For Claudia Guillén,
Lovely bare bodies whose exquisite forms
Carry off desires…
They came in around three, when the musicians are still not tired and blow cumbias and corridos as if they had just started. At that hour of the morning neither we nor our clients are that plastered, and almost no one lets a number go by without shaking a leg. People from the maquila have just finished the second shift and come in full of pep, with their throats fresh and ready to blow their pay on a good time with beer and company. I came down at eleven sharp. Lorenza’s illness had reached its crisis two days earlier and I didn’t feel like working one bit on account of the aggravation. I wouldn’t have worked if the sick woman herself hadn’t asked me to, with that dying voice she got since she took to her bed. “Go, Sis, don’t stay for my sake,” she said. “Go, you need the money.” And that was true, so it’s not like I was here because I liked it but because I was hard up.
Yes, it must’ve been three o’clock more or less. They came in unnoticed. I only saw them when they were already seated at a table next to the wall. I thought that was strange because gringos always grab the tables in the middle, there, right by the dance floor. For them that turns into a spectacle, like going to the circus to watch elephants and clowns. When no tables are available there, one is quickly emptied for them: The waiters remove the people, claiming they need to make room for the tourists because they spend instead of just warming their seats, playing dumb all night with one highball. Who would’ve thought they’d drop in at a whorehouse like this one? One thing’s for sure though, when they come with their girl, they just finish a couple of drinks and scram. Fact is, the gabachas draw a lot of attention and they get uncomfortable right off from the slew of horny stares. When gringas drop in, we don’t even exist for the men. We can’t hold a candle to them! Working here are young females with good figures and pretty features, with mops of bleached hair even, but Mexican men are more attracted to natural blonds. And if those chicks can’t compete, veterans with our best years behind us sure can’t. Besides, since it’s known that the gabachos’ blood is tame, there’s no lack of bullies to spring up and take their women to the dance floor. And of course, those sons of bitches are really abusive, so before the first number is over, the gringas go back to their tables offended or scared, be it because they were pawed or because they had their asses fondled. And their husbands? It’s as if they don’t notice… That’s why they’re called yellow. That’s them. They don’t care.
Blacks are another matter: They are very imposing. So much so that nobody grabs a black woman to dance unless he’s put away a couple of stiff drinks, unless she’s the one who’s offered. And even then, most just scurry away. They’re scary: Besides being dark, they’re tall, like horses, and with that don’t-fuck-with-me face, even when they laugh or when they’re drunk up to their eyeballs. But they almost never come here. They prefer to dance in any of the downtown cabarets before getting their shoes dirty in these neighborhoods.
That night there were no gringos and no blacks. Only our nationals, just our breed. That’s why I think it’s strange nobody saw them come in. We became aware of their presence when they asked for their first bucketful of beers. They must’ve been hot: Since there’s no air conditioning here, the only thing you can do is down a couple of cold ones. Those ceiling fans are only good for mixing smells, every day the same ones: sweat, beer, urine, perfume, cigarettes, even the drunks’ vomit when dawn turns their stomachs inside out. You get used to that, especially after showing up night after night. It’s bad the first time; that’s when the fumes whop you in the nose and you’ve got to have a couple of drinks to come to again.
I was keeping company with my client about two tables away and I was the one who signaled the bar to wait on them. I liked the guy, I won’t deny it: tall, ruddy-faced, dressed in white and with the air of a señorito seldom seen in this place. He kept turning and looking around curiously, using a handkerchief to wipe the sweat running down his face, from his forehead to his, as it’s called, goatee. I didn’t see her at first. Only from the back. Even so, you could recognize refinement in her, particularly in her dress: one of those soft ones, almost transparent like the wing of a fly. And in the color of her hair, between red and brown, neatly styled, well, like in a beauty shop.
The waiters were doing their thing and Agapito didn’t even notice my signal. The one who saw me was Marcial, and he wouldn’t have paid any attention to me either if I hadn’t pointed the couple out to him. He must’ve thought that I wanted service for my client, but since he’s a little old man who comes twice a week, has two beers and buys one for me, and then leaves without having danced or fucked, he isn’t worth the trouble. But as soon as he realized what it was about, he shouted out to Agapito. Marcial is the owner, and also works as bartender. He always gives preference to the gringos, sure that they‘ll spend a bunch of dollars on alcohol, rooms and women. Or so he hopes …
Agapito brought them a bucketful and returned to the bar grinning, as if they’d tipped him. I began to watch them: Nobody gives anything to anybody here, not even after spending the whole night fondling you for free. That’s when it occurred to me that maybe they weren’t gabachos after all, and so a bug began to bite me that they were up to something. Why choose to sit where the light barely reaches, close to the bathroom’s dead-cat smell, and next to one of the loudspeakers? The toilets always overflow and the filthy water spills under the tables, stinking up everything and leaving behind a slippery floor. Never mind the blasting music that keeps everyone from talking. Who knows what these two are up to, I said to my client. And I began to watch them.
That night I was keeping company with Don Chepe, an old retiree from one of the gabacho’s factories. He ended up half-deaf because he’d spent his days hammering and hammering, that’s why he doesn’t mind sitting next to the loudspeaker. He barely talks. When he comes he looks for me, if just to invite me to have a beer. He took to me: I was his girlfriend; well, his favorite girl, years ago. He met me when I was firm-fleshed and he was still young. He’d walk in and ask for me right away, and as soon as he’d see me he’d pull me to the dance floor and plug into the danzón. We’d dance for hours, breaking only to down a couple of drinks. We’d drink hard liquor in those days, and I’d call him Chepe, simply, or José, or other, more loving names. I began to fit him with the “Don” when I felt obliged to do so by his ailments and the gravity of his old age. After dancing, we’d go to my room and we’d make love until we’d go crazy from so much bedstuff. He paid well and he’d always stay over to sleep with me so he could demand his morning service when he woke up before returning to the factory and to his hammer. Those were the days. Of course, with the years, his manhood began to die little by little and I, I left my allure behind somewhere. Besides, young girls arrive here every few months and we, the old ones, survive by scavenging tricks here and there; or by playing nanny to the young chicks or, when there’s nothing else, just as Marcial’s servants. In the absence of my comadre Lorenza, I was pleased that Don Chepe was spending the evening with me, even if he couldn’t hear what I said.
They finished the first bucket as if it was water. It’s hard to take the heat in here, among people, couples dancing, without one sorry window. Of the eight beers, the girl drank five. What a throat kit: She’d tip them into her mouth and empty them in one gulp. He’d drink a bit slower. I didn’t think they were sweethearts or married; they seemed like comrades, drinking buddies. But on a closer look, it was easy to notice the complicity between them: as if they were up to mischief, like kids cutting school. They understood each other perfectly by signs and looks, there was no need to talk. The girl had lady-like manners. I couldn’t see her face, but even so, in spite of the poor light, I managed to make out her hands: manicured, with long nails, although without polish; moving in a way such that not even the gringas… Both of them were following the beat of the music with their bodies. They looked happy, but not because of the alcohol, or the place, or the people. On the young man’s face I could see that their happiness was private and that they had been carrying it inside before they got here. They only had eyes for each other. As if they were inside a glass case, a crystal bubble, far away from everything.
They continued inside each other until the young man raised his hand to ask for another bucketful. It was then that the girl turned towards the bar and I saw her face: pretty, not as I had imagined, but something in those features was very attractive; perhaps the randy expression of a willing female ready to enjoy her man. He’d suddenly eye her strangely, it seemed as if he was about to pounce on her. Then his gaze would change: His eyes would fill with tenderness. They won’t last here, I said to myself. As soon as they finish their beer they’ll split so they can fuck as God intended.
It was then I lost interest and stopped watching them, not only because I thought I’d guessed what was coming, but because a group of gringos walked in right then. They were beyond drunk, some of them even falling down; two wore big Zapatista sombreros they’d just bought in a curio shop downtown even though they didn’t match the flowered Bermudas they had on. How come they don’t realize they look like clowns: with their milky shins, big-footed, without socks and almost hairless, so ridiculous, the poor sods. The girls pretty, yes, but skinny skinny, and so long you get the impression they’re about to break in half. Marcial ordered three tables emptied for them next to the bar; they were moved together and they were served a bottle of tequila, and to each their caballito filled to the top.
It’s funny to watch the gringos dance to this music, particularly when they drum the floor with their heels to a corrido like the one recalling how Pancho Villa cut their ears off when they came after him. They don’t understand a thing, but as soon as they hear Villa mentioned they wear themselves out howling like a coyote in love with the moon. So there were the güeros, on the dance floor, pressing tight against their old ladies, spinning until they got dizzy and crashed onto their chairs. They give their all when they dance, but they tire out quickly. I imagine that’s how they must be in bed. Mexicans are the opposite: you’ve got to pamper them, keep the pace for them, treat them as if you were their mother so they don’t lose interest. Well, in my opinion. But Lorenza and I, with our many years of experience, always agreed, so I can speak with authority on the matter. Before, we used to bed two or three guys each night when Don Chepe didn’t come, because he demanded exclusivity. It didn’t matter who the client was: We were really randy and we liked men so much… But the years don’t take away just your beauty; they take the enjoyment too, and leave just the nostalgia. That is why when I saw the lust pinned onto the güerita’s expression I took a shine to her and even felt a bit envious. At this point in my life I can hook a man only if he’s old and drunk, although then it backfires on me: I get a good thrashing for trying to raise his pole from the dead. And just to think the girl could dispatch that young lad anytime…
The group of gringos began to wind down until they almost became silent, staring at their beer and talking about their stuff under the music. It’s strange how the looking game changes in a whorehouse once the racket lets up: The gringos stare at their drink, the gringas stare at them, the surrounding bunch of drunkards strip the gringas naked with their eyes, and Marcial and the waiters don’t take their eyes off the horniest of them so they don’t go pester the others. And since Don Chepe doesn’t speak, doesn’t touch me, doesn’t finish his beer, and doesn’t leave, there’s nothing for me to do but to look and keep looking. That was how, while all the looking was going on, I ran again into the güeros in the corner.
They must’ve been on their third bucketful, given the number of bottles on the table. There was no one to pick them up since Agapito was wearing himself out waiting on the gabachos. That didn’t bother them: They kept on hitching onto each other with their eyes without talking, taking a sip from their beers from time to time. Briefly, the young man would caress one of her arms, and from miles away you could see her little hairs bristle, well, that she was quivering. Such a caress might seem very innocent, but I was beginning to feel ants in my stomach from the look on their faces.
Out of sheer boredom, and also to get a line on them, I signaled to the lad to invite me to have a beer. Gesturing apologetically he showed me the empty bucket. She must’ve noticed, because she also turned around and then bent over to whisper something to him. I thought she was telling him to send me to hell, but right away he signaled with his hands for two buckets. Two? asked Agapito from afar with a surprised expression on his face. The güerita confirmed the order with two fingers. So he walked, very surprised, towards the bar; the only thing missing was for him to scratch his head. Marcial also thought it was strange, but he quickly threw the ice and the beer into the buckets before they could change their minds.
Once they were brought over, the güerita stood up, straightened her dress, grabbed one of the buckets and walked toward me. Don Chepe, who had even fallen asleep, popped his eyes wide open when he saw her. Truth is, she looked better face to face: Her hair fluffing up behind the nape of her neck and flowing in the air; her eyes big, her nose very fine and a bit turned up; without blush, which gave her a naïve, natural look. While walking towards me, she caught the attention of the drunken men who had been drooling over the gringas but who now wouldn’t stop slobbering all over her with the spittle of their eyes. If only Lorenza had been here! Because every once in a while, my comadre would treat the young females to a couple of drinks. But they had to be pretty, white-skinned, with angel faces, like this girl. She left us the bucket, giving me a naughty smile and a wink. And she smelled beautiful, her perfume was soft, and the aroma spread all around her. No wonder their noses didn’t even twitch from the bathrooms’ smell. Without saying a word, she turned around and walked back to her table. Her dress reaching down to her calves, wide-skirted, sheer; it seemed as if it floated with no one inside.
The other women saw the gift and right away tried to horn in. First Marcela who, not for nothing, grovels the most; she drew up to them with her stray-dog expression and mumbled something in the girl’s ear. She took a beer and gave it to her. Then two other chicks approached her and wheedled a beer each from her. The last one was Hermenegilda. A short time later Marcial had to send Agapito over to them with another serving, supposedly to make up for the harm inflicted by his wards, although he must’ve surely added it to their bill. Since when has this motherfucker given away anything for free! And Agapito managed to keep the freeloaders at bay with the threat of having them thrown out into the street. That’s when they turned to me for a beer, but with me those chicks are screwed: I don’t even give them water. Where do they get off?… With the old ones, on the contrary, I make common cause. That’s why I did share with those who belong to my circle. The bad thing was that, in the end, Don Chepe only got one beer and I got two. Although, now I think about it, it doesn’t matter: if we, the ripe ones, aren’t generous to each other, who will be? It even occurred to me to take one upstairs to my comadre, but then I thought she’d get worse from the alcohol. At least I felt good about the beer that Don Chepe got: I was able to return to him a bit of what he has given to me during these forty years. I don’t forget that many a night he’s the only one who’s rescued me from boredom, even if just with one sorry drink… I don’t know if that was why, but to me they tasted like heaven.
Dawn was approaching the point when everything breaks down: resistance, the sense of humor, the atmosphere. You know it because that’s when the musicians change the beat: they leave the tropical music and the rancheras behind and start to play slow numbers. As if they were saying “C’mon, it’s late, go to fuck or to sleep, but go to bed already”. But the couple, fresh, as if they’d just come in. She, dancing with her body, without getting up from her seat; and he with his amused smile and tender gaze un-erased from his face. The only thing the alcohol had done to him was to make him look ruddier. Or at least that’s what I’d thought until then, because all of a sudden he got up swaying. He’s going to fall drunk, I thought. But he stretched out his arms with the palms turned down and recovered his balance to walk straight to the bathroom. When I saw him going to take a leak I felt something akin to relief. How funny, as if it was me who had the urge. He was handsome, I already said that, and with his white clothes he seemed to me like an apparition, someone not of this world. Cute, like a baby Jesus. We, old ladies, have an expert eye for those things, and just from seeing how my comadres sniffed him and drank him in as he walked past them, I can guarantee that no man like this one had ever walked into this hole before… accompanied, what a shame. The old ladies’ sniffing did not let off of him for an instant as he walked by. As time goes on we women lose our boldness, otherwise I’m sure one of us would’ve gone up to him to ask if there was anything he needed.
Several guys were also watching him; as soon as he disappeared behind the door, they drew up to the girl. Those who didn’t muster the courage to invite her to dance were nailing her down with a look as if they wanted to get inside her guts. Really, I had never seen those sons of bitches so horny, not even when the whorehouse gets full of gringas or when one of our chicks, punch drunk, gets an urge to take her clothes off on the dance floor. The güerita didn’t lose her cool. On the contrary, she kept throwing smiles left and right, and to those who’d come too close she’d only shake her head, not without losing her smile. No one insisted, no one went over the limit, no one even touched her. Something in her forced them to keep their distance.
When the lad returned, the beaus played stupid. They amused themselves looking at their drink or they took their fichera to dance. Then, as if those two had come to an agreement, just as he sat down, she got up. And there they went again, licking her up and down with their eyes. Even the gringos, who had toned down quite a bit, returned to life. One of them thought he was Pedro Infante: he threw out a long howl and, out of sheer excitement, tipped over his tequila bottle before shouting at her in a Spanish for retards: “Adious, ma-ma-ci-taaa”. And with good reason: Since the ladies’ bathroom is over there, next to the entrance, there wasn’t a guy who couldn’t observe her at his leisure. She had had one too many, but she looked as sober as in the beginning. She moved like a cat, elegantly, without wiggling. Her dress stuck tight to her body, and as she passed one of those light bulbs that lit the stage, a series of whispers and kisses smacked in the air, announcing to all those present that she wasn’t wearing anything under the fabric.
Just as she walked into the bathroom, the musicians finished a number and the place became silent. Nobody was talking, but in the men’s faces you could notice the restlessness of their arousal. Every one of them was attentively watching the door, waiting to see her reappear. I felt a little afraid. Everyone’s eyes shone with a ray of madness. Even Don Chepe seemed to have recovered the lust of his youth and kept staring in the direction of the bathroom without moving a muscle. The women, young and old, a little more discreetly, stared greedily at the young guy while he, somewhat oblivious, awaited the return of his mate, taking small sips of his beer.
The girl commanded respect. No one dared to do anything but to look at her when she returned at the same time the musicians started the next song. As she walked across the dance floor, still empty because of the pause between numbers, she stopped and swelled up to take a couple of dance steps. I can’t possibly explain it: It seemed as if her body was weightless and she glided across the floor very quickly without losing her balance. I don’t know, as if she had no bones inside her and her skin and her dress were the wrapping on a package about to open. I thought she’d take off flying when we least expected it and I felt kind of choked with emotion. She must be a really real dancer, one of those whose name is in lights at the theater and who appears on TV, I said to Don Chepe. Stupefied, he didn’t hear me.
Even though she only danced for a few seconds, her movements charged the atmosphere. The men were stirring nervously, as if ants were running between their legs, they were breathing as if they couldn’t, they tightened their grip around their glass or their bottle. When the girl moved her hands signaling an invitation to come to the dance floor, those who had a partner happily got up to loosen their limbs, those who didn’t went looking for one. Even Don Chepe was marking the beat with his feet. How strange, I thought aloud, normally this hole starts emptying out at this hour…
That was the last time I thought of my comadre that night. Lorenza always loved to dance and, until she became sick, she’d get herself to the dance floor at least once. She didn’t care if she went alone, unless she had clients to attend to. And she enjoyed it all the more if she had a few drinks in her. “You know that, comadrita,” she’d warn me, “I could die dancing.” Many years ago, one night when we were frolicking, while we were spinning like screeching tops in the middle of the dance floor, she told me all buzzed up: “You know what I’d like? If when I die, instead of holding a wake over me you organized a blow out. I’d leave much happier if those who love me are giving joy to their bodies.” That Lorenza, so nutty. It’s a shame that her sickness kept her from seeing this.
Out of sheer pleasure, just because of how happy they had made the atmosphere, Marcial sent them another bucket full of beers. He couldn’t keep up with all of his clients’ orders. Dancing causes a lot of thirst, and stupid Agapito kept going back and forth with his tongue hanging out serving drinks all over. What with being so busy dancing, the rest left the two güeros alone for a while. I myself, feeling Don Chepe so alive for the first time in a long time, forgot about them for a couple of minutes. When I looked for them again, I saw that the girl had climbed on to one of the lad’s legs and the two were swinging, slowly rubbing against each other to the beat of the music.
Like that, so close together, with the light barely shining on them, I realized that they looked very similar. Like siblings. I hadn’t noticed that before and I got curious. I strained my eyes to study them up and down and a shiver gave me goose pimples. Not only did they look like siblings, but like twins: If you took his beard and moustache off, and cut her hair, and did not take into account the difference in their height, you could swear they had been born from the same mother and the same father. But my reaction didn’t come from feeling shocked, God forbid. I don’t judge people, and besides I’m so old and I’ve seen so many things in this world that nothing shocks me anymore. I got goose pimples because of so much beauty. They looked so beautiful, so happy, that I felt moved to my bones and with my hand I searched for Don Chepe’s. He squeezed mine with the same strength as when we first met and he held it like that while the musicians played a song that was my favorite when I was young.
A slow one, the melody is one of those you danced with your body plastered against your companion’s, as if wanting to become one. The dancers on the floor began to kiss, caress, to search for each other’s heat in spite of the clothes between them. And the couple was doing the same thing on the chair. His hands went over the güerita’s flesh as if it was their first time. With curiosity, very attentively. She was sweating buckets, and her sweat was soaking her dress, making it transparent, revealing the shape of her body. They were not smiling anymore. Their expression was now of surprise. They were pawing each other as if they were rediscovering each other, as if they hadn’t been together in a long time. And that’s when my blood began to go crazy inside me. I got an itch all the way up to my gray hair. My bones and my teeth were chattering. I felt the urge to do something, I didn’t clearly know what. After years and years I was feeling aroused again, alive.
Those who occupied the tables around us, those still on the dance floor, even Marcial, in other words, everyone had their eyes glued to the couple. I never knew if someone moved the lights our way, but suddenly the lovers’ corner wasn’t in semi-darkness anymore and they themselves looked lit up; they were shining. Nobody dared to come near them but, even so, I’m sure that nobody was missing a single detail. Even though the music kept playing, I could quite clearly hear how everyone’s breath accelerated when the lad, looking more prying-like than lustful, lifted the girl’s dress. He struggled a little, until the girl stood up in front of him so he could expose to the air a pair of creamy buttocks and a hairless thigh, like an infant’s. Then, she opened his shirt to kiss his chest and we all could see that, although strong, its lack of hair gave such an impression of weakness that it beckoned protection.
Both men and women gave a sigh that made the place tremble when she went on her knees and started to unbutton his pants. I think that by that time, even the musicians, the waiters and Marcial had stopped their hustle and bustle to look for a place to watch from. Truth be told, I wasn’t paying attention to them, nor do I know whether there was still any music. He pushed her dress down from her shoulders to her waist. Her chest was almost flat, but her nipples stuck out a lot, long and pointy, as if made so her companion could easily pinch them. And that’s what he did while he caressed that hair that seemed made of feathers, her neck, her shoulders. My heart was beating very quickly, like the heart of a perverted snooper; so much so that when I saw her sinking her face between the lad’s legs I thought I was going to faint. What kept me conscious were her mouth, her expression, her eyes; a way of moving her lips, of opening and closing them, that made her look even more beautiful; her expression, of someone certain of being able to give her male every pleasure, as if this was her only chance; and in her eyes, which didn’t stop blinking, you could see her infinite delight. I know those things. I speak from experience.
I stopped looking when I felt Don Chepe’s hand under my skirt, burning my thighs. I turned to him and right away he kissed me like he used to during our best years before going up to the bedroom. He pressed himself against me eagerly and his body was hot and full of tremors. One of his hands moved down my cleavage searching for my breasts and suddenly I was overwhelmed by forgotten sensations. I moaned when, with his other hand, he guided mine towards his fly and my fingers closed around his hard pole, revived. As we began to stand up I was still able to see how the girl’s face was pulling away from her companion’s legs. A glitter of desire was gushing from the black of her eyes and I thought that mine must be glittering like hers. Don Chepe pulled me firmly by the waist, but before running away, both of us saw her picking up her dress, raising a leg to climb on top of him and letting herself drop at the same time that she let out a long moan, sharp, like a bird’s cry, that reverberated in the air for a long time.
We almost ran to the bedroom, and on the staircase I realized that everyone had been overcome by the same hurry. In the saloon, couples were kissing and caressing each other like animals in heat, the gringos had already stripped their women naked, the tables were becoming empty. We barely made it to my room because of the others looking for a place to get into. And there, finally alone, we enjoyed each other again slowly, with the calmness that comes from so many nights together, thanking heaven for the gift of being able to do what we had thought was no longer possible. At that time of dawn, when the sun was just coming up, my old lover behaved like a youngster again: he filled me with kisses, tenderness, sex, love. He stayed over to sleep with me. Of course, when we woke up our entire bodies ached. But the happiness we found after losing it years ago, those minutes we lengthened as if they were the last ones, convinced us both that we didn’t need anything else, that we could now die in peace…
And just as nobody saw the lad and the güerita come in, nobody saw them leave either. Everyone was very very busy. I was told afterwards that the ones who couldn’t get into a room began screwing in the corners, or on top of the tables, even on the dance floor. Including the musicians. C’mon, even Marcial, who never gets involved with his wards, grabbed Hermenegilda and took her to the warehouse.
Afterwards, as always happens, the bickering and arguing started and, as the weeks and months went by, the versions of the story multiplied. The inventions that I’ve heard about that night! It’d seem that I am the only one who realized who they were. It wasn’t that difficult. Just a matter of looking at them very carefully and of paying attention to the details. Because of the miracle they made for me and Don Chepe, I began to suspect it. But it was not until midmorning, when I went to my comadre’s room to see how she was doing, that I really understood what they’d come for. Lorenza wore a smile of happiness like I’d never seen on her. Yes, she was dead. Quite dead. But ecstatic.
Translated by Selma Marks
1 Fragment from “To a Dead Poet (F.G.L.)” in Selected Poems of Luis Cernuda, edited and translated by Reginald Gibbons, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1977, p. 76.
Selma Marks, translator, was born and raised in Mexico City. She lives in New York City where she has worked as an interpreter for over 15 years. She has translated plays and fiction, mostly by Mexican authors. One of those translations, Yearning for the Sea by Esther Seligson, is being published by Frayed Edge Press in the summer of 2021.