We were working on “recording” the following scenes from my novel: the Sunday lunch in the garden at Manuel’s house, where the two families part amicably, mothers and aunts included; Manuel’s family life, Ana’s, their respective conjugal misery, their children, the frustrations and pleasures of their daily lives and routines; we were about to arrive at the adulterers’ next rendezvous which would end with the tragedy that would give rise to the plot of the novel. The work I had completed to date was like painting the landscape, creating the place where the action would take place. And what action! One more week and the perfect novel would be readable, viewable, accessible, or however you’d like to put it.
Bizarrely, just when things were beginning to go smoothly, I began to feel bored. Yes, yes, boredom: I lost all interest. And I can deal with anything, but not boredom. I spent Thursday night wide awake, imagining other novels. Anything other than the one I was working on. It was truly strange, because my imagination and obsessions never, ever bore me; on the contrary I bear them in mind for a long, long time. But I no longer could. No, and that was the matter, the quid of the matter, the heart of my disinterest . . . My imagination flitted about like a kite, without my realizing that I did not want to continue telling the story I already knew. Don’t ask me why, though I would answer that what I was trying to do was avoid the realization I’d had on Sunday: the certainty that to create my novel like this was an outrage. I was selling myself, selling my soul. Why? I was handing it over on a tray, Lederer’s software recorded it exactly as I imagined it, complete, perfect, nuanced with emotion. It transmitted it impeccably, purely, and pristinely. I repeat: perfect. To say “transmitted” is idiocy. It didn’t transmit it: the novel was, it was real, it was, it was. I had nothing to complain about. But as I’ve already said, I was selling myself over and over, I was being taken advantage of. Like the boys who sold themselves in Sanborns near El Angel at the end of the seventies, what would they be called now in Mexico? How did their clients know where to find them? Were they still there today? They ought to be, because there’s no end to desire.
My disinterest was due in part to the fact that I didn’t want to let my novel go, I didn’t want to set it free. I had spent years lovingly considering every last detail as if each were the most priceless thing in the world, the universe, but upon sharing it the novel entirely lost its attraction. I got bored. I didn’t want to go on with it. And I asked myself if there were a way for me to avoid delivering it as I had created it . . . “If I could imagine it with another ending, leaving the destinies of my characters buried where no one would ever be able to touch them, and give the pigs what they wanted . . . some pretentious pyrotechnics . . .” I said all this without saying it. Or rather, I half-said it to myself, turning the idea over in my head.
It all came to a head on Thursday night, which I spent imagining an endless number of inanities, who knows when I fell asleep. Sarah woke me and brought me a coffee in bed before she headed out to the office.
“You didn’t sleep last night.”
Newsflash. Why was she telling me something I clearly already knew? “You don’t say!” I replied.
“You should have taken an Ambien, at least half a pill,” because without it I wouldn’t be able to work well, and the novel would fall behind schedule, and we were working under deadline, did I think a million dollars was a joke, did I know how much we stood to lose if . . . She’s lucky I didn’t toss that coffee in her face! It was the last thing I wanted to hear. My blood was boiling. “On top of cheating on me you think you’ve got me yoked like some cow in a barn, providing your daily milk? That’s rich! Old bitch. Sour, shriveled, soulless old bitch!” I told myself I said to her.
“Don’t you dare fall asleep again!” the wench chattered in English and she went out whistling like she always did. I heard her shut the door. I sat up in bed. I brought the coffee to my lips. It smelled nasty. I nibbled the toast; it had a garlicky aftertaste. I put my plate on the nightstand. I was still furious when I got in the shower. My skin burned from lack of sleep. The light irritated me. Water was the only thing I wanted to feel. I stood there for a long time. By the time I turned the shower off I felt less miserable. I ignored the cold coffee and went downstairs to fix myself a proper cup. I drank it as slowly as I could.
I was calmer, but it was like I was sedated. And it was in this state that I arrived at fucking Lederer’s house next door. I rang the bell, setting off our daily ritual: he came to the front door in his contraption to fetch me, my coffee in hand, we spent a few minutes at the control panel while he fiddled with some knobs, just long enough for me to finish my coffee, he placed the sensors under my tongue and parked or seated us—however you’d like to put it—in that great, empty coffin of a brownstone.
This little ritual was immensely comforting. Despite myself I’d begin to imagine the novel immediately. You could say that it was irresistible. I didn’t remember a single thing about the previous night, my interminable insomnia—like a good milk-cow!
And cow that I was I saw a window and through that window I saw the thick growth of trees like the ones in the gardens behind our brownstones at the onset of autumn, the leaves large and ripe, dusty green, just on the point of falling. The wind wants them to dance, but they barely comply with a sweet, lazy flutter. The wind insists, the leaves, like old barges, come away in handfuls, sinking more than falling; slow leaves, floating down. You can see the bright blue sky through the branches, the sound as lovely as the sight, a ululation of waves, light scratching the sand and the surface of the sea. Sweet pleasure entering through eyes and ears.
Beneath the breeze through the trees you can hear something else, equally sweet but with an ominous tone: the sounds made by our pair of lovers. Ana has wound her legs around Manuel, her feet behind his back, her stilettos still on. He is mounting her, he lifts her body, she raises her legs, he wobbles and weaves, sweat is dripping from his head and his chest. They are both exerting themselves, han, huen, hn, ghn, I can’t capture their sounds with mere letters; they are both wearing dark masks (I spot the British Airways logo on the border of the one Ana is wearing, the kind of detail that we edit out at the end of a session because it is meaningless, and it’s made its way into the novel only by chance). Ana pushes the heel of her shoe gently into Manuel’s buttock, spurring him on with even more vigor, only a few seconds separate them from coming again, even harder and faster, and now she digs her other heel into him, harder and faster, their noises no longer languid but pained. The breeze intensifies, it shakes the branches, a multitude of leaves fall, you can hear a man’s “Aaah!” of pure pain, and Manuel collapses on top of Ana.
She pokes him again with one heel, then the other. Nothing, Manuel doesn’t respond. Her blood is pumping, she’s starting to calm down, “What are you up to?” she says, “Tell me!” but she receives no reply. Angry, she lowers her legs, kicks off her shoes, she strains beneath his heavy bulk, it’s all she can do to free herself from under him—Ana is petite, short and slight, Manuel is tall, corpulent—and she removes her mask.
Manuel has fainted. He is pale, inert.
“Cut it out!” Ana says, “if you already came, it’s over, I forgive you, yes, I’m mad, but don’t tease me like that, you’re scaring me . . .”
She is sitting cross-legged on the bed. She touches herself to see if she’s covered in semen: none. She shakes Manuel. He doesn’t respond. She removes his mask: his eyes are wide open, his pupils dilated. They don’t adjust to the light streaming through the hotel window. Ana puts her hand beneath his nostrils: nothing. She rolls him over and puts both hands on his chest: she doesn’t feel a thing. With both hands she beats his chest: “Answer me! Answer me! Answer me!” Nothing. She performs CPR. Nothing. Manuel is stone dead, and like a stone he still has his hard-on.
I, the author, interrupt the scene, now I’m in the center of the room. “He’s just like me,” I say, addressing the reader yet invisible to my characters, “This is what makes a story: a cadaver and an erection. Not Quevedo’s famous ashes of love, but a hard-on and a body—an ‘I,’ a senseless burden, death. I am that frozen dick, and I’m writing with it. I am that dead body: that’s why I write, because I’m a cadaver. I am the living dead, I converse with the dead but all the while I desire the living. I’m a private in my own army. Scheherazade was the same, the daughter of the vizier who sacrificed herself so that others might live, she had one foot in the grave and one in the king’s bed.”
While I’m speaking, Ana continues to reel in her own hell. The horror of being caught is nothing compared to the realization that she has lost her lover forever. As I mentioned, the author has entered the story but she’s not aware of his presence, and since the author’s arrival the Eye of the novel has begun to wander: it passed through the wall of the hotel room, from the balcony on the seventh floor it observed the bustle of the Zona Rosa, the chaos of a Friday afternoon, cars at a standstill, a human anthill . . . The noises of Mexico City enter the scene, pervading it. The beggars are down there, the majority Indians, some walking, some sitting on benches, slowing pedestrians down, the women with their babies in slings, groups of girls and boys dressed in tatters, shoeless, begging for coins; prostitutes of twelve or thirteen, tapping their little gold heels like dolls; the young men who pick them up; men with dark glasses distributing fliers for bars that offer “live shows,” table dances, strip teases, brothels to fulfill any desire, peep shows; sidewalk vendors, drunk tourists, bicycle messengers dodging pedestrians and drivers alike.
Ana dials reception and asks if there’s a doctor.
“In the hotel?” answers the receptionist.
“Exactly,” says Ana, refraining from shouting a doctor in the hotel.
“I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean you ‘don’t think so’? Is there or is there not a doctor in the house?”
“No, we have no need for one, this isn’t a hospital, Miss,” emphasizing Miss, since she knows all about Ana’s regular rendezvous with a married man, though she does not know that Miss is the wife of her lover’s best friend and business partner.
“Is there one nearby? Someone discreet?”
“Let me ask my colleagues.”
At the other end of the line you can hear the banter of the men down at reception followed by the voice of the bellhop, “The young lady in 707 needs a doctor. Does anyone know where to find one?” And the Eye of the novel leaves Ana with the telephone glued to her ear and heads down to reception: the chaos of the city has drifted into the lobby, a busload of tourists, American geezers, has just arrived from the beach, you can tell by the color of their skin, their sunhats, their fatigue; plastic bags full of nicknacks, they are pursued by hordes of sidewalk vendors whom the bellhops shoo back into the street, until they fall upon the next group of golden-agers who, intrigued by their wares—mostly fake pre-Hispanic artworks—invite them in and then immediately forget them as they line up to register, anxious about the wait.
The receptionist repeats loudly: “Does anyone know if there’s a doctor in the house?”
“The codger who lived around the corner died,” says the oldest bellhop. “He’s the only one I can think of.”
“Ask her if it’s an emergency,” says the other receptionist while the computer searches for a room to assign the gringo who’s looking at her like a little lamb.
“Of course it’s an emergency.”
“Yes, an emergency!”
“Let’s call Mocel, what do you think?”
“There’s no one closer? Friday afternoons Mocel . . . ”
“Hey, there’s an ambulance passing by out front, let me try to catch it. Hold on a second, don’t hang up . . . ”
And Ana presses the receiver to her ear, she hugs herself, even the dead body.
Once again the Eye crosses through the wall of the hotel room, goes down seven flights, lands in the swarm of automobiles, runs along six blocks till it sees the ambulance. The siren is on. Inside the cabin the radio is playing the Monk’s Cumbia full blast.
Let’s daaance . . .
It sounds like Gregorian chant.
Let’s daaance, let’s dance the cumbia . . . Let’s daance, let’s daance the cumbia . . .
Church bells ring.
Let’s daance, let’s daance the cumbia . . .
And the traditional chacatacata-chacatacaca of the cumbia starts up, the driver drumming the beat with his fingers on the dash, his hands are dancing. Chaca-chaca, he sways his hips, dancing, dancing . . . And the cumbia turns into a sort of rap, a cumbia-rap.
The cumbia, the cumbia, the cumbia fills my life Tonight I’m going to take my girl dancing I’m going to leave it all behind I’ll dance all night, till dawn Every day I hear a voice calling me Am I losing my mind or what To a bewitching rhythm that’s impossible to deny I’m at ease only when I’m dancing the cumbia Long live the cumbia, forever, forever, Long live the cumbia, forever, forever Let’s daaance, let’s dance the cumbia . . .
Dong, dong, the bells start again. An accordion whines, groans.
My sole purpose is to live it up till my body gives in I’m a man I never tire Long live the cumbia, forever, forever, I don’t regret a single thing I’ve ever done The cumbia is always on my mind I’ll dance all night, till dawn
Once again the accordion wheezes. Fweet, gweet, gweet, gweet . . . gwot gwot: Let’s daaance
The driver is singing his heart out, he’s smoking a Delicado at the same time.
Now we’re listing to the cumbia in the back of the ambulance, where a male nurse is screwing the doctor on the stretcher. He comes when the cumbia ends—what musical timing!—and she, smoothing her hair and shifting aside says, “If it really was an emergency they were calling about, they’re desperate by now . . . Do you know what it was?”
“Some woman was giving birth . . .”
“Well then the child’s already been born.”
“Yeah it was born. On the median on Reforma. It was a boy. They’re waiting for us to cut the cord and bring it in.”
“On Friday afternoon!”
“Well, Babe, what do you expect?”
“How’s the mother?”
“A thirteen-year-old, everything’s fine . . . ” He rises to the back window of the ambulance and looks out the window. “Babe, there’s the Genova Street taco stand, you want lunch?”
“What do you think? We’re on an emergency run!”
“We haven’t moved for the last fifteen minutes. There’s plenty of time for me to grab us tacos. What kind do you want?”
“Two cow-eye tacos with red salsa and cilantro.”
The nurse opens the door, gets out, pushes his way round the side of the ambulance and taps on the driver’s window. As the driver lowers it slowly a drug-runners’ ballad starts up on the radio: in the cemetery in my village/ there’s an empty grave/ waiting for me.
“Hey man,” says the nurse.
“I’m running over to the Genova taco stand. What kind of tacos do you want?”
“Three huge ones.”
“The red kind, not too spicy.”
“I’ll be right back, if the traffic begins to move, pull to the curb, I won’t be long,” and he dashes to the taco stand, no more than a few boards and sheets of corrugated metal painted blue with the notice “reserved for the Association for the Blind” (though there is no sign of a blind man), the propane tank off to the side. The nurse avoids the swarm of roadside vendors (the one selling lottery tickets shouts in a baritone, “Get your luck here! Come and get your good luck!”, a tall guy in a suit solemnly hawks the dictionaries he’s selling, “For spelllling, to fiiiind work!”, but the rest shuffle along silently, showing their wares: gum, cold drinks), and while the nurse is on his errand the Eye of the novel pauses above this swarm of salesmen, observing their wares, wrestling masks “for your children,” backscratchers, cotton candy, kaleidoscopes, pinwheels, yoyos, balls on sticks decorated with Mickey Mouse, little white hand-crocheted cloths for covering tortillas. The Eye of the novel is still fixated on this army of salesmen when the nurse, dressed in white, returns with the three plates of tacos, knocking on the driver’s window with his elbow—he’s listening to another drug-runners’ ballad on the radio:
The agent who was supervising this particular inspection in Nogales
Seemed doubtful and immediately asked them
Where they were coming from,
“So what are you telling people you’re carrying?” said the head agent
The nuns answered serenely, we’re on our way to an orphanage
And the boxes you see in the back are nipples and powdered milk
We’re delivering them to the orphans and if you don’t believe us, well!
The nurse hands the driver his tacos, opens the back door of the ambulance, hops in with the doctor, and closes the door just as the traffic starts to move, not much—four feet? And then the traffic stalls once more, vibrating, sonorous, rousing the roadside vendors who descend again, crying their wares or displaying them silently, a cloud of colors less metallic than those of the cars, but brighter.
The Eye of the novel leaves the ambulance, retraces the six blocks, climbs the wall of the Hotel Genova, crosses the balcony, enters Ana’s room through the window and finds her with the telephone still glued to her ear, still waiting for an answer from reception. They’ve forgotten about her. I’m still standing alongside the bed and resume my “creator’s monologue” which, with permission of those here present, I will keep to myself. The Eye of the novel does not pause on us, it descends the stairs of the hotel, toward the chaos in the lobby, the phone is off the hook, no one has noticed it—and ascends the stairs again, like one of the yoyos we’ve just seen for sale. Ana hangs up the phone. She wipes the sweat from Manuel’s body. She strokes his hair. She kisses his face. She sits down next to him and continues where she left off: opens her legs, bends her knees, the soles of her feet on the sheets, and she masturbates, rubbing her vulva and her breasts alternately, while at her side, on the other side of the window, the wind blows and blows and two leaves fall until—in chorus with my monologue—Ana comes loudly and no sooner is she done than she begins to cry. I fall silent; my monologue is over. Manuel’s dick is still hard; Ana relaxes on the bed at his side, bathed in sweat, she falls asleep and begins to dream.
Abruptly I brought the scene to an end. Aloud I said: “That’s the end of the chapter. I don’t know if we should keep the stuff about the leaves, it might not be right: in Mexico City fall doesn’t really exist, the majority of the trees are perennials. But it’s fine, maybe I’ll leave it.”
“End of the chapter? Already?” asked Lederer. “Already?” he repeated.
“It has to end there, with the hard-on and the author and the babe asleep.”
“I agreed that I wasn’t going to intervene,” said the fucker, “but you’re a lazy ass. You can’t write such short chapters.”
“The agreement we signed says ‘one chapter a day,’ but there’s no specification about the number of pages. What do you want to do? Ruin the novel?”
“No!” He laughed. “What I want is, no matter how shitty it is, for you to finish it soon. At this rate we’re going nowhere. We need the finished product now, damn it! Today we barely covered a few seconds.”
“Four minutes and fifty-nine seconds, including your ‘monologue’ which, I believe you’ll agree, needs to go in the zink.”
He said “zink,” but I thought “sink.” He was going to throw me in the sink? That would be the last straw!
“You said, you signed, Lederer, that it would be exactly as I write it. In plain Spanish: ‘Go fuck yourself, man!'”
“No, I’m not going to fuck myself,” he answered in Spanish with a decent accent, grammatically correct, too. “Enough of your vulgarities and masturbations. I have an obligation to fulfill. Come on man! I beg you! Work! Continue! Get on with it! Please! Or else we’ll never finish!”
And without noticing he switched to his own perfidious language, the language of olde Albion: “Of course we’re going to finish, and soon. We’re working within the parameters of the time it takes to read and the time it takes to create, which is even shorter than the time it takes to write. How many hours does it take to write a novel? Many. But you can imagine it in the blink of an eye. We should be wrapping this up next week.” And he added brusquely: “Period.”
I have already stated that I’m an artist, not a milk-cow on bovine growth hormone to swell my udder, providing milk night and day, at least not very often I’m not, but I’ve never lost my dignity. Did he think he could squeeze the novel out of me just like that? This really was the last straw! I was furious.
He jerked our chairs about, as if we were in bumper cars at the fair, forward, backward. Now it was Lederer’s turn to be furious. What a temper!
When all was said and done I really liked the guy despite the fact that he was fucking my wife. Even though he was ruining my life, I liked him. What’s more, I’m Mexican, I’m not one of those crass guys who say “no” outright or get into fights and embroil themselves in scandal. Like a good Mexican what I always do is, to put it bluntly, find another way out. The truth is that the chapter—according to my original plan—had not ended there, it would have been the same length as all the other chapters, but I don’t know what happened to me, as soon as Ana began to dream the story seemed a bit flimsy to me and I understood that I’d have to revise the scene and since I was feeling a little down I stalled and just preferred to stop. I would have been able to pick it up again in a heartbeat—thanks to the dream the scene could resume at a later point—and for the best, but even though I kind of liked the asshole, his attitude pissed me off, and it just wasn’t my day, Sarah had been right, I should have taken an Ambien . . . Although Ambien or not, Lederer playing bumper-chairs, a bad caricature of a boss, wasn’t helping. Because he was still jerking our chairs around. My head was empty, but in an effort to appease him I tried.
I closed my eyes and sank deep, deep into myself, I turned my creative side off—if I have a creative side—and began to imagine whatever caught my fancy, something unimportant that would get me out of this bind. I put the Eye of the novel in reverse, we returned to the chaos of Mexico City, back to the hotel room, and without explanation I erased the author and in another reversal I sent the Eye out into the street. At the vortex of the city that Friday afternoon, a payday Friday, a squadron of police storm the Hotel Genova. Mayhem! When the operation inundates the hotel, there are no more old folks waiting around to register, because the receptionists are extremely efficient at checking them in. They’ve completely forgotten to call an ambulance, but each gringo is cozy in his room. And so the police in their special operations uniforms, helmets, uzis, black boots, raid—that’s the word one of them would use—through the front and back doors, arms drawn.
The hotel manager comes out of his office, “Just a moment! This is no fleabag motel, this is the Genova Calinda!” but no one hears him, “Who’s in charge?” he shouts, “Who’s in command here?”
Someone points to a gorilla bringing up the rear, “Yeah, kid?”
“Comandante, the Genova Calinda is a four-star hotel, you can’t just barge in like this and terrorize our guests.”
“I’m sorry to say that we can, we have orders to search the entire hotel.”
“But comandante, this is the Genova Calinda,” and after pouring on the ‘comandante’ crap he launches into a recitation of all the hotel’s distinguished guests: “Lindbergh stayed here many times when he was sleeping with the American ambassador Dwight Morrow’s daughter; we’ve been in business since 1907” . . . but the gorilla shoots him an icy look that shuts him up and the frightened manager scurries back to his office like a chicken to call the hotel’s lawyer. “This is not happening,” he says to himself over and over again as he tries to reach the lawyer. Meanwhile, a plainclothesman has logged into one of the computers while the rest of the cops crowd into the elevators and stairwells.
Ana hears the chambermaids: “It’s the police! Run and tell the Salvadoreña to get out of here!” Ana grabs her bag, shoes, dress and other belongings and runs out naked, leaving the door open, she slips into the next room, the drying room for the laundry. Just then the elevators open and disgorge a handful of policemen who move down the hall banging on doors while a terrified maid they found on the floor below opens each room for them. Ana is breathing heavily in the laundry hamper, burying herself under the dirty sheets and towels, hugging her clothes. The cops outside the room don’t even have time to sniff the laundry before someone shouts, “We’ve got a body!” and they all run toward Manuel.
We are—I mean, the Eye of the novel is—with Ana beneath the heap of dirty laundry. Ana wants to cry. She doesn’t dare move. She can still hear footsteps. Time passes. Ana falls asleep and dreams:
She’s with King Moctezuma back in the sixteenth century, Tenochtitlan in its full glory. They’re being carried on an ornate litter across Tacubaya Avenue; there are vast lakes on either side of them. They are facing the temples, the largest is immense, the smaller ones clustered around it like guards. There is Popocatepetl, there’s Ixtlaccihuatl, the eagles beak behind them both, crowning Axohocho—these days we say Ajusco, the realm of tiny frogs and water lilies.
Ana is at emperor Moctezuma’s side, is she his lover? One of his wives? His sister? The avenue opens up into the center of Tenochtitlan, lined with beautiful houses painted with typically Aztec designs; here and there she glimpses enormous statues. The city is a jewel. They arrive in the Plaza Mayor, at Moctezuma’s palace, not far from the main temple. Everything is done with great ceremony; they unroll a carpet of red flowers so that the emperor’s feet don’t touch the ground.
The leaders of the empire await them in a large room. The news has already spread: a group of foreigners with arms that spit fire has arrived at the coast. They come on huge animals, like tall dogs.
They’ve burned their ships. They have blond beards and they wear shiny metal armor.
One of the messengers enters; he’s followed by a group of artists who bring their scrolls and paintings of the foreigners.
The Eye of the novel gets caught up in the tale of one scroll.
What the Scroll Says in Ana’s Dream
Beside the Chapultepec aqueduct—not far from the hotel where Ana is—a group of children exchange blows on a battlefield. They’re maybe eleven, twelve. They all wear braids, a sign that they have not yet fought in battle. They roll around in the dust, they continue exchanging blows, one is wounded in the head and falls, the battle stalls, and they’re all frightened. One speaks and another answers, they all have an agave spike in their tongues, a punishment. What are they saying? They speak in Nahuatl. They lift their fallen comrade, someone gives him water, and they clean his wound. Camaraderie, laughter.
The End of “The Eye and the Scroll”
The man who unfurled the scroll that captivated the Eye of the novel rolls it back up. He trembles, full of fear. His heart is heavy. He believes the gods are abandoning them but he doesn’t dare say so for fear of infuriating the emperor. He bursts into tears.
Ana has witnessed the whole scene despite being a woman. Women were not allowed to attend such meetings in that place and time, it would have been unthinkable: it’s all right to make things up but this was really going too far. And what on earth was Ana doing dreaming all this at the bottom of a laundry hamper full of other people’s dirty sheets, naked and terrified? Her beloved just dead! How do you expect me to believe that she fell asleep a second time? I headed to the kitchen, away from Ana, the policemen, Moctezuma, the fighting kids and their noisy instructors . . .
What a load of bullshit!
No sooner have I thought this than I stall. I can’t go on with this string of lies. It makes me sick.
I said “stall,” but what do I mean? The truth is that I felt something like shame, and it occurred to me that my cocksureness was mere stupidity. I had completely lost the thread.
“Damn it!” spits fucking Lederer. “What’s going on? It’s all getting blurry, confusing . . . We’re losing it, man!”
I took the sensors out of my mouth and excused myself.
“I’m sorry, I took a wrong turn and derailed, what did you expect . . . ”
“I’m going to erase that crap and end the chapter where you wanted to.”
He said this without venom, a completely different tone, and since he saw that now I was the frustrated one, he went on:
“All right? You want a coffee? Let’s go outside for a bit and when we get back you can decide if you want to end it there or not.”
I loved the thought of going outside. I had nowhere to go with the story, not with Ana, not with the police, not with the poor hotel manager crumbling in his office, thinking that he’s lost his job just when his son is about to start at Ibero, the Jesuit university, he would have been the first in the family to wear the collar. Thanks to my fool Mexicanism of not saying “no” at the right time and not immersing myself in the story I was “telling” I had written myself into a corner. Go out for a while? Nothing sounded better. The problem was humility. Being Mexican is like that: I didn’t say “No” even though all I wanted to do was say “No,” so I did a crappy job, then when I tried to get out of the corner I was ashamed that I couldn’t. It’s so easy for other people to say “No” when they mean “No” and “Yes” when they mean “Yes,” and to do what they say! This is the legacy of colonialization, not our Aztec heritage. But enough rambling, let’s get out of here, now!
So, as you see, it was Lederer who proposed our excursion . . . Yeah, yeah, oh yeah! I nodded, and my assent was sincere. Lederer rewound the last few seconds and left the image on pause. The effect of these last seconds, when we were “losing” Ana was a good one. Ana seemed to be disappearing like in a Remedios Varo painting, she was one with the sheets, or the sheets wrapped around her were part of her. It really was very pleasing to the eye.
“Look,” I said to Lederer as soon as we’d set foot in the street and he was locking the door. “It wasn’t that bad. Did you erase it?”
“What?” he said, pocketing his key.
“The last part, when I started to lose focus. It wasn’t all bad, was it?”
“It’s no good, it’s useless.”
“Yeah, I know, but did you really erase it?”
“What do you want it for? It’s a mess . . . ”
“I thought it looked cool. I want to keep that image. Did you notice how she seemed to dissolve?”
“A mess!” he repeated irritably.
“Come on, save it for me. It’s not that bad. I don’t want it for the novel; I’m no avant-gardist.”
“But you wrote yourself in, the author entered . . . ”
“Come on man, that’s not avant-garde! Who doesn’t do it? It’s a common device. Even Cervantes did it.”
The mention of one of our own was enough to shut his trap; he didn’t even offer his opinion.
“Come on, keep that image for me. I liked seeing little Ana fading away into the sheets, it’s like a surrealist painting. I want to keep it. It’s more than a painting, it’s like a piece of real life, cut and then framed. Think of putting a show together around that. I could retire. It’s been ages since people have seen such arresting images.”
“Don’t be so damn arrogant!” Well, he didn’t say it exactly like that, but that’s what he meant. And he began throwing out names of this photographer and that gallerist . . .
“That’s enough man!” I said in English. “I’ll be as arrogant as I like.”
Lederer shot me a glance out of the corner of his eye that was part scorn, part admiration.
“I’ll keep it for you, man, if it’s as important to you as you say. In fact, I have it right here.”
“Yeah, here,” and he removed his tin of Altoids from his shirt pocket, like the one from which he offered me the little gray pill on the stairway in his brownstone the very first day we met. He opened it: at the bottom of the tin there was a tiny computer chip covered with a dusting of who knows what. He said, “I saved the last second. It’s here. You can do what you want with it.”
“Great! Will you let me see it now?”
“Make it appear out of thin air?” and as he said this a portfolio appeared in his left hand, the kind an artist uses for carrying his work. A virtual portfolio, like the virtual dog he had with him the day he sold me on this project. What other tricks did he have? Which were the ones he had used to bewitch Sarah?
“Okay, let’s go,” and he headed toward Fourth. “But I should clarify that we’re not here to play games like that. There is nothing frivolous about our project.”
“Look man, it’s not frivolity or even vanity, an image is worth a lot and with the amount of time we’ve invested in this . . . ”
“No!” he practically shouted, and lowering his voice he added in English, “No, you don’t get it,” and then he raised his voice again, not out of anger or impatience, but in all seriousness, like a soothsayer or a prophet. “We’re not playing, no estamos jugando. You don’t get it, no entiendes.”
“I don’t get what?” I answered in English.
We were facing Fourth Avenue, it was jammed with cars. What was going on? Sometimes there’s heavy traffic there, but this kind of gridlock wasn’t normal. We heard a fire truck approaching. It was at the corner on our right, pulling into the intersection of Atlantic, Fourth, and Flatbush.
“Took them probably three minutes to get here. ”
“Just imagine, in Mexico . . . ” and I was lost in thought. It’s a habit I can’t break, a constant tabulation, making comparisons. I compare everything, from the light to the smell of the people on the subway, to how things are in Mexico of course. It’s been twelve years since I’ve lived there, but I still do it. Shoes, purses, gestures, homes . . . Not just here, in Brooklyn, or in loathsome Manhattan; even in Paris, where we used to live. I compare everything, I measure everything I see by my Mexico. Sara says that I’ve never left Mexico, teasing she calls me “the taco of Brooklyn, Nueva York,” taco and Nueva York in my native tongue. I visit only three times a year—on my mother’s birthday which is in September, at Christmas which she wouldn’t let me miss, and the first two weeks of summer at our house in Troncones when the whole family gets together. But I still compare everything to Mexico, as if we were the universal standard. And we are, at least as far as I’m concerned; there’s nothing like Mexico.
The screeching ambulance is right behind the fire truck. When we arrived at the corner of Atlantic and Fourth, only two blocks from home, the scene of the accident had already altered, so we had to listen to the crowd to learn that a biker had tried to run the light and a small Verizon truck had hit him, knocking him flat on the road. Had he broken his neck? There was no sight of blood, there was no sign of injury, but the guy wasn’t moving. The bike was unscathed. The Verizon truck was parked on Atlantic and the driver was desperate, there was a cop on either side of him and he was practically screaming—was he Puerto Rican? Dominican? From a distance you could hear the Caribbean inflection in his words, but that was all. “I didn’t see him. He ran into me . . . ,” he cried in Spanish, because the three cops, two men and one woman, were ours. There seemed to be no end to his desolation.
In the time it took me to figure out what was going on, the EMTs had already loaded the cyclist—his head immobilized by a neck brace—into the ambulance. A fire truck, an ambulance, a police car, three emergency vehicles to rescue a victim who wasn’t even bleeding! It made no sense to me, they were all idiots.
“If he’s illegal, he’s fucked.”
“Lederer, what a world you gringos live in! The bike messenger, the guy who flew out into the intersection!”
“Judging by all the noise the driver’s making, you’d think he’s the illegal one.”
And I had thought he was spacing out.
“I don’t think so, to work at Verizon . . .”
“And if he’s helping his cousin out for the day? I don’t know why else he’d be so upset.”
“Maybe it’s his first day of work.”
“If that’s the case it’ll be his last, too!”
We made our way through the crowd that forms on that particular corner at certain times of the day, mainly Arabs on their way to or from the Al-Farooq mosque or their shops, a few women covered in black from head to toe, their burkas revealing only their eyes and their shoes, soles worn thin. With luck you might catch a glimpse of the cuffs of their dresses, almost always colorful. They’re either very thin or very fat, all the thin ones walk as though they bear the weight of the world. Some shuffle along in sheer misery but others swim through the crowd with a haughty elegance.
The majority are men, mostly dressed in their own fashion, though you see some jeans and sneakers too, but most of them wear long gowns, beards, caps, and when they hear the muezzin calling, his voice filling the streets, they cross Fourth Avenue and merge onto Flatbush.
We were passing the Arab street vendors on Atlantic, the dollar stalls selling hats and caps, colorful slippers, perfume, incense, produce and pastries in plastic boxes. The Muslim shops sit behind them, signs announcing aromatic spices, body oils, black-seed soaps and creams, Kufis, scarves—hijab, hijbab, abaay and more—and the Dar Es Salaam bookstore, all surrounding the enormous mosque where Sheik Abdel Rahman had preached—he was the imam of that mosque for a few months in 1990, the one accused of sending money to the bin Ladenites, as if they needed it. A sign above the mosque proclaimed “house of knowledge” in English, and below it, Aqsa, a humble Pakistani shop (“for all ages,” did they mean that they didn’t sell pornography or what?) which sold those trim little prayer rugs they all use. There was a Jewish store next door, if this was the “Little Middle East” the Jews had to be here too. They sold cheap watches and repaired nicer ones—I bought one from them once: it worked for exactly twenty-four hours, I didn’t bother returning it—belts, I bought one of those too, it was a good one, and pathetic-looking shoes, could they be kosher? Then there’s Nadina, a huge store that does a brisk business in natural soaps and herbal cosmetics, is that what they call them, “herbal cosmetics”?
On the other side of the avenue there’s Islamic Fashion.
“My favorite store,” said Lederer.
“Have you ever checked it out?”
“No, what do you think, that I’d have been intrigued by the name and gone in?”
“Really? Aren’t you the adventurer!”
“Of course I am.” (I didn’t tell him the whole story, that the store fascinated me: they sell everything you need to lead a Muslim life: kaftans and shawls, Korans, Koran stands, prayer beads, various pomades; the salesgirl is cloaked from head to toe and there’s a long-bearded man who keeps a jealous eye on her and scrutinizes me as if it enrages him that my dirty eyes land upon the hands of his shop girl when she hands me my purchases. One day I said to her, “How much for a burka?” “For you?” she asked derisively. “No, for my wife,” and the fatty had the nerve to say, “You going to Iran?”). Then we pass the pharmacy, it’s a chain store, not very nice; next comes Hanks, a bar that has live country music on Sundays, not half bad, I’ve been a thousand times; the Muhlenberg building is next door, another Islamic bookstore, a lawyer, an insurance broker, and then we’re at the Flying Saucer. It’s a little café full of old armchairs, like so many of the coffee shops in Brooklyn, like the one in D.C. I loved going to ages ago, back when we spent a few months there when Sarah was in training . . . but that’s another story, I don’t even remember its name, and besides that one was cavernous and this is a tiny little joint.
“I guess it’s not that close to home,” said Lederer when we sat down.
“Yeah, but it’s worth it not to have to go to a loud, soulless Starbucks, where everything smells like plastic like in the Atlantic Avenue mall.”
“But there’s that café on Fifth Avenue.”
“The monkey one?”
“Yeah, the Gorilla Café.”
“I don’t think so,” and leaving this potential debate about coffee, which can be worse than debating theology—how can you judge it?—he began to harangue me, I’ll summarize it here as best I can:
“I’m not the first one to try this. Some of my colleagues have spent years with implants in their arms or even closer to the brain in order to study the extent to which a computer can read instructions from the human brain. With one guy who suffered a little brain damage they confirmed that he was able to move the cursor on the screen just by thinking it. We’re becoming one with computers.”
“One god, one faith, one belief, one father,” runs through my mind, you can see that my knowledge of the almighty is unlimited, thanks to my regular attendance at church with the help when I was little.
Only amateurs are fascinated by the idea of surfing the net without having to touch a mouse or even be near a computer. They believe we’ll learn to think differently. We’re not far off, I believe Kevin Warwick is out there walking around with his implant, no problem. In my opinion, living plugged into Google, just like this business of implants, sounds Neanderthal. Do you think Dr. Warwick is going to plug himself into his wife next? She’ll always know what state of mind he’s in, what gets him going, everything about him. . . . It doesn’t appeal to me in the slightest. He, like myself and many others, believes that in the near future we’ll be able to communicate telepathically. We’ll have better ways to express our thoughts and feelings. We’ll only use words to speak with babies, like you and I are doing now. And for training cyborgs, to teach them to communicate.
I’ve taken it a step further and I don’t have much further to go. You already know everything I told you when I approached you on your stoop: for something to appear real, it must be “real” in the imagination. And real can be a fantasy, an illusion, as long as it’s honest. You tested that today: your novelist’s “lies” aren’t really lies at all. You’re building a world. But your stunt, as you saw, didn’t work, it didn’t pass muster, it didn’t materialize because it wasn’t. All I have discovered is the means to turn the imaginary into the real.
He blathers on and on about his philosophies, how this is all inevitable, up, down, around and around, this way and that way, without really getting anywhere, every last tiresome thought he’s had about the human conscience and of course the brain, about the imprecision of his sensors and all the possibilities they’ve created, about this and that and I don’t even know what until suddenly he’s talking about evil. I swear, talking about evil! You’ve got to be shitting me!
“Excuse me, I’ll be back in a minute,” I said, or something like that, and went out in the street. I leaned against the facade of the Flying Saucer. I got my matches and a joint out of my shirt pocket so I could relax—I only smoke when I really, really need it, which is usually right before I sit down to a meal with my wife. Every night I smoke one on my way to the restaurant or if we’re eating at home I do it right before dinner, it makes the long, loong, looong road to dessert more bearable. I lit it, I breathed deep, deep, held it in my lungs . .. I felt (because I didn’t have the slightest desire to think) something like this: “I wish Lederer’s U.F.O. would take off already, I wish he’d get the hell away and I’d never see him again!” The avenue was deserted, a lull in the traffic like a hangover from the gridlock the accident had caused. It was unbelievable: there was not a single car on the street. One of the signs across the street caught my eye: “Alfa Translation Center,” with some Arabic calligraphy above that, who knows what it said. To the left in big letters a sign read: “World Martial Center.” What a sweet coincidence, a bad joke, and to make it even better, between the two signs there was a new shop, its bright front window full of expensive, fancy carpets. There was no name yet, would they call it “Aladdin”? I put out my joint against the sole of my shoe, put it back in my matchbox, and returned to the table.
Lederer was still sitting there. No sooner had he seen me than he launched into his diatribe again. What was he on about? I’d already lost him once, imagine how I felt when he started up again. It was like he was spewing his words from the other side of a mirror. I didn’t protest I took his arm and shook it to stop him rambling:
“Paul,” I said.