Introduction by Jennifer Croft
Pedro Mairal is the most clear-sighted of writers, able to perceive a source of fascination from far away and determine the most direct route to it. Every story he tells packs a punch, and “The Ring,” from his latest book in Spanish, Eternal Short-Lived Loves, is one of his very best.
“The Ring” follows a man’s secret night out in pursuit of an extramarital hookup. Mairal is always able to recruit the characters most suited to a given journey, protagonists both lovable and loathe-able, hilarious and sad. No matter what—no matter how deplorable their actions—we can identify at least a little with the impulse, the desire that drives them closer and closer to their goal, though they often fly right by it and end up somewhere else, somewhere sadder and more meaningful: desolate places where suddenly the only company might be our own reflection.
In his native Argentina, Mairal has enjoyed an enviable career that has ranged from non-fiction, with essay collections like 2017’s Evasion Maneuvers, to poetry, with four volumes that culminate in the awesomely rich and textured Porn Sonnets, first published together in 2018. Mairal’s first novel, the brilliant and best-selling One Night with Sabrina Love, was published in 1998; his ambitious second novel, The Elements, came out in 2005. None of this work has been translated into English, although Nick Caistor translated the gorgeous Missing Year of Juan Salvatierra (2008) for New Vessel Press in 2013.
I have just translated Mairal’s most recent and most successful novel, The Woman from Uruguay, published by Bloomsbury on July 20, 2021, and in fact “The Ring” shares some of its central preoccupations with that vivid, major work: the precariousness of romance, the ephemerality of youth and power, the intoxicating chaos of the urban Southern Cone, and the refuge of friendship. Colm Tóibín puts it well: “The Woman from Uruguay is at once a picaresque comedy and a penetrating study of a man on the verge of middle age who is trying to deal with fatherhood, money, marriage, and love.”
Meanwhile, Sigrid Nunez writes that “The Woman from Uruguay is a work of exquisite style, shrewd philosophical insight, and deftly controlled suspense. A searing tale of seduction and betrayal, both wryly comic and deeply serious.” This story, too, is a suspenseful tale of seduction and betrayal, funny and gripping at once. Like all great fiction, it does not—it refuses to—judge. It simply creates a world and—and this is Mairal’s particular genius—a moment, and it invites us in.
– Jennifer Croft
Translator of The Woman from Uruguay
Why Wedding Rings and Hotel Hookups Don’t Mix
“The Ring” by Pedro Mairal, translated by Jennifer Croft
How does it fit you? asks his wife’s voice from the shadowy bedroom. Emilio is skinny, gangly, standing before the door in the light of the hall, dressed in his soccer outfit, checking out his new blue socks and cleats. They’re very professional-looking—are they comfortable? Yeah, they’re a little stiff, but I’ll break them in by playing. Anyway, I’m off. Don’t stay too late, Emilio, his wife says. We’ll probably have a beer after the game, he says and walks out with his bag over his shoulder.
It’s night outside. Emilio crosses Plaza Las Heras, checks to make sure no one is coming, and then, going behind a tree, he rubs his cleats against the grass, against the trunk, drags his feet through the dirt, wipes each sock with the sole of the other foot’s shoe until they’re stained. Then he resumes walking, and he crosses the square. He walks a number of blocks, until at the entrance of an apartment building he pushes the buzzer and is let in.
Upstairs, his friend Franco greets him and starts laughing at his outfit. Don’t you laugh. It’s a birthday present. If I don’t wear soccer gear, she won’t believe me. Franco says: Come on, why don’t you give me a hand with the fruit for the daiquiris. Wait, I have to get out of these clothes, says Emilio, stealing off to the bathroom.
In the kitchen, now wearing jeans and a t-shirt, he helps Franco cut up the fruit while they smoke a joint. But your shirt won’t have that funk to it, says Franco. I mean, what do you expect? You want me to go for a run? I got my shoes filthy, and I stuffed my shirt in my bag all wrinkled. You don’t think she’ll figure it out, do you? I don’t think so, no, says Emilio. But doesn’t she ever say anything to you? She says not to stay out late. Honestly, I don’t even think she cares anymore. Sometimes I get back a little before dawn and get in bed, and she wakes up and makes herself some breakfast, and I spend the morning sleeping in and then I go to the office while she takes a nap. We take turns sleeping. What does she do all day? Sleeps and eats, who knows?
They keep cutting strawberries and peaches. Hey, don’t you think daiquiris are a little bit boomer? asks Franco. Yeah, you’re right, these chicks probably drink Speed and vodka, that kind of thing. But daiquiris are sweet, and they have fruit in them, chicks like them, I think. Is it all the girls from the magazine coming? No, they’re bringing girlfriends, too. Lola has a friend who’s half Brazilian who has an ass you could put in a frame. Was that the buzzer?
When the apartment is full of people and music and smoke, Emilio dances in the throng, alcohol in hand. He seems a little unsteady now. There are people sitting on the floor talking in groups. Emilio dances with a girl with curly hair and a short blue dress. Every so often they brush against each other as they dance, and the girl lifts her arms. They smile at each other. I have to go to the bathroom, she says into his ear. Emilio follows her, and they go together into the hallway. There’s a line. Is this the line for the bathroom? A girl in glasses tells them it is. They stand there waiting, and Emilio says to the girl with the curly hair: I’m going to tell you a secret. The girl lets him come closer. Emilio speaks into her ear. She smiles and says: I never heard that version before, the one I know goes, “You’re hotter than chicken and potatoes.” Are you half Brazilian? Yeah, how’d you know? My mom’s Brazilian, I lived there when I was a kid. Emilio kisses her neck, then they kiss on the lips. When they stop, she says: Aren’t you married? I noticed your ring. Well, yes, but no. It’s not really…Not anymore. They continue making out. I really have to pee, she says. Want to get out of here? Sure, she says.
They squeeze into a corner of the elevator. What’s your name? Emilio, you? Sandra. On the street Sandra pees between two parked cars. Don’t look. I won’t. There’s no one coming, is there? No. What’s that bag for? she asks him once they’re walking. I had to bring some stuff to Franco’s place. Where do you know Franco from? From college, I’ve known him for like ten years, you? He’s a friend of a friend. Hang on, I want to kiss you right here where the street light’s making you look so sexy, Emilio says. They make out in the doorway of an apartment building, and when he starts to lift up her dress, she says: Not here. He says: Let’s go to a telo, there’s one around the corner, on Arenales.
They go into the telo, he pays, and they go looking for their room. They lock the door behind them, and she says, in the voice of a hostess: Welcome to Together Hotel, please remember…And a recorded voice says through the speaker: Welcome to Together Hotel, please remember that room service is available, and thank you for choosing us. He looks at her in surprise, and they laugh. You got stocks here? I used to come with a boyfriend, I shouldn’t have done that, I’m pretty drunk, I’d like to take a shower. We can shower together, says Emilio.
She turns on the bathroom light but turns it off again because it’s too bright. He turns on the water, and as it explodes out of the shower head he adjusts the temperature. He pulls her dress up over her head. She helps him take his t-shirt off. They get undressed trying not to stop kissing, but they can’t. He has to yank his jeans off, one of his legs gets stuck, and he kicks at them until he’s finally free of them. She gets in the shower, and he gets in after her.
He starts lathering her up under the stream. He soaps her breasts, she turns to face the tiles, showing her back to him. Emilio runs his hand between her thighs, slides the whole edge of his very soapy hand between her cheeks. Sandra, your ass is so toned and tight that when I put my hand like this, it pops off my ring, you feel that? he says in astonishment, repeating the movement. It’s like a bottle opener, your ass. Suddenly something happens. What’s wrong? she says. He crouches down. I dropped it, hang on, don’t move, turn on the light. Do you want me to stand still or turn on the light? Turn on the light, he says and shuts off the water.
On all fours Emilio searches the floor of the shower but doesn’t find it. You don’t think it could have gotten stuck in…? No! How could it be on me! she says. I think it went through the grate, he says. He peers into the drain. Was it really that loose? Yeah, it always fit me a little loose. She wraps a towel around herself and sits on the lid of the toilet, crossing her legs, not saying anything. What should I do? he asks desperately. But is it in there? I don’t know, I can’t see it. Use the flashlight on your phone. He searches for his phone and shines the little light down the drain. There it is! There’s like an elbow in the pipe and it’s right there, I can see it. Okay, but wait, she says, calm down, get dressed, and have reception send someone to help you.
He insists he’ll get it out fine on his own. I need something long, a wire. He paces around the room looking for something that will work.
Would you get dressed? she says. You’re making me nervous. You think you’re nervous, he says. Alright, take a breath, weren’t you just saying it wasn’t going to work out between you and your wife? What do you know about it? You told me, she says. If you’re not with her anymore, why don’t you just leave the ring there, what do you want it for? You don’t get it, kid. What do I not get? That you’re full of it? Emilio is silent for a minute. Then he says: The day you get married, you’ll understand, you’re too young now. Oh, wow, thanks. What a fucking ass. Emilio looks at her. Maybe with that thing you have around your neck, I can get it out. My necklace? No fucking way, you’re not putting my necklace down there. It has the perfect little catch for it. No. Emilio puts on his jeans and t-shirt, digs around in his bag, brings his keys and one of his soccer cleats into the bathroom. What are you going to do with a shoe? Not answering, he pulls off one of the laces, removes all the keys from the ring on his keychain and twists it. He hurts his fingers, presses it into the marble of the sink until it’s shaped like an S and then he ties it to the shoelace.
She gets dressed and sits back down on the closed toilet seat, drying her hair, combing it. I’m not leaving here until I get it out, says Emilio. He gets the shoelace through the grid and lowers it and raises it with one hand, while with the other he tries to shine the flashlight from his cell phone inside the pipe. A friend of mine had to leave her car at a telo one time, she says, when she went to the garage it wouldn’t start, a service truck ended up having to deal with it. Emilio doesn’t respond. After every failed attempt, he says “fuck.” She puts on her shoes and says: Take it as a sign, it’ll liberate you, it’s over, your suffering is over, I broke up with my boyfriend two months ago, and it was a total liberation, sometimes you just have to let relationships that aren’t working go exactly like this, down the drain…Sweetheart, can you just shut up? It’s hard enough trying to get this out of here without having to listen to your moronic analyses. Sandra pauses, rises, and then suddenly turns on both of the shower taps. A cascading torrent floods over Emilio, who cries, What are you doing?! and tries to turn off the taps and cover the grate with his foot. Sandra slams the door as she walks out. Soaked, Emilio tries to keep the water out of the drain, crouching down, peering back in with the flashlight of his phone, and says: Fucking piece of shit little girl. He sits there on the floor of the shower, his jeans and his t-shirt drenched.
He walks slowly down the street with the bag over his shoulder. He goes back to the apartment where the party was. There aren’t many people left. He tries to find Franco among the groups of drunken partygoers. Franco’s in the kitchen. What happened to you? he asks. Is it raining? Emilio tells him, and they talk for a while. Franco laughs, then says: What if you order another one? No, she’d notice, plus it had her name engraved on it, she’s the one who got them. The only thing I can think of is if you tell her you got mugged. Just the ring? Maybe your license too or something. What about my phone? Take out the SIM card and leave the phone here, says Franco. She’s not going to believe me, she’s going to see I wasn’t hurt or anything, I’d have to be beaten up, so she’d at least think I tried to protect my ring, otherwise…They’re silent a moment. Hit me in the face. No, says Franco, you’re insane. Just one punch, come on. No. Hit me with something, I’m asking you as a friend. Hit me with that cheese board. Emilio grabs the wooden board and puts it in Franco’s hand—he won’t take no for an answer. Some people come into the kitchen. Franco gets them to leave. They practice how exactly he’s going to hit him. You’re sure about this? Yes, says Emilio, facing him, his hands behind his back. Franco makes as if to hit him in the eyebrow, but halfway through he chickens out and swings at an angle and barely grazes him. Again, harder, you piece of shit, come on! shouts Emilio. Franco raises the board and hits him right on the eyebrow and the cheekbone, a hard, flat blow. Emilio lifts his hand so Franco won’t keep going. His eye is closed, and he’s bleeding. Was that too much? asks Franco. It’s okay, says Emilio. You’re gushing blood, sit a minute, says Franco. But Emilio says no and leaves.
He goes home on foot, getting blood on his t-shirt and his jeans on purpose. He reaches his house. He takes off his clothes in the laundry room and puts it in a bucket that’s half full of water. In his underwear, he goes into the bathroom, looks at himself in the mirror, and cleans the dried blood off with soap and toilet paper. His eyebrow and cheekbone are very swollen, but they’re not bleeding anymore. He comes out of the bathroom, walks down the hall and continues into the darkness of the bedroom.