Intricately woven masterpieces of craft, mournful for their human cries in defiance of our sometimes less than human surroundings, Nettel’s stories and novels are dazzlingly enjoyable to read for their deep interest in human foibles. In “Petals,” a woman’s odor drives a man to search for her, and even to find her, without quenching the thirst that is his undoing.
Bezoar. And Other Unsettling Stories comes out on August 11, 2020. It is currently available for pre-order from Seven Stories Press.
I never understood the right way to approach La Flor, the Flower. Nor did I figure out how to extricate myself from her at the right time, when it was still possible to replace her story with another that would take me faraway from the neighborhood where I usually hung out, from those streets bordering the university, brimming with cafes, cigarette smoke and folks just hanging out, the streets that crossed Tiber Avenue. They say that years ago the avenue was small, but after my childhood its name became irritating, unsuitable for that long crass noisy eyesore that divided the district into two parts. According to the local people, there was nothing river-like about it, except for the flow of cars and the high concrete bridges where freight trucks have to pass to enter the highway.
Now, deeper into the neighborhood, the streets are different and have that atmosphere that is both small-town and depressing, like the outskirts of my native city. In earlier years I’d wander around there for hours, turning corners covered with ivy, checking out cozy restaurants with geraniums on windowsills with their wrought-iron grates, sometimes joining the homeless who nowadays come from the east in the month of May, when the heat becomes unbearable, and garbage dumps are filled to the brim at the hour when a worker comes out of a kitchen to empty the last vestiges from the night before. Though we never spoke I shared with them some sort of hospitable affection. I would admire how they knew how to turn any place in the neighborhood into an intimate space, into a home that was filthy but always open to any need.
The best time to go to restaurants were the peak hours when nobody noticed my presence and I could acquaint myself with the public restrooms of the area, which, like the nearness of women, at my twenty odd years were a novelty. It wasn’t strange then that I would prefer to go to the ladies room, and immerse myself in their traces. The others, those designed for my sex, did not seem very promising, in the wakes of urinals I encountered arrogance, sometimes rivalry, but nothing worthy of remembering upon getting back to my studio, where I would survive the whiff of loneliness and enclosure, sheltered in the smells I would gather during the day, the “rat-hole” I called my home, proud, in that era, of the squalor I cultivated as a kind of posturing.
The women’s bathrooms always had the charm of the new, always filled with little conversations left behind in the mirrors, in the stains of lipstick. Perhaps because I was shy or because of the olfactory vocation that still rules my life, instead of spending my evenings looking for a party or undoing skirts in the uncomfortable seats of some movie theater, I preferred to discover women in the only place they don’t feel observed, in bathroom stalls. There, when one learns to read the signs, a mere liquid stain sliding down a white wall can reveal a crisis of nerves or recent stress. There was always some discovery, a new reaction capable of provoking in me an apprentice’s euphoria, but among all those unknowns—which resulted in challenges that stimulated me to exercise the art of interpretation—none disconcerted me as much as La Flor.
Now, with the effect of the years, of what optimists call experience and which is really only the moss we gather, a salt capable of covering everything with rust, I can’t help smiling at the name with a sense of the ridiculous as well as condescension. That afternoon, when I first discovered a trace of her in the Café Colon, one of those restaurants with geraniums on the windows, naming her thus seemed inevitable. The avenue led me into the neighborhood; I climbed the street of the outdoor market and on the park corner I turned right because the restaurant was full. The customers were so busy looking for a table that I had no trouble entering the women’s bathroom. A trace of her could be found in the first stall and immediately drew my attention: over the white curvature of the toilet seat a young woman, and a vague damp smell, had left such slight brown stains that, if I hadn’t entered, any new visitor would have erased them. The fragility of the stains, like that of an old wrinkled face, ultimately frightened me. Still facing the water in the toilet, I tried to imagine her. It was like looking at a knot and not finding any end where to begin to untie it. The only thing I could think of was to unzip my fly and urinate carefully until on the tile there was only my own smell, orange and penetrating. Then I was alone, without a street or a toilet where to find her again. Perhaps if I had seen her leave, she might have turned into a thin young girl who leaves a café in the middle of the afternoon or the daughter of a squat red-haired man. But as that didn’t happen I felt committed to pursuing her stains and smells—the only aspects of La Flor I could recognize, and to discover through them the reason why she was so pale and so fragile that it made me imagine her leaning against some surface about to collapse.
During the week I returned every night to the Café Colon. The urine I found was banal: little green drunken binges, without any imagination, or tired bladders, or some wild extravaganzas. I waited. I waited hours and returned several days in a row. Until becoming convinced that la Flor had no reason to return to that place: people tend to hold places as sacred and frequenting them might wear down the memory. Another possibility was to think on that night la Flor had entered the restaurant only to use the bathroom. Then I decided to look around the area, on the street, in the restrooms in other places.
During those days I visited several locations. First I went around the streets that descend toward the bridge, on the left side of Tiber Avenue—if one is coming from south to north—along the street of the bakery. Time and again I’d walk past the entrance to the park, stopping to look at the drifters who at that hour already had their guitar in hand and were singing songs in their unintelligible languages. Like every year, what detained me in front of the group would be the girls with long reddish hair whom I could never quite approach. But that summer, perhaps for the first time, I didn’t hang out behind the bushes on the edge of the park. That summer I devoted myself to chasing after another woman I pictured fragmentarily and with great difficulty. That summer, going by the cafes, she cannot avoid looking inside and attentively checking faces and skin tones. Something, possibly the sadness of the stains I had seen in the toilet, made me think that la Flor’s eyes were an unmistakable ashen gray. When I finally decided upon a place, I’d enter pretending to look for a group of friends and when I found no trace of her, I’d leave looking surprised and with an upset stomach. Nevertheless this method turned out to be effective.
Saturday, before ten, I came upon the second sign. I found it in a diner on the other side of the avenue. I went directly to the ladies’ room, much more modest than the first one. Now the color of her traces was almost absent, as if she were asleep, or perhaps crazy. But the smell was very strong: sour sweat over an underbelly of wine and the tedium of old age, belonging to someone living a few extra hours. Despite all this and the shape of her stains, elongated and sparse like fish excrement, I was convinced that she was not ill, that her body’s weakness had another source.
“Too much booze,” I said in a high voice of frustration, as if predicting the ending of a movie. A woman in the next stall cried out in a high-pitched voice that a man was in the bathroom. I was a little alarmed but I decided not to pay any attention. I noted the odor and my eyes examined for a couple of minutes the bottom of the toilet because I wanted to take advantage of my finding, but also because I discovered that I liked to feel her near me, not only as an object of analysis but also as when one is in the presence of an eventual appearance, the luck of witnessing an eclipse or a war among butterflies. Luckily there were almost no customers and nobody listened to the lady, who rushed out of the bathroom without washing her hands. A few minutes later I left toward the rear by the window in the back over the sinks; I sat on some steps near the avenue, where my strength slowly waned. The whiff of wine could have tricked me, but did not succeed in reassuring me. That evening, in the midst of the din of cars, I realized that sometimes there is a single door and even if I wanted to, I could not get out of that story through a back window. Somehow I had a hunch that my duty was to find her and discourage her from something that not even I knew how to define, something that perhaps I myself was inventing. I looked at the avenue and saw at least five restaurants that I had not yet visited. It was too late to check them all out before they closed. I stood up as best I could, and began walking so as not to keep conjecturing.
It took me quite a while to find a place that was compelling enough, and when after having walked all over the neighborhood I came upon the illuminated door of the Mazarin, I felt so exhausted that I was about to leave without even entering. Though there was no reason to think that la Flor would be in a place like that—I mean so much more expensive than the others—and at that hour there were barely any customers, I made the effort. I crossed the entrance scrutinizing the two floors decorated with plants, the terrace where a fountain of luminous green water accompanied the last conversations. Then I looked for the bathroom to see if I could recognize some clue that would justify my wakefulness. I entered quickly taking care that I wouldn’t be noticed by anyone.
In life all sniffers should have a moment of plenitude like the one I lived that time in the ladies’ restroom in Mazarin’s. I cannot tell if what made me so ecstatic was the discreet marble of the furniture and the floor, the high ceiling that allowed for the free circulation of smells or the spacious stall in which I searched meticulously. The best atmospheres are like states of mind: they can be sensed but not interpreted, and even though I would recognize the exact tone of the indirect lighting, the murmur of the voices there outside and the abundant plants, even in the bathroom, all that remains for me of that environment is a faded nostalgia, like the memory of a beautiful and distant memory. The bathroom was a reduced copy of Mazarin’s. It was enough to bend over the toilet and receive in one’s face the smell of the dishes, the blintzes or the duck in mango sauce. But the best part was to be there, with one’s face almost inside the toilet and breathe in, beyond the ingredients, the pleasure of the dinner guests, the way in which each one had interpreted the taste of breakfast or dinner the night before. Amid the variety of the tiny stains—the toilet was apparently clean the whole night—I found the timid traces of my Flor. It wasn’t at all difficult to distinguish them from others. First of all because there were no others, and secondly, because its wake was so ephemeral, the same transient green from before, but this time distributed inside the toilet bowl. It was as if her whole life had slipped out from deep inside her. The image struck me so intensely that I had to raise my face for a few seconds to breathe. Where did that woman find the energy to leave the bathroom? Everything was there and I didn’t know how to understand it. I didn’t manage to see anything in the tile except my impotence, my ineptitude. Something fell into the bottom of the water, something damp, transparent, fell again and again, wetting my face with a salty, shameful taste.
In the midst of the confusion, all I could do was to clutch the traces that I had before me: la Flor hadn’t eaten a thing since last evening. Beneath her usual weakness I noticed that she was tired—this time physically—and had been thirsty for several hours, which rusted her lips, the only lips I could intuit and which served as a model for me to imagine her fleshy, minuscule mouth. Outside, the hum of people diminished, making way for the sound of the water. I thought of her, I pictured her persistently biting her nails, in front of a green lake all lit up like the central fountain.
A little calmer, I again looked and again raised my face at least three times. The more I watched the splashing, the more muddled the traces became until they formed a crazed kaleidoscope. In my second reading, la Flor had several possible body types. I had doubts about the size of her mouth, and the tones of her urine even provoked disgust in me, the certainty that her whole self had begun to rot. I stood up suddenly and left the bathroom indignantly, thinking that la Flor deserved more respect. If I were not able to help her, I certainly had no right to inspect her dark recesses. It was late. I walked in the direction of the bridge with my head to the ground and I waited for a bus that would take me back to my rat-hole—which is what it was, more than ever, that night.
In my bed I missed the warmth of the first stains and pictured myself dancing with her in the park, very close, our noses almost touching, while someone was singing a summer song. Lack of time kept me from enjoying the dream: in a few hours—if it hadn’t already happened—I was going to lose forever the opportunity to find her. I turned on the lamp on the bureau and, leaning with my back against the wall, I counted the money I had in a drawer to see if, in case I found her before, I would be able to invite her to dinner with the remains of my last salary check. I would have liked to have a night with la Flor, enter the world of her habits without telling her anything at the beginning and later to surprise her little by little with the things I knew about her. I put out the light to let the morning finish spilling over the window of my room.
In the evening I returned to Café Mazarin and spent almost an hour in the first stall in the bathroom without success. In the toilet stains I found nothing of her, not even vestiges of her previous visit. Before ten, the time when most restaurants in the neighborhood close their doors, I left my hiding place, ran to the street desperately and went into every bathroom I could: a clue, one little sign, would have calmed me down. Now I know that in situations like this it doesn’t help to do so much looking, that it’s better to think before moving around and to analyze, almost in a visionary way, the evidence within our reach. But this is not what I did that night. That night I checked all the toilets I had before me, all the mirrors, all the traces. In my hurried tour around the neighborhood I returned at least three times to the Mazarin before discovering in one of its shiny white sinks a round soapy earring. I knew by the smell, by the ever so small amber stone threaded rustically with a silver wire. It felt like I kept the hoop between my fingers for years, that I kept playing with its slippery fragility beside the drain hole in the sink. I didn’t come out again, but preferred the cowardly consolation uncertainty gives. There was a ventilation opening very close to the roof. I locked it—at that hour the restaurant was filled—and got on top of some furniture to look out: the scene calmed me down. Perhaps it was the dusky twilight, the everyday image of the bridge at that hour in which the flow of automobiles is more abundant that at any other time of the day, which assured me that she was going to return for her earring. I took off the lock and returned to the stall to wait on the floor stooping beside the toilet. Other women filled the waiting time. In those months I spent tracking stains and odors, I had never witnessed the moment of production in which various tints drip to paint stories on the tile. Thus for amusement I forced myself to watch a dozen buttocks and raised skirts circulate in the neighboring stalls, but always when the door would open again the outbursts of disappointment would pile up, making a furrow in my mood that kept getting deeper. Two hours or perhaps a long time later—I would be unable to say exactly—la Flor returned.
It wasn’t difficult to recognize her: her odor entered the bathroom before she did and took over the air by assault. I listened to her walk in front of the mirrors and pause at painful and endless places until probably moved more by chance than an impulse of her own, she put her hand on the lock of the next stall. The emotion I felt kept me from peeking. At that moment, while I bit down on the earring with my front teeth tightly shut so as not to cry out, La Flor was with me murmuring a slow and sweet waterfall, much more pleasurable than the nearness of any other body. I don’t know how long I remained seated. I think it took her quite a while to pull up her loose-fitting jeans. I kept hidden until she left the bathroom and went out a little after that, calculating that, by then, she would be outside in the corridor. We left the restaurant—I want to use that verb in first person though the truth is that I was following her, without daring to detain her. It still seemed important for me to change her direction but I was not pressed by either anxiety or haste. The night air was almost cool and a wind was coming from the east; I was thinking that the festivities in the park would end soon.
She—from this moment on I cannot continue naming her as I did before—walked with her hands in the pockets of her worn sweatshirt. The mane of her long reddish hair moved like a pendulum on her back with each of those steps she took, determined by the old and terrifyingly familiar direction of the avenue. I didn’t follow her for that long, nor did I dare to accompany her as she climbed the steps of the bridge. With the fear that for so many nights I had remained distant from the dances in front of the boarding house, I simply watched how she bent over the handrail toward the hum of the cars. I looked at her for a long time, long enough to reach her if I had hurried. But I didn’t go up there to get her. I didn’t do it even when my survey of the stains and smells seemed so clear, as clear as her walk. I didn’t do it perhaps simply out of fear or perhaps because I didn’t recognize anything familiar in her face, of which I remember very little, except that her eyes were neither gray nor unmistakable. I also looked obsessively toward the flow of the Tiber, while the earring whirled on the tip of my index finger, but shuddered slightly, with that remote pity provoked by the misfortune of any stranger, when her swaying on the bridge turned into those final remains, petals on the pavement, which the cars did not dare to run over.
Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine