Translated by Rosalind Harvey.
1. Her birthday
It’s Saturday and I wake up. It’s May. The sun shakes me a little, quite agreeably. It’s then that I feel an indescribable urge to head to the seafront, to breathe in the Pacific, that smell of early autumn sea where the breeze and the soft drizzle blend into one, an urge to eat ceviche, to cycle around and look out at the ocean. It’s a cool morning and this time, the sunshine hasn’t hurt my eyes, everything is very grey, with that light so peculiar to Lima, a luminous, unmistakable grey.
Valeria sleeps at my side. As I slowly peel open my eyelids, I remember that today is her birthday and so I decide not to wake her; let her sleep for a little longer. I can’t be bothered to get up and make breakfast. Some Huacho sausage sandwiches would go down really well right now… I think of that sausagey smell and start getting up. I stretch, imagining the scrambled eggs stirred into the sausage, and the orangeish colour of the fat that sometimes drips out of the sides of the sandwich, making the corners of your mouth deliciously greasy. I run my tongue ever so slowly along the edge of my lower lip. I sit up. Valeria stirs slightly; if I start cooking the sausage she’ll wake up as soon as she smells it, for sure.
I go to the bathroom. The morning light hangs still, as if waiting for something, perhaps for the scent of the Lima sea to come in and flood the entire house. The cold water splashes my face, I peel my eyes open and there I am, staring back at myself in the mirror. In the distance, I can hear sirens. There are a few birds, too, but they’re not wood pigeons. Then it hits me. It’s not the first time it’s happened, but I can’t understand why it’s always on a Saturday. I feel a nomadic sadness that lasts no more than thirty seconds.
I finish washing and the Huacho sausages vanish from my mind. Today there will be no Pacific, but there will be a walk along the banks of the Hudson River. And a good brunch with scrambled eggs, pancakes and Mimosas. Endless Mimosas. And that’s just the way it is; best not to anchor yourself so as to be able to exist.
I go back to the bedroom, walk over to Valeria and sing softly to her in Portuguese, Parabéns a vocé nesta data querida, congratulations to you on this happy day. No reaction. I try again. Parabéns a vocé nesta data querida, muitas felicidades, congratulations to you, best wishes… She stirs, the covers slip to one side, her eyelids begin to flicker like a Venetian blind. I kiss her gently on the cheek and breathe in her scent – she smells of home, of affection, of embraces; I inhale into her neck and she reacts as if being tickled. Once more I sing, Hoje é día de festa, cantam as nossas almas, para a menina Valeria uma salva de palmas, today is for celebrating, let our souls sing, let’s all clap for little Valeria. She claps and cheers, her eyes still closed, and gives me a hug. I want to have brunch in that place that looks out over the Tagus, I hear her say, but in which language I cannot tell.
2. ICE ICE baby, without vanilla
You close down Skype and take another sip of mate. It tastes slightly more bitter than when you started speaking over two hours ago to Puqui, your niece. She’s going to turn fifteen in a couple of weeks. She’s told you, in the strictest confidence, that she’s started going out with a boy from school she really likes. She chose not to say a word to her mother, because it might upset her. You are pleased and at the same time alarmed that she trusts you more than she trusts her own mother, your sister. The girl has never seen you in the flesh and yet she tells you about her life with that trust that comes only with time. What if that is the very reason she opens up to you? You take another sip of mate and it tastes like there’s something wrong with the water, as if the bitterness had grown stronger all of a sudden. Does she tell you everything because you’re so far away?
It was because of your sister that you watched Puqui, and the other nephews and nieces who came after her, grow up. Puqui grew up, and your sister grew old. You noticed this when the little girl turned eight. “Auntie Lena,” she would say. “Auntie Lena, look at these clothes my mummy’s bought me,” and she would tell you about the colours of her blouses and the drawings she brought to show you, of Disney princesses and other cartoons you learned to recognise for her alone. You could see all these colours, even though the quality of the video wasn’t particularly good, but Puqui seemed to enjoy talking, hearing her own voice. Your sister was sitting next to her, a slightly vacant look in her eyes, and it was then that you noticed the grey hairs emerging suddenly as if in a kind of reproach, as if they had all appeared at once, berating you for all those years you weren’t there with her, with the girl, with her mother. Life went on and you weren’t there with them. “I want to go to Disneyland, Auntie Lena.” Puqui made you promise you would take her when she visited you in New York. She would come with her mother and the three of you would travel to Orlando together. The girl carried on making plans, content to have pinned you down on this. It was not at all hard for you to make this promise – you knew how difficult it would be for them to get the money together and make it over to see you. If they could have they would have done so a long time ago and you wouldn’t have had to endure the vision of that cascade of grey hairs of your sister’s, spilling out in front of your computer. In any case, that was a while back now, your niece had probably forgotten all about the promise. Time thickens the wall of distance as it passes.
For you, the hardest thing about this wall is the amount of time that has passed since you last saw your mother. How to tell her you are living with a woman? Perhaps this question was the nudge the two of you needed to decide to save up every last cent so you could get the hell out of that little town in Mendoza. And then it was all about saving and saving and saving so that you could send money back to her, too. You don’t really want to start thinking too hard about this, but you can’t always control your memories. Your mother… You remember the texture of the skin on her face. Texture of a thousand criss-crossing paths, of nights waiting up for you to get back from parties, sometimes waiting up for you with breakfast ready. The images come crowding in at you in another cascade that is no longer your sister’s grey hairs, but your memories of Mamá. The birthdays, the walks around the lake, the heat of summer and the freshly squeezed juices, the fruit, the bread. Cuts and sniffles made better with kisses. The images shatter and the sound of her voice filters through, Look after yourself, darling. Maybe one day she could come here, or you go there, who knows.
You switch off the computer and get ready to go out. No point torturing yourself with nostalgia.
And yet, for all that, the concert tonight is all about such things. About remembering and celebrating Gustavo Cerati, the lead singer of Soda Stereo. You meet Cecilia in Queens, after a long day of waiting tables (her) and working the cash desk in a supermarket (you). The day’s fatigue vanishes when you reach the stop on Line 7, always a multicultural crowd where you felt your own nationality erased: you would stop being Argentinean and become Latina. But now the station has become uncertain territory. They say that ever since the new government got in, agents from ICE, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, are always hanging around there.
You’re scared for yourself and for Cecilia.
The few blocks between the station and the concert venue feel like a minefield. The two of you walk quickly, almost running, paying no attention to the vendors selling arepas, wafers, corn-on-the-cob, second-hand books; best not to look at anything now and just walk fast, you don’t want to freeze to death although it’s almost summer.
Cerati died after having been in a coma for a long time, a sort of vegetative state. Life went on while he slept. You cannot avoid wondering, while everyone sings “Zoom”, if your life isn’t a little like that. Your family’s life goes on in your home town while you sleep, although you’re not really sleeping, really what you do is work every day and tremble at the thought of ICE, that’s not being in a coma. Or is it? You left a life on the other side, and here you have another, although it’s not complete; you are here and you’ve come to a concert of Argentinean music, in Spanish – how much did you really leave behind?
As another Soda Stereo song plays and Cecilia dances Es una condena agradable / el instante previo, It’s a pleasant prison sentence / the moment before, – You’re not afraid / you’re still smiling / I know that it excites you to think… Cerati died and here people are dancing to his songs. The life of your family continues without you, although you are not dead.
Like a shock wave, people begin to push each other and you feel as if you’ve gone back to when you were a teenager when you hear that they’re saying ICE, first murmuring but then ever louder, ICE, ICE.
Cecilia grabs your arm, her eyes full of doubt and fear. The bodies press in on each other, a few poeple try to leave, but the band is oblivious and keep on singing, Soy un espía / un espectador / y el ventilador desgarrándote…, I’m a spy / a spectator / and the fan, ripping off your clothes…
The first courtyard was relatively dark, but a few steps further on, beyond the ticket booth, a small Japanese garden opened up. The murmur of water wrapped itself around the silence of the museum, welcoming visitors like an invitation to withdraw into themselves. Alex sensed that slight sense of withdrawal for a few brief seconds. He breathed as if he wanted to drink in that light. He felt as if he was being born, expelled from the darkness of the lobby towards the light at the entrance to the gallery. Displayed there was a huge poster, with the face of a beautiful young man on it, advertising the exhibition: A Third Gender. Beautiful Youths in Japanese Prints. He regretted having arranged to meet Marta and Silvana here – why did he have to be so obvious? Was he some kind of spectacle? None of this was news to the women, either, because Alex had already put up a few pictures on Facebook. He had chosen not to elaborate on the details of the transition, and so had stopped posting for quite a while, and only when he had enough hair to style his beard did he dare to put up a few photos.
The comments were encouraging.
Strangely, they hadn’t written anything at all. Just liked his post, but didn’t comment on it. So he had decided to meet up with them to see an exhibition and then get a coffee or something. It had been a good couple of years since they’d all seen each other, maybe even three or four? He admits that the transition wasn’t exactly easy, and that he had spent a large part of the process unemployed. When people say “We’re too busy,” in New York it tends to be true, but even so, people see each other don’t they, they get together? How could they have let so much time go by without meeting up?
Alex has arrived a few minutes early and he flicks through the exhibition guide, while a video on a loop spews out the images that form part of the show.
“The way in which gender categories are defined varies from culture to culture and period to period. By examining the visual arts, we can learn about the particular ways in which gender differences were conceptualized and represented in Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868).”
The murmur of water has grown slightly louder, while Alex senses that another visitor’s gaze has alighted on him for longer than usual. Over time he has learned to measure the weight of a person’s gaze. It’s as if the other person’s attention appeared in a burst of electricity that scrutinizes his beard, as if wanting to mess up his hair, undo his shirt, his trousers, even, looking for a truth Alex is not interested in. But since the visitor cannot do this, the frustration (which might have a thousand different degrees) will seep through in an expression of annoyance, which can have a thousand different degrees of intensity, from a timid reaction to an openly angry, contorted sneer. It is these last expressions that make Alex sweat. At first, he wished he could stop sweating like that, hated his own reaction. Over time, he discovered that in its own way, his body was speaking to him and that this sweat was a way of protecting him. If he was in a public place, he was relatively safe, but it there weren’t that many people around, it was best to leave wherever he was. Leave, not run away, Alex thinks. I’m not a coward. Luckily, this particular visitor’s gaze was light; lingering, but light.
“This is the first exhibition in the United States dedicated to the wakashu, a word that referred to male adolescents in the Edo period. A Third Gender suggests that the wakashu were considered neither ‘men’ nor ‘women,’ but instead occupied a distinct category in an age when gender was expressed in a range of different ways.”
The guide then had a short glossary of Japanese words used in the exhibition. Another visitor’s eyes land on Alex. It is a man with two children aged around six or seven. Alex forces himself not to look up so as not to meet their gaze – why would he? Daddy, look, one of the boys says. Alex senses the child’s wretched little finger pointing at him. If it was just a look, he would carry on reading the exhibition guide, but a pointing finger is a step too far. He looks up and over at the father, who doesn’t dare answer his son, although neither does he move. The father avoids Alex’s gaze in a very New York fashion, that way of scrutinizing someone without looking them right in the eyes. It seems like they were on their way to sit down on one of the benches near the entrance to the show, Look, Daddy, look – what is it?, the other little boy says then, but Alex’s gaze pushes them on, Hey, kids, let’s go over there and wait for Mommy, serenely yet firmly, towards the shady area.
“Wakashu vs. Musume (young women):
“The wakashu can easily be incorrectly identified as young women, due to the fact that both figures were frequently depicted in very similar ways, such as in the painting on the left. If we take a closer look, however, we can identify the central figure, the crown of his head shaved, as a wakashu, while the combs and long hair of the figure in the upper part of the image marks her out as a woman.”
Alex looks closely at the pictures in the guide. He wants more than ever to go in to the exhibition, but his friends still aren’t here. The father remains with his sons in the darkness, and Alex notice that one of the boys is still staring at him, wondering to himself, a six-year-old’s Inquisition. He gets a text message. “We’re nearly there.” He smooths down his hair as two women chat in the slice of space between the light and the shade. He notices than one of them cannot stop her eyes moving away from her friend and alighting on him. Alex tries to read her lips, and thinks he makes out (does he really?) that she says wakashu. She smiles at him. Alex smiles back from the brightly lit area. He sees her write something on a little card as the two women leave, plunging into the dark space. The woman drops the card. Or has she let it fall on purpose? Alex hurries forward to pick it up and is about to return it to the woman, who has almost disappeared, swallowed up by the revolving door. At that moment, Marta and Silvana come through the same door. Alex puts the card with a phone number on it into his pocket and steps back into the brightly lit area.