The Quince (English)
“What dare does the owner of this trinket receive?”
“She has to kiss someone of the opposite sex.”
Elisa was horrified to see her high school ring in Laura’s hands. She looked at it again hoping that she was wrong but by the light of the bonfire the ring sparkled unmistakably. Laura and Marta watched her with relish; she felt offended as the others waited with baited breath. Behind her, the calm sea made her feel more abandoned. She did not dare look at Miguel.
“Kissing your boyfriend isn’t so bad, is it?”
Marta’s voice, Laura’s smile. She wanted to shout “I’ve never been kissed” but it would have been humiliating if the girls had known that right then.
She got up clumsily with heart-rending bravery. The corners of her mouth quivered and she forced a smile. She closed her eyes and without realizing brushed her mouth against Miguel’s hair. Marta and Laura burst out laughing shrilly and slightly unnaturally.
“Is that it? Poor Miguel!”
It was Laura. Miguel fixed his gaze on her.
He tenderly took Elisa’s hand and sat her down at his side. There was a heavy silence.
The game then started up again as innocently as usual, but Elisa could not stop feeling rather ashamed of herself. A sense of anguish settled in her chest and she avoided the gazes of the group.
When it was time to go, Elisa and Miguel held back. They walked in silence by the beach for a while.
“You should forgive them. They didn’t mean anything bad by it; they were just bored of playing such a childish game. They think that they’re adults already, they enjoy themselves differently.”
“You’re their age. Are you bored, Miguel?”
As she asked, her voice sounded timid, almost defeatist.
He stopped to look at her. Her delicate face was anxious, her eyes wet. He hugged her tightly, squeezing her head against his chest in order to protect her from that unwarranted thought. He pushed her away slowly and kissed her lips. The warmth filled her completely, endlessly, and when their twinkling eyes met they found themselves close together, clear in one another’s eyes. Elisa smiled with undeniable happiness and innocence, a dreamer in a perfect world.
She spent the following days reliving this moment, in her own mind, going over and over it in her dreams. The calm and lazy days spent at that small summer retreat were like a steady rock and she closed in on herself as if she were a clam.
“Elisa! Elisa, chuck the ball!”
She got up begrudgingly, picked up the ball and gave it back to the group, shouting,
“I’m not playing anymore”.
Laura and Miguel were still in the sea, splashing about and trying to dunk one another. Elisa could only hear their giggles. Oh, the energy of Miguel; she lay down again on the sand with a kind of affectionate warmth that surged through her when she thought of him. Left to herself in the sun, she dozed, until Laura’s voice shook her from her drowsiness. She opened her eyes, coming to a little, and watched Laura slowly walking towards her, her beautiful body moving rhythmically. She brought her hands to her nape, tying the straps of her little two-piece bikini around her neck.
“Wow, your boyfriend is one of a kind, sweetie. He untied the knot in my straps while we were playing in the water and then instead of turning around he just stared at me. It’s not important but I’m telling you so that you don’t think he’s the gentleman he seems to be.”
She said it without pausing, almost in passing. Speechless and pretending not to pay heed to her new wound, Elisa watched Laura go and realized that she did not feel anger towards her but a kind of respect and perhaps a slight hint of envy. Envy… Why had Miguel looked at her like that? Was Miguel really like that? She didn’t understand. She didn’t know anything about anything or anything about anybody. She was alone.
She sat down, pulling up her legs and wrapping her arms around them. She rested her chin on her knees and stayed there looking helplessly at the sea.
She was still there when Miguel arrived.
“How are you?”
She was sad, he was guilty. He sat down at her side, hunched over, as he stared at the sea as well.
For the first time they did not share in their silence, they were defenceless, each condemned to their own weakness.
Elisa’s mother called them to eat. They got up slowly and approached the others. Her mother looked them over amusedly.
“Look at those faces! Have you been fighting?”
“It’s the sun, nothing’s wrong, Mom.”
“Well then, go and change because they are about to serve the soup.”
They continued walking in silence towards the bathrooms but before they went their separate ways they smiled at one another, that same eternal smile. Nothing had changed.
This is what Elisa thought under the shower: nothing had changed. Standing outside the bathroom, she had turned around and seen the same tenderness of that evening in Miguel’s eyes, now colored with humility and anguish. She felt pleased, satisfied and pitied him, perhaps it was a little unkind but it put a radiant smile on her face and it redeemed him. From that moment on everything returned to how it was before, and now she didn’t feel any of the confused and painful thoughts that had been there some minutes ago. It was a small miracle, imperfect and human, but she didn’t sense anything else or think anymore about it while she dressed quickly singing a song to herself.
When they met again he was fresh and bright, brighter than ever.
They sat down to eat at a long table in a shack that acted as a restaurant. It was reserved for the four families who formed the closest-knit group. A comforting and increasing crescendo of voices came from the other tables.
Laura arrived late wearing the royal blue dress complete with plunging neckline that looked so good on her. She was undoubtedly different to the other girls. It felt like, with thinly veiled intention, she was slicing through and divvying up someone else’s world.
As she greeted everyone she sat down next to Marta who started to tell her something. Laura was not listening. She ate slowly looking at Miguel with shrewd and haughty cynicism. He pretended not to notice but he was utterly confused; he had forgotten Elisa. Marta touched Laura’s arm to compel her to respond but Laura continued her game throughout the meal. During dessert she said to Miguel with bravado the others didn’t recognize,
“Hey, give me a cigarette.”
He offered her one.
“And the lighter?”
Miguel got up and leaned over the table. His hand shook a little as he offered it to her. She held his wrist aggressively and kept it there, very close, until she let out the first drag of smoke, slowly, tenderly. It wafted softly over their skin, lingering mysteriously. She looked in his eyes, fixedly, with a strange and determined seriousness. She realized that the others were watching her and she let out a triumphant burst of laughter.
“I’d be a great actress, right? Miguel hasn’t got any sense of drama though”
She bent over the table a bit sending the smoke further and squinted exaggeratedly, imitating the silent film actresses. It seemed that this stepped up her game. Everybody laughed, except for Marta and Elisa’s mother. Laura looked challengingly down her nose at Miguel. He dropped his gaze, defeated. Tense and belittled, Elisa observed them.
In the meantime, the others were getting up from the table to go for a siesta. Marta took Elisa outside. The sea was calm.
“Marta, do you think Miguel loves me?” She had not ever wanted to ask herself or anyone else. She had broken something sacred. She felt like a coward.
“Yes, he loves you, a lot, it’s just that...”
“I don’t know.”
But she did know.
“Is it my fault?”
“What? No, you’re just a girl. And Miguel loves you more than anyone, more than anything but just don’t ask me. Miguel is an idiot, although he is my brother, he’s an idiot.”
She was furious, but while she gestured and fiddled with her hands it seemed like she was angry for being helpless. Why did she feel so angry? What had really happened?
There were clouds on the horizon and the sun was coming down between them. The blinding, golden light sparkled on the surface of the slow, heavy sea but beneath her fleshy exterior she was numb.
Elisa felt that heavy, murky swell in her chest. A moment ago she had gone to the town center to get coffee for dinner and had seen Miguel and Laura leaving the ice-cream parlor. They were beaming like two contenders who were fighting for one another’s beauty and sure of a mutual victory. Miguel was different, she hadn’t seen this side of him before; he was aggressive and slightly conceited, yearning for control over Laura. His striking but slightly vulgar self-assuredness was something she had never seen before. He was different, but attractive, a lot more attractive than she had believed.
All of that which she had not seen clearly or discovered before humiliated her more than having lost him. But now it was clear: Miguel preferred Laura and she, Elisa, couldn’t do anything about it. The only thing that she knew to do was to disappear, slip away and then run and run until she was on the beach by her house, in front of the sea, alone.
The water writhed in the last, muddy and salty breakers. Elisa was cold. The pain, the loathing sapped all the energy from her, the disgust was unwarranted and the pain was brutal. She shook but she couldn’t cry, something kept her from it. It was injustice; the terrible injustice of being who she was, of not being Laura. And the great hindrance of being helpless, of only being a victim.
Now that it was all over she saw that she was just an empty shell: all she used to be, all she had ever been was love, a love that served no purpose now. She was nothing; a nobody. She was torn apart but she could not take pity on herself, she hated herself for being her, just her, that person whom Miguel had stopped loving. “It’s your fault, it’s your fault,” she repeated to herself. “Because you’re just a girl”…perhaps it was for that reason, but in any case, it was for being who she was.
She thought about her mother who would have ironed her outfit for the evening’s party… Now nothing made sense; the future, near or far, it was just a big hole, yawningly empty and bottomless.
She felt so faint from despair that it alleviated the pain and she stopped thinking although she still couldn’t cry.
She heard her mother’s voice behind her.
“Elisa, have you brought the coffee? What are you doing out here? It’s dark already.”
She was right.
She got up with difficulty. Her mother’s voice soothed her desperation. Perhaps it had all been a lie. What was true and what was obvious without giving it away, was her sadness.
She entered the softly lit house. Her father, a cigar in his mouth, arranged his fishing gear and listened distractedly to his wife talking from the kitchen. He looked at her mischievously, with a look of happy collusion that acted as a code word between them. Elisa felt indignant and left out.
She set the table robotically.
“Is Miguel coming for supper?” asked her father approaching her.
Her father found this strange but didn’t ask any more questions, he just looked at her then he smiled and stroked her cheek. It hurt her deeply to think of the shame that he would have to see her suffer without being able to heal it.
“You have to be quick, you should be dressed already,” said her mother sitting down at the table.
“I’m not going, Mom.”
“What do you mean you’re not going? Your dress is ready.”
She looked in her eyes and said no more. “Serve yourself,” she said sweetly to Elisa.
Her father and mother chatted between themselves pretending to ignore the fact that she was sad but unintentionally lowered their voices anyway. When they heard Miguel’s steps in the hall, Elisa went silent, she almost stopped breathing. Miguel came in dressed as Pierrot, he was happy. Elisa seemed to be living a scene through a time warp, a scene that had happened in the past. He bowed theatrically to the floor and her parents laughed, glad and relieved.
“Aren’t you dressing up? Hurry up. Pierrot cannot live without his Columbine. Can’t you see how much this poor thing needs her?”
It sounded strange listening to Miguel using an artificial tone even in fancy dress. He wanted to be nice to make her forgive his failure that he believed was a secret. But he did want to make her forgive him and that was important. And he was there, looking at her. Something started to buzz around Elisa’s head. She understood nothing but it didn’t matter. She ran to her room, her throat was tight and emotion tore through her body. She started to dress hurriedly, hastily, in a frenzy that little by little was making her cheerful. Wild happiness made her laugh at random, a little wickedly, but she felt liberated. She went spinning around her room, dancing, then she stopped, she didn’t know what to do with her hands, her smile, her happiness. She steadied herself, “He’s waiting for me; he’s waiting for me, for me!” It felt so natural and so extraordinary. She looked appreciatively in the mirror, being kind to herself. She trusted him implicitly once more.
When she returned downstairs she was glowing. She didn’t know how but she had won, she was blindly happy.
“You look so pretty!”
It was hoarse and insecure but there was total sincerity in Miguel’s voice, he was entirely hers.
When they arrived at the party, they were stunned by the music, the heat and the lights. It all seemed like a dream to Elisa, to be there with Miguel and the fact that everyone greeted them happily as if nothing had happened. In reality, nothing had happened. A warm feeling flooded over them as if they had taken a hearty gulp of wine. They danced. She took up her place again in the middle of this unbelievably balanced world that she had thought lost forever.
Suddenly, dressed as a pirate with clear piercing eyes, Laura appeared between the couples and approached them. She carried a quince in her hand. She looked straight at Miguel, completely ignoring Elisa. Miguel hesitated and stopped still. Laura’s face was almost right up against his; all that separated them was the quince that Laura brought between them flirtatiously.
“Do you want some?” she said as she bit into the flesh, inviting him, almost obliging him to bite in the same place, almost into the same teeth marks. There was a triumphant challenge in her eyes, the same bitter and provocative taste of the quince in her voice. Miguel shook his head. But Elisa had understood. That smell, that proximity of Laura and Miguel, that amorous enemy, had made her understand. Sensitively she moved closer to Miguel and as luck would have it, it broke the power of the spell. They danced away from Laura. Slowly, Elisa understood that love does not only take one form and that she had joined a sharp, imperfect and difficult world; but she felt a new sense of happiness, the painful happiness of being a woman.*
Translated by Felicity Sylvester (PGDip Translation Studies with Interpreting, University of Leeds, UK)
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BOOKS BY INÉS ARREDONDO (CNL-INBA)
Complete Works (Google Books)
”Mariana”, read by Yuriria Contreras (Descarga cultural, UNAM)
“Profética presenta a Inés Arredondo”, by Frank Loveland (You Tube)
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|Fuente: * From the book Cuentos completos, México, FCE, 2011.|