One day the two of them will be going around the drugstores, greedy for pills to bring back the days they’ve dumped in the trash, thought Romero. What a waste, being young: someone tells them that they have their whole lives ahead of them, and what do they do? Put on a mask and parrot the speeches dictated to them by some other character who they imagine knows how to be happy. Morons.
The bride and groom were making their tour of the tables, smiling at the throng of strangers who had jumped at the chance of going on a bender at someone else’s expense. Their smiling faces beamed with the certainty that they already had their future set in stone. Ha! And there were people who really believed it, believed they were in the tedious line headed for happiness, like the ones wriggling about pathetically on the dance floor; their guts ache from trying so hard to be liked, they learn steps, learn to chatter in chorus; or to sit silently in a corner until they learn how to please. Puppies who delude themselves that their efforts will bear fruit, that things are going to get better… Romero knew. If there’s one thing that’s a waste of time, it’s hope.
The newlyweds reached his table and Romero hid his repugnance behind hypocritical congratulations. “You’re a lucky man,” he said to the downy-faced youngster—nowhere near a man—as he dutifully eyed the scrawny collection of freckles that was his wife. In his mind, Romero gave a jaundiced laugh. That was why he came to these parties, for the slightly depraved pleasure of proving to himself that those sheep couldn’t attain his elevated state of awareness. They roll their eyes, he thought, as if marriage were not just a direct route to mutual hatred. And they will hate each other, he said to himself, yet they’ll be the same people who are right now wetting themselves with the emotion of it all. Given enough time, these extremes will meet. If you’ve got that clear, why pretend you’re headed anywhere? The wonderful thing about these times, he thought, is that every day there are new drugs for reducing the distance between other extremes. For example: What was the big difference between him and that child at the next table whose tits had scarcely started to sprout? The dress in which her parents had draped her screamed “For Sale.” (And since they were offering her, couldn’t he satisfy her better than some stupid adolescent would in a year or two?) With the right pills, they could both do anything that occurred to them.
When the bride and groom had left his table, the other diners stood up to go in search of friends around the room. The table those guests had been assigned was a telltale sign of their hosts’ opinion of them. Maybe, just a few years earlier, four or five at most, Romero would have been placed closer to the dance floor, to add a touch of elegance to the celebration, to flirt; but now, here he was, stuck in a corner by the men’s toilets, languishing among bored, middle-aged couples.
After the exodus, only he and another man remained at the table. A man who, although he might be his own age, seemed older, with that pathetic air of a widower who has led a comfortable life. He was holding his glass of sparkling wine in one hand and, with the other, was polishing off the last of the canapés filled with some supposedly seafood paste. He became aware that Romero was observing him and raised his glass in a gesture of solidarity: What can you do? Parties are for the younger generation. Romero half-heartedly returned the gesture and, as their eyes met, he felt a sharp contraction in his chest that had its origins in some other time; so unexpected was that contraction, it was as if he were experiencing it for the first time. But it was nothing new, it was a relic from the past scratching at the earth of its grave.
Going milky now, but behind the ravages of age, the substance of someone he knew was still recognizable.
Those eyes. Small, blue, arrogant, mocking, smug pieces of shit. Whose eyes were they?
An outrageous sense of hatred, impossible to resist, took hold of his body. Violated him. As if someone had turned his body into a machine, automatically accomplishing its task. And, in his desperation to understand this hatred, his heart began to race. Why was he losing control of himself?
The man asked, “Do we know each other?” and Romero averted his eyes and gave a terse “No,” anxious for it to be true.
He tried to concentrate on the party, yet the vista of people and tables began to merge, like the colors of a painting soaked with water. For all his attempts to focus his attention on the here and now, he was overwhelmed by a dizzying rush of distant impressions: those eyes challenging his, a roar of impotence; betrayal and melodramatic phrases; eternal hatred, blood and vengeance. He was unable to remember precise dates, names or places, but did recall the offense that had formed the seed of this bilious memory.
A woman. Suddenly, he was able to evoke her, an ordinary woman, like any of those on the dance floor. What was extraordinary was that although he could describe her in detail, could imagine her gestures, her voice, even her smell, he was unable to revive the emotions she had awakened in him. He recalled—as something unconnected, even though the recollection came from that same time—that he’d felt humiliated when the girl had dumped him for someone he considered despicable, beneath contempt. He even recalled feeling that he had lost any sense of identity and self-worth, all because of that girl who collected fotonovelas. And it was weird to remember that.
The affront to his pride suddenly seemed completely arbitrary, unrelated to anyone so insignificant. She might be the person who had made this man a widower, or might have disappeared in a swarm of puerile circumstances. It made no difference.
That’s the truth: it made no difference.
The images of the party began to take shape again, he himself felt he was regaining his solidity, as if he’d momentarily become detached from reality, or like when you spend the night in a strange place and, on opening your eyes, confuse sleep with waking life.
He began to chuckle and the sound rose from a discreet titter to a full belly laugh as he shook his head paternally. He felt better than he had for a while, lighter, freed of a burden that he hadn’t known was weighing down on him. Then, almost as if by dictation, a phrase came into his mind that seemed perfect to say to the other guest. Turning to deliver it, he found the man bent over the table, gasping for air, still holding his glass in an unsteady hand. He was turning pale: choking on a canapé. Romero watched him for a few seconds and then looked around: no one had noticed what was happening. He stood up slowly, not taking his eyes from the man, turned and entered the toilets.
In one of the cubicles, a boy had his head in the bowl. It wasn’t even midnight, but the quasi adolescent was already vigorously throwing up his dinner. That’s what I call not letting the grass grow under your feet, thought Romero; he felt the urge to pat the boy on the back, but instead just looked with a smile and, aloud, almost shouting, said: “Now go fuck a cow, son!”
At that moment, he heard a commotion outside, plates and glasses falling with a tablecloth. He abandoned the boy to his gastric relief and went to one of the urinals. He unzipped his fly, extracted his cock, and took a long, frothy piss. It felt good. You can’t call a man who can hold his piss like that old, he thought. He finished the operation, settled his prick, zipped up his fly; on the way back to the room, he stopped for a moment to admire his beautifully groomed hair, his closely shaven cheeks. Amazing things, those MACH3s.
When he came out, he found a semicircle of good Samaritans crowding around the man from his table, who—sweating, his head resting on someone’s lap— was nodding and stammering “I’m fine now, I’m fine now.” Romero thought that, had he still hated him, he would have tried carrying out the Heimlich maneuver so as not to miss the opportunity to get his revenge in person. How puerile! Now the only thing that occurred to him was to say the words that had come into his head during that clear self-revelation a few minutes earlier: “Do you get it, Granddad? You’re not even worth an ounce of anger these days.” Maybe he could say it to him later. Or maybe not. It didn’t really matter.
Among the onlookers, he spotted the little girl with the plunging neckline, her arms folded. Romero went up and gently touched the back of her neck. “A young lady like you shouldn’t be all alone,” he said with a smile. “Why don’t we take a walk in the gardens so I can have a good look at those pretty nails of yours? Did you paint them yourself? Impressive.” The child shrugged her shoulders, blushed and followed Romero to the door. Who would have imagined, he thought, that at this stage in life, I’d have become an educator.
“Por el poder investido en mí” first published in Daniel Saldaña Paris, ed., Un nuevo modo. Antología de narrativa mexicana actual (Dirección de Literatura, UNAM, 2012). © Yuri Herrera. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Christina MacSweeney. All rights reserved.