By Mario Flecha
This is the kind of short story that would have been written if Shakespeare ever had tea with Marquis de Sade and Edgar Allan Poe on a terrace of a café in Buenos Aires. But in this case it happens to be a singular and entertaining tale by one of our closest and dearest collaborators
Everything is poison, nothing is poison. Only the dose is poison.
Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim
You know you are lying, you come and see me and tell me a story of a blue sea with gigantic waves, and in the distance, in front of a fishing village, you can see the horizon.
We are trying to construct a puzzle from a country landscape smelling of cow manure. One without a village or horizon. Please!
This morning I received an unexpected email. It was from Isabel Padilha and its contents were even more unexpected. I read:
I arrive at Girona Airport at 10.00 a.m. on Sunday. I'll be at yours at about 11.30. Love Isabel
Since then I’ve been imagining our meeting. I’d wait for her on the little terrace at the front of the house, listening carefully to the sounds of the street. When she arrives, we’ll drag her suitcases up the stairs.
She’ll describe her journey by plane, the thirteen hours in the air, how long she slept and how she couldn’t sleep, the uncomfortable seats which didn’t allow her to stretch her legs. I know that these situations start innocently and end any old how – we wouldn’t be as vulgar as to do something we should have done a long time ago.
Maybe we would feel guilty about living, breathing, being blown about by the violence of the Tramontana wind in the Square of the Four Winds in Madremanya. I would show her to her room which I would get ready for her.
In the evening, we would go up to the terrace to watch the sun go down among the orange tinted clouds and stay silently, the life that would start at any moment, suspended.
We would try to pin down our stories with words, naming the children we have had, the separations, friends, happinesses and sadnesses and end by talking about work, that punishment that occupies our lives and of how we were pushed to one side of history. She, teaching geography in a secondary school; I, lost in a village in the Emporda writing stories that nobody reads. When the sun disappears, we’ll have supper in the kitchen and remember vaguely the day we first met.
I will tell her that back then, I amused myself with a game I had invented. I called it “The persecutor” and it consisted of grabbing an idea from one of the books I bought furtively from the bookshops on Corrientes Street. I used to read until I found a sentence of incomprehensible meaning which I couldn’t forget.
That day, before going to the cafe, I had started to read ‘The Lazy Painters‘ by Juan Cruz Lombardini. It was a text without a plot, about the life of a group of bohemians in a city with no name. What interested me most was the sexual encounters.
He described them in the same way someone looks at their watch to see the time. He only became enthusiastic when he talked about eyes – eyes that caressed, eyes full of hatred, eyes, eyes shooting daggers, attractive eyes, negative eyes…..green eyes, blue, brown, rainbow……
Then I got to the chapter titled ‘The Great Masturbator‘.
My satisfaction got confused thinking of the sexual titillations Lombardini must have got from writing such nonsense.
‘Objects were reflected in the faint light; he, The Great Masturbator sat on his bed and looked in the mirror, his tongue hanging between his lips, bubbling spittle tracing the limits of his tongue as the bubbles burst. He, The Great Masturbator, was the cosmic poet trapped in the mad tensions of his trivial aerial fantasies.
Trivial aerial fantasies? Of tacit desperation.
At the same time his free hand tried to write a poem to register hallucinated sounds. The universal spittle was words, was her, was him sitting on his bed masturbating, watching himself watching; her image taking over his imagination as his agitation grew until it shook his body like a leaf in the wind, desperate in the spine of time, her name- Isabel.
-Wow- I said to myself and stopped when I read,
«In the tower in Arroyo Street lives Isabel, she of the poisoned nipples».
I scribbled some variations on the back flap of the book. »In the tower in Arroyo Street, passion will poison Isabel’s nipples». »Isabel, she of the tower in Arroyo Street, has poisoned tits».
We met one autumn morning without sun or rain. An anonymous day when the jacarandas and kapok trees lose their leaves. In Mercy Bar opposite the church of Our Lady of Mercy in Arenales Road. It was the day on which Lieutenant General Eugenio Aramburu, one of the heads of the Freedom Revolution, had been kidnapped by an unknown group of political militants. The historical significance escaped my arrogance as I drank coffee and tried to decipher the text message I had read.
I saw her arrive with Olegario Aniue. They went into the bar as if they were looking for somebody. When they got to my table, he put his open hands on the table, supporting the weight of his body on his palms and began to swing gently as he spoke like an impatient adolescent. I understood he had to leave for half an hour or so and that if it was possible, she’d stay with me.
-Isabel- he said by way of an introduction.
Before I could reply, he had gone.
We remained silent, looking at each other – I with curiosity, she with indifference. Her heavy eyelids indicated sadness, I never knew if that was true or just nature’s fiction. I christened her ‘The Byzantine’.
We were drifting apart without ever having been near. Then she got up and with a movement, indicated that I spud follow her. We zig-zagged between the tables and chairs trying to find the exit. We walked over broken, wobbly tiles and I had to stop myself wanting to escape just as Olegario had.
When we got to the junction of Esmeralda and Juncal Streets, we followed the gentle curve that takes you to Arroyo Street. She stopped in front of the old tower and asked me,
-Do you want to see Buenos Aires?
Isabel, the tower…..
-Is your name Isabel? I asked, worried.
She nodded her head.
-Padilha with an ‘h’ not double ‘l’. My grandfather was Portuguese.
We went up accompanied by the rhythm of the surprised lift. We got out on the 14th floor and went on up the marble staircase. I was frightened. I looked out of the window and found I could see Retiro Station, the English Clock Tower, an incoherent urban landscape, rooftops destroyed by the strength of the sun, rain and humidity, buildings with brickwork to the air constructed by the architect Enrique Katzenstein, and in the distance, the old cranes by the docks.
Isabel threw herself onto a leather chair and shut her eyes. It seemed to me I was hearing her voice for the first time. Until then, our conversations had been murmurs I hadn’t paid much attention to.
-The kitchen is on the right of the corridor – she said.
I sat down opposite her, amusing myself with the idea that she would be the Isabel from Lombardini, a dangerous woman inspired by crude poems and solitary passions. She took one of my hands and imprisoned it between hers and we remained like that.
– Olegario came back to say goodbye because I’m going to marry Juan Cruz. We plan to go and live in Paris for a few years. Olegario was furious, to begin with we argued in a civilised way but then we decided to walk in order to calm ourselves. When we got to the corner of Arenales and Juncal he recognised you in the bar.
-Yes – he was a friend of my brother. I used to spy on them looking at themselves in the mirror, combing back their hair with the palm of their hand. They used to go out and I had to stay at home making up adventures. After a bit I began to sweat sexuality, smell of provocation- that was when the men stopped ignoring me.
-One hot afternoon, Olegario came to look for my brother. I was on my own in the house. We pretended to fight and with the awkwardness that often comes with desire, we began to push each other.
The tension between us grew. To begin with it seemed like a game in which we touched each other without touching, then a certain degree of violence slipped in. We fell on the floor and his tongue invaded my mouth. Afterwards, I can only remember the after, I was left with fireworks in my head and pain between my legs.
We kept our relationship secret for reasons I now understand. We grew up together until the day came when the relationship died; we stopped sharing daily things and our conversations became monosyllabic. Sexual pleasure remained until that too disappeared.
I remember the anxiety our silence produced in me, the impotence of not feeling the same as yesterday.
We separated slowly and promised never to love anyone else. He accuses me of having broken my promise. He’s mistaken, I know I don’t love Juan Cruz.
-It’s time for you to go- she said suddenly.
Dazed, I went down the marble staircase. In the tower in Arroyo Street…..
Twenty years went by without us seeing each other. In Buenos Aires we were never friends and yet I kept some fantasies alive. The text by Juan Cruz Lombardini on that day I met her was an enigma which persecuted me in Buenos Aires, London, Budapest and later here in Jafre. That game I started and am still waiting for the end of. She’s coming to Jafre and maybe….
I heard the screech of tires braking. I went down the stone steps running to open the front door and help her with her luggage. She stood in the middle of the road with a suitcase in each hand. She looked like one of those postcards of Italian immigrants who arrived in the River Plata at the beginning of the 20th century with the happiness of having escaped who knows what horrors on their lips. The haughty Byzantine with black hair and sallow skin dropped her cases and ran towards me. I managed to stretch out my arms as she jumped into them.
On the terrace with a glass of wine in our hands as I had imagined, we told each other about our lives, children, divorces. She mentioned Olegario, remembering the day we met:
-He told me he met you in Constitution Station. He was walking towards the ticket booth when he noticed you were in the queue, you were counting the coins that danced in the palm of your hand. He thought it was inevitable you would bump into each other by the departures board in the centre of the old building. You walked through the station hall until it was impossible to ignore each other and pretended a false pleasure followed by a false amiability.
-I’m going to Adrogue- you said.
-So am I, better we separate- he replied.
Your voice quietened.
-Olegario was assassinated during the Ezeiza massacre. The Montoneros shot Lieutenant General Aramburu. The generals were filing past the Casa Rosada. General Ongania was replaced by General Levingston who in turn was replaced by General Lanusse who was substituted by uncle Campora followed by the ex General Peron….He said you were disorientated. Because we were militating, we thought revolution was round the corner and we had a moral duty to find it while you just avoided things with your hippy fantasies and several joints.
-I had my reasons.
-I was one of the oppressed that you wanted to liberate, I say ‘you’ thinking that as you were the children of the oppressors you would feel guilty at having benefitted.
-You’re still a bastard.
-There’s another thing. I couldn’t believe that Jesus, Peron, Marx or Mao had all the answers. When I listened to the militants, the justifications for violence, the army’s crimes fed by looting and death, I felt as if I was in a film in which we were all guilty and would all lose.
-And how did your film end?
-We would all suffer the violence of intolerance.
The Byzantine smiled.
-I came to kill you- she said.
-It is written that I will die between your breasts – I replied.
Isabel laughed with her whole body as she whispered,
-Killing tits? I think of everything women feel about their tits, that they are small, too small, that they are bigger than those of …but never ever that they could be criminal.
-You’ve read Juan Cruz Lombardini?
-He wrote the book I was reading the day I met you. It talked about Isabel and the tower in Arroyo Street. Isabel had poisoned nipples and there was a poet masturbating while writing a cosmic ode to Isabel with his free hand and on top of that, the author was called Juan Cruz.
She couldn’t contain her smile.
-I remember a play in which the duke of a town wants to execute his right of pernada with a young woman. Before she had to get into bed with the old duke, she committed suicide. Her boyfriend, having poisoned the lips of the young corpse, placed her in bed in a darkened room and invited the duke to come and execute his right in the hope he would kiss her and die too- explained Isabel.
-The vengeance invented by Shakespeare!
-Did Isabel have poisoned nipples? Why? What for?
-I never found out. Having read that sentence I abandoned the text in the certainty that time would help me understand the meaning. When I met you I thought you’d give me the clue, there were too many coincidences; your name, the tower and if I could find what associated them I would find an answer.
-I came to kill you Pedro – she repeated bitterly.
-I always thought you were a coward.
-Cowards are rarely assassinated.
-I haven’t come to kill you for cowardliness but for being a traitor.
-Isabel, who have I betrayed?
-Yourself, but it’s irrelevant.
Isabel, she of the tower in Arroyo Street, had come to give an answer to the inconclusive game.
She took my hands in hers and we stayed in silence. Beauty was always on the Byzantine’s side. No matter what she was doing.
-It won’t be my poisoned nipples that kill you.
I felt a blunt crash on my chest and fainted.
I heard her steps going downstairs while I tried to stop the blood dripping between my fingers.
-Isabel, she of the tower….- I murmured – Shit! – before absence became victorious over life.
Mario Flecha is a writer, art critic and former editor of the art magazine Untitled. This short story is included in his book Anastasia’s Toes, Ediciones de Jafre Project – Nielsen 2020 which can be purchased here. He currently divides his time between England and Spain.
Translation: Camilla Flecha