THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PIER by GUADALUPE NETTEL
Translated from the Spanish by Elvira Quintana
To Aimée E. Robinson
“Every friendship is an inconspicuous drama, a series of subtle wounds.” – EMIL CIORAN, from The Trouble with Being Born.
OVER THE YEARS I’ve heard many views on True Solitude. It is a topic that often comes up during my family’s after-dinner conversations. As with current affairs or moral issues, with this topic sincerity is not always the best policy since you will likely get stuck in the spectacular fibromas of misunderstanding. Some people, especially those getting on in years, talk about True Solitude as a strong spider web that we build over time. There are also those who consider it a whimsical and privileged place with arbitrary rules of access. When my better judgement gives way to all the talk, the spectacles, slurps, aunts with overdone make-up, and a child’s sticky hand reaching for a biscuit, I subscribe to the second definition because I remember, not without a certain nostalgia, that I went in search of that paradise at the age of fifteen. As I saw it then, the sole inhabitant of True Solitude had to be a young girl still ill at ease with her pointed breasts, like the breasts of a skinny mongrel, and a body too tall for her dresses and too plain for her swimming suit. When I think about this I’m overcome by an urge to smile, discretely, lowering my face so no one in the family notices. But the urge to smile is checked definitively because, while Clara gently smacks the child’s sticky caramel hand, I am transported to that summer in Santa Helena, the fishing island where Toño and Clara imagined a home, which they called La Casa de los Naranjos (The House of the Orange Trees), and that memory freezes my smile.
In those days, when instead of True Solitude there was a mediocre and oppressive loneliness full of sarcastic laughter in a squalid high school in Mexico City, I was the niece and Clara was my mother’s youngest sister. I didn’t call her Aunt, so that I could distinguish her from my other aunts who wore high heels even at home and spent their mornings at the beauty parlour. Clara was a 28-year-old sports teacher in a progressive primary school; she owned a VW Beetle convertible, which no one thought would make it to the coast, and had a boyfriend called Toño whom my grandmother hated, which was enough to endear him to me. At the time my parents’ quarrels were getting serious, so there was no need to convince them to let me go along with Clara and Toño to a deserted island where they had managed to purchase La Casa de los Naranjos for a ridiculously low price.
When they picked me up the car was already packed with several suitcases, a cooler, newly-framed paintings, and the tool box for repairing the house.
“You can bring whatever you want,” they told me, pointing to an over-packed boot. I had taken with me the bare minimum so nothing would distract me from my search.
After a long drive, when the road had already become a photographic landscape completely fitted out with vegetation, salty air, and macaws, we swapped the car for a boat which dropped us off at a pier on the island. We arrived there late afternoon and, to my joy, the only things moving were a few scattered palm trees shaken by the wind. As soon as we set foot on solid ground I realised Clara had misled the family. There were no orange trees, the marvellous British-style house was the vaguest memory of a ruin, and the roof was a wooden cover about to collapse.
“It’s almost perfect; the wooden planks will do the job. If it doesn’t rain, it will be ready in a tick,” she said with her typical enthusiasm while placing her hand on top of my head. Toño put his arm around her waist and brushed his moustache against her neck. The frailty of the roof did not weaken my joy; if I was ever to find True Solitude, I was sure that it would be here.
Half of the island was a fishing town and the other half, where we spent all that summer, was an empty beach with a few houses, most of which were large and unoccupied, including the house that Toño and Clara had planned to fix up within two weeks; that way they could relax there during their last week of holiday.
The first week in Santa Helena was a long siesta in the sun. I had thought that once I was there everything would be really easy. That it would just be a matter of concentrating on the infinite strip of sand and paradise would come and surround me with its silence. The heat persisted day and night and the forecast rain was about as likely as trees sprouting from the sand. Clara and Uncle Toño (I did like calling him Uncle, especially in the presence of my grandmother) would spend their mornings and afternoons working on the roof of the house. At a distance I would lie on the sand, always dressed, because I couldn’t stand the idea of a neighbour seeing me in my swimming suit. In the background I would hear them hammering and exchanging a few words, then I would try to recognise shapes in the clouds and fall asleep thinking that even if I didn’t know it, I was entering paradise.
As night was beginning to fall and the sun was a vitamin C tablet dissolving away on the surface of the sea, they would come home, take a shower, and smear their dry and tanned skin with thick layers of cream. Afterwards, the dinner party would take place. Clara would put candles all around the house and she would bring to the table a tray of canned seafood bought in Mexico City; the roof kept them from going into town to buy food, and I was too terrified of seeing other people. The candlelight, the hunger, and the relaxation made those moments quiet explosions of harmony, in spite of the canned food. The few boats that came to Santa Helena would leave the coast at seven in the morning and go back some time in the afternoon. Most of the passengers were vendors bringing baskets of fruit and bread to sell in town. Every day they would pass near the house making a racket with their transistors and shouting, but only for a few minutes. Then the beach would go back to being a strip of sand away from it all, far away from my high school, my parents’ loud bickering and insults, and my own awkwardness at talking to people my age, especially guys. Only every now and then small groups of tourists would arrive at the island, probably following the advice of a particularly gifted book writer who had described the abandoned residences and the road into town strewn with fruit peel as ‘picturesque landscapes’. Those days it was better to stay indoors, away from the awkward looks and the sympathetic smiles (gringos tend to start a conversation with anyone who will listen). However, at the house I couldn’t resist the temptation of staring into the mirror at my acne scars and incipient breasts, which not only were ugly but sometimes also hurt. Then, almost immediately, I would remember the mean remarks at school and the way I blushed uncontrollably in the presence of someone of the opposite sex and the door to True Solitude would slowly fade away.
Almost every day, early in the morning, I would wait for the boat at the pier and consult the faint smell of seafood and pollution to see how the day would turn out. Staring at the sea for long periods of time made me nauseous. I inevitably thought of my biology classes and the amphibious hands of the teacher as she explained the cycle of life, and of all those fish breeding in a warm and salty broth near me. Were Clara and Toño intending to reproduce one day? Some nights I would find them kissing at the entrance of the house, with its view of the moon drowning in the water. But I didn’t think they’d go that far, and if by some chance they did, I’d stop calling Clara’s boyfriend ‘uncle’. The only way I could save myself and not be like them was to focus on the search for my paradise. “I need to forget about everything”—I would tell myself—”to let the landscape of this island erase all my memories of the city.” However, True Solitude came hidden in a boat, and did not reveal itself until several days after its arrival on our beach.
Michelle came to Santa Helena along with the fishermen and the fruit baskets in one of those noisy boats. I saw her from a distance, well before the boat came ashore. I knew immediately that my project would face obstacles. She did not seem to be here to sunbathe; rather, she looked a girl my age, possibly an unpleasant high-school blonde arriving on the island in a tiny dress; but the worst thing was the huge suitcase sitting beside her bare feet, which to me seemed as definitive as an anchor. Michelle waited for all the merchandise to be unloaded, for the ladies to extract their transistors from the fruit and tune them, for the men to whip their octopus on the planks again and again before placing her ten scarlet toenails on the swollen wood of our pier.
With her arrogant blue eyes she scanned the landscape: the house, the roof that Clara and Toño were hammering, the wrecked palapa (palm leaf hut), the remains of a chair on the sand and a mangy chicken—which had most likely escaped from town—walking among the fruit peels. Then, with the same indifference, she looked at me and the towel with cartoon animals hanging over my shoulder. Without a word, not even a gesture, she dragged her suitcase towards one of the huge houses up on the cliff. She didn’t appear again for the rest of the day, so after a few hours I almost dared to pretend that nobody had arrived. However, it worried me that there might be more people at her house. I didn’t think that the new arrival was the type to spend her holidays alone and the idea of being surrounded by her siblings or cousins was frankly unbearable. Terrified, I thought that they might not have arrived yet, but that briefly the island would be full of girls playing beach-volleyball in swimming suits. At the house I didn’t ask anything. Denying Michelle’s arrival was a silent ritual in order to avoid any type of connection.
One evening, while I was trying very hard to resume my search in a corner, Clara came into the dining room wearing a freshly unpacked red apron and carrying a wooden tray full of oysters.
“They’re oysters,” she said, “I bought them in town this morning. We went there for a stroll while you were at the pier. By the way, have you seen anyone at the beach?”
“No, no one,” I answered, surprised, trying to conceal the truth, but Clara continued:
“In town I heard that a few days ago the daughter of Mrs. Neuville—the lady who lives in the house on top of the cliff—arrived from France; her name is Michelle or something like that. The lady is very ill and that is why she spends most of the year here. I met her when I came to do the paperwork for the house.”
I didn’t say anything more; instead, I worked on the slippery slime inside the oyster’s shell with my fork. Soon, the wind in the palm leaves picked up and the conversation found its way back to the same old topic:
“Knock in a few more nails and we’re done,” Toño said. “Soon we’ll spend our time like you: lying on a beach towel, watching the sky.”
The calm didn’t last for long. Over the sound of the wind I heard a repeated, rather desperate knocking on the living-room window, but I kept quiet. The knocking persisted, getting louder, until they noticed it too in the background of their chatting and went to check. Apparently, my premonition was right and talking about the intruder had summoned her. Outside the window, Michelle’s hair was a big palapa flapping in the wind. Clara opened the door and in her progressive teacher’s tone invited the stranger to dinner:
“We are having oysters, wouldn’t you like some?”
The girl responded in very proper Spanish, with only the traces of a nasal accent.
“No. Thank you. Actually, I came to ask you for a favour.”
Clara sat down again, with the chair’s backrest between her legs and an overly expectant look on her face. “Well, we’re listening.”
Another one of her ‘progressive teacher’ attitudes that the French girl didn’t seem to notice because at that moment her blue eyes were fixed on me with blatant hostility, the same I was feeling towards her for being in the house. Clara repeated her last sentence.
“I would like to climb up on your roof,” Michelle replied.
This time, no come-back from the teacher could hide our bewilderment. “Are you sure?” asked Toño, coming to the rescue. “I don’t think it will be much fun.”
“I’m not looking for fun,” she said, almost taking offence. “Your roof is the only place in this island where someone’s trying to fix up the rottenness.”
There was a silence during which Clara and Toño looked inquiringly at one another, without taking me into account, and after some tacit agreement between them, they gave Michelle permission to go onto the roof for a while as long as I went with her.
I resolved to be unfriendly, not to say a word unless I was questioned. I climbed up onto the roof of the house and as soon as I was up there I pulled up the ladder. It took the French girl twice as long to climb up the walls. At no point did she ask for help or ask me to lower the ladder. When she finally sat down on one of the roof’s edge she pulled two cigarettes out from her skirt.
“Do you smoke?” she said with antagonistic friendliness.
I shook my head.
“Why not?” she asked, still smiling.
“I don’t want lung cancer.”
Michelle granted me a few minutes of silence, but then she struck back:
“What an attitude! I bet you don’t have any friends.”
This time it was me who remained silent for a while. “Do you have many?” I asked.
“Yes, and I also have a boyfriend. His name is Philippe. When he arrives I’ll introduce him to you.”
I felt a knot form in my stomach. I didn’t want to meet anyone, especially another horrible frog. If either of them started strolling on the beach, my holiday project was doomed to drastic failure. But I didn’t say anything and let Michelle talk while the second cigarette burned itself out. I lowered the ladder and announced that it was time for us both to go home.
I didn’t see her again for several days, but it was hard for me to resume my search for True Solitude. Michelle had the kind of voice that goes on echoing in your head. Without realising, I started asking myself questions about her: How old was she? How did she meet Philippe? One evening, while opening cans in the kitchen, I asked Clara whether she knew the house where the French people lived.
“Is it pretty?”
“Yes, but it’s too modern for my taste,” she answered while looking around with pride at our damp walls. “I prefer La Casa de los Naranjos. Have you seen the girl again? You haven’t? She probably doesn’t get out much at all, poor thing, with her mother so ill.”
“What’s wrong with her?” I asked, surprised. I had forgotten about her mother’s illness.
“I’m not sure, but I think it’s something serious, like lung cancer.”
I finished setting the table but I couldn’t touch my dinner. Before Clara and Toño went out to look at the moon, an evening ritual, I went to my room and stayed there for a while. I was trying to fall asleep and stayed there for hours, trying to get to sleep until I heard the knocking on the window.
“Can you come out for a second?” asked Michelle from the other side of the window.
I thought that her boyfriend must have arrived on the afternoon boat and she wanted to introduce him, so I curled up in the blankets and pretended to be fast asleep. But then I had a better look and saw she was alone.
“Do you want to go up on the roof?” I asked.
“Yes, but I haven’t asked for permission.”
“No problem, it’s almost ready,” I said. “Anyway, it’s too late to disturb them now. In the evening, Toño and Clara become unbearable. You must know about that.”
We climbed up. The moon looked like a bundle of luminous clouds and the sea was rougher than ever. When we sat the wooden planks made a long creaking noise that ended with a crack.
“Why did they bring you here?” asked Michelle, pulling her knees towards her chest. Her scarlet nails were ten mouths smiling at me from her bare feet.
“No one brought me here. I came because I wanted to be by myself.”
“Don’t you ever speak to anyone? Not even at school?”
“I hate school. I stay in the classroom on my breaks. Sometimes I get out a book and keep an eye out so no one disturbs me.”
“And of course, nobody comes,” she said.
“How would you know?”
“It’s the same everywhere, people realise that deep down you’re dying to talk to them and they become standoffish. Just like you with me the other night.”
“That’s not true,” I said, turning my head.
“But I bet your parents want to talk to you and want you to participate in their conversations; typical, they realise that you’re not interested. Families only talk about what they’re going through at the time. Luckily, here my mother hardly talks at all.”
“What does she talk about?” I asked.
“Nothing much, or death. And your family?”
“About True Solitude; but I don’t think that’s what they’re going through. When is your boyfriend coming?”
“Philippe? He’s not coming. I said it to impress you. In fact, he’s not even my boyfriend any more; he broke up with me when he found out I was leaving for a long time. He says that in Mexico you catch weird diseases.”
“Then you shouldn’t have come.”
The roof cracked again, so we decided to climb down straight away. Also, it was getting late.
“I need to go home. My mother gets insomnia almost every night and she wants me to be with her,” she said before putting the ladder back in its place. “I think she’s afraid.”
“And you are not?” I asked almost hesitantly while I was helping her climb down.
“Yes, but it’s different. When your mother is afraid it’s almost like she’s suddenly stopped feeding you, like she stopped breast-feeding you. Do you know what I mean?”
I didn’t have the faintest idea but I chose not to reply.
“Come around whenever you want,” I told her when we came to the door. She looked sad and I felt like giving her a hug but I didn’t dare.
A couple of days later it clouded over, so I spent the morning indoors without going to the pier or to the palapa. For the first time since we left to go on our holidays I wasn’t thinking at all about True Solitude.
In the afternoon it started to rain. It was an irritating drizzle swirling about in the wind. Worried, Clara called Toño to come have a look at the drops on the window.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The roof will hold up, no problem.”
“It’s not about that,” she explained. “The only thing left in the kitchen is a box of savoury biscuits. We have to go into town and buy some food. If this turns into a storm it could last all week.”
“I can’t stand those biscuits,” said Toño.
I thought it would be a good time to look for Michelle but before I could mount the expedition they left without saying goodbye. I was a bit scared of being left alone there with a storm brewing and the possibility that Clara and Toño might not be able to make it back. “If it had been my parents, they would have taken me along,” I thought angrily before collapsing onto the cushions in the living room. There was not a light to be seen outside. I tried to turn the radio on but the storm had cut the power. This was the perfect moment to find what I had been searching for all my holidays: with the thunder, the house in semi-darkness, and the rain intensifying. I wasn’t thinking about anything apart from my surroundings, but just as I reached the threshold of paradise, it terrified me.
I ran to my bedroom looking for something to cover myself with so I could catch up with them in town. I didn’t even manage to open the door before the part of the roof that covered my room collapsed. It wasn’t a drizzle falling on my bed and my clothes but a downpour now. Absurdly, I tried to rescue a sweater that up until then had remained in my luggage; but I only managed to get the clothes I was wearing drenched. I then came back to what was still the inside of the house and I covered myself with Clara’s bathrobe. That’s when I saw Michelle’s silhouette at the door. Just from the expression on her face I could tell what she was going through. I took her to the living-room, where it was still warm, and made her sit by my side on one of the floor cushions.
“My mother died this morning,” she said, and didn’t say another word for the rest of the night.
I knew that the longest embrace would have been enough. I couldn’t find anything to say but I didn’t want her to interpret my silence as she had done those other times when I refused to reply to her on the roof. I opened the robe and exposed my left breast, pointed like the breast of a skinny mongrel, and let her come to me. She took it in her mouth—a cold, narrow mouth, the mouth of a fish—and tried to suck from it all the strength she needed to rid herself of fear. For hours and hours her tears moistened the part of my body I hated the most.
Only crumbs were left in the box of salty biscuits when Clara and Toño got back. They had heard the news in town, so as soon as they came in they both gave Michelle—who wasn’t crying any longer—a hug and a pat on the back. The storm didn’t last for days, but the next morning it was still raining. In the morning Toño went into town to make a phone call to Mexico City. From what he said when he came back I knew that he had called the embassy and that there would be someone waiting for Michelle at the harbour that evening. To fill in the time at the house the three of us packed clothing and tried to rescue some stuff from my bedroom. Clara made tea at least fifteen times and between us we used up all the camomile tea bags and Michelle’s last cigarettes.
The French girl left Santa Helena in much the same way as she had arrived: she climbed up onto the pier on her own with bare feet among the bustling vendors. We went back soon after that with all the things we had brought for the house. Toño and Clara never finished repairing the roof of my room. At no point in that summer did I enter True Solitude, that undesirable paradise, but I saw it from up close in Michelle’s blue eyes while on the other side of the pier the boat that would take her to the harbour was drawing away; I saw it for a few minutes until the boat was nothing more than a speck in the sea and I continued seeing it for years after that whenever I remembered Santa Helena. Now, amongst the hustle and bustle of aunts and teaspoons, with everyone yelling desperately without hope, I can sometimes see it in certain faces but I keep quiet because when those subjects come up at the dinner table in my family it is best if no one knows they’ve been found out.
* * * * *
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
GUADALUPE NETTEL is the author of Juegos de artificio (1993), Les jours fossiles (2003), El huésped (2006), Pétalos y otras historias incómodas (2008), El cuerpo en que nací (2011), and El matrimonio de los peces rojos (2013). For several years she has collaborated with a number of French- and Spanish-language magazines and literary supplements such as Lateral, Letras Libres, Paréntesis, La Jornada Semanal, L’atelier du roman, and L’inconvénient. Recently she earned a doctorate in literature from the University of Paris. She was the recipient of the Premio Herralde, third place, for El huésped, and the 2008 Premio Antonin Artaud and the 2007 Gilbert Owen Short Story Prize in Mexico for Pétalos. She has won the Radio France Internationale Prix de la Meilleure Nouvelle en Langue Française prize for non-French-speaking countries.
In June 2013 Granta named Guadalupe Nettel in their Best Untranslated Writers series. A novel and a collection of stories will be published in English in 2014 by Seven Stories Press in New York.
ABOUT THE TRANSLATOR
ELVIRA QUINTANA is a professional translator and interpreter. Her interest in World Literature has led her to explore contemporary Latin American Literature in order to bring a taste of it to the English speaking world. Elvira has a B.A. in Translation and Interpreting completed with Distinction that earned her the Arts Dean’s Medal for academic achievement at the University of Western Sydney. Elvira was born in Mexico where she pursued a law degree for two years; she completed the third year in France. Elvira has lived, studied and worked in Canada, France, Germany, and New Zealand and has found a permanent home in Sydney in the beautiful country of Australia. Elvira is currently travelling through Latin America with the aim of continuing her learning and unfolding the many cultures this region has to offer. To contact Elvira Quintana: firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘The Other Side of the Pier’ © Guadalupe Nettel, 2008. Originally published in Spanish by Editorial Anagrama S.A.. Used by permission. From the collection Pétalos, y otras historias incómodas. This English translation first published in Contrappasso Magazine #3, August 2013. Copyright © 2013 Guadalupe Nettel & Elvira Quintana. All rights reserved.