The Caretaker

Mónica Lavín

Translated by: Patricia Dubrava

Original text: " El cuidador (in Pasarse de la raya) "


Artwork by Julie Bolton

An I.D., she’d thought that morning, I should jot my name and address on a slip of paper in my purse. She always said she’d do that when she used the year’s datebook for the first time and then, by March, had forgotten about it. Hanging onto the handrail over her head, she looked absently at the laps of passengers seated in front of her, their knees unavoidably brushing against her from time to time. After two years of working in the same office, the bus route was so habitual that between her braced arm and feet, she handled sudden stops easily. She would have preferred to be seated, to have the chance to give her lips a last retouch and restyle her moussed bangs that in the morning rush didn’t turn out as well as they did on the weekend.

         She recalled that she’d been drowsy, with a strange fatigue that felt like the hangover from a sleepless night. But that hadn’t been the case, since on Sundays she and German watched television with her aunt; for dinner they had the quesadillas Meche sold on the corner and at ten, after the musical on TV, German said goodnight because he had to be at the shop at 7 the next morning. Weakness washed over her with increased intensity; alarmed, she leaned forward so that the air from the open window would blow in her face. She shifted her purse to her other arm, adjusted her feet and got lost again in the laps before her, leaning her head heavily on her own arm. A cold sweat covered her body and she couldn’t unclench her jaw to ask for help.

         Surely she had landed on those thighs covered in a variety of fabrics; must have collapsed shamelessly over the startled passengers, in her red dress, her shoulder bag and her high heels. Staring at an unfamiliar ceiling, Marisela made guesses. She wasn’t wearing shoes. Her feet squeezed in the Lycra stockings rubbed against a synthetic bedspread whose texture gave her goose bumps. She was bewildered and afraid to find out where she was. It wasn’t a hospital; the bare bulb suspended from the pistachio green ceiling and a smell of cooked beans, besides the bedspread bunched under her body, told her that much. Little by little she turned her head. Beside the bed was a Formica table, on the closest chair back hung her black purse. If it were an assault, who had put her on a bed, taken off her shoes and placed her purse within reach? She saw a stove in the next room but no sound came from there. The pot on the stove gave off the odor that permeated the place. At the back was a television adorned with a beige enamel vase that held two faded fabric roses. She ran her gaze through the rest of the place. Near the foot of the bed was the pistachio green entrance door, on which hung a calendar. To one side was a wedding photo in an oval frame. This sign of human presence comforted her and she slowly sat up.

         The bedspread’s small red flowers made her nauseous and she shifted her gaze to the walls on the other side of the door, searching for windows. There seemed to be two, both set high. She lowered her feet to the floor and braced herself against the chair to stand. Walking slowly toward the armoire, she felt again the weakness she’d experienced in the bus. She grabbed a bottle of cologne from the armoire’s shelf, opened it and anxiously inhaled the masculine lotion. She caught sight of herself in the round mirror. She was pale but her hair remained in place. Two other lotions were reflected in the mirror, along with a deodorant, a comb and a brush. It appeared that all were a man’s toiletries; intrigued, she opened a drawer where boxer shorts, t-shirts and socks cohabited chaotically. She turned the key on the armoire door to find pink dresses and flowered skirts bright among blue and brown pants.

         The alcohol of the lotion had revived her and she thought it was time to depart. She would leave a thank you note for the couple of the house and her address, so she could return the favor. She sat in the chair where her purse hung, got out her pen and a sheet ripped from her datebook. She smiled, thinking of its ironic usefulness in spite of her having neglected to fill out the personal information page. She took the dusty vase from the television and placed it on the note so that the owners would notice its presence on the table. She put her shoes on, ran her hand over the spongy bedspread to straighten it and with her purse once again on her shoulder went to the door. She turned the knob, but couldn’t open it. She searched for the bolts that surely were blocking it without luck. It had been locked it with a key. She would have to wait for someone to return.

         She put down her purse, went to the kitchen to look out the window and get an idea of where she was. Like in the large room, there was only a small high window. She pulled over a chair and climbed up to reach it. It was impossible to see anything; she would need to get her face into the narrow space of the window and the chair wasn’t tall enough. She went back to the big room and climbed onto the armoire shelf. She could hear the noise of buses and voices. Not even leaning her head out the window would she have been able to find out what street or neighborhood she was in.

         She sat exhausted on the bed. Her efforts had been a strain for her still fragile condition. She looked at her watch. It was noon, she should call work, her aunt, someone. She crouched down in front of the door. Through the crack she saw a dark, empty hall. She thought she heard something, stayed there a while waiting for footsteps. She saw a woman’s feet in slippers. She put her mouth to the opening and called: “Miss, here, Miss.” She saw how the steps paused. She imagined the head that belonged to this body trying to make out where the call came from. She tried again but louder. On the other side the woman continued on her way. She gave up. She would wait; all they’d do at work was to dock her pay anyway. With luck, she’d get home the same time as always. She turned on the television and stretched out on the rickety bed.

         The sound of the door woke her. It was night and in the dark she couldn’t make out who came in. The man turned on the light and apologized.

         “Did I wake you, sweetheart?”

         Marisela was stunned wordless by this stranger’s treatment.

         “You must be starving. I’ll make some steaks and heat the beans so we can eat.”

         The man talked with emotion while he took off his sweater and hung it on a hook by the door. He disappeared behind an oilcloth curtain, through which Marisela listened to the sound of his urination and water swirling in the toilet. He washed his hands in the sink and approached the sagging bed with familiarity, where Marisela, after pulling her dress down over her legs, remained frozen. He sat on the edge of the bed and took her face in his hands like her father used to do.

         “How pretty you are.”

         Marisela imagined being pitilessly possessed by that stranger who without a doubt was the only inhabitant of the place. But the man caressed her hair with his thick hand. She couldn’t contain the trembling of her lips.

         “I’ll cover you.”

         He got a black shawl from the armoire, put it over her shoulders and folded it in front as if she were a small child. Then he set to work in the kitchen and Marisela appealed to her reason in order to recover speech, tell him thanks and go home. The man appeared carrying some plates.

         “Come eat.”

         He turned on the television and sat at the table. He began to eat without looking at her, absorbed in the black and white screen in front of him. Marisela, hungry, resisted interrupting him and ate. When he was done, he went on being absorbed in the TV. He had a dark, narrow face and thick black hair, shining with the grease that he must apply to tame it in the mornings. His arms were unadorned; only his watch broke the polished darkness of his skin. Uncomfortable with the silence, Marisela carried the plates to the sink and washed them. She put away the napkins and soft drink bottles. After cleaning up the kitchen she sat in her chair, determined to talk.

         “Could you show me what bus to take to go home? It’s late and they’re expecting me.”

         “Your home?”

         “Yes, I appreciate very much that you have helped me but my aunt and German don’t know where I am.”

         “You’re in your house.”

         “Thank you, you’re very kind, I hope to reciprocate your attentions and you must come to dinner one day at my aunt’s house, because my parents live in Michoacan, but you’d be welcome there as well…”

         The man didn’t seem to listen to her; he stood up and pulled a folding canvas cot from behind the armoire.

         “But there’s no need,” Marisela insisted in a pleading tone.

         The man set up the cot on the other side of the table, against the kitchen door, and took two blankets from the armoire. Marisela, in the middle of the room, didn’t know whether to cry or beat her fists against his chest. He gave her a blanket, took her face again between his thumb and index finger and turned it toward him.

         “Sleep well.”

         He put out the light and went to the cot. Speechless, Marisela stood in front of the table and watched how he took off his shirt, revealing his vast, smooth belly. Intimidated, she got back in the bed with the flowered bedspread and threw the blanket over herself. Pressing her face against that hot batting-filled cover only ignited her frustration and anger. She thought of her aunt, who would be beside herself, and of German, who would have called the hospitals and of Claudia, her co-worker. No one would know why she hadn’t gone to the office, why she hadn’t called, why she hadn’t returned home. Between the noisy breathing of the man with whom she shared the room and the spinning of her worries that she couldn’t ease, she finally fell asleep.

         The man woke very early. Marisela felt him move on the cot. A thin light from the small windows illumined the room; on his chest hung something shiny. The man came out of the bathroom with his hair wet and his torso still bare. Marisela could make out that the shiny thing hanging from his neck was a key. It took her a minute to conclude that it was the door key and he would wear it under his shirt to work or to who knows where while she huddled within the sweaty, dirty red dress, and the anguish of eight new hours. The man came out of the kitchen with two mugs and brought one to Marisela.

         “Here’s your coffee, sweetheart.”

         Marisela sat up, pulling the covers to her chest and took the mug.

         They both sipped in silence. He looked at her breasts with enchantment. Marisela buried her gaze in the steam of the cup.

         “If you want to change, there are dresses in the armoire. It’s been a year and the damned witch isn’t going to come demanding anything back.”

         He bent down and gave Marisela a kiss cloyed with an intense odor of deodorant and cheap cologne. Finally, he got his sweater and closed the door behind him. Marisela heard the key turn in the lock.

         She had ten long hours to think about and plan it. There was no other way. She greeted him with a smile in one of his wife’s dresses, one with green flowers and a pronounced neckline, and as it fit small, very tight in the hips. She had made up her eyes and lips, washed her armpits in the sink and done her hair with the comb from the armoire. While he cooked, she made sure to walk through the kitchen that was so small they were obliged to brush against each other. He drank a beer with dinner and had a hard time staying focused on the television. While Marisela washed the plates he got another beer and stood behind her enthralled by the spectacle of her hips.

         Marisela took him yet another beer and told him that she was sleepy. She began to undress next to his bed with deliberate slowness. She observed how he approached her, his face flushed. She turned off the light and took a deep breath, hanging onto her desire for freedom to be able to endure his kisses and massive body over hers. He took off his shirt, squeezed her buttocks and slid a hand between her legs. Marisela caressed his back, his neck, rubbed her lips against the man’s hairless chest and took the key in her mouth, slipped the chain over his neck and threw it carelessly to the floor. With his pants around his knees and Marisela’s naked body under his, the man ejaculated abundantly and hurriedly, then collapsed to one side with an abrupt and profound breath.

         Marisela waited, an hour, two. The man’s semen dried between her legs. Slowly she slipped out of bed to the bathroom, dragging the key with her foot. Her red dress and shoes were there, where she’d put them in anticipation. She dressed rapidly and silently, took her purse and the shawl and went to the door watching the man who slept sated with his pants around his knees. She put in the key and turned it very slowly, turned the knob and opened the door. She looked at him, still asleep. She closed the door; then the key fell and she could hear the squeak of the bedsprings but she was already in the street in front of the old building, walking away.

         It took her a while to recover, to process the experience of those two days, get over their rawness and the memory of the smell of the man’s beer and cologne spilling over her. She didn’t tell everything, not exactly how it happened. Sunday they had Meche’s delicious quesadillas and German hugged her a lot. She needed it, let herself shelter in his arms and caresses. They said goodnight with a long kiss after her aunt had gone to bed.

         Marisela put on her nightgown. She turned back the bedspread but the spongy texture and the small red flowers made her nauseous. A voice from the window consoled her:

         “Sweetheart, I told you this was your home.”

        

        


Mónica Lavín
 

Mónica Lavín is a prolific writer of novels, stories, and essays. Her collection of short fiction Pasarse de la raya, 2010, assembles twenty stories from previous collections. Among numerous other awards, she received the Elena Poniatowska Premio Iberoamericano for her novel Yo, la peor. Mónica Lavín lives in México, D.F.

Patricia Dubrava
 

Patricia Dubrava is a writer and translator whose translations have appeared in Reunion: The Dallas Review, Two Lines and K1N among other publications. Her translation of a Mónica Lavín story was included in the Norton anthology Flash Fiction International, 2015. Dubrava blogs at www.patriciadubrava.com