Yesterday, like every Friday, we arranged to meet the Woods family at the Tigre rail terminal. We arrived more than an hour early, as if we were going on a plane trip, and Dad dropped all the bags on the quay and asked me to stay with him. As always, he wanted me at his side to hear what the loudspeakers were saying in case the water-bus arrived early. Never once has it arrived early, but he says there’s a first time for everything and asks for silence with exaggerated gestures, to which no one pays any attention. Mum was close by, but not too close (gesticulating in the middle of the station is one of the unforgivable things that Dad “does to mortify her”). She had wound one of her scarves around her head so as not to mess up her hair, and was wearing a lot of makeup. With her anxious expression, all that was needed was the soft lighting of an old movie for her to be the protagonist in a classic encounter with her one true love. Mum is an actor trapped in the body of a housewife and is convinced that people are always looking at her. That is why she is always impeccable and would never do anything that couldn’t be on the cover of a magazine.
Elisa Woods, by contrast, arrived running and shouting, as though we were the only people in the terminal. As soon as she saw me, she handed over a bag of books for me to carry. She has had the same bag for as long as I’ve known her, with the broken zip and the handles coming apart, and the books all fall out onto the pavement. She says she brings them for me, so Dad has decided “it is fitting” that I should carry them. The truth is that Elisa likes to read out loud: to me or whomever. Even on the journeys by water-bus she reads out loud. If I continue to carry the books for her, it isn’t exactly because it is fitting: little by little I have been stealing the ones I like the most and have acquired a wonderful library in the wardrobe of my room on the island.
Mum, Elisa and I had boarded the water-bus and a sailor was raising the fenders when Juan Woods appeared, at a run. What he gets up to in the station is a mystery, because he never appears until the moment the launch is moving away from the quay. He stops at the gangway, throws his bags at Dad, and leaps onto the boat. I’ve seen him make this leap a million times—since I was a young girl it has given me a knot in the stomach of both wishing and fearing that he might fall—and it always fascinates me. Dad makes more effort trying to catch the bags than Juan makes leaping onto the deck, light-footed as a cat, his big hands spread wide as if holding onto something solid, where for anyone else there would be only thin air. Even Dad, with his obsession for punctuality, hasn’t once found it within himself to tell Juan to arrive earlier.
During the boat trip, despite the faces Dad was pulling, Elisa read aloud from Lady Chatterley’s Lover. She selects her readings according to her audience. To the islanders she reads the classics, in the belief that she is carrying out a one-woman literacy campaign, and she delights in scandalising the Buenos Aires contingent with passages or phrases that vilify marriage, the rearing of children, religion, society and everything that she knows is most important to them. This Friday she chose the most erotic sections of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and she ruined them, shouting above the din of the engine. Half of what she said was lost when the boat travelled at speed, and when we stopped at some jetty or other she returned to her reading with a smug grin. She looked at me in between sentences to make sure I was paying attention; it was like sitting in the front row of class with a teacher who was obsessed with me. I put on a studious expression for her, but I wasn’t listening. I was looking at the willows on the shore. At this time of year they are filled with buds of an almost transparent green and in the sun it seems as if the light shines from within their leaves.
The Woods’ island lies in a narrow creek. Yesterday, as soon as the water-bus turned to drop us on the jetty, the scent of honeysuckle entered the cabin along with the cool of the shade and I felt as though I were swimming though green air, in a well of perfumed water. Parts of the garden had flooded, and blooming azaleas gleamed in the water, like huge balloons afloat on the river.
The manoeuvre to turn the water-bus around was quite complicated. The pilot was accelerating in reverse, but the current was working against him, and the sailor who was handling the boat hook from the stern wasn’t able to push off in time. Juan stood on the jetty and gave orders with that confidence that always gains others’ deference, even if it’s the first time they’ve seen him in their lives. Standing like that, with his legs apart and his furrowed brow, he looked like Gregory Peck in Moby Dick.
When the water-bus had gone, I said as much to him and he stared at me.
“When did you see Moby Dick, Clara?” he said, and he did this weird thing with his mouth, a sort of puckering of the lips, which he does when he’s moved by something. “Did you know, you are a very old teenager?”
He always says this to me.
The wisteria on the veranda had flowered profusely since last weekend. I stood in the shade and closed my eyes. At times it seems to me that the outward journey is like one of those symphonies that begins slowly and goes on growing and growing until it explodes. Yesterday it exploded then, as I stood under the wisteria.
In the evening I took myself for a swim. I swam against the current, slowly at first, conscious of the strength of my arms, of my breathing, of my firm legs, but after a while my body softened, became soft and forceful at the same time, and I could have swum to the ends of the earth. When I got out of the river my legs were shaking. It was already dark. I went into the house and lay on my bed with the light off. The crickets and frogs were singing very loudly. The noise all around me and beneath me was something solid that raised me up on a pillow of sound.
Before dinner Mum and Elisa started talking loudly about someone or other’s divorce. Mum is in favour of marriage for life and Elisa says it’s an invention that is out of date (“obsolete,” she says). They speak without hearing themselves, as always when they talk on this topic, and they interrupt each other and Mum pretends to be left speechless at the same things that Elisa always says. In the summer lounge Dad tries to involve Juan in one of his impossible business schemes.
I went out onto the wooden jetty. The windows of the house seemed to float in the darkness and in the summer lounge the glow from Juan’s cigarette was visible, and then vanished. From somewhere came snatches of happy voices and music and when the wind eased I could hear the barges from the River Paraná. I would have liked to live on one of those barges, plying up and down the river, hanging my clothes out to dry in the sun and not speaking with anybody; every now and then, as I passed some boat or other, I would sound the whistle and raise a hand: a little gesture that from a distance could hardly be seen, would almost be lost in the enormous noise.
I saw the cigarette’s glow advancing down the path that led to the jetty and Juan sat down on the bench at my side.
“Everything in order?” he asked.
The question amused me, but I didn’t answer. They called us in to eat and in the darkness of the pathway he couldn’t see my smile.
During dinner Elisa asked me why I hadn’t come with a friend. She always asks me this.
“I’ve been telling her the same thing over and over,” answered Mum, predictably, “she won’t listen.”
“She likes to come alone,” said Dad. He tried to make it sound as though it didn’t matter to him, but it does matter to him. He’s obsessed with what is normal. And for him the fact that I, as a sixteen-year-old, should come to the island with them every weekend is not normal. He likes it that I do, but it isn’t normal.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend you’d like to bring along?” Elisa persisted.
As though it were the first time they had spoken of the topic, Mum remembered her antisocial aunt, Dad spoke of the youth of today and how in his day they used to go out in a gang and were all friends—girls included—and then they all became nostalgic; they remembered some people they didn’t see anymore, one who was killed the year before, those who were divorced and those who had remarried. So, thanks to me, they had something to talk about for the rest of the meal. The idea of bringing a friend is totally ridiculous, but they cannot understand that for me it’s as impossible to come with a friend as it is to not come at all.
When the Woods bought the house, it had two bedrooms and the kitchen at the back, a living room in the middle, and all of the front part as a veranda. On one section of the veranda they built the summer lounge, and covered it in mosquito netting. At first I slept on a dilapidated sofa decorated with a floral design, until it occurred to Juan to make a room for me. He had the brilliant idea of putting it well away from the other rooms, and separated from the summer lounge by a short corridor. Last night, when Mum started to speak in French, which according to her is the best language in the world, and according to me is the only one she has learned to speak correctly, and they began once again on those conversational themes with which Elisa likes to scandalise the middle classes (Mum says éparter les bourgeoises), I appreciated the silence of that room, far from the repetitive conversations that take place every weekend.
Today we had breakfast on the veranda, in the shade of the wisteria. When I came out, Elisa had just placed the tray on the table. The white china cups, the steaming coffeepot, the glass jam pots, the linen napkins, the butter, everything glittered in the morning air, it was all so perfect that it seemed beyond reach, suspended like a painting in the sunlight. Elisa had swept the veranda and no trace remained of the pale blue wisteria flowers that usually covered the floor. This annoyed Juan.
“Last weekend the whole house was filled with trampled flowers,” said Elisa, testily.
“How awful!” he mocked.
“For me it was. Of course some of us like to live in a pigsty.”
“As if it were you who did the cleaning, Señora!” he said.
That is the killer blow he employs in all their arguments: he always ends up saying, one way or another, that she is a bourgeoise.
There was an ominous silence. Elisa, as so often, used me in order to get out of the predicament.
“You see, Clara?” she said. “It’s as I always tell you: marriage is the triumph of habit over contempt. The phrase is not mine,” she added, to Mum, who thought I shouldn’t have to hear such things.
Later, when Elisa and I were gathering roses in the garden, she returned to the topic.
“The most difficult part of it is loving and hating at the same time. Don’t you think?” And then without waiting for a reply, she said the best thing I ever heard her say. She said: “You have to hate cheerfully.”
When we went to the jetty she assured me that speaking with me was like speaking to a totally pure alter ego. I was impressed that, without speaking, it was possible to pull the wool over someone else’s eyes so thoroughly.
Mum sunbathed lying on her back with a straw hat covering her face and Dad and Juan played backgammon. Elisa opened her deckchair in the shade of the casuarinas and I lay in the sun, on my back, on a lounger.
With my eyes half-closed, I watched the water go rushing past.
Juan brought me a gin and tonic. He had made it with a lot of ice and with a slice of lemon on the rim of the glass, like they do in smart bars.
“I owe you a little umbrella,” he said, to make me laugh.
I like to drink my first gin and tonic very quickly, so that my legs loosen up and my head empties. I like it because I become very alert, not to the things that I feel when I don’t drink, but to other things, which lie below the surface and which no one wants to see. I love my body when I’m like this, the way it opens up, turns inside out, like morning glory.
I felt the sun on my back and the wooden planks of the jetty against the skin of my thighs. It was very hot. The noise of the cicadas grew louder and louder. I went down the steps to sit with my feet in the water. It was as if someone were stroking my ankles with a silk cloth. The voices of Mum and Dad drifted over to me from time to time. They were talking about me. A wisteria flower, carried on the current, floated very close to the whirlpool that forms behind the posts of the jetty and fell into the watery void. It dropped into the centre of the whirlpool, returned to the edge, and stayed there, spinning gently. At times it would tip in, only to emerge again, pausing on the edge of the whirlpool, as if in doubt, and then tip in again, until finally it came out and drifted away on the current. I was absorbed in the river. I thought the water was grabbing my feet and pulling me in. I put an arm through the lifebuoy that Juan left there and let myself be carried away. I put my head under. I thought about letting myself go, like the wisteria flower.
When I got back to the jetty I lay down on the warm wooden planks.
Through wet lashes I saw Juan’s body, from behind. My eyes rested for a moment on the nape of his neck, on that sort of upside-down hillock that the hair outlines on the nape, and then I went down his back, following the trail of sweat. At that moment he turned around and, with a gesture, offered me another gin and tonic. He came up close to me, squatted at my side, and touched my face with the ice-cold glass.
“You’re going to melt,” he said in a deep voice.
“It’s one thing to have a good tolerance for alcohol, as you put it, and another thing that she gets drunk every weekend,” Mum said when she realised he was giving me another glass.
“Two is a lot,” said Dad, unwilling to get into an argument.
“What are you worrying about? She has hollow legs,” laughed Elisa. “Alcohol doesn’t affect her.”
I thought that was her second big misjudgement of the day.
Elisa asked for help to lower the boat into the water and left it there, ready for later. She is the only one who doesn’t like a siesta. She goes out along the creeks or gathers wild berries or oranges, depending on the time of year.
I didn’t want any lunch. Mum and Dad blamed the gin and tonic. I wanted to go to my room and get undressed. I lay down on the bed. I pushed the bedspread off with my feet and sprawled across the white sheets, face down. I closed my eyes. A gust of wind caressed my back. I fell asleep with voices in the distance and was wakened by the noise of the boat’s motor, as it set off. My parents and Juan were in the summer lounge. I could hear their voices clearly. Mum said she was going to her bedroom and then the aroma of Dad’s and Juan’s Havanas wafted over to me. Occasionally the wicker armchair creaked and every so often someone knocked against the coffee table with a glass or an ashtray. Dad said that rather than taking a siesta he was planning to pass out, and Juan laughed.
“You’re forgetting your glasses,” he said, a little later, but Dad replied that he wasn’t intending to read.
I like to be attentive to every detail, not to miss a single beat of movement. Everything seems to come to a standstill, like just before a storm. Sometimes I hear the creaking of the wicker armchair for a few minutes longer—if Juan hasn’t finished his cigar, for example—and at times he sings, very slowly, like now, in a thick voice that causes a knot to form in my stomach. I turn onto my back. The sound of footsteps on the wooden floor of the summer lounge gives way to the dry rasp of the door that opens onto the corridor. Juan likes to look at the pictures that I have hung on the wall across from my room. I open my legs a little. He comes in silently, as always, and stands there, looking at me. When he makes love to me, he never stops looking at me. And I let myself go, as if falling, with my eyes closed.