It’s Monday and the whole school is jumping for joy, because we live in a working-class neighborhood and our side has supposedly won. There are Betis and Sevilla fans around here, and people from the United Left and the PSOE, but no one at all from the People’s Party. I’ve never heard anyone say they support the PP. There must be a bunch of them, though. I wonder where they all are? Anyway, it’s not like I’ve done an in-depth study. Changing schools so often is making me less and less sure how to behave. I never know if I should rush to get to know other kids and make the most of the time we have, or if it’d be better not to get too attached in case I have to beat it at moment’s notice. Promises get broken when you move, and kids get separated forever. This time, though, I couldn’t help getting attached. I’ve had almost two years of relative good luck. I don’t want to do it all over again. Things are going pretty well for me here, even if right now we’re doing one of the things I hate most. We’re lined up on the soccer pitch waiting to run an obstacle course. One at a time, bouncing a ball as we go. The teacher is young and shows genuine interest in education. I’m relying on him to be merciful, since I have a feeling things are going to go worse than usual for me with this. I give him my sad puppy eyes, but he doesn’t notice. He just presses a ball to my chest and gives me a pat on the back, letting me know it’s time to set off.
I don’t do too badly for the first few seconds, though I’m so nervous I barely dodge the first round of cones. I briefly think maybe I’ll come out of it with flying colors and the feeling is sweet enough to throw me off course. When I get to the gravel, not only do I lose the ball but I also give it an accidental kick trying to get it back, sending it bouncing off to the other end of the courtyard. I go and fetch it, relishing the knowledge that at least I’ve gotten myself out of half the circuit. But when I get back to the group the teacher tells me to do it all over again from the start. I wish he’d just focus on what we’re good at and quit humiliating us when it comes to everything else.
I hope Natalia and Juan Carlos, the tablemates I like so much, won’t hold a grudge against me for making them look uncool. Just in case, I decide at the last minute to take advantage of the usual commotion over the Play-Doh. Natalia is engrossed in sculpting a dress with a very full skirt. I turn to Juan Carlos, who’s set up a churro stand where business is booming.
‘Hey, tomorrow I’m bringing something from home.’
‘A book with tits in it. It’s mine.’
‘Eh? Say that again?’
‘There are tits in it.’
‘What do you mean, it’s yours?’
‘It’s mine, and there are some mermaids with their tits out.’
‘No coochies or anything?’
I shake my head slowly. Juan Carlos covers his mouth with his greasy hands. His pale skin contrasts sharply with his dark eyes and black hair. He’s skinny and looks great in red, though today he’s wearing blue. I’d like to be able to offer my classmates some authentic porn, like one of the Penthouses that have occasionally fallen into my hands, or something by Milo Manara, which always goes over well, but I think if I got caught with that in my backpack there’d really be hell to pay. There are limits.
‘So are you gonna take it out?’
‘Yeah, but I’m only showing it to you. And Natalia if she wants.’
Natalia turns an ear toward us, not taking her eyes off the model she’s making.
She pouts like a chicken when she’s working with modelling clay, a silly look of concentration I sometimes copy. She’s sweet and snub-nosed and always good company.
‘What are you going to show me?’
‘A photo of a mermaid with her tits out.’
She says nothing and stays happily absorbed in her work. I have to admit I really admire Natalia. She’s fun, unassuming, capable, modest, charming, and straightforward. I wish we could stay friends for the rest of my life. I’m watching her quietly and intently, so she decides now’s the time to tell me a secret.
‘Tomorrow my mom stops wearing mourning.’
We’ve known each other two years and her mom has been wearing black the whole time, since her grandpa’s death. Natalia barely even remembers him. She’s confessed a few times that she’s desperate for the mourning to end. It’s depressing, and she’s been fantasizing for ages about seeing her mom look cheerful again, dressed in bright colors, leaving behind the pain and reserve that this severe, funereal style demands – this undeserved, self-imposed punishment. She’s had to hear endless debates about happiness, about the need for traditions or how silly they are, about being stuck in the past or moving on. Now, as she adds the finishing touches to her greasy Play-Doh dress, she holds back a satisfied smile. I give her arm a squeeze, as much to celebrate the good news as because she doesn’t resent me for being the worst in the class at PE.
‘But how do you know?’
‘Because she told me.’
‘Because tomorrow it’s five years since her dad died.’
‘So she’s really going to do it?’
‘I think she really is this time.’
‘What’s she going to wear instead?’
Natalia looks me in the eye, shaking with excitement, and squeals, ‘I don’t know!’
We bounce up and down, our butts still in our chairs, and give each other a hug. I hope it’s true. The dead grandpa thing has dragged on so long he’s not even a grandpa to her, he’s just her mom’s dad. ‘Because it’s what my father would have wanted, because my father this, because my father that . . .’ I’ve never been to her house, but I picture it as a dark and closed-up lair where cheerfulness has been declared a lack of respect. We’ve often used the word depression in our hideouts at recess, where we talk about possible sexy storylines for our dolls and possible methods for seducing boys in the future. Natalia and I really get each other. My house is also weird, and we dislike the same girl for being a smartass and being so full of herself. When I was new in the class, I tried to win her over by saying that the day before I’d taken a dump and held the turd in my hand. She was horrified and didn’t see the funny side at all. She thinks she’s the best at jumping rope, in her red sweatsuit.
It’s one o’clock and it’s been an uneventful Tuesday. I missed seeing Natalia’s mom this morning because I was late, and Natalia still hasn’t told me what she was wearing. Since moms have come up, she’s asked me how mine is doing. She has as much information as I do: my mom’s sick and they’re always changing her medication. I realize I know next to nothing about it.
‘I don’t know, now she’s started taking some white pills this big, and some other yellow ones?’
‘And do they look nice?’
‘Yeah, they look great next to the ones with a bit of red. The pale pink one I haven’t seen in a while, but the blue ones are still around.’
We keep copying down sentences into our lined exercise books. Everyone’s forgotten about the book with the bigboobed mermaids and I’ve been simmering with doubts about the appropriate time to break it out, and whether the idea is an appropriate one. I think my classmates suspect I was bluffing and don’t want to bring it up so as not to make me feel awkward. That wouldn’t be anything new. I really do have it there in my backpack, though. I don’t want to seem like a phony. I want them to enjoy the pictures. There are two. In one, there’s a mermaid on a rock, sadly caressing a conch and completely naked. In the other, an underwater scene, there’s another magnificent, orange-tailed mermaid, her hair flowing gently due to the magic of a subaquatic current. Fuck it. I turn around, unzip my backpack, take the book over to my usual seat, and hide it under the table we share. What happens under the table is none of the teacher’s business, but now that the book isn’t under wraps I don’t know what to do. Juan Carlos sniffs out the intrigue.
‘Whatcha got there?’
‘It’s that thing I told you about.’
‘The mermaid book!’
He has no idea what I’m talking about.
‘Don’t you remember? I told you about it yesterday.’
‘You told me about tits yesterday, not mermaids.’
‘Well the tits are on the mermaids.’
‘Oh!’ This changes everything and he rushes at me headlong, clumsy and ravenous, like a starving puppy.
‘Hold your horses, someone’ll see you.’
‘Fine, show me down here.’
I do what he says and look for the page, keeping one eye on the rest of the classroom. The first picture is enough for Juan Carlos, who can barely suppress his initial urge to climb onto his chair and rejoice. His panting has attracted a nearby posse’s attention. Natalia hasn’t stopped writing but she knows exactly what’s going on.
‘Hurry up, show me before it gets confiscated.’
Her steady little hands flip to the famous two pages. Then she grabs the stiff front and back covers in shock.
‘But these are photos,’ she says.
Actually, I’m not really convinced that they are. It’s a question that’s been gnawing away at me. The implications are immeasurable.
‘But that means mermaids are real.’
The impact of this conclusion takes our breath away. Juan Carlos seizes his moment to attack. He robs us brazenly and shares the proof of his crime with a group of other boys who’d been showing an interest. I spring up to defend my treasure. Goddamn it, this is stirring up too much excitement.
‘Give it back already!’ I yell.
They pay no attention.
‘Give it to me!’
‘What? Why should we give it to you?’ answers Diego, a very cute little blond boy who I’m about to shut right up.
‘Because it’s mine!’
Juan Carlos nods. A grave atmosphere settles over the gang.
‘I’ll let you all see it, but you have to be careful. Those photos are proof that mermaids are real.’
‘Come on, those are drawings!’ For a few seconds there, I had Diego wrapped around my finger. But just as soon as the miracle happened, it all went up in smoke. A magical moment and I’ve blown it. ‘They look like photos, but they’re drawings,’ he adds smugly.
Even I don’t believe him, but only Natalia backs me up. We’re starting to fight so the teacher comes over, hovers above our circle, and reaches out to take hold of the book. We all let go at once, hoping to wash our hands of it so none of us can be blamed. Our superior raises his eyebrows.
‘Sir, are these drawings or photos?’ Natalia asks.
‘Those are drawings, but they’re so realistic they look like photos.’
‘So mermaids aren’t real?’
‘Not as far as we know right now. But aren’t you supposed to be copying sentences?’
We’ve got nothing to say to that.
‘Come on, get to work.’
Natalia saved our necks. We got caught with porn, redhanded, and we’ve come out of it unscathed. It’s a quarter to two and we’re copying like crazy so we don’t have to finish at home.
‘Oldladyvoice,’ Juan Carlos calls out. I hate it when he calls me that. It sounds like an insult, even though it just means my voice is husky and some of the things I say are oldladyish. I appreciate his familiarity, though. Giving me a nickname means he knows me.
He’s taken his dick out. It’s peeking out of the top of the waistband of his sweatpants. I’d like to act all uptight but I can’t help giggling. Of the four schools I’ve been to, this is by far my favorite.
Natalia and I are standing in the doorway. The sun is shining, school is out, and kids rush all around us. She jabs me with her elbow, telling me which direction her mom is coming from. I hardly recognize her. I’ve been thinking for hours that she’d be dressed in red like in the movies, but she’s wearing jeans and a white T-shirt. Simple and breezy. It’s also the first time I’ve seen her with her hair down, curly and shoulder-length. She comes over wrapped in a warm sigh. I wish Mom would show up like that one day, looking like she’d been cured. But no, she appears at the end of the street, harried and serious until she sees us, just like always.
We walk along together for a while, bathed in a kind of late spring glory. It feels good to be part of a gang. There’s a breeze like at the seaside, so you can wear short sleeves without getting too hot. When we get to Natalia’s apartment block, Mom takes the camera out of her purse and snaps a photo of us by a tree. Luckily our moms start chatting and let Natalia and I have a few private moments out in the open. I’d love to prolong my delight and start scheming to see her the same afternoon, to firm up a plan before I leave.
‘I can’t this afternoon, I have to go to Country.’
‘To the country? The country where?’
‘No, not to the country, to Country.’
‘What? I didn’t know your family had a house in the country.’
‘We don’t, and it’s not a house in the country, it’s Country!’
‘What are you talking about? Are you making fun of me?’
‘No, duh! Don’t you know what Country is?’
I stare at her with my heart in pieces. She might as well be a brick wall.
‘What is it? What language are you speaking?’
Natalia despairs and reaches out to the sky in exasperation.
‘Explain it to me, then!’
‘Look. Country is like Supermart.’
‘You know what Supermart is, right?’
‘Well it’s the same, but it’s called Country.’
‘It’s called Country?’
Our moms are saying goodbye.
‘Yeah, and we’re going clothes shopping.’
‘Ah, OK. What about tomorrow?’
I’m already being led away.
‘I have catechism!’ she shouts from her doorway, and says goodbye. Fuck catechism. I hope I never have to miss a playdate for catechism. She’s still in a good mood, but mine is gone. Why’s it so hard to see school friends outside of school?
The grown-ups I know can recall their first communion in detail, pretty much, but no one remembers anything about their baptism. It’s so embarrassing. I’m about to go through a ceremony for babies completely conscious. They keep telling me it’s nothing to be ashamed of, that it doesn’t mean anything and it’s just a survival strategy. Mom has bought me some navy culottes and a white blouse with a prissy collar. I wish the day would never come. I’m keeping it secret from my classmates, it’s none of their business. But the next day I do tell them we’re going to Marbella. I don’t usually remember it during first period, but after recess my anxiety kicks into gear and I need something good to think about.
‘I want to be in Marbella so badly!’ I sigh again. I like that Natalia doesn’t make me feel like a bore. She even shows some interest.
‘When are you going?’
She looks at the ceiling, attempting a thoughtful face, then raises her hand. The teacher sees her.
‘What is it?’
‘Sir, when is the last day of school?’
Natalia gives me a serious, disapproving glance. ‘You’ll be gone the entire last week.’
‘You’re going to miss the end-of-year party.’
I hadn’t realized that. I missed the Christmas one too, and I even learned the carol I was supposed to sing by heart. I’m mad but I don’t want to show it.
‘Well, I don’t care. I’ll be in Marbella.’
‘They might fail you for missing the last week.’
‘Fail me? Why?’
‘For not coming to pick up your grades.’
I’m not sure this makes any sense, but I’d rather play innocent and rule it out. How could they fail me for that?
We’ve had lentils for lunch. I feel the same way about lentils as I do about taking a bath – I’m never in the mood, but I’m glad afterward. Domingo’s at work. Mom has started to nod off at the table, her last slice of melon half eaten. I give hera gentle nudge.
‘Mom. Mom, come on, lie down for a little while.’
I guide her to the couch. I put the dirty dishes in the sink without making a sound. I’m sweet and diligent for several reasons. I love her a lot, but that’s not the reason that takes up the most space in my mind. It’s in both our interests for her to take a siesta. For one thing she’s really tired, and for another, this morning I filched a copy of Totem from the bathroom and Miguel Angel Martín’s signature has been languishing on my bedroom shelf ever since. Sometimes, when I think of the convent, I remember his comic strips and feel somehow protected. I’ve never seen his face but I’ve seen his drawings, his writing, and his signature, and that’s enough for me to know his work’s a thousand times cleaner than the stuff in that children’s Bible – cleaner in every sense of the word. How old is he, I wonder? What’s his house like? What was he like when he was little? In some schools they organize kids in alphabetical order. My name is Marina Marrajo. If he’d been in my class they definitely would’ve made us sit together. During roll call in the morning I’d raise my hand first and then he’d raise his. I would witness his childhood sketches, his first use of color, his first ideas. I’d bet my ass he was also a nerd. He’s still a nerd. He and I may not have converged in space or time, but we’ve shared a whole lot of floors and duvets. I know there are lots of kids like me who get frequent doses of inspiration from his filthy comics. They help us stay on the straight and narrow while also being harmless. I don’t know where I’d be without them. I behave myself so as not to awaken suspicion. They make me feel lucky, give me a real sense of belonging, even though legally I’m too young to join their club. Not being able to have my own copies makes me anxious but also gives me the occasional thrill. These comics are the meeting place for my gang of imaginary friends. I move among them like a ghost, a stealthy outlaw – tiny, colorless, almost invisible. I’m always raising my hand but no one pays any attention. At my age people are always asking what you want to be when you grow up, so I’ve given a lot of thought to the idea of studying medicine, and I think I’d like it. It could be fun to get to know the human body and solve its problems, and then there’s also the pain and blood and illness. These dirty comics are the best hope for a girl who’s just a clone of her mother, and a second-rate one at that. Me and Mom are basically the same person at different times. There are only two pages in our family album, one for each Marina Marrajo. I guess no other option seemed good enough when I was born. It’s been thirty years since my grandpa died, and four since I last saw my dad. Paternal surnames don’t mean anything, and I’m grateful I haven’t been forced to use one. My only inheritance comes from women, no one else tells our family stories, no one else makes important decisions. They’re proud that I’m theirs alone, though they kind of regret having given me such an inbred name. They’re scared some doctor might get my records mixed up with Mom’s and something weird might happen. What they’re actually afraid of, though, is that I might find out what’s going on, that I might hear someone say a bunch of fancy words and get scared. They won’t admit it, but you can tell that’s what it is. If the doctor confuses our records I don’t think there’s any risk of them giving me the wrong treatment. The real risk is that he might let something slip.
I’ve been in the bathroom for half an hour, memorizing comic strips for when there’s a dry spell. I’m dying to wash my hands. The dust on the covers is so gross, it makes your fingers turn gray. If they’d just buy the magazines every month, it would all be easier. But the issues come and go, some of them get loaned out, some are borrowed from other people, they get wet, dirty, ripped, burned, and all I can do is wash my hands over and over. It won’t be too long until I can take them with no fear of getting caught, but something tells me that if I ever ask for the money to buy them, they won’t be so generous. I could save up and do it in secret, but you never know what kind of day the newsstand guy will be having. I picture myself young and tall and not having to deal with these kinds of restrictions ever again. Every second that passes brings that day closer.
Image © Laura Troubridge / British Library
This is an excerpt from Oldladyvoice, forthcoming from And Other Stories.