Nestled somewhere in La Mancha was a gas station, adrift in the vastness like a Moor in the desert. He wouldn’t have noticed it (he liked driving through the highways of Castilla like a man lost in sleep, with the pleasing sensation of being still in the womb) if it hadn’t been for the car starting to skid, much as if it were on an ice rink. “Damn it,” he thought, “we’re both old and tired. It had to happen sometime. It’s dying along the way, and so am I.” The crude, sparing, sallow gas station attendant told him that the car wouldn’t be fixed until the next day. What did he want to do? Either he could leave it or call a car service to come pick it up. He hadn’t paid his car insurance for several months. Problems with liquidity, as the economic journalists or people in bankruptcy say. Curious word. A rupture, from the Latin meaning “to break”—the bank was broken. Sometimes, while playing baccarat with friends, he would win the pot. He had always declared bankruptcy in the end. The dream of winning the pot ends with the penniless dreamer, ruined and exhausted, ground to dust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Thinking about it, how long had it been since he had a good dusting between the sheets? Months. A year, maybe.
He asked the attendant—crude, sparing, sallow—if there were some place to spend the night. It was dusk in La Mancha, a long luminous dusk, pink from the August sun; he didn’t know the place, he had never stopped on account of anything, not even to take a piss, he had traversed the highways like in a dream, rocked by the wheels as if by a nanny, and he preferred to wait until tomorrow, when the gas station attendant—crude, sparing, sallow—would return his car, his cradle. “There’s a hotel to the side of after hours,” he signaled, laconic, pointing to a speck in the distance. He made out, lost amongst the flat and yellow fields, a stunted building, covered by a brown awning and a pitiful assemblage of colored lights with the “A” big and bright and a little crooked, like a decaying tooth. It seemed like a still from a Wim Wenders’s film, that German man who had fallen in love with the United States (one always falls for the wrong country, for the wrong woman). “Pretty landscapes don’t pay the bills, cabrón,” he muttered.
He had always had vague, artistic visions, that is to say, he was a daydreamer. Because of this, at the age of fifty he had no house of his own, no wife (she had divorced him and he couldn’t say that he didn’t understand why), no steady work. Although at his age, there weren’t any good jobs, except for in politics, which he detested, or in the mafia—he was too much of an individualist to belong to either of those. He also had two kids, not that he cared much. One of them was in Washington D.C., he seemed to remember, getting his Master’s degree in something, and the other, his wife’s favorite, remained lounging about with a roof over his head and food to eat, without having to frequent the brothel, because the girls came to him. It was the fundamental difference between one generation and the next. He had needed to launch himself in order to make a living, while his youngest child lived with his mother, all expenses paid and with girls who came to visit.
At the club’s entrance stood a bouncer who stamped his hand after he paid the cover, as if he were a prisoner. There weren’t many people inside; it was too early. And rather dim, as always. Some road worker drinking a beer, a Cuban woman with a huge ass, three young guys who seemed to be throwing a Bachelor party and a beautiful blonde girl all decked out and made up, of vague nationality, but indigenous, with a brass belly-button ring. He leaned on the bar and ordered a whiskey: who knows what’s in the bottle, and now they’re putting on the music, they’ve already taken me for a client. Two disco balls hung from the ceiling, spinning like drunken planets. And the music started to enter through the body, like a snake. The blonde pulled out two of the young guys to the dance floor, sandwiching herself between them, and oh, how she moved her breasts and ass. He wasn’t interested in watching. “How’s business going?” was the ill-timed question he asked the bartender who, after looking at him as if he were an imbecile, said: “Like life itself.”
He laughed. He thought that it was the first time that he had laughed the entire trip and it happened, precisely, in an afterhours bar lost in La Mancha. He dove into the whiskey as if into a pool, just at the time when a door opened between the backroom and the bar and a woman bearing Slavic features—tall, thin, and with an intense blonde mane and the palest skin in the world—appeared. “Perfect,” he thought, “the bar now has something for everyone.” He preferred women with fair features. And the fall of Communism had brought, among other things, an enormous amount of fair-haired women, clear-eyed, sweet and docile, with a secret nostalgia in their gaze. What could provoke such nostalgia? Her country, a lost childhood, any object would do. This occurred to him all the while she moved nearer. There was no other option: the road worker who was drinking beer ended up scoring with the Cuban gal (tit for tat, he thought), the cute girl with the belly button ring scored with the other three, he and his whiskey were all that remained, at the beginning of an August night lacking in stimulation. She sat down next to him on one of those rounded benches with metal legs and red seats, and he ordered her a whiskey. “Such is life,” he said, without the slightest idea of what he wanted to say.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Nadia,” she responded.
Did she say Nadia or Nadie* ? The Tower of Babel, an irrefutable proof of the triumph of Evil over Good, was constructed in the beginning of History. If her name was Nadia, she was probably Romanian, like Nadia Comăneci, who never stopped winning medals during the communist years, but if she had said Nadie, perhaps it was a coded message, the confession of her existential state: alone, undocumented, in the hands of a Russian mob. Such is life. “Comăneci, Comăneci,” he said, trying to establish a bridge between the two. She gave no sign that she understood, but moved her delicate, pale hand, her long fingernails colored lilac, to his zipper. You could tell she had no time to lose. A fuck every thirty minutes, gentlemen, such are business and democracy. He moved her hand away, annoyed. “Leave my zipper alone,” he said. If she didn’t know who Comăneci was (with whom he’d been secretly in love since he was young), her mouth probably had already learned what was behind that fly. Such was life. A frenzy, some saint or poet had said: with two whiskeys of even the worst make, any poet was a saint, or vice versa. She didn’t seem too disconcerted. Not all men start from the same place, although they always end up in the same position.
“Do you want to dance?” asked the Slav, with an unclear accent, that rolled the Rs, and he shook his head no. Actually, he felt like looking at her. She was beautiful. A somewhat languid beauty, lacking perversion, touched with a natural elegance whose origin remained in the past.
“Bucharest?” he asked her. She shook her head no. “Constanța?”
She smiled affirmatively, although he got the feeling that she had decided to smile at any name he uttered. All in all, what was the difference? Clients didn’t pay for her knowledge of geography. He had never been to Constanța, but he had promised himself he would go. He needed personal incentive to travel. He ordered his third whiskey with a bit of mistrust. He was in better spirits but he knew it was due to the alcohol. He didn’t hold his liquor well; by his third drink, he loved everyone, and, more than anyone, his enemies. While others were given to aggressiveness when drinking, for him, alcohol seemed to push him to indiscriminate affection. But what’s wrong with a bit of unearned affection? Well, tell me everyone, what’s wrong with feeling, suddenly, an immense sympathy, a huge compassion, for that sweet little Romanian, with blue eyes and fair hair who was born in Constanța, held in the power of the Russian mafia, who wanted to put her hand on his fly but he, very dignified, rejected her? What’s wrong with feeling sympathy for the fat guy at the bar with the face of a walrus, with affectionately remembering his dear ex-wife who was addicted to their children and the television, and with feeling so much tenderness for those three strangers, the young people who were willing to screw the girl with the belly button ring for the reasonable sum of twenty euros a fuck plus the cover charge? When he drank, he also became more generous than usual. Not only did the world seem a wonderful place, despite unemployment, despite highway accidents, despite international terrorism, the failure of communism, despite his marriage and the decadence of European cinema, but he also wanted to pay for everything: the drinks, the food, the toilet paper, the whores, the non-whores, the car repair bill, while also giving money to all the NGOs and handing over all his clothes to the needy. That’s how he was, and by the third whiskey he insisted on making the Romanian girl listen to “The Internationale,” the song he had on his cell phone. He had deliberately downloaded it from the Internet.
But it was no use. The rumanita had to have been born after the fall of the Berlin Wall or else she was hard of hearing, because she didn’t recognize it. Instead, she said, “I have a place for us to go,” which always seemed to him an interesting proposition, but only when she left his fly alone, because he was in his fifties and had principles, not one of those pigs who goes to just any pick-up joint to come onto undocumented Romanian chicks. The spot wasn’t too far off; it was a filthy and unsanitary hovel, but he had already had his fourth whisky, and so he found it quite intimate. Such is life. A little bit of alcohol, a line, and what you feel and what you think turn into something different. They threw themselves on the bed in the exact moment that he wanted to ask her why her beautiful blue eyes had the vague sensation of nostalgia, something that he didn’t know how to say in Romanian, but he realized that she had understood. She understood because she suddenly started looking at him with a deeper sadness, if that were possible, as if she needed a lot of help, What bullshit those trafficking sons of bitches must have told you: Spain, a country of sun, beaches, flounce and frills, flamenco dancers wherever you go, boatloads of money, men willing to marry you, to provide you with a little house and furniture, a washer and dryer, kitchenette, for a fuck a day, only one fuck, not one more, I promise you, marry me, marry me, we’ll leave this filthy after hours together, away from this damned highway with windmills and gas stations like blackberry stains, off to Constanța, where you were born and we’ll listen to “The Internationale” and you won’t have sadness cast across your face, we’ll go to the lake, no more men in your life, no more take off your panties, suck my dick, I’ll study Romanian and you’ll learn English, I promise you.
There had to have been hidden microphones in the hovel, because they gave him a phenomenal beating and left him there, with two broken ribs and his face wobbling like flan, warning him that he shouldn’t think about calling the police, about finding the girl or using his cell phone, which they now possessed. The bouncer had to have been in on it too, because when he saw him, beaten to a pulp, he didn’t ask a thing, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to have two broken ribs, a swollen face and a busted lip. While they walked away and he tried to stop his nose from bleeding, he seemed to hear the sounds of “The Internationale” in the distance.
* Nadie = No one
CRISTINA PERI ROSSI is considered one of the most talented contemporary writers working in Spanish. The Uruguayan-born poet, novelist and short story writer has published more than twenty books and won numerous literary awards. Her most recent return to short fiction earned her the prestigious NH-Mario Vargas Llosa Prize for Short Fiction. She currently resides in Barcelona.
About the Translator:
MEGAN BERKOBIEN is a translator pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan. She holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from the same university, where she founded the school’s undergraduate translation journal, Canon Translation Review. Her translations have been published in Words without Borders and are forthcoming from Ezra: An Online Journal of Translation and Palabras Errantes.