For Ángel Rama, in memoriam
Letter to Juan
“My dear unborn Juan: if you’re comfortable down there in the womb, why waste your energy on such pointlessly vigorous movements, kicking at nothing, butting your head against the confounding darkness of what, what, what . . . ?”
He heard all this through speakers hanging from the cosmos. But the tiny little thing with the microscopic head had a reserve of willpower to match a thousand demons, like a seed (which is what he was), or an egg (which he was too). He decided to continue with his gestation: one more statistic for the universe, ready to run the risk of this world turning out to be full and being forced to find another to populate.
The Black Beach
He spent several months, nine to be precise, assembling the equipment required to slip out into the unknown, from where they had cried NO, just to spite them for crying it. By the time he started out, tearing down everything that stood in his way, his carapace had even developed hair and nails. He had the blind determination of an amphibious tank, ready for anything. It was no matter to him that he was hurting someone terribly, and out he came, in a burst of someone else’s humors. He was the blueprint for a man but was soaked in liquid woman. His body was sticky and somewhat the worse for wear after the ordeal. But he’d gotten there, it was what he’d wanted as he’d struggled against gales and blood. And he didn’t care that he could only make out blurry shapes. He cried to wear himself out a little. And also to annoy the figures on the black shores on which he’d washed up. Because there was no doubt about it: his noisy beaching had left him stranded in something called This World.
The machinery was set in motion. Here are the exhibits that document his passage for about the next ten years. They were thrown away by someone with all the indifference shown toward an entrance fallen into disuse. But fortunately, as the storage space happens to be a glass room, Juan’s different geological eras are neatly piled one on top of the other. They must be read from the bottom up. One item recurs in the strata: shoes. Just by their sizes and styles one can tell that Juan drove everyone crazy, forever pressing down on the toes of his footwear, heading straight into the future.
He peeked through a keyhole and saw things. The things he saw were so suggestive that he almost choked on the candy he was sucking. But when he mentioned them like they were common knowledge, it was a catastrophe. Was it wrong to have seen them, or were the things being done behind the locked door wrong? He wasn’t about to wait around for them to tell him what they were called, they were incapable of explaining anything. So he went out onto the street and found out for himself. The name of the unnameable got absorbed so thoroughly into his saliva that it never left his tongue. A good blow to the jaw disturbed the root of a second-generation tooth. But the unnameable persisted. When he looked through the keyhole again one night and saw that they’d left the light on, he shouted: “Mom and Dad, you’re . . . aren’t you?” This time, he barely survived the repercussions.
Trial by Fire
After his terrible punishment, he succumbed to a fever. A fortnight in the oven tossing and turning like a blind particle in the absolute infrared.
From there, he went straight out to wage no-holds-barred warfare on everyone and everything. We’re going to draw a line under the old myths, he said. And he started to break things, one by one: doors that were closed only to him, chairs just because they were useful for sitting on. And tables, and wall mirrors. They were the best; the crash when hit by a bottle of cologne was perfect. The doctor diagnosed a crisis of puberty. But Juan knew that the truth was much more complex. His beef with the adult world had started a war, and all wars are to the death.
Air for Solo Guitar
One morning he went out onto the street before the garbage trucks had come through. His house’s trash can smelled as bad as everything inside. But a flower protruded from the middle of the pile of filth. It was the first time he’d ever come across a concrete symbol and he embraced it as such. Just then a girl with straight blonde hair and lemony breasts passed by. She saw him with the flower in his clutches and held out her hand. From that moment on, he found himself obligated to procure flowers wherever he could. It so happened that he and the girl regularly crossed paths with the same books under their arm, and when they did, she would always reach out for her flower from Juan.
On a day when the woolen sweater covering the girl’s breasts was about to burst, as he held out a damp flower following a soaking by the gardener’s hose, she put her hands on her hips and said, “To hell with your flower, I come to you because my sweater can’t take it anymore, and neither can the rest of my clothes and at night I have all kinds of dreams.” He was cowed by her words. Then, from deep inside his cockerel throat, he retrieved the most innocuous question that could possibly have occurred to him: “So what did you do with the flower?” She looked at him with eyes that were a pair of deep, sky-blue pools, angelic watering holes, and after flashing a set of teeth worthy of a famous toothpaste advertisement, she answered, “I threw it away. What else did you expect me to do with it? My friend Caterina is jealous of everything . . . ” General Pause, or the musical annotation G.P. when everything goes quiet, but we know that it’s to move things forward.
The Slot Machine
He too threw away his books and set out in search of his first devil’s maw. He scurried into a dark room full of contraptions, dropped his coin into the slot and the machine spewed out something akin to music without the G.P., only broken up into pieces. It sent a shiver through his bones. Once the stimulus had died away, his blood calmed down for a few minutes and it was the first peace he found until the next coin. It was during one of these sessions, between peace and noise, that he felt it. It was in the middle of his body, a different kind of heat from measles and other conditions. He saw himself putting out the fire with the flower girl. And suddenly the flame began to fade and flicker out. Never, he heard himself declare through gritted teeth, I’d never do that with a bitch who throws flowers into the gutter. There must be thousands more like her, but who don’t know so much about you.
The beds piled up. But not in the glass case, because they were loaned or rented. And sometimes, they didn’t even exist. Instead, there was the impression left by a body making love in the grass, or on the beach, and then that too would disappear. But how much better it was to go around handing out flowers. His friends all told the same story: the girls were everywhere, easily accessible, and didn’t require flowers. They caught your scent on the air and came looking for you like in the blind romances of certain butterflies. The only good thing he’d read in books were accounts of lepidoptera. He sought out some secondhand texts. They had several generations’ worth of fingerprints, dedications, and underlining, and that made them more human. And so, from bed to bed and book to book and fear to fear, he finally managed to accomplish something.
Of Course, But (. . .)
Of course, even forgettable parks have trees. And a few fanatical men who read the Bible on the Sunday holiday while the guy next door plucks a chicken and another wraps up pig’s ears and trotters. He never knew what to do about said duality. And so, he was stuck in the middle, which always made the eclectic solution preferable. But the problem was at night when the supermarkets, offices, surgeries, and cinemas had closed and meetings and everything else had finished for the day. Juan had had his fill of women and sometimes men too and so he found himself alone.
One day, to his potential downfall or glory, he was grabbed by a hooded gang and taken along with others to a room he heard described as something like a space training center. There, he lost all notion of the colors and shapes of this world. Once, his brain was removed from its cranial casing and, like a spheroid mollusk, climbed up a wall and appeared to slip into a clock just where the gear swings the pendulum. And so, he knew what it was to be beaten like they were trying to make butter out of him. Then he heard them say that wasn’t it, they were getting him ready to be sent far away. They also made him march in place up stairs that kept disappearing beneath his feet so he never knew whether he’d walked miles or never troubled the x-axis at all. After harassing him in a thousand different ways, including preventing him from enjoying the random music made by the whole operation (levers, moving stairs, zips, bells, blunt hammering), they shoved him into a terrible cigar-shaped rocket they were planning to smoke unto infinity and, after a brief countdown, fired him from the base.
The Wandering Star
At one point, now a long way away, the program began to malfunction. There was a minuscule fraction of a second in which the trapped man knew what it was to have your stomach, and the tiny arteries, veins, and nerves of every molar and hair follicle, explode. And the fully formed Juan assembled with such care during the nine months of prehistory disintegrated, transforming into a falling star. But the awful death mistook his cemetery. Instead of a solitary island suspended in the void, where no one could reach him and the girl with the flower would never be able to do what she did again, the flaming ship with the melted Juan inside crashed into the sea. Or that thing about being born again so someone can tell the same story in a full-color illustrated encyclopedia.
© Armonía Somers. By arrangement with El Cuenco de Plata, Buenos Aires. Translation © 2023 by Kit Maude. All rights reserved.