The last time Jorge wanted to have sex with me, I asked him to use a condom. One with a Jenny Holzer slogan on it. That was three weeks ago, before the vacation ended and his students got back from their yachts and other summer retreats. He stared and then burst out laughing. He didn’t ask who Jenny Holzer was. “I mean it,” I said. “If you want to make love, it’ll have to be with a condom. And kindly make it a Jenny Holzer condom.” We were lying on the bed, him naked, me with my nightshirt around my ankles. Children’s shouts carried in from outside. Maybe they were playing soccer in the streets deserted by the students. Jorge stood up and regarded me from the heights of his nudity. He looked utterly confident—imagining, I suppose, that his virility would quell my insurrection. I noticed that the flesh on his stomach had gone. From some part of his life he extracts time to go to the gym. From the part that should be for me, clearly, because I see less and less of him. I turned over and pulled the sheet right up over my head. My body, unlike his, is expanding and collapsing a little more each day, creasing, wilting, falling in on itself in weary rolls. Sometimes I hardly recognize it as mine.
Someone else’s body is a place for your mind to go
Today is my fifty-sixth birthday. It’s nine in the morning and I’m sitting on a bench carved with Jenny Holzer texts. Phrases of hers have gone onto T-shirts, golf balls, caps, mugs, and even condoms. The bench is in the public garden opposite the gates of Barnard College, where dozens of shameless butterflies flit in and out, with skirts up to their crotch and backpacks on their shoulders. I watch them. I watch and wait for Jorge to appear with one of them hanging from his arm. Brakes squeal. A siren drills the air. I watch the concentric movements of the day go by.
Murder has its sexual side
I’d hoped that Jorge might wish me happy birthday this morning, that he might give me a box of chocolates, a flower, or a soothing word to fortify me against the ravages of time, and, why not, I also cherished the hope of a surprise screw. But there was none of that. He woke up, went to the bathroom, doubtless masturbated to porn on his cell phone, got dressed, picked up the leather briefcase every academic in the world carries, gave me a peck on the forehead, and left. That’s why I’m here. Sitting on Jenny’s bench while I wait for something to happen, for something to blow apart and end this drift into a future that long since ceased to be unpredictable. Yes, yes, what I want, what I’m really waiting for, is for my husband to waltz through that gate with a girl on his arm and for everything to go to hell.
“Jorge, Jorge,” I shook my husband one night as he snored next to me with a pillow over his head. “Eh?”
“I have a premonition that something very bad is going to happen.”
“Really, really bad. I mean it.”
“Do you want me to go and look?” came from the depths of the pillow, in that sullen drone that lodged in his throat all too many years ago.
“Where do you plan on looking?” Did he happen to know of a place where you could go and scrutinize future events?
“I don’t know, wherever you say.”
I was left pondering. The idea that there could be a kind of showcase somewhere containing all possible future events was intriguing. Because in the end, if you think about it, an event that actually happens is just the one somebody picked out from the thousands of possibles awaiting their turn in the display.
“Macy’s. Yes, Macy’s,” I repeated more firmly.
My husband opened his eyes in the dark. Two black marbles stared at me in disbelief. He lay like that for a couple of seconds, unmoving, bewildered but alert, then fell asleep again.
But his eyes were still open.
To test how much of his awareness remained intact, I said: “Yesterday Analía told me she’d seen you screwing that Italian woman in the professors’ bathroom.”
Analía is the Mexican woman who cleans the professors’ offices. The Italian woman is a distinguished academic who arrived a few months back to join the exclusive men’s club of the Columbia University Physics Department. When Jorge didn’t answer and his stare didn’t alter, I took it that he really was asleep. It was a unique opportunity to look him in the eye and say whatever I pleased. I started by telling him how much I loved him. “Hey, do you know I’m crazy about you and that you drive me wild sometimes? I imagine things. Things like you licking me down there and then kissing me so I taste my smell in your mouth. Or straddling me, holding me down and sticking it in my mouth. Why have you never done anything like that with me? Isn’t it what you do with your butterflies?”
Suddenly my fantasies evaporated, to be replaced by a feeling of combative freedom.
Use what is dominant in a culture to change it quickly
His eyes were still open. I shook him lightly to check if he was still asleep.
“Shall I tell you something, Jorge, Jorgito?
“Do you know you’re often quite disarmingly ridiculous? Like when you talk about Nicanor Parra as though he’d been your best friend, though you only met him once, just the once, and exchanged a few words at most! Or when you go up to a girl who could be your daughter and talk to her in her jargon as if you were a member of her tribe, or when you listen to someone but don’t actually listen, just bide your time till you can cut in and start on the one subject you really care about: yourself. Or when you arrive somewhere quite certain that everyone is going to turn around and do homage to the famous professor DíazLefert (you made sure from the start that the two surnames would be pronounced as one, so that that Díaz, so commonplace in our class-ridden country, would be joined forever to the foreign surname you got from some ancestor too remote for you to have inherited any of his European traits), but no one actually notices you’re there. Or when a Renaissance mood takes you, or you have a personal renaissance, shall we say, and buy canary-yellow pants two sizes too small that don’t stretch over your nonexistent buttocks. Because, yes, Jorgito, believe it or not, men’s asses shrivel too, and what’s left under their pants are a couple of bones no one much wants to pinch. Did you know that?”
I stopped. I took a breath. A tingle ran down my spine. I realized I was shaking.
“Jorge DíazLefert,” I whispered. “I . . .”
A girlin giant headphones comes up to my bench opposite Barnard College and asks the way to the auditorium. I stand up and whisper directions, forcing her to take off the contraptions, which make a noise like glass being crushed as they hang around her neck. Before I go back to my place on the bench I look at the phrase I’ve been sitting on.
Push yourself to the limit as often as possible
I sit down again. Aware this time that I’m covering up Holzer’s telling phrase. Here’s hoping that no other living being gets the same idea, decides to push themselves to the limit so that they and I end up colliding at our limits in the beyond, destroying each other mercilessly as two beings tend to do when they reach for the same star. But what are the chances of a former primary school teacher, dragged out to New York by her husband (whom she is so suspicious of that she sits for hours opposite the gates of the university where he works to catch him out, and who spends the rest of her days pointlessly ruminating)—what are the chances of her pushing herself to the limit?
I think of all the women who wait unmoving in the shadows. Waiting is a way of disappearing, especially when what you are waiting for, with a mixture of masochism and perversion, is for your husband to appear with a girl clinging to his arm.
It is half past eleven one morning in this year of 1948. Light though the unopened letter is, Doris Dana can almost see it sinking into the counterpane of her unmade bed. Her head rings with the fish seller’s unending whistling and the clatter of his cart on the cobbles. And with the knife grinder’s howls: Briiiiing out your kniiiiiiiiives and scissooooors! She knows him. His name is Sid, and he boasts of being the finest knife grinder in New York. She covers her ears with her hands and then presses her fingertips to her tired forehead. It is the third letter from Gabriela in five days. Or the fourth? She does not need to open it to know the words are bitter. She lies back on the pillow. Her head hurts. The pain is unremitting, and so is the need to lose herself, to fill the room with something other than Gabriela’s voice. She can hear her in her temples, a giant, thudding heartbeat that fills everything, leaving her spiritless and with a feeling of nowhereness, emptiness, littleness. But she can’t tell her that. It could mean the end. Although she knows too that for Gabriela there is no end. She knows she can do or say what she likes, and Gabriela will still cling to that “us” like an old squirrel clutching the last hazelnut in the park. Who’s with you? Did you sleep well? Do you ever think of this poor old fellow? Because he thinks about you all the time. Where are you now, what are you doing, what are you thinking, what is the expression in your eyes, on your mouth?
She remembers Aline’s last kiss the night before. They met again in the Steeples’ salon after fifteen years. She can’t remember how she came to be there, but she does have a clear image of the chandelier glinting on the gentlemen’s bald heads and their wives’ powdered faces. She also remembers Aline standing haughtily on the majestic staircase, one foot a step above the other, a gloved hand holding up a cigarette and the other steadying her on the bannister. She knew that expression of hers well, eyes narrowed as though she were peering between lace curtains. Her shortsightedness had earned her jibes as a girl but with the years had lent her an air of mystery and indifference. She remembered Aline’s younger sister, Elizabeth, found lifeless in a men’s residence near Columbia University two years before. The family paid the press a lot of money to cover up the tragedy. Only a few people learned the truth. Perhaps that was why she approached Aline last night after so long. Few things attracted her so much as the proximity of death.
As girls they had played together at the Moss Lots mansion, in the playhouse Doris’s father had built for her and her sisters in a corner of the grounds. Aline was too small-boned and disjointed then. Doris and her sisters used to stuff wads of wet paper in her mouth, and not stop until tears ran down her reddened cheeks. Aline had been at Moss Lots that evening more than twenty years earlier, when they had gone into the living room and found the Dana girls’ father sitting in front of the fireplace with a Colt M1911 pressed to his temple. Their mother was squatting in front of him with her hands on his knees. They were both drunk. Without taking the gun from his head, their father moved the barrel back and forth so that it seemed to mark time like a clock pendulum. The girls sat very close together on the floor, leaning against the wall. Aline fell asleep after a couple of hours. Doris and her sisters never relaxed their vigil, though. Their father would not pull the trigger as long as they were there. That was what they wanted to believe. He never looked at them. Until his arm started shaking, then his chin, then his whole body. He dropped the gun, leaned back, and closed his eyes. Four hours had gone by. Doris picked up the gun and ran out to the garden with it clutched in her hands. She buried the Colt next to the playhouse and sat down with her back to one of its wooden walls. Her right hand lay sweating on the little heap of earth beneath which the gun lay. She was quite sure she was the one responsible for everything that had happened between her parents. Her stubbornness, her impatience, but most particularly that. The thing she had done which lay behind all her parents’ desperate clawings. She cut herself for the first time that night. It wasn’t hard. Her father was asleep in an alcoholic stupor when she went into his bathroom and opened her forearm with his razor. For a split second, before the blood welled up, she could see the open flesh, a white cleft leading into the unknown that was the inside of her. And as the blood dripped from her arm and spread out into a branch on the marble bathtub, she was suffused with a new tranquility. Her limbs went numb, and so did the guilt that had her like a thief, caught by the scruff of the neck.
The spring outside is reluctant to show its kind face, but she can still smell Aline’s body between the sheets. Her fragrant perspiration. Rosemary, rose, lavender? She badly needs a slug of Wild Turkey. Then she will open Gabriela’s letter. Her headache comes in waves, seeming to intensify with each surge. Gabriela is waiting in the house a rancher lent her in Jalapa, Mexico, the land she loves, and Doris promised to be there a week ago. But she can’t set out. She can’t because she doesn’t want to. And Gabriela is groaning in her empty house, in her body emptied of Doris. A few days ago Doris telephoned her. She imagined her voice would calm her. But Gabriela is hard of hearing, and these conversations fragmented by distance just make her more desperate. Try as she might, Doris could not hide her feelings. You have a broken voice I’ve never heard in you, beloved, a voice like an injured bird’s, Gabriela said. She tried to tell her a dream. She knows Gabriela likes it when she tells her dreams, because it lets her touch something of hers that would otherwise be out of reach. But the thing was that while she talked, while she told her the half-real, half-invented dream, Doris was suffocating. She was suffocating because she was picturing Gabriela in that agony that overwhelms her whenever she runs away. She flees unreflectingly, without thought for the consequences, because it is a compelling need, the need to get away from that hoarse voice which yearns and implores and demands all that she cannot and does not want to give. I am rash, remember that, and easily angered. And CLUMSY, CLUMSY. I am a drop of water in the hollow of your hands. I will be whatever you wish me to be, I will live for you and for as long as my heart and you desire it, you, my Doris.