By Sonia Manzano
Translated by Juanita Coleman
Leda would have loved to wring, with her aged woman’s fingers, the black swan neck of her husband, the Esmeraldeño Jupiter Salcedo, but she contained herself every time the irrepressible urge to do so arose, because the pity she felt for him was greater than the resentment he inspired.
Jupiter Salcedo, sexagenarian, with an athletic build and a fat checkbook, had managed, for almost three decades, a prosperous pharmacy—stuffed these days with fluorescent lights, legal drugs, talcum powders, deodorants, disposable diapers, prophylactics, sanitary napkins, perfumes, and all those furnishings common to a highclass drugstore—which had belonged to his family since the era in the Esmeraldas province in which a wild struggle exploded between the “faded” or washed-out blacks and the blacks who were definitely black.
In the midst of all the uproar, when the dead and the wounded were the order of the day, Jupiter’s maternal grandfather, a Jamaican with the last name of a Scotch whiskey and an enviable knowledge of herbal medicine, installed, on a corner of the main street of the city—the same one where the cathedral, the registrar, and the city hall sat—a tent under which he dedicated himself for years to prescribing to his numerous clientele exotic and almost miraculous medicines whose formulas were known only to him. The tent, with the passage of time, began to acquire the character of a full-blown pharmacy, for which the herbalist had to move his business from beneath its canvas roof to, though still on the same corner, a property of reinforced cement and sliding doors that by the middle of the 20th century already stretched for a quarter of a block.
Leda, who did not have a swan’s neck but rather the elegant legs of a mulatto stork, had met the pharmacist thirty years ago, just when she had just turned eighteen and had begun to listen, with the proper attention, to the lyrics of the boleros of Javier Solis. She began her friendship with Jupiter almost unwillingly (until then she hadn’t been interested in exchanging more than a few words with the man who, month after month, sold her what were, in those times, indiscreet boxes of sanitary napkins) on an early morning in which the last offspring of her mother (come into the world just a few days ago) was writhing in pain due to an overcharged gassy colic. Faced with the incessant crying, the mother asked her daughter (the eldest of four children) to cross the street to buy a packet of star anise from the pharmacy that was fortunately still open, which Leda did with a friend with whom she had been studying for the Anatomy exam that she would take in school the next day.
Jupiter, who in those days had nowhere near the bad character that he would have many years later, didn’t just sell her various packets of star anise at a suspiciously low price, but also put in the hands of his neighbor, whose elegant legs he had admired at his pleasure over the counter of his pharmacy, a flask of a purple-red liquid which, according to him (and according to what his grandfather had taught him), had the ability to get rid of any kind of colic, even the most unbearable.
Starting that early morning, Leda was captivated by the conversation of the swan, and thus from then on, she looked for any pretext to get close to him. So she went to the pharmacy in search of polish remover for her long nails, or to buy anti-cramping pills with which she intended to rid herself of the painful spasms that attacked her stomach in those familiar scarlet days, or to buy pills that would pull her out of the creeping lethargy that seized her in exam time when she opened one of her schoolbooks to study abominable materials that she detested but which she still had to memorize in order to pass her last year of high school.
Also, with whatever pretext, her mother sent her to the Salcedo pharmacy to buy anything, for she by no means disliked the idea that her eldest daughter could catch the eye—and the wallet—of the dark-skinned man with a jazz trumpeter’s mouth who, among his many attributes, was an only child, meaning that someday, perhaps not too far off, he would become the sole owner of the pharmacy.
After two years of courting, when they were long past mere hand kisses and had moved on to prolonged finger kisses, they married with the complacent consent of their respective families, for not only did they make an aesthetically attractive pair (black swan with washed-out mulatto) but also, when comparing their corresponding family fortunes, it became obvious that between the two they showed a visible monetary equality.
For a considerable time, things went quite normally in the marriage (though Leda always felt that the floor under her feet was of an ambiguous consistency, as if her home had been built over a space without a definite depth). Only a few months after signing papers in the registrar’s office, Helena was born, and a year after that, Theobaldo arrived.
While the children were small, there were never serious problems, nor when the children were bigger did things present irreparable cracks. The conflict began to take shape when Leda and Jupiter saw clear signs that they were getting old. Then, after a quarter of a century together, (but still together) Leda began to make daily assessments of her existential checkbook and kept finding, unsettlingly, that her life was unbalanced. Jupiter, on the other hand, began to do honor to his name: he became an authoritarian divinity and his personality, which had never been that of a docile dove, soured to such an extent that Leda and her children opted to only have direct contact with him when it was strictly necessary.
At the smallest problems, thundering Jupiter exploded like a volcano full of pus; at the blandest pretexts, Jupiter Salcedo would spew curses at the face of whatever poor soul had provoked him. He turned from a difficult man into an impossible one (impossible to put up with). However, he had not become a completely bitter man; his aggressiveness was not a permanent condition. It disappeared as if by magic once he let off some steam through some kind of outlet or once his beastly condition mellowed when something or someone attracted his total attention (which would happen when he oversaw the sales in his open pharmacy or when, in the evenings, he played at forty with twenty-year-old women).
He was, then, an intermittent neurotic, but he was far from a “bad” person, and the certainty that Leda had always had of the latter was what brought her up short in the moment when she wanted to turn on her engines and take flight, a one-way trip, that would put infinite distance between his neurosis and her increasingly more exhausted patience (like she was also brought up short by the fact that Jupiter had always proved himself to be an otherwise loving father). During the hours that the pharmacist remained at his business—only for the sake of policing what his employees sold, since for a long time he had not been in charge of dispensing pills of any kind—Leda breathed more easily, thanking heaven for the eight hours of peace she was so graciously granted. It was a lapse from which she took as much benefit as possible, for as soon as Jupiter went downstairs, she
wrapped a tight scarlet turban around her head and put on a silk robe that clung to her body (still prone to experiencing earthy tremblings of medium intensity).
Immediately, after giving some kind of instruction to the maid (who also wanted to breathe freely) she launched herself into the street with such unworried freshness that one would say she was possessed by the total conviction that she didn’t need to be held accountable to anyone for her actions, not even her children who had already left the house a while ago—though not a long while—each with their respective and loving better half.
On the corner opposite the pharmacy, Leda waited for one of the shuttles that went from one end of the malecón, the boardwalk by the river, to the other, and only got on the one that pulled up with slow serenity to the stop. When the shuttle arrived at the neighborhood where Helena lived—her daughter had moved not very far away to live in a common-law union with a petrochemical engineer—Leda got off with the same lack of urgency with which she had embarked and headed for a pedestrian zone so she could walk about three blocks (which was the distance between the boardwalk and Helena’s house). She talked with her daughter for a while about everything and nothing, and when even the topic of “nothing” had been exhausted, she bid Helena goodbye with the typical warmth of a broody hen and walked back along the three blocks that separated her from the sea.
Back on the malecón she caught another shuttle, this time to head south, a little farther than the municipal slaughterhouse in whose surroundings—permeated with the faint smell of cows and street hot dogs—lived her son Theobaldo, a young painter already fairly popular in the provincial artistic medium, who usually used a taut horsetail when he planted himself for hours and hours in front of an easel with the exclusive purpose of painting, with fine paint brushes of camel hair, innumerable portraits of tiny black angels that burst forth from the face of the mulatto model who posed for him, with stoic patience, during the whole day (it seemed that she was handsomely rewarded during the night when the painter had to pose nude for her, standing on one foot, in long sessions of a love more eccentric than pleasurable).
Regarding her children, Leda didn’t worry much: the two both lived as they had chosen to live and both, at least for the moment, were loved. But regarding herself, Leda had more than enough reasons to be worried. She had entered the twilight of the gods feeling like she had stopped being loved (if, in reality, she had ever truly been loved before). In the past four years, her husband had distanced himself from her with giant steps, to such point that he wouldn’t even rip out a yawn at the woman for whose single kiss he had once ripped the hairs from his chest. Wanting to find some kind of justification for such coldness, Leda thought that what had happened to her could be the same thing that happens to many married women whose shine has tarnished (in parts where it is unpardonable to tarnish), who one morning wake up with the agonizing sensation that their husbands have replaced them with younger women.
Leda wanted to know who Jupiter’s lover was, and what she was like, and so she contracted the services of a private detective who was recommended by a friend— also autumnal and deceived—who, thanks to the investigator’s nose, excellent for sniffing out adultery, had been able to discover her hedonistic consort indulging himself in the purple sheets of a second-rate motel.
The detective—an ex-police agent who spoke little and charged a lot—after listening to Leda’s suspicions about the questionable fidelity of her spouse, asked her to provide first-hand information so he could begin to follow the trail of the presumed cheater. That is to say, to tell him where Jupiter went after closing the pharmacy and what he did on the weekends and the rest of the time that he was out of the house, to which Leda responded that if she had possessed all of this information, she would not have needed to employ the detective. However, she provided the bloodhound with a fairly significant fact when she informed him that on various occasions, she had seen Jupiter heading southeast, more specifically in the direction of the neighborhood that was the residence of families that had for generations been dedicated to the work of making fishing nets.
The same week that Leda had contacted the detective, he called her to ask her to come to his office—a poky little elevator-like room with no windows—because the case that she had given him had been “almost completely solved.” In front of the detective, for a moment she was assaulted by the doubt of whether she really wanted to know the reason her husband had rejected her as a woman, but she finally decided to know the unvarnished truth; a revelation that arrived in the form of a set of photos, four in total, in each of which Jupiter appeared, embracing, in four distinct scenes and in four different ways, a real slut.
Leda looked briefly at the photographs, and without saying much—something the detective appreciated, since he was fonder of actions than words—took out of her wallet a wad of large bills whose amount seemed to satisfy the man who, after feeling the weight of it, tucked it into some part of his clothing with a slight smile. Back in her home, Leda felt, for the first time in a long time in absolute possession of the truth, and this possession gave her such strength of mind that she wanted in those moments to confront her husband and brandish, right in front of his face, the handful of photos for which she had paid so dearly. When the swan barged into the bedroom—which, despite everything, they still shared—Leda, without descending from her position as the mute diva in a talking movie, looked him up and down and, keeping her eyes on his shoes, extended to him the four photos that she had previously taken from the sleeve of her silk robe.
But instead of brandishing them furiously in front of his jazz trumpeter’s nose, as had been her original intention, she waved the photos lightly and slowly in front of his eyes before proceeding to tear them to bits with the fingers of a grievously offended woman. But Jupiter was not perturbed in the slightest by this incident with the photographs, for, during the course of his married life he had learned—among a myriad of things—that his wife, when she was really outraged, might get to the point of assuming the air of an offended stork, but from there nothing came of it (the wind never became a gale, much less a tornado that threatened to destroy everything the two had constructed up until that moment).
Deciding to make Leda understand that his hormonal needs as an oversexed sixty-year-old man could not, for any reason, be squandered in the calm swan lake that she had ultimately become, Jupiter thought that the moment had come to speak clearly, to propose a bipartite treaty so that neither of the two would end up losing something at the cause of a situation that, with good handling (handling in the utilitarian sense) didn’t have to result in disagreeable consequences (such as damaging the image of a stable and reconciled marriage that both had contributed to configuring over the years based on appearances, craftiness and social convention).
This was a consideration about which Jupiter, after Leda’s waters had returned to their habitual course, asked her what she planned to do now that she had noticed “certain things.” And before she could give him any kind of response to that inquiry, he went back to intervening, saying categorically that “in regards to himself, he did not plan to change a single thing, since up until then he had known how to carry things so well,” as they say “so well,” that, despite having had a relationship with the woman in the photo for some time, he had taken care—and he made it very clear to her—that his conduct did not awaken the slightest suspicion. He felt empowered to challenge her to say it to his face if there was some night he had not come home, or if he had at any point had the audacity to present himself to her with his trumpeter’s mouth all swollen up from the kisses and bites that usually accompany any adulterous relationship that sins indiscreetly.
Leda, who hated melodramas—the expensive ones as much as the cheap ones—and had always considered wasting useless efforts on always-lost causes to be in the worst possible taste, felt that what her husband said was very reasonable. She also felt—though with an intense pain in her middle—that it was already too late to start to reproach him, confronted with Jupiter’s cynical face; it was the worst thing that she felt after having discovered that he had expelled her from their existential context (without an eviction notice, in an untimely manner, only because his excited hormones had decreed it so).
The next day, the pharmacist had barely left the house on the way to his work when Leda dressed herself in an anxious hurry, as if from that moment her race against time had become a matter of life or death (which ran at full speed close behind her, nipping at her heels). Like a sigh, she flew down the stairs, like a sigh she crossed the street until she came to the bus stop. There she waited just a few moments until, like a sigh, a nervous shuttle parked briefly in front of her, transportation that she clambered into and from which she did not get off even when passing Helena’s neighborhood, nor when arriving at Theobaldo’s.
This time she decided to go to the end of the line, to see for herself if it was true what her autumnal and betrayed friend had told her with respect to the carnal attractions offered by the small spa that had recently been opened—with picnic areas, dressing rooms, life jackets and the rest of the necessary accessories—by the Very Distinguished Municipality of the city in a deep hollow in which (always, according to what her friend had said) there was an abundance of men, small boats and sterile palm trees (that is to say, those without coconuts). She walked about three blocks—why did she always have to walk three blocks to get anywhere?—until her sandals partially sunk in the wet sand. There she discovered an abandoned canoe lying upside down, and decided to hoist herself onto it for a long while (time she needed to sew up her open wound).
She stayed there for three hours, her gaze fixed on the ocean—why did she always have to meditate for three hours before feeling that strangulation had again stopped choking her?—an interval in which various flocks of green seagulls passed over her and various people passed by her—not many, since it was a weekday—who she didn’t really notice, engrossed as she was in observing the far-off distance of the ocean. At length, she did notice three young men who had buzzed by several times, giving her glances that were evasive at first, but gradually transformed into palpably insolent.
Leda, who knew how to properly return an exchange of glances, also ended up looking insolently at the youngsters in whom she had awakened such interest: they were olive-skinned swans; they were strong swans; they were young swans, crude, elastic and lustrous; they were swans whose naked torsos were all invitation for someone to adorn them with bridles of silver-plated saliva, braided by the easily overheated imagination of certain mature women. Jupiter continued to sleep on his half of the bed—the other half was occupied by unhappy resentment—continued to eat from his own plate and continued to complete his physiological necessities in the same toilet bowl. Nothing changed for the black-necked swan after Leda found out about his dark fickleness: he continued opening and closing his pharmacy and continued going out, as if nothing had happened, in the last death rattles of every dawn.
Every Wednesday and Friday I go unfailingly to that little beach. Every Wednesday and Friday I stop being the unconditional one, the one who only knows how to understand and forgive, the number one accomplice to her husband, in order to become the Leda who desperately searches to be loved before time turns her into halfburnt fuel for the flames. Every Wednesday and Friday I come here. I climb onto the abandoned canoe and from there fix my transparent eyes on the horizon with the hypnotic fixedness of those who wish their love to be returned (my eyes still full of desires and still highly desirable).
I am not the one to guess what the near future will hold for me. What I can predict is that, at some moment, I will not be able to resist the calls that come from one of the young men standing at some point close to the sea: the one waving a part of red swim trunks in his hand, as if to signal to me that he is naked, as if to invite me to fool around with him—signs that also reveal to me that it is a real waste to keep sitting on this canoe when waiting for me in the waves is a part of life on which I have not yet ridden.