Moment of Returnby Luisa Valenzuela, translated from the Spanish by Marguerite Feitlowitz
He embraces me.
She repeats: he embraces me. She says this in silence, just the words, as though her whole body wasn’t implicated. She says this as one who is telling a faraway story that begins: he embraces me.
She’s distressed by the vagueness of the third-person masculine pronoun. Nothing about this `he’ comes in third, this Rodrigo of the first-class embrace.
With such a Rodrigo it won’t last long, she knows it, but she also knows that a true embrace lasts forever. It leaves a mark where another will be erased. Rodrigo brings his guitar to bed, sings some boleros and she delights in the sweetness and slight irony of his singing. She likes this man for his humor, for not taking himself at all seriously, like someone whose real interests are elsewhere. And it’s true, she knows it, he’ll be gone soon, taking his music somewhere else, better said back to his home and family and his work as an economist in a distant country and she’ll have to stay here, one who returned, after so many years. First were the years of exile, then later she just kept living far away. Until at a given moment the need to return became irresistible and she still doesn’t understand why, or what for.
This Rodrigo of the here and now puts his guitar aside. All my life I’ll adore you, he repeats now without musical accompaniment, hyperbolic he is, running his hand, very softly, over her body, and she realizes she would like to believe his words but what for; why bet on the ephemeral. Still she likes this man, she likes him very much, even when in his best singing voice he suggests:
“Let us go, my queen, to your Buenos Aires querido, let us be classical, take a turn on the mythic Avenida Corrientes.”
As though she’d read his thoughts, but in the negative, in the inverse sense of what he wanted.
“Don’t even think about it,” she replied.
And then, so as not to seem so cutting:
“But you should go, you’re only in this country for a few days, take advantage, have a bath in our national capital and come back to me refreshed. I’ll wait for you here, calm, reading.
“You already waited for me here, calmly reading during the days I spent at this conference,” Rodrigo complained or praised, her handsome Rodriguito of the sweet boleros he understands not at all. Luckily. Who never even asks what she finds to read in this sad apart-hotel sunk down in the center of La Plata. Go, I’m reading, she insists and it’s true, although reading doesn’t always involve a printed text, sometimes reading is called introspection and brings forth the question: why have I returned? And also another: why have I not entirely returned?
Rodrigo knows nothing of her life, but he senses things.
Rodrigo protests. No my queen, he says, I can’t imagine leaving you here alone among the local ghosts. They’re my ghosts in spite of everything, she retorts. You’re from everywhere he reproves and she realizes that this crazy Mexican whom she met on the plane is quite right. That’s how it happened: she met him and conquered him or he conquered her because who knows how these entanglements happen on a plane. So many unrewarding flights, she thinks, already in her forties, the goat falls to the rope, the fish bites the bait, or better said the bird flies into the trap.
I don’t have to keep thinking in these terms, she thinks. I don’t have to make a saga of this little story, it’s mine and only mine, pleasure and warmth and the sensual cry, but soft so as not to alarm the neighbors, but all the same the cry is there, exploding in all it splendor.
“You’re a renegade porteña,” Rodrigo complains after some luxurious silent gasping. “Something never seen, and never heard or dreamed of,” he adds. “A renegade porteña who doesn’t want to step foot on the unique and irreplaceable calle Corrientes.”
“Nor on any of the other streets of the capital if you want to know.”
“Nor any of the other…”
We both know that later will come too late, that he won’t be here to share it. This is his time out, the conference is almost over, he’ll have to return to his real life. Meanwhile he’s here, naked before her and once again he takes up the guitar, that shared consolation.
Musical interludes, she thinks of them skeptically; the fast tune of my childhood when there was space to fill between two movies. I will not dissect this or write an essay on human emotion, she thinks. Nor will I record any of it; indeed my recorder is only used for fieldwork. Love’s labours are beyond the reach of poetry, to paraphrase the bard.
But this is no ethnographic study; and now, finally, it’s almost over. Just put a toe in, but it’s time to leave. Go back. Return. The errant wanderer. The rover.
It was indeed on the flight bringing her back that she met the man by her side. It happened on the layover in Dallas. It isn’t that she’s complaining about their denouement—she’s finding it delicious—and moreover it’s allowing her to return in stages, gradually. What perturbs her is the paralysis she feels at the thought of her imminent return home.
She can’t say this to Dr. Rodrigo del León. Or she doesn’t want to. She thinks he might well be interested in the subject even have some advice, but she prefers not to speak of it, doesn’t want to wade into those waters, no sir, absolutely not.
Sweetness, he calls her. She wants to be sweet, soft, her talons forever unsharpened.
“So I won’t be visiting your beautiful city on this trip. In any case I already know it. It’s you I don’t know, you’re a landscape as changeable as the clouds.”
“Mariachi of my…”
The sentence was left hanging. She couldn’t say mariachi of my soul, even though it’s what she feels because once again he has held out his hand with that tenderness that is uniquely his and that she has unfettered over long days and nights of recurrent interludes.
She’d had a whole week to put her inner house in order and yet she still couldn’t confront a complete return.
“Sure you don’t want to visit the local DF? We’ll rent a car, it’ll take no more than an hour, we can come back and spend the night here if you prefer.”
“No, I’m sure. I don’t want to.”
(Rodrigo doesn’t ask what she sees in La Plata to keep her in this boring city, lacking history, but she reads the question in his eyes. He brought her here and he feels responsible and doesn’t reproach her and she leans happily against his chest, his very solid chest.)
She’d noticed right away, in the Dallas airport, how solid he was. She was desperately writing postcards to all her friends in San Francisco, as if unable to tear herself away from them and their worlds, as if by sending them a physical object and not an e-mail she could remain in contact with them. She was resisting the urge to give up, not wanting to return to her country—at least, here, now—though for all intents and purposes she’d decided to go back of her own free will. Amidst so much writing and a confusion of cards and stamps and copied-out addresses she looked up and there were those amused eyes observing her quite openly. The same ones that, oh what a coincidence, had sat themselves down next to her.
“I wonder what I came back for,” she says more to herself than to Rodrigo who was already almost asleep with his head on her shoulder, which was causing her some discomfort. She was also discomforted by the guitar he’d left at her feet, but she decided to stay still.
He reaffirms the question by grunting in his sleep. He too must be wondering.
There are moments when she fears he might think she’s a fugitive from justice or something. Because, why would this woman, who is educated, charming, agreeable, even—here she gave in to self-praise—attractive to the eye, change her course and go with a stranger to an apart-hotel in a city she doesn’t even know, resisting the real return to her own native city, without making even one miserable little phone call? At moments he must be thinking she’s crazy or stupid or both at once. Crazy, stupid, fugitive. Maybe that excites him.
“I’m here to kill you,” she whispers in his ear but he dismisses her with a light swish of his hand, as though he were swatting a fly. What he wants is to sleep.
Time should always have this same smooth texture, like a nest made not of place but precisely of this—of time stretching and changing and she forever enwrapped, letting herself be rocked in its rhythm. That a passenger encountered on a plane gifts you with a cloak of time is almost a miracle. She feels like she’s serving a deferred sentence, one step from the court but never getting there. During the flight the first piece of information Rodrigo gave her about himself was not that he was an economist but that he surfed. I’m a man of great patience, he said with a bit of implied threat; sometimes at dawn, in my wetsuit, I have to wait a very long time for the perfect wave, but it’s worth the wait, he said, because when the perfect wave arrives the rest is pure joy. She felt like she was riding the wave with him, letting herself be pulled in his current. Euphoric. Now she’s on the board, in the barrel of the wave that at any moment could break on her head. It doesn’t matter. Going through the tube of water is the main thing, letting oneself go in a movement that seems static, perfect equilibrium in a liquid cloak that’s moving at high velocity.
The next morning Rodrigo left early to meet a local colleague who was going with him to buy, among other things, a piece of luggage. The date of his departure is fast approaching. She doesn’t even want to think about that. She knows she will miss him but that isn’t what most worries her. No. What’s serious is that without him she can’t justify her stay in this unfamiliar city where she’d like to remain encapsulated, tangled in her own threads of silence.
Returning means binding up dangling threads, it’s both a draft and a new story, it’s diving into the past. Returning is like throwing off a mask, it reintegrates us with the intangible finality of who we are. Returning centers and annuls us. She doesn’t want to return and yet she has returned. She is returning. This isn’t just a pit stop on the road of real return.
More and more anguished, she paces their suite in the apart-hotel. When she starts to feel short of breath she makes a decision, goes out on the balcony. It’s not that she’s feeling agoraphobic, it’s something else; she and Rodrigo have been going out at night to different restaurants, they’ve gone dancing and to the movies, more than once they traversed the plaza ringed by emblematic buildings. And from the balcony, it’s as though the plaza were calling out to her, opening old wounds. Here are the scars, the white kerchiefs adorning the plaques, the landmarks. She takes a few steps back into the room and draws the drapes like one who’s closing a sacred space. Better to fling herself again on the bed, try to stop the vertigo, stop spinning in the alleyways of memory. If the time of return is the time of seeing clearly, it isn’t so simple. She feels that no return is possible, only the implicit danger of a nosedive.
Returning meant colliding with that which was and with that which never again will be and with that which has stayed the same, imperturbable. Returning, like going back in time, like fleeing backward, is impossible.
When Rodrigo comes back with his new bag, when he starts to put all his clothes in the suitcase and his books in the bag, there is no more excuse. Telling him good-bye will be a form of death not so much because of who he is or became, as for what she will expect of him later. And when finally he enters the room with that bag which is a signal of departure she closes her eyes and pretends to be having a siesta. Wake up, my lovely, wake up, he sings sitting next to her on the bed, caressing her. She presses her eyelids closed. No, no don’t wake up, no, but he shakes her a little and insists, Wake up, I have a suggestion for you.
And he does: since she’s strenuously resisting the return to her Buenos Aires querido, maybe it would be better to postpone going back. He doesn’t want to insinuate himself in her sorrow or in her problems or even to inquire into the reasons for such a drastic decision, but it’s clear that she’s not inclined to complete this return trip so he’s proposing a truce, as they say. He offers her a one-way ticket to Mexico, they can fly together, and then see.
“No, thank you,” she says, unable even to feel moved or to register the dimensions of such an offer. No, I couldn’t accept such a thing.”
“I have miles, it won’t make any difference, you can return them whenever. I’ve already checked, there’s space on the flight. “It costs me nothing to do this.”
“What will I do in Mexico, how can I pay you back, what…”
“It’s not that complicated, you can work if you like. A friend of mine is the director of the newspaper in Zihuatanejo, you can surely get work there, with your experience and languages. Afterwards you can look for something more suitable, but living in that area is lovely, cheap, and I spend my weekends there. I’ll teach you to surf.
“Oh, I’ve surfed all right, but not in the water. In life.”
“Fine. In life, as in the water. It’s all the same metaphor.”
There wasn’t too much time to think it over, the flight was leaving at six twenty-six the next morning and it was already past noon. The promise to continue together, of another flight elbow to elbow, the waves of the Pacific, took precedence. She stopped feeling the weight of her impotence and a path opened toward hope. Change course, she said to herself, not because what lay ahead was impassable but because you’ve been given a happy alternative. Who could have dreamed of waves and coconut trees, here, in La Plata?
He called to make the necessary arrangements, she in her euphoria packed for them both, that night they had a lovely celebration, and she felt she was disentangling from an invisible and viscous web. She couldn’t take advantage of the few hours left to sleep, and when the alarm went off at three in the morning she leapt out of bed and hurried him on so they wouldn’t miss their transport to Ezeiza.
Once on board the bus, settled in her seat and sure of being on the road to the airport—which is to say, the road to anywhere but here—she fell asleep with the relief of one who has managed to escape an indescribable dream. She was sleeping placidly against Rodrigo’s shoulder when they stopped for the toll at Dock Sur, and she would have kept sleeping if it hadn’t been for the tumult that erupted a few minutes after the bridge. She managed to understand though in slow motion, in delayed time. Three men in suits and ties had climbed on to the bus, taking advantage of the stop—such gentlemen, they were, so formal—and then they drew their pistols pointed their guns at the driver and aimed at the passengers. All she felt was a stab of pain in her shoulder when they yanked away her pocketbook and she was pushed and pulled by the others in a forced exit. Rodrigo tried to grab her hand but they were separated in the stampede. The ensuing confusion, the screaming and shouting and cries for help left her dazed. Everything happened so rapidly and the assailants sped off in the very same bus, leaving the ex-passengers behind weeping at the loss of their belongings, and not only their bags: watches, cell phones, jewelry, wallets, pocketbooks, briefcases, documents. They found themselves in the middle of the deserted elevated highway when it was still night. She was barefoot because she’d taken off her shoes to travel more comfortably. Impotence and abandonment intensified everyone’s desperation, as in a shipwreck.
She needed air and moved away from the group. An errant dog wandered over and sniffed her and she, without thinking, petted it. A dog. It looked black at this uncertain hour, when it was starting to get minimally more light, over there by the river. Not knowing the geography, she wasn’t aware of the river, but that’s where it was getting brighter and the dog, his back to the light, headed out on the elevated highway where they’d all been left and she went to follow him. Barefoot as she was. Below and before her Buenos Aires was a phantasm. But not the dog, the dog kept going, and if she stopped he waited for her. It appeared the dog wanted to guide her or at least that’s how she understood it, in the drowsy vapors that were no longer her own, but the drowsiness of a city rousing itself in the first lights of dawn.
Suddenly a roseate reflection exploded in the distant windows and she relived a faraway daybreak, in Machu Picchu, when another errant dog led her up stone steps all the way to the top where that phantasmagoric dead city made of rock lay at her feet, and from that height she could see a blanket of cloud rise from the depths of the valley and entirely cover the ruins, as though in an act of desperation, and then softly move off to conceal something else, something brilliant and recently made in spite of the span of centuries. The scene was repeating itself: now she is no one, without documents, without shoes, without a name, and in the distance the great city begins to reassume its shape and recover its essence in the dissolution of dawn’s mist. And in its recuperation the city would appear to open its arms to her, ready to receive her as a person who is also new, reborn.
from Tres por cinco (Madrid: Ed. Pagina de Espuma, 2008, published in Buenos Aires in 2010 by the same house)
Translator Marguerite Feitlowitz's most recent translations include Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography with Nineteen Erotic Sonnets, by Salvador Novo, Introduction by Carlos Monsivais, published April 2014 by University of Texas Press. Works by Griselda Gambaro (b. Buenos Aires, 1932), considered the most important Latin American playwright of the 20th century; Angelica Gorodischer, and Liliane Atlan, among many others.Luisa Valenzuela
Born in Argentina, she is one of the major international authors of her generation, with ten novels and thirteen collections of short stories.