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Good Women and Bad Women

We never discovered how they found us out. My brother insisted that Márgara had stumbled across them accidentally while she was putting clean sheets on the bed, and that she had squealed on us. I suspected something different. On a number of occasions I had surprised my mother going through my drawers, or secretly reading my diary—it was more like an exercise book of notes and drawings and doodles—or stealthily lifting the other receiver while I was talking to a friend on the phone.

“I want you to tell me where you got them.”

Neither of us spoke. It wasn’t exactly a question.

“Tell me.”

My mother was sitting in one of the white chairs in the dining room, her arms crossed, smoke rising from her cigarette, the pile of magazines in front of her on the table. She hadn’t even said hello to us. We were still carrying our books and lunchboxes.

“I want to know where you got this filth.”

The answer, I suppose, was simple.

One afternoon, as we were on our bikes circling round the El Campo neighborhood, my brother and I had found a cardboard box in an empty lot. A big box, soaked through after so much rain, flimsy and partly torn, and full of porn magazines that somebody had decided to throw out. We raced home and then returned to the empty lot with a couple of backpacks, and I put all the magazines inside them while my brother kept watch. Later, when we had locked ourselves in our bathroom and were drying each page in turn with the blow dryer, we discovered, astonished, that these weren’t just magazines with the sorts of pictures you’d find in a set of dirty playing cards—tits and ass and, at most, if you were very lucky, a quick glimpse of pubic hair—but a much more explicit porn: leather and ropes and chains and double-penetrations and the cucumbers of a gorgeous brunette who, unforgettably, was called Marian the Vegetarian and who it took us a while to understand what she was doing there. But we understood all those full-color photos perfectly well, and even more so the fact that they were forbidden, which for us was perhaps the most important thing. We hid the dry, stiff magazines between the bedsprings and mattresses of our two beds—we still slept in the same room—and promised not to tell anyone, anything, ever.

“Tell me, boys.”

My brother took a step timidly toward me. He gripped hold of my T-shirt.

“I want to know.”

I noticed that my mother, perhaps out of shame, had closed the dining room curtains. Very seventies curtains, white background with large yellow and orange circles. Just like the tablecloth. The chairs were fiberglass: white, oval, modern, their cushions also alternating orange and yellow. On the table there were two silver ashtrays, round and solid, one with an orange rim and the other with a yellow rim. My mother spent a lot of time in that perfectly matched dining room. It was the only place in the house where my father would let her smoke.

“Are you going to tell me or aren’t you?”

“We found them,” I murmured.

“Right, and where did you find them?”

“On the street.”

“On the street?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You found this on the street?”

“Uh-huh.”

She let the smoke out again, desperate.

“Go to your room,” she said, pronouncing sentence.

We didn’t move. My brother, downcast, was still clinging to my T-shirt.

“Maybe you’ll tell your father the truth.”

“But that is the truth . . .” I insisted.

“Immediately. You hear me? To your room.”

The tone in her voice was sharp, final, nonnegotiable.

We turned, climbed the steps, and went into our room. As if we’d also been forbidden from speaking or playing with anything, my brother quickly lay down on his bed and fell asleep. I closed the door. I played with my wire models for a bit. I put on the Beatles record I’d been given by an uncle and which was almost scratched from so much listening. I looked for my headphones, a huge contraption with a thick, coiled black cable. I lay on my back on the rug and listened to both sides of the vinyl—whispering the songs as well as the conversations between the four of them that came between each song and the next and which for some reason I liked even more—before the creak of my father opening the door startled me instantly back to alertness and woke my brother.

“Boys . . .” he spoke, deep, serious, with forced manliness, and he sat down in one of the two little white chairs, next to a little table made of the same white Formica on which we did our homework.

I stayed where I was, sitting on the floor, waiting for his inquisition, readying myself to learn what our punishment would be. But my father, huge and ungainly in that little toy chair, just started talking about decent acts and indecent acts, about pure nakedness and impure nakedness, about good women and bad women.

“You do understand what I’m saying, don’t you?”

My brother and I turned to look at one another. The expression on his face was puzzled, as though asking me for help. I didn’t know what our father was talking about either. But we both babbled that yes, of course we did.

“I’m glad, boys.”

My mother came into the room. In her hands she was carrying a large, square book.

“Now I want you to listen to your mother,” he stammered, made some effort, and with a bit of a grunt he finally managed to get himself out of the chair and to his feet.

My mother sat in the same toy chair. She put the book down on the little table and opened it at the first page. There was a drawing of a man and a woman, both naked, flabby, all pinkish, both smiling modestly. And as my mother explained to us, with the help of some awful childish illustrations, exactly how a baby was made, my father took a couple of folded pieces of paper out of his shirt pocket, dropped them on the small table, and without another word practically ran out of the room. My mother said something about a stiff, erect little birdie and I found, there on the table, a signed check and an annual subscription form to Playboy magazine.

Mujeres buena y mujeres malas” © Eduardo Halfon. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Daniel Hahn. All rights reserved.