NO MORE THAN A SHADOW
Translation by Anna Heath
The features on her face were those I remembered, but her haircut made me question everything. Watching her closely in an imposing mirror on the bar wall, I tried to imagine her with the thick black hair that I knew. Then, when she took a cigarette and inclined her chin slightly, narrowing her eyes as the barman approached with his lighter, I did find that movement familiar. Yes, that was Liliana Villar. How many years had gone by? Eighteen, twenty? The truth was, I’d lost track of her a long time ago. But I had not forgotten her.
Liliana Villar belonged to that class of women who seem unattainable when one is twenty years old. Although we were the same age, I thought she could be older. Tall and slim, she had a lively gaze that stood out on shining cheekbones, and a vigorous mouth that tended to leave itself open, as if it had run out of breath. Most surprising about her appearance was her abundant hair that went down like dark torrents on both sides of her neck. Her inclination towards irony made her somewhat aloof, and against the current. At the time I was a timid and indecisive person, ill- equipped to cope with life’s practicalities, less still to find it in me to make a romantic advance. That was the reason I was happy to see her walk through the university gardens, admiring the naturalness of her ways. It was as if she was deliberately set on not realising that she could upset the entire world just by standing up straighter and giving a shake of her head.
We took several courses together, and on one occasion we were members of the same study group. We had mutual friends, and often met at parties and meetings. However, her presence made me nervous, and I could hardly say a word to her. And, when she moved away from the Department of Communication and I switched to the Department of Literature, I almost stopped seeing her. Sometimes we would bump into each other at the library but, as I already said, I thought she was unattainable and, on those rare encounters, I limited myself to stammering a couple of quick phrases, pretending I had to leave, saying goodbye in order to hide my confusion.
When I finished my degree, I started a job at a newspaper, waiting for the scholarship to be seen to so I could study in France. Somebody told me that Liliana had interrupted her studies in her last year to be able to emigrate with her family to the United States. Those were difficult times. Many people were desperately trying their luck abroad. The economic crisis had sharpened, and the country was beginning to go to pieces, brought down by kidnappings and acts of terrorism. The last I knew of her was that she was living in a suburb of Miami.
I have always found it painful to look back, and the possibility of having to confront a ghost from the past was intolerable. So much so, in fact, that the desire to leave assuaged me. I was already leaving when the barman called: I had left my cigarettes on the bar. When I came back for them, I casually looked up at the mirror, where I was met with the eyes of Liliana Villar, scrutinizing me. I was astonished for a moment. Then, not unlike a robot, I stepped towards her.
I sat at her side, not knowing what to say.
‘Are you who I think you are?’ she said, looking at me with a sidelong glance, shielding herself through the cigarette smoke.
‘Have I changed that much?’ I asked her.
She stuck her cigarette between her lips, and took a long inhale before responding.
‘The one who’s changed is me, don’t you think?’
‘Well,’ I said, turning the stool around a little to the right to be able to take a better look at it, ‘I must admit that I miss your long hair’.
‘Yes, my hair,’ she said, turning her eyes to rest on something else. ‘I miss it too. Even now, I don’t know exactly why I cut it. It was a sudden decision. Sometimes one gets tired of being the same person.’ She smiled awkwardly, and her hand caressed the emptiness, where the copious mop of black hair used to be.
‘Would you like something?’ I asked her. She agreed, and went up to the barman, limiting herself to lightly tapping on the edge of her almost empty Manhattan. I ordered an aged rum on ice.
‘Didn’t you wear glasses?’ she asked me. ‘I remember you used to wear heavy glasses made of metal. They made you look funny.’
‘I had laser treatment,’ I said, ‘but I’m still funny…’
She showed signs of a smile, and hurried through the rest of her drink.
‘You know,’ she said, ‘I still don’t understand why you ignored me at university. I think you only spoke to me a couple of times in five years.’
I couldn’t stop myself from laughing. ‘If you knew…’
‘Why were you like that with me? I shouldn’t ask, you probably thought I was a bit of a nitwit.’
‘I never thought you were a nitwit.’
‘Come on, I always thought you brushed me off.’
‘You can’t imagine what I thought about you,’ I insisted, in a tone knocked through with nostalgia that I knew I’d regret as soon as it fell from my mouth.
She made no comment, so I began to study the carpet. The barman brought the drinks, and I could look at her again. Although I missed her thick, dark hair, she was certainly a very beautiful woman as she was. Without a doubt, lines on the sides of her mouth were noticeable, but they were like the outlines that lend greater force to a portrait.
‘Could you pass me a cigarette?’ she said, squeezing her empty packet.
I passed her mine, and, leaning in to give her a light, I perceived a slight tremor in her hand.
‘To your health,’ she said next, raising her glass. ‘To this unexpected meeting. By the way, what are you doing in this horrible place? Have you come to try your hand at it?’ She made a vague gesture with her hand towards the boisterous casino that extended behind us.
‘I lost all desire to gamble after I read Dostoyevsky. No, I’m actually here out of sheer chance. At this moment, I should be in a meeting with journalists in Washington, but my flight was delayed in Lima, and I lost the connection. I’m only staying tonight. And you?’
‘Do you see that fat, grey-haired guy at the roulette table?’
I followed the direction of her glance. He was an old man of about sixty years or more, really quite overweight, who was barricaded behind several piles of chips, absolutely concentrated on the game.
‘That’s my husband. What do you think?’
I noticed an ironic brightness in her pupils.
‘Can I reserve judgement on that?’ I said.
‘I never liked fat people,’ she said with a grimace of annoyance.
‘And why did you marry one?’
‘At that time he was skinny,’ she said, letting out a dry burst of laughter.
‘Do you live in Panama?’
‘I don’t know where I even live any more. We’re like gypsies. We jump between Miami and here all the time. For business, according to him.’
She shook her head and sipped her cocktail. ‘Maybe it’s been better this way,’ she said with a slight falter. ‘And you?’
‘What about me?’
‘There’s really not much to tell. I didn’t marry, if that’s what you’d like to know. A few years ago I was on the verge of it, but in the end I lost heart. Now I think I was too cautious. Perhaps I should’ve thrown myself in at the deep end.’
‘Well, I would say you’ve spared yourself a lot of trouble,’ she said while she applied inordinate force to putting out her cigarette, as if she wanted to perforate the ash tray.
I was quiet for a few seconds. Then I asked her straight out, ‘Has it gone that badly?’
She shrugged her shoulders and looked in the other direction. I put my hand on her shoulder so she would turn around, and said, ‘I suppose you can always leave everything and go somewhere else, right?’
Her answer came only after a long moment.
‘It’s already too late to be going anywhere,’ she said finally, with a bitterness that I found exasperating.
We looked at each other in silence. Then, I don’t know why I raised my forefinger to gently touch her cheek, and traced the line of her cheekbone. She remained lost in thought, showing neither acceptance, liking, or rejection. One, then two minutes went by. I wanted to say something, but couldn’t. I observed her lips tighten and strain with a certain effort. Then she picked up her glass and downed the contents.
‘Why don’t we go out for a drive?’ she said right out, caught in a forcible wave of enthusiasm. ‘My car’s outside. I know a place you’ll love.’
‘And the gambler?’ I raised my eyebrows in the direction of the roulette table.
‘Let’s say I haven’t been the best lucky charm in the world, so he doesn’t care if I’m there or not. Also, he might be stuck there all night.’
‘Does he win or lose?’
‘In the long run, he loses more than what he wins. But that’s not important. His money never runs out.’
Now, she did smile, but she did so with so much tiredness and scorn, that I really would have preferred it had she not.
‘I’ll pick you up at the door in five minutes,’ she said, and went to leave.
I watched as she moved away with that swaying and melodious walk that took me back to university times, when Liliana Villar used to cross the Literature quad, leaving an incandescent, open wound in the air.
Leaving the hotel, a warm blast enveloped me, a reminder that I was in the tropics. There were a lot of people in the street and the traffic was heavy for that time of night. You could hear loud laughing, car horns and a growing hum of voices that intermingled. I felt nerves in the pit of my stomach, with the realization that I was nervous. I took a deep breath and suppressed a laugh. I felt like a teenager, as excited as I was disturbed by this unexpected situation. I had the urge to turn around, go up to my room, and drink something to make me sleep through to the morning, but my body wouldn’t move. A celestial silver coupé came up the ramp of the hotel car park, and sped up to me, flashing its lights.
It was very cool inside, with the air conditioning on high.
‘It’s fiendishly hot in this city,’ I said, putting on a seat belt. ‘Where are we going?’
‘To a place where it’s even hotter,’ she said, starting up. ‘There’s a hipflask in the glove box… Can you reach it for me?
I gave it to her.
‘Don’t you think you’re drinking too much?’
‘Each person has to put out their fire as best they can,’ she said indifferently, and took a gulp. After a while, she offered me the hipflask. ‘Do you want some?’
‘Not now, thanks.’
‘Cautious, eh?’ she said, and changed gear with an energetic manoeuvre, accelerating sharply.
I looked ahead in a rush.
‘Careful!’ I said, startled.
‘Relax,’ she said in a sarcastic tone, throwing me a fleeting glance. ‘I just wanted to give you a little scare. I still haven’t lost control. When I think I will, I’ll give you the steering wheel. Happy?’
‘Where are we going?’ I repeated.
‘Surprise,’ was all she would say, and kept on looking ahead, as if she was concentrating on the road.
Despite my concerns, I must admit she was a skillful driver with excellent reflexes. I felt more and more intrigued. I had never been so close to her. When she reached for the hipflask again, I snatched at it and held it to my lips, thinking that at least this way, I wouldn’t need any more drink. I saw her smile mischievously. The Bourbon washed down my throat like warm blood, and a feeling assaulted me that was akin to letting one’s body fly out on a merry-go-round in a spinning vertigo.
The vehicle slid through the ever emptier streets and soon enough, buildings began to disappear. Ribbons of houses appeared and when they were behind us, we crossed open land until she turned onto a solitary motorway, lit by a tiny spotlight, singled out from the moon. Turning around, I made out the brilliance of the city left behind us, that was piling onto the sky like an atmospheric phenomenon.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, we slipped off the asphalt and aimed up a dusty road, indicated by little lights every few yards. We went up that road about three hundred metres, and after a bend, a long building emerged that resembled a hangar, full of coloured lights, from which there emanated noisy music dominated by the beating of drums.
Liliana Villar sipped greedily on another Manhattan. Her eyes shone peculiarly, but her voice remained even. The enclosure was very big. Enormous fans hung from the roof that looked like propellers. Even so, the heat was unbearable and the sweaty people dancing were jammed-up like a single moving whole, under the uproar of drums and the acute howl of trumpets. We were standing by the side of the bar, where she was caught up against me by the crowd.
‘Cheers,’ she said to me. ‘Doesn’t this remind you of salsa festivals at university?’
‘True, here it feels like time hasn’t gone by.’
‘That’s why I brought you here. I like that feeling.’
‘That time isn’t going by,’ she said, and paused. ‘It hurts me. Time going by hurts me.’
‘Time going by hurts all of us.’
‘Some more than others,’ she said. ‘I assure you. Some more than others.’
‘It makes no sense to think about it,’ I said to her. ‘You can’t fight against time.’
‘No, you can’t fight against time,’ she said like an echo, her gaze suspended in the distance.
I tried to console her. ‘Come on! Not everything has to be so bad.’
‘What do you know?’ she said harshly, and finished her glass. ‘Could you order me another one?’
I guessed it would be no use to ask her not to drink, so I tried to distract her.
‘Aren’t you going to dance with me?’ I said. The orchestra had struck up the first chords of a bolero.
‘I’m out of the habit,’ she said.
‘I’ve never danced with you,’ I almost begged her.
She wasn’t sure. That was, until the sadness retreated, and her face ignited with a knowing expression.
‘In that case, I’ll make an effort to make it unforgettable,’ she said. Her overwhelming smile was one I believed had been extinguished forever.
There was a knot in my throat and my skin burned with an old, intense, and almost forgotten bashfulness.
Liliana Villar took me by the hand and led me to the dance floor. Her arms surrounded me and her body moulded itself to mine with total ease. I sank my mouth in her neck, and imagined that the black blaze of her hair was lighting me up.
We hardly moved. She whispered the words of the song in my ear. I pressed up to her and felt the pressure of her thighs on my leg. I caressed the strip of her back left uncovered by her dress. She gave a light start and said something I didn’t understand. The orchestra stopped playing.
We delayed in unfastening our embrace. She looked into my eyes, this time very seriously, and her right hand rose, coming to a rest on my cheek, that was moist from the sweat.
‘Now we’ll explode,’ she said.
When she had undressed, Liliana Villar went to the window and raised her hands as if she wanted to make an offering to the moon. It was a dark room, but her silhouette stood out against the clarity reflected in the glass rectangle. She looked outside for a moment, then turned towards me for a moment, looking out once more. For some reason, I gazed at her, completely absorbed in, and disturbed by, her serenity.
I walked up to her slowly, and put my hands on her shoulders, to kiss her neck. She leaned back and I kissed her neck again, her ear. Drawing on her arms with my fingertips, my hands gently came to rest on her chest. She stretched around at an extreme angle, and clumsily tried to kiss me. Then I put my arms around her waist and gently pulled her to bed.
‘Stop,’ she said, freeing herself suddenly, in an anxious voice.
She looked at me with a strange expression, biting her lip.
‘I don’t know,’ she said in a low murmur.
Soon she lowered her head, as if she were helpless.
‘Are you alright?’
‘I’m so sorry.’
‘Can I do anything to help?’
She shook her head.
‘Well, perhaps you can,’ she said after a while.
‘What should I do?’
‘Could you give me a hug, just hug me in your arms?’
She hid her face in my chest. I hugged her as tightly as I could.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said again.
‘There’s nothing to be sorry for.’
‘Yes there is, I’m sorry. Let me stay here for a while like this. Then we’ll do whatever you’d like.’
‘We don’t have to do anything.’
‘But I want to. We’ll do whatever you want. I promise.’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ I said. ‘It’s alright. Don’t worry at all.’
‘Now I just want to rest a little. That’s all. I’ll be better soon.’
‘You’ll see I’ll get better and then we’ll do whatever you’d like. Everything you want.’
I put my fingers on her face.
‘Shhh…’ I said to her. ‘Now close your eyes and rest.’
We listened to the silence, surrounded with shadow. Moment after moment, a beam of light streamed onto the floor and drew capricious and fleeting figures on the ceiling.
When I awoke, she was no longer there. I struck out in the emptiness, in a vain attempt to convince myself otherwise. A hollow, where she had laid her head, was still visible, as was the outline of her body on the bed linen. I was struck immobile until a ray of light crossed the window and flashed by my eyes. It was already day. I looked at the clock. There was still enough time to shower and get to the airport.
I ambled towards the bathroom. I felt like I was a million miles away. In the bathroom mirror, I found my own face, defeated by the night. It had reddened and bloated eyes, the skin brushed through with darkness.
‘Good morning, ghost,’ I said to my reflection. Afterwards, I turned my back on him, put the shower on maximum, and folded under the cold water.
Translation of “No More Than a Shadow” Copyright Guillermo Niño de Guzmán. Translation copyright 2016 by Anna heath. All rights reserved.
Guillermo Niño de Guzmán (Lima, 1955) studied literature at Universidad Pontificia La Católica. He won the prize for best short story “Caretas Mil Palabras” (1985) and José María Arguedas prize (1988). Some of his books are: “Caballos De Media Noche” (1984), “Una Mujer No Hace Un Verano” (1995), “Algo Que Nunca Serás” (2007), ”La Caza De La Mujer Jaguar” (2011). He also has written essays and articles about culture and literature at “El Comercio” and “Perú21”.