The only rush is that of the heart. — Silvio Rodriguez
"How many times have you died?"
"Uhm," said the woman with the ponytail, and indicated none with her head.
"Me, yes. A lot."
She passed her index finger over the scars that made little patterns on his chest. Hector gently withdrew her hand and, naked, walked toward the window. It was a cold night. The filtered Delicados were on the windowsill; he drew the flame of the lighter into the tip of one, and watched the green lights that the streetlights threw on the trees.
"No, not the scars; that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying sleep, going to sleep and dying again. A hundred, two hundred times a year. The first fucking instant of sleep is not sleep, it's dying again."
"You only die once."
"James Bond must have said that. You die a ton of times. Son of a bitch. I know what it is ... Sometimes I wish I could sleep with my eyes open so as not to die. If you sleep with your eyes open, you can never die."
"Dead people end up with their eyes open," she said after a pause, turning away. Her bottom shone like the foliage of the trees out front.
"Those dead people die just once. No. I'm talking about dying a lot. Two or three times a week at least."
"What is your death like?"
Hector stood there thinking. When he spoke again, the woman with the ponytail could not see his face, but she could hear the abnormally hoarse voice with which he told his story.
"You can't breathe. You feel fire in your stomach. You can't move the fingers on your hand. You've got your face stuck in a puddle and your lips fill up with dirty water. You shit in your pants, you can't help it. The blood coming out your nose is mixing with the water of the puddle ... It's raining."
"No, when you die."
She remained silent for a moment, wanting to look somewhere else. The light in the window illuminated the scars on Hector's chest.
"Dead people don't tell these stories."
"That's what you think," Hector said, without looking at her.
"Dead people don't make love."
"A whole bunch of live people I know don't either. They're screwed that way, they've been put on a diet."
Hector moved away from the window and crossed in front of the bed. She turned again to look at him, the ponytail falling between her breasts.
"Do you want a drink?" Hector asked, walking down the hall toward the kitchen. The cold rose up inside him through the soles of his feet.
"Could you make decaffeinated?"
"You ask a lot."
"For a guy who's died so often, making decaf should be a cinch."
"Definitely not, a decaf is a decaf and a cinch a cinch. The decaf is much more complicated."
Hector came back with a Coke in one hand, a lime split down the middle balancing between the fingers of the other. He sought out the window again.
"It's raining," he said as he squeezed the lime and gently stirred the rind so it would mix in.
"When you die?"
"No, now," he said and he stepped aside to avoid being hit in the head with a copy of Malraux's Man's Fate which she had thrown at him.
"Cover your nakedness, woman, here comes the icy wind."
He opened the window. Indeed, a cold wind forced the rain into the room. One big drop hit him on the nose and trickled over his mustache. He opened his mouth and swallowed it.
"There it is," said the woman with the ponytail, smiling. "Dead people can't taste rain."
"You might be right. It's just a matter of keeping the eyes open and of convincing the Japanese man I've got in here," he pointed to his temple with his index finger, making the universal sign for suicide.
"You've got Quasimodo in your head. And he spends his time ringing the bells of Notre-Dame."
"And screwing the Japanese man with whom he shares the apartment. In fact, the Japanese guy must be the one who controls the sound and protects the transistors."
"I never should have fallen in love with a Mexican detective."
"You never should have fallen in love with a dead man."
Suddenly, with no forewarning, she started to cry; wrapped up to her chin, covering herself from the cold and from the one-eyed, skinny, mustached detective before her, who made a face intended to be a loving smile, but which instead was the grimace of a man who was cold and couldn't cry.
* * *
He had been going back to the office for only a week, refamiliarizing himself with the old furniture and the old colleagues, convinced that the old habits had ended. If he didn't take down the sign on the door that read "Belascoaran Shayne, Detective," it was because El Gallo and Carlos Vargas, his officemates, threatened to open an independent detective agency the instant he retired. That stopped him. If he didn't want to be responsible for himself, he definitely didn't want to be responsible for others. He'd been walking through that entrance for seven days, sitting at his old desk, shaking off the dust a little, reading papers from two years before and lighting a candle in prayer to Sigmund Freud's mom to let no one open the door and offer him a job. A week saturated with paranoia and distrust. Irrational anxiety that came like a tropical storm and filled his palms with sweat, numbed his spine, pricked his temples. Tremendous fears, like fifty-story elevator shafts with no bottom except dementia. New fears: going to the bathroom, crossing the long hall outside the office, turning his back to the door, turning on a light in the window and leaving his silhouette outlined against the shadows on the street, answering the phone and having a strange voice speak to him familiarly.
That's why, after a week of terror that took him back to other people's childhood stories (his own had been peaceful and calm, as if between the feathers of a sparrow's nest), when the phone rang he looked to his officemates, even though he knew they weren't around. He stared at the calendars of cabaret singers' asses and blondes in beer ads, but the women in print on the wall refused to lend him a hand in answering the phone. They didn't want to take the inverse route to glory and come back from the image of the calendar to the office from which they had fled.
"Senor Belascoaran, please."
"He's not here," Hector said. "He doesn't come in anymore."
"Gracias," said the voice with a strange accent dragging that final s. The voice of a woman. Of a waitress from a fancy restaurant who pronounces the menu correctly. Mexican, maybe? Bolivian? Peruvian?
"You're welcome," Hector added and hung up softly.
A quarter of an hour later, the phone rang again.
"I'd like to speak with you. You're the gentleman who answered before, right?"
"The gentleman who answered before isn't here," Hector said. "He just left. He's retiring from this. He went to get something to drink."
"And now what does he do?" the woman asked with a little laugh.
"Buddhism. Zen contemplation. Empirical analysis of environmental pollution issues."
"Thank you," said the voice.
"You're welcome," said Hector.
He hung up again and walked over to the safe where he stored the drinks and the firearms. Firearms—not even close. A jackknife, two stale Pepsis, a collection of porn photos—graphic reminders of an old case that Gilberto, the plumber, kept like heirlooms. He grabbed the knife and put it in his pocket.
If he had had to go through a metal detector, the machine would have gone crazy with glee; not just because of the knife, but also from the echoes of a stud lodged in his femur that now could never come out, a .45 automatic in a holster around his back and a .38 short-barreled revolver in his pants pocket. "Iron man," he said to himself. A metallurgical piece of work is what he was.
The phone rang again.
"Could we meet?" asked the woman with the Peruvian? Bolivian? Chilean? Mexican? accent.
"Do we know each other?"
"I do, yes, I know you a little."
"What kind of bra do you wear?"
"No, nothing. It was to see if we knew each other," Hector said, playing with the knife. "I now see that we don't."
He hung up again and left the office, putting on his black sheepskin jacket. The phone was ringing as he walked out the door.
* * *
Now more than ever he had the absurd ability to feel out of place everywhere. It was something new; to be an eternal observer, to be invariably on the outside. When you don't own them, landscapes can be observed with much greater precision, but you're also alien to the panorama, unable to touch the ground, to feel the breeze. The sensation of strangeness is permanent. A shadow running through other people's lands, an actor in a borrowed scene and in the wrong play, a Western movie character in an Italian comedy. The emptiness could come at any moment, intensifying the normal sensation of being out of place. It could happen to him in the lobby of the Bellas Artes Palace during the intermission of the opera, as easily as at a dinner of the '65–'67 high school class, as in the mattress display room in the Vazquez brothers' furniture stores, as in the line to buy tortillas. The things were there, he was there, but they didn't belong to him. At some point someone would arrive and ask to see his ticket, his visiting permit, his passport, the credentials that gave him the right to a discount that he didn't have.
This sensation of slipping through life was particularly agonizing in elevators and in supermarkets. Hector couldn't explain why, but that's the way it was. He felt that one moment or another, the apparatus would stop on the third floor and he would be amiably asked to get off; or the supermarket's cops would stop him from passing through the checkout with his cart, because the bills with which he wanted to pay were no longer legal currency.
Yet the obsession didn't seem to produce external symptoms. It didn't contort his face or make his eye red. The messenger, with his yellow helmet and pile of envelopes, and the cleaning lady with the bucket of water didn't pay him the slightest attention. They didn't even give him a second glance. Maybe they were experiencing the same thing he was, and that's why he didn't seem strange to them; we were all a bunch of unconfessed lepers, all Victoria Holt trying unsuccessfully to imitate F. Scott Fitzgerald.
He got off on the sixth floor and dodged the front desk, going directly to the cashier's window. The cashier had caught her stocking on a desk drawer and took a while to notice him. Hector lit a cigarette and watched her manipulate stockings and drawer.
"Ay," she said, finally making eye contact with the exdetective. "Your check?"
Hector nodded, leaving the remains of a smile floating. The girl finally managed to disentangle herself, looked for the check in an enormous folder and walked backward toward the window, trying to hide her ruined stocking, with a consequently quite hunchbacked stride. Hector signed the papers, took the check, and left without looking at her again.
He walked between the little shops on Ínsurgentes, crossed the subway stop at a sluggish pace, turned at Chapultepec Avenue, absorbing the city's billboards with his healthy eye. Human misery was striking in the pandemonium of the pre-Christmas season. Underemployment was running rampant. A wave of Mexicans, with sad and feverish eyes, in search of a peso attacked from all sides. The begging hands of charity were more chapped, more tremulous than usual. How to be at one with all this? Hector asked himself. How to coexist with this without rotting in sadness? He wondered again. Elisa had once read aloud something Cortazar wrote about the train station in New Delhi and the sensation he'd been filled with—that you cannot cohabitate with certain dark regions of this world without becoming a little cynical, turning into a real son of a bitch—came back to him. Cortazar was right. In the language of the 1950s, there was no peaceful coexistence with the part of society that was falling apart, with that other part of you that was sinking. For a one-eyed man it should be easier, you only have to close one eye, he said to himself, and he didn't dare even smile at the joke.
He walked down Chapultepec in search of calm and found it in a butcher shop and in a travel agency, his two points of intimate contact with consumer society. By the time he got to his brother's house, an apartment building with a rusty facade on Sinaloa Street, he wanted a loin sausage and a fourteen-day trip to Manila.
The door to Apartment C was open. That was unusual and Hector reacted immediately, putting his hand on the holster of the gun over his heart. Carlos' voice from the kitchen reassured him.
"Come in, stupid. The door's open because Marina went to the store to buy drinks."
Carlos was correcting galleys at the kitchen table, disheveled and in a T-shirt. A Vivaldi concerto was ending on the record player. After the crackling of the needle, a Russian chorus started to sing the Internationale.
"That's the sign that it's time for vermouth," Carlos said, and he got up, brushing the bread crumbs off his jeans. "How is your reencounter with life treating you?"
"Okay," Hector said, disinclined to provide explanations.
"Take it slowly."
Carlos served himself a vermouth on the rocks, taking the bottle and the ice from the refrigerator. It didn't even occur to him to offer one to his brother.
"You don't look very good. You make me want to put a glass of milk down in front of you."
Hector made his best bewildered face. No worries. No melodrama. No nothing.
"And my little nephew?"
"He left with his mom, he doesn't like Vivaldi," Carlos answered, sitting down again and looking at Hector out of the corner of his eye.
"And you, what are you doing besides correcting books?" Hector asked.
"I'll tell you only if you don't tell Marina."
"Swear on the Virgin of Guadalupe and the Jolly Green Giant combined."
"Come on, already."
"I'm involved in ideological warfare."
"Against a gang of juveniles. A bunch of guys from my neighborhood, the guys who spray paint."
"What do they paint?"
"Bullshit," Carlos said, lighting a new cigarette. "Sex Punks, Wild Border—meaningless phrases like that, numbers, incomprehensible clues to mark their territory. It's like dog piss. Wherever I piss is my space and nobody can come in."
"And what do you do?"
"I paint on top of their paintings. I go out at night with my spray can and paint over theirs. It's war."
"But what do you paint?"
"Punks are Strawberries, Long Live Enver Hoxha, or Che Guevara Lives, He's a Living Ghost, Be Careful Assholes, He Lives in the Neighborhood, or Sex Punks Were Born With a Silver Spoon in Their Mouths, or If a Dog Falls in the Water, Kick Him Until He Dies. Some come out too long, they're not effective, but I hadn't painted in a long time; my da Vinci profusion is in arrears. I've got them screwed. It's not just ideological warfare; it's generational warfare, too. Obviously, it's a professional war and, in that, my painting technique dominates. Those sucklings are going to teach me how to paint walls ...? My most successful one was Government=Punks Without Sneakers, and the second most successful, celebrated to the hilt by the dry cleaner guy downstairs, had to do with a discount chain of stores. It was: Paint Me a Blue Egg and Woolworth Will Buy It, but the Woolworth logo didn't come out that well." Hector raised an eyebrow.
"Don't worry, it's not insanity, it's just to keep me in shape until I find a new little place in the class war. Besides, sometimes I agree with the punks and we restore universal harmony. The other day I was painting one that said If the PRI wants to govern, why don't they start by winning the elections, and the gang came along and instead of destroying it, they wrote Yes, that's true below it, six feet tall.
Excerpted from Return to the Same City by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Copyright 1989 by Paco Ignacio Taibo II. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.