Book: Return to the Same City

Previous: Foreword
Next: Chapter Two

The only rush is that of the heart.
Silvio Rodriguez
“How many times have you died?”
“Uhm,” said the woman with the ponytail, and indicated none with her head.
“Me, yes. A lot.”
She passed her index finger over the scars that made little patterns on his chest. Héctor gently withdrew her hand and, naked, walked toward the window. It was a cold night. The filtered Delicados were on the windowsill; he drew the flame of the lighter into the tip of one, and watched the green lights that the streetlights threw on the trees.
“No, not the scars; that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying sleep, going to sleep and dying again. A hundred, two hundred times a year. The first fucking instant of sleep is not sleep, it’s dying again.”
“You only die once.”
“James Bond must have said that. You die a ton of times. Son of a bitch. I know what it is…Sometimes I wish I could sleep with my eyes open so as not to die. If you sleep with your eyes open, you can never die.”
“Dead people end up with their eyes open,” she said after a pause, turning away. Her bottom shone like the foliage of the trees out front.
“Those dead people die just once. No. I’m talking about dying a lot. Two or three times a week at least.”
“What is your death like?”
Héctor stood there thinking. When he spoke again, the woman with the ponytail could not see his face, but she could hear the abnormally hoarse voice with which he told his story.
“You can’t breathe. You feel fire in your stomach. You can’t move the fingers on your hand. You’ve got your face stuck in a puddle and your lips fill up with dirty water. You shit in your pants, you can’t help it. The blood coming out your nose is mixing with the water of the puddle…It’s raining.”
“Now?”
“No, when you die.”
She remained silent for a moment, wanting to look somewhere else. The light in the window illuminated the scars on Héctor’s chest.
“Dead people don’t tell these stories.”
“That’s what you think,” Héctor said, without looking at her.
“Dead people don’t make love.”
“A whole bunch of live people I know don’t either. They’re screwed that way, they’ve been put on a diet.”
Héctor moved away from the window and crossed in front of the bed. She turned again to look at him, the ponytail falling between her breasts.
“Do you want a drink?” Héctor asked, walking down the hall toward the kitchen. The cold rose up inside him through the soles of his feet.
“Could you make decaffeinated?”
“You ask a lot.”
“For a guy who’s died so often, making decaf should be a cinch.”
“Definitely not, a decaf is a decaf and a cinch a cinch. The decaf is much more complicated.”
Héctor came back with a Coke in one hand, a lime split down the middle balancing between the fingers of the other. He sought out the window again.
“It’s raining,” he said as he squeezed the lime and gently stirred the rind so it would mix in.
“When you die?”
“No, now,” he said and he stepped aside to avoid being hit in the head with a copy of Malraux’s Man’s Fate which she had thrown at him.
Héctor smiled.
“Cover your nakedness, woman, here comes the icy wind.”
He opened the window. Indeed, a cold wind forced the rain into the room. One big drop hit him on the nose and trickled over his mustache. He opened his mouth and swallowed it.
“There it is,” said the woman with the ponytail, smiling. “Dead people can’t taste rain.”
“You might be right. It’s just a matter of keeping the eyes open and of convincing the Japanese man I’ve got in here,” he pointed to his temple with his index finger, making the universal sign for suicide.
“You’ve got Quasimodo in your head. And he spends his time ringing the bells of Notre-Dame.”
“And screwing the Japanese man with whom he shares the apartment. In fact, the Japanese guy must be the one who controls the sound and protects the transistors.”
“I never should have fallen in love with a Mexican detective.”
“You never should have fallen in love with a dead man.”
Suddenly, with no forewarning, she started to cry; wrapped up to her chin, covering herself from the cold and from the one-eyed, skinny, mustached detective before her, who made a face intended to be a loving smile, but which instead was the grimace of a man who was cold and couldn’t cry.
***
He had been going back to the office for only a week, refamiliarizing himself with the old furniture and the old colleagues, convinced that the old habits had ended. If he didn’t take down the sign on the door that read “Belascoarán Shayne, Detective,” it was because El Gallo and Carlos Vargas, his officemates, threatened to open an independent detective agency the instant he retired. That stopped him. If he didn’t want to be responsible for himself, he definitely didn’t want to be responsible for others. He’d been walking through that entrance for seven days, sitting at his old desk, shaking off the dust a little, reading papers from two years before and lighting a candle in prayer to Sigmund Freud’s mom to let no one open the door and offer him a job. A week saturated with paranoia and distrust. Irrational anxiety that came like a tropical storm and filled his palms with sweat, numbed his spine, pricked his temples. Tremendous fears, like fifty-story elevator shafts with no bottom except dementia. New fears: going to the bathroom, crossing the long hall outside the office, turning his back to the door, turning on a light in the window and leaving his silhouette outlined against the shadows on the street, answering the phone and having a strange voice speak to him familiarly.
That’s why, after a week of terror that took him back to other people’s childhood stories (his own had been peaceful and calm, as if between the feathers of a sparrow’s nest), when the phone rang he looked to his officemates, even though he knew they weren’t around. He stared at the calendars of cabaret singers’ asses and blondes in beer ads, but the women in print on the wall refused to lend him a hand in answering the phone. They didn’t want to take the inverse route to glory and come back from the image of the calendar to the office from which they had fled.
“Hello?”
“Senor Belascoarán, please.”
“He’s not here,” Héctor said. “He doesn’t come in anymore.”
Gracias,” said the voice with a strange accent dragging that final s. The voice of a woman. Of a waitress from a fancy restaurant who pronounces the menu correctly. Mexican, maybe? Bolivian? Peruvian?
“You’re welcome,” Héctor added and hung up softly.
A quarter of an hour later, the phone rang again.
Héctor smiled.
“Hello?”
“I’d like to speak with you. You’re the gentleman who answered before, right?”
“The gentleman who answered before isn’t here,” Héctor said. “He just left. He’s retiring from this. He went to get something to drink.”
“And now what does he do?” the woman asked with a little laugh.
“Buddhism. Zen contemplation. Empirical analysis of environmental pollution issues.”
“Thank you,” said the voice.
“You’re welcome,” said Héctor.
He hung up again and walked over to the safe where he stored the drinks and the firearms. Firearms—not even close. A jackknife, two stale Pepsis, a collection of porn photos—graphic reminders of an old case that Gilberto, the plumber, kept like heirlooms. He grabbed the knife and put it in his pocket.
If he had had to go through a metal detector, the machine would have gone crazy with glee; not just because of the knife, but also from the echoes of a stud lodged in his femur that now could never come out, a .45 automatic in a holster around his back and a .38 short-barreled revolver in his pants pocket. “Iron man,” he said to himself. A metallurgical piece of work is what he was.
The phone rang again.
“Could we meet?” asked the woman with the Peruvian? Bolivian? Chilean? Mexican? accent.
“Do we know each other?”
“I do, yes, I know you a little.”
“What kind of bra do you wear?”
“Why?”
“No, nothing. It was to see if we knew each other,” Héctor said, playing with the knife. “I now see that we don’t.”
He hung up again and left the office, putting on his black sheepskin jacket. The phone was ringing as he walked out the door.
***
Now more than ever he had the absurd ability to feel out of place everywhere. It was something new; to be an eternal observer, to be invariably on the outside. When you don’t own them, landscapes can be observed with much greater precision, but you’re also alien to the panorama, unable to touch the ground, to feel the breeze. The sensation of strangeness is permanent. A shadow running through other people’s lands, an actor in a borrowed scene and in the wrong play, a Western movie character in an Italian comedy. The emptiness could come at any moment, intensifying the normal sensation of being out of place. It could happen to him in the lobby of the Bellas Artes Palace during the intermission of the opera, as easily as at a dinner of the ’65–’67 high school class, as in the mattress display room in the Vázquez brothers’ furniture stores, as in the line to buy tortillas. The things were there, he was there, but they didn’t belong to him. At some point someone would arrive and ask to see his ticket, his visiting permit, his passport, the credentials that gave him the right to a discount that he didn’t have.
This sensation of slipping through life was particularly agonizing in elevators and in supermarkets. Héctor couldn’t explain why, but that’s the way it was. He felt that one moment or another, the apparatus would stop on the third floor and he would be amiably asked to get off; or the supermarket’s cops would stop him from passing through the checkout with his cart, because the bills with which he wanted to pay were no longer legal currency.
Yet the obsession didn’t seem to produce external symptoms. It didn’t contort his face or make his eye red. The messenger, with his yellow helmet and pile of envelopes, and the cleaning lady with the bucket of water didn’t pay him the slightest attention. They didn’t even give him a second glance. Maybe they were experiencing the same thing he was, and that’s why he didn’t seem strange to them; we were all a bunch of unconfessed lepers, all Victoria Holt trying unsuccessfully to imitate F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He got off on the sixth floor and dodged the front desk, going directly to the cashier’s window. The cashier had caught her stocking on a desk drawer and took a while to notice him. Héctor lit a cigarette and watched her manipulate stockings and drawer.
Ay,” she said, finally making eye contact with the ex-detective. “Your check?”
Héctor nodded, leaving the remains of a smile floating. The girl finally managed to disentangle herself, looked for the check in an enormous folder and walked backward toward the window, trying to hide her ruined stocking, with a consequently quite hunchbacked stride. Héctor signed the papers, took the check, and left without looking at her again.
He walked between the little shops on Ínsurgentes, crossed the subway stop at a sluggish pace, turned at Chapultepec Avenue, absorbing the city’s billboards with his healthy eye. Human misery was striking in the pandemonium of the pre-Christmas season. Underemployment was running rampant. A wave of Mexicans, with sad and feverish eyes, in search of a peso attacked from all sides. The begging hands of charity were more chapped, more tremulous than usual. How to be at one with all this? Héctor asked himself. How to coexist with this without rotting in sadness? He wondered again. Elisa had once read aloud something Cortázar wrote about the train station in New Delhi and the sensation he’d been filled with—that you cannot cohabitate with certain dark regions of this world without becoming a little cynical, turning into a real son of a bitch—came back to him. Cortázar was right. In the language of the 1950s, there was no peaceful coexistence with the part of society that was falling apart, with that other part of you that was sinking. For a one-eyed man it should be easier, you only have to close one eye, he said to himself, and he didn’t dare even smile at the joke.
He walked down Chapultepec in search of calm and found it in a butcher shop and in a travel agency, his two points of intimate contact with consumer society. By the time he got to his brother’s house, an apartment building with a rusty facade on Sinaloa Street, he wanted a loin sausage and a fourteen-day trip to Manila.
The door to Apartment C was open. That was unusual and Héctor reacted immediately, putting his hand on the holster of the gun over his heart. Carlos’ voice from the kitchen reassured him.
“Come in, stupid. The door’s open because Marina went to the store to buy drinks.”
Carlos was correcting galleys at the kitchen table, disheveled and in a T-shirt. A Vivaldi concerto was ending on the record player. After the crackling of the needle, a Russian chorus started to sing the Internationale.
“That’s the sign that it’s time for vermouth,” Carlos said, and he got up, brushing the bread crumbs off his jeans. “How is your reencounter with life treating you?”
“Okay,” Héctor said, disinclined to provide explanations.
“Take it slowly.”
“I’m trying.”
Carlos served himself a vermouth on the rocks, taking the bottle and the ice from the refrigerator. It didn’t even occur to him to offer one to his brother.
“You don’t look very good. You make me want to put a glass of milk down in front of you.”
Héctor made his best bewildered face. No worries. No melodrama. No nothing.
“And my little nephew?”
“He left with his mom, he doesn’t like Vivaldi,” Carlos answered, sitting down again and looking at Héctor out of the corner of his eye.
“And you, what are you doing besides correcting books?” Héctor asked.
“I’ll tell you only if you don’t tell Marina.”
“I swear.”
“Swear on the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Jolly Green Giant combined.”
“Come on, already.”
“I’m involved in ideological warfare.”
“Against whom?”
“Against a gang of juveniles. A bunch of guys from my neighborhood, the guys who spray paint.”
“What do they paint?”
“Bullshit,” Carlos said, lighting a new cigarette. “Sex Punks, Wild Border—meaningless phrases like that, numbers, incomprehensible clues to mark their territory. It’s like dog piss. Wherever I piss is my space and nobody can come in.”
“And what do you do?”
“I paint on top of their paintings. I go out at night with my spray can and paint over theirs. It’s war.”
“But what do you paint?”
Punks are Strawberries, Long Live Enver Hoxha, or Che Guevara Lives, He’s a Living Ghost, Be Careful Assholes, He Lives in the Neighborhood, or Sex Punks Were Born With a Silver Spoon in Their Mouths, or If a Dog Falls in the Water, Kick Him Until He Dies. Some come out too long, they’re not effective, but I hadn’t painted in a long time; my da Vinci profusion is in arrears. I’ve got them screwed. It’s not just ideological warfare; it’s generational warfare, too. Obviously, it’s a professional war and, in that, my painting technique dominates. Those sucklings are going to teach me how to paint walls…? My most successful one was Government=Punks Without Sneakers, and the second most successful, celebrated to the hilt by the dry cleaner guy downstairs, had to do with a discount chain of stores. It was: Paint Me a Blue Egg and Woolworth Will Buy It, but the Woolworth logo didn’t come out that well.” Héctor raised an eyebrow.
“Don’t worry, it’s not insanity, it’s just to keep me in shape until I find a new little place in the class war. Besides, sometimes I agree with the punks and we restore universal harmony. The other day I was painting one that said If the PRI wants to govern, why don’t they start by winning the elections, and the gang came along and instead of destroying it, they wrote Yes, that’s true below it, six feet tall.”
“And where is that painting?”
“Two blocks away. Want to go look at it?”
Héctor agreed. The morning was improving.
***
Detective Belascoarán Shayne firmly believed that you cannot make friends after age thirty. That the immovable limit to construct and braid emotions within that indestructible thing that is friendship is situated one minute after age thirty; that after thirty there is a certain emotional paralysis that impedes people from risking themselves in the hazardous forming of the passions of friendship. That after thirty, no one pricks his finger and mixes his blood with others. But Héctor had lost his great friends from before thirty and was left with those from after. He had become someone else after thirty and that other person was the one who had made the new friends: his three office neighbors; a radio journalist; a chubby female doctor; her brothers, two fighters; El Mago, his landlord…Héctor also knew—if knowing is that absolute certainty that you acquire by dint of rethinking the same thing over and over again, and that old ladies call idiosyncrasies—that after thirty, a man cannot make friends with a woman. That there’s too much pent-up sex wrapped up in the relationship, too much inopportune romanticism, too much fantasy between skirt and trousers for things to work. However, and to his utter surprise, when the woman opened the door, Héctor sensed that she could have been one of his best friends for the rest of his life had they met during childhood. This absurd certainty, so incongruous with the wisdom he had acquired, left him slightly stupefied.
The woman looked at him and gave a faint smile. Héctor looked at her with the face of someone studying the salami section in a gourmet deli. She looked behind her, as if expecting there to be someone back there to whom the detective was really directing that look of adoration and astonishment. There was no one. She came in and closed the door behind her, cautiously, not letting the fantasy escape her.
She was about thirty years old, with very dark, flowing hair, sparkling eyes, full lips, a turned-up nose; a scar about six or seven inches long on her neck, wide hips, and large breasts. She dressed as if the last ten years had passed in vain: a white blouse, a long black Indian skirt, boots, a very loose scarf not intended to cover the scar. She was smiling, always smiling.
“Héctor?”
“He went out to get something to drink. But you can tell me everything.”
“Well, then, who are you?”
“His secretary.”
“What’s going on?” she asked and searched for something in the giant knapsack hanging off her shoulder.
The windows were open. Héctor was cold. It was December and the temperature went down in the afternoons. But it shouldn’t have been that bad. The cold Héctor felt, the detective suspected, was in his blood; it came from his badly mended bones, it was the continuation of the same message of his dreams. Still, he walked, forcing himself to turn his back on the woman and what she had in her bag, and went to the window to close it.
“Let’s see, is it or isn’t it?” she asked, taking out a photograph and placing it on the desk. Héctor came back from the window, took out a cigarette, lit it. He picked up the photo and studied it.
The one on the right was Mendiola, the journalist; the one on the left was him, the other him from a couple of years ago. They were in the entrance of the Revolución Arena, after a wrestling match, mixed in among the exiting crowd. Their faces were surly, sullen, as if they had been the ones who had wrestled and failed, as if they’d respectively lost mask and hair in the duel and from the floor had been dished out two flying kicks to the balls. He didn’t remember the moment or the picture, but he did remember the characters. Mendiola and Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, the other. The former.
He put the picture on the desk. The woman drew near, looked at the subject depicted and then compared it to the man in front of her.
“No, then they’re not the same, are they? The one in the photo looked better. You are more worn out, crippled, skinnier, one-eyed, mustached, the eye you have left lazy and half glazed-over, wiry muscles. But I like you more now despite the scrappiness. You seem fiercer, more of a bastard…”
“You’re a pretty keen observer. What I see is I’m more tattered.”
“Is that right?” She paused to study the room. “May I sit?”
“Even if I say no…My lady’s name?”
“Not a lady’s name, my name is Alicia. My sister used to say it was a hairdresser’s name.”
“And you wear contacts, your middle toe is longer than the others, and one breast looks to the left.”
“There’s no better description…I need a detective.”
“They advertise in the Yellow Pages.”
“I want this one,” she said, pointing to Héctor.
“This one’s retired, they retired him.”
“And he doesn’t take anything on? Easy things? Chaperoning sweet sixteen parties, serving as a bodyguard to a stupid singer, finding runaway cats, things like…?”
“Not even that. This one doesn’t protect pets or sweet sixteen parties, he doesn’t even take much care of himself. That you can see, Alicia.”
“But can I talk to you or not?”
Héctor stood up, walked toward the safe, slapped the ass of a poster of Grace Renat and grabbed a Pepsi.
“Oh, my favorite drink.”
Héctor stared at her. Hinting that he should allow her a Pepsi was a transgression he wouldn’t have permitted his clientele even in the olden days, and these days, clientele didn’t exist. The woman smiled at him. He took a second can out of the safe, carried them to the desk, and placed them beside the photo. The Héctor in the photo scowled at him. He moved one Pepsi over the character’s face to avoid the static coming from the past, took his gun out of the holster under his arm, and started to open the can with the gunsight.
“I don’t think I even have curiosity left,” he said.
“Christ, they told me you’d tell me to go to hell, but I have a reckless faith, kid, reckless.”
“Let’s drink our Pepsi, then go.”
“Where?”
“Each to her own, okay?”
“Listen, it’s not okay, I’ve got a story to tell you. It’s terrible, it’s not a joke; I bring you an old picture of yourself, I smile at you until my lips go stiff and my teeth get cold, and nothing. Nothing?”
“Nothing,” Héctor said. The pop top blew through the air. The phone rang.
“Héctor? It’s Mendiola.”
“I just saw a picture of you, friend. Why are you going around handing them out?”
“Is Alicia there?”
“I think so.”
“Tell her yes, pal. Treat her well. She can be trusted.”
“I went out to lunch,” Héctor said and hung up. Then he stood up, hesitated. “I’ll leave you to lock up when you finish your drink,” he said to the woman.
He left, thinking that it wasn’t just the fear of getting back into a character he no longer recognized as himself and who had the bad habit of walking around getting himself killed, it was also the terrible boredom of having to seem ingenious.
***
A gang of neighborhood teenagers was skateboarding in front of the door to his house. El Mago was watching with admiration from the door of the electronics store. It was getting dark. Héctor zipped up his jacket. He was cold. His right elbow and wrist ached. Arthritis? Swelling? Mexico City leprosy? He decided it was something simpler, a sign that he wanted double chicken soup with drumsticks and in a big bowl for dinner.
“Your girlfriend came by, she left a basket. I put it in your apartment,” El Mago said, not looking away from the skateboarders making figure eights on the asphalt, wearing shabby electric-colored jackets, poor people’s jackets, inherited from brothers who had outgrown them.
“What do you think, Mago, should I learn to repair televisions?” Héctor asked.
“Well, you’ve got to know something about electronics, right? That’s what you studied. But I think it’s too late, at your age, you don’t have the grace of a ballerina with your hand on the trigger, which is what the job requires.”
“That’s what I thought. Looking at you, that’s what I thought.”
El Mago detached his gaze from the skaters and looked at Héctor.
“Wipe that look off your face, kid, you’re making me sick,” he said and turned back to the boys, to one in particular, who let a little cardboard box fall on the ground, then distanced himself and rapidly propelled himself toward it, bent over and brushed it with his hair, doubling over, then leaped and got vertical again.
“Do you think that at my age I could be a good detective?” El Mago asked, hoping to take Héctor by surprise.
“No,” Héctor answered, lighting a cigarette and inhaling deeply. “You lack the grace to draw a gun without catching the barrel on your fly and blowing your balls off.”
“That’s what I said, shithead. Ever since Franco died, life no longer offers any new sensations. The best thing that happens to me is having you as a tenant and that every once in a while a few guys come along and scare the shit out of you by shooting out your windows.”
Héctor slapped El Mago on the back and went inside the building. There were a couple of letters on the first step of the staircase: one a flyer from American Express that he left there, and the other his bank statement, which he opened as he went up the stairs. Counting everything plus inflation, he had enough cash for one year without having to ask Elisa for any of the money they’d inherited from their father. He knew that, but he looked at the numbers carefully so he could repeat them cent for cent the next time somebody offered him work.
The basket was in the middle of the living room rug. A bright red rug in a room with no furniture. It was a shopping basket that contained two yellowish ducks no taller than ten inches, and a card. The ducks were ardently saying quack, quack, quack, the envelope was labeled with a simple For you.
The note was laconic, like everything about her:
I took a photo shoot in Puerto Vallarta. Two weeks. I hope your mood has passed by the time I get home. The gentlemen are called Octavio Paz and Juan José Arreola. A hug. They eat birdseed and hard bread twice a day, they drink water all the time. If they shit on your shirt, you can start praying for Francesca Dry Cleaning to reopen.
Me.
Héctor contemplated the tiny little ducks with their yellowish, silly faces. They reminded him of a rabbit called Rataplán that once roamed the apartment. The woman with the ponytail believed that Héctor became dangerous in solitude and every time she left, she tried to leave something for company: a portrait, two ducks, a long tape with just one song on it, a rabbit, a stuffed roasted turkey and an electric knife to slice it, the complete works of Dashiell Hammett in twelve volumes.
That was the way it was.
He contemplated the ducks’ maneuvers on the rug, he walked over to the record player and put on Silvio Rodríguez’s latest. Side A, track three. He peered out the window, the skateboarders had gone. The sound of the chains that made the metal gate go down told him that El Mago was closing the store.
You have to love the hour that never shines. And don’t, don’t pretend to pass the time, only love engenders wonder. Only love can wake the dead.
He’d been playing the same song for a month. Curiously, he wasn’t learning the words, though he enjoyed all of them in bits each time. But love wasn’t waking anything. It didn’t light up more than a few hours, a few minutes and always in the solitude of two. It didn’t shed more than ten square feet of occasional light. He went back to the window trying not to step on the ducks erratically circling around the rug. The streetlights turned on as if desire had created a magical order.
After all, it wasn’t that bad, the story didn’t make for a tragedy. It was just a guy covered with scars who was scared. And the fear wasn’t that bad, it was good company, as rational as love or ducks or the cold. He walked to his room and came back with a black wool vest, stopped in the kitchen and filled a little plate with water for the ducks. He watched them drink. Such pigs, they walked in and out of the plate, spat in it, drank and splashed; the water was clouding over and the rug around the plate getting soaked. It was a good rug. Red. Here and there there were a few stains—wine stains, swallow’s nest soup, acid from a Volks-wagen battery, other people’s blood. He walked over to the record player again and put the needle back in the groove of track three. One of the ducks had discovered the joys of diving and he leaned against the edge of the plate to fling himself onto the rug and then staggered a little. That had to be JJ. He tried to differentiate him from the other one. He had a coffee stain on his wing. OP had a sly look and a circle of white down on his head. Now the phone is going to ring, Héctor said to himself. Out of the speakers came: You should love yourself to insanity. Only love lights what lasts. Now, he thought, the phone is going to ring, counting one, two…and…three. But nothing rang and Héctor went back to the kitchen to make a tortilla with potatoes and Michoacán sausages according to old man Belascoarán’s recipe. OP and JJ would adore the tortilla. Either that or they would face starvation.
***
The city that one possesses is not the one that others have. The one one has, one’s own, has the lampposts in the wrong place, it fills with shadows where there shouldn’t be any. In the one one has, the newspaper seller displays Ovaciones folded over so that one has to perform miracles in order to read the ninety-point headline, and even then just barely. In one’s own city, the corner store invariably closes at 7:15 even though when one asks them in the morning what time they’ll be closing that night, they say 8:00; in one’s city, Channel 9 has static when they run the Bogart movies. The personal city may have a kinship with the other cities: misery, unemployment, the unreliability of the electrical power, the price of gas, the black cloud of smog that travels northwest to southwest, the ill humor of the fifth-floor neighbors, the standard taste of the hamburgers in fast-food joints, the cleaning lady’s instantaneous reaction when a lamp suddenly shudders, announcing an earthquake. But that’s decoration. We experience different cities, linked by the abuses of power and fear, corruption, and the eternal threat of descent into the jungle, that hides in the system; it pops up regularly to remind us that we are fragile, that we are alone, that one day we will be fodder for the buzzards. Or that one day, all will have to be risked at once, Western style, Main Street shoot-out style: them or us.
Faced with this solitude, one’s own city creates its sympathies, tepid dams made of toothpicks that occasionally resist the spate of the flood. The smile of the clerk in the paint shop; the wink of casual complicity on the bus with the guy who’s reading the same novel; the complacency of the subway passengers before the cannibalistic kiss with which two students part company, as if there won’t be classes again tomorrow; the hostile look shared by the passersby before the corner cop who is chewing out a motorcyclist. And inside one’s own city, other cities are made, smaller towns, almost private ranches that connect every once in a while with other people’s cities.
Which city did I live in this last year? Héctor Belascoarán Shayne, retired detective, asked himself. Who did I live with? Who else did I live with these last twelve months? He couldn’t really remember. A lot of hospital images. A vacation in someone’s house in the mountains near Puebla, surrounded by pine trees. A doctor who insisted on the healing benefits of forest air for lung injuries. An unpaid bill for four liters of blood plasma. A Puma soccer game in the CU stadium with Carlos Vargas, El Gallo, and Gilberto as cheerleading, grandstand, and beer-drinking companions. A job reconstructing a village aqueduct in the state of Querétaro. Two books by Jean-Francois Vilar and the late discovery of Pío Barojas’ social novels. A casual, sweaty relationship, lasting six days, with a redheaded biochemistry student. An entire year. Not much to justify a year. And things had happened in the country. He had a vague notion that the populace was getting nervous, their irritation was taking form, that Mexicans were walking around singing the national anthem: when that happened, Héctor’s historic memory thought it recalled, it was usually a warning of a great storm.
The elevator creaked up to the office as Héctor was trying uselessly to recover the last year of his life. The elevator door opened before it should have. Alicia gave him a lavish smile and entered without his being able to stop her. She pushed the sixth-floor button.
“Alicia, remember?” she said.
“No, I’m not Alicia. I’m a retiree going to the third floor. More than two floors of stoppage against my will can technically be considered an abduction,” he said and looked down at the elevator floor.
“Damn it,” the woman said.
Héctor looked at her.
Alicia was wearing a sweater and black wool pants. She grabbed her sweater at the waist and slowly lifted it to expose her breasts to the open air. She wasn’t wearing a bra. They were bigger than they suggested when covered. Pointed, with pink nipples.
“It’s true, one is bigger than the other…In addition to the abduction, rape…”
She put her sweater back where it belonged. Héctor felt dejected. It was like wearing a muzzle. Didn’t they say the mouth was faster than the brain? The door opened onto the sixth floor. Defeated, Alicia pressed the third floor.
“It’s okay, I give up,” Héctor said. “I’m listening.”
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Next: Chapter Two