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
She was coming out of the library when she saw him. Their paths had crossed a couple of times before. Three, to be exact. More or less under the same circumstances. He was riding an orange bicycle, and a little girl was standing behind him on the pannier rack. The girl couldn’t be more than six years old, and she had her arms wrapped around his neck to keep her balance. Must be his daughter, she thought. Her eyes met his for a second—both of them at once curious and aloof—and then she went on with what she’d been about to do, which was sit on the steps and light the cigarette she usually smoked on the hour, every hour, to clear her head. The little girl also went about her business, climbing down from the back of the bike. Her shoes raised a little dust when they hit the ground. She was wearing a white dress and she looked dirty and unkempt; after landing like that, it was clear why. The man stood up from the saddle but stayed astride the bike, one Adidas on either side of the frame. He kept one hand on the handlebars and with his free arm he pointed, giving the girl instructions. An invisible line leading into the library.
The library’s walls were glass and the entrance to the bathroom was clearly visible. Any adult could see it, she thought between drags on her cigarette, not taking her eyes from the scene. The girl headed off in the direction her father had indicated. That was the only thing to do: the girl could only look at her father, his charming eyes, and do what he told her to do. The child went up the steps and passed a few inches from her; dirty white dress and long, loose, tangled hair, she was unmistakably beautiful. She went hopping by, capricious and flirty, taking each step as if playing.
She turned around and watched the little girl go into the library. She saw her follow the route laid out by her father, because surely he was her father—although what kind of father would send a six-year-old girl to the bathroom alone?—and then she focused her attention again on the man, who lowered the kickstand, checked to be sure the bike would stay up by itself, and sat across from her at the other end of the curved steps.
He was wearing a white T-shirt and tight gray jeans. He must have been around thirty. Thin, not very tall. Dark-skinned with light eyes, his hair slicked back, his beard carefully untended. He sat with his legs wide open and he leaned forward, bringing his fists together and curving his back a little. She was wearing a blue dress and her back was also a little curved, as always. Surely men noticed things like that, she thought. She looked him straight in the eyes. He accepted the look and, after a second, glanced away. He was handsome, of course, and he knew it, and he deflected those little glances. And also, she thought, he was a man waiting for his daughter to come back from the bathroom any second.
She kept looking at him, somewhat shameless but also calm. Because it wouldn’t go any further than that. She took it as a game, a water-gun duel. She wouldn’t invest anything, she’d toss the bottle into the sea without even putting a message inside. She smoked her cigarette in a more affected manner now, as if she were a movie villain. Using thumb and forefinger. During the time it took to burn, he returned her glances a couple of times. Serious, almost offended.
The cigarette took some three minutes to burn down.
She put it out on the cement and kept the butt. She got to her feet carefully so her dress wouldn’t blow up, and at that moment she went back to the same quandary as always: Why choose such a short dress? What was she trying to prove? To then respond that it was her right, that they couldn’t diminish her own legs, that the dress was a symbol of her independence and freedom as a woman. Her freedom! She threw one last glance at the man. He didn’t respond. She turned and walked toward the library door. In the reflection in the glass, she could see him watching her go.
Well, that’s that, she thought. The messages, thousands of floating bottles. So common and at the same time always different and exciting. A little adventure, without any risk. Like seeing the ocean through a porthole.
As she went through the door, the man was already part of her past, like the cigarette butt she would now throw out in the bathroom. The bathroom. The little girl. She was so … singular. What would become of her?
She thought, as she walked, that if she’d been the little girl whose father sent her to the bathroom alone, she would run away.
She’d give him a little scare. That’s what she’d do.
She remembered how once, when she was very little, she’d lost her parents at the supermarket. She’d wandered in the dairy aisle until a guard asked her if she was lost. She nodded. He took her to the information desk and left her in the care of a woman with a ponytail and enormous hair-sprayed bangs, who would finish the operation with an announcement over the intercom.
“Are you looking for your parents?” asked the woman, bringing the microphone to her lips.
For some reason the woman asked for her name, not her parents’.
“What’s your name, sweetie?”
She thought for a moment and replied, “Teresa.” It was her best friend’s name.
The woman with the bangs turned on the microphone, and in a robot voice announced that Teresa had gotten lost and was waiting for her parents at the information desk.
Who doesn’t believe a child? Who would doubt a little girl’s motives? Do children even have motives?
No, children act without thinking. They let themselves be carried along. They follow the invisible path traced by their father’s arm, his charming eyes.
So a half hour passed and no one came for her, for Teresa. They sat her on the information counter and lent her some rubber stamps and a blank piece of paper to entertain herself. She stamped thousands of birthdays—hers, her father’s, her mother’s, her grandmother’s, her best friend’s. In the end, she signed the document as if it were a will. Because she was always thinking about that, about her will.
Her parents saw her as they were passing by with the cart full of bags.
“Claudia!” they said in unison, surprised to find her so settled in behind the information desk.
The woman with the bangs looked at her openmouthed, and she, Claudia, lowered her eyes.
The misunderstanding was fixed with some uncomfortable laughter and some smiling and head-shaking from her parents. All of them laughing, as if it were a scene from Home Alone. No one asked for explanations. No one doubted that they were Claudia’s parents, or that she was Claudia and not Teresa.
Children don’t lie, but adults are the ones you believe.
The final words are adult.
When she snapped out of the memory, she’d already tossed the cigarette butt and was washing her hands before the mirror.
That’s what I would do, she said to herself again as she came out of the bathroom, and then she looked around for the little girl.
There she was, standing with a guard, trying to ignore his objections and go out through the library’s other door. Lost.
She smiled and went toward her.
“You have to go out through that door over there,” she said, and the girl shot her a quick glance and went back to staring at the wrong door.
The guard seemed even more disconcerted at her intervention in the matter. “Why through the other door? Is she with you?”
Neither of them cleared up his confusion. They moved away from him.
“There’s your dad, see him?” she said, and then she also traced an invisible line with her arm, like the wake of a torpedo moving through water.
The girl didn’t respond or move, just looked up at her with that flirtatious gaze.
“Your dad. There. Your dad?”
He was no more than twenty meters away. Through the window Claudia could clearly see the man who was handsome and knew it. Sitting down. There he was. Even a three-year-old would have known how to get back, but the girl’s eyes were empty, as if she were blind.
Claudia turned back toward the guard, uncomfortable. She tried to catch the father’s attention with some ridiculous gestures. He wasn’t even looking inside. He seemed very entertained with his own fists and the time on his hands. What could she do? The man was already part of her past. She couldn’t go back out now, she couldn’t turn back the clock. And with the little girl in tow! She took a few steps in the direction her own index finger was pointing, and then the girl took her other hand.
All right. So that’s how it’ll be.
They walked toward the exit holding hands, and finally the man saw them through the glass.
He opened his eyes wide and jumped to his feet.
She walked with her back even more stooped than usual in her role as superhero, but once they came out into Parque Bustamante she straightened up; she didn’t want him thinking she was crazy enough to kidnap his daughter just for one more glance from him. She wasn’t coming back for him, but for the little girl.
“Lost again?” the man asked with a trace of humor when they reached him. He had already sat back down.
“She was lost,” Claudia said, and she felt stupid for overexplaining, but went on anyway: “She was trying to go out the other door.”
He smiled at her. “Thank you.”
She smiled back. The little girl let go of her hand, and she was sorry and stood there a few more seconds, dragging out the moment. Would another cigarette do the trick?
“Thank you,” he repeated while the girl snuggled up under his arms.
Claudia nodded with her lips clamped shut.
“You want to take a walk?” he asked. It sounded natural.
She looked at the girl, at her head tilted up at the sky, her eyes always fixed on nothing.
“My things are upstairs,” Claudia replied.
“Go get them,” he said, caressing his daughter’s hair. “We’ll wait for you.” She looked him in the eye and immediately forgot herself, as she’d done so many times before. What time was it? Did she have something to do? Nothing mattered, she would dance in the palm of his hand.
“Sure. I’ll be right back.”
In the library she put her book and notebook in her backpack, and said goodbye to the musician who always sat next to her at the study table.
“Not feeling inspired?” he asked.
“No,” she replied. “I gave it a shot, but it wouldn’t come to me.” They both laughed, and she felt her face turn red.
When she came out of the library, the man was waiting for her already astride the bike. The girl was standing behind him, her arms around his shoulders, her belly swaying with straightforward delight, like the naturally sensual curvature of any plant stem.
They took a couple of turns around the park. There were adults and young people jogging, others walking their dogs or their children, schoolkids drinking and smoking in the grass, kids playing on playgrounds, older men and women trying out the municipal exercise machines. So much vitality! she thought, with nostalgia or excessive seriousness. She had played some of those roles in the past. She was at the age now when you’ve already done one thing and another.
The little girl had sat down on the rear rack and rested her head on the seat. He was guiding the bike from one side. Claudia walked beside him without saying a word. She wanted to know more, ask if the girl was his daughter, but she didn’t dare. She walked nervously, diminished. She didn’t even feel capable of turning her head a little to scan their faces or gestures for the answer to their relationship. It was as if they shone, as if it were dangerous to look directly at them. She also felt as if she were crossing a boundary, that she was finally acting in accord with the messages thrown into the sea. A man had told her once, “You waste the impulse, desire is fleeting.” She’d found his phrasing grandiloquent and replied that the problem was that it was never fully satisfied. Desire. But she said it to get him away from her, because she wasn’t sure about taking a risk on him. Maybe now she would manage to find out a little more. She began imagining what he would be like, how he would act, and then his voice interrupted her.
“And your name is … ? ”
“Teresa,” she said with a certain coldness. Without looking at him, and resuming the silence.
“And I’m Bruno,” he said with a hint of irony, showing her he was aware of all the things she was hiding.
A black dog approached them and started to bark. At her, not at the bicycle wheels, as dogs usually did. As she walked, it barked and followed her at a distance, with hatred, fearlessly.
Dogs bark at ghosts or thieves, she thought. Which was she?
“Why do dogs bark at you, Teresa?”
“They know I’m thinking bad thoughts.”
“That’s right, I’d forgotten dogs can tell that.”
“They’ve sort of forgotten, too.”
“Dogs just ain’t what they used to be,” he said. And then Claudia could finally look him in the eyes again. They were blue, and they sparkled.
The dog stayed behind with a pack of strays all sniffing one another. It barked one last time.
Claudia took out a cigarette and offered him the open pack.
“I don’t smoke in front of her.”
“You want to have onces with us? I live around the corner.” His tone was still decisive, but it didn’t sound calculated. Not entirely. If he had presumed to have total confidence in his suggestion, she would have left right away.
“Sure,” she said, and they began an awkward conversation.
“Where do you live?”
“Not so close.”
“Sure. What were you doing at the library?”
“I was reading.”
“The civil code.” It was what almost everyone read at the library. It sounded realistic.
“Sure,” he said again.
They reached the door of an old building. “This part’s going to be a little harder,” said Bruno. “It’s on the fourth floor,” he added, hefting the bike with one hand and arching his eyebrows.
What was he doing with a bike, anyway? And if they lived so close, why had they gone to the bathroom at the library and not at their own apartment? Was that the whole point of the outing?
Above them shone the Monarch stockings sign. Neon shins. When she was little and took the bus with her mother, that sign had let her know that she was far from home. Seeing it had filled her heart with something like joy. She couldn’t remember at what point she’d grown up and realized that billboard was right in the center of Santiago. So ridiculously and inoffensively close.
The little girl held onto the bike while Bruno dug his keys from a pocket of his snug jeans, then opened the first door. There were two more to get into the building. In each doorway there was a sign that read, “Keep door closed. Crime prevention is every resident’s responsibility.” How dramatic, she thought. A slogan of the right.
The floor and stairs were green marble lined with gold metal; they were the best conserved part of the building. The rest: a dark hallway with dirty walls, suspicious doors, broken glass.
The little girl went up first, wielding the keys, then Bruno with the bike. Claudia followed behind, taking care the back wheel didn’t hit her. After climbing the last step she found the door to apartment K open. She waited, indecisive, raising her hand to her mouth and biting a nail. She could still turn around and leave.
“Come on in,” he called from inside.
She did what she always did in such situations, which was repeat the advice she’d read in a horoscope when she was fifteen: “Leap into the unknown and have faith.” She took the next step.
Bruno’s voice called again from the next room: “You can leave your backpack there.”
She dropped it where she was standing. It didn’t seem to matter, given the apartment’s decoration: nonexistent. Except for a collapsible table, some plastic stools, a mirror, and two square wool mattresses on the floor, there was nothing there. No photos or pictures, no ornaments, no waste. It was disconcerting that a guy who seemed so concerned about his appearance would live in an empty house. And it intrigued and astonished her in equal measure. She wondered who he really was, who the two of them were.
The walls were high, with rounded moldings. The only window in the living room looked out onto the building’s inner courtyard. It didn’t let much light in, and the view consisted of clothes and towels hung out to dry on the balconies of neighbors across the way.
Above the mattresses, some numbers were written on the wall. They looked like a phone number. Scratches on the parquet floor bore witness to furniture that had once been there, and was dragged away.
For a second she thought Bruno would shout from the other room that they’d just moved in. Although in any case that wasn’t the answer she was looking for, and it wouldn’t explain the apartment’s enigmatic precariousness. Despite the lack of personal expression, and the fact that there wasn’t a single object that would give a clue about the person or people who inhabited the space, she got the feeling they had lived there for a long time. An intense, warm smell of daily routine seemed to confirm her suspicion—the space seemed intentionally sparse. There was something premeditated about the emptiness, and that—the choice of absence— surprised her all the more. Ultimately, it said as much about him as if the apartment had been full of collectible comic book figurines.
Bruno appeared holding a bowl of Cocoa Puffs floating in milk in one hand, a bottle of red wine and two glasses in the other. He called to the little girl. She came running in from another room, took the bowl, and disappeared again. When Claudia heard a door close she felt the regret return—once again she hadn’t been able to observe the girl’s face closely, decipher her features. Although now it wasn’t the similarity with her father that made her uneasy. She wanted to look for traces of the mother. Because there must be one, she told herself. Somewhere, a woman existed who had that little girl’s features. Where?
Bruno offered her one of the mattresses to sit on. He brought a stool over, put the glasses on it, and poured the wine. When she drank at her house she used cups; she knew nothing about wines, and neither the bottle nor the vineyard gave her any clue as to this one’s quality. She still wouldn’t know after tasting it. He sat down on the other mattress and took one of the glasses, rested his head against the wall, and waited for her to pick the other one up and toast.
“To chance meetings,” said Bruno.
They took the first sips in silence. He asked her for a cigarette. She took out two and they smoked, also without speaking. She could hear a woman’s voice somewhere saying, “Of course, of course, yes, of course.” Her voice was emphatic and she must have been talking on the phone, because there was no reply.
A small, transparent ring appeared on the white wall and slid down over the wooden floor. Claudia knew the circle was inside her eye. She had gone out with a man once who didn’t eat sugar and he told her it was very normal, that those shapes appeared when you were deficient in a certain protein. He’d told her the name of the protein, but she didn’t remember. In any case, she still attributed the phenomenon to a mixture of anxiety and stillness. She got up and walked over to the window. On the outside ledge she found some shells, the first decoration—or the closest thing to a decoration—she had seen there. She toyed with them awhile, wondering what Bruno was doing. Was he looking at her, her back, or the hem of her dress and her legs? Was he looking down at his fists again? She didn’t want to turn around and find out, and she kept playing with the shells. She felt their rough folds and wished he would come closer, maybe embrace her. But she knew he was not that sort of man, the kind who accompanied you—not to the bathroom or to look out the window.
Suddenly she said, “So … that whole deal with the lost little girl … Is that how you get women to your apartment?” What a humiliating sentence, another conservative sentiment.
“Sure, that’s our strategy,” he answered, and he winked at her when she turned around.
Claudia walked back over to him and sat down again on the mattress. She took a long sip of wine, set the glass aside, and rested her hands on her bare knees. She looked toward the wall, and she could tell her posture held an air of defeat. He moved closer and laced his fingers with hers, picked up her hand between his, and they turned to face each other. Claudia was uncertain as she looked at him, but he pressed his forehead against hers and smiled.
He took her by the waist and sat her on his knees, facing him. Claudia caressed his shoulders, the dark skin of his arms, following the slight curve of his muscles. He had a lizard tattooed on his forearm. Just the outline in black, but it didn’t seem unfinished. Same as the apartment, it was how it had to be. She traced the line of the drawing with a finger and then tugged on his sparse hairs. They were short and thin, like a child’s.
“Hold on to my neck,” he said.
She did as he told her, and Bruno got up from the mattress. She wrapped her legs around his waist, rested her head on his chest, and felt his hammering heart, his agitated breathing. She wanted him to bring her quickly to his bed, and that’s what happened. Holding on to his body, clutching him, she felt a marvelous vertigo. How entertaining life could be. She was no longer nervous or scared; she was on solid ground. And all because of coincidence, to good luck. To cling like that to a man.
They went to the bedroom. Bruno asked her to push the door closed with her legs, and as she did she remembered the girl. Remembered that they weren’t alone. She was still on top of him as he sat on the bed. He looked at her and clicked his tongue on his slightly sunken teeth. She wanted to ask if they had to be quiet, but before she could say anything, he took her by the throat, squeezed slowly, and then moved his hand to her mouth, covering it, and then squeezed her throat again, hard.
This room was even darker than the other one, and it was totally different. It looked like a conventional master bedroom. Wooden bed frame, double bed, bedside tables on either side with matching lamps. Rugs on either side. A plasma TV over a three drawer dresser. Embossed copper pictures on the wall with images of horses and bulls running. Flowers in the window, metal blinds, sky blue and old. It was all familiar to Claudia, it was as if she belonged there, with this strange family and their strange way of inhabiting places.
“I didn’t think it would be like this,” she whispered, looking at the furniture.
“Oh no?” he replied, and he caressed her head just as he’d done with the little girl a while before. “I’m sure you did.”
He started to kiss her neck while he held her hair back, making a ponytail and tugging on it a little, and then he stroked her back, following the line of her spine. In spite of his assurance and the strength with which he’d carried her to bed, his hands were trembling.
“You like that?” he asked as he licked her earlobe.
“It doesn’t matter that it’s going to end?”
Bruno lay back on the bed and brought Claudia with him, his hand on the nape of her neck. She kissed him and started to rock back and forth on top of him.
“Do you want to take my clothes off?”
“I’d love to.”
He squeezed Claudia’s thighs with his hand and went down until he reached her sneakers. He took them off carefully, gently, and did the same with her socks. He caressed her bare feet. He lowered the zipper on her dress and pulled it off over her head, eagerly, and always with a tremor in his hands and breathing, as if he were suffering somehow.
She’d always enjoyed being naked on top of a clothed man, and she started to take off her underwear. Before she could get rid of it entirely, he took her by the shoulders and turned her and laid her down on her side in front of him. He pulled down the left cup of her bra with a kind of fury, and he pushed in her nipple with his finger. He pressed and massaged, and she was very close to him, yearning, her mouth open, thirsty and generous. She could smell Bruno’s scent, citric. A familiar smell, one she’d smelled on other men, and it made her want to ask him where he worked, how he made a living.
He squeezed her throat hard again, then tenderly caressed her eyebrows. He licked her breasts and felt between her legs to see if she was wet, and when he found that she was, he let out a sigh of pleasure and kept his hand there and he put the fingers of his free hand into her mouth, slowly, waiting for her to lick them, and that’s what she did.
Bruno’s body tensed and he pushed Claudia’s belly with his knee and started to rub against her. The way he touched her and took her acquired a certain violence, but not a dominating one; to her surprise, it was a clumsy, inexpert thrust. She looked at him. He was licking his lips and it seemed like something in him was contracting. He was completely absorbed in himself, his eyes rolling back, half closed in a way that would seem vulgar if another man did it, but not him. She would adore a man like him. She caressed his hair, which was wet by then, and she took off his white shirt, also damp, so she could soak herself in his sweat, because it was something she needed. To absorb the sweat of a man. And she remembered a line from a song that went: “Your sweat is salty / I am why.”
“What are you doing here?” he asked. “Are you still sad?”
Claudia took a very deep breath and let out the air slowly. She opened her fingers, dug her nails into Bruno’s back, rose up.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you come back, Teresa. It doesn’t matter that you’re sad, because I’m sad too. We’re all sad …”
And then she started to laugh.
Her laughter, quiet at first, then louder. “It’s too late to talk about this.”
He silenced her with a kiss.
It was nighttime when she woke up. Bruno lay beside her, asleep. She felt a bit dizzy, but she knew perfectly well where she was and what she’d done. She moved closer to him and breathed in his scent one last time. “My love,” she wanted to whisper into his ear. But she didn’t. Because it wasn’t true, he wasn’t her love. Nothing that had happened between them had the slightest importance now. This wasn’t her life and it never would be. She got up carefully so as not to wake him. She gathered her clothes from the bed and floor, silent and agile the way a cat goes about its business. She zipped up her dress and went over to the window. Outside, she saw the window of another building, and a red light filtered through its curtains, bright and demonic. She looked at her reflection in the glass. She had circles under her eyes and her skin was shiny. Her hair a mess. What a strange face, she said to herself. Was it the face of a thief or a ghost?
A faint smile appeared.
She left the room, moving quickly, feeling like she couldn’t catch her breath. She opened the door of the next room with determination, like a person making an entrance. The little girl was sitting on the carpet watching cartoons on TV. The glow from the set backlit her silhouette. Claudia looked closely at a drawing on the wall. It looked like a vampire, a vampire in the shape of a bird. She felt terror at the sight of that image, but then she looked at the girl, and the girl looked at her, and her eyes, like the girl’s, clouded over. Claudia went over to her, ran her hands through the girl’s hair, then separated it into two ponytails, one on either side of her neck, and secured them with hairbands. She smoothed the girl’s dress and tied the laces of her sneakers. Then she took the little girl’s hand, and together, in a matter of seconds, they were out the apartment door.
Paulina Flores was born in Chile in 1988. Humiliation is her first book. In its Spanish-language editions, it won the Roberto Bolaño Prize, the Circle of Art Critics Prize, the Municipal Literature Prize, and was selected as one of the ten best books of the year by the newspaper El País.
Megan McDowell has translated many contemporary authors from Latin America and Spain, including Alejandro Zambra, Samanta Schweblin, Mariana Enríquez, Gonzalo Torné, Lina Meruane, Diego Zuñiga, and Carlos Fonseca. Her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Tin House, The Paris Review, Harper’s Magazine, McSweeney’s, Words Without Borders, and Vice, among others. Her translation of Alejandro Zambra’s novel Ways of Going Home won the 2013 English PEN Award for writing in translation, and her English version of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin was short-listed for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
Copyright © 2019 by Paulina Flores, from Humiliation. Excerpted by permission of Catapult.
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