I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
This First Proof contains the short story “Hypertension,” translated by Beatriz Cortez.
I suffer from hypertension. I had a severe attack. It was on a night in which I abused brandy: before I went to sleep, I felt my body inflating itself as if it would blow up; I also endured tremendous anguish. I ended up at the hospital, with an IV and sedatives. The doctor ordered me to abstain from drinking alcohol for a couple of months, exercise for at least an hour every day, and he gave me a prescription of pills for before breakfast and after dinner. My mother, with whom I’ve lived since my divorce, blamed alcohol for my damaged health. I didn’t want to argue.
I’m a journalist. I work for the finance section of the Eight Columns newspaper. For a couple of years I was the international news editor, but just a few days before suffering the hypertension attack, the executive director of the newspaper informed me that the board of directors had agreed to make me chief of the financial section. Instead of joy, I felt anguish.
My behavior should not surprise anyone. I hate responsibilities. That’s why I separated from Irma, my ex-wife—because of her insistence on having a baby. I don’t tell this out of shamelessness, but rather to explain the reasons for my hypertension. Having a team of reporters and writers under my command, and finding myself forced to respond to the owners for everything that was published in the section, was something beyond my foresight. But my promotion, more than an offering, was an order.
I had no problem abstaining from alcohol, following my diet, and taking my medication; exercising was another story. I have never practiced sports; I lack discipline for gymnastics. I told my doctor as much, but he insisted, saying that I would not recover if I didn’t exercise. I dismissed the idea of going out to run all around the neighborhood; I also discarded his suggestion of enrolling in a gym. The idea of being forced to sweat in such a way was unpleasant enough to even think of doing it in public. I opted, then, for buying a stationary bicycle and placed it on the tiny patio in my mother’s house. Every morning, very’ early, before taking a shower and leaving for the newspaper, I climbed on the bicycle. But I was barely able to pedal for ten minutes; I never went beyond that length of time, not because I was exhausted, but because I was unable to concentrate. Let me explain.
I didn’t know what to do with my thoughts as I pedaled on that tiny patio. The closeness of the walls, my difficulty in seeing the sky (I tried, but immediately understood that I was exposing myself to a stiff neck), the absence of any landscape made me restless. I wanted time to pass as quickly as possible. Even when my legs moved at a uniform pace, my thoughts bounced in a disorderly, absurd ping-pong. I’m not claustrophobic: at the newspaper I’ve spent long hours locked in my small cubicle, in front of the computer, going over cables, editing, reading collaborations or whatever. But climbing on the bicycle, I couldn’t find anything on which to fix my mind. And as soon as I remembered my pending work at the newspaper, I stopped pedaling and climbed off the machine. But I did so with remorse: I would not recover my health, and even worse, I would have to recognize my lack of will.
I tried to ride the bicycle for about a month. At first it was on a daily basis, but in the last few weeks with less frequency. The money I had invested in that machine encouraged me. I tried different means of controlling my thoughts. I would close my eyes and imagine that I traveled the city streets, clear of the criminal buses and cars, but a few moments later my thoughts had already gone back to my work, to the insufferable collaborations by the economists, to the obsessive fixation that the editorial chief had with the Graphic, our competition. I tried other things: I imagined that I placidly rode my bicycle through a valley of tulips, in the Netherlands countryside, as I had seen it in some movie. But that didn’t work either. Soon my legs diminished their pedaling rhythm, my will weakened, and I got off the machine.
I experienced another inconvenience: in a certain position, while I pedaled, my thighs brushed against my genital organs. It was surprising. Suddenly I found myself on top of the bicycle with an erection. My discomfort, and the direction that my thoughts took me, forced me to stop exercising. A divorced man, living in his elderly mother’s house, should not give free rein to his sexual fantasies.
The fact is I abandoned the stationary bicycle. But weeks later I went back to see the doctor. My blood pressure had improved, he said, and immediately asked how much I was exercising every day. I told him about my misfortunes with the stationary bicycle. He asked me why I didn’t enroll in a gym. I explained to him that my daily schedule did not allow me to do so. He insisted that at least I should walk for half an hour around the block where I live. Impossible, I said: the neighborhood was extremely dangerous, with a slum next to it, plagued with thieves and criminals, that’s why I had not bought a regular bicycle, because they would have stolen it right away. The doctor shrugged his shoulders, wrote down his prescription, and repeated that without exercise my affliction would persist.
I worried. To suffer from hypertension at 36 years old is not so strange in these agitated times, but I knew that my way of life would only compound my problem. In addition, my mother reminded me that my father had suffered the same illness, which had contributed to the kidney infection that killed him. And the inevitable: as time went by I felt worse, more tired, with a headache, pressure in my chest, a buzzing in my ears.
I went back to the stationary bicycle. I bought a Walkman. I thought that a little bit of music could help me. I chose my favorite cassettes. But the situation barely improved. While my eyes were closed, I forgot that I was pedaling like a lunatic on that tiny patio, I enjoyed my favorite songs, and I even sang along; but if I opened my eyes for any reason, and came back to myself, I was immediately attacked by an anxious desire to climb off the bicycle.
I put the bicycle away, and made the decision to go out running in the mornings, very early, before the thieves came out of their hideouts. My mother said I should be careful, that I should not go too far from the house. We lived in the Retreat, a small middle-class neighborhood stuck between the infantry headquarters and a populous slum called the Pit. My mother’s house was encrusted on the street that separated our neighborhood from the edge of the ravine where the Pit began.
I went out for the first time at 5:00 in the morning on a Monday. It was early December, the dawns were cold. I planned to go around the neighborhood three times. The streets were desolate, the semidarkness was foggy. The radios played inside the huts on the ravine’s border.
Alert, I began to run slowly. My steps resounded over the pavement. I ran into a few passersby: they came from trails out of the Pit, with backpacks and wet hair; they walked briskly, as if they were being expected at a job on the other side of the city. They looked at me out of the corners of their eyes.The cold air hit my face; my senses were extremely awake. I kept the pace as I moved toward the other side of the neighborhood, the one next to the infantry headquarters. It was beginning to clear. I finished the first round. The noises from the Pit had increased. I tried to accelerate my speed. My lungs answered perfectly. When I finished my third round, 25 minutes had passed.
That Monday my mood was wonderful. I gave credit to the morning exercise. The run didn’t produce anxiety in me, as had the stationary bicycle; rather, I enjoyed it and it stimulated my thoughts. The experience was equally positive on Tuesday, and also on Wednesday: my discomfort gave way and a feeling of wellness, reaffirmed by having complied with the medical prescription, stayed with me throughout those days. The section’s reporters and writers commented that I seemed more comfortable with the management position.
On Thursday morning I left again at 5:00 AM. It seemed foggier to me than the previous days: the sun didn’t seem about to rise; rather, the night remained deep and silent. I began to run. I felt uneasy. The street was absolutely empty: none of the inhabitants of the Pit appeared to be early risers leaving for their jobs. I went around the first time with growing apprehension. I passed in front of my mother’s house. I was disconcerted by not hearing any radios in the huts on the ravine’s border. Something strange was happening, but my legs kept on running. Close to the infantry headquarters I finally ran into two pedestrians; they looked furtively at me. I told myself that the best thing was to go home at the end of the second round, but my stubbornness overcame me: I would not let my fantasies scare me. I passed the house. It was then that the dog appeared from the mist, aggressive, growling, with his teeth bared, lying in ambush. Instinctively, I made the gesture of someone who is about to throw a rock. But the dog didn’t blink; he began to run after me, without barking. I feared he would bite me. I stopped, without turning my back on him, searching anxiously for a rock on the ground. I saw one. I bent down to pick it up. I was going to throw it when I discovered that there were at least half a dozen dogs about to jump me. I was terrorized. I brandished the rock once more, but the dogs now surrounded me, they were less than three feet away. I threw the rock with all my strength at the closest animal and I ran with all my might. The dogs went after me, growling, but without barking, a couple of them blocking my way. Terrified, I suddenly saw myself going down one of the trails toward the Pit, and into a labyrinth of huts, guessing in the mist, about to lose my balance on that dusty, rocky slope. Soon the dogs cornered me. I had no other option but to go into one of the huts, pushing the ramshackle door with all my might. I didn’t get to fall on the ground: an arm grabbed me by the neck.
—Welcome, muttered the guy in my ear.
It was a single room, crammed with furniture and household goods; it stunk of humidity and enclosure. The light came from a bright lamp placed over the table: two men and a woman were seated around it. The guy who had grabbed me by the neck pushed me toward them. I staggered before slumping over the table.
—Sit down, said the man with the glasses. He had a round face and a grotesque lump on his left cheek.
—We were waiting for you, said the other one, in a mocking tone. He had brown hair and a pointy nose.
—Excuse me. Some dogs were following me, I said. I turned around toward the door; the guy who had grabbed me by the neck was no longer there.
—Sit down, repeated the individual with the glasses, pulling a chair for me.
The girl kept silent.
I told them that it wasn’t my intent to interrupt them, I only wanted to make sure that the dogs had disappeared before going back to my house. But then I noticed the weapons on the table: the shiny guns and several grenades. I was astonished.
—I’m telling you to sit down, insisted the man with the glasses.
—What’s your hurry? said the girl with the short hair. She had a rather masculine face covered with acne. I felt like running.
—Don’t be afraid, we’re not going to eat you, said the olive-skinned one. A teasing, effeminate man.
I sat down.
I explained to them what had happened: I was doing my morning exercise, as prescribed by my doctor in order to overcome my hypertension problems, when a pack of dogs attacked me in the middle of the street, and I ran away searching for protection.
—I am Calamandraca, said the guy with the glasses.—This is Beto and she is Yina. We already know who you are.
I swallowed hard. I was fried: that gang of delinquents would not let me out of there alive. I told them that I was a journalist, and that I worked for Eight Columns …
—We know all about you, dear, interrupted the olive-skinned one. Then, through the door, peered the man who had grabbed me by the neck.
—They just arrived, he announced, excited.
Quickly, all three of them grabbed the weapons, stood up, and indicated I should follow them. The first dog, the one that had stalked me in the street, had just come in.
—What’s happening? I asked.
—Come with us, said Yina. Calamandraca turned on his radio transmitter and spoke in an incomprehensible code.
She took me by the arm and led me to the back of the hut. I wanted to protest, but soon they pushed me through a fake door, which instead of opening to the path was the entrance to a tunnel. I stopped dead.
—Hurry up, Yina urged me.
—What’s the matter with you? Where are you taking me? I protested.
Beto carried a lamp. With the same insinuating, mocking tone he told me:
—Don’t be afraid of the darkness, sweetie, we’re here with you.
Calamandraca ordered us to go first. The dog went ahead without even looking at me. It was a tunnel, but because of its dimensions, it looked more like a cave. We walked leaning forward, uphill, climbing as if we were going to end up on the street. Beto was in front, with the lamp, next to the dog; Yina hadn’t let go of my arm. In that dark silence what I perceived most were my intense heartbeats; I feared another hypertension attack.
—I suffer from hypertension, I murmured, timidly.
—We’re almost there, Yina told me, holding my arm tightly.—Don’t worry. Beto stopped; the dog was sniffing. It seemed that we had reached a fork in the path.
—To the right, ordered Calamandraca, in a murmur, from behind me.
I was out of breath. We kept on moving forward. I looked toward the left branch of the tunnel: tiny lights stirred in the background; it seemed to me that they were very far off, as if they were torches, and a quiet murmur from a crowd came from that side, as if dozens of people had been concentrated there, waiting for something. I wanted to ask, but Yina and Calamandraca forced me to hasten my pace. Shortly afterward Beto stopped again: we had hit a wall; that was the end of the tunnel. The dog sniffed a spot, moving his tail. Beto felt the wall and pressed: another fake door opened. We entered a typical maid’s room: it was tiny, there was barely room for its cot and ironing table. It was a house similar to my mother’s. I even thought we were on the same block.
—Stay here with him, said Calamandraca to Yina, pointing at me. And then he closed the fake door.
Suddenly, Calamandraca, Beto, and the dog left through the backyard.
Yina told me that if I wanted I could lay down on the cot, to rest for a while, while it all passed. She carried a gun on her waist. She wore shorts that revealed her unshaved legs.
I sat on the cot and told her that I didn’t understand anything; it seemed like a dream to me.
—That’s better, she said.
I was hoping to hear explosions at any moment. Surely the police or a rival gang had broken into the hut where these three ringleaders had their headquarters. And now I found myself involved in their escape through that tunnel designed for emergency getaways.
—I need to go back home, I said, appealing to the fact that she seemed more understanding than the others.—If I don’t take my pills soon I’m going to suffer a hypertension attack.
She didn’t seem to be listening to me; she was alert, paying attention to any signal coming from the patio.
—And I have to go to the newspaper, I begged.
Beto entered the room.
—The boss said to bring this cutie, he said.
It was already morning.
The living room was similar to that of my mother’s house.
—You are going to go out, running, as if nothing had happened, ordered Calamandraca, without looking at me, spying through the window.—Then come back and tell us what you saw at the Pit’s entrance. Pay attention. And don’t try to be a smartass.
Beto opened the door. Suddenly I saw myself once more on the street, next to the dog, the one to blame for my misfortune. I got oriented: I was on one of the side streets, a few feet away from the street where my mother lives. I began to run, carefully. The dog was behind me, but now without aggression, as if he were my pet. I reached the cross street. I moved toward the Pit’s entrance. The situation seemed normal, as any other day. I looked for cops or armed people, but there was nothing more than men and women leaving for their daily jobs. I kept on running, with the dog next to me. Soon I was in front of my mother’s house. At that instant, she opened the door, maybe to find out why had I taken so long. The dog had no time to react. I stampeded into the house and shut the door behind me. Disturbed, my mother asked what had happened. I went past her toward the cupboard to take my pills.
—Nothing, I muttered after gulping down a glass of water. I didn’t want to get close to the window, but rather, I went back to my room, picked up the stationary bicycle, took it to the small patio, climbed on it, and pedaled.
Translated from the Spanish by Beatriz Cortez.
Beatriz Cortez is assistant professor of Spanish and Central American literature at California State University, Northridge. She holds a PhD in Latin-American literature from Arizona State University and specializes in the study of contemporary Central American literature and culture within the framework of gender and cultural studies. Born in El Salvador, she has lived in the United States since 1989.
Horacio Castellanos Moya was born in Honduras and raised in El Salvador. He is one of the most important and controversial authors of post-civil war Central America. He has published five novels, four short story collections, and a volume of cultural and political essays. His novel, La diabla en el espejo (1999), was among a dozen finalists for the internationally renowned Rómulo Gallegos Prize, and La diáspora t
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee