The Coming Flood

Andrés Barba

Translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman

 

First her ears hear; they open. Then her eyes can see; they open. Her face, a revolving door, swings open and shut, open and shut. She no longer sleeps at night; it’s too hard to breathe after four breast-implant operations. She drops, like rain down a window, collapsing in fatigue, breathing through her mouth, and even exhaustion seems miraculous. Then during the daytime, tiredness and lack of sleep bring on momentary, frenzied fits of rage. She’ll walk into a shop and, if no one rushes to help her, she screams and causes chaos. The people around her turn to look. Mónica can see their faces – they’re disgusted, they’re shocked – she feels their eyes look her up and down, feels them on her, climbing her legs, hanging from her hips, her breasts, their eyes. When she walks out into the street, their eyes tinkle like little bells jingling from her flesh and that brings back her smile; for days now there’s been something new in the world: her body bathed in their looks, but, like acid, something has coursed through her and eaten away the sweetness. Even the house has changed; it’s been all chopped up. There are times when she wants to go to the bathroom and ends up in the kitchen, and vice versa.

‘It’s because I’m not sleeping,’ she thinks.

But not sleeping is as familiar as the pen marking the page in her operation diary, suspended there, like a thought containing everything. Who is that, walking at night? Who makes that noise, those footsteps that are suddenly beside her bed and then stop? It’s as though someone were really sitting there; she feels their weight, in the middle of the night, and thinks, ‘Now they’re going to touch me.’ And she plays with that touch, she whets it. She changes position again, opens her mouth again, as wide as she can. Inhales. Even the air is weightless now, no longer dense enough to fill her lungs, to oxygenate her blood, as it used to. Her breasts hover on either side of her body, she’s suffocating. She tries sitting up and then lies back down. She thrashes around, loses consciousness for three hours and then suddenly regains it, flails her white arms, startled.

‘Tomorrow I have a film shoot,’ she says aloud.

Immediately she wonders if she really said it aloud or only thought the words. She wants to say them aloud, and so touches her fingertips to her lips to make sure they’re moving this time.

‘Tomorrow I have a film shoot,’ she repeats.

They moved. And thus pass months, and shoots, and naked actors like sinewy tree trunks. Unintentionally, she begins to forsake certain things: clothes, meals. She’ll suddenly look in the mirror and think, ‘I’m filthy,’ and take a shower, scrubbing until it hurts.

‘You shooting up, Mónica?’

‘Me?’

‘You’re on something, I can tell. No junkies on my set.’

‘I’m not on anything, I swear.’

And then, one day, they stop calling. And intimacy retreats just a little more, into the Internet, into chat rooms, and she barely leaves home. She feels, when she does, that things have become boundless and elastic. One day, sitting in a park, one hand resting on top of the other, she has a strange thought: a horn. ‘My face with a horn,’ she thinks. She touches her hand to her forehead. Not a big one, she thinks, a little horn, just one, in the middle of her forehead, almost domestic. The image is disturbingly beautiful and startles her, as if she’s hit upon a mystery, a sacred thing of almost sinister simplicity. ‘My face with a horn, my smile with a horn.’ When she gets home, she opens her operation diary and makes note of it.

‘Next operation: My face with a horn.’

The idea has a life of its own. She closes her eyes, overcome, feeling something sweet, sharp, finally full of harmony: the safety of the bone. Operations in the past: lips once, breasts four times, ribs removed, cheekbones done, and in her diary, sometimes, between one operation and the next, she’d write: ‘I’m a monster.’ Other times she’d write: ‘For my next operation . . .’ Her writing now is perky, vibrant. She doesn’t sleep that night either. Little by little the unrest subsides, but come dawn, it’s back. Now the house, a dank place, befits her large body. Because the body secretes feelings, but you’ve got to be close enough to perceive them. And one day she leaves home and lets out a low moan she’d have liked to make last. Who could say why she walks there when what she wants is to avoid the place? But she holds onto the railing at the entrance and then, as if thrust forcefully, takes one step and then another with the trusty tick-tock of a clock. ‘My face with a horn, my smile with a horn, my arms and legs and tits and cunt with a horn.’ She needs the vulgarity of those words, but there’s no more money. There are no more calls, no more film shoots.

Recklessly, she places a personal ad. ‘Mónica. 37. unbelievable porn star. Waiting naked. BJs, no rubber. €100, the works.’ She attaches a photo from when she was twenty-three and had just started, blocks out her face, and adds in minuscule font: ‘real photo’.

The horn will cost €2,000 in an illegal clinic – she had to explain what she wanted three times before they got it. Then, scandalized, they told her it would be impossible for under two thousand. So there she sits, calm, clad in a robe, one hand resting on top of the other, waiting for people to come about the ad. Calls start to come in. Men come. Little men, almost always friendly, fast, sometimes ashamed, other times brutal. One time it’s a kid, and when he sees her he backs up.

‘You just don’t do it for me, sorry.’

Someone slips her two phoney bills. Someone else slaps her. Mónica is surprised how little it hurts and she stares at the man, unblinking, taking in his fatigue and his fear, his smell, his skin, until she feels she’s penetrated him. For the first time, she senses the trembling of his lower lip, and not only notices the trembling but deciphers it, sees how each muscle fibre criss-crosses, how it tugs his frail gelatinous lip upward, how one by one the fibres retract into infrared body cavities through tangled masses of nerves, and then slip inside his brain to the man’s eye socket and then she sees his eye from behind, the thick optic nerve covered in tiny blue and red veins, and she discovers that the man is afraid because she’s inside of him.

The park is where she most often sleeps, off in a secluded spot, watching the tree trunks’ nervous volutes. One day, while she’s asleep, she accidentally wets herself, and feels the warmth of her urine, and then the cold, and then the smell. When she gets home, she showers, and goes back to her diary, writes in it, again: ‘My face with a horn.’ With each passing day the image becomes clearer, more concrete. At first it was just an abstract horn, on her forehead, sometimes striated, other times smooth, an enormous horn, the size of her face, jutting upward; other times a diminutive, docile horn, almost just a bump, a protuberance. Now with increasing frequency she pictures it three centimetres long, conical, emerging from the middle of her forehead. And when that image comes to her, Mónica embraces it, and feels it’s close, getting closer.

At times, the prospect frightens her. As if something inside her might stop being human after the horn. The hard horn, inside her head, like a clenched fist, like the seed of an impossible flower. She isn’t sure what it is or what it wants to be but she concentrates on copying the horn’s serious appearance, trying to imitate its cruelty and its tenderness. More and more, she searches the Internet for images of animals, make-believe monsters, fish from abyssal depths. Spellbound by their shapes, as if to understand better, as if some part of her had to master a monster’s strange delicacy, at least a bit; she spends hours at a time gazing at the images until she feels embodied within them, feels she’s taken a great step forward. And when she goes out sometimes, she doesn’t know where to go, or has unsettling moments of panic. Gaping and silent, she’ll range from corner to corner, hiding. Other times, she suddenly finds herself in the neighbourhood she grew up in, without knowing how she got there or why she came.

The men keep coming, the days pass. She gets beaten up again, this time it’s brutal. A teenager, a kid almost, handsome and fragile-looking. She’d been scared of him from the start and yet she let him in. And when he leaves, she’s lying on the floor surrounded by glass. She puts her hands to her face. She has a vague recollection of having covered her face, just her face, so it wouldn’t get bruised, and since it seems he hasn’t left marks, she falls asleep on the floor, out of sheer and simple exhaustion, imagining she’s a dog, licking her hands with her little tongue.

Imagining she’s a dog, imagining she’s a horse, she’s a mermaid, a naiad, an insect. The horn is set somewhere between her eyes. Some nights she goes out and prowls the streets: a form of wringing her hands. Dressed for a party: earrings, lipstick, eyeliner. She prowls the streets, trying to incite danger, and sometimes on her way out a thought flashes through her mind: ‘I hope I get killed.’ A thought with no pity, delicate, like the horn; she thinks, ‘I hope I get killed,’the same way she thinks, ‘I hope I can sleep.’ She’s read in the paper that some thugs had set a homeless man on fire a few blocks away and she walks there, not sure what she hopes to see or find. What would the thugs do to her? What she wants is rougher and harder than being burned alive. She’s fearless, mad, like a dog. But no. She doesn’t want to die. Not really. What she wants is the horn. So she fishes a knife out of the kitchen and when she goes on her nocturnal walks and sees someone, she sets off after them with determination. One time it’s a man, about fifty, and when he sees the knife he runs away. One time it’s a girl. Mónica heads her off, takes out the knife and says: ‘Your money.’

But the girl’s got almost no money. All she’s got is a book, a scarf and seven euros in change that Mónica simply takes and slips into her purse, her heart racing, but only slightly, surprised at how awkward the whole encounter is, surprised at how ugly the girl is, how ugly her reactions are. She thinks, ‘Now I’m a thief.’

At moments when she least expects it, the world turns real again. She goes out one afternoon and, passing by the entrance to a school, a group of teenagers laughs at her. Or she walks into a shop to buy some food and a boy is scared of her. Then she feels cold. She shivers in her clothes. She runs back home and wolfs down food like a centaur, her head bent over the plate, her hair falling into the food, and then she feels so dizzy she almost faints. The sofa stinks, the house stinks. With her head in her hands she dozes off and then wakes up, the weight of her breasts smothering her. She thinks she has so much to do: she has to clean, she has to shower, she has to do something about that painting that got broken the other day, she has to buy toothpaste. But these obligations swirl around in a cloud of smoke that makes them onerous; she’s amazed she’s lived so long, all her life, doing those things so effortlessly. ‘How did I . . . ?’ Now everything is muffled, it’s intact but mysterious, and the house, like a body, slithers. And when she can’t think what to do, she counts the money she keeps hidden beneath the bottle with the picture, Hanging Houses of Cuenca.

How much time has passed? A year? The men keep coming, the money keeps piling up: she’s got almost enough now. And the closer she gets, the more exasperated she becomes. Sometimes she blanks out for long stretches. Then suddenly she becomes aware of herself again and she’s in the middle of the street, or in the bathroom. She wonders: ‘How did I get here?’ Then, like a memory: ‘The horn.’ And when she says that, the house seems like another house, the sun silhouettes each object as if it were a charcoal print on the table, on the wall, as if she herself were a natural distillation of this space.

She becomes hypnotized by an image she finds on the Internet: a Canadian man who’s had five silicone balls implanted under the skin on his face. She stares at him doggedly, for hours, as if from her fascination would spring meaning, and that would help her, would make the fear subside. Because she still feels fear. She doesn’t wonder: ‘What will become of me with the horn?’ She wonders something else, something more frightening: ‘What will I become with the horn?’ There are five photos of the Canadian man: lying in a hammock; in his kitchen; in a yard with a swing in the back; in a car; standing beside a roadside sign announcing the name of his town. With serious expressions, fierce, as if they’d been siblings for some time, they stare at each other. The man’s name is Jason Stone. Mónica learns his name the way you learn that of a lover. She writes it in her diary: ‘Jason Stone’. Then she slips into his skin: she feels the silicone dressing on his flesh, stares at his swollen face in the mirror, runs her fingers slowly over the bumps and feels their coarse, secret texture. And she thinks of a mysterious sentence: ‘I am the wound and the knife.’ When she writes it in her diary, under ‘Jason Stone’, it seems so clean and round she has no need to explain it. Two days later, she rereads it and finds it incomprehensible. ‘I am the wound and the knife.’ And yet she knows she wrote it consciously, in a lucid moment, and that after writing it, she felt no need to add anything more; so profound was the sense of having hit a nerve, a soft and fleshy form, a heart.

The men come again. The fear of the horn, now that it’s close, makes her love them in an odd way, devoid of her usual perfunctoriness. Not all of them, just some. But when it happens, she gets the feeling that the men, for her, are a way to cling to life. For a moment, she forgets everything. For a moment, she runs her eyes over the bodies of some of the men who come and thinks, ‘I could fall in love with you.’ And she becomes gentler. She sees their white skin so close, sees each hair follicle, and how each hair plunges its root into their skin and how at the base of each hair the skin sinks down suddenly and their hair enters it like a tiny extraction needle. And she can see their mouths, like gaping wounds, open scars, and their teeth, and their tongues, blanketed with thousands of tiny taste buds, each with its own unique function. And she can see the miraculous mechanics of their joints: shoulders, elbows, knees, hips; she makes herself tiny enough to touch the membrane that joins the bone to the flesh and skin. She is awed by their erections and thinks, ‘How beautiful,’ as if her feelings could only be superficial. When they come, she concentrates on the slight slackening of their eyes, their mouths. Their cheekbones seem to sink slightly then, their skin to regain its flaccidity; she revels in their sweat, imagines the miracle of each pore like a little cup overflowing with salt water, and she makes herself as small as her fears and travels each pore as if she had to plant a flag in each one.

There’s even a man who inexplicably falls in love with her. His name is Antonio but everyone calls him Toño.

‘My name is Antonio but everyone calls me Toño,’ he says.

He sends her text messages, dirty messages, in the middle of the night, almost always monosyllabic: ‘Come.’ ‘Cock.’ Anxious messages. He himself is big and anxious, he sweats a lot, tells jokes Mónica doesn’t understand, laughs a lot. And after he tells them, he waits a second, distraught as a boy in his Sunday best, his arms restrained, sheer expectation, and then abruptly laughs a thunderous laugh. Mónica attaches herself to him for a few weeks, but the attachment seems a betrayal of the truth, the horn. She doesn’t say anything. She simply watches what happens.Then Toño stops paying. But he keeps coming. Mónica doesn’t know how to tell him to go; she finds it harder and harder to speak. As if she’s forgotten how to pronounce certain words, certain sentences. She opens her mouth, she wants to say, ‘Toño, I don’t want you to keep coming,’ but nothing comes out. With Toño her body expands one last time, like a rubber band that’s been stretched insufferably but doesn’t break and then suddenly is released, becomes flaccid. Toño talks and talks. He’s oafish and inoffensive, and at times even unexpectedly sweet.

One day he says: ‘It’s time to clean your house.’

And he cleans for half an hour before he gets bored. The effect, in the end, is doubly damning: the cleanliness of one half of the house makes the dirtiness of the other much more obvious. The same is true of her body. It’s falling apart but only in certain spots. The bags under her eyes are almost purple some days, her nails are filthy and need to be cleaned, one of her nipples has darkened more than the other, the corners of her mouth have drooped, sloping down slightly, her eyelids are swollen in the mornings, her left knee hurts, she’s got indigestion, as if somehow the missing ribs put unnatural pressure on her intestines. With no warning of any sort, everything takes on the thick stench of rotting flesh and Mónica thinks it’s coming off her own body but can’t get rid of it no matter how often she showers. Because for the past two days, ever since Toño started showing up at will, Mónica has felt constantly filthy. One day she simply doesn’t open the door. He pounds furiously, then seems to feel ashamed and leaves. His texts keep coming for over a week, until slowly they, too, stop. He’ll send a cheap shot, and then, two minutes later, an apology. Three hours later, another cheap shot. His final messages are simply sad. And yet, Mónica doesn’t want them to stop; she looks forward to them, as if the texts contained a final link to something, as if Toño’s body, a body she was never attracted to, the one she can only remember certain specific parts of, were a great loss.

Then comes the silence. Striking silence, there where the ground should be. And suddenly this painful, inexistent place: the horn. She lets the days slip by, no longer accepting clients. She gets from Monday to Sunday, each day an attempt to eliminate a thought. Every imaginable being inside her body has finally left. It seems that somewhere, they’re singing of her.

She stripped slowly, leaving her clothes primly folded, the way some people do before committing suicide, before jumping out of a window. In the waiting-room mirror, she looked at herself for the last time. Looked beneath the trembling ripples of skin, bones, flesh, intestines. She’d have liked to take a picture, then, in exactly that pose, in the mirror. She’d have written on the back, in her careful, round hand: ‘Me, before.’ Softly. Wistfully. Like someone who knows it’s time to leave a place they’ll never see again: her hair hanging to the left, her right hand trembling slightly, her skinny knees, things that would never again be. More, much more. To take that image in her hands and renounce it. Renounce the memory. She’d got there almost an hour early and they’d left her in a small room with a few magazines. An hour later a woman had walked in and asked her to take off her clothes.

‘Well, then. Ready?’

‘Yes.’

She had a moment’s hesitation. Then she whispered to herself: ‘My face with a horn,’ a mantra; the nurse had made her lose her confidence. That was when the horn began to emerge, slowly, very slowly, when she began to feel it actually grow, and she felt fear. Its presence wasn’t much different to a simple headache. They gave her a blue paper gown, open at the back, and paper slippers, and took her to the operating room. The table was cold. She liked the way it felt, the cold. Then they put a mask on her. The plastic surgeon appeared.

‘Just breathe normally.’

‘What is this?’

‘Anaesthetic.’

But she knew it was anaesthetic, that wasn’t what she was asking. She thought: ‘They’ll stick me in a kettle and I’ll come out all flushed and red, with a horn.’ And as the anaesthetic took effect, she had the feeling that her body was fossilizing like a calcareous substance, creating a hard shell comprised of hundreds of thousands of substances all superimposed.

The dream she had under anaesthesia was wild. It started in her stomach. The dream began sweetly, alighting like a tiny hunger pang. She saw images, almost abstract images, and little by little they began taking shape and they became faces, but not entirely human faces. Their features were like those of any face and yet, there was something that made them totally different. They opened their mouths and out came long, slender tongues that licked the length of whatever surface they were on, as if that was how they fed. She tried opening her mouth, too, and out came a similar tongue, even finer than theirs, like a long pink thread. She could feel everything she touched with her tongue. Her tongue was the only place she could feel.

There was a sort of primordial joy, demoniacal almost, about the whole thing, as if it had all gone further than she’d imagined, as if for the first time she’d found a polar opposite. But she knew it was a dream, and that she was under anaesthesia, this had happened in her other operations too. She awoke, bloated, delirious. She asked if she was dead.

‘No. The operation was a success,’ the nurse said.

She was awake. Had she woken up or was this still a dream? She remembered getting up, like a statue, from the operating table, greeting the doctor. A hand had very gently removed her IV drip, recommended she bend her arm back and forth so it wouldn’t leave a mark, and she’d done that; another hand helped her get dressed in her old human clothes. They were using her name, which suddenly sounded strange and melodious. She vaguely recalled having been named that. She saw their human faces from the outside and they looked ugly – ridiculously, almost heart-rendingly ugly. Then she remembered having left. Was that the street? Yes, go straight ahead. Call that: ‘straight’; call that: ‘street’; call that: ‘ahead’. The others watched without seeing; she named things. She recalled having put her hands to her forehead, trembling, having touched the bandage, removing it awkwardly, hurting herself slightly. The doctor had said before she left: ‘You’ll need to leave that on for the next two days.’

She had understood each individual word, but not the meaning of the sentence. As with the faces, her syntax had crumbled. She took off the bandage right in front of him, deposited it in his hand, and left.

Outside, in the open air, the light hit the horn for the first time, and when she touched it with her fingertips she felt an electric jolt course through her entire body. She felt the need to vomit, and in her vomit, finally, she expelled all that she no longer needed, leaning up against a tree, tasting the acid taste of what she no longer was. As if she wanted to forgive, as if an unstoppable urge to forgive were flooding through her, she forgave the vomit, and the tree, and its irritating constancy – the last things.Then something seemed to fit, all across the land, as if the bowels of the earth had produced a minuscule movement that had finally made every immense piece of the universe fit. She looked down at her hands: there were hands there. She walked, searching for a mirror, a reflection, a surface of any kind that would let her see herself and finally see the horn. She found it.

After Effects
The Place of Losses