At first she stared at the window for a while, as her life paraded past in scenes: her mother’s house in Piura, the silent sun high over Piura’s dusty rooftops, which bristled with aluminum antennas marking the luminously streaked sky. Her mother’s house that smelled of Bolívar soap and rue plants beneath the gold sun that hung in the taut, infinite sky. She missed it all, but she was in Paris and there was nothing she could do about it. That was the harsh truth. She didn’t want to pull her feet out of the warm bed, until she thought, if I don’t get up, I won’t see Madame Dupuy to find out when I start cleaning the apartments. Then she watched a few birds flying swiftly beyond the other side of the window, not many, mostly crows that sometimes leaped onto the sidewalk and went booo!! On TV she’d once seen a show that said they were very crafty birds with quick minds, capable of feigning injury so they could steal food from other animals, even some sort of wildcat in southern France, the gennette. She kept imagining that she was still at home, beneath the warm sheets, until she began to feel anxious: she had to shower and the bathroom was in the hall, she’d have to tiptoe out so as not to disturb the people living on the top floor of the Parisian building. She imagined herself like one of the actresses in the film Les femmes du 6ème étage, the doomed souls forced to live in the servants’ quarters—like her apartment, where she’d rented the attic with the understanding that she would clean the middle-class apartments on the lower floors. When she held out the banknotes intended to pay her rent, Madame Dupuy smiled disdainfully with that bitter face of hers, quickly adding, that’s nothing! Rien, she said with that pointed French accent Úrsula was all too familiar with. She wrenched her legs from under the covers and planted her feet on the rug covered in cigarette burns and black and reddish stains. She approached the wall in front of her and tugged on one end of the wallpaper, which came loose, revealing a naked stretch of plaster eaten away by dampness and covered in blisters. Her telephone rang for a few seconds before stopping like a heart weary of showing signs of life. It was actually the incarnation of life, the conduit for the voices of her parents, her friends, sometimes even her Aunt Marina whom she missed so much. She thought how those communication networks were up in the sky watching over life on the entire planet, how everything could be recorded on some vaporous white cloud, invisibly and almost poetically. And it was terrifying, and she remembered the face of young Snowden warning of the dangers of handing our lives over to the satellites. It was both terrifying and fascinating. She was about to go shower . . . when someone knocked on the door.
“Hello, Yves.” Her neighbor was standing there, one hand holding a trembling tray with a teapot and two cups laid out elegantly like something out of a fairy tale.
“May I come in?” he asked, as if the answer was implied in the question, his gaze overpowering, as Úrsula observed his rigid jaw and almost yellow skin. Her mother said that people with short jaws were decisive and cold. His forehead was flat and his head was well-coiffed with gel, his torso was covered in a robe he had intentionally left loose, revealing some hair. He stood there looking at her incisively, with the somewhat perplexed expression of a zombie, thought Úrsula.
“I was going to . . .”
“You can have a cup of tea first,” he said. His accent was even more forced than Madame Dupuy’s, who the day before had asked her to go to the market and buy several bags filled with bottles of wine and champagne for the woman on the third floor, ordering her with a contemptuous gaze to not forget to deliver them on time, marking her status, establishing her role as the one in charge. Poor Madame Dupuy, she must have a rock where her heart should be, and she brought the heavy bags up, panting, to deliver them to a woman wearing a lot of makeup, with long nails and intense perfume, who immediately closed the door in her face without a glance. Úrsula thought she must be transparent, and Yves’s arrival seemed like a stroke of luck, almost benevolent.
“Well, let’s try that tea,” and she let him in. Yves stumbled over some newspapers before sitting in the only chair in the room, from Ikea, which Úrsula always sat in to pore over the newspapers she salvaged from the garbage cans behind a very heavy solid iron door in the basement. She followed all the current events in Greece, she felt Greek, she wanted to know everything about Syriza, and she’d also taken an interest in what was going on in Spain. And she told her mother, Look, when this starts happening in Peru, I’ll come home, this is new, Mama, believe me. But her mother didn’t believe her, she thought that perhaps her daughter was a bit of a naïve dreamer, she imagined her sleeping in cold beds in Paris and felt a little sorry for her. And that was it.
Yves finally sat down on the floor with his legs crossed and his torso straight, while she rushed to pull on a long T-shirt that covered her transparent nightgown as he began to speak, his eyes fixed on her breasts.
“Well,” said Úrsula, “should we have that tea, or what?”
Yves served the tea in silence, his hand quivering a little when he picked up the cup by its handle, making it wobble. He looked like a little Miura fighting bull, his nostrils opening to let out dense clouds of breath, cold as the morning.
They barely spoke, she noticed that every time she said something, he would look at her breasts again, it was starting to irritate her . . . Did you know that Madame Dupuy offered me the cleaning job? Poor thing, being the building’s bonne is a tough job. Madame Dupuy’s not so bad, Yves immediately added to soften what he’d just said, her son was killed in a motorcycle accident, and her husband is paralyzed on one side of his body . . . At that point their teacups were empty and she felt him teetering on his axis, as if meditating. The little fighting bull. Then he stood up and moved about impatiently. Úrsula followed suit, thinking that Yves was only two strides away from the exit, she was relieved, her bed was unmade and a bra hung from one end, well . . . Yves . . . she saw he was pale, mumbling something incomprehensible, Úrsula, forgive me, I didn’t want to say this, but, perhaps, if you . . . if you were more generous with me you wouldn’t have to do the cleaning . . .
She looked at him, thinking she should slap him, but the poor man, he was so ridiculous, so arrogant in his half-open Chinese robe, his feet in velvet slippers . . . she almost started to laugh when she felt the mass of his body against hers, seeking out her mouth like a suction cup, covering her with dense, transparent slobber as she kicked him, pounded on him, slipped out from under him. Once she was free from his grip, she pointed at him with her index finger and ordered: “Get out of here right now, right this minute or I can’t be held responsible for what I might do.”
“It was just an idea,” Yves responded cynically, his face red, his lips damp. How disgusting, thought Úrsula once he had stormed off in a huff like a deposed king about to throw a tantrum.
She went to find her towel and headed to the bathroom, to the shower, the Parisian attic’s torture chamber, which awaited her with its dim light, its damp walls, all its cold and all its squalor. She thought of Yves—ridiculous and humiliated—pacing around his 215-square-foot room; she was starting to feel sorry for him, he was such a miserable wretch that she couldn’t get mad at him. She had the feeling that they were somehow like siblings, another doomed soul like me, she thought. She felt repulsed by him, but mostly she felt sorry for herself. She didn’t know why in the hell she was studying philosophy at the Sorbonne, so many anxious mornings alone, so much fear of the future, there, in her country. Times have changed, suggested a friend from her department, philosophy has no place anymore, it’s increasingly obsolete, relegated to coffee shop debates. She’d heard the same thing said about sociology, another friend had made a similar comment: it’s disappearing. Books will also disappear, there’s an anthropological revolution afoot. Haven’t you realized? She approached the shower stall where the yellowing enamel gave off a scent of dampness mixed with urine, proof of the presence of other bodies in that same place, through their smells that lingered in the floor. She pulled on the chain of a dirty window that opened a dusty skylight to reveal the gray sky of Paris. She had to slam the shower’s frosted glass door several times before managing to close it, leaving barely any space for her body. She washed herself, watching as the soap slid down between her legs, it was pleasurable even though the place was as sordid and dark as a cave. If she extended her arms to rub herself with the towel, her elbows hit the plastic edges, if she leaned forward to soap up her feet, she felt the glass glued to her buttocks. Suddenly she heard someone shouting her name, it was Madame Dupuy’s voice and she wanted to imagine it was her mother’s, who actually rarely spoke to her in that tone. Her mother was practically illiterate, she hadn’t gotten past primary school, which was why her parents had decided to sacrifice the little money they were able to save up from selling fabric at their shop in Lima’s Gamarra shopping center so that their only daughter could study in France. Her father had failed to convince her mother that going all the way to France wasn’t worth it, that they were hostile there toward people with dark skin, that she’d be better off staying in her own country, that there were good universities in Lima. No, I want to see Paris, I want to know what it’s like to be a foreign woman in the land of the French Revolution, she had responded before going to apply for her visa at the embassy, waiting in endless lines until finally signing up for the Sorbonne by mail after having graduated at the top of her class at the Alianza Francesa in the center of Lima. In her head, she traveled through the red fields of quinoa in the Peruvian Andes as the water ran slowly toward the shower drain. She could still hear Madame Dupuy, she imagined her face disfigured by exasperation, she thought she should rush so Madame Dupuy would stop shouting her name, but then she dried herself off and emerged slowly from the torture chamber, pulled on a T-shirt with the Mona Lisa’s face, and went down the stairs two by two. She felt like she was crying, that her heart was crying for her sunny days, her Lima evenings, her walks through the city center, the sunset in Chorrillos. She was crying. For a few brief moments she felt she could return to her previous state, to her past life, and start again, but she was in her Parisian attic and had to pay the rent at the end of the month.
“The Shower” © Patricia de Souza. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Mara Faye Lethem. All rights reserved.
YOU MAY ALSO LIKE: Read an excerpt of Patricia de Souza’s recently re-issued novel Ursula’s Last Body