Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
Emilio had told me he was going to introduce me to the woman of his life: Rosario. Since he always said the same thing I didn’t believe him that time either. Those days, romance gone bad and some midterm exams had taken me away from the partying we always did together. It wasn’t strange that I had to shut myself up for those reasons. Love and studies always gave me a hard time. But when I managed to get my classes and my heart under control, I’d return to the nightly searches in clubs, where I’d decipher the looks of new and possible candidates, emboldened by the music and the alcohol. After a while I’d generally have my heart broken again, and I’d shut myself up once more to pull up my failing grades and to recover from the heartaches of love. It was always like that until Rosario came into the picture.
“You already know her,” Emilio told me. “She’s one of the ones who always sit on the upper level.”
“What did you say her name was?” I asked.
“Rosario. You’ve already seen her.”
“Rosario what?” I asked again.
“Rosario … I can’t remember.”
I was searching my memory for someone from our side; I thought it was strange that I couldn’t remember her, and besides, the same people always ended up going to those places. After a short time, when I finally met her, I understood why I couldn’t place her. Emilio pointed her out to me. She was dancing all by herself on the upper level, where they always sat, because now that they had more money than us, they were entitled to the best spot in the club, and maybe because they were still used to seeing the other side of the city from above. Out of the smoke and the flashing lights, out of the streams of artificial smoke, out of the tangle of arms following the rhythm of the music, Rosario emerged like a futuristic Venus, with her knee-high black platform boots that raised her even higher than her dancer’s pedestal, and her silvery miniskirt and neon green midriff top with tight sleeves. She had cinnamon skin, dark hair, white teeth, full lips, and as her eyes were closed, I imagined that it was her way of not being distracted from the music, that she kept them shut so that no one would pull her out of her dream, or maybe it was so she wouldn’t see the dozen hoodlums who thought she was theirs, keeping her enclosed in a circle. I don’t know how Emilio got through it.
“That’s only the half of it,” Emilio told me. “Every time she goes to the bathroom a guy goes along.”
“So how did you get to meet her?”
“At first we exchanged looks, we just kept looking at each other. When I’d look at her she was already looking at me, and when she turned to look at me she’d catch me doing the same thing. Then we began to laugh, and soon we were looking at each other and laughing. Then she went to the bathroom, and I followed her, but the first person I ran into was the thug who wouldn’t leave her unprotected.”
“So what then?”
“Nothing,” he went on. “We couldn’t do anything, just look at each other and smile, but I think the guy caught on, because you wouldn’t believe the mess that took place afterward. There was grabbing and shouting and one of them got hold of her arm, but she resisted and even kicked the guy, and she would look at me every now and then, and the one who went to the bathroom with her pointed me out a couple of times, and she kept on arguing and everybody got involved in the mess.”
“So what then?” I asked again.
“Nothing. They took her out by force. But you can’t imagine the look she gave me when she left. You can’t imagine.”
Instead of intriguing me, the story scared me. We already knew about some people from our crowd who’d gotten involved with their women and had gotten themselves shot or had to start going to another club. I was sure Emilio wasn’t going to be the exception. Still, when he told me this story, she already had the situation under control and was Emilio’s new girlfriend.
“The next night she came back alone. Just imagine, man, alone, without the gang, all by herself with a friend. We’ll introduce you to her, she’s not bad.”
“Don’t screw up my life, Emilio, just keep telling me what happened.”
“Well, she came alone, but I was with Silvana.”
“With Silvana?” I asked. “No way. So what happened?”
“Well, Rosario was devouring me with her eyes, and Silvana was in the way. I used the old ploy of not feeling well and asked for the check, and as I was leaving I signaled to Rosario that I’d be right back.”
“Why are you driving so fast, Emilio? What’s the rush?” Silvana had asked him.
“It’s just that I feel bad, honey,” he answered her. “Very bad.”
“You really are a shit, Emilio,” I told him.
“What do you mean, shit?” he said. “With that sweet thing waiting for me?”
“And did she wait for you?”
“Of course she did, idiot. They all wait for me. And you can’t imagine how sweet it was. We were shy at first, but later …”
“What’s your name?” Emilio asked her.
“Rosario,” she answered. “And yours?”
Emilio definitely had good luck, so much so that he turned out to be the exception. We didn’t know what was going on with Rosario, because even though her friends still came, they never approached or bothered Emilio, much less after the incident with Pático. The only one who, when he came, didn’t take his eyes off them, who didn’t dance so he could keep looking at them, who didn’t take his hand off the butt of his pistol, who, when they were dancing close together, got tears in his eyes, was Ferney. He would enthrone himself in his upper booth, order a bottle of whiskey and settle down in such a way that he’d always have them before his eyes, so he could look at them with rage, and the drunker he got the more rage and pain could be seen in his eyes. But he never got up from his chair, not even to pee.
At first I couldn’t help feeling sympathy for him, a kind of solidarity with someone who was undoubtedly like me. Ferney belonged to the club of those of us who keep quiet, those of us with lumps in our throats, the shitheads who don’t say what we feel, who keep our love hidden inside like cowards, the ones who love in silence and drag ourselves down. While he was looking at us I was also looking at him out of the corner of my eye, and I couldn’t understand why he was so obsessed until I began to get to know her, until she began to work her way into my heart, until I saw that I was lost, with Rosario inside me, destroying my heart. Then I understood him. I wanted to bring a chair over next to his and get drunk with him, and look at her with the same pain and the same rage, and cry inside when he kissed her, when they danced together, when he made secret proposals to her that they would later consummate.
“That Ferney is a real strange guy,” Rosario said. “Look at him. Do you understand him?”
“He’s probably still in love,” I said, justifying him.
“That’s what’s dumb about it,” she said. “Suffering because of love.”
“What are you made of, Rosario Tijeras?” I would ask myself whenever I heard her say things like that. “What are you made of?” every time I saw her go off with the tough guys, every time I saw her leave thin and come back fat, every time I remembered our night.
“I’ve got her right here,” Emilio said, showing me the palm of his hand. “I think that tonight I’m going to get a taste of it.” I didn’t place any importance on the first time they went to bed together. In fact, I can’t even remember when it was. Rosario still hadn’t done any damage to me. When Emilio told me about it, all I could think was that he was playing with fire and was going to get himself killed. Besides, even if Ferney didn’t come near them, it was because at that time he was making his threats through intermediaries. I was afraid that he’d follow through on them. At that time I liked Emilio more, and I was worried about what might happen to him. I even ventured to tell Rosario about my fears.
“Relax,” she answered me. “My brother gave orders that we’re not to be touched.”
It wasn’t that the guy wanted to protect Emilio. They didn’t know each other. It was for her, because his sister’s every wish was his command. The “terror of the neighborhoods,” the underling who kept Medellín in a panic, was brought to heel by his little sister’s whims.
“Let the girl decide,” Johnefe would say.
But when he was killed my fears returned. With Johnefe out of the picture, Ferney became head of the gang, and the death of his friend had made him more violent and more possessive of Rosario. He tried to take her brother’s place and to recoup his position as her boyfriend, but Rosario wouldn’t have it.
“You’d just better relax, Ferney,” she told him. “I can take care of myself now, and besides, I’m not interested in having a boyfriend.”
“What about that idiot Emilio?” Ferney asked.
“Emilio is Emilio,” she answered.
“What do you mean? What about me?”
It wasn’t strange to hear her make such evasive remarks to settle what she had trouble explaining. As for Ferney, who was as slow in the head as he was with his bullets, there was nothing left to do but scratch that head and send a couple of new curses Emilios way.
“In any case,” I told Rosario, “I still don’t trust that Arley.”
“That’s right,” I went on. “When you least expect it, he’ll lose it and do something crazy.”
“I don’t think so, he’s changed a lot,” she said. “If you’d known him before, then you really would have been scared. Once, when we were together, we went to the movies to see one of Schwarzenegger’s films. We never missed them. This guy sat down behind us and from the moment he arrived, he kept eating potato chips, and the noise of the bag was driving Ferney crazy. He told me he couldn’t concentrate, and it was true because he kept looking behind him until he couldn’t take it anymore.
“’Excuse me, pal, but the noise of the bag is bothering us.’
“The guy didn’t pay any attention, he didn’t even look at him, and kept right on eating. In fact, when he finished, he opened another bag. And Ferney insisted.
“’Excuse me, pal, but I don’t think you heard me. The noise the bag is making is bothering us. Couldn’t you leave the chips for later?’
“The guy didn’t even get annoyed,” Rosario continued, “but the one who completely lost it was Ferney. He turned around until he was facing the guy, took out his gun, stuck it in his belly and fired. The man barely moved, he let go of the bag, looked at his belly, and that was it, he sat there with a scared expression on his face as if it had been a horror movie.”
“What about the people around you, what did they do?” I asked her.
“Nothing. No one noticed what happened because Ferney’s shot was lost in all the crazy shooting on the screen.”
“And did you finish watching the picture?”
“No, my friend. Ferney said, ’Let’s leave, I’m bored.’”
That was Emilio’s enemy, and Rosario telling me not to worry. I was thinking that if all that had been over a bag of potato chips, what wouldn’t he do if his heart were broken? If even I, who wouldn’t hurt a fly …
“Look,” Rosario said. “He knows that if he hurts Emilio he’s hurting me, and one thing I’m sure of is that Ferney would never dare hurt me.”
Rosario knew how to play her cards. She knew her people and what she could expect from them. And if somebody failed her, she knew that he’d get a kiss in return and be punished with a bullet, at point-blank range, the way Ferney had taught her.
She always did what she wanted. She herself admitted that she’d always been willful, ever since she was little. That’s why she left her mother and went to live with her brother, and maybe that’s why she never entrusted her heart to anyone. Nothing was tying Rosario down, not even the tough guys, with whom she always showed herself to be accommodating.
“But the day they don’t keep their promises, I’m gone,” she told me.
“Promises of what?”
“It’s business, my friend, a business based on keeping your word, and if I keep mine, they’ve got to keep theirs.”
I would hear that same line of reasoning about the same time every year, more or less, when she would make her new demands, reminding them of the conditions of the contract. In that way she got them to get her a new apartment or car, or to fatten up her bank account.
“If they want to see me again, they’d better trade in my little Mazda,” she said. “It’s high time.”
I’m sure that underneath it all Ferney liked her staying on with them: it pleased him to see Emilio humiliated, even if he himself had lost her forever. The difference was that as far as she was concerned, her relationship with Emilio hadn’t changed at all. For Rosario, that business with the tough guys was a kind of exchange where everyone played the best card he had.
“And Emilio is Emilio,” she would insist.
But Emilio didn’t see it the same way. For him it was whoring and nothing else. What pained him most was the fact that everybody knew about it and above all that he was the last to know. In spite of our closeness to her, Emilio and I were the last to know where Rosario was going with her mouth shut. There were rumors, but since they almost always came from envious tongues, we didn’t pay much attention to them. Afterward it would be Ferney himself who would come to us with the story. We doubted him, too, because we knew that Ferney had been hurt and was willing to take advantage of any circumstance to break off the relationship. We had no choice but to ask Rosario herself.
“You ask her,” Emilio told me. “She trusts you more.”
“Why me?” I reproached him. “You’re her boyfriend.”
We were scared to death. We thought that she’d tell us to go to hell and that because of a piece of gossip we’d never see her again. Then one day, after she’d disappeared for a whole weekend, she arrived in a good mood, and we decided that this was the moment.
“People are talking a lot,” I began. “They don’t know what else to talk about.”
“Gossiping bastards,” Emilio went on.
“You can’t imagine what they’re saying.”
“It’s not all gossip,” she said.
“What do you mean?” we both asked at once.
“As always,” Rosario said, “half is true and half is a lie.”
“So which is the true half?” Emilio asked.
“I’m sure it’s the half that hurts you,” she answered. It was true. She’d been involved with them since before she met us. While Emilio went crazy, throwing chairs, kicking doors and breaking furniture, I was being eaten up inside. There was always someone new who would take her further away from me, Emilio, society, Ferney and now them. Rosario remained silent while Emilio wrecked her apartment. She didn’t say a single word while he wept, waved his hands and raged. I remained silent too, waiting, as she was, for Emilio to finish but also waiting for her to look at me, to tell me something, to involve me in her confession. I still don’t know whether she ignored me on purpose or if she wasn’t capable of looking at me. A betrayal of friendship is surely worse than one of love.
I think about Emilio again and the upset that Rosario’s entanglements brought him. I suddenly feel I should call him once more.
“I’ve been waiting for your call for a while, man. What happened?”
“I talked to the doctor,” I told him. “He says she’s riddled with bullets.”
“Last night’s bullets or the bullets from before?”
“Some were at point-blank range.”
“While she was being kissed,” Emilio added.
“How did you know?” I asked him.
“They’re paying her back in her own coin.” I remember the times I’d seen Rosario kissing other men and I remember them dropping dead after taking a bullet fired at close range, right against their body, and their clutching her as though they were trying to carry her off in their fatal kiss.
I remember Emilio’s words after he’d kissed her for the first time. He always bragged about his first successes in his conquests, the first handclasp, the first kiss, the first time in bed. But this time his comment hadn’t been boastful—rather, it was disconcerting.
“Her kisses have an odd taste.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“I don’t know. It’s a very odd taste,” he said. “Like a dead person.”
Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa.
Forthcoming from Seven Stories Press in February 2004 and in Spanish (US only) by Siete Cuentos Editorial and also available through the Mosaico Book Club. Reprinted here by permission of the publisher.
Gregory Rabassa has translated more than 40 works into English, including the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa and Octavio Paz. He received the National Book Award for translation in 1967 for Cortázar’s Hopscotch. Rabassa lives in New York, where he is a distinguished professor of Romance languages and comparative literature.
—Born in Medellin, Colombia, in 1962, Jorge Franco studied film at the London international Film School and literature at the Pontificia Universidad Javeriana in Bogotá. His awards include the 1991 Pedro Gómez Valderrama National Narrative prize for Maldito Amor (Universidad Central, 1996), the Ciudad de Pereira National Novel Competition for Mala Noche (Editorial Seix Barrai S.A, 2003) and the 2000 Dashiell Hammett Prize for Rosario Tijeras. Franco lives in Colombia.
Anyone who understands the work of art owns it. We all own the Mona Lisa.