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Literatura en México

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Cinco Décadas de Cuento Mexicano. Antología. Perea, Pitman, Taylor, Tedeschi, Valenzuela

The Time I got Drunk (English version)


Bárbara Jacobs
Foto: cnipl. INBA

Bárbara Jacobs



La Güera has sworn she's my friend and when we see each other she gives me a big hug and tells me, "I'm so happy to see you" and everything but I'm not sure. It's true that she has shared some important secrets with me, like what to put on your eyelashes at nigth so they'll grow longer and won't fall out and will look like an Arab woman's; and it's also true that she's let me listen when she talks to her boyfriend on the phone, so I'll learn what to say to mine when I have one, but I'm not sure. You see, I've also caught her in some lies, and thats what makes me wonder. Is she really my friend?

For instance, the other day her hair looked so pretty that I asked her:

"What did you do to your hair?"

"Nothing," she answered, and she threw her head back and sent her blond hair flying; it got even shinier and wavier, like what happens to the hair of the models who advertise shampoo on TV. "So it's true," I thought when I saw La Güera's hair --see? Y didn't believe TV; I thought they used tricks. That a shampoo could never, ever work such magic.

"Whatta you mean, nothing, Güera? Come on, don't be like that."

"Well, I did wash it, but I didn't do anything to it."

Then I found out she had spent all morning at the beauty parlor; that they had given her a whole lot of treatments and then dried her hair with infraviolet rays or something like that.

That's when I started wondering whether La Güera was really my friend. Why had she hidden the business about the beauty salon from me?

I played dumb, because that nigth she had invited me to a party and I needed her. See, I don't know how to put on makeup or get dressed up for things like that. Anyway, I don't have the right kind of clothes, and she had to loan me some. It was my first party.

It was horrible, except for one little part. A really handsome boy whose name is Claude, because his parents are French, came up to me and said:

"Do you want to dance"?

I was sitting on one of those little rented chairs with the name of some soft drink on the back. I told him no, that I didn't know how, which was true. Seriously. And he was about to walk away, probably to look for some other girl who was also by herself, when La Güera appeared. Right away she realized what had happened, because she lerned over and whispered in my ear:

"Don't be a fool."

And she straightened up and then Claude said to her:

"My name's Claude. My parents are French. Do you want to dance?"

La Güera accepted and they went off to dance and she doesn't know how. Claude is the one who is her boyfriend now and he calls her on the telephone about three or four times a day. La Güera lets me listen on the extension in her mom's room. In there almost everything is covered with real soft brown velvet, and the bed is on a sort of platform, also velvet-covered.

La Güera and I aren't just friends. We're also cousins. Her dad and my mom are brother and sister, and we live close to each other. So close that, in order to get to her house, all I have to do is cross the yard. Then I look for the key under a rock; only La Güera and I know which one it is. The bad part is that sometimes the key is covered with sow bugs and then I throw it down and feel grossed out for a while.

I'm almost always afraid to go back to my house alone, so La Güera keeps me company, but only as far as the door. She never goes inside my house, even though I spend all day Saturday and Sunday, and practically every afternoon during the week, in hers. I like her dad better than mine. When I'm all alone I wonder why I couldn't have been his daughter. Our fathers are so differet! And mine is an ogre. Everyone knows it.

The other day I even got drunk, all because of my dad. Well, and my mom too. Because of what's going on between them and I see it. My brothers and even my sister have grown up and moved out, so they're lucky they don't have to see any of it. When they come over they make sure first that Dad isn't home, and Mommy acts like they're her only children and she never gets to see them. When that happens she doesn't treat me so well. All she says to me is:

"Susana, go get the crackers," or the tea, or whatever, with her singing voice.

Sometimes my sister asks me how it's going, but I don't think she really wants to know, because when I'm just about to tell her she glances at her watch, jumps up and says:

"I have to go!" because her husband is about to come home and if he doesn't find her there he'll kill her, she says.

"No you don't," I tell her, but I say it in a low voice. I don’t think she even hears me, or else she doesn't understand me, because she doesn't smile or say anything.

The day I got drunk was horrible.

My dad was locked in his room and it was about two in the afternoon. My dad spends practically all his time in that room and doesn't let anybody else go in there. I'm the only one he'll let inside, but only when he's gone. I make his bed and run the vacuum cleaner and dust off his papers, but not very well: if I read anything I shouldn't, he'd catch me by just looking me in the face. I avoid his eyes and that gives me away. He'd dig his nails into me, I'm not sure where. He sleeps by himself. He goes out for about two or three hours a day, but I don't know where he goes or anything, now that he hardly works. He just tells me "Good morning" or, when he comes home, "Hi," if he sees me arround.

As for my mom, he doesn't speak to her or look at her or anything and, if they run into each other on the stairs, they both pretend they didn't see each other. They pretend to cough and look the other way. Or if my mom looks down, my dad looks up at the ceiling. The worst part is when they run into each other at the turn in the stairs, where the steps get tiny on one side, like on the pyramids. It's horrible. Because then my dad, without saying a word, lets my mom know he has the right of way, and my mom --and this is when I hate her-- makes like she wasn't even planning to go upstairs, if she was going up, and she backs down to the bottom. And so she yields the right of way to my dad. I'd like it if she didn't do it, but she does.

Anyway, tha day my dad was locked in his room and he called me. He opened the door and started to shout at me. When he calls me like that I feel horrible, like someone’s going to go by on the street and hear it and think things are really bad at my house. At first he started calling me in a more or less normal voice, but then he started yelling louder and louder. He was calling my name:

“Susana, Susana,” and I hurried as much as I could in the bathroom, which is where I was, and went to his room.

Then he told me, with the door barely cracked open, to go downstairs and tell my mom that he said he never wanted to see her noodle soup again, and if he so much as saw it again he would throw it in her face.

“Yes, Dad,” I answered, because for about the last five years I’ve been carrying messages back and forth between my dad and mom.

Before, my sister used to, just like she used to make my dad’s bed and clean his room. But when she started going to the university, my dad started hating her and burning her books. Then she started to sort of defend herself and hid all the books she bougth in her car. She had a red Volkswagen, all beat up, and she kept it in La Güera’s garage, as a matter of fact. That is, in La Güera’s parents’ garage. And she pretended she didn’t have a car or books or anything.

So when my dad gave me the message for my mom, I went downstairs and delivered it. My mom was in the kitchen fixing dinner, because we don’t have a maid. My mom and my grandmother do everything (exept my dad’s room, which I do). My grandmother is very, very old and, even though she’s really good-natured, sometimes you can tell it’s hard for her to do things. When she doesn’t think anyone’s listening, she complains. She and my mom get up as early as they can every day, around five, even if it’s still dark, or cold, or Sunday or a holiday. My grandmother loves to say, “The early bird gets the worm,” and it seems like she’s saying it for my sake, because I’m lazy.

The first thing my mom does when she gets un is drink tea that’s so bitter, it even smells bitter. Then she and my grandmother start doing things. By the time I leave for school, they’ve already done nearly everything and I can’t imagine what they have left to do, but when I come home the house is --I don’t know-- as nice as it could be. I wouldn’t say it’s as cool as La Güera’s house, because at my house everything is sort of old, sort of used up. For example, the carpet. It’s really stained because of my brothers’ children. They’re babies so they do everything on top of the living-room carpet, right in front of everyone.

Once I overheard Mom saying on the telephone to La Güera’s mother that all she cared about was that I come home to a nice house, so I would want to spend time there. I felt horrible, because the truth is that I don’t like to spend time there. It smells like bitter tea and the carpet is disgusting.

But what bugs me the most and even makes me cry is hearing my dad slam the door at night when he locks himself in his room and then my mom slam the door behind her and my grandmother. My mom doesn’t slam her door as hard, but it makes me just as sad.

When I get home from school all I want to do is lock myself in my room. If they call me to supper, a lot of times I holler that I’m not hungry. I also don’t like spending the afternoon with my mother and grandmother. What they do is watch one TV program after another; sometimes they even start falling asleep, or the picture gets fuzzy and they don’t even notice. I’ts horrible. Well, my mom also spends a lot of time talking on the phone, and drinking lots of tea, and eating lots of crackers, but always with the television on. That’s what afternoons are like at my house, and that’s why I cross the yard and go looking for La Güera, so she’ll teach me how to be like her.

Just like Claude, who saw me first, but stayed with her once he’d seen her; the same thing happens with everyone. With our girlfriends at school, with their mothers: everyone sort of falls in love with her. Me, for one, because she’s so pretty. It’s funny; I’m a blond too but no one calls me “La Güera”; I wonder why.

Anyway, as I was saying, I went downstairs to give my mom the message.

“Mommy,” I said, “Daddy says he never wants to see noodle soup again.”

I didn’t dare tell her the part about his throwing it in her face if he saw it again. Not so much because I was scared as because I felt sorry for her. I’ts just that my mother’s face is covered with what’s left after you’ve had a bad case of smallpox, and before she used to put on all kinds of face creams, French ones and everything, to get rid of the pock marks, or to fill them in, I’m not sure, but the thing is, it didn’t work. And her face stayed that way, all pockmarked.

When I gave her my dad’s message she was cleaning a chicken by candlelight, and my grandmother was washing the dishes wearing some red rubber gloves.

When I told them about the soup, they were speechless. There was such a silence that I was speechless too. I thought maybe I had announced I was going to tell them something and they were waiting for me to say it, something dangerous.

So I repeated the message and they turned and looked at each other, obviously scared. Then, still not saying a word, they stood there staring at the Bunsen burners, because we don't have a stove. And, more specifically, they stared at one of the pots on the Bunsen burners. They looked at it and started exclaiming things, then finally asked each other:

"And what are we going to do now?"

My grandmother was waving the red rubber gloves and I shivered, like I used to when I was little. I had an urge to tell them not to do anything, but then I remembered the part of the message that I hadn’t delivered.

In went out. That isn’t exactly true; I went to the bathroom, which is where I was when my father had shouted for me to go to his room immediately. I haven’t mentioned that there’s a plant next to the window which opens up at night and closes in the daytime, or that when my father shouted my name the leaves shook. Anyway, I locked myself in the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror and took off my blouse. It was still the blouse from my school uniform, because unless I go over to La Güera’s house, I don’t change my clothes; I leave my uniform on until it’s time to put on my nightgown.

I turned arround a little and looked at my back in the bathroom mirror. It looks horrible, full of pimples. Horrible. Really. I don’t know what to do but pop them, even though when my mom catches me doing it she gets furious and asks me if I want to look like her or what. But I know her face was from something else and it doesn’t scare me. As a matter of fact, it makes me fell braver, and one day I even told her:

“Leave me alone.”

But the day of the noodle soup I stayed locked in there in front of the mirror longer than usual, thinking hard and looking at my back, but the longer I looked at it, the more disgusted I got.

I remember thinking a lot about La Güera, that I’d like to see her back to find out once and for all if she really doesn’t have any pimples. I’ve already told you that, even though she’s my friend, I sometimes doubt her and think she’s hiding things from me. For example, she has never put on a dress that’s low-cut in back; she always wears the kind that’s lowcut in front (maybe because what she has got in front is really pretty, who knows, but her parents let her). Also, she has never gotten undressed in front of me, and when she comes out of the shower she holds a bathrobe under her chin while she’s getting dressed, so I won’t see her. On the other hand, when she invited me to the party I told you about, La Güera made me take my clothes off in front of her, so I could try on the dress she loaned me. I was embarrassed but I did what she said and didn’t even partly cover myself up with a bathrobe. Anyway, that day she even made me take a shower. She tossed me a sponge and a bar of soap over the shower curtain and said enthusiastically, “You’re lucky, they’re new,” so I would feel really privileged or something. But I didn’t get excited or anything. I think she gave them to me just so I wouldn’t use hers, because I’m sure she thinks I’m disgusting.

As I was saying, something made me stay in the bathroom, something seemed to be telling me:

“Susana, you’d better not leave.”

But all at once I heard a door slam. And it was like a sign or an order. It was a command that my body started obeying as if it had a will of its own. I hurried and go dressed again and, all nervous, I went downstairs.

The order took over inside me:

“Look or else I’ll kill you,” it told me.

So I went.

When I reached the last step, the screams I heard almost made me freeze, but the voice inside me pushed me on, walking, running, flying, to the kitchen, where the screams were coming from.

At my house, in order to reach the kitchen you have to go through the breakfast room, which is where we eat breakfast, dinner and supper, because the dining room doesn’t have a table or lamp or curtains or anything: it’s an empty room where we’re going to put furniture someday, so we can invite all our friends over and be really happy, or anyway that’s what my dad and mom both used to tell me when I was little.

So I went through the breakfast room first. That’s where my father’s place was set. He eats all by himself, before the three of us do. We don’t sit down until he’s eaten and locked himself in his room. I noticed his napkin was unfolded, as if he had started eating an had gotten up and was about to come back now. There were the salt and pepper shakers, the bread, all the sauces muy dad always wants on the table, even though he doesn’t use them or anything. And there was his glass of wine, too.

The screams coming from the kitchen weren’t words, just screams: “Ah, ay,” and that sort of thing. You could also hear the kind of sounds that come out when you’re clenching your teeth and trying not to scream. And finally, a sort of moam or squeak or something.

In the kitchen, I saw my father standing with his back to me. He had his arms down and hanging from his rigth hand, I think, there was a deep bowl with a few drops of something or other running out of it. Standing in front of him I could see my mom, her face covered with noodles. She was crying, and her chest heaved up and down just like a toad. And somewhere in the general vicinity, next to the sink, was my grandmother, with her mouth hanging open. And when I looked closer I could see that she was standing with her legs apart, too. In between her black, laced shoes, like half-boots, there was a puddle just the ones my brothers’ kids make on the living-room carpet.

When I realized what had happened, I started to cry. My dad turned halfway arround and said:

“Susana, button your blouse.”

I had left the bathroom in such a hurry that I actually hadn’t buttoned it or anything.

That afternoon I got to La Güera’s house even earlier than usual. Her parents were still sitting at the table, but since La Güera had already gone to her room, I barely said hello to my aunt and uncle and went looking for my cousin right away. I heard my aunt and uncle asking me what was wrong, but I didn’t answer them. In fact, I ran to La Güera’s room.

She was getting dressed to go to the theatre with Claude; then they were going to supper afterwards. She smelled really good, like wheat and dew and early-morning mist, I thought. I asked her what perfume it was and, when she told me the name, I burst into tears again.

I cried and cried, and while she finished getting ready and everything, she tossed me a box of Kleenex and said:

“After you calm down you’ll tell me all about it, Susana.”

I’m not so sure. What could I tell her?

Anyway, once I had finally calmed down a little, my cousin told me she had to go, that Claude was about to come by for her.

“But we’ll talk tomorrow,” she said, and left.

As I watched her walk away, it occurred to me that the next day I wouldn’t have anything important to tell her.

That’s when --because of all these things and some others I don’t understand-- I got drunk.*

Translated by Cynthia Steel

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MULTIMEDIA:

BOOKS BY BÁRBARA JACOBS (CNL-INBA)

INTERVIEW (Red Escolar)

Las hojas muertas (novel. Google Books)

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Fuente: * From the book Doce cuentos en contra. México, ERA, 1990. Biblioteca ERA. New Writing from Mexico. USA, Northwestern University/TriQuarterly Books, 1992.

 

 

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