Guillermo Fadanelli is one of Mexico’s leading authors, and appears in English for the first time in this translation of See You at Breakfast? by the young Australian translator Alice Whitmore (PUblished this month by GIRAMONDO PUBLISHING). Set in modern-day Mexico City, the novella follows the lives of four characters: Cristina, a practical-minded prostitute; Ulises, a solitary oFFIce worker obsessed by a promotion he will never receive; his friend Adolfo, a part-trained veterinarian; and OLIVIA the neighbour whose violent assault brings them together as a group.
Guillermo Fadanelli is an award-winning author based in Mexico City. Lauded as one of the key proponents of Mexican ‘dirty realism’, Fadanelli’s writing is often compared with the low rent tragedies of Raymond Carver and Charles Bukowski. He is the recipient of the National Literature Prize, the Impac-Conarte-ITESM Prize and the 2012 Grijalbo Prize for the Novel, and was shortlisted for the prestigious Rómulo Gallegos Prize.
Memories shouldn’t last more than three or four days, thought Cristina that night as she approached the trunk of the car with cautious steps, not for fear of being caught perverting the solitude of a seemingly calm evening, but because the brazen sound of her high heels on the pavement stirred in her an air of victimhood, of intrusion. Cristina had seen that car before, parked in the same place, and she recognised it easily: almost brand new, with impeccable duco and glossy tyres. Imagine how comfortable, how easy it must be to sit inside, listening to soft music, breathing the velvet scent of the upholstery; how much money would you need in the bank to be able to say: ‘This is my car’? How many hefty deals would you have to strike in your life in order to afford the luxury of smoking inside there? In the ivoried light of the streetlamp, Cristina noticed that her handbag took on a hue similar to that of the car seats: burnt red, like the colour of blood when it blooms at night and, seeking the sun, is forced to thread a passage through the shadows. If you carry all those memories, Cristina speculated, you end up sinking beneath the weight of them, that’s why my memories will never go further than three days, why keep going over the same stuff again and again? After all, history always repeats itself; sooner or later we’ll bump into the same sons of bitches we thought we’d gotten rid of forever. It’s all just walking in a circle until we sink, exhausted, into the centre of that circle, never knowing anything, never knowing why things ended so quickly.
Cristina occupied her corner three nights a week. She preferred to work on paydays, or on Thursdays and Fridays, although always after nine at night, at that evening hour when pedestrians began jumping at their own shadows and digging inside handbags in search of house keys, when children disappeared and stray dogs roamed confidently through the alleyways and streets. Cristina was optimistic about her clientele. By the time they changed the billboard atop the pockmarked building across the road, the face of her lover had changed many times. It was best not to complain: there were always men, despite the fact that she had never considered herself lucky, and despite the scars (four long stripes across her buttocks) and the pain (insignificant, perhaps, but constant) that consumed her insides; despite her armpits, overly-dense with black growth, and her occasional halitosis, the men always came back. Months, even years, later, but they always came back. Sometimes they had a hard time believing she was a prostitute. Why here, on a dull street in a middle-class suburb? To most passers-by she seemed like an ordinary woman, perhaps a housewife waiting for her children, or the lover of some businessman who, discreetly, kept her two or three blocks from his office.
On top of the cold, arid trunk of the car Cristina arranged her powder compact and beside it the slim, battered tube of pepper spray she kept hidden in her handbag, not because she thought she’d ever need it, ‘as if I couldn’t defend myself with my own two hands,’ but because it had been a gift from her younger brother, Alfil.
–Take it, you need a weapon, there’s always some motherfucking hijo de la chingada trying to fuck you over.
–You look thin, Alfil, you have to look after yourself.
–Aim at the eyes and squeeze, right here.
–How many meals do you eat a day?
–You don’t need to be close, from here you just point it at his mug and that’s it, a metre should be enough.
–Look after yourself, Alfil, if you die I really will be all alone.
It was a somewhat time-wearied gift; like Cristina’s shoes, and her run-of-the-mill nail polish, it was worn but effective.
–It doesn’t work, I bet you found it in the garbage.
–It works, I swear.
–If it doesn’t work I’m screwed, you can’t play around with weapons.
–It’s not a weapon, it’s a toy.
Inside her bag, Cristina also carried an ID accrediting her as a blood donor, a plastic key ring with the key to the hotel reception, and a strip of generic-brand condoms. If she managed to use all of the condoms in one night, if she slept with twenty men a week, if her vagina didn’t already smart after the second client of the night had deflated upon her stomach, if not for all of that, then before long she’d be able to make a down payment on a car like the one currently serving as her dressing table and mirror. But it was best not to get her hopes up, because she’d never live that long. Before she had gathered enough money, before she had pressed the valve on the little tube of pepper spray and before she was no longer desired by men, something would surely happen and she would no longer be standing on street corners offering herself to the scarce passers-by. Scarce indeed, and many of them so distracted that they often didn’t realise Cristina was the kind of woman they could take to bed for a mere three hundred pesos; a woman with an air of serenity, whose occupation even the most experienced of clients had difficulty divining at first glance. A discreet whore, albeit somewhat pessimistic for her thirty-something years. She’d had that pointed out to her more than once, although she’d never really been bothered by such comments. She didn’t consider herself a pessimist, after all she still swept and mopped the narrow little room she rented in Tacubaya – a tiny room, cold as a freezer, to which she often dreaded to return. The bed in the hotel, where she could remain until one in the afternoon, was much more comfortable: a soft, warm bed, still imprinted with the trace of her last client’s alcoholic breath and excited blood. ‘If I were a pessimist my house would be a mess and I’d never bother to wash my dresses: not everyone can bear to plunge their hands into a basin of cold water, or to sweep a floor where the cracks are full of cockroaches. If I were a pessimist I’d simply have thrown myself under a car, and I wouldn’t brush my teeth or shine my shoes on the weekends.’ She painted her lips red, breathing the baleful air of a night so like the others, so concentrated in a handful of streets. ‘Who invented cities? Whose idea was it to put one house after the other?’ She saw the police car rolling slowly along the opposite corner, stalking her like a treacherous animal: great big numbers tattooing the doors, beacons of hepatic light licking the pavement as the tyres shattered the skeleton of a bottle against the bitumen. ‘Here come these sons of bitches again,’ Cristina thought as the patrol car pulled up beside her. An eroded face, like an old pumpkin gnawed by voracious worms, emerged from the window.
–I saw you putting out the trash this morning, one of them said to her, a smile opening upon his waxen lips as he looked greedily, stubbornly, at Cristina’s legs.
The car was still, like the shell of a great tortoise encrusted onto the spines of the two men, under which they chewed their daily ration of meat and bread, letting the little crumbs accumulate in the grooves of the seats. The oily fingerprints on the steering wheel and rear-view mirror, the smell of salsa in the compressed air of the cabin, the wrappers and plastic bags collected under the seat: all signs of their bestial feast.
–No matter how often you take out the garbage, there’s always something left, she responded.
Dried sweat darkened the necks of the men’s singlets, and a lizard stench, a sharp smell of old reptile emanated from the interior of the car. The street was empty, as if abandoned in the wake of some tragedy. The only sound was the occasional whisper of cars speeding across the freeway, and the barking of a dog that seemed to come from beneath the pavement.
–So you can’t make do with the salary your boss pays you? said the policeman without shifting his gaze from Cristina’s handbag which, unzipped, flopped open like a slashed stomach.
–Does your whore of a wife make do with you?
Cristina closed the bag. Would this be the last night? And if so, how long would it take her to die?
–Let’s see your identification.
The policeman tried on a more serious voice, which only made him sound like a grunting pig.
–I don’t need one, she responded in frank rebellion, reluctant to let herself be intimidated by a pair of dogs. She recalled the tube of pepper spray and the instructions that Alfil had recited to her, and yet: ‘By the time I grab the fucking tube, I’ll already be fucked,’ she thought.
–Well I say you do need one, the policeman warned.
Cristina glanced at her surroundings. She was alone, as alone as she had always been, since as long as she could remember.
–I’m waiting for my brothers, if you want they can tell you who I am.
Cristina let her eyes wander among the letters of a billboard advertising soap across the street: smooth hands – long marriage, they read. She secured her bag, passing the strap across her chest like an ammunition belt, and returned her gaze to the policeman. He said:
–No need to be scared, sweetheart, you caught us in a good mood.
–I only get scared when it’s worth it, she said flatly.
‘Maybe a new soap would leave my hands smoother, soft as porcelain, soft as cotton, soft as…The important thing is not to let them realise you’re shitting yourself.’
–Why don’t you bring us a little sandwich tomorrow, eh?
Why did that man have such a strange coloured mouth? Was it just a trick of the light? Cristina walked a few steps away from the patrol car, stopped, turned around to face them again. They were gone, turning right, slowly, searching the stretches of parked cars in Vicente Suárez for the unlucky couple who, blinded by the light of the torch, would open their eyes and see the policemen’s faces, their yellow teeth, the deep caverns of their noses, would hear them belch out the sentence, the price for kissing in public and spurning the comforts of a hotel.
–There’s a little hotel just a block away. Get a job, son.
The same hotel Cristina turned to when fishing for a client: The Cadillac, a cheap place with a yellowish facade, darkened windows and seemingly impenetrable doors. A real dive, old before its time, where they happened to give her a generous discount, half price, no less, as long as she visited more than twice a week and her lovers took care not to cause a scandal. That last part wasn’t a problem, since Cristina was a discerning woman who knew how to pick her clients: mostly employed men in their forties, or abandoned old wretches adrift in the world whose only desire was to embrace the body of a younger woman while they waited for death.
Absorbed in following the imaginary trace of grease and blood left by the tyres of the patrol car, she didn’t notice the old lady who had wandered silently over and now stood by her side. ‘They’ll be back,’ she thought to herself. ‘They look pissed.’ Then she heard the stream of urine falling close to her heels.
–You’re out late, viejita.
–Yes this little fellow always needs to pee at the worst times. Aren’t you cold?
–No colder than usual.
–Well the usual things have a way of tricking us, you shouldn’t trust them. If you want I can lend you a sweater.
Cristina looked at the dog, wrapped up like a sausage in a knitted sweater. She imagined herself in a similar sweater, a leash around her neck, shoving her snout day after day into a plastic bowl full of hard dog food.
–No, viejita. It’s ok, I was raised on beans and tortillas.
–You ought to eat soy, it’s very nutritious and inexpensive. I raised my children on nothing but soy. You should see their teeth, solid, strong, they could chew through stones.
–I’m too old to eat healthy, I only like things that are bad for me.
–Have you been reading the Bible I gave you?
Cristina smiled again as she remembered how, a month ago, the old lady had approached her to present her with a well-preserved copy of the Bible. She would have rejected if it hadn’t been offered in good will, and without any accompanying sermons. That is, with respect.
–When am I supposed to find time to read the Bible, viejita? I’d rather eat than read.
–You could read it now, for example, while you’re waiting.
–If I get distracted it’s all over. The street isn’t a library, you’ve got to know the time and the place.
–You’re right, mija, may God forgive you. And may He also forgive all those men.
–Why should he forgive me? I haven’t done anything, Cristina added, entertained by the conversation. Why did old ladies always make it their business to fix all the world’s problems if they were already on the way out?
–Don’t listen to me, I’m just old.
The gossiping old woman allowed her dog too many liberties. He was the one who called the shots. On a sudden impulse, the dog turned and dragged the lady’s weak old body back towards the dwelling that would one day become their tomb. Cristina rested against the wall and lit a cigarette, she imagined herself reading the Gospels, reciting a verse from Saint John while she waited for the man who, after a hasty arrangement, would drive her to the hotel and take off her underwear. The image of herself naked, holy book in her hands and panties around her ankles, provoked a grimace that ended as a smile. Then she realised that she, Cristina the pessimist, was in a magnificent mood. A positive attitude – she thought – would bring her luck, and quite possibly the man approaching her now with a wad of papers under his arm would forget about his wife that night, forget the cries of his pestering children, and bet everything on a different woman, on a different coloured bedspread. That was how most fortune came to pass: it had to be invited, provoked. It was the perfect night for adultery, for renouncing the insipid family dinner and the tooth brushing and the voice of the television presenter imposing itself over the snores of the woman he would have to share a bed with every night for the rest of his life. It was then that Cristina, proud and enthused by the sudden optimism surging somewhere in her, promised herself that if the man now approaching her – his shape becoming clearer and clearer with each step – accepted his destiny and slept that night in the bed of room fourteen, she would give him the best blow job anyone had ever given him in his life.