Víctor Comes Back

They told me to walk three blocks north and turn left. Then walk half a block and, on the east side of the street and half-hidden by the branches of a magnolia tree, I would find a sign for the bus stop. At every step the maracas of the battery-powered toy monkey that I bought my daughter twelve years earlier, before leaving New Orleans, where I lived almost three years, jingled in my shoulder bag. And the magnolia and sign were there, in the middle of an almost perfect circle of fallen flowers.

When the wind blew, the weather seemed cold; but in fact it was hot and my skin felt sticky and I was sweating. In the heat memories began to smell, like a dead dog in a mangrove swamp. “Goddamn lunatic,” she had said, with the blood flowing from her mouth and nostrils.

In the bus the air conditioning dried my temples and back. Six or seven stops, they said, and you get off in front of a big building, with two chimneys, which is the electric company. Ask the driver. There’s a subway station there. But then I forgot to ask and we passed it, and the driver stopped the bus and said that that was the last stop. Where did I
want to go, he asked me, and I told him. Better take the train, he told me and pointed to where I should walk. You can go back on the bus but they leave here every hour on Sundays, he said; better take the train. Four or five blocks and there I’d see the elevated tracks.

Always get the last word.

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I walked next to fruit stands amid the aroma of peaches and next to fish stores that smelled of sea bass and octopus. In the bag, which was hanging from my shoulder and beginning to wear out the tendons in my neck, the maracas jingled to the rhythm of my steps. And the elevated tracks appeared with the train on their back, quick as a lizard, and in the background, among a thick line of buildings, the sea also appeared.

Better than in the airport, I thought, six hours in an airport. And after seeing the sea and looking for a while from far off at the waves that broke against the breakwater, I walked on the boardwalk toward the south, where two roller coasters and a Ferris wheel could be seen. On the benches of the infinite boardwalk that stretched beside the beach were old men with muscular bodies and old women with wide hats who covered the bridges of their noses with white cardboard to protect themselves from a sun that, at that moment, was not out. Someone called out and, for an instant, I thought they were calling me, Víctor. But it wasn’t me (they were shouting in Russian), and then I turned to watch the sea, into which a sailboat set off precariously, as though beginning a voyage to the end of the world.

“Goddamn lunatic,” she had said and locked herself in her room to cry. Twenty years ago. And then she called Saúl and told him that she was afraid; that she had broken up with me a long time ago but had felt sorry for me and for the girl and that now she was afraid because I could kill her or something. No, it was a miracle that the girl hadn’t woken up, she said. No, she didn’t think I had broken her nose, she said, while outside the tropical sea beat forcefully against the seaside promenade.

Out at sea the mist had swallowed the sailboat and was now dissolving the tanker ship that had appeared, amorphous and funereal, through the doors of the bar when I began my drink. The doors were wide, they gave onto the boardwalk, then onto the sand with seagulls (almost two blocks of sand until the water) and then onto the sea. The bartender told me that he had never seen such a wet and warm spring.

The tropical sea beat forcefully against the seaside promenade. And I began to call her. She shouldn’t be afraid, my anger had passed, I told her. I called her affectionate names under the door crack so she could hear me. She wasn’t crying and she was no longer talking on the phone. Saúl and the others were surely on their way. “Get out of here!” she shouted from the bathroom with a calm voice that froze my heart.

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