by Paula Varsavsky
(Translated from Spanish by Anne McLean)
He who sits by the door of his house will watch his enemy ´s corpse go by. (Spanish Proverb)
I didn’t have long to wait to see my enemy’s body pass by. It happened unexpectedly soon. Perhaps that surprise was what kept me awake all night. They’d caught my brother with a shipment of cocaine at the border. Which border? I wondered.
I heard it on the radio while I stirred the milk and sugar in the pan with a wooden spoon. I was making dulce de leche. I had more than enough time then, now as well. I’d get home from the beauty salon and have nothing to do. To think I never used to have a minute to spare: I’d rush back from work to take care of my kids. And to take care of my ex-husband, until I could get rid of him.
Sometimes I manage to leaf through a newspaper. It seems the group was very large. My brother contributed the fleet of taxis. The one that impressed Mom so much. Before that it had been car scrapyards. He bought Mom a new house with a garden, a pool and a patio with a thatch roof. They didn’t give me a cent. They had fantastic barbecues, apparently. One time I asked Mom if I could go one Sunday with the kids. We would have taken a taxi from the centre of Salta, where we lived, out to San Lorenzo.
I knew San Lorenzo from the times I’d gone with Mom when I was little. She used to look at those houses and go crazy. Now that I think of it, because I’ve got more than enough time to think these days, I believe she went crazier when she moved there. She lost her identity, as they say, like those Jujeño singers who went to Buenos Aires, and from there to Spain and then to France. When they ran out of repertoire, they started wearing outfits no one in Jujuy had ever seen. They mixed up tangos with words in Quechua or Guaraní. Finally one of them came back, to tell the story. But Mom didn’t come back, she stayed in San Lorenzo. I don’t know what she’ll talk about now with the new friends she’d made, the ones she went out with for tea. She never invited me, never even gave me any reasons. Nor did she tell me why she’d started going to see my children at their father’s house, months after Juan and I separated.
My brother’s been based in Tucumán since he went to university. He studied accounting there. They let him but not me, why would I need to go to university when I was a woman. They didn’t tell me like that, they didn’t tell me at all. They never informed me about anything, they’d just do it.
Ever since he bought Mom the house in San Lorenzo, whenever he comes he stays at her house. He used to stay in a hotel downtown, and then we’d see each other. I don’t know, maybe I made an effort. After all, he was my brother, I always thought. I also tried to get the kids to see him, he was their uncle. Néstor would show up out of the blue, at strange times. I’d go to impossible lengths to accommodate him, leave work early and rush to see him. I’d take off as if there were a fire.
Cocaine smuggling, was the headline. I don’t read the papers. I get bored. They’re mostly full of bad news and I’ve already had enough of that. A customer told me, it seems it was the biggest shipment of the century or something like that. A car full of cocaine, almost made of cocaine. My brother blamed the taxi driver. They set him up, he says. It was like a sideline.
I’ve been buying the paper since then, just to read the news about Néstor. It sort of keeps me company. It’s another way of trying to forget about the moment they took away the kids. Of trying to forget. I know I can’t. I’m always thinking of my children, only of them. I know I’m not going to be able to get them back, I’ve been declared an unfit mother. It was all arranged, my brother paid the judge. And me like an idiot thinking my brother loved me, that he was on my side. Later I found out that Mom went to see my children at their father’s house. Me she stopped calling.
I’d decided to go to the Cinema Club once a week, I’ve always liked watching odd movies. There they showed the kind of films they only put on in Buenos Aires. One of the girls I worked with at the hairdresser’s told me she went, and asked me if I wanted to go… then I started going on Wednesdays. It was just a distraction, I didn’t even meet a man to go out with.
Sometimes, in dreams, I remember the psychiatrist who’d asked me those questions, which it later turned out I’d answered all wrong. I told her the truth: that he hit all three of us, that he drank a lot, more all the time. He’d come home late, I didn’t know where he spent the day, I wanted a separation. We were scared of him. He threatened us. I’d really prefer it if he didn’t come back. Every time we talked we argued. I told her I didn’t want to talk to him because he interrupted me, talked while I was talking. He’d get mad. His monologues were getting longer and longer. I used the most correct words I could think of. I was punctual, still they made me wait two hours. It was after twelve by the time I got to work.
“Refuses dialogue”, I saw her write down. Just that. I talked to her for an hour and a half. She asked me lots of questions. How was I going to replace my children’s father? Why did I allow them not to see him? Did I help them get together? Did I speak kindly to my children of their father?
She was a hoarse-voiced woman, her hair dyed blonde. She talked over me when I answered. It was obvious she’d talked to the kids’ father before. Now I realize. At the time it was like a bombardment. I was sure I was right, but for them, it turned out that I was the one at fault.
The court official came, or two court officials, the lawyer, their father, I don’t know who else. They told poor Clarita, a neighbor who gave me a hand with the kids, that if she didn’t open the door they’d knock it down. They came to take the kids away, they had a court order. Clarita’s been scared ever since. The paper lay on the kitchen table for a long time. Those stamps, that letterhead… the only good thing about this all being over is that I don’t receive those papers anymore.
Accused traffickers denied bail, that’s what the headline said. They were referring to my brother and one of his childhood friends, the one they called “Pichi”. They’d sentenced them to eight years, smuggled narcotics, dangerous drugs, network of connections with other parts of the country. They even had contacts in Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Then we weren’t going to see each other again. That was a relief, of course.
When he came to Salta for a visit he used to make me go to lunch at Mom’s house. I had to take off from the salon, lose customers, take a taxi out to San Lorenzo. I lost male customers too. There are men who, on the sly, get their nails done. All kinds, I don’t ask. I know elsewhere they’d be fine about it. Not here, here they’re ashamed. The thing is I couldn’t get there in time on the bus: they’d let me know at the last moment. I always arrived late, they’d look annoyed. I spent so much money on taxis, there and back, but, that’s how he wanted it. I’d rest once he’d gone, I thought as I rushed around.
Two years later, without anyone notifying me of anything, the kids suddenly showed up at home. Dad hasn’t been home for three days, they told me. On Tuesday, when we got home from school, Dad wasn’t there and he still hasn’t come back, Tobías told me. I hugged them for a long time, I don’t know, it might have been days. They seemed big to me. In a month they’d grown so much. It might have been the time they’d grown the fastest. They were just due to come for a visit right then. They were dirty, hungry, they hadn’t done their homework. María was covered in lice. They arrived in their overalls, their hands black, I changed the bathwater twice. It was a treat. They said, the next day, they’d go back to their dad’s house after school. If he wasn’t there, they’d come home. So that’s how they started living at home again.
The other day the doorbell rang. The kids were having their snack. We froze with fear. I knew I had to answer. There was no use in hiding if it was their father. He’d come back with court officials.
To our surprise, it wasn’t my children’s father. It was my brother, looking the same as ever. He didn’t look like he’d been in jail. Or did he? He was quite capable of having a good time anywhere. All experiences were good experiences, he turned everything into an accomplishment and always had something to teach me.
“It was pretty good in jail. I got out for good behavior, they commuted my sentence. Instead of eight years it was two. I kept the work organized. The business is going to run more smoothly. I bought three combi vans, tourism is really moving things now. But also, I have the best news you can imagine: I’m getting married in three months. You have to meet my fiancée, her name’s Karina, she’s twenty-six, has a masters in public relations. We’re really in love, we’ve got so much in common. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Mom already knows her, they get along great. I’m assuming you’ll be coming with the kids, it’s going to be black-tie informal.”
He handed me an invitation to his wedding. He didn’t even say hi to the kids. I opened it, music began to play. Then a voice said they were getting married. There were photos of the two of them all over the place. Kissing, holding hands, embracing. She was cute, that’s for sure, a girl with brown hair and green eyes. God knows what she’ll look like after thirty-five.
I stood still. Black-tie informal. I felt a lifetime’s weight on my shoulders pressing me to fulfill that demand. I told myself no, over and over again. They’d taken my children away. How could I go to his wedding? And I kept telling myself for weeks: I don’t have to go to that wedding, I don’t have to go to that wedding.
Paula Varsavsky is a fiction writer, journalist and teacher. Her works are the novels Nadie alzaba la voz (Emecé, 1994), also published in the U.S. in English translation by Anne McLean– No One Said a Word (Ontario Review Press, 2000 hardcover Edition), No One Said a Word (Wings Press, 2012, ebook and paperback) and El resto de su vida (Mondadori, 2007), a collection of short-stories The Portrait, a play and Las mil caras del autor a collection of conversations with American and British Writers. She has interviewed Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Ford, David Lodge, Hanif Kureishi and E.L Doctorow, among many others.
Her short stories have been translated into English, French and German and published in magazines such as: World Literature Today, Alba Magazine (Paris), In Our Own Words: a Generation Defining Itself.