Confusion of Tongues | Fernanda Melchor | Granta

Confusion of Tongues

Fernanda Melchor

Translated by Sophie Hughes

Para Sophie, que me dio fuerzas

 

For a long time I avoided saying his name. Not because I feared compromising him: after all, the guy died years ago, in what circumstances I don’t know, I never wanted to. Or maybe I did find out but immediately forgot, partly on purpose, but partly because of the raging confusion and guilt that for years pervaded his memory, the memory of what happened between us that June in 2000, the overwhelming year in which I graduated from school and legally became an adult.

I was, in theory, full of promise, recently chosen from among more than twenty thousand applicants for a place at Veracruz’s public university, on the path to earning a first class academic degree and becoming the successful, socially responsible professional that the nascent twenty-first century demanded of me and that my parents, in their own way, also needed: to heal their numerous narcissistic wounds and demonstrate to the world that their pathologically violent marriage had not been for nothing, that it hadn’t been the worst mistake of their lives. Or at least meeting those paternal expectations was my most private and unsayable fantasy in those days, buried so deeply beneath the surface of my restless soul that not even I was conscious of it. I was still so young, so naïve too, despite my intelligence and the foul-mouthed tough-girl front I presented to the world. I was completely oblivious to the dark urge that, since childhood, had driven me to direct back at myself the cruelty I was subjected to by the adults around me. The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, Jeremiah tells us. And ‘deceitful’ and ‘desperately wicked’ were the lines I fed myself for years in order to explain what happened that June in 2000. Which explains why now I waver, why I rewrite and rearrange the lines of this passage and invent excuses not to go on, like the need to return to the picture some photographer took of me during my graduation ceremony, or to reread the letter on my desk and confirm what I’ve always known: that the coward never signed his name, that the most he managed by way of goodbye was a pithy ‘So long’, perhaps because his missive was in and of itself too long, an entire page filled with a lover’s bitter grievances, or maybe because he knew that putting his name to that impulsive outpouring would implicate him beyond all doubt if I ever reported him. And it’s this maddening conviction that helps me to see that the time has finally come to write his name, to reveal that he was called Sergio, although everyone knew him as Chipo, that he was my Philosophy and Literature teacher in secondary school, and that, one June afternoon in 2000, on the last day of my last ever semester at school, he asked me to kiss him and I accepted, and it’s taken me twenty years to forgive myself.

 

Chipo’s reputation preceded him: people said he was the best teacher at that tiny private college where I ended up taking the final year of school. I had moved there from a huge Catholic secondary school to which I’d never adapted and where I discovered the pleasures of rebelling for its own sake, absurdly and without reason, which is why they ended up expelling me despite my good grades. The college was based in a colonial-style mansion house completely covered in a sprawling purple bougainvillea. They welcomed me with a progressive, relaxed vibe, and the college soon became a true refuge for me: for the first time in my adolescence, I felt like I fitted in.

Chipo was everything I’d ever dreamed of in a teacher: he was generous, enthusiastic, and he didn’t just shove unpronounceable philosophers’ names down our throats, but instead encouraged us, with his casual, irreverent teaching style, to question the world’s structures and above all else to pursue truth and freedom as the ultimate aims of existence. Each morning he would enter the classroom, throw his things theatrically onto the front desk and warn us with feigned seriousness: ‘All right, you incurable bastards, let’s see if you’ll actually let me teach you something today. I’m going to talk for fifteen minutes, I’m only asking for fifteen miserable minutes of your attention, you bunch of philistines, and then you can do what you like.’ And in fifteen minutes he would deliver the most brilliant class on literature or philosophy sprinkled with vulgarisms and anecdotes that would crack us up, and when he was done he would always keep his word and leave us in peace for the rest of the hour. But heaven help whoever dared interrupt him without putting up their hand: the culprit would be immediately and unceremoniously bombarded by a hail of chalk thrown by the teacher himself.

I liked his literature class best. Each semester we students had to read twenty or so works selected by Chipo, mostly Latin American literature: novels and stories by José Rubén Romero, Sergio Galindo, Rosario Castellanos, Elena Poniatowska, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Jorge Luis Borges, among others. They were books I’d already read, in part because I was a voracious reader, self-taught from a young age, and in part because I was interested in writing my own stories. I loved unpicking the devices of my favourite works of fiction, so much so that during the two semesters I studied with Chipo I set myself the challenge of reading three times what he’d allocated us, adding more variety to the menu with works by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, José Agustín, Guillermo Fadanelli, Manuel Puig, Milan Kundera, Umberto Eco, William Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, and Emil Cioran. I put my heart and soul into my book reports and essays and I never hesitated to disagree with Chipo in class, despite the rain of chalk-fire that would inevitably follow: I wanted to earn his respect. He was the only person in my life who shared my passion for books. I would seek him out in the corridors outside of class to ask him what he thought about this or that author or filmmaker. I would sponge cigarettes off him in the small snack bar where we students used to meet up after class, and where he too could often be found, just to spend more time in his company. I even built up the courage to show him the only short story I’d ever managed to write: an adjective-laden nightmare (I thought it was ‘baroque’) about a teenager who burnt himself to death by setting fire to his parents’ house, and in which Chipo saw an accomplished use of language and impressive structure, not inconsiderable achievements for such a young writer. I had talent, he would tell me whenever we were alone. I was on the right track. I just had to keep honing my skills, learn to be patient: keep reading, keep living, and keep writing, whatever happened.

 

At that time I’d been keeping a diary for about a year. I look at its battered black cover now and on opening it at random and skimming its pages, I’m surprised by how difficult it is to make sense of its contents, less for the crabbed handwriting than for the coded way in which I referred to the facts of my own life. It wasn’t the usual teenager fear of my parents finding my diary and discovering the true extent of my eating disorders, bourgeoning sex life and recreational drug use; the pair of them were wrapped up in their own respective crises: my mother, thirty-six at the time (two years younger than I am as I write this), had recently resigned from her position in the family business and, in open defiance of her domineering mother and the rest of her meddlesome relatives, had decided to become a paramedic with the local Red Cross. She would be out of the house for long periods at a time, often all night, which meant I was pretty much free to do as I pleased. My father was also going through an awkward phase. At aged forty-something he was running his own booming electrical supplies and contracting business from a home office, but far from finding satisfaction in his company’s success, he was miserable most of the time. We never spoke about the cause of his restiveness (we hardly spoke at all, he and I, beyond politics, or to laugh at something stupid my mother had said) but I had the impression that he was unfulfilled by his life. It was the period when he began to grow his hair long, wear ripped jeans and talk about buying a motorbike – warning signs of a full-blown mid-life crisis. He had wasted his youth, he would rail at my mother when they argued behind closed doors. That’s why he was living it up now, that’s why he’d started drinking again and snorted all the coke he liked: he’d worked his fingers to the bone to provide for us and that gave him the right to do as he pleased.

All of which is to say that neither of my parents had any time or interest in going through my room and reading my diary. My report card remained full of nines and tens, and that was enough for them to leave me in peace most of the time. But it was a deceptive calm: if my mother ever caught me coming home drunk or with bloodshot eyes from weed, she wouldn’t think twice about slapping me to ‘snap me out of it’. My father was more one for threats: if I didn’t do what he said, he would burn my books and CDs. Or he’d make sure something terrible happened to T., my best friend with whom I was secretly in love. The point is, the inscrutability of my diary entries had nothing to do with a fear of being read. More accurately, I was incapable of acknowledging the truth behind my own most intimate feelings, and I sublimated them in my fiction writing. I’d been brought up under the wing of two insecure teenagers, themselves deprived of affection, and my whole life had been one long lesson in denying and pushing aside my true feelings to avoid provoking their hatred. I couldn’t risk demolishing the wall I’d worked so hard to erect between my powerless being and the outside world; that facade of the competent little girl, and later on, the cynical teenager. So the only way I could experience intense, conflicting or ambiguous emotions – the hate and compassion I felt for my parents; the tenderness and melancholy after sex with T.; or the contemplative and depersonalised euphoria of LSD and glue, my drugs of choice – was writing in the third person, behind the mask of my experimental egos, fictional beings whose emotional development didn’t jeopardise either my sanity or my tyrannical need to keep the deepest layers of my being buried and hidden.

 

Even so, every now and then I would write about my life in clear cut, even desperate language. In February of that year, for example, I wrote: ‘Fuck school. No one understands me. Only Chipo appreciates me. Only Chipo sees me.’

 

I loved Chipo, but not in the same way I loved T., my best friend and occasional lover. I loved Chipo with the defencelessness and abandon of a teenage girl who loves the one grown-up who sees her, truly sees her, and loves her for who she is. Or that’s what I believed. More than once I turned up at school in a complete state, hungover and sleep deprived, depressed about the turmoil that reigned in my house, sick with anxiety, and I would look for him to ask for a hug, to confide in him that I wanted to die. Chipo never judged me, he never questioned what I told him. He even offered to keep my favourite books at his house after one awful fight that ended up with my dad dragging me to my room and locking me in there for hours. I was about to turn eighteen and I foolishly believed that coming of age would make me feel more in control of my life.

I didn’t haven’t the faintest idea that Chipo and I were speaking different languages. To paraphrase Sándor Ferenczi, the Hungarian psychoanalyst unduly spurned in his day for having challenged some of his mentor Sigmund Freud’s concepts around the imagined or fantasised nature of sexual abuse, I spoke to Chipo in the language of tenderness, the language of playful fantasy, hoping that this man – who looked so like my own father, was even the same age as him – would become the paternal figure I so needed, while he ended up speaking to me in the language of passion, a muddle of longing and desire, anger and angst, all there in that horrifying kiss he gave me.

 

(I stop suddenly, unsure how to go on. ‘The novelist is someone who hears voices through the voices’ Sergio Pitol once wrote in one of his inimitable essays, ‘The Dark Twin’, and I can’t help but notice that, behind the compassionate voice of this essay, which attempts to make sense – where before there was none – of a wound made long ago, the clamour of confusion persists, the old thud of guilt, fear and abandonment, and I have to make a concerted effort to keep those harrying, haunting and indignant voices at bay. A ‘horrifying’ kiss? All that fuss over a simple kiss? What a snowflake! As if you weren’t a complete slut yourself back then! As if other women haven’t had to put up with far worse abuse, actual abuse! And besides, you asked for it. Or did you not spend months vying to be his favourite? Did you not lap up his attention, desperately seek his affection, his touch, his hugs? And what were you doing stripping off on a public beach that day? Why the hell did you kiss him the first time, the time he asked? And why did you sit on his lap in P.’s car? You led him on, you were playing with fire and you were always going to get burnt . . . ).

 

It was the end of the last ever day of school and a group of us decided to go to the nearest beach to celebrate. Still in our uniforms, we drank and smoked weed like there was no tomorrow. Chipo had come along with us; he drank our beer and we smoked his unfiltered cigarettes. In a burst of euphoria and dared by my friends, I took off my school skirt and shirt and ran into the water in my underwear. A few of the others joined me, stripping off and galloping into the Gulf’s warm waters, as still and inviting as a swimming pool. At a certain point, Chipo, who had been looking on melancholically from the shore, waved me over. When I got to him he told me I was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen in his life, and he asked me for a kiss. He asked for a kiss as a child would: with his eyes closed and his lips puckered, hands in pockets. I didn’t think anything of it as I reached up on tiptoes to give him a quick peck and then ran back to the water and my friends.

But much later, as night fell and we headed back to our homes, exhausted and sodden and all piled into the back of P.’s battered old Beetle, me perched on Chipo’s lap with his hands around my waist and his breath on my neck, I was surprised to feel a different kind of touch against my thigh, and when I turned to look at him, he asked me for another kiss. I leant in feebly, obligingly. The clamour of guilt was already there, reproaching me. Well you already kissed him once, right? What’s another one? You went along with it on the beach so now you have to again, even if you don’t really want to, even if his mouth is no longer puckered like a little boy’s and it tastes bad and his stubble scratches your lips and his tongue keeps probing for yours and you feel like crying – from disgust, from disappointment. I got out of P.’s car at the next set of lights. I couldn’t stay in there. I didn’t want to imagine where things might lead if I didn’t get out of there that second.

What came after, the silent, ashamed, inexpressible confusion that followed that moment, would stay with me for years, peppering the darkest hours of all my future crises with the absolute conviction that it had been my fault, my wrongdoing, all of it: that desperate kiss, the wounded letter that Chipo would send me days later, and his total abandonment of me once he realised that I could not love him, nor wanted to love him as he desired.

 

I decided to skip the leavers’ dinner to avoid having to see him, but I was forced by my parents to go to the official school graduation ceremony. I never told them anything about what happened. I had the feeling they’d find a way to put the blame on me, exactly like the voices in my head. Of course, those voices were my parents, I just didn’t know it back then.

During the formal ceremony, I ignored Chipo’s doleful glances across the room and, after the obligatory photoshoot, left that school for the last time. I don’t remember how he delivered the letter now sitting on my desk in front of me. I don’t remember if he got someone else to pass it on, or if he handed it to me himself in what would have surely been a very brief and awkward encounter, one that, in any case, is now totally erased from my memory. But I do remember the emptiness I felt when I read those words bristling with resentment at what I had done, the abandonment and rejection of which he was a victim. A letter written in the language of passion that he had chosen to offer me, and not in the language of tenderness that I had really been asking for.

Even today I feel the occasional (very occasional) pang of guilt over what happened between us. A stubborn remorse that, over the years, has fermented into anger, compounded by the discovery that mine wasn’t the only case: I heard later that there were other girls after me, other students, other kisses, and the rumour was that it finally led to Chipo’s dismissal from the school. And every time my anger starts morphing into wearisome guilt, I look at the photo taken of me by that anonymous photographer at the graduation ceremony. I look at my glowing skin, beautifully golden from that afternoon on the beach, and my thick eyebrows that had yet to meet a pair of tweezers, and my plump lips, painted with the lipstick I still hadn’t got the knack of applying, and my black eyes and curly lashes, huge eyes, at once needy and defiant. I look at it now, as I approach the age that Chipo was when we met, and I think that you’d have to be a fucking idiot, completely out your mind, wicked, to look at that girl and take her for a woman.

And that anger I can finally afford myself the luxury of feeling, plus a couple of books he gave me – Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw and Juan Vicente Melo La obediencia nocturna [Nocturnal obedience], which I still have because books can hardly be blamed for their owners’ idiocy – plus this crumpled letter lying on the desk where I write, is all that survives from that problematic chapter of my adolescence. I’m no longer in touch with anyone from that time, I don’t know what became of my old classmates. I haven’t been back to Veracruz or its beaches for a long time. The last time I felt an urge to go and see the old mansion house with its large windows and lush fuchsia bougainvillea, I discovered it no longer existed. At some point in the new century they sold the school, demolished the house, and ripped up the roots of the tree with whose delicate flowers we used to decorate our hair. Today, in the middle of that corner plot stands a convenience store, open twenty-four hours.

 


When The Arts House – a literature centre running from the former parliament building at the heart of Singapore – wanted to create a different kind of library, one grouped by themes and leaps of the imagination, rather than any readily searchable order, they chose the name ‘The Troublesome Library’. Like all libraries, it is a place where you have to ‘take the trouble’ to find insights and wonder. But trouble finds people everywhere (not only in libraries), in all kinds of shapes and at all kinds of moments, and is a kind of theme of its own. In parallel with the opening of its new feature, The Arts House supported a literary series on the theme of trouble.

Image © Jagrap

Fernanda Melchor

Fernanda Melchor was born in Veracruz, Mexico. She is the author of Hurricane Season, translated from the Spanish by Sophie Hughes. In 2018, she won the PEN Mexico Award for Literary and Journalistic Excellence.

More about the author →

Translated by Sophie Hughes

Sophie Hughes has translated writers such as Alia Trabucco Zerán, Laia Jufresa, Rodrigo Hasbún, Enrique Vila-Matas and José Revueltas. She has been shortlisted twice for the International Booker Prize, most recently in 2020 for Fernanda Melchor’s Hurricane Season.

Photograph © Alex Zucker

More about the translator →