Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
If they are out of order, they are restless;
when their order is restored, they are at rest.
St. Augustine, Confessions, XIII, 9
At first, the objects flying past the window were newspapers and plastic bags, which would have been nothing out of the ordinary in autumn if we hadn’t been on the third floor. We were discussing Rubén Darío’s destitute childhood and I interrupted the class to comment on the crude nature of weather on the East Coast. The students’ resentful stares did not waver. I have come to the conclusion, for my own peace of mind, that they always stare that way and so I continued teaching. We were about to get to Rubén’s sojourn at the Valparaíso customs house when I caught a glimpse of something on the other side of the windowpane that might have been the canvas from a construction site, or the roof of a car, or a heifer. The Wizard of Oz file opened instantly inside my head and I suggested we go down to one of the rooms in the basement and continue class there. With the discipline of soldiers, the class followed my instructions as never before.
In the afternoons, a bombed-city air envelops the Foreign Languages building where I teach classes: as of 3:00 PM, its abandoned rooms produce the same sensation given off by the glowing embers of lifeless rubble. Scattered along the hallways are the remains of an abruptly interrupted vitality: disposable cups that still carry a smudge of lipstick, open notebooks, a sweatshirt or cap that may have drifted into a corner. I chose an inside classroom without windows, in order to avoid distractions, and managed to cover up to Darío in Buenos Aires. I told them that after the Nicaraguan disembarked there, nothing would ever be the same again in the Spanish language; that a whole world had ended forever and another one, perhaps not any better, but different nonetheless, had begun. Darío flushed a millenary toilet, I said, caught up in a lyricism that drew more stares, varying between hostile and confused.
We reviewed a few poems with modest success and there was still enough time to comment on the nature of the essay they had to turn in by the next class. As always, I thanked them for their patience. Since no one replied, “You’re welcome,” I surmised that they had been patient with me after all.
Afterward I took my time packing away papers and books in order to avoid running into any of the students at the bus stop or on the subway; I never know what to say in such cases and feel like no matter what, I’m going to come across as a pervert. I pretended to be absorbed in the attendance sheet, briefly reviewed my notes, put everything inside my briefcase with false meticulousness, pushed my glasses up over the bridge of my nose every so often. I didn’t leave the building until I was certain they had all disappeared into the vast campus.
It seemed odd that no one was sitting at the tables outside on the terrace, which always attracted groups of smokers because they were sheltered, comfortable, and located at the foot of a building with a sizeable foreign population. A dense, humid breeze more typical of August than late September swept an impressive quantity of the soaked garbage left behind by the storm between the legs of chairs and into the corners of the patio. It wasn’t until then that I became uneasy at the sound of sirens in the distance.
Ever since the somber days of the ’85 Mexico City earthquake the noise of ambulances triggers an anxiety in me, although generally I don’t make the association right away. For over a week, sirens were the only soundtrack of our paralyzed lives. I spent unforgettable mornings as a member of a squad of college students who brought food into Tepito, one of the neighborhoods that had been destroyed. This is what the Federal District is going to look like the next time the gringos declare war on us, said my friend the Chicken. He was assigned the role of driving the pickup we had made into an improvised ambulance with giant crosses of red tape. After that like Darío and the canon nothing was the same in our country: we flushed a 60-year toilet of relatively mediocre tyranny. Although the previous generations still find it hard to accept, we started a revolution, Hemingway style: by carrying stretchers.
A long meadow bordered by oak trees must be crossed in order to reach the avenue that divides the campus in half. Normally this walk consoles me, sick and tired as I am of being foreign and insignificant: giving classes on Latin American literature in a university in the United States is like felling a tree every day in an uninhabited forest. As I walked, I confirmed the completely ominous nature of the atmosphere: there was not a single soul on the paths through the park and the roar of the sirens became gradually more intense as I approached the university circuit. I was still naïve enough to lament the fact that, no matter what had happened, there would doubtless be terrible traffic on the main avenue. It would end up taking me forever to get to the subway. I confirmed that I had enough coins in my pocket to call my wife from a public telephone and let her know that she should start serving dinner to the kids, that I would get there as soon as I could.
That was my last banal concern for the evening: I soon found myself on a deserted main avenue standing before a bus stop blocked off with yellow police tape, ambulances wailing in the distance. A captive of growing anxiety, I walked toward the building where the services are: cafeterias, bookstores, post office. It was also empty. I went up and down stairs, I sprinted down halls. Everything was closed or vacant. In the main dining hall there were dozens of tables that had been abandoned halfway through meals: bitten hamburgers, full glasses of soda, dishes of melted ice cream with plastic spoons afloat. In the reception hall, I pressed the visitor’s bell on the desk with absurd frenzy.
Before returning outside and commencing the long walk to the subway station—I had already had to do this once, when transportation was suspended due to a snowstorm while I was working in the library—I stopped at a row of telephones to call my wife and ask her what was going on. There was no dial tone. Then I heard the almost military sound of a group of people marching in silence.
I ran up to the next floor and found a huge procession of students moving with discipline in more or less closed ranks behind a volunteer who wore a phosphorescent orange vest over his civilian clothes. I recognized a former student of mine from Panama in the crowd. I pulled her out of line and asked what was going on. A tornado went through, she said, so inhibited that stupor reigned in her voice.
It came down on the football stadium dorms.
I felt a stab of fear: the university daycare center where my two children were enrolled was located in the same area.
When did this happen? I asked her.
I really don’t know, I had just arrived at Psychology and they locked us into the rooms on the first floor. I was on my way to class, that must have been four o’clock, now they’re mobilizing people because there’s another tornado on the way.
There’s no one here, I told her.
In the basement, she replied, they have half the university in the basement.
I ran outside without another word. A volunteer blew his whistle when he saw me go past toward the emergency zone. I ignored him: Cathy picked up the kids at 5:00, which meant that they had also been evacuated.
Whenever her job at the insurance agency demanded that my wife stay and cover part of the afternoon shift, I was the one in charge of picking up the children. Fridays too, that being the only day I didn’t teach. The childcare facility—a wide, low building with a storm watch tower on the roof—was built on the outskirts of the university, between the sports complex and an array of Soviet-like dormitories into which most of the bachelor’s students were packed. When the weather was rough—in this country, it is almost always too hot or too cold or there is too much water or ice—I took the bus that circled around the campus; when it wasn’t, I walked half an hour and generally ended up arriving late, earning reproachful glares from the school principal, who confirmed all of her stereotypes about Mexicans every time I strolled in ten or 15 minutes late, all sweaty and in a good mood. During the children’s three years at that daycare, I never saw her—not even when I got there on time—with an expression other than that of a Protestant matron infuriated by global immorality.
On the day of the tornado, I sprinted the last five hundred or thousand yards cross country: the police had closed the pathways and roads and I didn’t want to be evacuated before finding out whether the children had been taken to safety in time. As I drew closer to my destination, the signs of destruction went from big to enormous: I ended up having to press on through a heap of trees and scrap metal. Engraved in my memory with particular clarity is the serpent of an uprooted street lamp twisted around the trunk of an oak tree.
The road leading to the daycare center entrance was blocked by cars that had been overtaken by downed trees. I was crossing the rubble by leaps and bounds when I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was a police officer, perhaps a female officer under the helmet and body armor judging by her size and the timbre of her voice. She yelled that I could not enter that zone. Until then I hadn’t realized that there was a hellish racket of sirens and hammering mixed into the wind, which had started to rise again. I slipped past, making no reply, but she grabbed me a few feet away. I told her my children had been inside when the tornado hit and she responded that we were all equally concerned and that she was very sorry, but she could not let me through. I asked her if there had been any victims. She said yes, but she didn’t know if there were any from the daycare, that the children and their teachers had been evacuated to the sports complex and that they still didn’t have any news about casualties. I ran away across the roof of a car. She caught up with me once again, seized my right arm and twisted it across my back. She told me, touching her handcuffs with her free hand, that she was going to have to arrest me if I did that again, and then I wasn’t going to find out what had happened to the kids from the school. She propelled me away from the scene: I remember bobbing my head in desperation, managing to get a glimpse of the building with its roof torn off. She handed me over to a volunteer—blond, crew cut, at least three hundred pounds—who, without untwisting my arm, picked me up and carried me toward the gymnasium. The last thing I saw in the emergency zone was a couple of firefighters with a chainsaw cutting through a car in order to remove its occupants. The only remaining light to see by came from the sirens of emergency vehicles.
The gringos are an obedient nation: they had all complied with the authorities and were distributed among their assigned groups inside the gigantic subterranean sports complex. The first floor—where the swimming pools are—is covered by a glass dome; therefore, camping out there was prohibited. The volunteer deposited me into a river of people that carried me downward. I asked several of them where the daycare center children had ended up, but no one knew anything.
I got off the spiral staircase leading down from the first floor and searched the gymnasiums. Whole tribes of teenagers played cards or loudly talked in big circles. One of these told me that they had seen a lady with a bunch of kids on the fourth floor basketball courts, two more flights down.
Once I had rejoined the masses, I realized that the next levels down were noticeably warmer: doubtless the electricity had been cut off and we were on the local generator, which meant no air conditioning. We advanced slowly, like sleepwalkers.
During my walks to the daycare center, I never would have imagined the immense underground esplanade that had been designated for basketball courts. There the college students were camped out in groups, reading, sleeping, or doing homework. Another volunteer, placing an index finger over her mouth, indicated that it was prohibited to make any noise on this level. It was unthinkable that the children would be there under such circumstances, so I left.
Just outside I ran into someone I knew from Parent Teacher Association meetings at the daycare center: a Korean economics professor who was leading his son by the hand. I grasped his lapels and asked him where the children were. At first he looked at me disconcertedly, as if he were inside a very thick bubble, then he seemed to recognize me and spewed the story in nonstop bits and pieces of how his car hood had been gobbled up by a tree. They had waited quietly for the storm to pass and then run toward the school, which was left without doors, windows or a section of the roof. He repeated that he didn’t know what he was going to do, he had just bought a house and the insurance wasn’t going to pay for the car because a tornado was considered an Act of God. It took me a while to get him back down to earth so that he could tell me that, in effect, he had been evacuated alongside the others from the school, that they were in the depths of the building, in the women’s locker room, but that there was very little light and it was very hot, so he was looking for a store to buy a soft drink for his son.
I left him there, all wound up with his monologue regarding the irrationality of a culture that attributes such acts to God, as if He were the weatherman. I went down. After the fifth floor, the intensity of the lighting waned notoriously: a few lamps were lit, together with the red emergency bulbs that gave the place a crepuscular air. The heat here was so intense that only a few students went up or down.
On the seventh level, just outside the spiral staircase, I found more college students, now chatting without adult supervision, all of whom—men and women—were in their underwear, sitting on benches as if the circumstances were completely normal. The sheen on their shoulders, stomachs, and legs made me aware of the fact that I too was completely bathed in sweat.
I ran toward one of the locker rooms and crossed the doorway with desperate forcefulness. The acrid air inside was so densely human—pure decomposition—as I advanced down the hallway that led to the lockers and showers, that it crossed my mind how immoral it was to keep the daycare evacuees there. They should be taken up to a level with better circulation. Besides, there was no more white light: only the sinister glow of red bulbs reflected on the tiles.
I reached the end of the tunnel and made a half turn, but instead of the children and their teachers, I found dozens of piled up, naked bodies rubbing against each other on the ground, on the benches, on foot beside the lockers. They moved in slow revolutions, like some divine creature in gestation. Each of them had a part of someone else in their hands, mouth, sex, or ass. The pallid torsos were lit only by the red emergency lamps, reminding me of the cans filled with earthworms that we used to collect in my grandmother’s garden in Autlán whenever we went fishing.
I stopped short, absolved from my individuality and private concerns by that mass of bodies. One of the young men I had seen conversing outside passed by. He was about to lose himself in the soft heap when I finally reacted and rushed to catch up with him. I asked him about the daycare center. He told me he didn’t know, that until then he had been on the tennis courts on the fifth floor and there were no kids there. Let me ask, he concluded, and making a hand signal that meant I should be patient, he addressed a group of students clutching each other close by. They talked amongst themselves while still working on the analogous body parts of others. Finally, one young woman took a penis out of her mouth and told me that they were in the women’s locker room, on the far side of the stairs.
The dense air, lack of oxygen, lack of light, and superimposed images finally got the best of me: I walked with the tranquility of he who has surrendered himself to his destiny all the way to the women’s locker room. I had to knock and identify myself before they would open the door. Once inside, one of the teachers explained that they had had to throw the bolt once the college students began to undress. They sent a parent and his son for help but they hadn’t come back yet. I didn’t tell her that I had found them walking around on a less asphyxiating level: I advanced directly past the lockers to where the uproar of the children could be heard; apparently they were playing as if nothing had happened.
Before I reached them—they were surrounded by electric fans—I found myself face to face with another father with whom I frequently conversed because he was from Colombia. He was distracted, looking down at the floor with his hands in his pockets, so he didn’t notice my presence until I greeted him by name. He looked into my eyes and it took him a fraction of a second to recognize me; I saw a lightning bolt of fear cross his face.
Cathy didn’t make it out? he asked me.
I don’t know, I answered.
I saw her leave with the children while I was coming in, he said, The tornado hit just as I was signing out Jorgito. He ran his hand across his perspiring scalp and made an effort to muster a normal expression on his face before sending me back to talk to the principal, who was further inside.
The full choir of teachers fell silent when I burst in among them.
Cathy and the children aren’t with you? the principal asked me, without getting up from her bench. She opened the gigantic bag she always carried around with her and took out a mobile telephone, immediately extending it toward me. Call home, she told me; perhaps they managed to get out before all hell broke loose.
At the time, cellular phones were a novelty: I held it in my hand, but I had no idea how to make it work. She explained that I had to dial and press the green button, but that in order to do so I would have to get as close to the surface as possible; down below, in the boiler rooms, it was impossible to communicate with anyone. The sympathetic faces with which they wished me luck made it perfectly clear that none of them had the least bit of faith that Cathy had managed to stay ahead of the meteor’s blast.
I returned to the extraordinary reality of the hallway with more resignation than anxiety. Since who knows when, I had felt a pressing need to go to the bathroom. I hadn’t realized it until then because of the extreme tension. I went up to the next floor in search of a toilet; I didn’t want to stumble across any more pandemonium in the basement. I had to wait in a long line in order to be able to discharge my intestines inside an overflowing bowl. As I flushed, it hit me clearly for the first time that I was probably no longer a family man, that my entire emotional universe might have gone straight to hell while I was reading a set of Darío’s poems that none of my students would ever remember again.
I continued upward, no longer hurrying, calculating how hard it would be, for example, to let my parents know that I was now a widow and that they no longer had any grandchildren. By the time I reached the point in which a barrier of volunteers blocked the path to the surface, I had already felt a gust of unexpected freedom in my soul.
I dialed my home number and no one answered, not even the answering machine: the lights were out. I searched the portfolio for my in-law’s number. They lived further away from the university and probably still had electricity. I dialed and my wife answered. She asked me, as calm as ever, if the lights were back on at home: she had taken the children to eat dinner with their grandparents because she couldn’t cook anything; she had left me a note on the table. I told her where I was and she simply couldn’t believe it: she had noticed the wind picking up as she left the school, but had gotten off campus without any mishaps. In the car they had listened to a tape of children’s music and at her parents’ house, they had put on a cartoon video, so they hadn’t heard anything. We agreed that they would stay right where they were that night so that she could come and pick me up in the car as soon as they let me go. I had to control my voice to keep her from detecting my foul mood.
Back in the depths of the building once more, the cellular telephone burning into the palm of my right hand, I stopped at the foot of the stairs, undecided as to whether to enter the men’s or women’s locker room.
Translated from the Spanish by Tanya Huntington.
T. G. Huntington is a Mexico City-based artist and writer currently researching her dissertation on novelists of the 1910 Mexican Revolution. She has translated essays and literature by Alejo Carpentier, José Emilio Pacheco, and Carlos Monsiváis, among others. She also coproduces and broadcasts a cultural program called Lo Sonado for Mexico City public radio.
—Álvaro Enrigue is professor of Creative Writing at the University of Maryland and a former professor at the Ibero-American University in Mexico City. He has served as Senior Editor of Literature at Fondo de Cultura Económica and Editor of Letras Libres Magazine. Since 1990 Enrigue has worked as a literary critic, writing for magazines in Mexico and in Spain including Letras Libres, Vuelta, Lateral, and Insula. His first novel, La muerte de un instalador (The death of an installation artist; J. Mortiz, 1996) won the Joaquín Mortiz Award for a first novel in 1996. Enrigue has also published a collection of short stories, Virtudes capitales (Capital virtues; J. Mortiz, 1998) and the novel El cementerio de sillas (The cemetery of chairs; Lengua De Trapo, 2002), which was selected as the best novel by the Mexican literary magazine Tempestad in 2003. He just published Hipotermia (Editorial Anagrama), a collection of short stories.
Originally published in
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.