“Amaranto ” by Laia Jufresa

A story about the memories of a husband

AN INTRODUCTION BY FRANCISCO GOLDMAN

The best Mexico City novels find a way to incarnate that city’s protean energies, every sentence lifted from its psychic sidewalks and rooftops, and from its insane skies, with a dashing charisma all their own. In Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño did this in his now legendary way, and now, with her extraordinary, utterly enchanting, and brilliant, multi-everything Umami, Laia Jufresa does so in her very own way (which is not much like Bolaño’s). Laia Jufresa’s characters live, at least outwardly, quieter urban lives than than Bolaño’s desperate, avant-garde, pirate poets, and female and male nervous breakdown prima donnas. Bolaño wrote about a different, mostly young people’s cityscape, one that definitely existed and that in some ways still does (at least in the imaginations of readers). But the Mexico City of Umami is the one that most of us, or a large “some” of us, live in now. Who do I mean? People who read books, I guess, including novels, or who listen to certain kinds of music, and who mostly went to universities, and their children…in comparable comfort to most of the city’s population, with the restless doubts and insecurities that comfort brings.

Click to purchase the full novel.
Umami tells the story, over a few years at the beginning of the last decade, of a group of characters living in Belldrop Mews, comprised of a cluster of small houses, respectively named Sour, Salty, Sweet, and Bitter by the landlord, Alfonso, who we meet in this excerpt, “Amaranto.” A recently widowed sixty-something anthropologist, Alf lives in the mews, too, in the house he named Umami, after the subject of his doctoral thesis, the Japanese concept of “the fifth taste.” You could say that the book in some ways revolves around coping with devastating loss and grief, and I suppose it does, but in the most refreshing, cliché-free, and convincing way.

This is part of the genius of this novel, it dramatizes how, even for an elderly intellectual building his private internal memory altar to his beloved wife of decades, grief can be a deeply creative, at times weirdly playful process. Maybe it has to be to get the griever where they need to be.

The narrative moves so easily from intimacy to intimacy, from one point of view to the other, effortlessly passing through walls

But that is to only give a hint of this novel’s expansive and poetic magic, which lies in how, within the small physical space of the mews, the narrative moves so easily from intimacy to intimacy, from one point of view to the other, effortlessly passing through walls, exploring the uniqueness of each character, the vast spaces of their small, solitary, and interconnected beings. In “Amaranto” — and in the novel as a whole — I was glued to the suspense of every sparkling word sequence, all cleverly translated to English by Sophie Hughes. The insights, jokes, wordplays, erudition, and observations of each quietly astonishing sentence chorally express a sense of personality and setting — including the recurring consciousness of being both Mexican and connected to the global world. All of it makes for the pure, delicious pleasure of reading this brilliant and aptly titled novel.

Francisco Goldman
Author of Say Her Name

 

“Amaranto ” by Laia Jufresa

Amaranth, the plant to which I’ve dedicated the best part of my forty years as a researcher, has a ludicrous name.

One that, now I’m a widower, makes me seethe.

Amaranthus, the generic name, comes from the Greek amaranthos, which means ‘flower that never fades.’

I’ve been a widower since last Mexican Day of the Dead: November 2, 2001. That morning my wife lay admiring the customary altar I’d set up in the room. It was a bit makeshift: three vases of dandelions and Mexican marigolds, and not much else, because neither of us was in the mood for the traditional sugar skulls. Noelia adjusted her turban (she hated me seeing her bald) and pointed to the altar.

‘Nah, nah, nah-nah-nah,’ she sang.

‘Nah, nah, nah-nah-nah, what?’ I asked.

‘I beat them.’

‘Beat who?’

‘The dead,’ she said. ‘They came and they went, and they didn’t take me.’

But that afternoon, when I took her up her Nescafé with milk, Noelia had gone with them. Sometimes I think that what hurts most is that she went without me there. With me downstairs, standing like a muppet by the stove, waiting for the water to boil. The damn, chalky, chlorinated Mexico City water, at its damn 2,260 meters above sea level, taking its own sweet time to make the kettle whistle.

Noelia’s surname was Vargas Vargas. Her parents were both from Michoacán, but one was from the city of Morelia and the other Uruapan, and at any given opportunity they’d publicly avow that they were not cousins. They had five children, and ate lunch together every day. He was a cardiologist and had a clinic just around the corner. She was a homemaker and her sole peccadillo was playing bridge three times a week, where she’d fritter away a healthy slice of the grocery budget. But they never wanted for anything. Apart from grandchildren. On our part at least, we left them wanting.

By way of explanation, or consolation perhaps, my mother-in-law used to remind me in apologetic tones that, ‘Ever since she was a little girl, Noelia wanted to be a daughter and nothing else.’ According to her version of events, while Noelia’s little friends played at being Mommy with their dolls, she preferred to be her friends’ daughter, or the doll’s friend, or even the doll’s daughter; a move that was generally deemed unacceptable by her playmates, who would ask, with that particular harsh cruelty of little girls, ‘When have you ever seen a Mommy that pretty?’

Bizarrely, my wife, who blamed so many of her issues on being a childless child, would never get into this topic with me. She refused to discuss the fact that it was her mother who first used the term “only a daughter” in reference to her. And it occurs to me now, darling Noelia, that your obsession may well spring from there; that it wasn’t something you chose exactly, but rather that your own mother drummed into you.

‘Don’t be an Inuit, Alfonso,’ says my wife, who, every time she feels the need to say “idiot,” substitutes the word with another random noun beginning with i.

Substituted it, she substituted it. I have to relearn how to conjugate now that she’s not around. But the thing is, when I wrote it down just now, ‘Don’t be an Inuit, Alfonso,’ it was as if it wasn’t me who’d written it. It was as if she were saying it herself.

Perhaps that’s what the new black machine is for. Yes, that’s why they brought it to me: so Noelia will talk to me again.

I have a colleague at the institute who, aged fifty-two, married a woman of twenty-seven. But any sense of shame only hit them when she turned thirty and he fifty-five, because all of a sudden it no longer required any mathematical effort to work out the age gap: the quarter of a century between them was laid bare for all to see. Something more or less like this happened to us in the mews. Numbers confounded us when, in the same year my wife died, aged fifty-five, so did the five-year-old daughter of my tenants. Noelia’s death seemed almost reasonable compared to Luz’s, which was so incomprehensible, so unfair. But death is never fair, nor is fifty-five old.

I’ll also make use of my new machine to moan, if I so choose, about having been left a widower before my time, and about the fact that nobody paid me the slightest attention. The person who showed the most concern was our friend Páez. But Páez was more caught up in his own sorrow than mine. He would call me up late at night, drunk, consumed by the discovery that not even his generation was immortal.

‘I can’t sleep thinking about you alone in that house, my friend. Promise me you won’t stop showering,’ he would say.

And then the inconsiderate ass went and died too. Noelia always used to say that bad things happen in threes.

They couldn’t have cared less at work, either.

‘Take a year’s sabbatical,’ they told me. ‘Languish in life. Rot away in your damned urban milpa, which we never had any faith in anyway. Go and wilt among your amaranths.’

And I, ever compliant, said, ‘Where do I sign?’

A first-class howler, because now I’m losing my mind all day in the house. I don’t even have Internet. I’m sure the black machine should hook up to Wi-Fi but so far I haven’t made any attempt to understand how that works. I prefer the television. At least I know how to turn it on. These last weeks I’ve got into the mid-morning programming. It is tremendous.

I hadn’t heard anything from the institute since the start of my year’s sabbatical. Then, two weeks ago, they came and left a machine. I’m told it’s my 2001 research bonus, even though that god-awful year finished six months ago and was the least productive of my academic life. Unless ‘Living With Your Wife’s Pancreatic Cancer’ and then ‘First Baby-Steps as a Widower’ can be considered research topics. I imagine they were sent an extra machine by mistake and that they can’t send it back because then, of course, they would be charged. All the bureaucratic details of the institute are counterintuitive, but the people who run it act as if it were perfectly coherent. For example, they tell me that I have to use the machine for my research, presumably to get to grips with online resources and move into the twenty-first century, but then they send a delivery boy to pass on the message. That’s right, along with the laptop, the delivery boy brought a hard-copy agreement. Because nothing can happen in the institute unless it’s written in an agreement and printed on an official letterhead with the Director’s signature at the bottom.

The kid pulled out a cardboard box from his Tsuru, not so different from a pizza box, and handed it to me.

‘It’s a laptop, sir. In the office they told me to say you gotta use it for your research.’

‘And my sabbatical?’ I said.

‘Hey, listen, man, they ain’t told me nothing more than to make the drop and go.’

‘So “make the drop” and go,’ I told him.

He put it down and I left it in there on the doorstep in its box. That was two weeks ago.

Then finally today I rented out Bitter House. It’s gone to a skinny young thing who says she’s a painter. She brought me my check and, by way of guarantee, the deed to an Italian restaurant in Xalapa. I know it’s Italian because it’s called Pisa. And this is a play on words, according to the girl, who told me that beyond referring to the famous tower, it’s also how Xalapans pronounce the word pizza.

‘Although, strictly speaking they say pitsa,’ she explained, ‘but if my parents had called it that, it would have been too obvious we were jerking around.’

‘Ah,’ I replied.

I only hope she doesn’t take drugs. Or that she takes them quietly and pays me on time. It’s not much to ask, considering the price I gave her. She was happy with everything save the color of the fronts of the houses.

‘I’m thinking of painting them,’ I lied.

The funny thing is that after signing — which we did in the Mustard Mug, because it’s next door to the stationary shop and we had to photocopy her documents — I left feeling good. Productive, let’s say. Or nearly. On my way back I bought a six-pack and some chips, and took The Girls out onto the backyard’s terrace. Having positioned them so they could preside over the ceremony, I opened the box — the one now propping up my feet, and a very comfy innovation, I might add — and went about setting up the machine. I have to say I felt a bit excited as I opened it. Only a little bit, but even so, the most excited I’ve been so far in 2002.

The machine is black and lighter than any of my computers to date. I’m writing on it now. I was particularly proud of how swiftly I set it up. Set it up is a manner of speaking. The truth is I plugged it in and that was that. The only work involved was removing the plastic and polystyrene. For a name, I chose Nina Simone. My other computer, the old elephant in my office where I wrote every one of my articles from the last decade, was called Dumbo. In Dumbo’s Windows my user icon was a photo of me, but someone from tech support at the institute uploaded it for me. My expertise doesn’t stretch that far. In Nina Simone’s Windows my user icon is the factory setting: an inflatable duck. Microsoft Word just tried to change inflatable to infallible. Word’s an Inuit.

Dammit! Noelia used to come up with a different word beginning with i every time. I’m just not made of the same stuff.

I’m an invalid, an invader, an island.

When she was little, Noelia didn’t want to be a doctor like her dad, but rather an actress like a great aunt of hers who had made her name in silent movies. After high school Noelia signed up to an intensive theater course, but on the second week, when the time came for her to improvise in front of the group, she turned bright red, couldn’t utter a word and suffered a paroxysmal tachycardia. A bloody awful thing: it’s when your heart beats more than 160 times a minute. It’s certainly happened to me, but never, in fact, to Noe. Noe was just self-diagnosing: she had a flair for it even then.

After her disastrous course she enrolled at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, where, after a number of grueling years — even today, having spent my whole life around doctors, I still don’t know how they do it — she qualified as a cardiologist. Noelia would say, ‘That’s consultant cardiac electrophysiologist to you.’

Noelia told me all this the first time we had dinner together. It seemed strange to me that public speaking could be more frightening to her than being confronted with someone’s insides.

‘Why medicine?’ I asked. ‘Why not something easier?’

It was 1972 and we were in a restaurant in the Zona Rosa, when the Zona Rosa was still a decent sort of neighborhood, not like now. Even though, truth be told, I don’t know what it’s like now because it’s been years since I ventured out there.

‘I had this absurd idea that in medicine you get to really know people, on a one-to-one level,’ said my wife, who that night was no more than a girl I’d just met.

She downed her tequila.

‘I suppose I’ve always been a bit naive.’

And that was when the penny dropped that she was a flirt, something you wouldn’t have guessed at first. And naive? You bet. But only about certain things, and with the kind of ingenuousness which didn’t remotely diminish her razor-sharp mind. She was naive when it suited her. Noelia was very practical but a little scatterbrained. She was openhearted, cunning and gorgeous-looking. She was also, on that first night and for the following three weeks, a vegetarian.

She liked one-to-ones. She liked going out for coffee with people. She liked to sneak out for a cigarette with the nurses and get the latest gossip on, as she put it, ‘everyone and their mother.’ She stopped being vegetarian because she adored meat. Even raw meat. Steak tartare. She always ordered Kibbeh on her birthday. I haven’t gone back to the city center because it stirs up too many memories of our birthday trips to El Edén. Nobody warns you about this, but the dead, or at least some of them, take customs, decades, whole neighborhoods with them. Things you thought you shared but which turned out to be theirs. When death does you part, it’s also the end of what’s mine is yours.

Noelia didn’t mention on that first evening that her father had been the top dog at the Heart and Vascular Hospital in Mexico City before opening his own clinic in Michoacán. Nor that it was there, at the tender age of twelve, that she learned to read holters, which means detect arrhythmias. Nor did she mention over dinner that she was one of just five (five!) specialists in her area in the entire country. She told me the following morning. We were naked on the sofa in her living room, and before I even knew it I’d knocked back my coffee, scrambled into my clothes and hotfooted it out of her apartment. I didn’t even ask for her number. In other words, as she accurately diagnosed it the next time we saw each other almost a year later, I ‘chickened out, like a chicken.’

To say I chickened out is an understatement, of course. In reality, and using another of Noelia’s expressions, I shit my pants. I was petrified, and only came to understand the root of my panic later, when I began to analyze who I’d spent the subsequent twelve months bedding: all of them well-read, highly educated young women. Basically, my students. I was even going to marry one of them: Memphis, as Noelia nicknamed her years later when they finally met (I think because of the boots she was wearing, or maybe it was the haircut, what do I know?). Mercifully, just before the wedding I had a dream. I was a bit macho, yes, a chicken, certainly, but before either of those things I was superstitious as hell: having received the message, I knew I had to heed my subconscious, so I turned up unannounced at Noelia’s apartment. For a minute she didn’t recognize me. Then she played hard-to-get for a while, like two weeks. But as time went on we became so inseparable, so glued at the hip, that now I can’t understand. On my job at the National Institute for History and Anthropology, on my grant from the National Organization of Researchers, on all those qualifications which supposedly mean that I know how to deal with complex questions, I swear I don’t get it. I don’t understand how I’m still breathing if one of my lungs has been ripped out.

The dream I had. Noelia was standing in a doorway with lots of light behind her. That was it. It was a still dream, but crystal frickin’ clear in its message. Threatening even. When I woke up, still next to Memphis, I knew I had two options: I could take the easy route, or the happy one. An epiphany, you might call it. Incidentally, the only one I ever had in my life.

Noelia had a soft spot for sayings and idioms. If ever there was something I didn’t get — which was often — she would sigh and say, ‘Shall I spell it out for you?’ I remember one time Noe sent me flowers to the institute for a prize I’d won, and on the little card she’d written, ‘You’re the bee’s knees.’

But sometimes the sayings and idioms were home-grown, without her having consulted anyone. For example, she tended to come out with, ‘A scalpel in hand is worth two in the belly.’ And I always thought this was a medical saying, but Páez assured me that he’d only ever heard it come from Noe’s mouth and that no one in the hospital really knew what it meant; some thought it was something like ‘better to be the doctor than the patient,’ while others understood it as ‘better to take your time while operating than to botch it in a hurry,’ et cetera, et cetera.

On the other hand, Noelia couldn’t abide riddles. Or board games. And general-knowledge quizzes were her absolute bugbear. They put her in a flap and she’d forget the answers then get all pissy. We once lost Trivial Pursuit because she couldn’t name the capital of Canada. She also loathed sports and any form of exercise. She had a fervent dislike of dust. And insects. For her, the very definition of evil was a cockroach. And she didn’t clean, but rather paid someone to clean for her. Doña Sara stopped working for me a few months ago with the excuse that she’d always planned to move back to her home village, but really I think seeing me in such a state depressed her. I paid her her severance check; she set up a taco stand. She did the right thing. Hers really were the best tacos in the world. And it’s a good thing too, I think, for me to deal with my own waste.

For much of my life I really did believe I was the bee’s knees, because unlike my colleagues I liked to get my hands dirty actually planting the species we lectured on. I always kept a milpa in the backyard because, in my opinion, if you’re going to say that an entire civilization ate such-and-such thing then you have to know what that thing tastes like, how it grows, how much water it needs. If you’re going to go around proclaiming the symbiosis of the three sisters, you have to grab a hold of your shovel and take each one in turn: first the corn, then the beans, and after that the squash. But now I see my whole agricultural phase differently: I had time on my hands. Time not taken up by youngsters. Time not taken up folding clothes. It’s so obvious but only now do I fully understand that it’s easier to get your hands dirty when you’ve got someone to clean everything else for you. But there you go, I was always the most bourgeois of anthropologists.

These days, when I hit the hay, quite often the only productive thing I’ve done all day is wash the dishes I used, or clean up the studio, or take out the trash. I suck at it, but I give it my all. Once The Girls are in the stroller, I push them to whichever part of the house is messiest. I like to have witnesses.

‘Look at me,’ I tell them. ‘Sixty-four years old and my first time mopping the floor.’

Noelia did like children, but from a safe distance. She’d never wanted her own, and then when she did finally want them it was too late. She wasn’t into drama. Or rather she was, but other people’s. She liked fried food but hardly ever let herself indulge. She liked the smell of spices — cumin, marjoram, lemongrass — pressed clothes, and fresh flowers in the house. She paid one person to come and iron and another to bring the fresh flowers. She liked to pay well and tip on top. She liked earthenware, as long as it wasn’t fussy. She refused to keep the best china for special occasions.

‘Every chance I get to sit down to eat is a special occasion,’ she used to say. ‘At least till my beeper goes.’

The arrival of the beeper was such a momentous event in our lives that not even its evolution into snazzier, more compact devices stopped us calling everything that interrupted our meals or siesta the beeper. Above all the siesta, because traditionally it was the time we would make love. I preferred the morning (when she was in a hurry), and she preferred nighttime (when I was tired), so the siesta was the middle point that always worked for us.

Noelia smoked Raleighs until her younger brother had his first cardiac arrest and the family learned that even cardiologists can be touched by heart problems. I only ever smoked the odd cigar, but her smoking didn’t bother me, and when she gave up I felt like we’d both lost something. I never told her that, of course. Each year, or at least for the first decade of her abstention, we’d put on a party in celebration of another 365 days smoke-free. That we lost something is perhaps not the right way to put it. We left something behind, I mean. We turned a page, no looking back, as the boho poets from the Mustard Mug would say.

The Mustard Mug is the bar around the corner which I dip into when my body so demands. Nobody knew about these trips until one of my tenants, the gringa who lost her daughter, also started going. I used to call her gringa to her face but with hindsight it sounds a mite assy. The thing is, I never felt too kindly toward that family. They’re a noisy bunch and form a majority in the mews because they rent two houses: Sweet and Salty. They live in one of them and use the other as a studio, teaching piano and drums and God knows how many other instruments. Everyone in the family knows how to play at least two. The eldest daughter is the only one I get along with, perhaps because she’s notoriously tone deaf, or perhaps simply because she was born right in the middle of the brief period when Noelia regretted not having children and we found ourselves cooing like idiots over every baby that came our way. But it’s also true that I started to take a shine to Agatha Christie, or Ana, as she’s really called, as she got older, because she was a misfit, and because she liked me. While helping me out in the milpa in the evenings, she would explain — as if they were puzzles — the various dilemmas faced by Poirot and Miss Marple in the pages she devoured. I never solved a single one, by the way, and not for lack of trying. Sometimes I didn’t want to open the door to her, because I preferred to be alone, but the more time I spent with her at my side, the more I grew to like myself. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that my empathy toward Agatha Christie is a form of self-affection, because she is who I once was: a young kid left to her own devices in this exact same nook of a huge city. Seeing her reading huddled in corners made me mad at the parents, who went on making more babies instead of paying her the attention she deserved.

Noelia, on the other hand, loved the whole family. She nicknamed the mother Lindis and forgave all the late rent on the basis that Lindis and her husband were artists and had many mouths to feed. When the mouths were very small, we used to do things together as a group: long discussions over drinks in the evening, barbecues. Linda used to toast my amaranth and sell it all over the block, and one time they organized a string-quartet concert on my milpa, a real sight to behold. But later on, the tenants started keeping themselves to themselves. Or maybe Noelia and I grew too old and frumpy for their liking so they stopped inviting us. It was around that time that I took to calling her the gringa. Only last year did she go back to being just Linda, one day when she turned up at Umami with a selection of scarves.

‘I’ve come to teach your wife how to make a turban,’ she said.

The hair loss from the chemo had floored Noelia. What did I tell you before, Nina? Noe was a real coquette, and she couldn’t bear anyone seeing her bald head, so she insisted on covering it with beanie hats, caps and god-awful wigs that made her scalp itch like crazy. And her silly self-torture drove me crazy in turn. Agatha Christie must have related some of this private drama to her mom, and at first I didn’t know how to react to Linda’s unsolicited call. I worried that Noelia would take offense. But, as I’ve proved on countless other occasions in my life, I don’t possess a scrap of the female intuition that men these days are supposed to have, and Linda’s crash course turned out to be a hit. The rags, as Linda called them, were a real relief to Noe, and for a time, if the two turbaned women happened to cross paths in the passageway, the mews looked like some kind of spiritual retreat.

Then, one day Linda turned up at the Mustard Mug and sat down at my table. From that day on we’ve held a tacit pact not to mention our meetings to anyone. She too had been signed off work. Apparently that’s the way that our cultural institutions deal with loss; perhaps it’s their way of debunking the stereotype that in Mexico we know how to live hand in hand with death.

Linda orders vodka in the Mug, out of discretion. I drink tequila, since I no longer have anybody to smell it on me. Every now and then the barman pulls out all the stops and serves me my tequila shot with a chaser of delicious spicy sangrita, which Linda then eats with her finger, dunking then sucking it. I’ve tried hard to find something erotic in this gesture, but my best efforts are hampered by an overriding feeling of tenderness toward her. She’s also a tall lady, and I like my women compact: Noelia was as short as a toadstool.

We never have more than a couple of drinks each. Me because I’ve always been a lousy drinker, and her because she has to go afterward to pick up the kids from school. Linda stays till one thirty at the latest, and the vodka always sets her off. She has deep-set green eyes, and when she cries they go puffy and pink. Some days we talk, and others we don’t even get beyond hello. Every now and then I well up too, in which case Linda will ask for some napkins and we’ll sit there blowing our noses. If we do talk it’s about old times: her gringo childhood, my Mexico City youth, our lives before our lives with our dead. Or we talk about operas we remember. Or food. I give her recipes for exotic sauces. She explains how to make fermented pickles.

Now that I think about it, marriage isn’t all that different from mid-morning TV. In the end, to be married is to see the same old movies — some more treasured than others — over and over again. The only things that ever change are the bits in between, the things tied to the present: news bulletins, commercials. And by this I don’t mean that it’s boring. On the contrary, it’s awful what I’ve lost: the cement that held the hours together, the comfort of Noelia’s familiar presence which filled everything, every room, whether she was at home or not, because I knew that unless she had a heart attack on her hands she’d be home to eat and have a siesta, then back again for dinner and to watch TV, finally falling asleep with her cold feet against my leg. The rest — all the world events, falling walls and stocks, personal and national disasters — was nothing. What you miss are the habits, the little actions you took for granted, only to realize that they were in fact the stuff of life. Except, in a way, they also turned out not to be, because the world goes on spinning without them. Much like amaranth when they banned it. What must the Aztecs have thought when the Spaniards burnt their sacred crop? ‘Sons of bitches,’ they must have thought. And also, ‘Impossible! Impossible to live without huautli.’ But they were wrong and so was I: Noelia died and life goes on. A miserable life if you like, but I still eat, and I still shit.

‘Those bugs,’ my wife would say.

I never got my head around how anyone could see something ugly in a butterfly, especially someone from Michoacán, the land of monarchs.

‘They flap around you!’ she argued.

Then she’d come out with far-fetched theories, tall tales from her childhood.

‘If moths hover close to your eyes their powder can blind you.’

‘What kind of scientist are you?’

‘A paranoid one. That’s very important, listen: you must always make sure your doctor’s a believer, or at least that he somehow fears the final judgment, because the rest of them are nothing but butchers.’

Here the top ten nuptial movies reshown in this household over the last thirty years:

Tough Day at the Clinic — Pour Me a Tequila

A PhD Student Calls (I’m Not In) Procreation (The Prequel) Amaranth and Milpas

The Tenants

Belldrop Mews

For Whom the Beeper Tolls

Only a Daughter

Umami

The Girls

Noelia constructed an entire oral mysticology around the term ‘only a daughter,’ which I’ll do my best to reproduce here, both from what I remember and with the help of Nina Simone. I’m a son too, only a son, and now an old son, but I never identified with all the things Noelia insisted were symptoms of our chosen condition as nobody’s parents.

Noelia named this state of being only a daughter ‘offspringhood.’ I told her that the concept was flawed because it was the same as the state of being ‘human’ or even of ‘being’: we’re all someone’s offspring.

‘I don’t care,’ she said.

Then I suggested that, seeing as we have maternity, paternity and fraternity, it might make more sense to call it ‘offspringity.’ But she wasn’t having any of it.

“Mysticology” isn’t a word either, of course, but after three decades, one person’s bad habits stick on the other, so now it’s my turn to make up words at whim. When all’s said and done, no one’s going to pass judgment on Nina Simone. I won’t let an editor near her, nor would I dream of sending her into the rat hole that is the peer-review system.

I was saying: while I myself didn’t identify with the characteristic features of ‘offspringhood,’ Noelia diagnosed me with all of them. I strongly denied the accusations held against me, at least in my inner courthouse. Because the same defects she branded me with (and which I acknowledged, sometimes), I also noticed in my friends with children. Especially as we grew older. We could all be impatient, irritable, intolerant, inflexible, spoiled, ailing, and pig-headed. Very pig-headed in fact: Páez had three kids and became more and more pig-headed with every one. Noelia said that it was because I didn’t have kids that I was the way I was sometimes: ‘If you’d had kids, your concentration and memory would be better, and you’d be more tolerant and disciplined,’ she’d say to me.

‘What’s any of that got to do with children, woman?’

‘If you have children you have to go to school every day at the same time to pick them up, and if you forget it hurts real bad.

‘Well, it does hurt me when I forget things.’

‘Nuh-uh, Alfonso. It can’t hurt real bad unless there’s someone to remind you that you forgot.’

It was Noelia Vargas Vargas’s job to let me know when someone was teasing me, because I didn’t ever catch on. We had a code for it. She would tilt her head forwards, and I’d proceed to defend myself. Once or twice I tried to work out exactly where the gibe had come from, but it never worked so I learned that it was better to wait for her signal, then object.

‘Guys, quit messing with me, will you?’ I’d say to everyone. Often the culprit was Noelia herself, and in such cases, once we’d left wherever it was we were, she would amuse herself spelling it out for me. She always thought me naive. She used to say — in a friendly way, as if it were just another of the quirky upshots of having married an anthropologist (if we were among doctors), or of having married a Mexico City chilango (if we were among her folk from Michoacán) — that I had three basic failings: I never learned how to mess with people, drive, or swim. If you ask me, the last one isn’t quite true because I can doggy-paddle just fine, thank you very much.

The point is that Noelia certainly had it in her to be more bitch than beauty. Especially at the beginning, when she was often defensive (according to her because she worked solely among men, but who knows). The first time we fought badly she told me something I never forgave her for, despite all her efforts to make it up to me. Her words were succinct, and arguably valid: ‘You fuck like a rich kid.’

Now I feel like the inflatable duck. So let him be my alter ego. Why not? I’m going to sign everything I write here under Widow Ducky, Lord Amaranth. Let’s see if I remember how to save things. At what point, I wonder, are they going to change the symbol for saving files from a floppy disk?

By the way, Ms. Simone, I should probably clarify that I’m not on a real sabbatical. On paper it might be a sabbatical, but let there be no mistake: in mind and in spirit I’ve retired. If I gave up work officially, on my measly pension I’d starve to death. Starve! Me! The world expert on sacred amaranth. The man who introduced the concept of umami into the national gastronomic dialog! Starve! And all because the old fool hasn’t tended his milpa since 2001: corn is hardy stuff, but it’s not invincible. Even corncobs need their little drops of water. Even a widowed duck needs love. Come on.

What else?

Laptop. Triceratops. Doo-wop. What’s the research topic for the new machine going to be?

It’s going to be Noelia.

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