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Authors: Sandra Scofield

Gringa

BOOK: Gringa
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Gringa

Sandra Scofield

Note to the reader

In writing about the events of Summer 1968 in Mexico City, I have tried to adhere to their actual sequence, as I have been able to reconstruct them, but I have not tried to write history. The same must be said for other “actual” people, events and places in the novel, such as the Huastecs of eastern Mexico. All characters are invented, details of locale are freely woven from what is known and what is imagined, and therefore all true happenings are made fiction.

I acknowledge the enormous emotional influence that Elena Poniatowski's Massacre in Mexico had in my decision to write this book. This Mexican journalist collected oral histories and many photographs, and her documentation of the tragic events of that summer was a best seller in Mexico. For those who would like to know more about how it was, I recommend her deeply moving book.

s.s.

What else can we do

but stop at the horizon

while far away

and nearby—

the real collision.

—Andrée Chedid

“What Are We Playing At?”

There's no salvation in elsewhere;

forget the horizon, the seductive sky.

If nothing's here, nothing's there.

—Stephen Dunn

“Tangier”

Part I
Chapter 1

TONIO SAID, “Remember I was going to show you some pictures?” They had been playing gin rummy. Abilene was putting away the cards. Tonio took an envelope out of his dresser and brought it over to the bed.

Out spilled photographs of something like a cave. A great black eye.

“It's the Swallow Pit. You remember we talked about it when the Swiss archeologist was here. I wanted him to go down in it with me, but he said he didn't have time.

“See? There's the cliff on the far side.” She could tell he was excited. She leaned closer to see the picture better. She thought the blackness was like a great heart.

“Isn't it something to respect?” Tonio said. “And now they've finally gone into it this past winter. The Sierra Club. You Americans. It's a quarter of a mile deep.”

She looked blankly at his pleasure, his excitement over a hole in the earth.

“That's like the Empire State Building upside down! And once you are down there, they say there are thousands of feet more of caves, and the open space is much greater than the mouth. You could see for yourself.”

She blinked. “I could see!”

“Sure,” he said, gathering up his pictures. When he found something new to explore, or own, he looked younger, with a boy's elation. He came out of the ring like that, after a kill, though in the ring he showed only his courage, and his respect for the bull.

“If you were braver,” he said. “We could go down by rope and see it for ourselves. We could go in the fall, after the rains. But I must think how to train you! Maybe with weights.” He reached over and squeezed her bicep. “You wouldn't want to dangle on these.”

She was a skinny girl, with big feet for ballast. Her face and hands and arms looked washed with diluted freckles. There was a fragile quality about her, and, under that, a stringy hardness. Now he spanned her wrist with his thumb and finger. She couldn't have pulled away easily.

He loved to joke. She thought he might mean to tease her, with talk about a pit of swallows. “Do people fall in?” she asked.

He laughed at that. “I don't think so. Who would be so stupid? And those Indians up there, they're much more likely to hound someone until he jumps in on his own.”

There was a bubble of fear in her throat. It was not such a terrible feeling. “I would like to see,” she said. “I would like, at least, to look down. I would, if I didn't have to stand too close.”

Tonio said, “As long as you are going in for that other thing you might as well have those little scars scraped off too.” He was standing with a pile of boots at his feet. He had decided to have several new pairs made by the bootmaker in town, the son of the man who had made the fancy high-heeled boots that gave Tonio a little extra height.

A boot, propelled in a graceful arc by Tonio's toe, landed softly in a pile. “Too bad none of these boots fits you,” he said.

Abilene thought he mentioned the boots as a kind of criticism that she was taller than he, though it was barely so. He was going to throw the boots away. They were beautifully tooled, glossy and rich-looking. He said they hadn't suited him. Though he wasn't particularly extravagant about his clothes, at least not at the ranch, Abilene had learned that it is nothing, if you are rich, to take everything out of your closets and start over, just because you feel like it.

“There must be someone around who could use them,” she said. She remembered shopping for school clothes in Goodwill stores and church rummage sales.

“Not my boots.” His look told her she should have known better. He kicked each unwanted boot aside as if the boot were culpable. There was something human and sad in the boots' ungainly sprawl, as if feet were still inside. Tonio's kick, though, was graceful. He was beautiful, and conscious of her watching him, though he was contemptuous of appraisal.

“I will call Reyles tomorrow,” he said. “He can set it all up.” Eduardo Reyles, brother of Tonio's good friend Felix, was a plastic surgeon in Mexico. Abilene had seen him once, with Felix, in a suburban restaurant where she had gone with Felix for pompano. Reyles was handsome, a smaller man than blocky Felix. He wore a tidy moustache and aviator's glasses. He had come for the fish, too, and for the company of his elegant mistress. After lunch, in the car, Abilene had asked Felix if many of his acquaintances had mistresses. She had not been in Mexico long then. “Most,” he replied neutrally. “And do they all wear white?” she wanted to know. That question amused him. “Only in summer,” he said.

It was like Tonio to avoid a precise term for something he disliked, despite his impeccable English. He could have found a word for her “other thing” but he did not. He didn't look at her, either, and she supposed he was put out with her for being careless. She was relieved that he did not appear to be angry. It hadn't seriously occurred to her that getting pregnant was not wholly her responsibility. As usual, she had done something at hand without thinking of the consequences. She had not even been sure it was something she had wanted to do.

She sat on Tonio's bed and watched him. He reached out for her. She recognized the gesture as summons and got up at once to go to him. He put his arm up across her shoulder, his hand in her hair, and pulled her close enough to speak quietly into her ear.

“I always thought I was sterile,” he said. Her heart danced in her chest. “The only bull that ever gored me badly,” he said—he pulled her hair hard enough to hurt—”got me in the balls.”

She tried to face him, because there was no intonation, and therefore no clue, in his voice.

“One good thing,” he said, putting his other hand down the front of her jeans. “We can't make it any worse.”

Scraping was not a precise word, either. Scraping made her think of meat with molds.

Reyles showed her a small wire brush like the one he would use on her face. He showed her his Before and After nose photographs. They were pictures of young women in white dresses with black eyes, painted around the lashes, and elegant hair. In the middle of each face was a flat Indian nose. All the wealthy girls thought of themselves as Creoles, descendants of Spaniards. The noses gave some of them away, linked them to poor doomed girls who had their hearts tossed over the sides of pyramids. Reyles tidied the telltale noses so that, like the cones of rockets, they offered less resistance in movement.

He stroked Abilene's cheekbone. It was an important part of his practice to form a closeness with each patient, a bond to breach the pain and chagrin, a pledge of tenderness and discretion. Abilene looked at the brush in his hand. It was a furry steel wheel. There was still the gynecologist to see. “See you in white,” she said to Reyles. He blinked at her from behind his aviator glasses.

The gynecologist's office was on the other side of the Zona Rosa, across the big Paseo de Reforma, past the great gold angel toward the governor's mansion, along familiar streets. The chatter of workmen's drills was everywhere; dust rose from broken buildings, old trolley tracks, cracked paving. The city was in a fever; the Olympics were only four months away.

The doctor was polite and gentle. Abilene thought to herself how perfect a profession gynecology is for a Mexican. As good as bullfighting. Whenever there were two men together in her presence, she became a backdrop. Always they talked about women. Round asses, wet cunts, the breasts of one's mother, and always, always, the welcome of women, their eagerness for these men—. It was a joke nobody seemed to get.

Tonio could probably have managed the abortion himself. If they had been alone on a boat in the ocean, or lost in the jungle, or trapped at the ranch by flood waters, and her appendix had burst, he would have been deft in its excision. But there is this about an appendix: Everyone has one. The incisions are neat against the whiteness of the belly. Only women have uteruses, babies, abortions. And all that hair and folded flesh.

“Might as well do the other,” he had said.

She thought about her scars. All the times she had stood in front of mirrors brushing her hair, and never noticed them. They were old scars, and she had forgotten them. They were part of the past. It wasn't like her to dwell on old sad things, but that didn't mean they really went away. You could see a history of ugly sores, yellow pus, over and over again, in certain places. Just past the corner of her mouth, on one side, and along the side of her nose. Just beneath the jaws. How could she have forgotten that they were ugly? Tonio must have always seen them, and minded. Yet he had waited for the right moment and then had suggested surgery casually, as a friend picks lint off a coat.

One night, smoking with Tacho, she had got high and had wailed that she was ugly. (Why had she thought he would comfort her? He was one of Tonio's huge entourage, a banderillero and a hanger-on. He could never be a woman's friend.) Tacho got very gruff and called her a clod. He pulled up his shirt to show her his scars from the ring. He tapped his gold teeth so loudly it seemed they would dislodge. He waved his arms around. “In Mexico,” he said, “everyone has scars.” “Not Tonio,” she sniffled. There was nothing he could say to that.

When the gynecologist's nurse gave her a packet of pills and an envelope with instructions written out for her, she took them gratefully. “Thank you, oh thank you,” she gushed, and when the nurse took her hand, she clasped it for a long moment. The nurse was very kind, especially when you considered how repugnant Abilene must have been to her. Whatever they were calling it in order to make it legal, it was, still, a baby's murder.

Constanzia, the girl from Tonio's office, let them in the apartment. “Pretty snazzy,” she said, or something like that, while Abilene walked around the apartment. They spoke in Spanish.

For Abilene, what other people said in that language was still only approximate. She lived in a constant state of estimating. She got along fine shopping, eating in cafes, getting around in taxis. She had a repertoire of retorts for the insults of street boys and drivers, but she had learned the effectiveness of staying silent. Tacho had taught her expletives and jokes and tender sayings. Mickey had taught her more elegant obscenities. The nuances of real conversation eluded her. Sometimes, if she was tired, the language dissolved into a scrambled code. Yet her own Spanish was very clear and exact.

“It's cold,” she said with a shiver. She rubbed the gooseflesh of her upper arms like a spelunker in a new cave. Constanzia, whose own burnished shoulders were also bare, found the window cord and pulled it. Light struck Abilene, and then her eyes cleared and she saw that she faced the flat gray side of a building. She could see nothing of the street. The apartment, tucked into a narrow side street off a busy, chic avenue in the Zona Rosa, must have been very expensive. But it was ugly. The main room was entered abruptly through a heavy door with a jailer's lock—double bolts on a metal frame—and it was small and poorly furnished. The carpet, a dull slate color, was expensive and clean, but most of the room was empty. In the alcove by the window there were a few pillows propped against the white wall. In the middle of the room, under a fancy brass swag lamp, was a small round white formica table with three chairs. A radio sat on a shelf.

The kitchen, to the immediate right of the entrance, was a narrow room out of sight from the main room. It was like the galley of a boat. Stacked beside the refrigerator were cases of beer and orange soda.

“I'll want mineral water and Cokes,” Abilene said to Constanzia. “And call Tonio's maid and tell her to come over and wipe everything off.” She ran her finger along the shelf where the radio sat, to make her point. Constanzia said, “There are maids in the building. One goes with the apartment already.” Abilene was embarrassed. “I'd rather it was someone I know!” she snapped, knowing what she said was ridiculous. She disliked the brash Constanzia, who now stood near the table with her purse held up against her chest. Constanzia acted superior because she was at home. It was her city, her language, her job. Abilene thought how rigid the pecking hierarchy was, how much pleasure each layer of authority had in ordering about the lower. She saw it all the time at the ranch. Even the very young maids, the bottom of the heap, hissed at the long-haired tom when it crossed their paths. (They dared not harass the hounds!) The system of authority was like the system of mordidas, bribes—Tonio's friend Felix had explained it to her long ago. Each official took from those below and gave to those above; each made something on the system and therefore had reason to protect it. Only at the bottom was it all give. There, men could take only from one another. Yet everything was negotiable, except authority itself. All the rules, the laws, the greatness of the Revolution: all could be circumvented. It was as though bribery had been invented to make jobs. Only Tonio seemed unimpeachable, as though he were of the highest order, pure cacique.

Abilene walked over to the window again to look for sky. There was nothing to see. “I need something better to sit on,” she said in a crisp voice she imagined sounded firm.

The girl yawned. Abilene's annoyance made her flush. She didn't want to lose her composure. If she snapped at the girl it would give the girl moral authority. Owners, patróns, officials—they could bark and make you heel. But for most everyone in Mexico, everything had to be swathed in monstrous bandages of courtesy. To forget that was to be a fool.

“There are some large pillows at Tonio's apartment,” Abilene began. She had no idea how to say what she wanted.

“Oh yes,” the girl said, “I know them. Bean bags.” She said the English phrase smugly. Didn't she work for a man famous not only in Mexico but in Spain and Portugal, too? She wore a hot pink blouse of shiny rayon, a bright green polyester skirt, and stiletto heels. She knew what was in Tonio's apartment.

And why not? It was only a short walk from the office. Abilene had seen him dictating, screaming orders as he lay propped against a dozen pillows on his bed. Dispensing instructions like that, in a quilted silk jacket like a Chinese potentate, he reminded everyone that his authority needed no more formality than his presence. As if anybody needed reminding. He was like the head of a government; wherever he was, he was everywhere.

BOOK: Gringa
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