María sleeps soundly – like a log. When she retired, she put her alarm clock in a plastic bag and left it on the association’s second-hand shelf for anyone who might need it. She’d gone years without using it – like everyone, she’d replaced it with the one on her cell phone instead – but the gesture seemed symbolic, like something out of someone else’s story: now that I won’t be needing it anymore, she thought, why shouldn’t it be of use to someone who does, an object in another story whose protagonist leaves the house before dawn? She almost always wakes up unaided anyway, stirring when the light filters through the blinds or the person in the adjacent apartment gets in the shower. They started preparing for this day months ago. Last night, signing off on WhatsApp, Laura wrote, ‘Can’t believe it’s really happening.’ At assemblies, at district meetings, María always tries to stop the younger girls from getting too excited, but now she’s excited, too: my whole life, the near seventy years I’ve lived, it’s all led to waking up today, being here at your gathering, walking beside you. They were briefed at the association: do whatever you want, a paid work strike, a consumer strike, a care strike. Choose whatever works for you, because for us it all works, and we aren’t here to hand out badges for who’s the best feminist. My husband will notice if I don’t have a meal ready for him. Well, then, Amalia, put some soup in a Tupperware and tell him he can warm it up himself. Can’t he even manage that? Give him a microwave class next week, beginners’ level. I have to work, I can’t afford not to get paid, but I’ll meet up with you later on at Atocha. Does taking care of yourself count? I’m thinking of running a hot bath before I leave the house in the morning, soaking till I wrinkle up like a prune. Sure, why not, today’s about taking care of ourselves and our sisters.
The previous afternoon, several of them had met up at the association: some busied themselves making sandwiches for whoever would be out in the streets today, spreading the word to the women leaving the grocery store and the ones who’d gone in to work; others opted not to strike but showed up early at the headquarters to talk about events in different cities, and here in their own. Does listening to the radio count as a strike? Watching what’s happening online? They uncovered a foil-wrapped tray and passed out pieces of sponge cake. They had baked empanadas, the girls made hummus and guacamole, one of the veterans dunked a spoon in the clay pot as if it were soup or custard, to the girls’ delight: that’s not how you eat hummus. It seemed too modern to her, and she thought of her mother, who’d lived through the war and would never have wasted ingredients on that slop: where d’you think you’re from, the Nile or Carabanchel, because here in Carabanchel we put chickpeas in a stew. While they were making chorizo-and-salami sandwiches, cutting them into triangles, wrapping them in plastic, stacking them in the fridge to hand out the next day, María listed all the protests and strikes she hadn’t taken part in: the ones against Suárez in the seventies, before the elections and then afterward, the one against NATO, the one for pensions in ’85, the strike of ’88 and the two in the nineties, Iraq and the ‘No to War’ one, the one in 2010, the two in 2012 – the one here against Rajoy, and the Europe one – the freedom train, pro-choice. The Tides, remembers another girl, already university-aged, you were there for the Green Tide, she says, and María recounts how at one of the demonstrations, a reporter asked her if she was protesting on behalf of her granddaughter, and she, not knowing how to respond, said that yes, she was, for her granddaughter and for all of her granddaughter’s friends, and the girls in the younger group at the association waved at the camera without letting on that they weren’t related to her. María confidently pronounced the first and last names of the men who formed part of her biography – Felipe, Boyer, Aznar – and who would never know a thing about the seventy-year-old woman who had left a half-built neighborhood in a city in southern Spain for working-class Carabanchel, Madrid. One of Zapatero’s ministers had granted the association a prize, but María didn’t pick it up. They’d given them out in the morning, and she couldn’t get the time off work.
So did you see many women at the meetings before, María? One of the girls, virtually a teenager, asked the question innocently, a trail of red chorizo grease from her wrist to her fingertips; her hands, rough from chores since she was little, always stood out to María, who saw them as a sign that she’d end up having to use them more than her head. In spite of her youth, the things the girl said astonished María – the daughter of a friend’s daughter, she told herself with a strange sense of pride – she expressed her opinions emphatically, could empathize with other people’s points of view, and at the same time, there was something comforting to María in the remark, which confirmed how green the girl was: I can’t believe the men wouldn’t let you speak. I always went with the guys from the neighborhood association, María explained. I started going out with one of them five or six years after I moved to Madrid. I went to those meetings to make the neighborhood a better place: it was a rough area in those days, even more than it is now, addicts shooting up in broad daylight, right at the door to my building, and they wouldn’t stop at just snatching your purse, and then there were still whole shanty areas and, farther out, the prisons. We all had the feeling that south of the river was a wasteland full of nothing and nobody. Nothing and nobody, of course, meant us. I started to think about what they were saying at the meetings, started to note down some of the writers’ names they mentioned, they and other men I didn’t know so well, at the meetings and the bars where we went out afterward. I would jump from one writer to the next, and the next, and then share whatever conclusions I came to with that same man, my partner – Pedro was his name – and we’d argue about them. He’d bring them up for discussion at the next meeting, and they’d all swoon over how clever he seemed, like some academic. I kept quiet, because he made it sound better than I could ever have hoped to. I started meeting up with some women, your grandma, some other friends, in one living room or another, at my place, and that’s where we’d go to talk about the topics concerning us more specifically, the things the men weren’t interested in: divorce, abortion, violence, not just the physical kind, but emotional, too. Your mom started recommending books she found out about during her degree, and I kept reading and learning, and I started to see that the more I thought for myself, the more uncomfortable it made Pedro. So we, your mom and I, talked; we talked and talked like we always did, and we decided to ask the association if we could form a women’s group. In their minds, it was going to be a clothing and recipe swap. Well, your mom and some of her college friends moved in, and we started making a nuisance of ourselves. The city council gave us a place to meet, but then took it away as soon as we complained about the lack of lighting in the park. With a bit of money we scraped together, we rented our own. I was working all hours back then, cleaning offices in Nuevos Ministerios; I’d come back and grab something to eat, a sandwich on the metro or something quick at home, not even taking time to sit down, and some nights I got out to see Pedro for a while, but I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. Not even now that I get to sleep in, now that I spend all day at the association, and seeing all of you really helping each other out. That was the first time in my life that I felt like people were listening when I talked, respecting the things I said. And not because they wanted to get me into bed, and they’d just tuned out my voice and were hearing some far-off thing I couldn’t pick up on instead, but because someone understood me, they agreed with me, they thought what I had to say was worth listening to in and of itself. There was a moment when all of that, thinking something and voicing it, doing the things I said I would, the association, seemed much more important than anything Pedro could have offered me. He wanted us to move in together, and I realized the whole thing had nothing to do with love. I wasn’t someone – María – but something, and something he felt he owned: his apartment, his car, his woman. This scar – and she points to her chin, a scratch that shines on white skin – I got it hurrying off the bus one day; I tripped and fell, and he did nothing, couldn’t have cared less. We lasted a year after that. So no: I mean, there were never any women like us. What do you mean, María? I mean, women who are poor. You need money even to protest.
Image © Athena Kay
This is an excerpt from The Wonders by Elena Medel, translated by Lizzie Davis and Thomas Bunstead, out with Algonquin Books in the US, and Pushkin Press in the UK.