Like drawing a sheer cloth over the past, a flaming curtain fluttering out the open window of that house in the spring of 1986. A year scarred by smoking tires in the cordoned-off streets of Santiago. A city waking up to the sounds of banging pots and pans and lightning blackouts, electric wires dangling overhead, sputtering and sparking. Then total darkness, the headlights of an armored car, the Stop, you piece of shit!, the gunshots, and the terrified stampede, like metal castanets shattering the felt-tipped night. Gloomy nights, pierced by shouts, by the indefatigable chant of Now he will fall! Now he will fall!, and the many last-minute news bulletins broadcast over the airwaves by Radio Cooperativa.
Then there was the scrawny house on the corner, three stories high with a staircase like a backbone leading to the room on the rooftop. From there could be seen the city in shadows crowned with a turbid veil of dust.
It was no bigger than a dovecote with three walls and a railing that was just wide enough for the Queen of the Corner–her hands moving as if playing on a marimba–to hang the sheets, tablecloths, and underpants out to dry. During those mornings of wide-open windows she would sing, My tender matador, I’m so afraid your smile will disappear ” The whole neighborhood knew their new neighbor was one of those, the block’s new sweetheart, just a bit too enchanted by that dilapidated old building, a flaming faggot with knitted brows who showed up one day to inquire if that earthquake-damaged dump on the corner was for rent. It looked like the backdrop of a stage set that was hanging by a thread, an opportunity missed during the long-gone days of urban renewal. Boarded up for so many years, so full of rats and ghosts and bats the Queen implacably evicted, feather duster in hand, broom in hand, sweeping out the cobwebs with her fairy energy as she sang Lucho Gatica songs in that faggot falsetto, coughing out “B’same Mucho’ through the clouds of dust and debris cast out on the curb.
All he needs is his Prince Charming, whispered the old ladies standing on the sidewalk across the street, watching him through the open window as he flitted about like a hummingbird. But he’s so nice, they would add, listening to those old-fashioned lyrics, moving their heads to the rhythm of those songs of yesteryear that shook everybody on the block out of their beds. The music woke up husbands who had been out drinking all night, good-for-nothing teenagers tangled up in the sheets, lazy students who didn’t want to go to school. And when Cecilia, the latest sensation, belted out “Hallelujah” and the Queen turned the volume all the way up, it became the neighborhood’s reveille, its musical alarm clock, the rooster’s crow at dawn. As if she wanted to share with the entire world those corny lyrics that released her neighbors from their dreams: And you will ta-a-a-ake my ha-a-a-nd in yo-o-o-o-u-u-rs.
So it was that the Queen of the Corner, in a very short time, became part of the social zoo of this lower-class Santiago neighborhood, whose inhabitants scratched their fleas between bouts of unemployment and the half pound of sugar begged from the local shopkeeper on credit. A neighborhood grocery store, the epicenter of prattling opinions and endless commentaries about the country’s political situation. The final score of the last demonstration, the declarations of the Opposition, the Dictator’s threats, the calls to action for September. The Yes, now, finally, he won’t last past “86; “86 is the year! Everyone out on the streets, to the cemetery, to demonstrate, bring salt and lemon for the tear gas, and so, so many news bulletins broadcast incessantly over that radio station:
The voice of Radio Cooperativa, Manola Robles reporting “
But she wasn’t quite there in the political fray. It frightened her just to listen to that radio station that reported only bad news. That station you could hear everywhere, with its protest songs and urgent communiqu’s that had everybody with their hearts in their mouths. She preferred to tune in the golden-oldies programs: “To the Beating of Your Heart,” “For Those Who Once Were Young,” “A Night in the Slums.” And that’s how she spent whole afternoons, embroidering sheets and oversized tablecloths for aristocratic old ladies who paid a high price for her renderings of Arachne’s art.
In the spring of “86, that house was her refuge, the only thing, perhaps, that she had ever loved, the only space the Queen of the Corner had ever been able to call her own. Thus the great care she took in adorning the walls like a wedding cake, populating the cornices with birds, fans, flowering vines, and lace mantillas draped over the invisible piano. Those fringed scarves, sheer nets, laces, tulles, and gossamers covering the boxes she used as furniture. Those heavy boxes the young man she met at the neighborhood store asked her to keep in her house, that good-looking boy who asked her for a favor. Telling her they were just books, censored books, he said, through lips like moist lilies. She simply couldn’t refuse such a virile voice, and the echo of those words from that mouth continued to reverberate in her silly head like an excited little bird. Why should she ask more questions? He said his name was Carlos something or other, and he was studying who knows what at some university or other, and he flashed his identity card so quickly in front of her she didn’t manage to read it, so captivated was she by the violet hue in his brown eyes.
He left the first three boxes in the hallway. But she insisted that they were in the way; he should bring them into the bedroom so she could use them as a bedside table and a place to keep the radio. Unless it’s too much trouble, because the radio is my only companion, she said, blushing, looking at him like a motherless lamb as she watched the sweat beading up on his forehead. She distributed the next boxes around the empty space of her imagination, as if she were decorating a movie set. Over there, Carlos, in front of the window. No, Carlos, not so close together; they look like a coffin. More to the middle, Carlos, like end tables. Not standing up, Carlos, better lying down or on their sides, Carlos, to divide up the space. Higher, Carlos, to the right; sorry, I meant to the left. Are you tired? Let’s take a rest. Would you like a cup of coffee? Like a buzzing bee she came and went from here to there, flinging her yes Carlos, no Carlos, maybe Carlos, probably Carlos this way and that like a feathered stole, as if by repeating his name she were embroidering those letters in the air that vibrated languidly in his presence. As if the motor of that sissy tongue were stuck enunciating his name, calling him, licking him, savoring those syllables, chewing on the word, filling her up with that Carlos so deep, that name so grand, until she was but a sigh held gently on the long o of Carl-o-s that illuminated her h-o-me.
All the while, boxes and more boxes kept arriving, heavier and heavier boxes that Carlos carried in, using his powerful muscles. The Queen kept adding to the cushion and slipcover d”cor by inventing new pieces of furniture whose pleated skirts could hide the secrets of the sarcophagi. Then came the meetings, at midnight, at dawn, when the neighborhood was nothing but a chorus of snores and farts: sleep’s splintered anthem. In the middle of a downpour, dripping wet, Carlos’s friends would come to meet in the room on the roof. One of them always remained outside on the corner, acting the fool. Carlos, lids half drawn over lynxlike eyes, had politely asked her permission. They’re friends of mine from the university, and they don’t have anywhere to study, and your house and your heart are so large. How could she refuse that dark handsome man when he made her wet, when she broke into a sweat every time he approached? Anyway, the young people she managed to catch glimpses of seemed perfectly respectable. Let them come in and make themselves at home, she thought, as she served them coffee, retouching the shine on her lips with the tip of her tongue, singing along with the love ballads playing on the radio: You got me used to you and so I wonder ” and all sorts of other frivolous phrases that distracted the students from their stratagems. Then they would cut her off from her source of inspiration by turning the dial to that horrible station.
Radio Cooperativa reporting: We are receiving reports of violent incidents on Alameda Bernardo O’Higgins. Barricades have been erected “
The cool August air wafted pleasantly through the house. It looked like a scene from the popular Chilean operetta The Flower Pergola patched together with the detritus of Hollywood and lots of zeal. An oriental palace with crushed silks hanging from the ceilings, old mannequins reborn as apocalyptic angels and centurions who guarded the fantasies of the flowery faggot. The boxes and crates became thrones, armchairs, and divans for her queer friends to stretch out on when they visited. A small group of queens would come for tea and leave before the arrival of “the se”ora’s suitors,” as they teasingly referred to them, insisting they be introduced to the lady of the house’s arsenal of muscle-bound admirers. No fool am I, she affirmed, as she cleared away the cups and cleaned up the crumbs and saw them to the door, adding that the boys had no interest in meeting any more fruitcakes.
So, the march of machos through the bejeweled little house became more and more unrelenting, more urgent every day, up and down the rickety staircase that threatened to collapse under their pounding footsteps. Sometimes Carlos didn’t join them upstairs; he would then do his best to turn the poor partridge’s head, shielding the cloaked visitors from her sight. Not even he was allowed to take part in some of those meetings, he explained, and he would stop her when she tried, with friendly curiosity, to offer them coffee. Because they must be freezing to death up there, she said, looking deeply into Carlos’s incorruptible face. And anyway, why can’t I go up there? After all, this is my house. Then Carlos would soften and take her gently by the arm, his hawkish glare penetrating her dovelike innocence. That’s just how men are; you know they don’t like to be disturbed while they’re studying. They have an important exam; soon they’ll be done. Let’s sit down and have a chat.
Carlos was so good, so sweet, so kind. And she was so much in love, a captive, staying awake with him all night like a zombie until the meetings ended. Long hours of silence, looking at his tired legs thrown carelessly over the fuchsia-colored cushions. A velvety silence brushed against his bluish, unshaven cheek. A heavy silence, nodding off, weighing him down. A downy drowsy silence, filling his head with lead, but she, wide awake, she, soft as cotton wool, delicately arranging a pillow for his comfort. Next the smooth move, the brush of the queer’s gloved hand approaching his face, the touch. Then the shudder, the jolt from the electrified contact that awakens him, and he gets up, pretending to look urgently around for something he’s lost. What’s going on? What happened? Nothing. You fell asleep. Would you like a blanket? Sure. They still aren’t done? Don’t let me fall asleep, tell me about yourself, your life. Can I have another cup of coffee?
So, separated by curtains of smoke that they sucked in and blew out through the long vigils, she wove together, in her sissy singsong voice, thin threads of memory. Scraps from the days of street hustling, meandering along nameless dirty alleyways she managed to transform into tropical sidewalk paradises with her swishing footsteps that clicked to the rhythm of the night until finally a dancing partner appeared, someone who would cradle her destiny for a few hours, a few coins, offering momentary relief from the pitiful cold with a hot horn of plenty. Every furtive friction evened the score, smoothing out with sex the jagged edges of ill fortune. Afterward, a stiff pair of underpants, a lost sock, an empty bottle with no message, no directions to any island, no treasure or map for her heart, fluttering like a swallow, to follow. Her heart, vibrating like a baby hummingbird, orphaned so young when her mother died. Her heart, shaking like a squirrel, frightened by her father’s shouts, her thighs scarred by the lash of the belt. He said he beat me to make a man out of me. That he didn’t want to be ashamed around his friends in the union or get into fights with them when they teased him that I’d come out backward. And he was so macho, had such a way with the ladies, always such a gentleman with the whores, so plastered the time he grabbed me. His burning elephantine body pinned me down. Drowning in the room’s darkness, I flapped my wings desperately like a skewered chicken, like a plucked pigeon; I had no substance, no courage to resist being impaled by his hard sinew. And then, the same bad taste of the I don’t remember anything, the same lost sock, the same sheet sprinkled with red petals, the same burning sensation, the same empty bottle with its SOS floating in the pink water of the toilet bowl.
He always said I was a sissy dud my mother left him as punishment. That’s why he was so tough with me, why he forced me to stand up to the other kids. But I never could defend myself, not even against the younger boys; they’d beat me up and run off triumphantly, their fists covered with the warm chocolate from my nose. Several times they called him from school and recommended that he send me to a psychologist, but he refused. The teacher told him that a doctor could make my voice deeper, that only a doctor could change the way I walked, as if stepping on eggs, with prancing footsteps that made the kids laugh, sending the whole class into an uproar. But he said it was all crap, that only the military could whip me into shape. So, when I turned eighteen, he enlisted me, and a sergeant friend of his agreed to let me join his regiment. “
Carlos, staring into his cup as he sipped his coffee, suddenly felt wide awake. You were in the army? he asked, still looking at his hands, which were resting on his knees. You must be crazy. Not on your life. That’s why I left his house and never saw him again. The sound of footsteps overhead indicated that the meeting was breaking up. Tell me the rest tomorrow, Carlos said, almost in a whisper, as he slowly stood up, tall and erect, and she gazed up at him, fingering the fringe on the hem of the curtain.
You want to know about my past.
Before we love, we must the other trust.
To give up life for love, but not to die,
This is true affection, not what I feel from y-o-o-u.
Copyright ” 2003 by Pedro Lemebel. Translation copyright ” 2003 by Kathrine Silver. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.