Translation by Anna Heath
Between the greetings towards the end of a letter to my aunt, I asked her again about my cousin. We’re fine around here, how about you? I’ve been writing to her now for a few months, on and off, hoping she will tell me how Arturo is doing, but she always avoids replying. Her letters are short, and she only talks about her grandchildren, who are my other cousin’s children. I started to have my suspicions. She never says anything about him, but I know he is still living with her, even though he is almost forty.
A few years ago, Arturo wrote me the last letter that I´ve received from him. Always on paper and by post, in shaky handwriting, and without commas, he wrote: ‘I’m fed up of seeing how the people around me in this city want to be authentic but they all wear shoes.’
Later, he wrote to me: ‘We’ve gone far away and they keep hunting me down.’
My aunt emigrated after her divorce, taking my cousins with her. Arturo was eighteen, and Elisa was sixteen. I was her age. Both of us treated Arturo as if he were our younger brother. We grew up together, we lived in the same building. Gabito used to take the mickey out of him, and Arturo just kept quiet. One night, I found Gabito at a party in my old neighbourhood. He came up to talk to me, and I interrupted him: ‘What did you say your name was? Gabriel?’ ‘Yeah, I lived in the block, but I don’t remember you, who are you? I’d remember your face, you look a little bit like—Arturo?’— ‘Arturo who?’
That night, when I pretended not to remember my cousin, I started to really remember him. When he left, I didn’t even miss him. I’d said goodbye as if I’d see him the next day.
Afterwards, I’d felt relieved. I wouldn’t have to defend his criticism of Yordano any more: ‘A singer-songwriter is someone whose voice isn’t good enough to be called a singer,’ ‘I won’t move a finger is only what morons say,’ and other things that no-one, not even his sister, could hear without wanting to physically spit at him. At that time, the radio played Yordano every four songs, a phenomenon not seen since the Bee Gees.
It’s not just that no-one used to look for him, no-one stayed when he arrived. Not even Elisa. Just me. I stayed there, because it was the same listening to him from the patio wall as from the sofa in my aunt’s house. It didn’t seem to bother Arturo that people left. He was noticeably nervous when anyone came up close. My mother asked me to be patient, and to help him in whatever way I could. In June, when he repeated the school year, and then when they let him pass it on the condition that he change school, my mother repeated a refrain she’d heard about bad influences.
My cousin Arturo told me that whenever he started to feel comfortable in any school, he would discover that someone was lying in wait for him at the main door.
‘What’s he like?’
‘Like all of them.’
‘Who? Who are they?’
‘Them, the same as always.’
He used to study, that’s true, at home, but he went out very little. He started to shut himself away. My aunt said I was his only contact with the outside world. Arturo called me every day. He gave me brainy analyses of things that were of no interest to anyone, only to him.
‘Have you seen that they’ve made Windows in Quechua?’
‘What are you talking about?’
‘The problem isn’t the language of the programme, it’s in the access to the technology!’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘I mean, it would have been more useful if the government had spent that money on computers and on Wi-Fi connections.’
‘I don’t follow you.’
‘Instead of going for free software.’
Arturo left his house only if I asked him to. He was almost two metres high, but I felt that he wanted my protection. I didn’t think I could ever defend him, but I wanted to be there as a witness, in case anything should happen. He always used to say that something would happen to him.
My mother was saying to her sister that she should take Arturo to see a specialist. In the end, my aunt resorted to the psychologist. He prescribed pills for him, and for my aunt, who couldn’t stop smoking. He made both of their eyes go dark, and their cheeks redder.
My aunt fell in love with a colleague when she was on the drugs, and my cousin finished therapy in a year, stopped spinning around alarmingly in the street, and stopped calling me, too. I saw him sitting on the wall at the block a few times, a distance away from everyone, and he came up to me.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked me.
‘Right now? Nothing.’
‘Have you been to the cinema?’
‘Not recently, no— I’m saving up’— I responded.
‘And aren’t you afraid they might kill you?’
Arturo was afraid of that. On the day they were leaving, getting into the taxi that would take them to the airport, he said to me: ‘If I manage to get on the aeroplane, you’ll know that I’ve won.’ Then, afterwards, his first letter arrived, with writing he still couldn’t control, and with proper punctuation: ‘Here, there isn’t only one, there are many, all the same, a horrible colour.’ I didn’t know if he meant the typical blondes from up north, or the people who were after him. In another letter, he told me he’d met someone, that he loved her, that he would tell her soon. He stopped writing.
When I visited them, Elisa, who now went by the name Laisa, picked me up at the airport. She told me she didn’t have any problem with the language any more, and she even dreamed in English. I asked after Arturo. It feels like he was born here, she said, you’ll see. I realised why she had never interested me: she had the same face as her brother, just that she didn’t widen her eyes as if she was trying to pop the eyeballs out of their sockets.
I stayed at my aunt’s house, where I noticed that she was acquiring a rancid colour in her cheeks. On the first night, we stayed up talking, trying to allow more time for Arturo to arrive.
‘And the winter?’
‘It’s horrible, I’ll never get used to it!’
‘The only person who gets on with it is Arturo.’
‘Sometimes he goes out without his coat.’
‘Once, he froze!’
I asked them if he ever went out without shoes.
‘Are you sure?’
‘He couldn’t even take a step!’
‘You have to experience what it’s like to be twenty below zero!’
I only saw Arturo a week after I’d arrived. He said he’d been very busy with work. He was sewing costumes for a theatre, jobs. It was going well. ‘I have my things here, I don’t want my mother to feel alone, but I prefer to sleep in hotels, always in a different one,’ he said.
‘Are you afraid they’ll kill you?’ I asked him.
He didn’t respond. He got up and took out his bicycle.
‘Come on, there’s Elisa’s bike over there! Let’s go out to get some fresh air.’
We arrived at a park, and Arturo set off into the middle of a pine forest, where there was no path.
‘It’s the only place we can talk without them hearing us.’
‘The same people as always?’
‘They knew you would come, they were watching the house.’
He told me that they had kidnapped a woman he loved, that the police interrogated him, that they had never found her.
‘Did they kill her?’
‘She never loved me. She lived with me because she was one of them, she just wanted information. When she got it, she changed identity, and, I’m afraid, her face. And she had the most beautiful face ever.’
We carried on pedalling, and he didn’t tell me much more. I thought he seemed distressed. We got deeper into the forest, which he seemed to know very well. He wanted to start up conversation again, and I tried to make jokes.
‘It’s a good place to bury someone.’
He didn’t reply. I asked him, ‘Do you remember Gabito, and the people from the building?’
‘I can even smell them.’
‘When they pretend they know me, and they look at me out of the corner of their eyes.’
‘Wherever I go.’
In the next few days, I went out a lot with Elisa. I met her intended, and two of her friends. She invited me to the stadium, and to the Hard Rock. I was surprised at the enormous tips she left, and at her kindness in letting me check my e-mail on her computer. But Arturo was out for several nights, until I found him by the hinge of Elisa’s bedroom door. I was looking on the internet.
‘Some day, you’ll regret using that.’
‘Don’t you ever go online?’
‘Don’t you even have an e-mail account?’
‘So they’ll know what I’m thinking and feeling, as well?’
‘There are ways of protecting yourself, with passwords and software.’
‘I know that nothing of what I can learn will ever surpass the knowledge they already have about ways of subjugating us.’
On the last night, when my aunt was in her room, Elisa knocked on my door. She was wearing a very long shirt, with naked legs. I was watching television. I had just had a shower, and I had put on some children’s perfume. I had used it since I’d been living in the old building. Gabito said that it woke up women’s maternal instincts, that it mixed them up with sexual feelings. He’d said it was an infallible method. Things had not gone badly for me with that trick.
‘You’ve always smelt like a baby.’
‘I don’t understand this programme.’
‘It’s a competition.’
‘So I guessed.’
‘Tomorrow I won’t be able to take you to the airport, but Arturo wants to know if you’ll wait for him. He’ll come and say goodbye.’
Arturo arrived with a present, a Gameboy with a Tetris game on it. He told me his highest score, and challenged me to beat it. We hugged, and I went out to wait for the taxi.
I received a few e-mails from Elisa, over the space of a couple of years. She got married on a golf course, and moved city. Finding herself at a distance from Elisa, my aunt bought herself a computer, and started to forward me jokes and news stories, and sometimes, photos of Elisa’s children. I used to delete her messages without reading them, until the memory of Arturo started to worry me. I wrote both to Elisa and to my aunt. Elisa didn’t reply. My aunt did, saying that she would visit her daughter at the weekend. I asked her about Arturo and Elisa, neither of whom had replied. My aunt told me that Elisa had changed her e-mail address when she’d changed company, but she didn’t give me the new address. She didn’t say anything about Arturo. I wrote to her again. I just asked her about Arturo, I wanted to know about his life, how he was doing. Two days later, my aunt replied with photos of her grandchildren. She wanted me to look at how much the children looked like Elisa. The same eyes, the same mouth. She said nothing about Arturo.
DOMÉNICO CHIAPPE (Lima, 1970) is a writer and multimedia author. He has published the nonfiction book Tan real como la ficción: herramientas narrativas en periodismo (Laertes, 2010); the novel Entrevista a Mailer Daemon (La Fábrica, 2007); the book of short stories Párrafos Sueltos (UCM, 2003; Musa a las 9, 2011); and the multimedia work Tierra de extracción (Land of Extraction), which has been selected in 2011 by the Electronic Literature Organization for its anthology ELC2 as one of the best works of multimedia literature in a foreign language. He grew up in Venezuela, where he worked as a journalist, and has lived in Madrid since 2002.