Every three months, we cross the ranch to check on the solar cells and test the antenna on a different frequency. This time we’re trying something new, angling the antenna toward the sky so the radio waves will bounce back. After transmitting for twenty-four hours, we’ll come back to see if anyone has responded.
All our previous attempts have gone unanswered.
We’re like those scientists of long ago, who sent signals into space in search of life on other planets. We’re searching for life too, but here: beyond the isthmus, beyond Mexico, hoping to find out who or what survived the collapse.
By the time we get back to the main house it’s already getting dark, and we head straight to dinner. The antenna uses so much electricity when it’s switched on that we have to light the dining hall with candles, as if we were living in the olden days. The conversation around all the tables centers on today’s effort: whether it will work, whether it’s worth spending our precious resources on the search, how much longer we should keep trying. Clara (it was her first time going to the antenna) asks who each of us would call if we managed to establish communication. The answers vary: names of cities, relatives, institutions that probably don’t exist anymore. Mamá says she’d dial our old apartment in Mexico City. Hearing her made me realize I’m not interested in calling our old house: I came to terms a long time ago with the fact that Papá didn’t survive. I wouldn’t choose a place in Mexico: if I could make just one call, I’d dial the bar in Madrid.
I think the bar and not a bar, because it’s the one where Susana worked, right below our microstudios. I spent so many hours of my year in Spain there (reading at the bar with a beer or drinking coffee in the afternoon, talking with Manu after work) that in my memory it’s the only bar in the city. That’s where I spent the final heat advisory. The three of us were there in lockdown for twenty-two hours, not knowing it would be the last time we’d be alone together.
I haven’t thought about that day in a while, but this simple question takes me straight back.
The siren went off at 8.25. I leapt out of bed. An earthquake, another big one like the one in 2031, I thought, and my body reacted before my brain. I rushed to the door without even putting on pants or shoes: that’s when it dawned on me that this alarm was just one wavering note, instead of the waow-waow-waow of my childhood. I was in Madrid, not Mexico. There were no earthquakes here, just days of extreme heat. Days of lockdown. It was the third day that summer when temperatures had soared above fifty degrees Celsius. Up till then, countries had adapted to every climatic catastrophe: winter freezes, summer heat, the lack of rain in some areas, terrible hurricanes in others. Daily life, above all in places like Europe, had gone on without much interruption.
During the previous heat advisory, Susana had said: Next time let’s come down here, take over the bar, and hide out till it’s over. But would they remember that now? What if I went down and no one was there? Then what? It would be so embarrassing to have to remind them of our pledge to spend the day together. I hesitated by the door till I heard my name. Susana was calling me from the street below.
I opened the window. The alarm was still sounding, but its intensity had lessened, and beneath its sustained note I could hear the voice of a woman repeating every two minutes: Excessive heat advisory. Expect temperatures above fifty degrees. Citizens are urged to take precautions. Excessive heat advisory . . .
During heat advisories, only essential workers were allowed to move around the city. Transportation was reduced to a minimum and driving private cars was prohibited. Even in our neighborhood south of Madrid, outside the M30 motorway, we had to take precautions to protect the structure of our building as much as its occupants: keep the windows closed, use minimal electricity, turn on the regulators responsible for controlling the climate of our tiny studios.
There I was flaunting the instructions, leaning out over my balcony in the middle of an advisory. Susana stood on the street below, dressed in shorts and a strappy top, hair pulled back in a half ponytail. If the siren hadn’t gone off, Susana would’ve had to open the bar that morning, I thought. A stroke of luck.
‘Angélica, are you coming down or what?’
My heart skipped a beat. The plan’s still on, I thought. They remember, they do want me to join them. Now I realize (though perhaps I already knew it then) how attentive I was to every expression and sign of affection, looking for proof that they loved me in the same way I loved them, something that would explain what was happening between us. I was convinced that even the tiniest gestures were full of meaning. Like that time when I fell asleep in Susana’s bed, my head in her lap while she read. Later she scolded me: You say you come over to study, but actually I think you come here just to take a nap. I laughed, kissed her on the cheek, and told her she was right: I slept better when I knew she was watching over me. Or when I’d go to watch TV in Manu’s room: he’d spread out on the couch with his head propped on my thigh, my hand on his hair, his hand on my knee tracing circle after circle. I tried to sound out the limits of our relationship. There was something between us, something I needed, but I wasn’t bold enough to ask for it.
I never knew what to do with that desire.
I want to say I met them the same day, but that’s impossible. I know I met Manu first. When I got in from the airport, dragging my two suitcases, he was pulling boxes out of a taxi and piling them at the entrance to our building. Our microstudios were next to each other and I didn’t have anything to do, so I offered to help him carry stuff upstairs. In return he bought some beers, which we drank sitting on the floor of my studio. He told me he was from Seville, and he was going to work as a lab technician while he waited for a spot to open up in the doctoral program he wanted to get into. I told him I was in Madrid to get a master’s degree. We made plans to go to El Rastro together to buy the furnishings we still needed. I was relieved to find a friend so fast: and my next-door neighbor, no less.
If I were to tell the story the way I remember it, I’d say I met Susana that same night, when I went down to the bar for dinner, but I can’t have been drinking beer with Manu at my place and talking with her downstairs at the same time. It must have been a different day when I sat down at the bar to order a bocadillo, and she asked me where I was from. She said she’d been living in the building for a few months, and promised to show me around the neighborhood.
Weeks later, the three of us ran into each other at a party on our rooftop. It was the last party before the cold snaps started and the bitter winter frosts kept us from spending time outside. What sparked things off for us was some partygoer’s passing comment, which I overheard just as Manu and I went up to the drinks table to pour ourselves more wine. Susana was talking with a big group of people near the table, and someone told her that she seemed like one of those people who have a favorite figure of speech. Of course I do, she said, laughing, don’t you? Her answer intrigued me so much that I turned toward her. I don’t know whether I was emboldened by the wine or the late night, but I said I liked synecdoche. Because of how it sounded and because of the movie: I wasn’t even positive I knew what it meant. Manu asked what a synecdoche was. Susana responded that it was a type of metonymy, and he asked for an example. We clicked. Little by little, the others moved off until it was just the three of us, captivated by our shared curiosity. We forgot the initial question, which led to other questions, which gave way to increasingly ridiculous examples, until we’d polished off the bottle of wine. As we were discussing whether or not to open another, someone put on a song that Manu liked. He stood up and said: This can wait! Right now, we’re going to dance. And he took us both by the arm.
When I was a teenager, my mom diagnosed my condition: there was something in me that always wanted more. You just can’t get enough, she told me when I got home late because I hadn’t known how to choose the right moment to leave a party, and had stayed till the end. Manu and Susana could never get enough either. We stayed even though the party was winding down (the birthday girl had left hours before), talking till it got late, till the alcohol was gone and the speaker’s batteries died. The next morning, Manu knocked on my door to ask if I wanted tortitas for breakfast. When I said yes, he told me to invite Susana to join us, she might like some pancakes, too. From then on, we were inseparable.
When we get back to our room after dinner, Mamá tells me she’s been seriously considering how much electricity the antenna is wasting. We’ve been trying to make contact for so many years, perhaps it doesn’t make sense anymore, she thinks. Are you going to put it to a vote at the next assembly? I ask, and though she tells me she hasn’t decided, I know her well enough to realize she won’t be able to get the idea out of her head. She’s right that we could use the energy for other things, but the thought of calling off the search chills me to the core.
Though the ranch was ours when the collapse came, our opinion hasn’t mattered more than anyone else’s for years now. We make decisions as a community. If Papá built this house little by little throughout my childhood and adolescence, Mamá was the one who organized us, the one who united the communities living in our region of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec and offered them an infrastructure, so that together we could all survive.
The world didn’t have to end when it did: maybe one or two more generations could have lived under the illusion of normalcy, even in a slow environmental decline. But there’s always a breaking point. Was it luck that put Mamá and me on the ranch when the collapse hit? The last communication we had before all our devices went dead was a message from Papá: A new virus, I’ll try to get out of Mexico City, it’s chaos. Since then, only silence.