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New Manhattan Soirées

The actions of the New Manhattan Soirées could have happened in any American city, but I chose NY after a dream I had in 1997. On it I saw a close friend standing on a hill near NY city. Soon after I saw the entire city covered by water - a reminiscence (I thought at that time) of
The Waste Land. In Portugal, one year later, I found out a drawing of Durero that replicated such an image over another city, in a bygone century. Coincidentally, Durero had made his sketch after a nightmare...



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Front Cover of the  American Edition
(Bucaramanga, 2000)
Front Cover of the European Edition
(Barcelona, 2002)

Chapter 1 - Hudson
 

And the angel took the handle of the sacred door,

As he said: "Enter, but I warn you

That whoever turns around must restart this journey

Purgatory, IX, 130-132


The journey into the night hovered from the Hudson bank onto the Subway window, and from the dim waters where skyscrapers distorted their own reflection the shadows of dusk fell over Claudia Angelina De Las Penas. The shrill of the metallic discs over the rail  gnawed her bones, like the news of a deceased relative, and her hands squeezed her thighs as she distinguished a nervous string of experiences blurred by a fourteen-year absence.

As she stumbled she recognised the white glass-fibre banks-lifeless funeral procession, seats worn-out by the same passers-by.

The place where she was going to die did not impress her as much as it did the day she celebrated her first legal employment in the United States. Back then she had gathered the injustices of the Allen family, the vexations of the Venezuelan custom bureau, the scorn of her grandmother and her sleepless nights in her Bucaramanga bedroom.

She faced the delirious countenance of Fernando, her first husband, who breathlessly blamed the United States for his bankruptcy. It happened six months after the US government denied its certification to Colombia.

"That nation retaliates our misery," her husband moaned one evening Claudia tried to console him in the mechanic gesture of her arms. "My daughters will hobnob the mob. After so many years of decent social life I am obliged to send them to a public school. Who would have believe it? They will end up married to my workers.

Two weeks later Claudia persuaded him to send her to New York. Her commitment was to settle down. Fernando and her daughters were supposed to join her by the end of the year, but their relationship broke up after eight months. They would meet again, however, in Santafé de Bogotá, to expedite their divorce. Fernando walked in with a silicon-breast teenager. Now a public employee, his job was better remunerated than Claudia's-a Manhattan free-lance office cleaner at that time. Claudia invited them to a restaurant placed on the highway between Santafé de Bogotá and the small town of La Calera. Before the rarefied view of the capital of her country Claudia stood and envied the voluptuous fingering of her old husband and her childish lover. She gathered strength, however, deeming their behaviour as passionate as feigned. Life seemed to punish her back then. When she returned to Manhattan-to cleanse the stench of her employer's toilettes, Claudia, at the brim of suffering a breakdown, renew her frustration with new hopes. "Some day," she thought, "I am going to obtain a resident's permit."

Her perseverance fructified with her first permanent job-a long-awaited success capable to deaden her anguish and her most anxious thoughts. From now on her only concern would be the punctual payment of her credit cards.
Fernando had already disappointed her, as almost everyone else on whom she had relied in Colombia. His voice used to acquire a strident, almost artificial air at night. Self-banished, Claudia contrasted the images of her early life with the routine imposed by her calendar; superposed colours and lines that distorted her past to the advantage of her most recent experiences.

"Although more crowded," she used to think before the curved, almost spherical horizon of Manhattan, "Wall Street's traffic is better organised that Santander Square's in Bucaramanga."
"In Santa Fé de Bogotá people work as slaves," she used to say to Helen, her closest friend, while boasting that only in the United States you could subsist with a comfortable chair and a computer.

The concise style of the English TV-News and the hybrid slang of the Puerto Rican slums-dialects that introduced her to an indolent statistical society, surmounted Fernando's opinions. Her ennui was temporarily cured by her insisting visits to the shopping malls and the wittiness of TV comedians: famous heroes or criminals, nightly aired by the TV cable channels.

One day Todd remarked that fashionable thoughts were eroding her past, a thought that disturbed her mind for a couple of days.

"I am not less Colombian when I dye my hair," Claudia replied with torpor. "When I approved my first school year-I was then six years old, my classmates looked at me in horror. They couldn't understand how the most enterprising girl, the most creative, and therefore the most anarchic, was able to survive an academic year. Although undisciplined, I know my duties well."

"Your memories make part of a country that no longer exists," Todd retorted. "You have imperceptibly changed." "Maybe this exile has cured me of so much fraternalism. In any event you don't have to relish on my traumas, Todd. Have I offended you?"

"As a lover of truth I never get offended."

"Sure you would you be offended to know what I think about your broken legs".
Todd did no make further comments.

That day, the day of her firs legal American employment, Claudia had shook her head annoyed. Next to her a girl with a walk-man was singing Italian or Portuguese songs regardless of her company. Her hands were cuddling a cat subtly hidden in her canvas bag. The animal rubbed her muzzle against the fabric of the bag and looked askance at her. Claudia maintained a defiant gaze. Cats, nature's defenceless creatures, discover, copy and communicate their master's weaknesses better than any other pet. Claudia's great-grandmother used to brake the spine of those that dared to step onto her corn field. She slew them in an elementary, almost graceful, way, like someone who breaks a dried stick in two. Their bodies were buried in the field, as fertilisers of the plants that had caused their dead. Just a couple of days before Claudia had heard the story of a man who had purged a 10-year sentence in Illinois. His crime, as it was called,  was to have mistreated a dog. Todd associated the pangs of that man with those of the main character of an Aristophanes' comedy, in which a dog  is judged and sent to prison for stealing a sausage. "Humour," had said Todd once, irrupting his self-absorbed mood "may be either a friendly or a insidious abuse."

Back then Claudia's main concern was to get her Social Security Number on time, a document she needed to show before starting her new job at Fawl's in Queens. Claudia was not so worried, though. She revelled comparing her new income with the minimum salary she would have been continuing earning as an employee of the travel agency Luft Avec Earth in Santa Fé de Bogotá. Her years of unrest and affliction were finally going to be rewarded. Such realisation almost disturb her. By the end of next summer she would have earned the wages a Colombian average worker earns in ten years. A weightless sea gull crossed the sky. Claudia hummed a song in English and Spanish. Her chestnut-tree hair glimmered from the metro window glass; she realized that her true colour was gone. Tall, light-eyed and able to speak with a Neo-Yorker accent, Claudia had gradually submitted to her superiors' pale preferences.
As every afternoon she glanced the world-weary expressions of the subway passengers.
Her absorption kindled memories of her eight-year work as a free-lance family housemaid. Although she had exerted several works since her arrival to the US, housecleaning was the only job to provide her with a regular income. Moving between the sewers of Long Island and Manhattan Claudia had endured iniquity and abuse. Some friends advised her to sue her employers, but Claudia was resilient, fearful to endure reprisals from US government officials. Once she arrived to the US she followed Fernando's suggestion to promote her house-cleaning services, typing, photocopying and distributing a leaflet from door to door. For about six months she cleaned Mrs. Allen's house thrice a week. Mrs. Allen-a wide-hip knock-kneed woman, lived with her two sons, one of them handicap, in a 7-bedroom mansion close to Belt Park Avenue. Her husband, a grey-eye middle-age man who hardly spoke, and whom Claudia rarely saw at home, worked with a governmental agency. Although her work was demanding, her weekly payments were fairly received on time. At the beginning the Allen family received her without discrimination; all they knew her as an illegal alien. One afternoon, driven by a wish to improve her English conversation level, Claudia praised the gentleness of Mrs Allen. "I'm lucky to work here," she said "I know many housemaids that are abused by their employers."

"Lies. Sexual harassment is a federal crime. They will pay their abuse with a 10-year prison sentence."

"The law doesn't care about illegal emigrants. They are often betrayed with impunity."
Mrs. Allen's pupils dilated in her eyes as she swayed her head back and forwards.
Next day Mrs. Allen asked Claudia to clean and order the basement-a dungeon packed out with mouldy baseball gloves, rusted anchor chains, frayed rigging, deflated basketballs, footballs and volleyballs, boxing bags, torn quivers, rotten tennis rackets, stripped angling rods, humid fencing mesh masks, bug-pierced parachutes, blunted climbing hooks and all sort of propos and sport equipment. As it was, the Allen family preserved this never-used heap as a souvenir of their would-be won competitions. Claudia obeyed dazzled, pondering whether Mrs. Allen would pay her an extra fee for her work. For one week she struggled with hundreds of bugs, cockroaches, fleas, spiders and termites, insects that bit her in their last desperate attempt to protract their existence.

On Thursday Claudia worked tirelessly, finishing her unnecessary cleaning by sunset. Exhausted and sweating she asked Mrs. Allen whether she was allowed to take a shower in her bathroom before her departure. Her dedication had disarranged her itinerary. With no time to return to his apartment to cleanse her skin cellar stench, Claudia had to be in a Manhattan building before 10 p.m. Mrs. Allen agreed with a harried gesture Claudia could not interpret. She went hastily to a small bathroom at the end of the corridor. As she dried her body she heard intermittent knocks on the door.

She wrapped her body in a Georgia-State-map printed towel and leaned her waist on a wall next to the shower. As she half-opened the door Larry, Mrs. Allen's son, accused her of having trespassed into his private bathroom. Claudia tried to excuse herself, but Larry interrupted her, screaming that now he was going to arrive late to his weekly brewing brotherhood party, a mischief caused by a filthy South American alien. Claudia stepped back tautly to pick up her clothes-desperately wanting to go out and to get dressed in another room. As she picked up her bra the door closed stridently. She panted and turned around; her knees bent between the tub and the toilette. Larry approached her unfastening his trousers belt.
"Latina!" Larry spat at her.

She shouted. Larry pushed his boots against her back. Her body fell unwieldy on the marble floor. She discovered two glass cylinders encrusted beneath the bidet low porcelain. The hands of her attacker-as pliers on her ankles, forced her to twist her body all the way around. With resigned despair she outstretched her twitched hands over the porcelain. The objects yielded easily to her grasp without resistance. As she moved instinctively her arms over her rumps, a cylinder accelerated its elliptical projection to crash on the skull of her aggresor. Larry's pale face thrust heavily on the floor. He knelt down to look awkwardly to his turgid penis. His fingers raised to recognise his wound. Claudia picked up her clothes and left the bathroom before the perplexed gaze of her employer's son.

Next day she abstained herself from returning to Mrs. Allen's house. One week later, however, mortified by her violence and afraid to undergo a pernicious aftermath, Claudia wrote an apology in a piece of paper and phoned Mrs. Allen, well prepared to face a nagging, if no more. But Mrs. Allen merely inquired about the reasons of her absence. Claudia improvised then a silly excuse, which, to her surprise, her employer immediately accepted by asking her, in a begging tone, when would she be able to see Claudia by her home. "We miss you, darling," she had said. More prompted by her need of work than by her sympathy towards Mrs. Allen, Claudia came back that very day to reassume her housemaid tasks . As days went on she came to believe that Larry's outburst of violence had fell into oblivion. Back to her work, the members of the Allen clan-including Larry, addressed her with the same indifference or cordiality she had enjoyed during the first months of her employment. She worked calmly for one week, until Mrs. Allen announced her that she would not receive her customary payment.

"From now on," she argued, "due to certain economic difficulties I am experiencing as a result of late investments in the World Wide Web, I would only be able to pay you every two months."

Claudia thought on quitting her job for good, but as she was fearful to lose her previous accumulated salary she immediately realized that she didn't have another choice than to accept her employer's draconian conditions. Two months passed, though, and Mrs. Allen had only paid her a third of her wages. Claudia uttered a timid protest, to which her employer replied with a smile, promising Claudia to cancel her debts in about two months. The deadline expired and an undaunted Mrs. Allen told Claudia that she was never going to pay her. For a moment Claudia wondered whether her employer had lost her mind. The matron scowled at Claudia and suggested her to go to claim her wages to the South American hobos who were frisking her tax money in jail. By then Claudia had already been hired as full-time cleaner of a Manhattan building bureau. Her new boss, Rómulo-a Peruvian middle-aged man, greeted her with limpid, incomprehensible phrases: "Guten Tag, Freulein! Die Gegenwart eines Gedankens ist wie die gegenwart einer Geliebten." It is a remarkable verse of one of the many languages I study during my free time. I will call you "Dove." The name of Colombia undeservedly reminds me  of a 15th-century privateer, Columbus, "Dove" in Latin.

Claudia had avoided since then the company of Rómulo, whose tedious monologues-seasoned with foreign words and weird expressions, intimidated her. Claudia adapted quickly fast to her new job. The seed of resentment, however, germinated against the Allen family during the coming weeks. Claudia saw his old matron at the mercy of a serious-killer. Assuming the identity of the criminal, Claudia triggered and aimed her gun to the forehead of her victim, whom, knelt on the rug, was only capable to pour thick tears over her cheeks. Her obsession ceased, though, after she got one hundred postal cards for a dollar. Claudia transcribed then on yellowish envelopes the addresses she had tracked from her acquaintances in a worn-out, most probably outdated phone book. She went to the post office and mailed her postcards to several remote towns in Colombia. On top of her signature she bragged about having  been hired as a bakery "Personnel Director."  She would have rather lied than to stir the idea that her sleepless nights in Manhattan-dragging her cleaning cart from bath to bath, would kindle the scorn of her friends, the pity of her relatives and the delight of her enemies.

"Are you Hispanic?" somebody asked her when leaving the post office.

Claudia assented with distrust. She discovered next to her a tall chestnut-hair woman of curved legs, bulky hips and light blue eyes half-hidden by a golden frame. Her dense and freckled complexion seemed to shrink in the quirky movements of her mouth.

"My name is Helen." The woman raised her right hand with aristocratic slackness. "I am a member of DAWN-Dignifying Association for Women in North America."

"Are you?" Claudia shook her pasty hand. A dog lapped by her side. Its neck was leashed to her master's wrist. "I'm afraid you have met the wrong person."

"On the contrary; I can help you. Are you married?"

"No"¦" Helen stared at her engagement ring. "I am divorced. I keep this ring as a souvenir. It helps me to get rid of weirdoes."
At dusk both women were mutilating fried chicken legs in their fingers. They had gone to restaurant with a river view, over the south flank of Queen's bridge.

"This year we want to help women who are working illegally in the United States," Helen said, "I am from Utah, a State defamed by its patriarchal manners-a biblical trend you have already heard of, surely . One year ago my parents asked me to marry a wealthy, yet polygamous man. The wedding was almost prepared when-thank God-, I met a member of DAWN. At the beginning I was sceptical. One cannot imagine a world without men, but at the end I was seduced by their creed. Their intentions were advantageous and very convenient. I escaped from my past to arrive to this city, where I get grants from the government for about forty thousand dollars a year-a misery. Those pigs in Washington  are unfairly unwilling to provide us with enough money to get a decent living."

"With those wages you would feed a Colombian Caribbean Coast family of 12."

"We are not in Colombia, dear." Helen cited the African-American poet that mocked compliance. "My job is to aid women battered by life; a difficult enterprise, believe me. Evils must be uprooted-that's our conviction. We just want women to be aware of how burdensome marriage is. We are in the 90s! It is inconceivable that woman still deliver before even succeeding in their lives!

"I can not imagine myself living without a family."

"It used to be good for sexual satisfaction-but a dildo can replace a man with greater effectiveness." Helen extracted a rubber cylinder of his purse-thick as the glass cylinder Claudia had used against Larry Allen.

Claudia wondered whether the ill germs of a civilised continent were harassing her, like worn-out marionettes in a wooden frame. She deemed Helen as undaunted and sound as unfeasible and foolish.

"I am not a lesbian," Helen went on, "Moreover, I have never been attracted by a woman. It's just, well... I think -that's what my shrink told me, that men just want to be love at home in order to injure the outside world. I don't have anything against men, though".

Claudia was already tired of Helen's nonsensical discourse. her eyes flashed, however, once Helen suggested her the possibility to marry a cripple man in order to obtain her American residency.

"It makes me sick to think that you are at the mercy of unscrupulous men at you work ." Although Helen became confused when Claudia asked her about marriage procedures, her amiable attitude and confidence gained Claudia's respect and trust, and their friendship increased during the following months.

"You will assume a new identity for a while," Helena told her one week later as she handle her out a wallet stuffed with the papers of a bony blonde that happened to be a drug-addict ex-convict and prostitute. "About your husband, you will have to wait until next year."

Claudia adapted swiftly to her new life and identity, until the threatening shadow of the immigration authorities crossed the threshold of her working place.  By then Helen had already introduced Claudia to Todd, a 54-year-old professor of philosophy. A bulky fellow sustained by two crutches, he seemed enthusiastic to sign Claudia's marriage certificate for a 1,000.00-dollar debt-note: «a trifle,» did he call it then. His motivation, according to his own words, was entirely philanthropic. Claudia felt nausea towards Todd at first ; his awry lips betrayed a no-so-well-hidden sexual aberration, his droopy hands his arrogance, his half-rounded back his indolence and selfishness. Claudia, nonetheless, smiled, urged as she was by her working problems.

"You may easily charm a Chicano as well, though." Said Helen once Todd had left them. Shortly after, in effect, on the eve of her wedding, Rómulo phoned her waking her up in the middle of the night.

"I don't get along with Anglo-Saxon women," he said. "They are tasteless-terrible cookers. Touch them without permission and they will bawl at you. Don't get married by interest, my dove. You don't have to. I am most willing to marry you. After all you are one of us. It will cost you nothing. We may move to the house of my parents in Lima; they are a very, very traditional couple."

"I am not," Claudia replied. "Why don't you marry to a Peruvian woman?"

"They have revolted!" Rómulo yelled. "These cities have corrupted them. I'm seeking a housewife-someone interested to read and memorise salad recipes, rather than to ask me how to prepare them.

"I hardly know you."
"We can set up a date; what about tomorrow evening, after work?"

"I will be married by then." Claudia replied before hanging up on him.

"You did well," Helen told her after she found out about Romulo's call. "I know that type of guy, a good-for-nothing seducer of ingenuous newcomer girls. Were he sincere-let's suppose-he would have confined you to his Peruvian home, where you would have sooner or later found out about his spare wives. And, would have you asked for a divorce, he would have forced you to stand a humiliating and disadvantageous trial. You can not win, dear. Your place of birth cannot gain the sympathy of a judge, least of a jury. Anyway, time will teach you. This is a country of amazons. You should memorise some laws. They are the most convenient asset against your friend or foe.

"I have already taken my decision." Claudia said.

"Good girl! A wedding with a nerd is the safest wedding. They know how to keep their word. You pay him and he merely continues studying. You must have heard of those poor girls who flight from Ukraine or the Philippines. They get sugary-face men of that change their feelings from honey to charcoal in less than one year. They rape them day and night, always under the threat of deporting them back to their country. Todd is not only a good man, but also a cripple. I would have respected your decision to marry Rómulo, rather than Todd. But let me assure you once more that you did splendid by rejecting your boss' proposal. For only one thousand dollars you don't have to stand a tree-year humiliation that would have traumatised you until your final day!"

The wedding was carried out in less than fifteen minutes, in a small office garnished with US banners. As they came out, a pointed-moustache man invited them to sit down under an arch decked out with white silk-like strips. He photographed Todd and Claudia in different postures, from the most unusual angles. Helen stepped over a bank to throw handfuls of rice on the betrothed. Her aimless effort to cheer up the farce infuriated an obese guard, whom Helen, it seems, had carelessly overlooked. The guard got waist-up naked and shook the grains of rice stuck onto his furry complexion. He embittered the wedding celebration by admonishing Helen and seizing her rice stock. His standoffish fingers pointed to a paper signboard, where a hand had carelessly written in English and Spanish:
 
Prohibited throwing rice on the betrothed
 
 
Claudia managed to visit her husband thrice a week. As they nourished their friendship, Claudia learnt that Todd lived a prickly relationship with Ximena, a Chilean young woman who had ratified Todd's nuptials and who had squandered  in less than three hours, in an Atlantic City casino, the thousand dollars Claudia paid Todd for their wedding certificate.

After a couple of shallow disputes and reconciliation Ximena left Todd for a motorcyclist, whose main business was the selling of barbiturates from coast to coast. Todd seemed to have digested stoically his pangs of love. He told first at Claudia that he had already anticipated his rupture with Ximena. Wherefore, he would live, as Sade, as a bachelor from now on. Claudia solaced him by talking about her recent sentimental failure with a libertine. They chat until dawn, recounting each other stories of inspired and unattained love -improvised confessions of their desperate need for affection. Claudia had finally pitied the timid glances of Todd and kissed him. The sunrise glimmered as they made love in a shamefully slow pace. Before taking her leave Claudia stuttered to Todd that in spite of what had happened she couldn't allow herself to fall in love with him. Her affection was subject to Constantino-the libertine she had not heard of for more than one year. Todd seemed to understand her. They both said adieu while promising each other to meet once again without obligation.

Months later, just after having coped successfully with the customary inquiry of the United States Immigration Department, Todd asked Claudia whether she would be willing to move to his apartment for good.

"I didn't lie when I declared I loved you." He said, " I know that marriage is but an institution of the bourgeoisie where two displeased creatures feel compassion for each other-but in such a case, I must admit it, I hadn't known a woman so plenty of compassion as yourself. I do not want to oblige you; I am incapable of breaking up my promises".

"It's hard for me to stand the stench of a new lover," Claudia demurred, but she still smiled. "I must think."

"Thinking too much may betray you. You just simple love me or you don't. That's all. Any other type of consideration might be suspicious. I am fed up with so many bitches looking at my bank account."

"Will you return my money back, then," Claudia joked unembarrassed.

"With those one thousand dollars you merely bribed my girlfriend," Todd retorted with sudden dryness. "Don't you agree with me?"

Claudia assented without bothering to understand his attitude.
"I am always right," he went on. "It is the world who is mistaken."

After several weeks of pondering Claudia turned down Todd's proposal, not as much on account of her Catholic upbringing, which, as Todd had pointed out, disapproved of extramarital fornication, as by her consideration towards Kim, her Argentinean roommate. They both had shared a tiny apartment in Queens, close to Roosevelt Boulevard.

"We have just renewed our six-month contract. I promised her not to leave her alone; Kim's English is very clumsy."

"Her Castillian will help her to survive from bar to bar," Todd talked back. "Besides, Kim is an adult woman. Family values and philanthropy are worn out in the United States. You cannot enjoy your life while helping all the strangers who knock on your door. One life is enough, for God's sake! You are being paternalistic with her. That, my dear, is an unforgiving offence. The more you help Kim the deeper she will sting you on your back. But I understand your point. You have rejected me. The best we can do is not to see each other again.

"Don't take me wrong," Claudia broke in, afraid Todd might feel encourage to start a legal retaliation. "I want to see you once in a while. I just wouldn't like to go so fast."

"I don't want either to jerk off while you are away. I can pick up any woman everywhere in New York."

The argument went on until Todd bowed to his wife's will. He was more pleased than persuaded by her attitude. Used to blame women with puzzling motivations, such as cruelty or revenge against the strongest sex, he was now prompted by solitude to step on with caution.

"That's fine," he smiled. "I don't see why I cannot live separated from my wife."

Claudia forgave his irony and spent the night with him. On the following morning she remembered a dream marked by a face from her early childhood.

"Have I told you the story of Joaquina?" She asked Todd before breakfast.

"I heard something about it. The girl who committed suicide."

"I saw her last night, walking in front of my window. She had a rope knot on her neck, from which a leash, made of fibre flayed from mescal leaves, clung to her granddad's hands. He drove her and treated her like a dog. I had forgotten that image. Now it is dreadfully clear. The colour of her suit was dark yellow, as when I saw her last, two days before she drank that bottle of poison. Back then she fixed her sight on me with sadness, though there was an air of hope in her eyes. Now I have the certainty that Joaquina had already undergone suicidal thoughts. People said she didn't intent to die. 'Poison for cockroaches,' they argue, 'doesn't kill women.' What happened is that the wretched was so nervous that the viscous liquid entered into her lungs, chocking her. But what I realized last night, for a first time, was how deeper the rope knot had injured her neck."

"Like the skirt dog of G. Waters."

Claudia watched Todd stupefied.

"The pet of the theatre actress we met about two months ago."

Claudia avoided further comments on the matter. She wondered whether Todd was disgruntled with her unpolished chronicles of Colombian life. "The mind unties its pack of hounds to the shelter of the night," Fernando told her once, after waking her up from an unbearable nightmare, "blurring atrophied memories in the mist of present bogs."

Claudia had often asked herself whether Todd was hearing to  her confessions on the brutality of the soldiers, the abuse of the politicians and children's mistreat altogether as mere metaphors of violence. She rejected the idea that her memories were altered, even though she accepted the possibility that her mind could have recovered the fleeting sequence of a theatre play to blend it in the torturing image of Joaquina.

That very morning Claudia perused the New York Times' classified ads.

"Don't waste your time," Todd told her while farting in his bed, "you haven't got your SS number yet: they'd rather hire some documented dupe today."

"Even so I would like to get information on the work market," Claudia parried bad-tempered, used as she was to entertain herself with pointless works. "It gives me hope."

She immersed her concentration in the newspaper to reassure her belief that the demand of work was not scant. She was tempted to attend to a job interview with a spurious SS card, but the prospect of new problems with the law discouraged her. During eight years she lived on the brim of deportation. A Bronx prostitute had helped her with her documents: Sally Herryll, a conspicuous member of Helen's brotherhood. One week later Claudia was being hired by a doughnut's store as a waitress. Three months went on and Claudia caressed the idea of assuming her new identity for good, until one of her customers recognised her.

"Hello Claudia. You are married, I suppose I should say. I see that your new name is Sally. Ah! For a moment  I thought you were really married, but I don't see a marriage ring in your fingers. I am not papist, but I know most Latin Americans are."

Claudia fixed her eyes on the lascivious tongue of her interlocutor. She bit her lips in a nervous gesture; do dots of blood escaped from them.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Allen."

"Call me Larry," her customer scanned her from top to toe. "For olt time's sake. But don't be nervous. My mother has been asking for you. After you left us she suffered a stroke. We even thought it was caused by your sudden escape. She had luck, though. She was treated by the best neurosurgeon of Manhattan. Now she frequently remembers you. She wants to pay you an old debt. Perhaps you should drop by our house tomorrow morning. That way I can also vindicate myself. A life of doughnuts must be miserable. It doesn't matter how much care you take; there are rats everywhere. Why don't you quit? You may even work for us. I'm organizing a gardening business with my father. We are true democrats, and as such we never discriminate people. We only contract Central American workers as a matter of fact. A race less sluggish than ours, for they demand less money, they never complain and they are more loyal. A machine may chop their hands, but even so, they would never even think about suing us. We plan to provide those boys with a resident permit; it's never easy, believe me, but we have an uncle who is in politics, and who knows how to deal with all that paperwork. Please, don't mistake me! I know I was bold and naughty in my youth. But now things have changed. I look forward to fall in love with a decent girl. Besides, here you are in danger. Some jerk may recognise you and denounce you to the authorities."

On the following day Claudia didn't show up for work. A febrile fear locked her in her room. She stunned her mind with the intermittent flux of images and sounds of TV programs and commercials. During two days she was merely fed with water and tuna cans. Her fast drew out until the fourth day, when hunger forced her to go out to the supermarket, where she got some bread. To her return a Paraguayan work mate called her and prevented her to return to work. Several dressed-up individuals had been already asking for her whereabouts. Claudia hanged up and ran towards the mirror. The image of her emaciated body appeased her, in the same way that her joviality had done before her Bucaramanga bathroom mirror many years ago. Then she was about eleven years old. Time before supper, after having lost a bicycle school race, Claudia entered sweating to her bathroom. She pissed down and as she stood up she was amazed by her own gaze. A tiny face coated by a flaccid and pasty skin approached her. She met in that image her own being. Her skin was a camouflage from which she could not escape. Her veins and bones an organic mass to which she must resign her freedom. She fingered her skin as she had often done with her breasts. She stepped back frightened before the certainty that what she really was, mere thought, was confined to the volume of that organism. The world, before as extensive as her glance, was in reality shrank to the biology of a body. Urged by her reflection Claudia returned to the toilet to defecate. Once she cleansed her entrails she chose to go to Helen's flat in search of an advice.

At her arrival her friend asked her about her health. Claudia perceived some fretfulness in her voice.

"I'm trying to lose some weight," she answered with cracked voice in an effort to disguise her anguish. Helen tranquillised her and Claudia confessed to her the story of her recent mishaps
''You don't worry. We have been cautious. And even if they discover your imposture, you won't allow them to deport you. You may spend some months in prison, but then you will be free."

"I won't be able to stand more abuses," Claudia uttered as she sobbed. "I'd rather return to Colombia."

"You won't do what they want you to do," Helen embraced her.
"One of the women of our association works in a textile company. I will speak to her-she may hire you. In the meantime I'm going to haste your marriage."

Claudia had deceived her employers by giving Helen's address as her own. Months later her Paraguayan friend told her how two dressed-up men came to seize her last wages. They took note of her address from a payroll slip and appeared days later before Helen's flat. Their ostentatious appearance didn't intimidate Helen. She gently received, without altering a muscle of her face. Less than half an hour later the inopportune officials left her without betraying a hint of suspicion.

Claudia worked then in the textile industry, as a tanner-a low-paid and heavy job to which, nonetheless, she fit in after two months. She was paid on a daily basis. A frugal existence in a derelict shared bedroom allowed her to gather enough money to pay for her phony marriage. Her SS card, though, had not arrived three months after her wedding. Subordinated to the ups and downs of the postal service, and always afraid to risk her identity in a phone call, Claudia couldn't do more than gnawing her nails with her teeth. The maximum term of post delivery stipulated by the law was of six weeks.

"You should discount Thanksgivings week," Kim had consoled her.

At the same time new worries hung on her domestic life. One month ago Kim started a relationship with a Vietnamese-American man, Cassandro. At the beginning Claudia got interested in his past, inasmuch as her family had escaped from Saigon during the Kissinger war. Without property or cultural knowledge Kuh-Sue, his father, managed to pay for the education of his three children.

After obtaining a government loan, Mister Kuh bought a tow truck and rented a lot in Harlem. Some months passed and Mister Kuh made a small fortune, an aftermath of his shrewdness and hard work. Day after day he eagerly hooked cars wrongly parked in the low blocks of Manhattan. The fines fluctuated between two hundred and five hundred dollars, out of which half was payable to Mr. Kuh. Cassandro's father became a citizen appreciated by the head of the local police, an officer surnamed Jones. Under his protection the business of the Kuh had prospered for about twenty-four years: a period of time during which City Hall, his main customer, had never complained for the quality of his services.

Mr. Kuh managed to use his English to his own advantage. If somebody claimed to be a victim of an unfair towing, Mr. Kuh spoke to him in a heavy Asian accent. Sometimes some victims -or violators of the law, as Mr. Kuh preferred to  call them, protested noisily and even  insulted him. But then Mister Kuh used to talk back at them in a fine Scottish accent, saying that unless they were paying their fine on time, he will soon issue a further bill for aggressive behaviour against a public servant. The Kuh, of course, did not work directly with the government, but the tone of voice of Mister Kuh was good enough to intimidate them.

Cassandro had evaded his father's will for at least ten years. His preference for the arts had exasperated his parents, who sought for their children a secure living in businesses, or in the lucrative careers of computer sciences and medicine. Whereas his brothers travelled to Boston to study business administration, Cassandro had grudgingly registered at the nearest Law school. A couple of months later he realized that his hopes to study classical composition some day were imperceptibly fading away. He started then his own group of alternative music. His parents supported his decision in the belief that his group would be their son's youthful hobby.

By the end of his first academic year Cassandro discovered the mutual incompatibility between the parrot-like memorisation of laws and the interpretation of pop music. At the end he learnt to distrust of a social system well prepared to extinguish his vocation. Influenced by ideas from his music group mates-students of African-American and Women's studies, Cassandro saw his family as an institution mainly made to tame his aspirations and to stiffen his mind. The frustrations of his rock music group gave way to drugs and poverty, and they to hate.

Once his parents paid his second-year registration fee to the university, Cassandro abandoned his studies to get an eighty-percent reimbursement of his registration fee. With that money he bought a new electronic guitar and a bicycle, tools with which he travelled to Cuba for one month. To his return, penniless, he stood fearless before his furious father.

"Cuba!" Mr. Kuh had exclaimed. "If the F.B.I calls us, I swear I won't conceal anything to them. I'd rather have a son in an American jail than in a communist grave!"

"I also know you'd rather have a daughter fucking with a gangster!' Cassandro replied in reference to his sister, a thin languid girl, recently engaged with a car engineer.
"To my return I found a family subservient to an Euro-centric neo-colonialist snob," Cassandro said to Claudia one week after they were introduced. "In Asia we open our mouth while we eat; to air the food. That habit shocks Anglo-Saxons and Latin Americans alike, but if we lived in a multicultural society, as the posters of the presidential campaigns say, it is about time we eat agape without guilty feelings. I cannot stand being scolded by an ugly look. What a surprise, then, when my sister Sue tells me that from now on I should eat as westerners do. And all that crap because her shitty fiancé will come to dine with us!"

Kim observed first with reserve, soon with jealousy, and finally with animosity the growing friendship between Claudia and Cassandro. Her unhappiness increased the day she heard Cassandro flattering Claudia's classical CD's collection.
"Do you think that Claudia collects them because she is cultured?" Kim cut short Cassandro's blarney and grimaced at Claudia. "Why? No! She listens to them to relax her body after she has cleaned up the dung of the Manhattan's toilettes!"
In spite of feeling a wrath compatible to that that moved the farmers of Cimitarra (Scimitar,) the bloodthirsty village of South Santander state in Colombia, to murder their rivals, Claudia dismissed Kim's provocation with a shrink. By then her roommate's annoyance had become practically unbearable.

"In any case it's a good collection." Cassandro stammered in a tardy effort to conciliate both parts. Such event happened two days after Claudia turned down Todd's proposal. On the following day Cassandro and Kim hardly greeted her. Claudia inferred that the best she could do was to leave her home for a couple of weeks. Since Cassandro was used to sleep with Kim almost every night, Claudia moved to Todd's house for a while. To her return Cassandro, clothed in underwear, rambled by kitchen hardly concealing his genitalia. Claudia took note of the impeccable aspect of the apartment, but also of her out-of-place furniture. She had already suspected Kim hated her unfashionable chairs and tables, maybe because Claudia had got them in the flea market or gathered them from her late summer strolls throughout Soho, when students and professors were finishing off  their goods over the sidewalks.

"Hello Cassandro," Claudia greeted him looking at his hairless legs. "I see you are very cosy today."

"We didn't know you would come so soon," was his dubious remark before stepping back on to his girlfriend's bedroom.
Claudia relished the idea of Kim surprising them at that very moment; her jealousy would prompt Kim to represent Cassandro thrusting furtively in Claudia's body before her arrival. Cassandro, however, didn't attract her enough, and his shyness could make for her annoying lack of privacy. Alone, in her bedroom, she remembered Constantino and Fernando, men she had hardly love, but whose memory unnerved her. She thought on her mother copulating with Fernando, then on herself overtaking her place an instant before the final convulsion of his waist.

Shortly after Claudia surprised Cassandro and Kim fornicating on the terrace. Although both immediately covered their bodies with a dressing gown, Claudia was infuriated by their carelessness. She slandered them, calling Kim a slut and Cassandro a drug addict. They both blushed as they uttered excuses in several languages. As days went off Claudia felt more and more a stranger at her own home. One night she couldn't find two of her CDs; on the following day she found them in a drawer, in her closet. On the other hand Kim and Cassandro were visibly upset by her uneasiness. Certain night they tried to talk warmly to her. Cassandro spoke, no without remorse, about the difficulties of contemporary life. Without space, he argued, everyone had to deal with the fact that the intimacy of our neighbours is no longer private, and we shouldn't allow ourselves to be surprised by embarrassing situations. He joked about pornography and Claudia made a sullen remark, prevented as she was by Helen against that sly commerce of ill-treated women, recently overtaken by an offspring of female film directors committed to dignify porno actresses by denigrating their male counterparts. Claudia openly revealed her growing scorn towards Kim and Cassandro. She wondered whether she had became a nagging old spinster ill-humoured by Todd's remarks, or whether she resented Kim's recent independence from her. Cassandro's affection, which had undoubtedly replaced Claudia's in Kim's heart, had gradually embittered her life. As roommates Kim and Claudia were used to take long strolls along Manhattan. Claudia used to give Kim valuable tips of information and advice, while correcting her roommate's tattering English. Nowadays Kim, backed by Cassandro, was the one eager to correct her:


"You don't say 'that's according to you', but 'that's up to you'." Claudia had calmly bowed her head before these words, more upset by Kim's sly intent to put her down -by proclaiming that what she had learned under her guidance was wrong, than by the supremacy of the American jargon over literary manners.

Todd used to listen patiently to her complaints, only to implement  them later on to his own advantage. "She wants to adopt our modus vivendus," he said, "with more enthusiasm than her lover. The offence is a Mesopotamian virtue. Here we are too phlegmatic. Our hypocrisy is less sullen, more civilised. As I had anticipated Kim intends to harm you now. You are part of her shameful past, but, believe me, people like her end up lonely, hellishly proud of their thanklessness. But you are digging to deep into this conflict, dear. You may be provoking it as a matter of fact, seeking to be harmed, seeking to be offended. What for? Just to blame them . They have been, after all, your closest friends. In any event, I will repeat it, the best you can do is to move for good to my place ."

Claudia uttered a sharp moan as a replied. Her indisposition against Todd were accrued by a recent, casual discovery that had prompted her to keep distant from her husband. While staying in Todd's flat, she happened to be in need of a pair of scissors to cut off a threat from her shirt. She searched Tod's desk's drawers and there she found a piece of newspaper in which pert women announced their willingness to schedule hasty encounters with men. Four numbers were written in the margins of the paper. With dicey impertinence Claudia dialled one of the printed numbers. A pre-recorded voice requested an access code number. Claudia dialled several of the additional written numbers. After ten minutes of frustrated attempts Claudia got access to a private box of pre-recorded messages. There she listened to the voices of four women who had had intimate relationships with Todd. Claudia let her mind recreate other clandestine relationships-whores and solitary maniacs who came to visit him in secret. She was more irritated, though, by the secrecy of Todd's encounters than by the encounters themselves.

"I cannot flee from home at the first problem I get," Claudia went on. "Lovers come and go. Only true friends remain, even when they despise you. I cannot think what may happen to Kim if that boy leaves her!"

"Bullshit," Todd disagreed. "But don't react as if I were pushing you. As any one who has fallen in love I'm at your mercy. If at least I were able to walk with dignity"¦"

Certain Thursday, having travelled half her way back home in the subway, Claudia heard a Creole melody:
 
The stars would have withstood our encounter
Nights, our kisses, kisses everlasting days
 
Missing Constantino, Claudia felt a sudden wish to call back to Santa Fé de Bogota. A vain illusion. Two years had passed since Claudia heard of Fernando last. Urged by a sporadic melancholy, Claudia idealised her stepfather and lover as his true advisor. But Fernando no longer loved her. He hardly could. The last time they talked to each other Claudia felt obliged to tell him she didn't have any money. She had, in fact, lied to him. Her credit card would have allowed her to send him the one thousand five hundred dollars he was asking for. But she felt compelled to learn whether her ex-husband loved her for the sake of money. Fernando broke his voice describing the torments of his debts. He whispered something confuse, like meaning that Claudia shouldn't be wasting her money in calling him. A lukewarm sentence and a farewell ended his speech.
The tile roofs of Queens' houses crossed by beyond the window, a succession of red surfaces and graffiti-stained roofs. The subway stopped and Claudia quickly got off . A man with a guitar followed her. Claudia felt his eyes over her rump as she descended the steps of the metallic scaffolding. His presence continued as she stood on the sidewalk, waiting for the traffic light change. "Dirty Latin Americans," she thought remembering the obscene remarks and pert glances of Queen's Spanish-speakers.

The cars stopped and Claudia couldn't cross the street; the man with the guitar had clung her arms in his hands. Claudia wanted to shout, or to strike that unexpected intruder with her purse, but then, facing a pair of brilliant eyes, Claudia was taken out of Queens' worn-out streets to abandon her tremulous teenager body to the glances of the depressing neighbours of the Diamante II slums .

"Mario?" Claudia purred as the metallic disc shrilled over the rail.


 




Hugo Santander Ferreira © First Film Productions 2011