A Modern Hero

There are no heroes in the city. Nor in the country. This is the problem that modern women face. Our men don't go to war, and if they did it would be out of stupidity or irresponsibility. Even so, we need our heroes, just as we have at all times in history; but we are no longer sure of what the word means.

Felipe, though, was sure. He had two heroes: Superman, who could fly, and who punished the enemies of the Earth and was in love with Lois Lane; and Martín—his father, my husban—dwho could make rabbits and handkerchiefs disappear, and saw women apart and put them back together, and pick a card out of a deck blindly, and who was in love with me. Martín's hero was David Copperfield, master of impressive feats such as making the Statue of Liberty disappear, or conquering the love of Claudia Schiffer.

"Again," Felipe ordered.

"OK, one more time," Martín yielded. "It is a pleasant autumn day in New York. Clark Kent is on his way to the Observer . . ." It sounded to me like he was making it all up. Was Superman even from New York?

To Felipe, his father was like Clark Kent. Every day he dressed up in black and put on a long cape wtih a red lining, and a top hat. People clapped and Felipe clapped the loudest and the longest, until his hands turned red. He would stand on his seat and yell, "Bravo, Papá!"

That Saturday we would not go see the show. Felipe didn't know this. Martín knew, but he was pretending that his movements around the house and in the kitchen were the same as on any Saturday after lunch. As usual, Felipe didn't want to take his nap, and we let him do as he pleased, like all parents who have themselves hated taking their naps as children. I was preparing a small suitcase for myself, and a bag with Felipe's toys and clothes. In less than an hour, we would be leaving for Lanús,1 for my parents' house. Martín would also prepare his bag, but later, just before leaving for the show.

I looked in the jar on the side table. It was empty. Martín had made up the game, and I wondered now if it wasn't the beginning of all of this. Of what? Of my preparing our bags to leave, and Martín staying behind, of not knowing what would happen next.

A while back, at a home decoration closeout sale, we had bought four candlesticks, a pepper mill that never worked, and four glass jars for crackers, candy, coffee beans, or tea bags. When we got home, I put the jars on the kitchen shelf. Martín picked up a jar.

"I have an idea," he said, carrying it to the living room in his arms as if it were a fishbowl. "Every day each one of us will write a little note and put it in the jar. It has to be something that we would never say out loud, not like when we play at telling each other the best and the worst thing that happened during the day. Like a confession, something embarrassing or sentimental that we would be ashamed to talk about.

"We'll each read what the other wrote but we won't mention it. What we write won't affect our daily life; it will be as if it had been said in another dimension, as if we had amnesia and immediately forgot what was written there. We'll call it 'the jar game,'" he said pompously, sticking an invisible label on the curved glass.

The jar remained empty until that evening.

What did we write that first day? "I want you to touch my face when we make love. Martín." "Today I stole a lipstick from the Lancôme counter at the shopping center. Cecilia." The papers are probably still in the drawer of my nightstand.

It was fun for a few weeks. At night, we would each read our scrap of paper before dinner, and no matter what was written on them, we almost always ended up making love. Even if the note said something like "I don't like it when you eat garlic and onions" or "tomorrow I'll cut Marilú when I put her in the box." That Saturday Martín looked for me in the audience when he was about to do the sawing act, and in the end, he hadn't cut Marilú. When we got home, before writing our notes, we laughed and made love. After we wrote the notes, we made love again.

Later we wrote: "I don't like it when you talk when we're doing it." "Today I was very sad. I ran around the city without knowing where I was going. I cried."

One day there was only one scrap of paper. I had forgotten to write out a note, and I forgot to read Martín's. He opened the jar and tore it up.

It was like the moment when children stop playing with their toys; from one day to the next, without any clear reason, the toys are abandoned in a corner of the room, or on the shelf, until their mother replaces them with books or clothes. From that day on, the jar stood empty on the side table.

I emptied a box of boldo tea bags into the jar and put it next to the others, on the shelf in the kitchen. Martín didn't see me.

"Come on, Felipe, put on your jacket."

"Where are we going?"

"To Grandma's."

"Go get your jacket," said Martín.

Felipe came back wearing his jacket and Martín helped him zip it up. The laurel tree rapped against the kitchen windows. The sky was white and the air was cold; the heating had created a fine mist on the windowpane.

Martín picked up my suitcase and Felipe's bag and put them in the trunk of the car. He kissed me, scraping my face with his unshaved cheek. Felipe hung on his neck, and Martín kissed him and put him down. We got in the car, put on our seat belts, and Martín waved at us from the door, wearing his checkered robe (he hadn't changed since the morning).

My father had not changed either. He was wearing a bordeaux plush robe over his light-blue pajamas, and he opened the garage door with his hair tousled. My mother had been to the hairdresser, and her hair was blonder than the last time I saw her; she was wearing a beige outfit and high heels. Felipe ran up the stairs; my father closed the garage door and came up after him. I wondered whether it wouldn't be easier to leave my suitcase and Felipe's bag in the car. My mother said nothing and watched me close the car door and walk toward the trunk of the car as if she already knew everything.

"Is Felipe staying over?"

"Is that OK?"

"You don't look good," she said to me, but that's not what she meant. She meant I wasn't wearing makeup, my hair wasn't done, my clothes didn't suit me. She meant that I had quarreled with Martín. She meant I told you so. At any moment, she would say it. I pulled out Felipe's bag and closed the trunk.

Felipe and my father were watching the Cartoon Network in silence and eating cookies.

"Tell him not to eat too many cookies because he'll spoil his appetite," my mother said, and I didn't know if she meant her grandson or her husband.

I went to my room, which still had the same wallpaper with pink flowers, curtains with pink ruffles, and pink flowered bedspread, as when I was a child; on the bed, resting on a heart-shaped cushion, were two rag dolls. I flopped down on the rag dolls and stayed like that for a while, staring at the ceiling; the wallpaper was beginning to come unstuck at the corners. I could hear the typical sounds of a cartoon—whistling, banging, buzzing—and my mother moving glasses and opening and closing the refrigerator.

My father sometimes took naps in my room. Once, I had found him there on my bed, face-to-face with one of the dolls.

I went to the bathroom with my purse. I looked at my face straight on and in profile in the large mirrors on either side of the basin. There was an alarm clock in the bathroom. My mother had clocks in every room of the house. It was nine o'clock; Martín must have been on his way to the theater. I pulled the eyeliner out of my purse and applied it, and used some of my mother's lipstick, which she had left on the shelf.

I went into the kitchen with the car keys in my hand, to discourage any questions. My mother was peeling carrots, and she raised her eyes with an ironic expression that meant: "Where are you off to now?" Felipe and my father were still watching television.

"I'm going out. Maybe I'll visit Fernanda; she called today. I haven't seen her new baby," I said quickly. I kissed Felipe, swept his bangs to one side, and went down the stairs.

I rested my head on the steering wheel for a moment, then started the car and drove away.

The Superman comic book lay open on the sofa. Martín hadn't turned out the light. He must have realized at the last minute that he was running late. When he didn't take his time preparing his bag, things didn't go as they should. So he said, even though no one noticed the difference. By then he must have been doing the rope trick. I turned off the light and shut the comic book. I had never asked him how he did his tricks. Neither had Felipe, but to him it was natural that his father should be able to perform tricks. He thought that when the time came, he too would be able to do them.

Why had I returned home? What was I looking for? I turned the light back on and opened the Superman comic book and left it on the sofa. I hid in the closet, just as Felipe did when he played with his cousins. Soon, I heard the key in the lock of the front door. I sat up and watched Martín through the curtains on the doors of the closet.

The closet was a privileged vantage point: everything seemed to happen in front of those curtains, as if Martín were trying to show me something. Like the game with the scraps of paper in the jar, but different.

He put on Caetano Veloso. He poured himself a glass of whiskey and disappeared from view. I heard the water. Martín was running his bath. A while later he returned with his checkered robe and his whiskey, and sat down on the sofa. He looked toward the closet as if he could see me, but I knew he couldn't because I remembered when Felipe hid in there. Martín and I would talk with my sister-in-law on the sofa, across from Felipe, and the other kids would look for him everywhere. They never found him.

The doorbell rang and I jumped, hitting the hangers above my head. Martín also jumped. He sat for a moment without moving, his hands on his knees, staring at the closet, and then got up. There was a long pause, then I felt the cold air coming in through the front door, and the sound of cars going by.

"Hi."

I knew that voice.

"Hello, Guadalupe."

I could hear Capullito de alelí over the voices of Martín and Guadalupe.

"Are you alone?"

"Yes."

"Can I come in?"

Guadalupe passed before me and her perfume swept my face like a scarf. She sat down on the sofa. Martín looked at her, his back to the closet.

"How is Raúl?"

Guadalupe pursed her lower lip. It made her look strange, more like me. Guadalupe and I are quite similar, except that she is much prettier. When people said that we looked alike, I knew that Martín and everyone else was thinking: "Yes, she looks like Guadalupe, but not as pretty."

"I don't know. Or care. We broke up."

Martín turned off the music.

"What about Cecilia?"

"She's fine," Martín said. He shut the comic book and left it on the shabby table, but he didn't sit down on the couch. He crossed and then uncrossed his arms. "Would you like some tea?"

"Sure."

He went to the kitchen and I could see Guadalupe as she straightened her black stockings and garters. I had never imagined she wore garters; it wasn't her style.

Martín placed the tray on the table, on top of the comic book.

"Do you take sugar?"

Guadalupe took Martín's face between her hands, brought it toward her lips, and said, "I don't want anything, I want you. I want to be with you. That's what I came for."

Martín drew away delicately. He put two spoonfuls of sugar in each cup, spilling most of it on the way. He stirred, and then gave her a cup.

"Here, Guadalupe, it will do you good."

"I know the two of you broke up. Cecilia didn't come to your show tonight. She took Felipe with her, didn't she? Neither one of them was there."

"It's late, Raúl must be looking for you. Go home."

Guadalupe covered her face with her hands and began to cry noisily. Martín brought over the tissues that were on the table (Felipe had a cold and I had forgotten the tissues at home). He dried her tears, even though I knew there were no tears to dry. He swept her bangs to one side, just as I had done with Felipe an hour before. She tried to kiss him, and he helped her up, but they both fell back on the sofa. With the impact of the fall Guadalupe's very short skirt had slid up her thigh. Martín looked at her garters and stood up.

"Well, that's enough, Guadalupe. Go home."

"You don't find me attractive."

"Yes, I do."

He led her to the door, his hand on her shoulder, as if he were consoling a widow.

I could still hear the sound of Guadalupe's false tears, and again cold air came into the room like a stray dog, until Martín shut the door. The water was still running; if Martín had remembered to plug the drain, the water must be running over.

I heard the sound of the dryer and the mop. Carefully, I opened the door of the closet, climbed out, and peeked into the hall. Martín had closed the bathroom door.

I picked up the notepad on the kitchen counter and wrote, "I saw everything," and tore out the page. I emptied the tea bags into a drawer and placed the folded paper in the glass jar. I carried the jar to the living room and left it on the shabby table, next to the tray with the cups of cold tea, so that Martín would see it, otherwise, I would have to stay in the closet all night. Martín had to see it right away. He had to see it before he went to bed. I climbed back into the closet and heard the last of the water swirling down into the pipes.

Martín returned, looking the same except that his hair was wet and combed back. He was going to pour himself another whiskey, but then he caught sight of the jar. I watched him open it, unfold the piece of paper, read it, and put it in the right pocket of his robe.

He searched for the notepad and wrote something on it. He tore out the page, folded it twice and put it in the jar. He turned around and walked toward the closet.

He pulled me out gently by my wrists and sat me on the couch. He knelt down and undid my blouse. He ran the back of his hand between my breasts. "You're covered in bumps," he would always say laughingly when he caressed me. It seemed somehow logical that a magician would be fascinated by such small phenomena: the moment that gnocchi rise to the surface in the pot, the effect of a splash of cold water on hot coffee, the goose bumps that appeared when he touched me.

We made love slowly on the sofa where Guadalupe had sat, and on the carpet, and again in the bedroom. Then Martín fell asleep.

I went into the living room. My watch was still on the shabby table, under my shirt. It wasn't so late; my father would still be up, watching porn on television.

I could hear Felipe crying behind my mother's sharp voice and the sound of the television. First, Felipe—or "the boy", as she called him—had wanted to go to the theater; someone on the television had said it was Saturday and he had started to make a scene. It had been difficult to convince him that the show was already over. Then he insisted that he wanted Superman. They didn't have any comic books and the video store was closed. My mother had called Fernanda, but she hadn't seen me. Where had I gone off to?

"We'll be right over," I said and hung up.

I went back into the bedroom and watched my husband sleep. His hair was matted with sweat. I wished he were Superman so he could fly quickly to Lanús and bring Felipe home. At the very least, I wished he knew how to drive so I wouldn't have to get dressed and start off in the middle of the night. I wished he didn't fall asleep after making love. But there are no more heroes. I opened the jar and read Martín's note. I tucked it into my bra and went out to pick up our son.

1 A suburb of Buenos Aires.

From La Felicidad de las mujeres (Barcelona: Destino Ediciones, 2000). By arrangement with the author.