senor herrera are these your shirts
Héctor Iván González
I met her at a party we snuck into downtown. One of those nights when Eduardo had invited a friend for me. Tania was roomies with Ángela, Eduardo’s girl. The truth is, Tania was pretty but she didn’t blow my mind. She was a bit of a chatterbox, which made things easier for a while, but then later it all turned into a nightmare.
The evening’s ruin started with Eduardo not having cash. The few places that would accept his method of payment were full to the brim. We could have lent him money, but he outright refused the offers. He didn’t want to look bad in front of Ángela, and I think he was right. He wanted to seem solid, financially speaking. By the time we got tired of looking for somewhere good to go, we saw a balcony where there was music playing and people dancing.
“What’s that place?” Ángela asked.
“That’s where we’re going,” said Eduardo, his eyes shining. He had found the opportunity of the night, he was going to redeem himself. As we got closer, we saw that the entrance went into a residential building, not a bar. At that moment, the doors opened to let three girls into the building and Eduardo rushed over, saying, “Let’s go! Right now!”
We all walked in, our excitement rising as we realized we really were gatecrashing. We got into the elevator with the girls and one of them smiled at us, light glinting off her perfect teeth, and asked if we were going to Ricky’s party. Eduardo nodded with a look that said, Of course we are! He added, “Ricky is like a brother to me.”
The girl asked, “Where do you know him from? ITAM?”
“Yeah,” Eduardo answered, giving a thumb’s up. Ángela, Tania and I were fighting back laughter. Eduardo hadn’t stepped foot in a classroom in over two years.
The elevator doors opened. The place was a stunner, a small palace. There was no hallway separating the home from the elevator, and we couldn’t have been more surprised. There was a party going on with waiters serving guests, and people having a great time everywhere you looked. Someone had gone all out on the party. It was like something from a movie. The building was incredibly modern and there were fancy types in little groups all around. It looked like a runway in there, even the most modest outfits had us gawking. The guys were all buff, dressed in polo shirts with numbers on their short sleeves. Their clothes were so closely cut, it looked like they had borrowed pieces from a little sister. There was an army of waiters, and one of them asked what we would like to drink. Guilt held our tongues until that cynic Eduardo said he wanted a rum and coke, and a piña colada for Ángela. Tania wanted the same as her friend, and I reluctantly asked for a beer.
The waiter said, “Stella Artois?”
I didn’t know what that was.
“No, a Tecate.”
He brought our drinks right away, even faster than you would get them in a cantina. He told us his name was Macario, and that he would bring us whatever we wanted. Servers came through a door with trays full of skewered pineapple, shrimp canapés, and little servings of grilled salmon. We relaxed and started dancing. We didn’t know the security guards were already watching us. A tall man with an earpiece went up to Eduardo and asked who had invited us. “Ricky,” Eduardo answered. The guard nodded and retreated, discreet as a samurai.
Eduardo looked at me and made a gesture to suggest the situation was under control. But I thought he had screwed things up and just didn’t know it yet. A moment later, the security crew surrounded us. Their leader was very put together, a fair-haired guy with crossed arms and a furious expression. He told us he didn’t know us, and to do him the favour of leaving, now, “nicely.”
Unfortunately, the rum and coke had fired Eduardo up, and he said, with more than a little arrogance, “Wait, wait, brother, we’re here with Ricky.”
“My name is Ricardo. Don’t you call me Ricky! I don’t know you, fucking hick!”, Ricky shot back. By now everyone was watching us, and I wanted to get the hell out as quick as we could. We were the outsiders here.
Right then, a beautiful girl came over, wearing a tight dress with a neckline that, though discreet, made it clear she was a hot number. “Ricardo, don’t talk to him like that,” she said, kindly.
“These sneaks are leaving, Mercedes. Don’t get involved.” The relationship between the two was unclear, but the curve of their noses made them look like cousins, or brother and sister.
“Can’t we stay, Ricardo?”, asked Ángela. This enraged the host.
“No cleaning ladies at my party!”
Eduardo went up and sucker-punched him. Ricky fell to his ass on the waxed floor, his nose bleeding heavily and staining his shirt. The security guys descended on us, holding Eduardo between three of them and pinning him down. I had to get in front of Ángela and Tania so nothing would happen to the girls.
“Take it easy, we’re leaving, easy now,” I kept repeating, trying to calm the storm. Ricky was slow to react, it seemed like he couldn’t figure out where to look for a few seconds. Mercedes was leaning over him, more frightened than the rest. Ricky got up and pushed Mercedes, who slipped and fell. What an asshole. I gave him the best right hook I could. The security guys grabbed me and pushed my head down on the floor. People started screaming, Tania was sobbing, and Ángela pleaded for them to let go of us. They clamped Eduardo and me into tight judo holds, and dragged us to the door. On the way, they roughed us up and an elbow jab closed one of my eyes. I didn’t see who gave it to me, but I could feel the swelling squeezing my eye shut. It hurt like hell, and what pissed me off the most was that any movement I made with my head made the pain even worse.
Everything happened like at the party in Romeo and Juliet where Mercutio and Romeo sneak in with their friends. But in my story, part of the originality lies in the fact that we were not (nor ever will be) part of the well-to-do Verona set. We’re just a working-class family. And yes, goddamn Eduardo is my brother, the oldest one, and sometimes, like on that night, he’s a fucking idiot. Our mother got mad and said he was supposed to take care of me. I told her it wasn’t his fault.
Weeks later I was sent to repair an office computer at the Bank of Mexico. I still had my purple eye, but I could see all right again. I had to wear dark glasses so people wouldn’t keep asking what had happened. At one moment, passing in front of the desks, I had the impression of seeing someone I knew. It was ridiculous, who would I know in there? It wasn’t until I left the office that I saw who it was. She was outside, smoking with a coworker, wearing a beautifully tailored suit and her hair up in a ponytail. Mercedes stood there, looking at my eye with compassion.
“Do you remember me? We met at Ricardo’s party.” She seemed honest. She was shocked by what she saw.
I shrugged my shoulders indifferently. “Yes, I remember, you’re the girl who tried to stand up for us. I’m Óscar. I’m sorry we snuck into the party. My brother insisted, but it was a really stupid thing to do. I didn’t want to…”
“My name is Mercedes, pleased to meet you. Did you go to the hospital?”, she interrupted. “It looks serious. I have a friend, an ophthalmologist, let me take you to him.”
“No, thanks, I’ve got to go see more clients.”
“What? You mean you’re working like that? Didn’t they give you a health leave?” Her question almost made me laugh, although I didn’t move. How would I get a leave for something like this? Not even if we were living in Norway.
“Let me give you my card, in case you want to see my doctor friend, or whatever.”
I stood there wondering what the hell “whatever” could be. I took the card to put an end to the back-and-forth, once and for all.
“Hang on, give me your number too, in case I need your technical services.” It was a nice attempt at fixing things up. Mercedes was actually kind, and the last thing I wanted was to be rude. The card stock was a small indication of her elegance, featuring a lotus flower in violet ink and all her contact information. I regret having lost it that very same day.
A couple of weeks later, Mercedes called and asked me how my eye was doing. After my answer, she told me she needed help with her computer. It was a really simple thing. She had accidentally installed McKeeper and the program kept opening all the time. She didn’t know what it was. “It’s like a virus,” she told me. I had my suspicions there might be more than just a simple technical flaw prompting her call. She was very attractive, and all I wanted was to see her again, even though everything had started off so badly.
Uninstalling the operating system was easy. She offered to get me a coffee while I worked on her computer in the café she had chosen for our meeting. She said she wanted to learn, explaining why she preferred to be there while I was doing the repair. That day she was wearing a pink button up shirt, a wine-coloured sweater over her shoulders and khaki pants, like a Massimo Dutti mannequin. How do I know it’s that store? Easy, I’m poor, not stupid. We also get into malls (I know, it’s “go into” but no, for us it’s “get into,” as though we were trying to cross over into a place where we don’t belong). We look at the displays, read the names of the shops, and we know which ones will tolerate us and which will treat us like garbage. At Massimo Dutti, they twist their lips and give us a look that says, Oh come on, look at you, you’re not going to buy anything. Obviously, I felt small recognizing where Mercedes’ clothes came from. She also wore a gold chain with a cross. I installed everything very quickly and she ordered a second coffee, but this time she asked for no heat blast.
“What was that you ordered?”
“You don’t know?”
“No,” I admitted, thinking I must seem like such a hick.
“Here, I’ll show you,” she said, taking my hand.
“Where are we going?” I followed along, even though she hadn’t answered my question. We went behind the bar, as though we worked in the café. No doubt she thought of herself as being at home, an insider there.
I stood facing the barista, who explained that cups are warmed with hot steam before the coffee is poured, so that drinks can “settle.” He went on talking as I observed the blasting and its famous effect. He served the coffees and poured milk in the shape of a white sprig of wheat. Mercedes seemed satisfied—proud, really—that her cup was just the right temperature. To me personally, it seemed like some rich kid bullshit. I remembered how we used to have to warm baby bottles for my cousins. I would say it was exactly the same thing.
We chatted about how things had gone down on the night of the party. Mercedes burst out laughing when I described how we had snuck in, making the most of the guard’s inattention, how the girls had given us Ricky’s name, and how nicely the waiter had taken care of us.
“We saw it all. Ricardo was very stressed because that was exactly what he didn’t want to happen, for someone to sneak in.”
“So he wanted to ward off any freeloaders?” I asked the question seriously and also partly as a joke.
“It wasn’t a problem that you had come in. The party was planned for one hundred guests, because he wanted to look good in front of his bosses and work friends. But not even fifty people showed up. He started to get angry and then when he saw you, he thought he’d get even.”
“Well, my brother Eduardo was trying to impress his girlfriend, Ángela. It was all the same to me, we could have gone to the party or found another place.”
“But you were there with your girlfriend, too…” It surprised me that Mercedes would have paid attention to that detail. I hadn’t been standing close to Tania or treating her in any special way at the party. We were a group of four, nothing more than that.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I said, and then a better answer came to mind. “She’s Ángela’s friend. I met her that night and haven’t seen her since.” At that moment, Mercedes let go of her coffee cup and the particular way she had ordered its preparation. She leaned over the little table and kissed me on the lips. She held onto me and I let that beauty kiss me, even though I didn’t understand what was happening. She gave me a lift to the metro after we had gone on talking and kissing for another hour. She offered to pay me for my services and I refused, even though I really needed the money. In the end, I accepted. It was more than I had expected, and I gave half the money to my mother.
We started going out, spending time in lots of places I had only seen from the outside until then: elegant cafés, sushi, Argentinean and Indian restaurants, and plazas where she would buy me gifts. Often, we went into shops that before I wouldn’t have dared walk by, much less step into. Mercedes and I would walk in and buy whatever I… or rather, whatever she chose for me. Because it didn’t take long to see that my opinion was of no real interest to her, not even about clothes, when I myself was the person who was going to wear them.
Whenever we went out, she alone controlled all our plans. She would see me for an hour, sandwiched between a work meeting and a coffee date with her friends. She would pick me up at ten to four, we’d go for a meal lasting an hour and a half, then back to her car for ten minutes of kissing. She would drive me close to a metro station (she couldn’t drive me home, since it wasn’t on her way) and return to her family. I was expected to check in with her when I got home because, as she told me once, she didn’t want to worry or stress over me.
One time, work and home had me totally occupied, and I didn’t call her. The next day, Mercedes answered the phone very indignantly, saying that she had been wondering how I was, and whether I had gone to some remote island where phones didn’t work.
“Why didn’t you call me?” I asked with no ill will.
“So look, when I’m seeing someone, I like him to take initiative, and if you don’t want to, then we can stop going out. Because if you expect me to call you, like all those tacky girls you’re used to, that’s not going to happen.”
She didn’t raise her voice. She spoke in a modulated, almost neutral tone, yet it was obvious she was reading me the riot act. I was tongue tied, wanting to answer, but I didn’t dare. Her words, “all those tacky girls you’re used to,” had insulted me, and I froze. Then I hung up the phone and thought about how she considered me her property, giving me rules to follow, parading me around, and lowering herself to date someone so inferior. The more I thought, the angrier I became. I wanted to tell her to fuck right off (at that, I remembered how she asked me not to use bad words), quit seeing her, and distract myself with my own friends. Because she had asked me to stop going out with Eduardo, afraid that he would get into more trouble and make problems for me, too. Through a casual remark, I had let her know Eduardo smoked marijuana and had offered me some, not that I had taken it. From then on, one of her conditions for us to continue was for me to have as little as possible to do with my brother. And I had done it, little by little, to the point of no longer spending time with him unless it was truly unavoidable. After such times, my next visits with Mercedes would be even less frequent than usual, until I let her know clearly that I accepted all of her conditions.
“D-Day,” as I call it, arrived. We had sex in an hourly-rate hotel. She worried the whole time about cameras that people supposedly set up in those rooms, which made the whole thing pretty awkward. She had other complaints about the hotel’s cleanliness that I prefer not to repeat. But she couldn’t have been disappointed, because almost immediately, sex became our main activity. The relationship went in a new direction. We’d never had great conversations anyway. Normally, Mercedes would be the one directing topics toward her own concerns, problems, and complaints. She would correct my vocabulary and pronunciation, insisting that I say things her way.
Something told me that going to bed together was like a pause in my training; things had taken on a different rhythm. Now she wanted me to go to the gym to do “cardio,” which at first was a word I didn’t know, and she wanted me to slim down around my middle. Choosing my clothes for me was just the beginning, and if I said I didn’t like something, she wouldn’t hesitate to rub the price in my face: “But how can you not like it when it costs three thousand pesos?” (I ended up giving Eduardo some of the things she bought me, which would have whipped Mercedes into a frenzy had she ever found out.) Her judgments always surprised me, since there was no relationship—at least, not for me—between quality and price, although for her there definitely was.
One day Eduardo invited me to a party, and since Mercedes was out of town, I got excited and agreed to go. First, we went to see his dealer; I hadn’t known until then that my brother had started smoking crack. The whole way there I was freaking out, paranoid that we could get arrested. We arrived at an apartment where Cartel de Santa was booming at full volume. There were only guys there, some playing video games and others doing lines or smoking their crack pipes. This was who my brother was hanging out with now. I was disappointed, I had thought we were going to a party with good music, girls, and atmosphere, not some skid row bachelor pad. I drank a disgusting Black and White whisky that could have been used as dish soap… and even then, poor dishes. One of my brother’s friends, a major pothead, asked if I was scared, and what was up with the look on my face. I didn’t answer his bullshit. I was tired, we were far from home, and it was late at night. They kept cranking the music up louder and louder, but it didn’t bother any of them. Some were sleeping it off, while others talked or groaned in their altered states. Some danced, pushing each other and breaking things. Two got hot under the collar and started punching one another in the face. I’m not some fucking goody-goody, but even a piss tank should have a bit of dignity. A big messy slosh fest just isn’t my style.
Right then my phone rang: it was Mercedes. I didn’t know if I should pick up. I would have preferred not to, but I was worried something might have happened to her. “Hello? Mercedes, how are you?”, I asked, a bit drunk on whisky. The noise must have filtered into the call, because Mercedes was hostile from the start. The loud music and coarse lyrics continued on, relentless.
“Óscar, you’re at a party? I can’t believe it! I can’t even go on a little trip without you going straight to a party with a bunch of crooks!”
“This isn’t a party, just a get-together… And it’s super boring, just so you know…” I was going to describe it, make a portrait of the horrible scene right before my eyes, but just imagining her reaction to me being around all these addicts changed my mind.
“Are you doing cocaine? You’re out with your brother, aren’t you?” Both questions were stupid and I wasn’t going to answer them. Instead, I shrugged my shoulders and said, “Look, you’re having fun, too. I can hear that you’re not standing in a monastery right now. Here comes a kiss from me.” I hung up and went to sit on a couch where some guys were smoking crack. They offered me their broken lightbulb, which I declined, thanking them for their courtesy.
I didn’t hear from Mercedes over the next few days. She must have hated me: her little lap dog had started barking back. I didn’t want to be a total ass, so I asked her to meet me. She listened carefully to my words. To continue making up, she invited me to the coffee shop where they did the trick of heating cups with blasts of steam. She claimed that I hadn’t kept my word and had gone out with “that drug addict,” my brother. I was bothered and to her surprise, I defended Eduardo. Just before throwing in the towel on our relationship, Mercedes kissed me and asked me to go to a hotel with her. I said yes.
A couple of weeks later, Mercedes died from appendicitis before she could get into surgery. The pain had started during a family meal, and there were so many jams on the way to the hospital that she didn’t make it on time. She was 27 years old.
When I showed up at her wake, I felt like one of the most affected mourners. To be more precise, I felt like a young widower. And yet, since we hadn’t taken formal steps, I had never met her parents or the rest of her family, so no one at the vigil knew me. I was just another friend. In fact, many people thanked me, as though I were there to express my condolences to them, when they were the ones who should have been giving theirs to me! After going back and forth in my mind quite a lot, I went over to Ricky and hugged him. He recognized me. I thought he would have started insulting me once he saw me close up. I could already hear what he would say: So you sneak into funerals, too? To my surprise, he said nothing at first, just accepted my hug and then thanked me.
“I’m really sorry about your sister,” I told him.
He looked at me, appalled. “Sister? Mercedes was my wife.”
Translated by Helena Dunsmoor
Included in Los grandes hits de Shanna McCullough, 2021