The Woman Who Mislaid Her Body
By Aminta Buenaño
Translated by Juanita Coleman
What a pity
What a shame
That woman there who has never known love
A life that was no life
A bird passing by without coming to earth
Without plunging her feet into the fiery waters…
Rosa Amelia Alvarado
She was a sixty-year-old woman who got up one day from the vast loneliness of her king-sized bed, intrigued by a bad dream, and when she sat up to put on the soft slippers that protected her arthritic feet from the cutting morning winds, the extreme violence of an intimate truth revealed by the dream stopped her in her tracks and broke her routine. She realized, abruptly, that she had never known what love was in her whole life. Pardon, it wasn’t love. She wanted to say it but didn’t dare: orgasm. Orperhaps not love, or pleasure, or anything that resembled it; she wasn’t sure. The truth that she had never wanted to admit, that she had stubbornly refused to contemplate in the depths of her own heart—she felt it plainly in that moment, unpredicted by her routine, and it made her stop and look unseeingly out the window, making an inventory of everything that she could have been and wasn’t. She realized that some things had been her dreams and others reality, like when you bump into a dark wall at night and suddenly chip a tooth.
In the distance, in the creamy blue of the newborn day, seagulls danced ballet steps, while the clouds, like her memories, crowded together, furiously fleeing from the darkness to thirstily drink the light that bled from the emerging sun. Her name was María and she had been taught faith and good manners. Before she knew how to talk, she learned the push and pull of relations with the opposite sex. From her father, she learned the civil code and obedience to the laws. From her mother, she learned all of the social conventions and prohibitions: the philosophy of the half-smile, of the sphinx, of the crossed legs, of appearances and when no meant yes. And she thought, in the last instance, that perhaps obedience meant happiness.
She decided in silence to not let herself be controlled by her feelings, nor by her instincts, nor by her emotions. No, they would not dominate her like they did her mother. She would not let the invisible cord of affection tie her to the foot of the table; she would not succumb to love, nor would she be so weak as to allow herself to bear children, nor would she be so silly as to let herself be convinced by sugar-coated words, nor would she be weak, or fragile, or submissive. No, she was tired of everything that was a hemorrhage. Hemorrhages of tears, hemorrhages of blood, hemorrhages of emotions. The women of her family knew only red eyes, tissues and prayers. The women of her family spoke of pains, doubts and betrayals like one would speak of daily sustenance. No, she would be reason, expedience, not sentiment; she would plan her life strategically so that it would be like she wanted: a complete triumph over life and not the chaos of absurd feelings and emotions by which the females of her family had lost themselves. She thought about it for a long time in an instinctive manner, but, as usually happens with adolescent determinations, she forgot about it when she began to grow up. But she had not completely forgotten; like a woodworm slowly eating away at the wood, these ideas had subtly infiltrated her most inner self in a remote place of her conscience where the blows of reason nor the bewilderment of the senses could reach. It was these ideas that dictated strange behaviors, painful sensations, shameful obsessions, signs like splinters that made people brand her as weird, capricious, a little crazy.
When she fell in love for the first time, her anemic heart warned that it was only when the immature youth, full of amorous spasms, confessed it to her ear and she confused the warm tickle on her ear with love. It was always peaceful to know that she was loved; she felt safe. It was always good to know that someone agonized over her, trembled with pure love, ready to give even his life for a kiss, an embrace, or the hope of something more. Then she could loosen up a little, tug at things, adjust her screws and finally feel like she had something of that control that escaped her like sand between her fingers. She could pull the nets of love from afar, not letting herself be trapped, for then, like a dying fish, she could perish.
After the revelation of this love came José, then Pedro, then Elías, all of them studied like an entomologist observes his treasure through a magnifying glass. But the one to whom she finally gave the “yes” of matrimony was the safety of the Arab merchant with intense black eyes and camel’s eyelashes, who had a favorable income and a thriving business, who devotedly administered his fabric store with the same exacting concentration with which he listened to her. When he saw her for the first time, his eyes became magic carpets on which she flew with the grace of the vizier of oriental stories. The nights with him, after a brief and traditional honeymoon, were mortally tedious.
The man dutifully obliged himself every day to religiously fulfill his conjugal duties with the same faithfulness he gave his prayers, and she would look at the ceiling, read the newspaper, watch television while he strove like a man possessed, looking to draw out a moan, a brief if small cry of pleasure from that soft and delicate body extended before him like a piece of silk with an invisible tag that said do your duty, but don’t bother me. Later, the merchant turned selfish; he no longer expected anything. He did not beg her to howl like a cat in heat, to cry though it would be a lie, to make those little tantalizing noises that drove him crazy; he didn’t even take off his shirt. He embraced her, urged by flaming lust; he took what was his and then turned around to snore like a log as if she were a lavish feast after which he took a nap. The situation was so disagreeable that she started to come up with reasons to come to bed late—the bunch of dishes that waited in the kitchen until midnight, the straggling accounts of the store, the endless cleaning of an already-clean house.
Her life with the merchant became a thing of the past when she found him with the thin and tired little store clerk, riding astride the hairy body of her stallion of a husband in the chilly darkness of the storeroom where the fabrics were stored. She left that corner of her life as one leaves a church after confessing all of one’s sins, in virtuous peace, with lots of money in her pocket and the desperate pleas of her contrite husband who claimed to love her even more than ever. She was also well aware of the exhausted gaze of the tenacious lawyer who helped her with the lawsuit and who fell head over heels in love with her because, between so many troubles and groans, he noticed the abundant beauty of her white breasts that rose and fell to the rhythm of her copious tears and the childlike tenderness of her regal pout. Behind the black veil of his eyelashes, he listened patiently to all the pains of love and the tortures of her life, while he decided to make her happy, though she never was.
Without even knowing why, faced with such devotion and such love, she remained brusque, indifferent, disloyal, as if the fact of attracting so much love to herself was just the confirmation of the insignificance of the unfortunate lawyer. And one day, he fell ill with depression and ended up wandering into an insane asylum where she visited him every Sunday with the faithfulness of an old relative relieved not to have to carry the burden of the illness of a respected but oppressive family member. And his love, if that is what it was, was full of little details, from preparing his tea and putting it in a comforting thermos, to bringing him the cigarettes that were forbidden by the doctor, to cleaning his abandoned office until it shone like polished metal, to reading him the newspaper. She would tell him news that she invented to brighten his time in that hospital of lunatics where everyone had delirious obsessions that stirred up the environment until it was unbearable. The only obsession he had was this woman who was close but inaccessible, from whom he could never eke out a moan of love, a tremor from her body, a gaze charged with passion, an I love you though it might be fleeting. Something that would sew together the threads of the love he had kept in the unsatisfied well of his heart since the first time he saw her enter his office, buxom and arrogant. He was a successful professional who hadn’t lost a case in twenty years, had one all of the scholarships in college, and had triumphed with his oratory arts in the best forums of the city, and who had, nonetheless, been incapable of igniting the desire of the only woman, among the hundreds that had offered themselves to him, that he had really loved.
The preoccupation of a rejected man had become an obsession, then a chronic depression and finally a madness that obliged her to stop visiting him because every time he saw her, he cornered her, wanting to make love to her against the wall, on top of the breakfast table, on the ratty sofa in the living room in front of the expectant and alarmed gazes of the rest of the patients. She stopped visiting him, though she prayed for him every day, and before he died, she visited him for the last time, only to produce in him, without wanting to, without knowing, a last outburst of desperate jealousy when she praised the dark locks of the young male nurse who took care of him and another thin and haggard man. And she left, thinking not about the lawyer who she had left alone, sick and even sadder than ever, but rather about the strange glimmer in the ambiguous eyes of that male nurse with an angel’s body, and about the provocative gaze of the other male nurse who had not stopped looking at her since she sat her mature body in the chair.
Until that moment, despite her silky, wide-hipped body attaining an enviable maturity, she had passed through the sentimental life like a swan through water, without wetting her heart. But once, in those moments in which she used to look out the window, feeling safe and almost happy to see herself rescued from the misgivings of her youth, to see her life passing by flat and linear, without anything to shake the threads of her certainty, getting up in the mornings to water her dozens of plants and feed the canaries, preparing her vegetarian breakfast and turning on the television to view the rosary of telenovelas that kept her life alit with the light switch of others’ dramas, she saw that someone had slid a letter under her door. She managed to see a shadow that fled as if a dog were snapping at its heels. She went over to the door and extracted from the envelope an exquisite linen paper, on which, written in luxurious handwriting, with nineteenth-century calligraphy, someone said:
I know you, I have known you for a long time and since I first saw you, you have made my heart beat like I had seen the apparition of a Vestal before me. I know that you will say that I exaggerate but I think of you and I speak to you every night; there is not a moment of my life that I do not think of you. You have shared my most riotous dreams, the craziest imaginations, and I know that if you knew the extent of my love, you would love me as well. But I fear you; my love for you is such that I am terrified that you will only tell me no and reject me. One who never abandons you for a minute of your existence.
This letter, instead of leaving her dreamy and heightening her curiosity, only
her double the locks on her door and begin to suspect even the man that delivered the daily newspaper. Her interest was not in the quantity of love that the man promised; rather, it was centered in the fear of the unknown. So she continuously alerted her neighborhood guard about strange people, warned her next-door neighbor who would usually converse with her in the afternoons, and reminded her own heart to be alert to the eventuality of an assault. When she had already forgotten the letter and tended to think about it as one remembers a brother, a beloved friend, her two husbands or the many lost boyfriends of her youth, another mysterious letter arrived that said:
I have seen you; I have seen you and I have watched you with passion, with frenzy; you have not noticed, but your body has the passionate vices of a lustful animal, of a whale in heat. I look at you, I drink you, I bite your image. I want to have you next to me and caress you so that your moans of pleasure are heard all the way to the cathedral. I wantto be a snake so I can wind myself around your waist, a vampire to drink your blood, the sun to kiss your lips. I am crazy with love for you. I kiss you, even the last hair of your mysterious cavern. Yours.
This last letter made her almost crazy because she did not remember going anywhere in the last month, except for the few times she had gone out to church and to the neighborhood store. It worried her that this man seemed to know her so well and she feared that he was a thug, a rapist, a delinquent of the types that dedicated themselves to pursuing and killing single women. She quickly decided to move and rent bedrooms to young women who studied at the university. When she moved, everything went back to normal. For a few months, those strange letters stopped coming; her life passed between the television, her embroidery and interminable conversations with the young girls that livened up her afternoons, confiding in her so she would answer with advice borrowed from the heroines of the telenovelas and with her own affirmations that even she didn’t believe much, not because they weren’t true but rather because she had never put them into practice.
She didn’t miss anything, she didn’t feel anything, and she felt all right. She did not remember the pain, the mysteries of anxiety, or even the dreams, and in some way she felt she was safe; she did not know from what, but she was safe. She hardly saw her family and fled from them because she preferred to be a part of the faraway dramas of television than to live through the interminable ones of her family. It was easier, lighter.
One evening, when she was enjoying herself talking to her birds, one of her tenants gave her a common envelope. She thought it was a bill and put it in her pocket. When she went to the bathroom, it fell out of her pocket and she recognized the handwriting. She opened it with apprehension and with a paralyzing fear: the stranger was near! The letter said,
I cannot forget you;, you are always with me. I have never known a woman more voluptuous, more sensual. Your buttocks look like mature apples; they make me want to bite them. Even more, one of them belongs to me. When you bathe, your nipples darken and have the hardness of a diamond. Your hair is so long that I could wrap myself in it like a shroud. I dream that it is my shroud. I still love you, I wait for you, I dream of you.
She couldn’t bear it anymore and she pestered the girl with questions, only to get from her a frightened: I don’t know, it was behind the door and a glance that made her doubt her mental stability. But the man knew her intimately. Maybe he watched her while she bathed? But that was impossible; there was no window, nor the smallest crack in the bedroom where he could look at her. Could he be a crazy man, a misfit, someone who wanted to play a bad joke on her? She calmed herself and waited attentively for a few days for the unknown one to appear. It was impossible for it to be one of her two husbands, one dead by accident and the other by depression. Her boyfriends? But she couldn’t even remember one of their names, they should all be married. Who could it be? But behind the door there was only silence. The days passed by, monotonous and uninteresting, but the correspondence became regular and every month the wax-sealed letter turned up, the nineteenth-century letter with perfect handwriting and a whiff of lavender. In each one, the man expressed his animal desires to make her his, but with tender and loving words.
The terror she felt at the beginning began to fade with time, until she even permitted herself, once in a while, to reread some phrases to estimate the extent of human imbecility—to die of desire? How crazy! But in her dreams, everything that the man promised became reality, and she awoke, agitated, feeling her muscles burn and her heart pounding beneath her nipples that were standing at attention as if facing a battle. The unknown author began to specialize; in each letter he spoke of some aspect of her body. One was about her belly button. The next month about her curving hips, then her hard nipples. Then her neck that he would consume with kisses after licking it with his tongue. Then her earlobes that he would suck like they were tiny udders.
Later about the smoothness of her inner thigh, the delicacy of her ankles, her fingers, the corners of her lips. He did not forget her back, which after a long and sensual massage he would bathe in wine to calm the thirst of his love. He started to drive her crazy; this man made her burn with an incomprehensible and unfamiliar fire and she did not know how to put out such torment. Her body was a jail that was sometimes impossible to inhabit. The strange, unusual sensations riveted her in a painful daydream that she did not know how to deal with.
One day, she decided not to open a single one of those insolent wax-sealed letters. And they were piling up in her study like bills after they had been paid. Sometimes, she walked by them and resisted the impulses of her body to open them. My peace is priceless, she repeated insistently. She felt like a little girl who had not passed first grade and was forced to read aloud. These sensations, these unknown sensations, hammered away at her chaste existence. Until suddenly, like the cessation of a torrential downpour, the letters stopped.
And her life leveled out until that night, that brutal dream in which the unknown had arrived. She had been able to feel his strong and manly breath overwhelming her face in a caress that stirred her senses, his hands clawing at her clothing as if she were a fallen bird, and his mouth capturing hers until he entered her with a violent and erect tongue that drove into the roof of her mouth. She had felt her body throb furiously and search for his body with violent and tender energy and open itself and pin itself to him with the hunger of a savage castaway, and she had felt herself, frenzied, respond to him with a strange sensation, with an incomprehensible ardor, with the savage longing of tortured love. And when she was at the point of rising up like a mountain erupting, the twisted, funereal guffaws of her husbands heldher back and put her in her place with irony, with resentment, with sarcasm: Your time has passed… And the unconquerable terror, the fear of herself, settled back in again, and she opened her eyes to an interminable light, to a reality in which she was herself and no other.
And she woke and woke again with a bad taste in her mouth, her heartbeat pounding in her ears, and the pure desire that, once and for all, damned though it was, the shadow would materialize, that her dream would become reality before it was too late. And the certainty of the truth that had been revealed, of the terrible fear that she had carried all her life, made her stare out the window, unseeing, rejecting the bright day, the flying gulls, the silent peace of her house, asking herself for the first time with intimate anguish if it was not too late to become familiar with the unknown, if it was not too late to begin again…