Starting Over (English version)
To Saúl Juárez
One day I woke up with the question already on my lips. I asked my husband, as I threw the covers off him:
¿Santiago. Santiago, wake up! Are you happy with what you are?¿
He pulled the covers up again and turned his back to me.
¿Just tell me if you're happy with your life, happy with what you are right now.¿
¿What a way to wake somebody up!¿ he countered.
¿I want to know if you like being an accountant's assistant. Have you ever thought that you yourself could be the agency accountant? Have you ever thought of being something else? Of being different?¿
At that moment the Santa Rita bell rang, for the six-o'clock mass. You see, we never had to buy an alarm clock. Santiago got up to bathe, leaving my questions hanging in the air. But I followed him into the bathroom and, while sitting on the toilet, I hit him with everything I could think of:
¿Well, I'm not, Santiago. I'm not satisfied with myself. Since I've been sick and incapacitated I've realized that I don't even like my work: always teaching the children the same things, the ¿important¿ dates of Mexican History, the Article 123, the location of the states... putting up with that insufferable principal and the envy and gossip of the other teachers. You know what? I don't intend to return to that school. I dreamed that I didn't want to die without having done something I really enjoy.¿
The only thing my husband thought of was to ask if I was feeling well. Then he said:
¿You look pale, go lie down and rest.¿
¿It has nothing to do with resting. I want to change, to be someone else, the person I always wanted to be and couldn't be.¿
He stuck his head out from under the shower and looked at me sitting there, such a poor little thing. Perhaps he was surprised by my complaint.
¿For example,¿ I answered, ¿I'm a teacher because it was the quickest degree I could get, so I could support my mother. But now I'm willing to admit that I never liked it. And I couldn't even support her, because my entire check used to fall into the hands of the man who was going to be my stepfather. I wanted to be a biologist, to look through a microscope and see bacteria moving around, microbes dyed blue, yellow or green. To draw amoebas like we used to do in elementary school, or cells...to see how many shapes they take. But she would say, ¿Those professions are for daring girls, who have more opportunities and a better education.¿ She always put me down. And yet, now that I've been undergoing all these tests I've realized that I envy those young women who spend their time in front of beakers, droppers and little tubes, observing strange beings that twist and palpitate when you pour something on them. I can tell you this because they let me look one time, now that they all know me so well. Don't you think that with my white robe and mask, I could take the place of any one of them?¿
¿Picking up other people¿s shit,¿ he said with contempt.
And I told him that he was being contemptuous of me. And that I was no longer willing to go on just putting up with everything and never complaining, not speaking out when I felt like it, not even demanding to be heard, not making my own decisions. That I was no longer willing to lead a colorless life, confined by the name somebody else gave me, along with a particular way to be.
¿I'm that way,¿ I assured him, ¿because that's the way they told me to be.¿
¿Well, what are you?¿ he asked, grimacing as if he was facing a scorpion.
¿I'm like that. Don't you know me?¿
Well, always thinking that life is what I'm living, what they taught me. Without having suspected that there were other things, that I could change. I wanted to have a child because I learned that that was how it had to be, because just as all of my friends I was looking forward to the day to buy a little cradle, knit camisoles, embroider bibs.
When they told me they would have to leave me empty I was terribly frightened. How can I tell you? As if I was going to end up only half a woman. And I felt guilty for not being able to give you that little girl you always talked about when we made love.
My husband began to shave hurriedly, ignoring what I was saying.
¿I'm talking to you, Santiago, listen to me,¿ I told him.
Do you know what he said? That he had talked to his mother, that she was coming from Coatepec to stay a few days with us, that he had told her that I was not well, that I needed help around the house, someone to keep me company in case I have to have another operation.
¿That's precisely what I don't want, Santiago. I don't want your mother to come and tell me how to make chick-pea soup, how I should wash the collars of your shirts. That's what I'm trying to tell you: I'm no longer willing to put up with family dinners, to have to look into the face of that nincompoop of a brother of yours who always manages to find an excuse for lowering your paycheck. If your mother shows up I'll run her off.¿
My husband left the bathroom, slamming the door behind him. And, do you know what? I didn't even cry. Any other time I would have. Often, when we fought I would. And what's more, he would always say:
¿Is that all you can do ¿cry?¿
That morning I realized that I really was going to try, at least to try, to change my life.
I met my husband the day he came to my school to apply for a job. Just by chance I took down all of his personal information. The principal's secretary had not come to work that day and I stayed in the office to help out. When I got to his physical description I said everything out loud while looking at him:
¿Black, curly hair. Large, black eyes. Strong nose. Thin lips. Robust complexion. Your height?¿ I asked him.
¿Five feet, eight inches.¿
¿I have a mole here,¿ he said, pointing to his right hip.
I blushed and then smiled.
¿You look prettier that way,¿ he told me.
¿Come back on Monday,¿ I said.
He came on Monday but only to tell me that he had found a job with a travel agency that didn't require as much information as a little old school that hadn't even been accredited by the Ministry of Education. And to tell me that he had come to invite me out to dinner.
In the restaurant he asked me to begin looking for a place to live because by December, with our annual bonus, we would be getting married. I told him that he was crazy, but now you see...
He was always happy, refined, and had no bad habits or vices, and he was never apathetic.
He would always fix the iron and the radio and the television for my mother. He'd put a nail here, a lock there, he'd take the clock apart, change the propane tank and see what was wrong with the water heater.
We got married in January and the agency gave us a trip to Taxco and Acapulco.
To tell you the truth, it didn't really dawn on me that I was getting married. I don't believe I ever thought, ¿I'm going to get married.¿ Maybe I was still a little in love with the gymnastics coach. On the other hand, my mother always had plenty to say about it:
¿I found this pressure cooker today when I went to the market at La Lagunilla. It's for your house.¿
That's how she began to accumulate things for my house: sheets, a tablecloth, two blankets, a set of Vasconia dishes, some Anfora stone-ware... all with my wages, of course; my wages that I continued to give her every two weeks.
Before that, I wouldn't have dreamed of being a bother to my mother. While my father was still living with us it was different; everyone said we were a very close family. The only time I felt the closeness, that sense of family, was when we would go to Cuitzeo. Grandpa and Tatita would throw open the doors to us. They were fishermen, you see.
Tatita, my great-grandfather, would always tell me that, since he couldn't teach me to throw the fishing net, I'd have to learn to play the guitar. Sometimes at parties he'd make me sing. We'd practice for a long time during the evenings after he came back from the lake. He'd sing harmony for me, and I could tell he was so proud...
Later, I hated to go to Cuitzeo because that's where my father met ¿the other woman.¿ We never gave her a name, she was just ¿the other one.¿ I also learned not to use her name. That's what they taught me.
You know, up till then things just happened to me, and I always accepted them.
I know that a person doesn't change overnight. On top of that, you change but other people don't understand the change, and everything just gets more difficult and more complicated. My mother, for example. Guess what she said when she came into the room after my first operation. That I should thank God because children are a real bother. I'd like to be able to tell her how much she has hurt me, but I'm afraid that not only do I lack the courage to confront her but, actually, I'd like to see some expression of love from her, even if it's just a little one. Then my mother told me how tired she was, how bored, about the piece of clothe she had just bought and that she was going to take to her best friend so she could make her a dress.
When my husband came in the room it was an entirely different situation. It was more like an abyss, like darkness, like glass shattering into a thousand pieces. At first he remained standing, right there, looking at me, as if he didn't know what to say. Then he came over and kissed me on the forehead.
¿Maybe we can adopt a child, don't you think?¿
¿Maybe that's not the only thing I could have given you,¿ I managed to say before the tears began to pour out of me.
Then he told me that at the agency they were going to give him a few days off with pay and some airplane tickets so we could go to Veracruz, to the beach.
Listening to him, I was sure that he was in more pain than I was from my cancer, from my sterility, from a rebelliousness that was beginning to take shape, because of the idea that I was living a life that I hadn't chosen. As if the tiny light that I had seen when I opened my eyes, after the operation, in the intensive-care unit had penetrated me, telling me that I could change, that there would be other things more important than motherhood. I'd have to begin searching, changing. The problem was that if I stopped being that person I didn't want to be, my husband should give up certain things that he had never admitted were wrong.
It was not his character that I wanted to be different. I think I already told you that he was a very good and happy person, that he was dependable around the house and that he was tidy in all aspects of his life. I would have liked, for example, for him to make a clean break with his family. His mother was constantly coming from Coatepec, settling into our little apartment for one or two months at a time. And even then, it wasn't that I couldn't stand her. Her presence simply meant that everything ceased being the way I liked it: we could no longer live in the buff, move around in total freedom, decide where we might go or what we might do. If you wanted to watch TV, you'd have to be content with what the lady was watching. I got tired of smiling, of buying the best plums or mangos or apples for dessert. And the lady, just to ¿please,¿ would reorganize the pantry and the closet. You'd no longer know where the salt was or where to find the towels. And if you went out to feed the sparrows the feeder wouldn't be where it belonged because ¿there's less sun on this corner,¿ and you'd have to explain to her but that's where the rain gutter drains from the floor above.
When I left the hospital, change became my obsession. Santiago would attack me by saying:
¿How stupid! You'll never stop being Maria López!¿
That's my name. What they named me at birth, just Maria López. There's nothing special about it; actually, I've really outgrown it. I feel it doesn¿t have that strength, I feel like shattering it, making it blow to pieces and scatter all the vowels to one side and the consonants to the other. But I dream, you know, that the letters come back together and that Maria López takes on a new meaning, a unique Maria, different. A López with a round, prolonged ¿O,¿ accompanied by a distinctive, renewed Maria.
My convalescence proceeded as if I myself had walked out onto a high wire stretched between two poles in a circus, as if I had told myself that being up there in the air, at that height, was just kid stuff. It was like being on tiptoes on that wire, scared to death because I didn¿t know how to do the most important thing, walk.
In a certain way it was starting over like when my father abandoned us. One day he said he was going to Cuitzeo and we never saw him again. Two months later, my mother gave his clothes away to the plumber. His only suit, his dress shoes, his navy blue tie and the felt hat he always wore to work. .
I wanted to stop her.
¿He's probably sick and that's why he hasn't returned. What will we tell him about his things?¿
¿Do you think he's coming back? He's probably with 'the other one.' There's nothing in this house that he wants.¿
¿There's nothing in this house that he wants,¿ became an echo in my dreams. To this day, I've never forgiven him, but it has nothing to do with the hatred my mother's family has for him. Really, he had the right to look for a woman who understood his simplicity. He wasn't a city man. He was a fisherman who couldn't adapt to working for the Ministry of Commerce as Chief of Services. He had the right to return to his lake, to look forward to a bed that awaited his return. My father had a right to all of it, except forgetting that I was there in that apartment pacing desperately from one side to the other, waiting for him and trying to give some kind of shape to a future without him.
During those years we lived in Tacubaya, on Avenida Jalisco, right across from that Canada shoe store. At night, the red, yellow and blue lights of the Canada sign would go on and off in our apartment as well. When it would light up our building it seemed as though my bedroom would take on a cozy dimension. It had a warmer, roomier feeling.
My dad had the habit of coming into my room early each morning to close the curtains and readjust my bedspread. Then he'd pat me on the back or he'd lay his hand on my forehead or he'd caress my hair while kissing me. Many times, between dreams, I'd sense his presence or I'd count his steps: from my bed to the window, from the window to my bed, from my bed to the door. He loved to walk. On Saturdays, for example, we'd walk to the Mixcoac market, just for the pleasure of walking. He would point out everything.
¿Look, Maria, the District clock, it dates back to 1895. Can you see it?¿
Once he took me as far as the Del Carmen church, in San Angel, so I could see the mummies. He carried me all the way back on his shoulders while I clung to his thick head of hair. He constantly interrupted our conversation to greet his acquaintances: the hardware-store owner, the man from the paper store, the butcher, the old woman from the fabric store... to a certain extent he seemed to live in Tacubaya as if it were his own town. And you might not believe it, but he always seemed to be proud of me. He'd bring things home to me from the office: pencils; little key rings with a picture of López Mateos, the presidential candidate; little notepads...
Once my grandfather came to take me to Cuitzeo. By then I was seventeen years old. I didn't want to go. Why? I thought that my father would reject me again. He should have come to get me himself, don't you think? I never saw him again. He doesn't even know that I got married, that... Also, I suppose he doesn't care about me ―he has his other daughters nearby.
I think the greatest shock to me was after I got the test results from the 20 de Noviembre Hospital, the very same day they told me and my husband that I'd need chemotherapy treatments. And that wasn't what bothered me, since from the very beginning they had pointed out the advantages and disadvantages of the procedure.
What really happened was that Santiago came home that night drunk and, like a volcano, he erupted, he spewed out all his resentments, one after another, he hurt me terribly, he hurt himself without being able to help it.
Santiago only drank socially. He could hold eight or ten rum-and-Cokes without turning into the ¿party clown,¿ like the television commercial used to say. He'd just get a little happy, but he never lost his good manners even when he was drunk.
It had been a long time since we had gone out anywhere to unwind, and we didn¿t invite anybody home anymore. In other words, I believe we were alone too much. At the beginning of my illness, some of my friends and one couple that Santiago knew from before our marriage would come see us. My friends from the Teachers¿ college and from the school where I worked had agreed among themselves not to let me be left alone. They would bring me mandarin oranges, grapes, chocolate cakes, cookies, daisies and carnations. They'd tell me all the gossip from work, about the principal, about the other teachers, about friends who were not present... until I'd get tired and they understood that I wanted to sleep.
But as I'm sure you're aware, when an illness drags on too long, people get tired of thinking about you, they become distracted and, little by little, other things come up, such as going to the movies, to Chapultepe Park, grocery shopping, taking care of their children, they just get tired.
That night I was up till three in the morning waiting for Santiago. The worst possible disasters kept running through my mind: that he had been mugged, run over. I even wondered if I'd have to relive my father's abandonment ―after all, I personally relived my mother's desperation. Santiago never did that; I mean, just go off somewhere. When he returned I was in the bathroom. My swollen belly required me to spend most of my time there, getting rid of every single drop of water that I drank. All of a sudden I heard the door opening. At first I felt relief and then, as you can imagine, I was like a battery of rage with a fresh charge. I had never seen him like that, like a limp dishrag. Where was his enormous, firm body, his strong arms, his robust legs, his straight back that my hands knew by heart? Where was that man who, that morning, had left home in a pressed suit and a clean shirt? We never did find out where he lost his tie.
I just sat there looking at him, burning up with anger:
¿Here's your dumb wife, just waiting for you to come home whenever it suits you. Just look at you...¿
Santiago cut me off in a hefty voice, in spite of his condition:
¿I'm fed up with you, with your cancer, your pride, that idiotic idea that you have to do everything right, your fucking talk about changing. You're going to die, Maria. Can't you understand that? Can't you see reality?¿
¿Reality?¿ I said. ¿What is reality to you? We're all going to die, Santiago. Everyone. At any moment. You yourself could die before I do, even with your good health. Death is always near. I'm not afraid, Santiago. You are. That's the difference.¿
¿But you've already been chosen, Maria,¿ he insisted.
He let himself drop to the floor and leaned his back against one of the chairs we bought at Los Hermanos Vázquez. I sat down in front of him, trying to understand his loneliness, my own. Why was he giving up before even taking up the fight?
¿Stop kidding yourself, Maria. Let people help you. Why don't you call your own mother if you don't want mine to come?¿
Poor Santiago, you should have seen him. He was pulling at his hair and moving his head from side to side. He seemed to have crumbled inside from a single blow. To put him back together would have taken a long time.
Many times I tried to convince him of the harm that my family had caused me, especially my mother. What could I expect from her when she had organized her life on her own way? How could I make Santiago understand that I had cancer but I was still alive?
¿One doesn't have to have four hands to make a bed or wash eight plates. Since I can't go to work I've been thinking about how I might study here, and someday I may become a biologist, don't you understand?¿
¿Damn it!,¿ he yelled. ¿Don't you understand? You're building castles in the air.¿
¿All right, Santiago,¿ I answered. ¿Let's suppose that I'm going to die. How soon? Did the doctor happen to tell you the hour, the day, the month? I'm not just going to fold my arms. I'm not going to wait for death while stirring a cup of herbal tea. If I only have four days left I'm going to live them; if it's four months, then the same. If I live for four years that would be marvelous. More time to do what I never had the opportunity to do, because of my apathy, because I always believed in what they taught me: all my life was like being in school taking dictation in a steno pad, writing down what I should and shouldn't do. I don't care if other people don't like the way I am, I don't care what they say, what they think, what they imply. Now I've opened up a huge sketch pad and I've begun to draw a line that will carry to the very edge of it, a line that will have whatever form I give it, while I still can.¿
¿You're really screwed, Maria! You're screwed!¿
I couldn't change his mind. He sprawled out flat on the floor, repeating and repeating the same thing, pounding the tile with his fist.
I had no idea where all my strength and anger came from. I could see how tired he was of me, how exhausted he was, as if his impatience was going to do away with everything all at once.
And yet, for me, time and everything else had a different meaning. I no longer yearned for night to come so that I could go to bed and stop thinking, to see only one dark wall, to wait for sleep to envelope me as if I were already dead.
Nothing hurt me more than seeing Santiago that way, suffering without wanting to understand anything, without so much as recognizing me, trying to deny me this opportunity.
I wanted to take him to the bedroom, make love to him, allow Maria López to become a furious torrent that was dragging a half-dead Santiago to the very brink of himself I wanted my eager hands to explore his entire body. I wanted his hands to carry me to the precipice where I would become the flow that falls in an angry waterfall to where he was. But Santiago and I remained there alone, in the quiet night.
I took my pain pills and went off to bed thinking of Tatita, you see. All of a sudden the mind jumps from one thought to another as if one had nothing to do with the other, when, in reality, they are more related than you might expect.
The last time I saw Tatita, my great-grandfather, was in Cuitzeo when I went there with my mother. At that time my father had only been ¿missing¿ for two years. My mother was going to sign the divorce papers so she could marry my stepfather. I didn't like anything about that trip.
Nothing. Going to my grandfather's house had always been a very natural thing to do: to be on vacation, settle down amid the disorder, go out into the orchard to pick fruit, chase the chickens all around the patio, never get tired of looking at the lake. That particular trip we had to call ahead: not this week, but next. We took every precaution not to run into ¿the other woman¿, so she wasn¿t there at the same time than us. Once we arrived in Cuitzeo, my mother sent a message ahead: we're here now, we'll be visiting.
We stayed at a guesthouse, and they didn't even give me time to get reacquainted with the town ―the tiled roofs, the cobbled streets, the smell of clay... ¿Maria, you're the same color as Cuitzeo,¿ my father used to tell me when I was a child. And we did all that without him even being there. They told us that he had come here to Mexico City because of an ¿emergency,¿ and that he had left everything signed.
My grandfather came out to meet us. Before, we would just walk in. I don't know if you'll understand me, I was very apprehensive. But he hugged me as always. He picked me up: ¿Just look how cute and how big you've grown, Maria.¿ Then he told me to go look for Tatita so that, as he put it, he could see me.
I found him on the veranda in a wheelchair, reduced to skin and bones.
His gaze was lost out on the lake and he had an innocent look on his face. The Tatita I had left behind playing the guitar, until the wee hours of the morning was now only an old, withered hide.
He didn't recognize me. He told my aunt who was sitting next to him:
¿Put a blanket around Teresita, it's cold.¿
¿I'm Maria, Tatita,¿ I told him. ¿I'm Maria. She's Teresa, my aunt. I'm Maria, your great-grandaughter. Have you forgotten me already?¿
My aunt Tere brought her index finger up to her lips as a signal for me to be quiet. But Tatita didn't pay any attention. He turned his childlike face and lost gaze back toward the lake. Who knows what he was thinking.
That's how it was becoming with Santiago ―he couldn't see me. I was talking to him about me, but he couldn't even recognize me.
One Sunday when I woke up, I realized that Santiago had not come home to sleep. Somehow, it was as if I had been expecting that to happen. For weeks he had been acting strangely, he'd arrive late, he'd hardly speak, any little thing would upset him or he'd find any reason to quarrel. But above all, every time he had the opportunity he'd leave the house slamming the door.
Upset, I got out of bed. I understood that I'd have to spend the rest of my life without him.
When I looked at myself in the mirror, I realized that something was slipping through my fingers.
Even though I was willing to fight the cancer, I couldn't deny the effects it had had on me. It wasn't my paleness that bothered me or even those gray shadows under my eyes. It was accepting the idea that the distance that had grown between us was now reflected in my face. If earlier I did not understand why Santiago would take the slightest excuse to pull back from me, I discovered the reason for it when I looked in the mirror. I had also begun to be another person physically.
I threw myself on the bed. I listened to the street noises, the car engines, the children's shouts from the nearby cul-de-sac, and I caught myself doubting for the first time. Could I transform my fate into something miraculous, from which happiness would spring? But something made me recognize in the street sounds the persistence of life, the continuity of it, as if for a second I had grasped my death with the tips of my fingers, so that I could admire it. Perhaps just as I had done as a child in Cuitzeo, when I would examine butterflies and then let them go and watch them disappear in their uneven flight.
And while I thought about life and death, a series of memories flowed rapidly through my mind. Nighttime in our little apartment in Tacubaya, with its intermittent red, yellow and blue lights, and a single shadow, in each corner, that symbolized the absence of my father. The hope that dawn might bring him back: maybe tomorrow or next week. Then I'm going to tell him... He's going to hug me. The stiff disturbing figure of my mother sitting in the darkness of the living room.
On the other hand, I remembered my grandfather's house, the clarity of the sunlight bringing into focus the abundance of objects, of vases, of flowerpots. Each object had its reason for being, according to my grand-mother, who spent most of her time in the kitchen in her starched apron. These are cloves, Maria. That is cumin. Tatita's voice calling me, reaching out to me no matter where I was:
¿Come here, Maria, let me show you this. I bought you this guitar in Paracho, you have to learn to play it. The person who can't sing can't love anything. Come here, child, come here.¿
And I struggled to try to forget my last memory of him: his lost gaze, the smile of a child. And I wondered how my father is: ¿The person who can't sing can't love anything.¿ What would his voice sound like, would he be gray now, would he be thin, would he still wear his wide-brimmed hat? Some day, some dawn had he thought of me, his little Maria, the first one he carried in his arms, the first he kissed, covered up at night, carried on his shoulders along Revolución Avenue, showing her that same Mexico City that he was discovering himself? And I was filled with hate, and anger.
Then all of my friends began to march through my mind, those from elementary school, those from the Teachers' college, those who worked with me at the school. A list of names of the people in whom I could not confide my doubts, my resentment, the fear of holding in my hands ―for the first time― my destiny, no matter how advanced the cancer may be.
I wanted one, just one woman friend, one true friend to whom I could open up as I have with you whom I scarcely know. Do you understand now? At that time I would have wanted one friend who could gently squeeze Santiago's hand, who could be the bridge that would unite us across the impassable abyss separating us, one who could listen to him, too, because I recognized that he was even more lonely than I was since, without having understood me, he had called my ideas hairbrained and ridiculous, the only ideas that I could cling to life with. I needed someone to tell Santiago that it was not a lack of love that led me to leave him, that it was not contempt that forced me to tell him not to be afraid to accept his own challenge, not to be afraid to live, to allow me to live out my own fate.
Now you know why I don't want to see him. Please don't insist. He's come to tell me that everything will be the same as it was between us, that his mother has come from Coatepec to stay for a few days while I recuperate, that at the travel agency they've given him a trip to the coast, that if I survive this we'll adopt a child. Tell him that the woman he's looking for is not in this room, that there is only a Maria López who insists on starting over a second time, in order to bring the letters of her name back together.*
Translated by Russell M. Cluff and L. Howard Quackenbusn
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BOOKS BY SILVIA MOLINA (CNL-INBA)
Encuentros y reflexiones (biographies. Google Books)
INTERVIEW (Club de Lectores)
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|Fuente: * From the book Dicen que me case yo. México, Cal y Arena, 1991. New Writing from Mexico. USA, TriQuaterly Books, Northwestern University, 1992.|