17 Aug “The Mayor’s Wife” – (Chapter 13 from La Casa del Sano Placer. Translation by Susan Benner)
“The Mayor’s Wife”
(Chapter 13 from La Casa del Sano Placer. Translation by Susan Benner)
By Alicia Yanez Cossio
When the mayor’s wife left Dona Carmen Benavides’ house, where Dona Carmen had made it perfectly clear that there was something very shady going on between the mayor and the so-called Redhead, that woman who had created such a bad impression among all the curious neighbors, then, in a fraction of a second the whole structure of her married life fell apart, shattering into a million pieces.
It was like opening a window and having the tail of a lost tornado break into the house, scattering all of the papers on one’s desk-similarly she saw her marriage drowning in a whirlpool. Like a storm which topples even the strongest trees, mixing the dust, the dry leaves and the trash in the streets, so her passions and emotions whirled about inside of her when her earlier nagging suspicions became reality in the guarded conversation she had with Dona Carmen Benavides.
It was an indifferent earthquake, and she was at the very epicenter trying to maintain an impossible equilibrium in order not to be swallowed alive, watching how everything she had once thought of as firm and secure was falling apart and turning to dust while she herself was being flung from one side to the other.
Nothing would have happened if he had only told the truth from the beginning and had had her to help him free himself from the Redhead’s blackmail, because that class of secrets had a tendency to grow rapidly beyond control, and when it blew up, what had been nothing but microbes or bacteria suddenly were transformed into enormous elephants. But what might have been didn’t matter anymore. The reality was what she felt at that moment, even if she were acting on an assumption, a mirage.
If she had only noticed the Redhead’s withered face and ungainly body. But that would have been worse. She would have felt the insult more deeply, for she most definitely felt she had been suddenly tossed aside. She felt hot and cold at the same time. The sting of hail and licks of red-blue flames. Burning persist en that red and diffuse sparks of love.
Humiliation of the kind you feel like the slap of a hand on your cheek, and which finds its way into your psyche. Uncontrollable fury that blurs the contours of things and makes you see red and yellow spots. The solid truth and the omnipresent lie. Total confusion and pure hope. Altogether, turned about and unraveled, jumbled and deformed in a tremendous confusion, swelling up so as. to produce some kind of abominable abortion that fed itself with a ravenous hunger on its own blood.
She walked with slow, uncertain steps, feeling as if there were a red hot nail in the middle of her chest, as if she had an obsidian splinter stabbing her ribs or a large corkscrew screwed in and then removed, taking with it threads of her own worn and withered flesh. Unsteady on her feet and unable to control her mental equilibrium, drunk on the passions which assailed her, she felt an accumulation of uncontrollable sensations. She fled from the presence of others and answered their greetings without knowing who they were nor what they were saying.
“The mayor’s wife was acting very strangely. She didn’t answer the questions I asked her. I’d say she wasn’t in her right mind.” “She didn’t even say good-by, like she ought to. She left me with my hand in midair waiting to shake hands.”
The vertical walls, the half-opened doors, the closed Venetian blinds, the twisting, cobblestone streets, the familiar houses, were all beds in which she saw details of entangled, nude bodies: buttocks, mouths, hands and torsos without their usual erotic connotation, but rather, immensely tragic. It wasn’t possible, and yet it was. She felt as if she hated and forgave at the same time and with a violent intensity that could shatter anything, including one’s life.
Absolute certainty and terrible doubt blended together in one mass, then scattered in different directions, separating and reuniting like the lights of the will o’ the wisp. ‘Yes’ and ‘no’ jumbled together with the bewilderment that leapt like a lightening bolt, point down and vertical, like an unsheathed sword, and the inquisitions which twisted about in her and in her terrible and desolate situation, pursuing her with questions that didn’t wait for answers.
Blind vengeance and possible pardon splashed together in the same sickening swamp of jealousy. Rage spurred her on with an intensity so unknown to her that she felt the need to reach a level of physical violence, of blood and blows, of tearing skin and flayings, of strikes of a metal-tipped whip and the kind of bites that leave pieces of dripping flesh in your teeth.
At moments she was able to stand back and look at herself, and then she felt a pitiful compassion. She saw herself shrunken, dehumanized, broken, like some worthless old object you throw away when you can replace it with another, newer one for a reduced price. She walked quickly, almost running along the path of her own history and the torturous trail of a gratuitous insult, not to her vanity, but rather to her feelings.
“What’s wrong with the Mayor’s wife? She didn’t even seem to be watching where she was going. She pushed me aside like she owned the street. If she’s in such a hurry she should use her car instead of assaulting defenseless citizens.”The tornado continued inside of her, jumbling everything: good memories and bad ones, which appeared in illogical sequences, sweet words and bitter ones repeating themselves, leaving a crust of honey and bitter herbs, promises which were made and then, little by little broken, as if they were made to some other people who had died.
Arguments which ended in endearments like the raging waters of a river returning to their banks, although they weren’t the same. Long silences which devoured words, like a terrifying tunnel without escape, and other times when words were smooth as silk, confidences that one only says, only hears, once.
If it were possible to go back in time to retrieve something forgotten, she would have looked more closely at the woman they called “the Redhead,” but that wasn’t how it had been, and she only concentrated her attention on the signals of her husband’s infidelity and the woman’s long, claw-like nails. It was all so fast and so senseless, like those misfortunes that approach silently on tip toe and then suddenly explode with a certainty so real that it remains incomprehensible.That a woman would destroy herself for a man, patience and more patience until suddenly she explodes, but that the cause should be another woman was outrageous and repulsive.
Feeling absurdly unbalanced and vulgar, she thought of going through his personal mail piled on the table in the front hall. She thought of checking his pockets and the lining of his coat and searching his office, Masochist, as if pain itself had turned against her, she bit her lips until they bled, breathing raggedly in order to quiet the wail which struggled to escape her throat. She clenched her fists tightly, digging her nails into the sweaty palms of her hands, leaving marks like blue half-moons in a line. Her face burned as if shame itself had taken possession of all the pigment cells. It wasn’t just that they had snatched away from her something that was more or less hers, it was above all else this pain of an irreparable affront, it was this representation of jealousy in its most feminine manifestation.
She at least had the good sense to take the long route home in order not to pass the house with the green shutters where the Redhead lived. Her heart pounded at a savage, unaccustomed rhythm as if death were fluttering nearby. She didn’t want to die; before that she wanted to take some kind of horrified delight in the butcher shop of bodies which stubbornly appeared everywhere.
“The Mayor’s wife passed by and didn’t even bother to look at me. Her face was all red like she had sunstroke, and it even looked like she’d been crying.”She finally reached her house, but it didn’t seem like the place from which she had left just a short while ago. She fell face down on the bed as if collapsing after dragging herself across the burning sands of some absurdly desolate desert, and gave in to the torrent of tears she had been fighting down the entire endless tripfrom Dona Carmen Benavides’ house to her own, a journey in which she could find no oasis, just the mirage of a woman offended and displaced.
There was nothing to be done nor anywhere to go nor anything to say, except perhaps to ask herself if it was his fault, as it had been so many times before; if it was the fault of the woman in the house with the green shutters, who was probably stunningly beautiful and the poor man succumbed to her charms; or if it was just that she herself was old and hideous. She didn’t understand anything anymore.
And she walked over to the mirror and looked at her face, and saw that the years were etching dreaded crow’s feet there, but you could only see them if you got up close. And she saw two long lines extending up from the corners of her mouth, but they were still faint. And she touched her face and began to examine herself closely, inch by inch. She didn’t look at all old for her age. And she noted her double chin, swearing softly, but her neck wasn’t yet like that of an old lady. And with one stroke she tore off all of her clothes and stood naked in front of the mirror.
She was herself and no one else. She had put on a little weight, and it made her seem shorter, but that wasn’t enough to make her ugly. Standing naked like that in front of the mirror she looked as if she were confessing and intended to absolve herself. Her breasts were no longer firm nor quite in the same position as before. But they had served their mission well with each of her children. If men only knew how to look beyond appearances they would discover that hidden beauty that you can’t see, but that you experience all the same.
And she saw the four or five long stretch marks on her stomach which were neither ugly nor beautiful, but made her remember that a human being had grown inside of her, which was an amazing fact in itself, astounding enough to be sacred. And she examined her back and her sides and she saw that she looked older, but not repulsive. And she thought with a slight chill that if by virtue of fathering children men were to develop some kind of scars, she and all mothers would love those marks and would stroke them over and over again to remember those times and to feel young once more.
There were no two ways about it, she had been young and now she was aging, but even as she was, old and getting older, she was herself and she liked that.
Her body began to radiate a new light, and if others couldn’t see that light, too bad for them. She knew that old age could never be ugly because being old was no one’s fault. Poor, pitiful humanity with its wretched ego would still have to struggle forward on crutches for millennia and millennia before learning to love beyond those things that age.
She tired of standing in front of her own body and sat down in order toexamine herself inside. She closed her eyes and began to see herself. She was a woman with an irrefutable capacity to love, but she was seeking the impossible if she expected others to react similarly, even just a reflection, an imitation.
She thought about the past that one always remembers in such moments.Together, shoulder to shoulder they formed their family. In the beginning they were poor and poverty united them. He worked as a clerk and she washed his shirts. They hoped they would inherit someday, but their relatives refused to die. As soon as they escaped from poverty, he began to visit the Bronze sisters.
He said he was a lover of Chopin and Beethoven, but she knew it was of Clarisa. He tired of her in time and got involved with an entertainer from the first circus that came to town. He disappeared for several days. They said the circus company threw himout by the scruff of the neck because they didn’t understand what he was talking about.
When he came back she didn’t make a scene as she had often done before because she didn’t want the neighbors to talk, and because it broke her heart to see him come back like a beaten dog. And even more, she felt a petty, but very maternal indignation to think that some low-life singer had rebuffed him. And she continued to think of this and that and the other.
In the end there was herself, without resignation, because she saw herself above it all. It was as if she were the mother of all mortal beings, the begetter of life itself and its customs, the one who picked up the pieces when others stumbled and made mistakes; even if she were a sacrificial vestal, with the energy of the slow dying phoenix, she was who she was, the one who never betrayed herself.
She turned and dressed herself and felt as if she had grown. Her intimacy needed no clothing because none that she had would serve. She grew in size and volume, so much so that the house felt as if it had shrunk, so much so that she could tell all her everyday sorrows to go to hell, so much so that she could gather up all the pieces of herself, one by one, to fit them together again in a complicated puzzle, so much so that she felt as if she had died and then discovered the desire to live once more, so much so that she could stand on top of her own heart and feel that no one in the entire world could make her give in. She was consoling herself in her own way; what kept her together after such a terrible storm was pride.
Whatever happened, it was her pride in being a woman and nothing else.