Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell

 

1989

That summer the electricity went out for six-hour stretches on the government’s orders; the country didn’t have any more energy, they said, though we didn’t really understand what that meant. Our parents couldn’t get over how the Minister of Public Works had announced the measures necessary to avoid a widespread blackout from a room lit only by a hurricane lamp: like in a slum, they repeated. What would a widespread blackout be like? Would we remain in the dark forever? That possibility was incredible. Stupid. Ridiculous. Useless adults, we thought, how useless. Our mothers cried in the kitchen because they didn’t have enough money or there was no electricity or they couldn’t pay the rent or inflation had eaten away at their salaries until they didn’t cover anything beyond bread and cheap meat, but we girls – their daughters – didn’t feel sorry for them. Our mothers seemed just as stupid and ridiculous as the power outages. Meanwhile, we had a van. It belonged to Andrea’s boyfriend. Andrea was the prettiest of all of us, the one who knew how to rip up jeans to make fabulous cutoffs, and wore crop tops that she bought with money she stole from her mother. The boyfriend’s name doesn’t matter. He had a van he used to deliver groceries during the week, but on weekends it was all ours. We smoked some poisonous pot from Paraguay that smelled like urine and pesticide but was cheap and effective. The three of us would smoke and then, once we were totally out of our minds, we’d get into the back of the van, which didn’t have windows or any light at all because it wasn’t designed for people, it was made to transport cans of garbanzos and peas. We would have him drive really fast, then slam on the brakes, or go around and around the traffic island at the city’s entrance. We had him speed up around corners and make us bounce over speed bumps. And he did it all because he was in love with Andrea and he hoped that one day she would love him back. We would shout and fall on top of each other; it was better than a roller coaster and better than alcohol. Sprawled in the darkness, we felt like every blow to the head could be our last and, sometimes, when Andrea’s boyfriend had to stop because he got held up at a red light, we sought each other out in the darkness to be sure we were all still alive. And we roared with laughter, sweaty, sometimes bloody, and the inside of the truck smelled of empty stomachs and onions, and sometimes of the apple shampoo we all shared. We shared a lot: clothes, the hair dryer, bikini wax. People said that we were similar, that the three of us looked alike, but that was just an illusion because we copied each other’s movements and ways of speaking. Andrea was beautiful, tall, with thin and separated legs; Paula was too blond and turned a horrible shade of red when she spent too long in the sun; I could never manage a flat belly or thighs that didn’t rub together – and chafe – when I walked.

Andrea’s boyfriend would make us get out after an hour, once he got bored or afraid the police would pull the van over and think that maybe he had kidnapped the three girls in the back. Sometimes he dropped us off at one of our houses, sometimes in Plaza Italia, where we bought that poisonous Red Dot weed from the hippies in the artisan market. We also drank clericot wine that one of the hippies made in a five-liter tomato can, with giant pieces of fruit because he was lazy and always too drunk to cut the bananas, oranges and apples into smaller chunks. Once, we found an entire grapefruit, and one of us put it in her mouth like a stuffed Christmas piglet and ran around among the stalls. It was night, and the crafts were illuminated with lights running on a generator all the vendors shared.

We would go back home very late, many hours after the market closed; no one paid any attention to us that summer. The authorities didn’t keep to the duration of the power outages, and we spent the longest nights of our lives dying of heat in yards and on sidewalks, listening to the radio using batteries that seemed to run out more and more quickly as the days went by.

 

1990

They’d forced the president to hand over the reins before the end of his term, and no one liked the new one too much, even though he’d won the elections by an impressive margin. The stench of resignation was in the air and seeped from the twisted mouths of embittered people, including the whiny parents we scorned now more than ever. But the new president had promised that from then on it wouldn’t take years to get a telephone line once you requested it: the phone company was so inefficient that some of our neighbors had been waiting years for the thing and sometimes when the technicians showed up to install it – they never called first – there would be impromptu celebrations. Out of pure luck, we had telephones, all three of us, and we’d spend hours talking until our parents cut us off, yelling. It was during one of those phone conversations on some Sunday afternoon that Paula decided we had to start going to Buenos Aires. We would lie and say we were going out for a night in our town, but really we would take the early bus on Saturday and spend the night in Buenos Aires. At dawn we’d be back at the station and home in the morning; our parents would never even know.

They never knew.

I fell in love with the waiter in a bar called Bolivia; he rejected me. Man, I really get around, he told me. What the hell do I care, I shouted at him, and I downed almost a liter of gin and if I slept with someone else that night I don’t remember. When I woke up I was on the bus on the way back; it was already day and my shirt was covered in vomit. I had to go by Andrea’s house to wash up before I went to mine. At Andrea’s no one ever asked questions: her dad was almost always drunk and she had a lock on her bedroom door so he couldn’t get in at night. When we went to her house it was better to stay in the kitchen – her dad only went in there to get more ice for his wine.

In that kitchen we swore an oath that we would never have boyfriends. We swore with blood, cutting ourselves a little, and with kisses, in the dark because once again there was no power. We made the promise while thinking about that drunken father, about what we would do if he came in and found us bleeding and embracing. He was tall and strong, but he tended to stagger more than walk, and it would have been easy to push him down. But Andrea didn’t want to push him, she was always weak with men. I promised never to fall in love again, and Paula said she was never going to let a man touch her.

One night, when we were on our way back from Buenos Aires earlier than usual, a girl got up from one of the seats in front of us, went up to the driver and asked him to stop so she could get off. The driver braked in surprise and told her there was no bus stop there. We were going through Parque Pereyra: an enormous park halfway between Buenos Aires and our city. It had once been an estate of over ten thousand hectares that Perón expropriated from its millionaire owners. Now, it’s a nature reserve, a damp, sinister little forest where the sun barely enters. The road cuts it right in half. The girl insisted. Many of the passengers started waking up: one man said, But where do you want to go at this hour, dear? The girl, who was our age and had her hair pulled back in a ponytail, looked at him with such intense hatred he was struck dumb. She looked at him like a witch, like an assassin, like she had evil powers. The driver let her off and she ran toward the trees; when the bus started up again she disappeared in a cloud of dust. One woman complained aloud: But how can you leave her here alone at this hour? Who knows what could happen to her. She and the driver continued to argue almost until we reached the terminal.

We never forgot that look or that girl. No one could ever hurt her, we were sure about that: if anyone was going to do harm, it was her. She wasn’t carrying a bag or a backpack, we remembered, and her clothes were too summery for the coolness of the autumn night.

One time we went looking for her. Andrea’s boyfriend, the one with the van, had vanished from our lives, but there was another boy, Paula’s brother, who by then could drive his father’s car. We didn’t know exactly where the girl had gotten off the bus, just that it wasn’t too far from the windmill – the park has a Dutch-style windmill that doesn’t produce anything, it’s just a chocolate shop for tourists. Walking among the trees, we discovered paths and a house that had maybe once been part of the estate. These days it’s been done up, you can visit it like a museum and they even hold exclusive wedding receptions there; but back then there was just a park ranger who took care of the place, and it seemed to be holding its breath among the pines, secret and empty.

Maybe she’s the park ranger’s daughter, Paula’s brother said, and he brought us home laughing at us, the silly girls who thought they’d seen a ghost.

But I know that girl wasn’t anyone’s daughter.

 

1991

High school was never-ending. We started hiding bottles of whiskey in our backpacks and sneaking to the bathroom to drink from them. We also stole Emotival from my mother; Emotival was a pill she took because she was depressed, et cetera. It didn’t do anything much to us, just brought on terrible fatigue, an exhaustion that made us fall asleep in class with our mouths open, snoring. They called in our parents, who thought that since we went to bed very late, a lack of sleep was causing our morning comas. They were just as stupid as ever, although now they were less nervous about inflation and the lack of money: the government had passed a new law stating that one peso was equal to a dollar, and although no one really believed that entirely, hearing dollar dollar dollar filled them with happiness, my parents and all the other adults.

We were still poor, though. My family rented and Paula’s family had a half-finished house, with old-fashioned, interconnected bedrooms. It was disgusting: her brothers were older and she had to walk through their rooms to go to the bathroom; sometimes she saw them masturbating. Andrea’s apartment belonged to her family, but they could never pay their bills on time, and when their electricity wasn’t getting cut off, their phone was. Her mother couldn’t find any work except as an old people’s nurse, and her drunk father went on throwing money away on wine and cigarettes.

Even so, we three believed we could be rich. We believed that being rich was something that lay in our future. Until we met Ximena. She was a new classmate, she came from Patagonia, her parents had something to do with oil. When she invited us over we ran all through the house, bumping into each other as we tried to see everything; we would have taken pictures if we could. The living room had a little bridge over an indoor pond with floating plants, water lilies, algae. None of the rooms had tile floors, they were all made of wood, and paintings hung on the white walls. The backyard had a pool, rose bushes and white-pebbled paths. Seen from the street the house didn’t look all that pretty, but inside it was madness, all those nice things, the scent of perfume in the air, armchairs of colored velveteen and rugs that were neither frayed nor worn. We detested Ximena immediately. She was ugly and had a vertical scar on her chin, and at school they called her buttface because of it. We convinced her to steal money from her mother – it was so easy for her! – and we used it to buy drugs. Sometimes pills at the pharmacy: these days they’re really strict, but back then if you just told the pharmacist you had an autistic brother or a psychotic father, they would sell you medication without a prescription. We knew the names of some medicines for psychosis, because we wrote them down whenever someone mentioned them. When we took the blue pills that we avoided forever after, poor Ximena went so nuts she tried to set the fine wooden floor of her room on fire, and she talked about all the eyes she saw floating around the house. We weren’t impressed. The year before, one of the hippies at the artisan market had been taken to the hospital after he’d eaten too many mushrooms: he said there were tiny men only a few centimeters tall who were shooting little arrows into his neck. He wanted to pull out the imaginary arrows so bad that he scratched at his neck until he almost slashed his jugular with his nails. He’d always wanted to be Paula’s boyfriend, he called her his ‘spiritual companion.’ They took him to the psychiatric ward in Romero and nothing more was ever heard from him. Paula stole acid from him to take on our birthdays. He had only a few teeth, his friends called him Jeremiah.

Ximena had to have her stomach pumped and everyone blamed us. We didn’t care, except that we’d miss her money. That’s when we started hating rich people.

 

1992

Luckily, we met Roxana, the new girl on our street. She was eighteen and lived alone. Her place was at the end of an alley, and we were so skinny we could fit through the bars of the gate if it was locked. Roxana never had food in the house; her empty cupboards were crisscrossed by bugs dying of hunger as they searched for nonexistent crumbs, and her fridge kept one Coca-Cola and some eggs cold. The lack of food was good: we had promised each other to eat as little as possible. We wanted to be light and pale like dead girls. We don’t want to leave footprints in the snow, we’d say, even though in our city it never snowed.

One time we went into Roxana’s house and saw, on the kitchen table and next to the kettle – she always had yerba maté tea – what looked to us like an enormous white orb, the kind a fortune teller would use, a crystal ball, a mirror of the future. But no: it was cocaine. It belonged to one of her friends. She wanted to take some before selling the rest: she thought the buyers wouldn’t notice how much was missing.

She let us scrape the magic ball with a razor, and taught us to snort it off of a ceramic plate, heated with a lighter. That way it wouldn’t get damp from the humidity, she explained, it wouldn’t stick and went down great. It was great and we were great with the white light in our heads and our tongues numb. We did it at the table and also off the mirror in Roxana’s bedroom: she placed it right in the middle and we all sat around it, as if the mirror were a lake where we lowered our heads to drink and the stained walls with their peeling paint were our forest. We took some with us when we left, storing the cocaine in the silvered paper of cigarette packs, and sometimes in little polyethylene bags. I used pens, Paula had her own metal straw, Andrea preferred to smoke pot because she couldn’t stand the racing of her heart, Roxana used rolled-up bills and told lies. She said her cousin had disappeared exploring the Nazca Lines in Mexico. None of us told her that the lines were in Peru. She said she had been in an amusement park where every door, when opened, led to a different room, room after room until you found the right one. There could have been hundreds of rooms – the game took up acres. We didn’t tell her we’d read something like that in a book for boys called The Museum of Dreams. She said that witches gathered in Parque Pereyra, and although we were startled to hear about rituals in the park, we didn’t tell her that what she described was a lot like a movie we’d seen on TV one Saturday afternoon, a really great horror movie about killing little girls to bring fertility back to a British island.

Sometimes we didn’t do cocaine and instead took a little acid with alcohol. We’d turn off all the lights and play with lit sticks of incense in the darkness; they looked like fireflies and made me cry. They made me think of a tiled house in a park with a pond where frogs played and lightning bugs flew among the trees.

One afternoon when we were playing with incense, we put on an album: Ummagumma by Pink Floyd, and we felt like something was chasing us through the house, maybe a bull or a wild boar with horns for teeth, and we ran and crashed into each other, hurting ourselves. It was like being back in the van again, but this time in a bad dream.

 

1993

In our last year of high school Andrea found a new boyfriend, who sang in a punk band. She changed. She wore a dog collar around her neck, she tattooed her arms with stars and skulls and she didn’t spend Friday nights with us anymore.

I realized she had slept with him. Andrea smelled different, and sometimes she looked at us with contempt and fake smiles. I told her she was a traitor. I reminded her of Celina, a girl from our school a little older than us who had died after her fourth abortion, bleeding out in the street as she tried to get to the hospital. Abortion was illegal and the women who performed them sometimes just threw the girls into the street afterwards. There were dogs in the clinics, they said the animals ate the fetuses so they wouldn’t leave any traces behind. She looked at us angrily and said she didn’t care if she died. We left her crying in the plaza.

Paula and I were furious, and we decided to take the bus to Parque Pereyra. We went back to look again for the girl from the forest. Could she be our third friend if Andrea abandoned us? By then they’d built the highway and only the worst busses still circulated through the park: the ones with decades of grime stuck to the seats, the ones that smelled of gas and sweat, had floors sticky from spilled soda and possibly urine. We got off in the park at sunset. At that hour there were still families there, kids running over the grass, some boys playing football. What a pain in the ass, said Paula, and we sat down under a pine to wait for nightfall. A caretaker came by with a flashlight and asked us if we were leaving.

Yes, we told him.

The next bus comes in half an hour, he said. You’d better go wait by the road.

We’re going, we told him, and I smiled. Paula didn’t smile because she was so thin that when she showed her teeth, she looked like a skull.

Be careful of scorpions, he said. If you feel one bite you, just yell, I’ll hear you.

More smiling.

That September, which was exceptionally hot, there was an invasion of scorpions. I thought maybe I could let one of them bite me so I’d die. Maybe that way we’d be remembered like Celina, dead in the street with her bloody fetus between her legs. I lay back on the grass and thought about venom. Paula, meanwhile, walked among the trees asking in a low voice, Are you there? She came to get me when she heard a rustling in the trees and saw a white shadow. Shadows aren’t white, I told her. This one was white, she assured me. We walked until we were exhausted. The lack of energy was the worst consequence of quitting eating. It was worth it except for now, when we wanted to find our friend, the girl with eyes full of hate.

We didn’t find her. Nor did we get lost: the light from the moon was always enough to make out the paths that led to the road. Paula found a white ribbon that, she thought, could belong to our friend from Parque Pereyra. Maybe she left it for us as a message, Paula said. I don’t think so, I thought. Surely someone who’d been picnicking in the park had lost it, but I didn’t say anything because I could see she was convinced, happy with her new amulet, sure it was a sign. I felt a stabbing in my leg that was neither a scorpion nor death; it was a nettle that burned my skin and covered it in bloody red spots.

 

1994

Paula celebrated her birthday at Roxana’s house. For the party we scored some acid that, we’d been told, had recently been smuggled over from Holland. They called it Little Dragon. Was imported acid stronger? Since we didn’t know, just to be on the safe side, we took a little less than usual; barely a fourth. We put on a Led Zeppelin album. We knew it was going to piss off Andrea’s boyfriend and that’s what we wanted: to piss him off. He arrived when the record was ending. We were still listening to vinyl then, although we could have bought CDs. Electronics were cheap, TVs and stereos, photo and video cameras. It couldn’t last long, said my parents, it couldn’t be true that an Argentine peso had the same worth as a dollar. But we were so sick of everything they said, my parents and the other parents, doomsayers, catastrophists announcing the imminent return to blackouts and all the pathetic hardships. Now they didn’t cry over inflation: they cried because they didn’t have jobs. They cried as if they weren’t to blame for any of it. We hated innocent people.

Andrea and her punk boyfriend arrived when the most hippie song on the album was playing, the one about going to California with flowers in your hair, and Andrea’s boyfriend scrunched up his face and said this sucks, fuckin’ stoners. Paula’s brother, who was always friendly, offered him a little acid, just a fourth because he didn’t want to waste it on the punk. Acid’s hippie, too, Paula’s brother said, and the punk said yeah, but since it was chemical and artificial, he liked it. He favored anything chemical, he said: powdered juices, pills, nylon.

We were in Roxana’s room. The mirror was hanging on the wall. There were a lot of people in the house, lots of strangers, as tends to be the case in drug houses. You half-see their faces in dreams as they take beer from the fridge and vomit into the toilet and sometimes steal the key or make some generous gesture, like springing for more drinks when the party is about to end. The acid was like a delicate electric charge. Our fingers trembled; we put our hands in front of our eyes and our nails looked blue. Andrea was back with us, and when we put on Led Zeppelin II she wanted to dance, she shouted about lands of ice and snow and about the hammer of the gods, and only in ‘Since I’ve Been Loving You,’ maybe because it was a blues about love, did she turn around to look at her punk boyfriend. He was sitting in a corner, and he looked scared to death. He was pointing at something and repeating who knows what, the music drowned it out. I thought it was funny; there was nothing left of that arrogant, twisted upper lip of his, and he’d taken off his sunglasses too. His pupils were so dilated his eyes were almost black.

I walked slowly over to him and I tried to imitate the look of hatred in the eyes of the girl in Parque Pereyra. The electricity made my hair stand on end; I felt like it had turned into wires, or as if it was weightless, like when a TV that has just been turned off attracts your hair so it sticks to the screen.

Are you scared? I asked him, and he answered with a confused look. He was cute; that’s why Andrea had abandoned us. He was cute and he was innocent. I grabbed his chin and with my other hand I hit him in the face, I punched him right near his temple. His hair, arranged so carefully with gel, became a tangled mess hanging over his forehead. Paula, from behind me, laughing, threw the scissors we’d used to cut strips of acid at his head. Only then did I notice she was wearing the forest girl’s white ribbon in her hair. It was pure bad luck the scissors hit the punk boyfriend just above his eyebrow, a part of the face that bleeds a lot. We knew this because once in the van we’d cut our forehead after an especially violent slamming of the brakes. He got scared then, the punk, he got really scared with the blood dripping down over his white shirt, and he must have seen the same thing we did, or something similar distorted by the acid: his hands covered in blood, the stained walls, the three of us surrounding him and holding knives. He tried to run out of the house but he couldn’t find the door. Andrea followed him, tried to talk to him, but he couldn’t understand her. When he went out to the patio, the punk boyfriend tripped over a flowerpot, and once on the ground he started to shake, I don’t know whether from fear or convulsions. The album finished playing but there was no silence: we heard shouting and laughter. Someone was hallucinating scorpions, or maybe the creatures had really infested the house.

Standing above him, we circled the punk boyfriend. Lying on the ground with his eyes half-closed and his chest covered in blood, he seemed insignificant. He didn’t move. Paula slid her knife into her jeans pocket; it was practically a toy, a little knife for spreading jam on bread. ‘We’re not going to need it,’ she said.

‘Is he dead?’ asked Andrea, and her eyes shone.

Someone put a new record on back in the house, which seemed so far away. Paula took the ribbon from her hair and tied it around her wrist. Together, she and I went back into the house to dance. We were waiting for Andrea to leave the boy on the ground and come back to us, so the three of us could be together once again, waving our blue fingernails, intoxicated, dancing before the mirror that reflected no one else.

 

The above was first published in Granta Spain 2: Matar el tiempo (Killing Time)

Artwork © Barb Henry, Tripping, 2007

Saving Mesopotamia
First Sentence: Greg Jackson