At the time we thought that she was just getting old and kept going to her classes so as not to disappoint her.

One day, María Luisa decided to follow her sister in secret. She tailed Amelia several blocks to Virrey del Pino and O’Higgins. Then she saw her talking to the street violinist; observed the way they smiled at each other; how he showed her his makeshift violin—just a box with strings—how she tugged on her sweater until her hand turned red; his apparent lack of interest in the coins given to him by passers-by and how she offered him a small cake with chocolate filling.

María Luisa was amazed that a woman brought up like her sister, a woman her sister’s age, was spending time with this scruffy, dirty, perhaps slightly crazy man. No one knew where the musician lived or slept.

As hard as she found it to own up to what she’d done, she still felt the need to confront her sister. They argued. María Luisa told Amelia that she refused to continue supporting her if she was going to keep on making a spectacle of herself throughout the neighbourhood like a bag lady. With a filthy tramp. The family honour was at stake. Amelia started to choke a little. She told María Luisa that she could take care of herself. There was no call for María Luisa to make sacrifices on her behalf. She asked her sister what family honour it was, precisely, that she was referring to: everyone knew that her husband had had a string of lovers. Of every colour, background and class. He’d been addicted to booze and horses. What noble, upright reputation was at stake exactly?

María Luisa put her hand over her mouth in shock. She moved out of their bedroom and into the room that had been left untouched since her parents had died. It smelled of museums, mothballs and gravestones. She found a corner of the living room for their parents’ ashes, then aired out the bedroom, changed the sheets, put some flowers in a vase and brought her things: her clothes, course books, sharp black pencils for syntactical analysis, and collections of erasers, asthma medicine and perfumes.

This was a Sunday in October. Just around the time we were first amazed to see her come to classes on her own. We didn’t dare ask, just in case her sister had died. Then the faculty porter told us that Amelia was a little poorly but it was nothing serious (which was what María Luisa had told him to keep her rift with her sister from going public). We were relieved to hear that she was fine; we were fond of them both.

How terrible it must have been for the professor to come home to find that Amelia had moved too, only she’d moved out entirely. For the first time in her elderly life, Amelia had packed some clothes and gone to sleep in a different bed, or wherever—as María Luisa agitatedly told my grandmother, imagining some kind of dive or seedy halfway house.

After that we didn’t hear anything for a while, or at least nothing about Amelia. She spent six months living somewhere else. The man with the violin continued to screech his infuriating way around the streets, a fixed, dreamy grin on his face. The grin of an accomplished composer. Some even said that around this time he tended to look even more love-struck than usual and that he appeared to shave and wear cologne more often. After Amelia left, María Luisa started to go by his corner on her way to do her chores. Whenever she passed she gave the violinist a look and once she thought that he bowed to her, but she looked away. She would never have deigned to ask after her sister.

They say that Amelia came back on the day they turned eighty. She let herself in, dragging the suitcase behind her. There was a silence, then she said hello to the friends and cousins chatting happily in the living room with their tea and biscuits. My grandmother was there that afternoon. She saw Amelia look at the cake with its two candles, take off her coat, fill up a plate of sandwiches in the kitchen and hand it out to their guests. Nobody ever asked or found out where she’d been or why she’d come back.

Without really thinking about it, the Requena twins slipped back into the routine they’d led before the argument on the street corner. It was as though it had never happened. As though nothing had ever been ruined by love.

Translated by Kit Maude

Languages

Elicura Chihuailaf
Number 16

In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Elicura Chihuailaf

Dossier: Andrés Neuman

Dispatches from the Republic of Letters

Latin American Literary Criticism

Fiction

Poetry

Essays

Interviews

Brazilian Literature

Chronicle

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation

Nota Bene