My friend Lencho Mejía has been murdered thirty-seven times in Los Angeles, five in Tijuana, and once in a Romanian-Argentinian co-production filmed in Honduras, which came very close to being nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Only twice, though, has he had the chance to say anything before dropping dead: “You fucking bastard!” On both occasions. He had to say it quickly and quietly, but he put a lot of feeling into it. Everything he learned from Stanislavski is encapsulated in those three words. Or so Lencho always says when, at home, after his fifth tequila, he gets out his videos and forces us to watch all his deaths, one after another.
My relationship with Hilda began on just such a night. I’d also had several tequilas and was perched on the arm of a small sofa. She was beside me. Lencho was sitting next to her, poised, rather like an insect, leaning toward the TV screen. Hilda brushed my left knee with her hand.
“It was the lousy editor who fucked me over in this scene. I don’t know why he didn’t use the other take, where you could see me from the front and where the fall was more dramatic. I even spat on the ground. It was my best shot of the day too.”
Hilda again ran her hand over my knee. There was no way this could have been an accident. When you’re that close to someone, accidents don’t happen. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye, but she seemed completely absent, absorbed, staring at the screen, almost as if she’d never seen those images before. Her fingers, however, kept hovering close to my leg, as if quite innocently. I tried to appear natural and changed position slightly, but left my leg where it was, in contact with her hand. Then, suddenly, she started gently scratching my leg with one of her nails, at least I think she did.
“This is the bit I’m always telling you about, Javier. Concentrate now, so that you don’t miss the hand. It appears on the right side of the screen. It’s only there for a second, but it’s Antonio Banderas’s hand. Really. Look!”
Hilda pinched me. I felt the warmth of her fingers squeezing my leg, calling to me from the other side of my trousers. Why was she doing that? Why was she touching me like that while, on the TV screen, her husband was dying over and over?
Lencho and I have been friends for a long time. We met through another actor, soon after I arrived in Mexico. An immediate mutual sympathy sprang up between us, a natural trust, as if we were childhood friends who had unexpectedly found each other again. Lencho got me my first job as a lighting assistant. I had almost no experience, but he was incredibly supportive and always on hand with really good advice. He also acted as guarantor when I rented the apartment in the Colonia Nápoles neighbourhood, which is also where he took refuge when he split up with Mónica. We lived together for some months, while he sorted himself out. He’d started working for Channel 7 a few months before, and that’s where he met Hilda and fell madly in love. Hilda was fourteen years younger than him, but they were really good together. Hilda was stunningly beautiful. They got married in August, two years ago now. I was a witness at the ceremony.
From that evening on, I began to feel uncomfortable. I kept thinking about Lencho, about our friendship, but I was troubled, too, by the thought of Hilda. Her image would surface in my mind out of nowhere, as if it were lying in wait for me somewhere deep inside. I couldn’t help it. I couldn’t control my imagination either. She kept reappearing. Naked, lying face down on blue sheets, lifting her hips slightly, her buttocks. Even in the dark, her skin glowed. Or I would imagine her bent over my cock, working it with her lips, licking it with her tongue. At other times, I would see only her eyes, like liquid coal, coming toward me, fixed on mine, until she was near enough to touch me. Even before I started masturbating while thinking about her, I already felt dirty, because of Lencho. Which is stronger, friendship or desire?
I stopped going to his apartment altogether and tried to meet up with him in places where I was sure he’d be alone. And whenever he invited me back to his place, I’d come up with some excuse, some reason not to go, however ridiculous, silly or childish. I was doing this for his sake, I was protecting him. I didn’t trust myself. And I was quite right not to. I knew that if I saw Hilda, I would succumb immediately to the slightest temptation, I wouldn’t be able to control myself. I often used to imagine her making coffee in her kitchen. She’s wearing a green dress that drapes perfectly over her hips. Lencho is in the bathroom or has gone to the bedroom looking for some video or other. Hilda hasn’t yet seen me. Her shoulders are bare. Her hair falls in a loose tangle down the back of her neck. I am one step away from biting her. The danger is growing all the time. I’d already had too many solitary orgasms, I already had a whole private collection of sighs and sobs stored up just for her, waiting for her.
When I saw her at Fat Hernández’s house, my balls felt like they’d filled up with ice cubes. I felt dizzy and nauseous. She was happy and smiling, talking to Maite Iturria and Aleida Ponce. Her eyes met mine, but that was all. She didn’t even say hello. It was a party to celebrate finishing work on a documentary about the Huichol Indians. It had turned out really well, and everyone was in celebratory mood. They were mainly people from Channel 11, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that Lencho and his wife would be there. I hardly drank anything all night, feeling restless and awkward. I didn’t speak to Hilda once, but I could sense all the time that she was near, that even when I couldn’t see her, she was sending out meaningful looks, secret, insinuating signals aimed only at me. I was also doing my best to avoid Lencho. When the situation became unbearable, I decided to leave early, but as I was leaving, I met her by the bathroom door. I stopped and immediately lowered my eyes, as if I were guilty as charged.
“Anyone would think you were afraid of me,” she said.
I raised my eyes and looked at her. At that moment, a plump girl emerged from the bathroom. She left the door open. The walls were covered in green ceramic tiles. Green like the dress I imagine you wearing. Like when you’re making coffee in the kitchen. Like when your hair falls in a tangle down the back of your neck. Like when I bite you.
“Fancy joining me in the bathroom?” she said with an ambiguous smile that still left room for doubt: Is she serious? Is this a joke?
When I got home, I masturbated again. Everything was green.
Lencho went off for four days’ filming in Sinaloa. It was a big project, a movie starring Cate Blanchett. Two days later, Hilda called and asked me to come and see her. She needed to talk to me. I spent whole hours trembling and indecisive. The two of us would be alone together. My mouth filled with saliva at the mere possibility. Lencho should never have accepted that job. Lencho shouldn’t have gone so far away. Lencho shouldn’t have left his wife on her own. I kept repeating these things to myself. Ever more vehemently. Lencho shouldn’t have done this to me; you don’t do that kind of thing to a friend.
I decided not to go, then five minutes later decided I would. I spent several hours going to and fro like that. There was a ping-pong table inside my head, and I was in the middle, bouncing back and forth, getting more and more nervous. As eight o’clock approached, my excitement intensified. As usual, I made the very worst decision: I decided to go and see Hilda, but only in order to tell her “No.” To make it clear to her, in a gesture of male solidarity, that Lencho and I were best pals, that she and I should abandon this absurd little game once and for all, and that I would never betray my brother.
As soon as I entered the apartment, I began to kiss her, touch her, and remove her clothes. We made love right there, in the living room, on the sofa, in front of the television. The opaque screen dimly reflected our gestures, our desperately clinging bodies, one on top of the other, one inside the other. We touched each other clumsily, urgently, frantically. It was all a single, seamless journey from the front door being opened to the last yelp of pleasure, the two of us naked by then and lying on the cold floor tiles. The second time we made love more calmly. We explored each other’s skin, caressed each other, licked each other. There were more kisses than bites. At half past eleven Lencho phoned. Hilda allowed the phone to ring several times, until the answering machine came on. We listened to his message in silence. I poured myself a tequila.
I went two weeks without seeing either of them. Lencho tried to get in touch a couple of times, but I always managed to avoid him. Hilda sent me a few emails. I didn’t answer those either. On the afternoon that Hilda called me on my cell phone, I was just about to take a job in Guadalajara. She sounded really frightened. She didn’t so much speak as push the words out into the air.
“I think he suspects something,” she said. “I think Lencho has found us out.”
That was all she said, then she abruptly hung up. Ten minutes later, my phone rang again. I thought it must be her phoning back. I felt really jittery. My hands were cold. It was Lencho. He was calling from a film producer’s office. He was his usual natural, friendly self. Affectionate and very calm. I found myself thinking that perhaps Hilda’s phone call had been a bad dream, a product of all the fears and guilt inside my head. Lencho said he had something very important to tell me. We need to have a serious talk, he said. He made me promise to go to his apartment that evening, just to chat, like in the good old days, that’s what he said, and have a few drinks, he added, because we never seem to see each other any more, Javier. We need to have a serious talk, he said again. After all, you’re my best buddy, he said, my brother.
Should I go? And why? It certainly was a very strange situation. I tried several times to call Hilda, but without success. If Lencho really had found out about us, why was he being so affectionate toward me, why was he inviting me to his apartment? Was it purely out of friendship, or was this part of some terrible, twisted plot, a plan to have his revenge on us both? Where was Hilda? What had happened to her? Perhaps he was keeping her a prisoner in her own home. Perhaps he had hurt her. Which is stronger, friendship or desire?
He embraced me warmly, as he always did. He poured us each a large tequila and started telling me about the filming in Sinaloa. He was alone, or so it seemed. Of course, Hilda might have been in the bedroom, or in the bathroom, or perhaps at a friend’s house. Or perhaps dead. I didn’t dare ask about her.
“That Cate Blanchett is seriously cool.”
But I couldn’t stop thinking about Hilda. I was looking at Lencho sitting there on the sofa, and remembering Hilda’s tremulous voice on the phone. Then, on the blank TV screen, as if I were watching a recording, I began to see images of Hilda and me making love on that sofa. Hilda and me naked, desperately biting and licking and touching each other. Right in the spot where Lencho was now sitting, drinking tequila, talking to me and smiling.
“Have you heard that story about Güero Palma?” Lencho’s voice distracted me from the TV screen.
“No,” I said.
“Because ever since I got back, I keep thinking about it. Güero Palma was from Sinaloa,” he said. “He was a drug dealer, but an unusual kind of guy. He had a great friend, a Venezuelan called Flores or something. They were real buddies. But the Venezuelan betrayed him. He stole his wife from him. She fell for him and off they went. They became lovers and headed north. And since the wife was one of the signatories on Güero’s bank accounts, they got a lot of money out of him. Something like two million dollars.”
Lencho picked up the bottle and poured himself another drink. I covered my glass with my hand.
“What? You’re not drinking?”
Lencho nodded and put the bottle down on the table again.
“But the Venezuelan was a complete asshole. After taking the money, he killed Güero’s wife. And he didn’t stop there. He put the wife’s head in a metal box, filled it with dry ice, then sent it back to Güero in Mexico. Here’s a nice little present for you, you lousy bastard.”
“And people say we Mexicans are violent,” he added.
He looked at me as if expecting some comment, some reaction to what he had just told me. I said nothing. I couldn’t speak. We sat for a while in silence. Lencho didn’t take his eyes off me. Nor did he stop smiling. I nodded, as if pondering what to say. When I could stand the silence no longer, I stood up and said I had to go to the bathroom.
I couldn’t pee either. My penis was a tiny creature in retreat, trying to escape inside my body. I couldn’t squeeze out a single drop. I washed my face, looked at myself in the mirror, as if searching for some sign. All I could see was a slender line of sweat next to my left ear. I felt cold, but I was sweating too. But only there, just next to my left ear. I decided that there was nothing for it, I had to take a chance. I crept out of the bathroom, leaving the door slightly ajar. I tried to tread as lightly as I could, so as not to make any noise. I knew every inch of the apartment. I’d helped them move in. I walked to the end of the corridor, as far as the main bedroom. The door was closed. I rapped gently, each rap slightly faster than the last. I whispered her name. Hilda. Again I glanced down at the end of the corridor, toward the living room. Hilda. I placed my hand on the door handle. I opened the door. I heard Lencho clear his throat or cough. There was no one in the room. The bed was unmade. All I saw was a red sock lying next to one of the pillows. In the living room something creaked. Lencho getting up from the sofa, I thought. I closed the bedroom door. I hurried back to the bathroom. I went in. I heard a whistle. I left the door half open while I flushed the toilet.
On my way back, I stopped in the kitchen. I poured myself a glass of water and glanced hurriedly around, still looking for some clue, looking for who knows what. Next to a wooden chopping board, I saw a large sharp knife, two potatoes and half a red onion. Lencho asked me something. I heard his voice, but didn’t understand what he was saying. I was feeling worse and worse. Lencho again asked a question. It sounded like an incomprehensible, formless croak.
“It’s OK, I’m just getting a glass of water. I’ll be right there.”
When I went back into the room, Lencho was already standing up, putting on a leather jacket.
“You took your time,” he muttered, still smiling.
I merely nodded and avoided his eyes.
“Right then,” he said. “Are you coming?”
“Where?” I asked, trying to sound as casual as possible.
“To fetch Hilda. She’s at her mother’s house.” He paused, scowled slightly, then continued smiling. “Don’t you want to see her?”
How could I refuse? We walked slowly to the front door, but before opening it, he paused for a moment and turned to face me. He remained like that for a few seconds, as if deciding what to do, what to say. A dark shadow scurried past behind his eyes. Still looking at me, he opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He spoke to me in silence, letting me read his lips. Just three words, spoken very slowly. Just three words. The three words he said on those two occasions when he had a speaking part—just before he fell to the ground dead.
“Una historia Mexicana” published in Crimenes, Anagrama, 2010. © Alberto Barrera Tyszka. By arrangement with MacLehose Press. Transation © 2014 by Margaret Jull Costa. All rights reserved.