Between the two of them Alina and Martín lower the tattoo parlor’s metal shutter. After putting on the locks, they begin to walk down Tacuba street which is bustling on Saturday with people. It’s a warm night, and the vendors at the Portales de Santo Domingo are fanning themselves with the leaflets and samples they’re handing out to passersby, eager to turn them into the last customers of the day. More than a few businesses have closed while others keep florescent lights shining on cheap but flashy merchandise: trinkets, paper lamps, costume jewelry, dolls, wind-up mice. The fast-food places with muted TVs continue to attract people who’ve lost themselves in a kind of bovine contemplation between watching and chewing. Chords from the Banda del Recodo, which someone’s played on the jukebox, are escaping from the Salón Madrid, and Martín asks to stop to buy a bottle of water. They walk into a corner store. The cashier tells Martín that she likes the bones tattoos on his arms, as if his skeleton were showing through. He tells her because she works at a neighboring business, he’ll do one for her at a discount any time she likes. She answers:
“But no bones. One with flowers like your friend…,” she says, gesturing at the one that Alina has on her neck that comes out from behind her left ear. Alina smiles and walks up to the clerk, almost her age. She stretches out her neck so she can appreciate it better.
“If you look closely, there’s a skull in the center of the flower…,” she tells her. The girl lets out an exclamation of surprise and approval.
They don’t make another stop before arriving at the Zócalo metro stop. As soon as they reach the area with the models of the pyramids of ancient Tenochtitlán, they say goodbye. They’re going in opposite directions: Martín to Iztapalapa and Alina to Tacuba. He says:
“I’ll see you on Monday. Say hello to Juan for me.”
“Sure… I’ll tell him. Have a good weekend,” she replies.
She goes down to the platform crawling with people who are returning to their homes, tired from the tug-of-war of shopping in the city’s center. A group of young mestizos with bandanas around their foreheads and t-shirts that show off their sinewy, weather-beaten arms are laughing among themselves, passing back and forth an effigy of San Judas Tadeo that measures almost half a meter. A text message distracts her. It’s from Juan, asking how long before she’ll arrive at the place where he’s agreed to pick her up. She hurries to tell him that she’s on her way. “But there’s lots of people, there’s no train, and the heat is unbearable…,” she finishes typing just before the train arrives with its rush of noise.
As she enters the car she remembers Juan. His soft beard, his designer hands, the wood-scented lotion that he rubs on his chest and underarms, always fresh and clean-smelling no matter how much he sweats. They’ve been living together for a little over a year. In a few months, they’ll travel to Atlanta for a tattoo convention. Many of the designs that Aline tries on her customers, and have earned her a certain reputation among tattoo artists in the city’s center, are Juan’s. Scaled dragons, stylized fairies, flowers from an uncommon garden of delight.
After entering, a couple of spots open. She chooses the one closest to the doors. Seated in front of her is a woman with two small boys who are sleeping, each one resting on the other. A street vendor elbows his way through the crowd, selling small portable fans that he places in front of the passengers’ faces to demonstrate their effectiveness. When he places one near Alina, she feels the caress of air and can’t keep from smiling at the man in a sign of gratitude. As soon as the vendor walks away, she again breathes in the train’s hot air heavy with odors. She notices that most of the passengers are wearing light clothes exposing necks, arms, legs, thirsty for fresh air, skins that exhale a breath of organic-laden humanity. The children are asleep, their tiny faces softened by the laxness of sleep, their hair soaked with sweat. It seems to her that one of them, the smallest, is uncomfortable as he sleeps because he furrows his brow and wrinkles his nose, annoyed as if refusing to breath. She turns to look at the other passengers in front of her and discovers suddenly in their tired and sweat-soaked faces an unmistakable look of disgust.
It’s then that she notices the stale odor of concentrated moisture. She looks out of the corner of her eye at the man beside her. Unlike the others, he’s wearing a dark suit of threadbare fabric, shining from wear, his gnarled hands sticking out from the sleeves, exposing his sallow, opaque skin. She also notices that the man’s thin and that his perfectly coiffed hair’s greasy and sparse. She discovers all this without looking at him directly. Because she also knows that the unpleasant odor that everyone perceives and that she’s just identified, emanates from him, from his clothes, his pores, his folds. A smell that burrows in her unknown memory of dark, secret things. She’s about to get up even though there are still several stops before she reaches her destination. It’s an instinctive reaction that’s controlled only by the fear of betraying her rejection, a kind of modesty born of embarrassment for someone else. In her job as a tattoo artist she’s become accustomed to the smell of clients’ skin, a mixed essence of animal remnants that food and emotions intensify. There are also mineral scents from the inks, concentrations of purity uncommon to the human olfactory that can border on pestilence. But what she’s now breathing is beyond her tolerance. She takes her hand to her neck, there where the exposed tattoo blooms, as if to prevent the that smell from contaminating her.
She glances at the list of stations and counts those that lay ahead. In doing so, she discovers in the window pane the eyes of the man beside her. He looks at her expectantly, as if he knew that at any moment she would get up to move away, to run away from him. A feeling of being watched overwhelms her even more. She looks away and focuses on the little boy who’s leaning on his brother as he sleeps. The heat continues to dampen the bodies, which certainly intensifies and concentrates the smell, that smell. She’s thirsty and regrets not having accepted the bottle of water when Martín offered it. The to-and-fro makes her sleepy but she forces herself to stay awake: she doesn’t want a sudden movement of the train to draw her closer to the man in the suit. Or, her body to go limp while asleep and end up touching the fabric or skin that emanates that smell.
Still, she falls into a kind of lethargy. She holds on to the seat with one hand to avoid letting go completely. But the smell increasingly invades and penetrates her. In a blink, the scene has changed. She glimpses a dimly lit room, with damp, seamy walls. In the background a yellow glow outlines the figure of the man now completely naked except for papers stuck to his body. Sitting at a desk, he cuts out pictures of women from a stack of magazines and then sticks them on his skin. Instead of glue, he licks the clippings and applies them directly onto his torso as if putting together a puzzle or life-sized collage. Aline’s so disgusted that she draws her hand instinctively toward her neck to protect her flower. The sudden gesture causes the man to notice her. He approaches her in a single leap and the stale, damp smell swirls around her in waves. She can’t breathe, but neither can she move away from the man who’s now licking her and tattooing her docile, willing skin with remnants of saliva. She feels his burning tongue.
A message on the loudspeakers announces that she’s reached her stop. She opens her eyes and discovers that the woman’s awakened her children, whom she hurries off, tearful and reluctant. But the man sitting next to her is gone. He must have gotten off at an earlier stop, while traces of his smell linger in the polluted air. Alina rushes along the platform as if trying to leave the bad dream behind.
Juan is waiting for her by the ticket booth. As soon as they see each other through the river of people, a cheerful smile plays on both their lips. Alina embraces him as soon as he reaches her. And in doing so breathes in from his neck and beard a fresh aroma that rescues her. Yes, that smell, of staleness, of concentrated loneliness, has disappeared. She hears Juan tell her:
“Let’s go home, Alina.”
She holds onto him, refusing to let go.
“Let’s go,” Juan insisted.
But Alina clings to his embrace with stubborn resistance. She’s closed her eyes and in that momentary darkness she senses that another tattoo is branching out inside her, adding dark petals to the violet flower of her own heart. No longer that smell, but the memory of its indelible ink.
Translated by George Henson
Ana Clavel is a writer born in Mexico City. She has published her work in El Nacional, El Universal, La Jornada, Nexos, Punto de Partida, Tierra Adentro, and Unomásuno. In recent years, Ana Clavel has been awarded various cultural and literary prizes for her novels, including: finalist recognition for the Premio Alfaguara de Novela (1999) for Los deseos y su sombra; the Silver Medal from the Sociéte Académique "Arts-Sciences-Lettres" (2004); and the Premio de Novela Corta Juan Rulfo from Radio Francia Internacional (2005) for Las violetas son flores del deseo. She was also selected as the winner of the Premio Iberoamericano de Novela Elena Poniatowska. Her recent novel El amor es hambre (2016) offers a glimpse of one of her multicultural facets, combining literature with images of a contemporary Little Red Riding Hood.
George Henson is a literary translator and a 2021-2023 Tulsa Artist Fellow. His translations include Cervantes Prize laureate Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory and Mephisto’s Waltz, The Heart of the Artichoke by fellow Cervantes recipient Elena Poniatowska, and Luis Jorge Boone’s Cannibal Nights. His translations have appeared variously in The Paris Review, The Literary Review, BOMB, The Guardian, Asymptote, among others. In addition, he is a contributing editor for World Literature Today and the translation editor-at-large for its sister publication Latin American Literature Today.
The fourth issue of LALT highlights underrepresented but deserving voices from across Latin America, with a focus on women writers as well as special sections dedicated to genre-bending science fiction, indigenous-language poetry and prose, and the essential relationship between author and translator.