Translated by Lisa Huempfner
Her eyes filled with tears and she got all choked up and I thought that she was gagging on a piece of chicken I insisted she eat, because that day she had knocked on the door right at dinner time. Or that she was crying because I had accidentally mentioned the name of her husband, or for both of those things at once. But it was more the second than the first because she was able to swallow the bite but the tears kept streaming down her cheeks until they flooded her entire face and for a bit she whimpered without saying anything, without any embarrassment of me seeing so closely her sorrow and knowing that it was as real as the day of her misfortune, right here, seated where the two of us are, wiping her nose with the piece of toilet paper that I had to give her, heartbroken, poisoned with bitterness, Emperatriz Caicedo, the woman who was my neighbor for more than three years. A good neighbor, I tell you, not nosy or loud. Never. Always doing her thing, her sewing and her mending, because that was what she did. More than once she got me out of a jam. You know, when you’re poor you have to make ends meet and about making ends meet she knew a lot. Here’s this little skirt, Emperatriz, see what you think, I would tell her, it got torn in front, look at it, there’s nothing left, there’s nothing that can be done with it, I would explain to her, but in the end there was, because something would occur to her and after a few days the skirt would turn out as good as new, ready to be worn again, as though I had just bought it at one of those fancy stores downtown where I had never even dared to enter because of the price of things. See if this blouse can be saved before I turn it into a dust rag, Emperatriz, I would comment to her, and then I would show her the piece that so many times had gotten me out of a tight spot and that I couldn’t bear losing forever only because with age it had lost its shape, and believe me, a week later she would return it fit to a tee, with some tucks where they needed to go so that my breasts would be seen where they needed to be and a ruching at the sides, this way, you see, so that all of my belly that hangs out would look gathered up and wouldn’t seem like fat but a waist line, that’s how good my neighbor Emperatriz Caicedo’s hand was. And don’t think that she charged me for it. Not a cent. Never. Let’s talk later, don’t worry right now, just leave it like this, she would say. And the only way I had to pay her for her service was by bringing her a plate of food that at least she was happy to take because of how busy she always was. After all, what’s most important is to be grateful, don’t you think? So we always got along well and to know that she was there, pedaling on her sewing machine day after day, going and going without rest, with her head to the side stitching, working miracles that sweetened the lives of others like me, gave me a kind of peace of mind that made me feel less alone even though we didn’t see each other every day. But with her husband it was different. From the moment I met him, he gave me a bad feeling. And don’t think I had a run-in with him or that we told each other off, or anything like that, he never disrespected me in any way. Nothing like that. I’ve never had a hard time with him or anyone else in this barrio. But I have my good instinct and, look, I feel things right here in my gut. Especially when it comes to men. So from the moment that she introduced him to me, I knew he was one of those you can’t trust, the slippery ones, you know what I mean, right? Those that seem so polite and even put on this pitiful face when they talk so that you feel sorry for them and think you have to take care of them like children. But they aren’t a bit tame at all because at any time they can stick a knife in your back without even a tremble of their hand. And that’s how it was. But I don’t blame her, in any way, because Arístedes, that’s what his name was, had a way about him that would fool anyone. Not me, of course. And don’t even think that he was special or good-looking. Not at all. Small and rather plain, but yes, always well-kept and pretending to be high-class with the four pieces of hair that he had greased back with Vaseline and with a part to the side and a thin little noodle of a mustache that he kept all fixed up. To me he seemed to think he was better than the rest of us. You’d have to see him waiting for the bus in the morning. As if he was on one of those spotless streets, so smooth and even, of the neighborhoods that climb the other side of the hills, where everything seems carefree and you can breathe with ease, you know, with their trees and flowers lining them and so much green at the end, and not in the middle of the cloud of smoke and dust that chokes us here and that we have to swallow every day. That’s how snobby he seemed, as though instead of getting onto the squeezing and stuffiness of the bus, he was getting into his own chauffer-driven car and everything, ready to take over and give orders, when we all knew that what he was really going to each day was his San Victorino stand to wrestle with the fuss of clients haggling over each cent and demanding their freebie, fighting over each peso in order to buy more for less, because that’s how it is for us, right? To stretch each buck and make it pay off for how much it cost us to earn it. So there, in the middle of all that mess was where Arístedes, the husband of Emperatriz Caicedo, my neighbor, passed the hours when he left the house for work in the morning. Or at least, that’s what we thought or what she thought, until the day that he took all of his things and never returned to his house. I realized all of this much before she did, I tell you, because she had left very early for the plaza like every Friday. There goes Emperatriz to buy her things at the market, I remember that’s what I thought when I saw her through the window with her hair pulled back, pale as always and with the dark blue sweater that she never took off. And it’s not that I am a gossip or that I stick my nose in other people’s business. Not at all. But a single woman has to go about with eyes in the back of her head, so me, I’m always alert, watching without being noticed, only in case someone has it in for me. And that’s how it was that I saw her leaving very innocent, beginning her daily chores without knowing what awaited her, and a little bit later him, in a big hurry and with frantic eyes, with two brown suitcases and a cardboard box tied with a rope. And there, in that moment was when it gave me a start and I began to get suspicious, because he also didn’t catch the bus but a taxi, and until today nothing more is known about that Arístedes. Not with whom, or why, or where, or anything. As though he had never existed. As though the day before and the mornings of the five years that she lived with him, they had never woken up in the same bed. For sure, dealing with her after that blow was hard, very hard. Worse than when she had her miscarriage, much worse. Because that time she was comforted little by little with the hope that life would give her another chance. But with that of the husband, it was different, I tell you. A hot coal burns in my chest, doña Encarnación, she would say to me with her voice hoarse from crying, I can’t take this, I feel like I’m dying, she would scream at me huddled up in a corner on the floor with puffy eyes and her face covered in red patches, and I would tell her that no, that even though the pain was real and burned like a fiery flame, no one died from betrayal and heartbreak. But inside, I thought yes, it was possible that she could truly die, because there are people who can’t take sorrow, especially without eating or even drinking water the way she spent the time, surrendered to her torture, neglecting herself and even her sewing duties, imagine that, things that for her were sacred. Not a single stitch more did she sew at that time, I tell you, nor did she take a single order. She only opened the door to me, and after much begging, she would accept a few spoonfuls of broth that I brought her because if it wasn’t me, who then? She didn’t have a mother and none of her people who were scattered about in Tolima appeared around here, not in those days of her agony or ever, that I am aware of. It was as though the world of my neighbor Emperatriz Caicedo had come to an end. And that’s how it was, I tell you. It crumbled to the ground, but not forever. Because a little after that last time that I saw her whimpering, choking from the pain, unable to swallow a miserable bite of chicken, like someone who is hopeless, sitting right there where you are, when I thought that finally she was getting over her hard luck, what I saw left me amazed. At first, I figured that the taxi in front of her door was occupied by one of her clients, that in a tight spot had come to leave or pick up something urgent and I was happy to see signs that she was returning to her job. Although since I didn’t see the driver of the car waiting, I thought it was probably just a taxi driver that was at the hardware store on the corner or in don Simeón’s shop having a soda with bread. But it wasn’t either of those two things because I realized that the darned taxi driver appeared every day at different times and that when I finally was able to see the driver, he wasn’t headed to don Simeón’s shop or to the hardware store on the corner, but to my neighbor Emperatriz Caicedo’s very house. And not just that. Afterwards, I began to notice that when he arrived at the end of the day, the time would go by and the car would still be where it had been, at the foot of the door, and the day would break and it wouldn’t have moved from its place, until six thirty on the dot when the man would leave with a freshly showered air and a face of contentment; short, ruddy, older than her, with belted pants and shirt tucked inside wrapping his belly and he would start up his taxi very fast, stirring up the dust cloud on the street at those hours of the morning. And it was the same for three months. She never introduced him to me or told me how or where she had met him. She didn’t open up to me, and that hurt. Who wouldn’t it? If in her days of misery I never abandoned her. But I didn’t insist. These things have to come out naturally, you know, and if she didn’t want to talk about it, I couldn’t make her, right? I already told you that I’m not a busybody. So I pretended that I hadn’t seen anything and didn’t know anything, respecting her silence, mind you, but telling her every chance I had that I was happy to see how young and refreshed she looked and how she had finally removed the rusty nail that the traitor Arístedes had buried in her soul, but thinking that when things went wrong with her taxi driver, there she would come looking for me to console her, and of course, there I would be to help her. But one day, the taxi driver stopped coming and Emperatriz Caicedo did not come crying to me. How strange, I thought, the taxi doesn’t come anymore at night or during the day, but the clients don’t stop coming and going and my neighbor as though nothing had happened, not a single sign of pain or suffering, nor a sign of grief. On the contrary, she actually looked nice, even though she had never been very pretty. I tell you, she started to use bright colors and to let down her hair, that she had thick and wavy and that she had never before taken advantage of, and even though she was skinny and didn’t have much of a figure, she also started to take to tight-fitting clothes and make-up. Emperatriz Caicedo, my neighbor, is someone else, I told myself, it’s hard to believe, and it was even harder to believe what happened after that. One fine day, when I was doing my thing, wrapping up the last tamales of my last order, I heard the noise of a furious motorcycle revving so strong that it seemed like the walls were going to fall down around me, and when I stuck my head out to see what all the racket was about, there she was stuffed into some orange, skin-tight pants saddling astride a huge, shiny machine, surely the latest model, and there was also a very handsome, well-built, dark-skinned man like those from the coast, showing her where and how she should put her feet, and then I saw him get on and her wrap her arms around his waist and the two of them fly down the street, to who knows where. Yes, she seemed happy. How else would she feel? And that’s how I saw them many times, head over heels in love, clinging to each other, on that black hornet that purred down this block for more than a month. And it wasn’t envy, believe me, because I’m not bad hearted, but I also would have loved to go about the world in that way, you know what I mean, pressed against someone, fancy-free, with my moments of wonder, because there are many ways to live life and mine, I tell you, has not been easy. But after many hard knocks, at this point I have thick skin and the truth is, I expect very little. It’s better this way. The last I heard of Emperatriz Caicedo from one of her clients that I ran into at the market, was that she was somewhere around Ciénaga de Oro, there, in the land of her man. She left without saying good-bye to me, I tell you. And of course, that hurt a lot. I don’t know, maybe I reminded her of her earlier life, that of the bitter times of Arístides, that she had finally put to rest. So you, who have come here checking out what this barrio is like and who lived where you are thinking of living, go ahead and move in without worry, I tell you, because if there was crying and sorrow there, in the end, you can see, there was more good than bad and who knows, maybe it will bring you better luck as well. Besides, remember that I am always here to help you in whatever you might need.
Nayla Chehade is the author of A puerta cerrada and a professor at the University of Wisconsin. Her work has been included in an array of anthologies