Authors: Paul Theroux
Still wearing her blindfold, Ava leaned over and whispered, “I'm glad I'm not your girlfriend anymore.”
N THE WAY
into the cloud-dampened and sloping city, with its chilly, hard-to-breathe air, sitting next to Ava in the taxi, under overcast skies and the slope of the rubbly volcano Pichincha which was strewn with precariously sited huts, Steadman was thinking how this would be the last trip he'd ever take with her. The particular thought was not a sentence or phrase in his mind, not words at all, but rather a specific image, the sight of her nearest knee, pale from always being covered by her surgical smock, looking pinched and plaintive, as dimpled as a new potato, and representing a mute farewell.
That ambiguous little knee made Ava seem again like a stranger, enigmatic and yet unpromising. She had withdrawn from him, she was less helpful, a bit too brisk, and at times she seemed boredânot hostile but indifferentâcasting her gaze beyond him when she looked in his direction. She was like the people on the plane, who had brushed past him at the baggage claim area and were now dispersingâHack and Janey, Wood and Sabra, the hurrying Manfred, who scuttled, bent over, spider-like, as though on extra legs, reaching as he moved. And all the others whom he imagined to be bird watchers, trekkers, and ecotourists in their Trespassing gear, colorful fuzzy jackets and hats and thick socks, wearing the most expensive sunglasses and wristwatches in the catalogue. Manfred had carried his thick
book and studied it, making notes in the margins. He wore a black jacket and at his waist a soiled misshapen fanny pack. Sabra wore a small and neatly zipped TOG pouch. He'd had a glimpse of their luggageâslightly bruised Trespassing duffels and chubby leather satchels chafed at the edges and the best bags from the Trespassing line. Ava was now like one of these people, and Steadman was just a man who happened to be sleeping in her room.
This distant failing country and the strangers and the thin gritty air made their separation more emphatic. They looked lost here, they were alien to each other, and the foreign place represented their estrangement. He had heard of couples taking a long joyless trip, sometimes as a formality, in order to end a love affair or signify and seal an ending. Steadman understood that effort now. Some brutal landscapes, some lovely jungles, threw relationships into stark relief. You might go away with someone in order to make an announcement, and it might be a farewell. The far-off place was neutral ground. Steadman and Ava managed to be civil to each other, but they were through, it was over, and the other people probably sensed it. Then the others were gone, as though dissolved in the Ecuadorian air. “Good riddance,” she said, and he knew she was talking about the others.
From the taxi window, filmed with dust and finger smears, Quito was both more orderly and more ramshackle than Steadman had expected. It depended where you looked. Off the fairly new main drag were side streets lined with hovels. Yet in the distance the hovels seemed substantial, and in the foreground the newer buildings were rundown and the gutters littered.
Steadman inclined his head and thought, In the Third World you smile at the strangeness, then you look closely and see ruin and misery, or that something is badly broken, or that woman is ill, that child is an old man. From the lovely veranda you saw mangy dogs and a man pissing against a wallâa wall on which someone had scribbled an angry slogan in Spanish, bracketed by exclamation marks,
From the loveliest window you saw filthy-faced children huddled in doorways. The bottom of the heap was not far from the top, and all of it was home, turned upside down and stinking.
“Mi casa, por acÃ¡.
My 'ouse down there,” the taxi driver said, smiling as a street flashed past, and in that brief glimpse Steadman could see it was shallow and ruinous.
“Where is Nestor?” Steadman asked, since the driver had voluntarily spoken in English.
“Veesy. He see you later.” His breath was moist with chocolate and tobacco. The man's pungent breath had a greater reality than his words.
“He didn't leave a message?”
“Yes. That is the message.”
Though he was simple, even crude, the driver's succinct directness in basic English made him seem intelligent.
Steadman turned to Ava. He had felt slightly nauseated and lightheaded since the customs delay at the airport. A headache made of raw nerves tightened beneath his skull. He said, “The air's so thin.”
“What did you expect at ten thousand feet?”
He expected something else. The high-altitude air was chilly, dusty with grit, and a dampness caught in his throat and scratched his eyes, like the furry air in a house of cats.
Searching the side streets for the grimmer sights, for it seemed that truth lay at the very margins of this ride, he saw a procession, girls and women in white smocks and black veils, boys and men carrying a tottering holy figure on a litter, shoulder-high.
“Is a fiesta,” the driver said, sucking candy, his tongue gummy. He was small, in a tight sweater of pilled dusty wool. Though the sky was overcast he wore sunglasses. “Is coming Todos los Santos. And DÃa de Difuntos. How you say fiesta in English?”
“Fiesta.” Steadman was staring at some masked children ahead.
“Halloween,” Ava said. “They celebrate it here.”
At the stoplight, the children approached wearing Halloween masks âcat masks, witches' hats. Their clothes were clean, they had good teeth. Steadman had expected urchins. He rolled down the taxi window and offered a dollar to one of the masked children.
“Por su mÃ¡scara''
Steadman said, lifting the mask with one hand and handing over the dollar with the other. The black satin cat mask was trimmed with black lace and seemed like an obscure intimate garment, like a cache-sexe.
Hearing the driver's empty squawk of mirth, Steadman reflected that in places like this, demoralized and humiliated countries, someone's laughter seldom meant that something was funny. The driver had been disturbed, perhaps insulted, by Steadman's boldnessâthe dollar, the swap, the snatch. He winced and squawked again when Steadman put on the cat mask.
“That sort of scares me,” Ava said, sounding stern. He knew that severe tone: she meant what she said. He took the mask off.
The hotel was the Colon. Ava said she had imagined it to be smaller and simpler, but checking in, Steadman reminded her that it was supposed to be only one night.
“Still no message from Nestor.”
“Why do they all have names like that?” Ava said.
“He was recommended. Supposed to be an ethnobotanist.”
“A nice name for âdrug man.'”
“You found him.”
Their corner room faced a large park out one window, and out the other was the long steep side of the volcano. A cloud was flattened and raveling on the volcano's peak, and its slopes were dotted with houses. Steadman felt that up close they were hovels, but at this distance, in dim early morning, their lights still twinkling, they represented to his ignorant eyes the magic of a new place.
Ava had pulled off her T-shirt and was searching her bag for something. Her skin was luminous and blue in the gray daylight. Across the room, Steadman saw her as a strange woman who had materialized here, silent, careless, half naked, paying no attention to him. He was fascinated by her indifference, her naked breasts, the impersonal room, the sight of the huts out the window. It was as if he did not know her, that he just happened to find himself in this room with an attractive preoccupied woman. He watched her take off the rest of her clothes: her slacks first, which she folded; her panties, which she slid down with two thumbs and stepped out of, tossing them with one toe. She was headed for the bathroom, preparing for a shower.
Moving quickly toward her, Steadman touched her waist, just grazing her skin with his fingertips, as though stroking and steadying a cat, and then slipped the cat mask over her face, all the while staying behind her. She hardly reacted, except to straighten the fastening cord. He liked that; he could tell she was cooperating. And the mask and her willingness and this strange room in Ecuador aroused him more than love had ever done. Love had made him gentle, and love's querulous concern killed his desire.
This way she seemed his equal, a match for him, a black mask on her white body. He held her. He could not kiss her lips while she was masked, and that tantalized him the moreâshe seemed to like his frustration. Her mask dared him. She went to the bed and knelt, holding her hand between her legs while he watched, and then she opened her legs and, splaying her fingers, parted the dewy gills of her pinkness, and all the while her mask was impassive.
Watching her, Steadman roughly pushed off his clothes and was on her, slipping inside her, frantic. She murmured softly from beneath her mask, but when he leaned over and attempted to kiss the satin lips of the mask she moved her head away and arched her back, lifting her chin to expose her throat and the tightened cords of her neck. She seemed to exist in some blind private rapture of her own reckless anonymity.
Even when he was finished and on his back, blind himself and gasping, she did not take the mask off. She lay there beside him, so distant she could have been in another country, drawing the droplets through the hair between her legs, making this slickness seem like another mask, her parted legs showing at her vulva the image of a tarantula. And when she turned toward him, still masked and enigmatic, he thought that not she but he was the whore.
Over breakfast afterwardâand it was Ava who remarked that it was still unbelievably only nine-thirty that same morningâthey said nothing about what had just happened. The sudden wordless episode, the snatched sex in the room, seemed as remote as the long disruptive flight, the annoying passengers, the unhelpful taxi driver, the fiesta and its masks and costumes.
All that Ava said was “It's a real city. I was expecting something desperate. These places that people are always leaving to become maids and janitors in the States, I imagine them to be awful. But no, the places look fine. It's the people's lives that are awful.”
All that Steadman said was “That bastard Nestor told us he'd leave a message.”
But he said it casually and without rancor, for the sex had calmed him, had eased his mind and pleasantly wearied him and made him accepting.
They went for a walk to Old Town, down the main street that led from the hotel. On the way, seeing a hat shop, Steadman impulsively went in and tried some on.
“All from Montecristi. The best ones. Is the Optimo estyle,” the saleswoman said, offering others. “We call these thee Natural. Look, thee weebing. So many months it takes to weeb one. You like?”
Steadman bought himself a Panama with a wide brim, and left the shop wearing it, walking self-consciously because of the hat. They saw more Todos los Santos processions, looking like Halloween kids, one small girl wearing the same maskâblack satin trimmed with black laceâthat Ava had worn when naked, making love. Steadman could not help attaching sexuality to the masked people, even the skinny-legged girls, whom he saw as teasing, even provocative.
As they approached the narrower roads of Old Town, the sky lowered and contracted with dark clouds. A rumble of thunder brought a torrent of rain. They ducked under a flat-roofed shelter at a bus stop and watched as hailstones, bright white and as round as mothballs, clattered onto the soaked cobbles of the road.
Then the rain eased. They resumed walking and were obstructed on the sidewalk by a small pretty Indian child, red-cheeked in the cold. No more than three or four years old, she sat in the middle of the wet sidewalk holding a plastic cupâand could not possibly have known what she was doing, though this was likely to be her life's work. An old woman across the road, probably Granny, eyed the little girl while begging herself, with two other children. There were ragged children all over Old Town, selling candy and bunches of flowers and combs and matches, assisting at stalls selling fruit, sweeping with clumsy-looking bunches of twigs that served as brooms. Medieval in its crude simplicity and desperation, this scene was repeated on other narrow streets, and some children carrying heavy loads in their tiny hands seemed like dwarf laborers in a cruel folktale.
At the edge of a large plaza, Steadman saw an elderly priest walking just ahead of an Indian man. The Indian, in a blue smock and bowl haircut, with a round face and bandy legs, looked like a big simple-minded child, except that he was doggedly carrying a bag on his shoulder, and the lovely leather bag could only have belonged to the priest. The Indian belonged to the priest, too. He had been domesticated and made to submit. Steadman looked at the clean hem of the priest's white cassock and his shiny shoes, at the Indian's stained smock and cracked sandals. The upright priest, the bent-over Indian: in their progress across the old paving stones of the plaza they seemed to represent the history of South America, if not the history of the world.
To Steadman all religious people looked like savages. Some of them were timid and innocent, most of them were arrogant, menacing in being so credulous and assuredâthe apes of an imaginary god, tyrannical simpletons who had invented that god and used the god's denunciations as weapons in their tyranny.
Among all these churches, Steadman reflected that he had no religious belief. The sight of believers aroused his pity but could also make him angry or sad, depending on the circumstances. Often he felt resentment that his skepticism could still shock people. His undogmatic sense of the spiritual was limited to preserving forests, nesting places for birds, shade for animals, roots keeping water pure. The symbol of his belief was a tree, and he had spoken in
of how many times he had been hidden and saved by the forests at frontiers and border crossings.