Translated by: Trish Van Bolderen
Artwork by anonymous
Rounding the corner, she saw it: gleaming, nestled in the garden like a flying saucer. She’d only seen cars like that in the movies. On that dirt road, under the zinc roof of the garage to her house, it was as unlikely as an ocean liner in a stream. She looked at it up close, without touching it. Then, as though she were bidding it farewell, she stroked the length of the white body of the car with her hand. It wasn’t worth taking seriously: the car would disappear with the same kind of silly fate that had brought it here. It would go away just like everything else came and went: without explanation. Like everything with her father, she thought. Presents from him were always unexpected and unpredictable. Those he promised to bring never arrived; instead, he brought others, which then disappeared overnight. When she turned five, he had promised a gift that, at fourteen, still intrigued her. “I will bring you a sightrunner tomorrow. It will have multicoloured legs and a body that will never show,” he had told her. The next day, she’d waited for it in the lane, imagining tiger cubs, wooden horses, and clowns perched on stilts. But her father arrived empty-handed. “Did you bring the sightrunner?” she’d asked. And each day he would respond: “No, I told you: tomorrow.” In its place, she had received cats, otters and rabbits, which—once they had been christened and had finally gotten used to the tyranny of childhood—her father snatched up without explanation. He didn’t explain the gifts he gave himself either: five road bikes, purchased that same day; two colts he’d never had the chance to ride; half a dozen revolvers he cleaned day and night and then hid in the back of his closet. And now, that unbelievable, millionaire’s car parked out front of the wooden house that barely fit himself, his wife, their daughter, the TV, and those two useless fans that ran all day long. The house, slathered in plum green varnish on the inside and plum green paint on the outside, was located at the end of a brick road lined with calla lilies. From the garden, you could see the only paved road in the neighbourhood. You could also see that this was the only wooden house for several blocks. Silvia had never brought her school friends here: a prefabricated house, they would have said. Or: a wooden box. She looked at the car again, with an excitement that quickly vanished: it wouldn’t even last as long as a lemon ice cream cone. She wouldn’t be able to get her father to pick her up after school either. He would say a car like that wasn’t meant to go on the road. In the garage without walls—barely a shed with a zinc roof and cement floor—the Oldsmobile seemed like it had just fallen from the sky or like it was about to take flight. Silvia had learned that everything that came into her house was destined to disappear. But she also knew that, when something new showed up, it was because something else had already left.
She opened the screen door and, once again, felt that the task of spending the summer in that wooden box that reeked of varnish would be unbearable. Her mother was sitting in the kitchen, with her eyes closed and the lid of the sugar bowl in one hand. Silvia dropped her binders onto the table. Her mother opened her eyes—blue and strangely alert, nothing like the worn-out body they belonged to. She was barely 35 and had black hair and rough white skin, almost a white canvas draped over another skin that was invisible.
“What’s that?” Silvia asked, as though she were talking about a new flower vase.
“But where did he get it?”
“Apparently he bought it from an ambassador.”
“And where’d he get the money?”
“You already know. He never tells me anything.”
Silvia turned around to see if the strange object was still there. Obscured by the reflection of the sun, the Oldsmobile seemed to be moving on its own towards the garden. She bid it farewell once again so she wouldn’t have to later on; she wondered what other things she would now have to say goodbye to. She touched the edges of the table in the dining room (where her mother left the lights off in order to keep the heat down) and lay down on the leather couch that doubled as her bed. Since she didn’t have a room of her own, she kept her things in a cupboard, between table cloths and ceramic plates. The only little treasure she had was a tin box that was painted black. Still blinded by the sun from the road, and without getting up from the couch, she held the box in one hand, and placed it first on her chest and then on the floor. It was three in the afternoon, in a summer without rain. The leaves on the vine outside, which were perfectly still, seemed to be made of aged paper. Light was the only thing that moved. Now, Silvia has one hand on the box she had put on the floor. It’s a big box, divided into two, like the debits and credits of a ledger. And the relationship between the two parts is, indeed, commercial. On one side, sheets of paper that had writing in green ink on them; on the other side, lipsticks, bottles of nail polish, mirrors the size of rotary telephone dials, nail files, tweezers, scissors and bottles of perfume. Silvia looks at everything in a concerned and calculating way, like a shopkeeper faced with the end-of-month accounts.
Some time ago, she reached an agreement with Hilda, her 21-year-old neighbour, whose mother owns the best perfume shop in the area. Every so often, Silvia brings Hilda one of the sheets of paper marked with green ink and gets all kinds of cosmetics in return. Hilda calls them poems. She types them up, signs them with her own name (Silvia doesn’t care if she loses them forever) and sends them off to downtown magazines, where they often get published. But these few pages are, now, the only capital Silvia has. “Are you feeling uninspired, Honey?” Hilda asked her last week. Silvia doesn’t know when the individual sentences—that she’s taken to jotting down ever since her friend proposed the exchange—will come to her. She closes her eyes as though she were looking directly into the sun and, for a few seconds, feels like her hands are reaching out beyond herself to the point of nearly abandoning her. But she doesn’t see visions, like Hilda supposes. She doesn’t see anything in those moments, not even what is right before her eyes. She sees a yellow colour that moves towards her from very far away. For a minute or two, the house spins like a top, and sentences appear, incoherent. It’s an unpleasant feeling, which she willingly puts up with because it gets her lipsticks and nail polish. One time, the sentences came to her without the inconvenient dizziness, but Hilda didn’t like them: “What is this?” she said. “It’s like bad grade-school writing.” Silvia had also been known to copy poems from her high school textbook, but her neighbour immediately picked up on that.
Silvia hardly remembers anything about the poems themselves, which she writes while calculating whether they might be worth expensive perfumes or just eyebrow pencils. She vaguely recalls writing about a resentful, beer-drinking man; about an elderly man holding an apple in his hand; about opera singers lost in a train station; about a public square filled with streetcars; about a father who advises his son not to love anyone for very long (“It’ll bankrupt you,” the father said); and about a drunk blacksmith who works only during siesta. At first, Hilda read everything enthusiastically, but now she was reading with the critical eye of an art smuggler. Shortly after Silvia unsuccessfully plagiarized a few modernist poems, her friend had celebrated, overjoyed at three brief lines that spoke of a naked young songstress and a choir of greedy old men. But, the next day, Hilda returned, furious. “Why did you copy someone else’s poem again? This is so similar to one that Chapsey wrote!” she had screeched.
Silvia was lying on her back, glued to the radio. She didn’t answer. She kept rotating the dial until she found the music she was looking for: Can’t buy me love. She turned around and once again (it had been a while) suddenly felt that another batch of sentences was about to come to her. When Hilda screams, Silvia thought, she sounds like an old lady. “And how am I supposed to know who that is?” Silvia said.
But Hilda was sure of it. So, when she read the story about an unruly nymph condemned to repeat the endings of words, she was careful in sending it off to the magazine but didn’t say anything. And she got angry with herself—not with Silvia—when she got a letter from the editor explaining that the dialogue between a philosopher (some Michael Robartes) and a ballerina had already been written in verse by someone else. But those kinds of coincidences didn’t happen very often. The real problem, now, was the shortage of poems.
The bathroom in this house is no bigger than a restroom on a train. And, just like a train restroom, this one has a window. The window is slightly ajar, and so the angled reflection of the mirror shows the jasmine branches, the green canvas of the awning, and the kerosene drum, which the shade from the awning cuts in half. Silvia looks at herself methodically in the mirror…eyebrows, mouth, eyelashes. Since several months ago, she’s been locking herself in the bathroom during siesta time, with the black box and the photo of a model she had cut out of a magazine. She pins the photo to the wall and, looking in the mirror, tests the greens, blacks and dark reds out on her white skin. Afterwards, if her father isn’t in the house, she goes out to the lane and lets herself be seen by the two or three preoccupied neighbours, suddenly startled, who pass by on the road. But, sometimes, she runs into her father, who yelps and throws one of his hands up. And Silvia realizes that, if her father were to see her in another neighbourhood, he wouldn’t recognize her.
In the mirror, his calloused hand is now moving. Silvia doesn’t see him at all, but she knows he’s on the patio, standing beside the drum and spurning the shade from the awning. But it isn’t just because her father’s home that she can’t go out, all painted, to the lane this afternoon; she’s also out of perfume and green eyeshadow. And she doesn’t know how to get more: no poems are coming to her, and she knows Hilda won’t give her anything for free. With a kerosene-soaked rag, her father cleans a necklace made of bronze washers (his toolboxes look like shelves in a jewellery store). The kerosene smell comes in through the window like a slap in the face. Silvia shuts the window a little more. Then the mirror grows deep and blue, with a faint green stripe that seems to be from another planet. On the stripe, you can see the jasmine branches from close up and, in the distance, the row of calla lilies and—much brighter than the washers—the car. Maybe, Silvia thinks, the poems left me because the car showed up. In the mirror, the hand is a dying bug, with its legs flailing. Silvia closes her eyes like she’s about to fall asleep waiting for the train in a station full of people. The eyebrow pencil falls to the floor. Then the mirror, now yellow, starts spinning like a top. She gets ready to write some kind of poem on a piece of toilet paper. She picks up the eyebrow pencil, but no words come to her…just a fuzzy yellow that, instead of moving towards her, moves farther away: it disappears like the last row in a procession or like players heading to the change room after losing a match. Still dizzy, and without removing her makeup, Silvia opens the bathroom door.
Hilda is talking quietly with Silvia’s mother in the kitchen. For a week now, Hilda has been coming over every afternoon, chatting with her mother and, before leaving, asking Silvia: “Everything OK, Honey?” But today, startled and cold, she asks a different question: “What did you do to your face?”
From the depths of the couch, and perfectly still like the photo she wanted to copy from the fashion magazine, Silvia tries to open her eyes and grab hold of the voices that are as indecipherable to her as birds’ cries. She barely pries her eyes open, and what she sees is so impossible it makes her smile: her father appears, wrapped in yellow silk, docile as a floating figure.
Three weeks later, Silvia already knows that no more poems will come to her. The dizziness has also vanished. Now, the sessions in front of the mirror are faster, more furtive, more efficient. Since a few days ago, Hilda hasn’t been coming around as often with the hope of finding sheets of paper marked with green ink and of continuing her peculiar literary career. Instead, she comes to ask Silvia’s mother for help sorting out some emotional mess she’s gotten herself into. Each night, Silvia’s father dedicates two hours to washing the Oldsmobile. He waters it like a plant, wipes the water off as though the car were a porcelain vase, and then, looks at it the way you look at a monument. And, just like a monument, the car hasn’t moved from its spot; no one has even heard the sound of its motor.
“That car is going to grow roots,” her mother says, offended.
And, when her husband can’t hear her:
“They’re right: everyone says that, any day now, he’ll give it its own perfume and put a carnation on the windshield.”
Hilda is talking quietly with Silvia’s mother in the kitchen. Her mother is drinking ash tea to prevent the early onset of asthma, which (she believes) she is about to start suffering from. Hilda isn’t just whispering, though; every now and then, she raises her voice. Silvia doesn’t know much about what they are saying; she has the TV on and is preparing for her March exams. For the first time in months, it is going to rain. Her mother closes the door and rolls up the blinds. The light is slowly fading. An empty bottle of wine rolls around on the patio, hits the drum and comes to a full stop. Silvia finds in her geography binder the sheet of paper that, months ago, Hilda had cut in half. She’d read, folded and cut it into two, and then returned half to Silvia. “This isn’t even worth a small box of nail files. It’s insane: you repeated the word ‘yellow’ five times in three lines,” she had said. In the kitchen, Hilda keeps lowering her voice. Silvia hears two or three sentences and, all of a sudden, knows exactly what she is going to say. Maybe, she thinks, it’s because of what’s happening to me right now that no more poems are coming to me.
“You aren’t a woman. And you’ll never be one,” Silvia says, slowly, with her eyes still focused on the TV screen. Hilda looks over at her like she has just been stung by a scorpion. She gets up, opens the door and pauses there a moment, looking out over the garden, and holding back her astonishment. Silvia’s mother pours herself another cup of tea. There’s a silence coming from the television. At last, Hilda speaks, with a voice that is at once sweet and complicated. “Come here, Honey. Look.”
Everything is cloudy. The wind has blown the calla lilies over. And the car isn’t there anymore.
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Born in Buenos Aires in 1945, Ana Basualdo worked for eight years at the renowned Argentinian weekly publication Panorama. She moved to Spain in 1976, and she has been working regularly in various publications ever since. She currently coordinates the cultural supplement of Barcelona newspaper La Vanguardia and writes for the weekly The Journalist in Buenos Aires.