But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.
Translated from the Spanish by Kimberly Traube
It was the iguana’s fault. We stopped in the desert next to one of those men who spend their whole lives squatting, holding three iguanas by the tail. The man we called El Tomate, “the Tomato,” inspected the merchandise as if he knew something about green animals.
The peddler, with a face carved by sun and drought, told us that iguana blood restored sexual energy. He didn’t tell us how to feed the animal, because he thought we would eat it right away.
El Tomate works for a travel magazine. He lives in a ghastly building that looks out on the Viaduct. From his apartment, he describes the beaches of Polynesia.
This time, as an exception, he really was visiting the places he was going to write about: Oaxaca and Yucatán. Four years earlier, we had made the trip in the opposite direction, Yucatán-Oaxaca. Back then we were so inseparable that if people saw me without him, they would ask: “Where’s El Tomate?”
We finished that last trip at the ruins of Monte Albán during a solar eclipse. The golden stones lost their glow and the valley was covered with a weak light that didn’t belong to any time of day. The birds sang out in bewilderment and tourists took each other by the hand. I felt a strange urge to repent, and confessed to El Tomate that I had been the one who pushed him into the cenote at Chichén Itzá.
That had happened a few days earlier. On seeing the sacred water, my friend couldn’t stop talking about human sacrifices: the Mayans, superstitious about small things, threw their midgets, their toys, their jewels, their favorite children, into the sacred water. I walked up to a group of deaf-mute visitors. A woman was translating the information the guide gave into sign language: “He who drinks the water of the cenote will return to Chichén Itzá.” We were at its edge, and El Tomate was leaning over. Something made me push him in. The rest of the trip was an ordeal because the water gave him salmonella. At Monte Albán, under the uncertain light of the eclipse, I felt bad and asked for his forgiveness. Then he took the opportunity to ask me: “Do you really not remember that I got you into the Silvio Rodríguez concert?” Very early in our friendship, in the early ’70s, El Tomate had been the sound tech for the Mexican folk group Aztlán. In his moment of glory, he was involved in a festival of New Cuban Trova. Honestly, I did not remember him getting me that ticket, but he told me with a droopy smile, “I do remember.” His smile irritated me because it was the same one he had when he confessed he had slept with Sonia, the Chilean refugee I’d chased after without the slightest possibility of getting into her poncho.
That reconciliation at Monte Albán was enough for us to stop seeing each other. We had crossed an invisible line.
For two years after that, we barely spoke. I didn’t even call him when I found the Aztlán LP he had loaned me thirty years before. Once in a while, at the barbershop or at the dentist’s office, I would find a copy of the magazine where he wrote about islands he would never see.
El Tomate got back in touch when I won the Texcoco Floral Games with a poem that I thought was pre-Raphaelite, very influenced by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The prize was being awarded as part of the Pulque Festival. My friend called at seven in the morning on the day that the winner was announced: “I want to cut a branch from the epic,” he exclaimed joyfully. That meant that he wanted to go with me to the award ceremony, possibly to call in the favor of having gotten me into the uncertain Silvio Rodríguez concert. I didn’t respond. What he said next ended up aggravating me: “López Velarde. Didn’t you recognize the quote, poet?”
I said I would call him to set things up, but I never did. I imagined him in Texcoco too perfectly: gray hairs starting to show on the underside of his mustache, drinking a sour-smelling pulque and declaring that my poems were terrible.
His most recent call had to do with the Chevy. I had filled out a form at a Superama grocery store and won a car. I was in the paper, an expression of primitive happiness on my face, accepting a set of keys that seemed to have been fashioned for the occasion (the keychain gave off a luxurious sparkle). El Tomate asked me to take him from Oaxaca to Yucatán. He had to write an article. He was sick of simulating life in five-star hotels and writing about dishes he would never taste. He wanted to plunge into reality. “Like before,” he added, inventing for us some shared past as anthropologists or war correspondents.
Then he said: “Karla will come with us.” I asked him who she was and he was rather mysterious about it. I still hadn’t gotten over appearing in the paper holding the car keys and was willing to do things that would annoy me. Also, something had happened that I needed to get away from. A lot of time has passed and I still can’t talk about it without getting embarrassed. I’d slept with Gloria López, who was married, and there was an accident like nothing either of us had ever experienced before. An improbable occurrence, like some spontaneous combustion that can make a body or a film negative burn to ashes: my condom disappeared in her vagina. “An abduction,” she said, more intrigued than worried. Gloria believes in extraterrestrials. She was pretty interested in me for the occasional roll in the hay, but she was enormously interested in a contact of the “third kind,” for which I had been a mere intermediary.
How can an indestructible rubber just disappear? She was sure that it had to do with aliens. Could she get pregnant, or would the condom be encapsulated? That verb reminded me of her favorite movie: Fantastic Voyage, with Rachel Welch. Gloria was too young to have seen it when it came out. An ex-boyfriend who dedicated himself to pirating videos put her in contact with that fantasy, which seemed to have been created just for her: the crew of a ship is reduced to microscopic size and injected into a body to perform a complex medical operation. The body as a variant of the cosmos could only excite someone who lived to be abducted and pulled into other dimensions. “What would the internauts feel like inside of you?” she asked with the seriousness of someone who considers that to be possible. “Is there anything kinkier than having internauts in your veins?” The movie’s producers were thinking the same thing when they chose Rachel Welch and outfitted her in an extremely tight white suit. The sexual nonsense of a tiny turgid body advancing through her blood seduced Gloria, who now felt crewed by the condom that had ended up inside her. It didn’t help to remember that the original seamen exited the body through a tear duct, a metaphorical warning that all adventures of intravenous seduction end in tears. On top of all that was the possibility that Gloria’s husband would find this unheard-of intruder by the way of all flesh (quoting Samuel Butler doesn’t diminish the grotesqueness of the topic, I know, but at least it’s a text that El Tomate will never get to).
Although nothing brings relief as much as knowing that someone else has gone through the same thing and has some home remedies for it, I was ashamed to talk about it. I was experiencing the anxiety of having to face a pregnancy or an enraged husband, plus the fact that my accomplice was distracted by extraterrestrial magnetism, when El Tomate suggested we take a trip. I accepted on the spot.
Karla decided to ride in the back seat because she had read The System of Objects by Baudrillard, and that part of the car made her feel “deliciously dependent.” In every other way she was a pro-independence fury. She wouldn’t accept our schedules, nor did she believe that the highway had the number of miles indicated on the map.
Luckily she was asleep for a good part of the trip. In one of the many backwater towns, we bought the iguana.
When Karla woke up, near Pinotepa Nacional, she saw the iguana, and we went down a few notches in her esteem.
There are King Kong men, obsessed with blondes, and then there are Godzilla men, obsessed with monsters. The former complex is racial—the latter, phallic. We had bought a dinosaur to our scale. For fifty miles, she tried to explain what was authentic and what wasn’t.
Karla had a strange way of scratching her belly, very slowly, as if she weren’t soothing her stomach, but her hand. She lifted up her shirt enough to reveal a tattoo like a second navel, in the shape of a yin-yang symbol.
Once we got to Oaxaca, the iguana stuck out its tongue, round as a peanut. Karla suggested we give it something to eat and El Tomate got to use the inscrutable saying: “Now we’ll know which side the iguana chews on.” We had all heard it before, without ever trying to understand it.
We bought dried flies in a tropical fish store. We left the iguana in the car with a ration of insects that it either ate or lost on the floor.
It was two in the afternoon, and El Tomate picked a restaurant that he had written epic poems about without ever having been there. It was hard to get Karla to accept a table. All of them violated some aspect of feng-shui. We ate in the patio, next to a well that gave us energy. Karla practiced “mystic décor.” That’s what her business card said, from when she lived in Cancun. She had just moved to Mexico City and my friend had put her up. She was the daughter of El Tomate’s acquaintance, who had gotten pregnant at 16. From the moment my friend greeted me, making a gun with his forefinger and thumb, I knew the trip was an excuse to get into her pants.
El Tomate’s morality runs in zig-zags: he considered it to be an abuse to sleep with his guest in Mexico City, but not in Oaxaca and Yucatán.
I didn’t want to eat yellow mole and El Tomate accused me of hating authenticity. It’s possible that I hate authenticity; either way, I hate yellow food. When he went to the bathroom, Karla turned a hyperobjective interest onto me: “And how are you doing now?” she asked. I supposed that El Tomate had told her about a tremendous “before.” She paused and added, in a complicit tone: “I get the iguana thing.”
Emotions are confusing: I liked that she looked at me as if I were a piece of moveable furniture. I accepted that I’d had some rough times, but I was doing better. I talked to the crumbs on her plate. Then I looked up at her chestnut eyes. She ruined her smile by saying, “He worries about you a lot.” Of course she meant El Tomate. It bothered me that he could become a pronoun and take advantage of my deterioration to play the caring friend. What had he told Karla? That I voluntarily committed myself to the San Rafael Psychiatric Institute while he danced revolutionary Chilean cuecas with Sonia? That much was true. Plus, on the search for pre-Raphaelite exaltation, I had started on a fast that led me to semi-dementia. But El Tomate had invented other eccentricities. Karla spoke to me like the Yaquí Indian Don Juan to Carlos Castaneda: “Everyone has his inner animal,” she touched my hand with understanding softness.
There was a classical music festival going on in Oaxaca City and we could only find one room for the three of us, in a bed and breakfast on the outskirts of town, near the Tule Tree. We saw the centuries-old trunk in whose knots Italo Calvino had discovered an intricate alphabet, and in which a guide found other representations: “There is Olga Breeskin’s butt,” he pointed to something that, in effect, looked like the exaggerated posterior of a vedette.
The iguana went through various stages. In its Oaxaca phase, its only thought was to flee from us. There were two beds in the room: a double that Karla assigned to us, and hers. The armoire was a solid monstrosity from the era of the Mexican Revolution; no amount of feng-shui could move it. That’s where the iguana slept, or more accurately, that’s where we wanted it to sleep. In the middle of the night, I heard the scratching of claws. I went to the armoire. The iguana had disappeared. Something told me it wasn’t in the room. The door had a rope-tie instead of a lock. I know there’s no logic to my reasoning, but a door tied closed with a rope suggests a whole host of defects. I went out into the hall, which led to the only bathroom in the hotel. I found the iguana in the toilet. Had it gone to drink water? According to El Tomate, iguanas hydrate with fruits that we had not found but that did exist. The iguana slipped between my legs. I chased it with the impulse that insomnia brings, forgetting that I hadn’t the slightest interest in capturing it. I found it in the foyer, next to a copy of a sculpture from Mitla of an old man in a funerary position. Maybe that squatting priest reminded the iguana of its old owner; the fact is, it stayed still and I was able to trap it. It bit me hard enough to draw blood. I squeezed its snout closed like I was wringing out a towel and went back to the room with my prey. El Tomate had taken the opportunity to jump into Karla’s bed, but when I opened the door everything was just as quiet and as un-_feng-shui_ as when I left.
In the morning, the bite appeared on my hand in a charismatic manner; it looked like I had hurt myself on thorns made of light. Karla got splendidly scared and put Tiger Pomade on me.
I called Gloria that morning to see if there was any news of the “fantastic voyager.” “Not yet,” she answered sourly. She was furious because she had lost her passport. She blamed me for never committing to anything (Gloria didn’t have the slightest interest in me committing to her about the condom lost in her interior; what she wanted was for me to commit to finding her passport).
On our last trip, we were warned: “They’re going to mug you in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec.” That time we were traveling by bus, on the Flecha Turquesa or the Astro de la Mañana line. They mugged us right on the bus. One man threatened the driver with a machete while the other went through our pockets. I remember his blood-stained eyes and the mezcal on his breath when he said: “It’s your lucky day: just imagine, you could’ve gone off a cliff.”
This time around, they mugged us without our realizing it. We were pumping gas in the mountains. It was nighttime; Karla and the iguana were sleeping in the back of the car. El Tomate was staring out into infinity from the front seat.
The gas station attendant asked me if I was going to Yucatán, and began to tell me a legend. Jaguar has spots on his body because he bit into the sun; when he had finished eating up all the light in Oaxaca, he went on to Yucatán, but he couldn’t keep eating fire there because a Mayan prince fought him, and the two of them drowned together in the sacred cenote. Their bodies floated through the underground rivers that run through the peninsula until they reached the sea. That’s why the Caribbean has those strange phosphorescent lights. We Mexicans don’t know that the phosphorescence is valuable, but the Japanese come in boats to steal it. The story lasted long enough for the attendant’s accomplices to make off with my rear lights. El Tomate didn’t notice anything, because he was “thinking about time.”
We took the highway out of the mountains, heading east. Every so often a semi passed me, honking alarmingly. I only connected this to the lack of rear lights when we got to the hotel in Villahermosa and I went to check the car. “What kind of jackass are you?” I asked El Tomate. I didn’t notice the theft either, but at least I had been busy listening to the Mayan legend. Why would the Japanese want marine phosphorescence? Is it nutritious? I thought about how easy it is to trick someone like me. On the other hand, I’d thought better of El Tomate. He looked at me with disarming sadness: “Can I tell you something?” he asked.
He didn’t wait for my answer to tell me that before we left Mexico City, he had burned off the warts he had on his chest. “I felt so old with those warts.” He lifted up his shirt to show me his burns, like some Xipe Totec, an Aztec Flayed God. Obviously he had burned himself for the benefit of Karla.
The other news was that the iguana had vanished in the Ithsmus. We took the suitcases and Karla’s water bottles out of the car; there was no sign of it.
In Villahermosa, we stayed in a couple of bungalows with terraces. Every so often, a waiter would come by to offer us a drink. Karla went to bed early because she was exhausted from sleeping through the highway’s winding curves.
El Tomate and I smoked a couple of dry cigars we had bought from a man selling paper flowers. We drank rum until very late at night. We had reached that friendly lethargy in which it’s acceptable to not say anything at all. We could hear crickets, night birds, and, very far off, the satisfying sound of insects frying themselves on an electric lantern. El Tomate broke the calm: “Why don’t you go get her?”
I thought he was talking about the iguana, but his eyes were fixed on Karla’s bungalow. He scratched at his bare chest. I focused on the reddish stains. “They put liquid nitrogen on me,” he explained, like a futuristic martyr. He had burned himself to get in good with Karla, his warts had smoldered in a sacrificial rite, but now he was asking me to go after her. “It’s obvious she likes you: she hasn’t moved a single chair in two days.” His words came out bitterly, like the last mouthful of bad tobacco.
It had always depressed me to imagine my friend in his apartment next to the traffic of the Viaduct, writing about Roman churches and Sicilian ruins. Now there was nothing sadder than seeing him on this trip, devastatingly real.
“We already know which side the iguana chews on,” he added with a resigned smile.
When I got back to the room, something shifted inside me. The poverty of the scene—the tiny Rosa Venus soap, the rusty bottle opener, the ashtray bearing the name of some other hotel—made me realize that I was also in a bad state. It upset me that El Tomate would push me to approach Karla. I remembered the time he was carrying around the sound equipment for the band Aztlán: he took advantage of his privileged access to that music, flutes played with outrage over squalor, to sleep with Sonia. Now he was offering me a different woman to make up for his disloyalty. Or maybe he was playing another hand, maybe he wanted to take an almost desperate advantage of the trip, to conquer the possibility of complaining about me in the future. If I slept with Karla, his subsequent blackmail could be implacable, a refined cruelty, like the mood of a Mayan god.
He was right about one thing: Karla had stopped moving the furniture around, and not just that: at every restaurant, she opened the packets of saltines, spread butter on them, and gave them to me without asking.
I washed myself in the dribble of water that came out of the showerhead. It was the prelude to a disastrous journey. We visited the ruins of Palenque. The guide wanted us to see the carving of an “astronaut” in the inner chamber of a pyramid. The “controls” of the “ship” were ears of corn.
“Nothing is authentic,” muttered El Tomate. The whole day, he kept looking at me as if I had just come out of the bungalow that he had told me to go into.
Karla noticed something was wrong between us and distracted herself by humming an indecipherable melody. We rushed through the brick ruins of Comalcalco, ate alligator-headed fish without commenting on the strange flavor, and headed towards the mesa of Mayan kings.
We were passing through a region of dry shrubs crowned with purple flowers when a strange rattling came from the front hood of the car. I thought it was the belt, or one of the other many parts of the motor that I had no idea about.
When I raised the hood, Karla embraced me, kissed me: the iguana was looking at us with prehistoric patience, its tail beating against the spark plugs like a metronome. The animal was hot, but I trapped it with the anxiousness that Karla stirred in me.
In Maní, I checked out the car while they drank horchatas. The iguana had made a hole in the back of the rear seat. From there, it got into the chassis and made its way to the motor. The animal represented my karma, my aura, my very being. It was also gnawing holes in my car.
We visited the Temple of San Miguel de Maní, where Fray Diego de Landa ordered the Mayan codices to be burned. The cosmogony of a people had gone up in spectacular flames. I told Karla about the things that are lost and the things that remain. The iguana belonged in this setting, like the burned codices: it had to reintegrate itself into this reality. I didn’t need it anymore. She gave me a highly charged look, the kind deserved by someone who has been hospitalized because of the guilt or complicity of his inner animals. El Tomate had turned me into an interesting case of fantastical zoology in front of her. I looked up at the Yucatecan sky, pure blue, and felt I could talk about creative loss. After burning the codices, Fray Diego wrote the history of the Mayans. I would make a similar restitution. The liberation of the iguana would allow me to break through my writer’s block. I had a cycle of poems in mind, The Green Circle, an allusion to the iguana biting its own tail and the Mayans inventing zero. “You only possess the things you lose voluntarily,” I thought, but I didn’t say it out loud because it was pedantic and because El Tomate was looking at me from a distance, making a gun with his forefinger and thumb. This time, the gesture meant he approved of my proximity to Karla.
So we arrived at the Yucatán phase of the iguana. If in Oaxaca it had wanted to flee, in Yucatán it wanted to be with us. We unsuccessfully freed it in front of the Church of the Three Kings of Tizimín, among the pale stones of the immense atrium of Izamal, under the laurel trees in the Plaza Grande in Mérida. It wasn’t drawn to the greenery that surrounded the cenote at Dzibilchaltún either. It kept coming back to us, domesticated by our delicious flies, by the Chevy and its possible holes. “Animals hate authenticity,” I told El Tomate.
That afternoon I called Gloria. “It finally came out,” she told me. I felt a cosmic relief. She, however, was not in a good mood: “Now I want to know which part of me my passport is going to come out of.” I knew that the only thing that tied me to her were the problems I could cause her.
When I hung up, I saw Karla in the distance, standing on a rock. Her
silhouette had a strange immobility. Her body, agile, tense, didn’t seem to be at rest; she was gathering energy to jump.
Near the archeological site of Chichén Itzá, we found a little hotel that was part of a Brahman cattle ranch. We had been driving the whole afternoon, facing into the sun. El Tomate had a tremendous migraine. He went to bed early and Karla said to me: “I thought of a name for the iguana.”
I put my finger on her lips so she wouldn’t say “Odisea” or “Xóchitl” or “Tao.” She kissed me softly. That night I caressed her yin-yang tattoo until morning.
I went back to my room when dawn broke. I saw fragile trees with intricate fronds. A blue bird was singing in the branches. The white cattle were grazing on the flat land. I felt happy and guilty. By the time I got into my room, I just felt guilty. I had pushed El Tomate into the water because I could never stand that Sonia preferred him to me; he’d had the decency to forgive me, and I’d paid him back in false coin. To top it off, I remembered that it was him who got me into that Silvio Rodríguez concert. El Tomate felt old, it had been years since he’d had a stable relationship, he had burned off his warts like a punitive Aztec. I thought about different ways to approach him. They were all unnecessary—he had slipped a note under the door: “I understand. I would have done the same thing. We’ll see each other in Mexico City.” That note included him mysteriously among us, as if he had been spying on us the whole night.
I visited Chichén Itzá in a zombie state. Karla told me that she knew I had loved her since she saw me looking at her so strangely when we ate buñuelos outside the Santo Domingo Convent in Oaxaca. The truth is, I was looking at her strangely because the iguana was insisting on biting me where it had already bitten me.
We climbed the 91 stairs of the Pyramid of Kukulcán without the heat or the exercise preventing us from talking. She told me she had left Cancun because she was sick of her suitors. Then she pointed at a gringo in a Hawaiian shirt who hadn’t stopped taking pictures of her. She felt harassed by the unfulfilled desires of others; only El Tomate, who was old and a consummate gentleman, had treated her with egalitarian friendship.
When we got to the cenote, I felt even worse: El Tomate had drunk the water, but the prophecy of returning was being fulfilled in me. Perhaps wrongful immersion brings such consequences.
In that moment, I hated archeological guides. They were like deep sea fish. They had swollen eyelids and talked about things they didn’t understand. There were so many, it was impossible not to hear what came out of their heads, so full of dark water. In Tzompantli, the Place of Skulls, one of them said the Mayans brought iguanas on their journeys. They skinned them alive because meat rots quickly in the heat of Yucatán. On the steps of the sacbé, the white road that joins the sacred cities, they would tear off chunks of meat and keep going. As long as the iguana’s heart kept beating, they could eat it in pieces. Then they ate the heart. The guide smiled with his fishy teeth.
I felt a hole in my stomach. Karla painstakingly bit her nails. I bought green mangos but she didn’t want to try them. We saw the delicate skulls of the Tzompantli, the stone writing of those buildings legible in a language that had been lost. I thought about the bleeding iguana that fed the Mayan pilgrims. A sensation of loss, of diffuse horror took over me. Our iguana followed us, like a foolish pet. I remembered how much I owed El Tomate. In his way, he wanted to do me a favor by disappearing at dawn, like the Lone Ranger. Karla looked at the sky so she wouldn’t have to see the iguana. “The guides lie: they’re blind fish,” I told her. She didn’t ask me to explain. She must have thought something terrible; her body shook, trapped in a shiver. Maybe it wasn’t the Mayan cruelty that shocked her so much as the effect of the story, the way in which it crossed our journey. El Tomate had talked me up to her like an attractive conflict that she may not be able to corroborate or that might begin to seem excessive. She lifted my hand off of her: “I have to think,” she said, as if ideas came to her through touch.
It was getting dark when we got to the cenote. The iguana changed course when it saw four or five members of its species on the wet earth surrounding the pool. There, it left us.
The Chevy was waiting in the parking lot. I thought about the things that are destroyed so that poetry can exist. I thought about Yeats and impossible love and Celtic sacrifices. I thought about my inability to be like dusk.
Karla wanted to sit in the back seat. I asked her to sit next to me. This time she did not cite The System of Objects: “It’s the seat of death,” she said. “I’m not your chauffeur,” I answered sharply. She obeyed, scared.
We crashed three curves outside of Chichén Itzá. The brakes didn’t respond. The cables had been gnawed through. Karla broke two ribs, puncturing her lung. The Chevy was totaled. I was unhurt except for the bite I already had on my hand.
Sometimes I think Karla stopped talking to me because I was unharmed and that gave an intentionality to the accident. She said too many times, “It wasn’t your fault.” Everything had been wrong since before we got into the car, or from the moment before that, already irrecoverable. What design were we fulfilling when we mixed our breath and believed we could search for ourselves in two bodies?
I tried in vain to write The Green Circle. During long afternoons, the only thing I did was draw an animal.
El Tomate, for his part, published his report with stupendous photos of Oaxaca and Yucatán. When I read it, I remembered the nape of Karla’s neck, the skin on her back glowing in that light that only exists on the peninsula.
That night, I saw her in my dreams. I asked her what the iguana’s name was, but I didn’t dream her answer.
Kimberly Traube began translating while studying Comparative Literature as an undergraduate at Columbia University. After spending several years in Oaxaca, she returned to New York, where she is currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction and Literary Translation.
Juan Villoro is a Mexican journalist and fiction writer. Translations of his writing have appeared in n+1, Parkett, and Words Without Borders. He has been a visiting professor at Princeton and Yale Universities. His novel El testigo (The witness) was awarded the Herralde Prize, and his narco-terrorism chronicle, La alfombra roja (The red carpet), was the recipient of the King of Spain Prize. His most recent books are the novel Arrecife (Reef) and the collection of short stories and chronicles Espejo retrovisor (Rearview mirror). In 2012, his body of work was recognized with the José Donoso Iberian-American Prize.
But the idea of transformation has always been something that I romanticize in a work. I’m cautious of it but I also need it to connect my thoughts with the process of making. That’s really important.