AN INTRODUCTION BY MARIANA ENRIQUEZ
The work of Margarita García Robayo is striking for many reasons. She has a precision with words that allows her command, with authority and sadness, an atmosphere of quiet despair and tension, many times in scenarios that are cold or somewhat anonymous. But there’s also something tremendously important about her work: she is a destroyer of stereotypes. She represents a generation that no longer has the pressure of the “Latin American Boom” on their shoulders. She respects literary traditions but is no longer influenced by the loosely defined term of “magical realism” that critics use to describe too much of the very diverse literature produced in Latin America during the 60s.
She respects literary traditions but is no longer influenced by the loosely defined term of “magical realism” that critics use to describe too much of the very diverse literature produced in Latin America.
Margarita was born in Colombia and lives in Buenos Aires. She writes novels, short stories, and non-fiction. And her themes are as diverse as her body of work: she considers migration, the feeling of not really knowing where home is — and not really caring about it — incurable melancholy, the disappointment of lives lead by frivolity and ugliness, love that doesn’t work out, that fails even to be tragic. In her fiction, living by the Caribbean is not a party: girls want to leave for a better life, for the fake paradise of Florida, to languish on the beach, bitter and bored.
In this story, “Like a Pariah,” she uses one of her favorite scenarios and one of her recurrent characters: an impossibly smart woman who poorly handles the banality that surrounds her. Margarita’s characters are frequently in despair and, more often than not, cannot connect with the fleeting joys around them. Inés in this story is a good example; she is stuck recuperating at a condo, that place of horrid semi-luxury that feels like an airport, a non-place to be exact, inhabited by characters that don’t deserve our sympathy.
Margarita is brave that way too: she doesn’t really write characters that are likeable. She prefers truth. She finds truth by very carefully choosing her words, by finding the exact language needed for these tales that are beautiful and also tough, that reject sentimentality and search for the core — even when the core can be utter disillusionment.
Author of Things We Lost in the Fire
The English Language Debut of One of Colombia’s Premier Authors
“Like a Pariah”
by Margarita García Robayo
That advert was on TV, the one with the fat guy who had lost weight by drinking some tea or other: My son didn’t want me to go to his football match and I asked him why — are you ashamed of me? The former fatso cried and asked them to stop filming. They went on filming anyway. Inés always welled up at that commercial. She was not fat, had never been fat. But for some reason, this guy’s story hit a nerve.
That morning she had tried to talk to Michel. Since the day of the move, she’d heard nothing from him. She’d dialed his number, but he didn’t pick up. Maybe he was working. She had called him again just now, but still no answer. It wasn’t even midday yet and she was exhausted, the previous night she had dreamt about her toes falling off. Lately, her feet hurt, and sometimes she felt as if they were gangrenous. It was a feeling like the one she had that time in Boston, when her legs had frozen up altogether. Michel was studying for his master’s and she had gone to visit him; it was winter. The doctor there told her she had serious circulation problems. ‘Like any damn highway, then!’ replied Inés, trying to lighten the tone, but neither the doctor nor Michel laughed at her joke.
The ex-fatso had changed location and wardrobe. Now, wearing a black suit, he was posing on a balcony overlooking a city full of lights: I hadn’t seen my own penis for years.
‘Penis’, mused Inés, ‘what an ugly word.’
‘Good morning, señora.’ The cleaning woman was standing at the door to the study. She was wearing a dress buttoned up to the neck, even in that heat. Inés turned the TV off.
‘Good morning…’ she couldn’t remember her name. It was only the second time she had ever seen her.
Inés nodded. Glenda nodded too, came into the study and handed her an envelope that had been in the letterbox.
‘Thanks.’ Inés sat up, smoothed her hair with her hands. It felt rough, like a man’s stubble.
‘I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.’ Glenda turned and left. She was a large, dark-skinned woman with a very deep voice.
Inside the envelope was a card reading “Brunch.” It was from the new occupants of the Las Palmeras condo and was addressed to Gerardo and her, using their full names. She wondered how they’d found out their surnames. They had barely been there a week.
She went out of the study, card in hand. She crossed the living room and opened the blinds, and the light burst into the room like a jet of water. She squinted. The workmen had just arrived; they had come to fix a rusted pipe. The garden stank. It was an old country house, passed down from an unmarried aunt of hers, and nobody in the family used it. Inés’ sister had suggested that she move there temporarily, while she convalesced. Michel helped her move. Even Gerardo helped her. They all wanted her far away. ‘It’s cancer, not leprosy,’ she had told them. They looked at her, offended.
She sat down on the sofa. If she went to the brunch, she would have to cover her head somehow.
On the small coffee table lay a copy of Health! magazine. Michel had brought her a few to keep her entertained; on the cover was an older woman, nibbling on some nuts like a squirrel.
She thought she should go to the brunch and meet her neighbors, after all, she was going to be living there for a while. A year. That’s what she had told them all. Michel, Gerardo, her sister. She fanned herself with the magazine and looked outside: the workmen were slowly unpacking their tools.
‘Señora.’ It was Glenda. The magazine fell out of Inés’ hands and onto the floor. The woman had appeared out of nowhere. ‘Are you going to have breakfast?’
‘No thank you.’
‘Have you taken your medicines?’
‘No, I’ll do it later.’ Inés ran her hands over her hair, picked up the magazine and put it on the table. Why did she have to ask her that?
‘I think you should eat some breakfast, señora, you can’t take those medicines on an empty stomach.’
‘No, I don’t want any.’
Glenda cleared her throat. ‘Very well.’ She turned around and wobbled through the kitchen.
Inés shook her head. She left the sofa and slowly climbed the stairs. She looked through her clothes to find something to wear. A hat. She would have to wear a hat.
It was like something out of the movies, the stereotypical Californian condo. As if it belonged to a down-at-heel mafioso: curved balconies and tall palm trees planted symmetrically, one next to the other, forming a circle around an artificial lagoon. Then on each side, there were rows of houses, all identical, with their terraces out the 66 front. Inés was on one of these terraces, sitting in a wicker chair. A guy in white Bermuda shorts and a sky blue shirt had sat down next to her. He sipped his drink. In between the two chairs was a blue hat.
‘Mother makes a fantastic fruit daiquiri,’ said the guy. Inés nodded.
Mother? Who the hell talks like that?
The guy was called Leonardo and he must have been around forty. He worked in real estate, he had told her. The host was his mother, Susana, who was making her way towards them with two new colorful drinks. She held one out.
‘Would you like another?’
Inés raised her face to look at her. Susana was silhouetted by the sun: a glowing halo surrounded her hair, which was dyed cherry red.
‘Thanks.’ She accepted the daiquiri, which, they had told her, was a blend of citrus juices. The doctor had told her she couldn’t drink alcohol yet. ‘Not even a small one?’ Inés asked him. ‘That’s a bit mean.’ Then he told her that she could have a small one, but that she shouldn’t drink too much, because her body’s defenses were still low.
Susana sat on her son’s lap, stirred her drink with the straw and downed it in one. Inés tried hers. It was far too sweet.
‘Did Inés tell you where she lives, darling?’ said Susana. Leonardo shook his head. ‘In that house, the one that was falling down, but which now Inés and her husband, who works in…’ Susana frowned and looked at her; she was wearing blue eyeliner. ‘What exactly does your husband do?’
Inés looked down at her sickly-sweet drink. How could she answer that? One: he wasn’t her husband anymore. Two: she had never understood what he did for a living. She never had an answer prepared, like most married women do. She’d heard those replies: it should never be a complete sentence like ‘my husband works in…’; that was too vague and gave the impression that you needed too much time to think about something you should be able to reel off instantly. In those games of questions and answers, the way you formulated your answers could lose you valuable points: ‘Crustaceans are animals that have the following characteristics…’ It was a trap. The possible answers to Susana’s question should be direct, short, efficient. ‘What exactly does your husband do?’ ‘Soil mechanics’ or ‘Computing manuals’ or even ‘Acrylic fish tanks’.
Susana had turned to her son. ‘Anyway, so Inés and her husband fixed up that house and it looks immaculate now. That’s what they say. Isn’t that right, Inés?’
Inés nodded. Who could possibly have said that?
She thought about the rotten pipe running through her garden. Then her mind replayed the ad of the ex-fatso crying: I felt like a pariah.
‘…it’s a very solid and attractive detached house, although…’ Now it was Leonardo who was talking.
Inés sipped her drink; the cold liquid ran quickly down her throat and she wanted to cough but managed to control it. She suddenly felt poorly dressed: it was the hat, she must look like a real hick.
‘…it has some problems with the pipework and electrics.’ Leonardo was balding, and sweat accumulated each side of his widow’s peak, out of reach of the handkerchief he used to wipe around his face every so often. The sweat glittered in the sunlight, making it look as if rays were emanating from his head. But he was not unattractive: he was tall, with blondish hair and one of those large, straight noses that give some guys an air of refinement. Michel had a small nose, but a lot of hair on his head.
‘Having said that’, Leonardo went on, ‘I don’t understand what made you move here, instead of finding a more comfortable option, given the circumstances.’
Susana stood up abruptly and let out an idiotic laugh. She looked embarrassed by her son’s question.
‘Darling,’ she said with her hand on her bust which, although drooping, was still rounded thanks to the implants. ‘You can’t ask Inés that, for God’s sake.’
Susana was wearing flat sandals, blue, like her eyeliner, like the hat, like Leonardo’s shirt. She must have been sixty-something. Inés was fifty-seven, but she felt about a hundred. She finished off the dregs of her drink. In the pool, a few people were floating around on lilos. Inés couldn’t decide if she liked swimming pools or not. Gerardo hated them — once you’ve dived in and had a splash about, then what do you do?
Susana was still clumsily apologizing for her son’s indiscretion. Inés tried to focus on looking beyond the palm trees, which marked the course of the river, then disappeared out of sight down a sloping hillside. A waiter came up with a tray of daiquiris: this time there was also a whisky on there. Inés grabbed it. ‘I think I’ll move onto this.’
The verandah was the coolest part of the house, but it stank to high heaven. The builders were working out front, and the smell of the rotten pipes was overpowering. Glenda had come up with the idea of placing torches in the garden, and it worked quite well: she had wrapped stakes with rags soaked in citronella. The sweet, lemony oil repelled the mosquitos. She had soaked other cloths in jasmine essence and the resulting scent was penetrating and acidic, interspersed with occasional wafts of sickly-sweetness. A horrendous smell, but more bearable than the broken pipes.
That morning nobody had lit the torches yet. The workmen must have lost their sense of smell because there they were, sitting on the lawn, eating the bowls of food that Glenda had brought out to them, and breathing in that stench.
‘Will you be taking lunch, señora?’ Glenda startled her. She always did that. It was a mystery how a woman so huge could sidle right up to her without making a sound.
‘Why haven’t you lit the torches?’ Inés asked.
‘I’ll light them now,’ said Glenda. She always had a look of slight disgust on her face. ‘Would you like me to serve you lunch?’
‘What time is it?’
‘One o’clock. Shall I serve up?’
‘What did you cook?’
She huffed. ‘Roast chicken and cornbread. That was all you had.’
‘That’s fine, thanks.’
‘There’s no food left, señora.’
‘I’ll tell Michel to do a shop for me.’
‘This came for you.’ Glenda took an envelope out of the front pocket of her apron and held it out. Inés opened it: it was another invitation from Susana. The following day she was having a get-together to celebrate the Day of Our Lady of Carmen. Glenda was still standing there, looking disdainful, her hand furtively covering her nose.
‘What’s wrong?’ Inés asked her.
‘Nothing.’ Glenda went into the kitchen and immediately returned with a tray that must have been sitting there, ready to bring out. She put it down on the table: anemic chicken with a congealed yellow mass next to it. It all looked cold and dry. Inés felt like she was going to throw up: she put a napkin to her mouth to cover the sound of the acidic belch that burned her throat. This had been happening to her since she had drunk those whiskies at the condo, a couple of days ago.
‘I guess you know I won’t be coming in until Tuesday, señora’, said Glenda, who was still standing there, stiff as a corpse.
‘I’m not coming in, and I don’t think the guys are either.’ She gestured to the workmen. Inés pushed her plate away, nauseated.
‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about. When aren’t they coming?’
Glenda drew a deep breath.
‘We won’t be working Friday or Monday because it’s the festival for the Virgin. And I was thinking…’ She cleared her throat again.
‘What were you thinking?’
‘That you might like to ask your son to come and keep you company.’ And off she went into the kitchen, without waiting for a reply.
Michel had called her the previous day. He didn’t approve of her going to that party at the condo. ‘It wasn’t a party, it was a brunch,’ Inés told him. And he replied, ‘I can smell the fumes down the phone.’ How dare he. She hung up. She didn’t say anything; to avoid getting into an argument, she just hung up. He was getting more like Gerardo every day: bossy, judgmental. And she had become like a halfwit daughter to both of them.
She looked out into the garden again: the unlit torches, the workmen sitting on the ground, breathing in the stench. She was so tired. She made her way up to her room, but it was hard work: the stairs seemed steeper than usual.
It was too hot to have Gerardo on top of her. Inés pushed him away and told him not now, later, when it was cooler. But Gerardo carried on crushing her with his sweaty body, with its sour smell. Inés bit his chest, tearing off a piece of flesh in her mouth, and still Gerardo didn’t move. He was even stiller, lying there like a sandbag. Inés breathed slowly, inhaling the sliver of air between her face and Gerardo’s bloodied chest. She started biting him again, stripping away more and more chunks of flesh until she reached his heart, an engorged bloody balloon that exploded as soon as she sank her teeth into it.
The noise woke her up: she opened her eyes. She was still on the sun lounger. She was forced to take a deep breath of the warm, reeking garden air, because she felt like she was suffocating. She touched her forehead with the back of her hand: she was freezing, but she felt hot inside. Her chest hurt, her feet hurt. Where had that noise come from? Next to the lounger was a bucket that had been full of ice. Now it didn’t even have water in it; she had thrown it over herself before she fell asleep.
She had spent the entire day in just her knickers and bra, making the most of being on her own. She got up to fetch more ice and look for something to drink. She crossed the verandah, went into the kitchen and opened the fridge: there was only water in there. She took more ice out of the freezer and filled up the bucket. She went into the guest bathroom and peed, then got into the miniscule shower cubicle. Not even an insect could have showered comfortably in there, she thought. Dripping wet, she went to the kitchen, grabbed a dishcloth and dried her face. The cloth smelled of onions. She hurled it in the bin. She opened the larder, took a loaf of bread down off the shelf and smothered a slice in mayonnaise. It was the first thing she had eaten all day. She went outside and stood in front of the torn-up ground; the trench where they would lay the pipe was the roofless hall of a giant mole’s house. Not a sound could be heard except for the birds and, every so often, a bus beeping its horn in the distance. Inés went back to her lounger. She lay back and closed her eyes.
Again, the explosion.
When she opened her eyes, she saw colored dots in the sky. It took her a few seconds to realize that they were fireworks. They were coming from the village. They were probably for the Virgin. A while later she heard the intercom buzz, it had a strange sound: muffled and nasal. It was one of those devices that were considered ultra-modern in the seventies. She stood up, crossed the verandah, went into the kitchen and glanced at the clock. Seven. The intercom buzzed again.
‘Hello?’ she answered.
‘Señora, this is the watchman, I’ve got an envelope for you.’
‘Okay,’ her mouth felt furry. ‘Please leave it in the letterbox.’
The man said he would. She waited for him to leave, went to the main gate and took the envelope out of the letterbox. It was a note from Susana, saying that she had been calling her on the phone, that she hadn’t managed to reach her and that she mustn’t miss the party that night, she would send a driver for her at eight o’clock, to make sure she came. Inés went into the living room and picked up the phone; the line was dead.
She took a shower. She put on her turquoise dress, which was nice and cool. She smoothed her hair down and wrapped her head in a silk scarf that Michel had given her. She slipped on some flat sandals, because her feet were so swollen that no other shoes would fit. Before she left, she picked up the phone to see if there was a dial tone. Nothing.
Someone was speaking to her from far away. And even further off, as if from behind glass, she could hear another voice:
‘I’d like to thank all the holes I ever stuck my cock in!’ It was Leonardo’s friend. Inés turned her head and saw him standing on the diving board above the pool, naked, using a bottle as a microphone. ‘Thank you for this award,’ now he held the bottle up in front of him with both hands, ‘my ass is going to really enjoy it.’
Inés touched her head. She no longer had her headscarf on. She felt dizzy.
‘Thank you to each and every one of the….’
‘So?’ Now it was Leonardo, he was sitting on the floor, by her side. ‘You were telling me about that fat guy who lost weight by drinking a tea. Is he a friend of yours?’
Inés’ throat was dry, she couldn’t get any words out. She felt a pain in her thigh. Leonardo was biting her. She pushed his head away feebly. She was naked, and so was he. Next to the sun-lounger was a side table with a bottle of whisky on it. It was almost empty.
‘Where’s my scarf?’ She touched her head again.
‘What did you say?’ said Leonardo.
In the pool, someone was doing breaststroke.
‘Thanks to all the lips that have sucked me off…’
‘I can’t feel my feet,’ said Inés.
A little while ago, Inés, Leonardo and his friend had swum in the pool. Inés remembered that, and she remembered fingers pinching her nipples. She remembered thinking, maybe even saying it as well, that when their bodies rubbed together in the water, it did not feel real, as if they were wrapped in cling film. Now Leonardo’s friend and Susana were in front of her, kissing. The guy had her headscarf wrapped around his dick: it was shrunken, purple, stuffed inside it like a stocking. Inés felt a burning sensation inside her. She wanted to ask him to take her scarf off and give it back to her, but no words came out. The guy broke loose from Susana and reached for the whisky bottle on the table. He poured the dregs over Inés’ breasts, and bent down to lick it off, but Leonardo stopped him.
‘Leave her alone, can’t you see she’s totally out of it?’
The guy said something that Inés could not make out, and then leapt into the pool. Somewhere she could hear Susana laughing. Inés closed her eyes and felt something crushing her, so heavy that she could hardly breathe. She opened her eyes.
‘Sshh, don’t move.’ Leonardo was straddling her belly. He wet his hand with his own spit and touched her down below. ‘Your pussy’s all dry and closed like an oyster.’ He slipped a couple of fingers into her, jabbing so hard that one of his nails must have scratched her inside, because Inés could feel blood. A burning sensation.
‘Please…’ she mumbled.
She wanted to say something about her cancer, about her low defenses.
She thought she had already told him.
Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain; he jerked himself off with his other hand. He came with a loud moan, and slumped forward onto Inés, smearing his own semen under him.
The following day, Michel brought over the ingredients to make a lasagna. Inés served it at the table on the verandah. Michel cleared the leaves from the garden; he wielded the rake clumsily. The torches were lit.
‘Lunch is ready, darling.’ Inés felt groggy. She had a pounding headache.
Michel came over and poured Coke into two glasses with ice.
That morning, when she got back from the condo, Inés had got into the shower and stayed sitting there for several hours. Then Michel had arrived, making a fuss because she had not been picking up the phone. ‘It’s broken’, Inés retorted. But when Michel went to check, he noticed that it was not broken, only unplugged. That put him in an even worse mood.
‘You’re not looking well,’ he was saying now, chewing his food. ‘Moving here was a bad idea.’
Inés gave a hollow laugh. ‘But you were all so pleased about it!’
Michel pushed his plate away. ‘You’re unbearable, mother.’
Mother? He had never called her that before.
‘Eat up’, said Inés, ‘it’s getting cold.’ She took a bite of the lasagna but could not swallow it.
‘Where’s the cleaning lady?’
Inés shrugged. ‘She’s not coming in until Tuesday.’
‘Because of the Day of Our Lady.’
‘How should I know?’
They ate in silence. She was forcing down tiny mouthfuls. Her body hurt. Everything hurt. Soon the midges started bothering them, and Michel went to fan the flame of one of the garden torches, so the smoke would repel them. The putrid air wafting towards the verandah was replaced by the sweet smell of citronella.
Inés touched her breasts. They were throbbing. Michel was talking to her again:
‘What have you been eating lately? The fridge was totally bare.’
‘I know, that’s why I asked you to do a shop for me. It’s not easy to get out to the shops here.’
Michel finished off his plate and she helped him to a second serving. Her hands were shaking; she was shivering. She dried her sweat with the sleeve of her shirt. Michel was looking at her and this made her uncomfortable, as if he were scanning every bone in her battered body.
‘Are you taking your pills?’
‘And the vitamins?’
‘Are you doing your stretches?’
‘Are you sure?’
Inés had given up on her food and was looking at the garden: the flame of one of the torches was flickering in the breeze, the smoke rising up from it in a curved, white line, which finally dissipated.
She wanted to smoke.
Once, halfway through her treatment, she had felt the same urge to have a cigarette. What made it even stranger was that she wasn’t a smoker.
‘It’s a way of expressing your desire to die,’ the doctor had said to her. ‘And you are well within your rights to want to die.’
She was being sick all the time, she couldn’t even keep water down. She was picking bloody scabs off her head.
Inés touched her head.
‘Does it hurt?’ said Michel.
‘No, it’s just that my hair’s annoying me, it’s itchy.’
‘Put on that scarf I gave you… don’t you like it?’
That time, near the end of her treatment, Michel and Gerardo waited for her outside the room. They had insisted on staying inside, but the doctor told them that there were some things that needed to be discussed with the patient alone. Inés said, ‘Yes, the doctor’s right,’ and they looked at her like a couple of helpless little creatures.
‘No, doctor, don’t tell me that; I don’t want to die.’ And the doctor looked at her sadly, almost disappointed. ‘How certain can you be, even with the treatment, that I am not going to die?’ The doctor shrugged his shoulders in a gesture that seemed to her the height of cruelty. And she thought, ‘Would it really be so hard for him to lie to me, just a little?’
Michel took a large mouthful of lasagna.
‘You don’t look at all well, mum,’ he said, chewing again. He swallowed slowly, and repeated, sternly, ‘Not at all well.’ He looked away from her, his eyes shining, bitter.
Inés clenched her fist and banged it on the table.
‘Oh, for God’s sake!’ she cried. ‘I’m perfectly alright.’