I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.
This First Proof contains an excerpt from Distant Cousin by Federico Vegas, translated by Lisa Dillman.
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As we were driving across the Paraguaná Peninsula, I didn’t know what else to add to the first chapter of my story. I’d given my brother the bare bones without going into details. In that truck with steamy windows, I didn’t top a hundred words. Just lightly sketched out the circumstances that would be familiar to him, like that initial sense of impossibility offset by the obligation to carry out the task at hand. If we’d been sitting face-to-face in his office, the story would’ve taken some other course, but with my raging hunger, staring out at that arid landscape dotted with walls painted garish colors and dignified goats, the confession couldn’t hit rock bottom, wasn’t ready to end, didn’t give way to penitence, got trapped in long silences.
It’s so hard to relive the moment when the curtain was pulled back and I realized, without looking at her or even changing position, that she was coming toward me.
How could I describe a scene I was having a hard time believing was happening? I don’t want to suggest something that sounds like triumph or seduction, because she was the one who governed my weaknesses, my doubts, my indecisions. Cecilia knew just how to scare off the ghosts without forcing things: all she had to do was show them the way and they left for a while. How could I make my brother see, without offending him, without tormenting him, that water purifies and baptizes, cleanses and eliminates boundaries, fills the voids and solitudes of the first time? When she stepped in to share my circle of rain, I didn’t dare touch her, didn’t even move my arms, I just watched the rivers run down my motionless body; and then hers: self-assured, loving. At first she bathed me like a child, to justify caressing me without being caressed back. She looked into my eyes and shared my joy when I realized that she and her body were there by my side, not passing by. We went from tentative to recklessly natural and confident. Seconds conquered years and her hands reached my core. Loneliness stood aside, making way for the generous egotism that is the pleasure of two bodies. How could I explain to my brother, who swears he knows everything, that I closed my eyes and saw my fears melt away, fears I’d never—to anyone—managed to confess? I’ve never recovered the taste of that freedom, what can I say? It would take so long to make him see that, with her, it was all mutual, all plentiful. Can one man ever explain to another that the love a woman awakens and releases in him belongs to her; that that love is a creation made new, one that takes shape only in her hands, which grows within her, wisely, lastingly, filling her with joyful pride? How could I swear, now, in this unbearable house, or then, in the truck that had just left the agency, about the truths of another time, another place, so far off? The surprise and wonder inside us had bubbled up from their source and overflowed because of her, and always had been and always will be only for her.
All love measures the universe in its own way, attending only to its own expectations, its own discoveries. All love is modeled after itself: nothing precedes it; we learn nothing from it. When it dies, there is no point remembering it. It can’t be shared with anyone, or with the rest of our lives, or with future loves. It belongs neither to the past nor the future, and even though past and future might try to use it to touch each other, the feelings we’re trying to evoke, years later, are simply invented, useless simulacra, miniature acts of masochism as different from true love as air from paper.
* * *
My brother sped up until the truck became a pressure cooker. And only when we could hear our breath sing in our nasal passages did he decide to launch into his own dissertation about endurance and amperage.
“That must be the only radiator you’ve ever fixed in your life.”
In the face of such an insult to my job history, I went back to the beginning of my story, to the first feelings I’d had, to what I’d been thinking late that night, right before I went down to the beach at Camurí.
“Well, one of us had to go down there, brother, someone had to see what was going on, show his face.”
My chauffeur was turning his head, glancing at me intermittently, until finally he said, pointing to his own nose, “Oh, and I don’t have a face? You think it didn’t occur to me to go down? I don’t care if you go down to the beach or go down on four hundred girls, but don’t write me out of the picture that fast. What do you think I am? A moralist? A dimwit? A shitter?”
The truth is, I hadn’t thought much about that restless night. I didn’t give him an answer, which bothered him even more. Banging his hand on the steering wheel, he let out the first cry of the night.
“I’m all three rolled into one!”
I think he actually enjoyed the way his lament rang out and, in spite of himself, he gave a suspicious little smirk, gearing up for longer critiques. He straightened up as if he were going to accelerate yet again and then continued in a somewhat paternalistic tone.
“The problem is you think you know everything. That’s typical of professional onlookers: they see things, skim over them, and then toss out their opinions like day-old bread. I bet you look at my marriage and think, ‘My brother is so weak. How can he stand that chubby woman?’ And you’re right; it’s a valid point, but oversimplified. I don’t have the luxury of being an onlooker; I have to hold onto my marriage, stick with it. You know, a few days ago I kissed Eugenia and felt more teeth than lips. Have you ever stopped, mid-kiss, to distinguish lips from teeth? You know what a man has to do when his wife’s mouth hardens? Keep kissing. With even more passion. It’s the only way to cover up a bad kiss. And it turned out not to be so bad. A week later, she sprouted new lips. And they were soft and juicy all over again. I swear. The thing is, we always think women are the ones with the hang-ups, but sometimes we’re the ones who dry up, and nothing helps like sticking with it, standing by the same woman. But you? Nah. You cast off anything you don’t like the minute you get sick of it. You’ll never know the resurrection of a woman’s mouth. Me, on the other hand, I’ve got to stick with it, the whole kit and caboodle. I have to accept both my weakness, in putting up with her, and my strength, in appreciating her. The day that falls out of balance, I’ll take a hit, but when I fall, I’ll have something—someone—to hold onto. Don’t go thinking those who give up halfway take fewer hits, or softer ones. You’ve never clung to a life with both hands for more than a couple of months. You show up, leap, and sail past. Pole-vaulting champion, you are. You only hold on when you ought to let go, while you’re up in the air. That works pretty well for a time: you look graceful, get results, gain height, do your little pirouettes, make it over the bar, and from time to time you make a splash. But don’t pretend you know more than those who stayed back in the places you left behind. Even if you think they’re bums or fools, give them their due.”
* * *
I can’t actually recall the proportion of teeth to lips to tongue in Eugenia’s kisses. Innocence doesn’t lend itself to forming detailed historical records and all I remember about her is a schoolgirl’s eagerness to learn. Besides, it was hard to remember anything with her husband preaching there beside me. There’s a method I recommend when you don’t want to listen to an interminable speech but you’re trapped in a situation that offers no escape. You concentrate on hunger, obsess about what you’re going to eat until your salivary glands turn on their tiny decorative fountains and disconcert the hammer, anvil, and stirrup of the middle ear with their frantic spray. The other anti-rant technique is visual. It’s an art learned in the school classroom. You look out over the soccer fields and, little by little, whatever is out there in the distance helps make lectures fade away, no matter how near to your ears they might be. That morning, I studied the arid peninsula’s terrain assiduously.
* * *
Paraguaná is governed by its own laws. There’s something in that land that’s not at ease. Its towns and people are always fighting the wind, and that pressure makes them seem more set in place, firmer and more resolved, as if they were defying the earth’s rotation. The trees are all bowed, and the curves of their branches tell the tales of their struggles. Many houses stand alone. They rise up out of the dusty earth and sometimes you can hardly see them, the way their mud roofs blend in with the ground. The prettiest things around are the fences corralling in the goats; in under a year they get so weather-beaten they look like they’re from the Pleistocene.
The most popular coasts for bathers are spread between Adícora and Tiraya. There are strings of improvised shacks along the beach that look slightly dignified thanks to their sand gardens and ocean views. Those two virtues hold some weight during Holy Week and Carnaval, but the rest of the year their line of defense seems ephemeral and undignified. Islands are calm around the edges and simply accept the fact that they’re surrounded by water on all sides. Peninsulas, on the other hand, have umbilical cords that tie them to the continent, giving them the look of frying pans, pipes, saxes: things with functions separate yet tied to us.
And the sun shone on, furious. The truck seemed anxious about the heat and the covert messages hidden in our dialogue. Stomachs took over bodies and started searching for food in the spleen. My brother became increasingly prophetic and rolled out his ingenious concept of orthodox symmetry. According to him, infidelity makes him droop. He claims that since getting married he’s developed a tropism inverse to Pinocchio’s. Lies make him shrink. When he sins, he faces the flaccidity of his repentant offender, exclaiming with diuretic anguish, “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea massima culpa.” He preaches that the shimmering peak of magnificent, mother-of-pearl erections can only develop—and subside—with the truth. Straying from the path of true love shrinks him up into a spongy, foolhardy dwarf. He says that, in the face of sin, that fateful muscle with an open wound in its brain makes up his mind for him, turning into a temperamental altruist full of epistemological concerns that go against free will, and imposing a morality that generates insufficient rigor and appalling dependability.
Personally, I think this glandular theorist’s tropisms are much less strict and kick in whenever it’s convenient for him. What’s clear, however, is that my brother has developed an elegant obstinacy, a motley attitude and an efficient and manipulative way to control both adversaries and loved ones. He’s always reformulating his commandments. It was hardly a year ago, in a different phase and with the sketchy zeal of a convert, that he was telling me that his early episodes of infidelity in fact acted as vaccines, antibodies that fought off the disease of advanced, inevitable adultery.
“I pity anyone who puts all his hopes into a reality that gets blown to kingdom come,” he explained. “You’ve got to learn to differentiate sex from love, for those times when it’s impossible to focus a hundred percent of your passion on a shipwreck.”
Sometimes he reaches more dialectical extremes and suggests that the healthiest resolutions bloom from the swamp of infidelity, that he’s never been a better husband than when he’s just stuck his foot—and his head—in it.
* * *
“Oh, and the most important thing: forget about ‘sincericide,’” he’ll explain to a group of captivated coworkers. “If you’re feeling repentant, go to confession, or swear off coffee for a month, but keep your mouth shut. That sissy confession crap is against union bylaws.”
Reinaldo likes the limelight, and he’s got a certain talent for making fun of himself. After a few months, he’ll change his mind and deliver an address that I don’t even bother listening to. More than once I’ve seen him spin through cycles that begin with lusting after a good-looking woman, generally someone in payroll or his technological field, thereby confirming how passionate he is about his work. Then come the excuses, the doubts, the regrets, and promises of change made alone in the rearview mirror of his truck, until finally he executes a triple somersault and he’s back once more to the mystical marriage phase that will lead to the next cycle. He’s a Catholic version of an Irving Berlin song. There’s nothing more exhausting than his mutating faithfulness. Why not just get on with it, skip all the cartwheels? Why not just accept a tendency? Why not declare an armistice with life and its temptations?
I’ve spent half my life admiring and yearning for everything my brother did and undid. Now, when I’d like to strike out on my own, it turns out somehow I’m a pervert novice, and he’ll let me neither join nor quit his game. That Saturday in Paraguaná, his brand-new cycle of matrimonial good sense reached its climax, and no matter how hard I stared out the window, I couldn’t keep from hearing his sermon, full of fanfare, gastric rumblings, and exclamations.
“Imagine how I feel, all the things I have to consider: looking into my wife’s eyes before bed, the simple fear that I’ll be discovered, the fear of her overreacting, taking disproportionate revenge … you don’t know how hot-blooded Eugenia is! Then there’s the sting of missing out on something delicious and feeling like an absolute idiot. Wrap that up with my tremendous urge to seduce, to taste the unknown. You get so curious it makes your mouth run dry. And add to that the love I feel for my wife … Because I swear I love her more than ever! Then on top of that, there’s knowing you can’t touch the girl on the beach because you know you can’t really make her happy … Did our cousin tell you why she came to spend a month in Venezuela?”
I made no reply. My brother probably thought our affair was some chivalrous deed involving shampoo, a sponge, and a brush; that we’d spent three days and nights kissing in the shower, turning into prunes. It was better to let him take over the telling of my affair. His assertions all ended in questions.
“She came to get out of trouble: tons of drugs, pressure, shady characters. The ‘February snow’ that auntie talked about in her letter was a ton of blow; she was up to her eyeballs in it. The great test, and the great cure, was supposed to be a period of solitude. Maybe she was looking for family, or a home, a cousin, someplace to hole up, curl up, a way to take part in all those gringo verbs that make me think of licky dogs: pet, cuddle, nuzzle, snuggle. You didn’t think she seemed too easy, too horny?”
* * *
But all I remembered was what happened after that baptism in the water, after unloading the first goods, after that trembling annunciation, after getting over the feeling of being in so deep, so soon. Driven by a gust of wind we ran to dry ourselves beneath the bedsheets and there began the three happiest days of my life. We both knew the significance of that first orgasm that starts slowly and ends too soon. What’s released in those first unions is the essence of sorrows past, more toxin than seed. After that emission of old testaments begins a true relationship, a present. In those kisses, we began to discover what we still had yet to give, and our minds let chemistry work its magic, carrying out the process that turns silent emotion into genuine appreciation. With that embrace, seeking knowledge and not just possession, our bodies wove a fabric, a place where momentous desires could settle in. She assumed the sweet sacrilege of our loving in my parents’ bed, and together we felt that familial force nurturing us with its gospel of abundance. That was how I knew I’d begun to love her, and to exclaim each time I saw the single beard we formed as we rocked together, “Sweet Jesus! Glory be, it’s so good to be me!”
And then came the warrior’s siesta. How lovely it was, to sleep so spread out! It’s what I miss most. We slept so much and so well. And that’s the most genuine and uninhibited of practices. We’d each curl up and brush against each other just the right amount. No accidental kicking or bumping. It was as if all the years we should have spent together had made us perfectly in tune. It was so comforting to wake up beside the body you’re discovering; to open your eyes and find her there, again. And we were hardly together: a single month would have been ten times longer than our three days.
At 4:00 in the afternoon we began the routine any couple at an empty beach club would have: strolling along the shore, following its curves; running in the ocean’s waves; kissing beneath a life raft with music playing, and shade cast from barrels and wood planks; swimming around like glib, lazy dolphins. We paddled out to the lighthouse and there I told her about the time the whole club thought Aunt Jane had drowned. Cecilia interrupted with her first historical clarification.
“Mamá’s always pretending to drown … She loves to be resuscitated.”
When we began the long trek back to the apartment, each delay was a provocation. The elevator rose at a different speed and its entire system of motors and pulleys seemed in sync with our relaxed bodies. Once back in the apartment, my senses gave up their silly prejudices and simply started to feel pleasure. We’d pause just for the fun of it and our conversation would shoot off in a thousand directions, each with its own meaning, its own cadence. And my eyes looked, my eyes grew used to her without losing the joy of seeing her. And I listened to her, enjoying both her words and the silence between her words. And I could touch her and rest my hand in her hand (was that the fit my father was referring to?), knowing that we had time and that we both wanted it. We responded to our desire without rushing, and night stretched out before us, and in its passion were spasms, swoons, sheer drops, panting, lazing, playing both footsie and cops and robbers. She raised me to a new rebellion, and all I did was make her less competent, more uncouth, less sequential, and even more startling.
The next day we woke up play fighting, biting and strangling one another. We arm wrestled; we crawled like children from the bedroom to the kitchen; we talked about our dreams; she taught me how to wax her; we checked each other’s moles and she squeezed a couple of blackheads on my back; we cut our fingernails and went back to sleep; I listened to her talk in her sleep and be silent while awake. Later we spoke of our mothers, our silly fears, the dogs we’d had as kids, how we both hated cats. We turned the bed into a ship, the ship into a world, the world into a couple of bodies. We made love until sweat made us slippery, passion drenched us, gas escaped us, legs flapping in the cosmos, in the heat of passion. And I obeyed her commands, orders to turn what had just happened into a powerful tradition, a cataclysmic rapture.
That Tuesday and Wednesday we were surrounded by empty apartments on all sides, a mountain of vacant compartments that we filled with our howls and celebrations. Thus we exceeded the moments when pleasure becomes divine, and embraced the beasts within, shouting things that can’t possibly be transcribed. We held back, taking our time, waiting to overflow until we couldn’t take it anymore and exploded. Where did the water come from, the water that disappears with our movement? Was it always waiting for a chance to spill or only conceived with the first kiss? Does love make it grow, or only tremble? Does it make it clear or muddy? I almost said, “Tell me, Cecilia, do you always cause these storms?” But that would have been the silly question of a jealous and presumptuous man.
Translated by Lisa Dillman.
This issue of First Proof is sponsored in part by the Bertha and Isaac Liberman Foundation.
Lisa Dillman translates from the Spanish and Catalan and teaches in the Spanish Department at Emory University in Atlanta. Her most recent translations include Eslava Galán’s The Mule (Bantam, 2008) and Juan Filloy’s Op Oloop (Dalkey, 2009). She’s currently seeking a publisher for her translation of Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands.
Federico Vegas is an architect and fiction writer based in Caracas. He received the El Nacional newspaper short-story prize in 2007. He is author of the novels Prima lejana (Distant cousin) and Falke.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Antonio Caro and Victor Manuel Rodriquez, Ducle Gomez, Ana Teresa Torres and Carmen Boullosa, Evelio Rosero, Juan Gabriel Vasquez and Silvana Paternostro, Javier Tellez, Mario Galeano Toro and Marc Nasdor, Sergio Fajardo, and Carlos Cruz-Diez.
I know that I’m depressed, sensitive, and selfish. I’m just determined to do this thing, which is paint in solitude, and I will burn bridges to do it, including relationships.