the angel took the handle of the sacred door,
he said: "Enter, but I warn you
whoever turns around must restart this journey
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
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."
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"On the contrary; I
can help you. Are you married?"
her engagement ring. "I am divorced. I
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
"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
"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
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."
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: Â«a
trifle,Â» did he call it then. His motivation, according to
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
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:
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
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?"
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
Claudia forgave his
irony and spent the night with him. On the
following morning she remembered a dream marked by a face from her
"Have I told you the
story of Joaquina?" She asked Todd before
"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
Claudia watched Todd
"The pet of the
theatre actress we met about two months ago."
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
"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
"Good afternoon, Mr.
"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
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
"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
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
"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
Claudia greeted him looking at his hairless legs.
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
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
"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.
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
"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!"
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"¦"
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
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 .
purred as the metallic disc shrilled over the rail.