Bird Skeletons and other stories
Gabriela Torres Cuerva
It was a myth that I was determined to deny. Elba Juárez is the only one who can help you, they told me. By then I had gone through everything, from the longest and most expensive psychological therapy in history to a clean one with an egg and herb from the hands of a witch as famous as he was expensive. To a certain extent I insisted on balancing my internal forces. I allowed a woman to put bunched up newspaper around my feet, spray it with alcohol, and set it on fire to scare the evil spirits that inhabited me once and for all. Another event, perhaps the most shameful, was that of shrieking coal, burned alive: when it passed through my whole body, specifically the genitals, it reached unbearable decibels, to the point that I asked the bonesetter who took care of me to leave before I went crazier. She only agreed after charging seventy percent of the total cost of the treatment and that because the coal had not been consumed completely.
All you have left is Elba Juarez, they insisted, Elba Juarez has pulled worse oxen from the ravine, and so on, and so on. I ignored the recommendation as long as I could, until I called out for it on one of the stormiest nights of my existence, when I swore to my roommate that a cockroach was hanging around my sheets. I had seen it with the corner of my eye and I was sure that it had seen me too. Cockroaches are blind, she told me, besides, there is nothing, look closely. The rest of the night I searched unsuccessfully for the invader. The next morning, I showed my roommate the rash on the backs of my knees and feet, there was no doubt, the cockroach had walked on me, walking all over my arms and legs as it pleased, my stomach, its antennae had pecked my face and my ears. My friend ignored the evidence, sighed for a long time, and ranted to me about how upset she was to see the conditions I was in, the stress she felt, and how difficult it was to be with me. Mistrust is another disease, I told her when she slowly pronounced d-i-s-e-a-s-e, surely to overexaggerate my situation and become the martyr, a role that, by the way, suited her well with the figure of a dramatic protagonist who had crafted and polished herself for years. That righteous night I got tired of hurting people. Elba Juárez’s time had come and I could no longer postpone it.
I got lost several times before arriving. The oldest and scruffiest building on the block was hidden in a strange horseshoe surrounded by skinny little wings. I thought that like all the previous consultations this one would start a half an hour later, so for the wait I put the poetry of Oscar Oliva in my backpack. In those days I used to cover the books with plastic, put my name in them and my contact information. I was in a panic that one day they wouldn’t be returned to me and become doves without memory or direction.
From the beginning of the week I had been hoping that she would give me a prescription with a good dose of Valium, Rivotril, or Clonazepam and we would end quickly with the theater of understanding and clinical comprehension. The three hundred pesos that the consultation cost should include at least three to five refills, otherwise the investment of a full afternoon would not be profitable. Any of those angels was good enough for me, they tamed my beasts and made me a reasonable and almost happy being. I wanted to be in front of a pharmacy counter soon. That evening Vertigo was on television showing the scene of the protagonist trying to climb slowly to a footstool. Hitchcock’s women at the bottom of the stairs had been interrupting my sleep a week before when they announced the transmission. I did and didn’t want to see Madeleine again having coffee with the detective; the cliff’s kiss gave me unforgettable excitement. Sometimes I felt like Madeleine and sometimes Judy, I put my hair in a bun and didn’t dye it blonde because the smell of peroxide gave me coughing fits. Other than the film, as if that were not enough, that same night I had to consume fettuccine pasta whose packaging signaled a very close expiration date, its preparation would take me at least fifteen additional minutes plus what it would take me to bathe, undo and redo the bed to save me the risk of unwanted pests. I’d have the time if Elba Juárez saw me on time. But if she fell into the sin of unpunctuality like most of her colleagues, I would curse those who rang in me the bells of chimerical Elba Juarez.
I filled out a card with all my data, except for the questionnaire I left blank. The secretary was not interested in knowing if I was afraid of being alone or what kind of sensation the color red or ants provoked within me. As soon as I wrote my name, I discovered it by reading the questionnaire of another patient. I hate intrusions and especially bandits that steal information. I had to wait for her for a half an hour in the room surrounded by doors. Elba’s room was twenty-seven and it was the only one painted with a kind of greenish patina. Despite the secretary’s penetrating smell of the nail polish, I tried to read, I climbed on the podium of my heart / it broke on Tuesday / Saturday is anticipated on Mondays / the dream rises from Lazarus’ mouth. Curiously, it was Tuesday, Tuesday, June twenty-six, and my red Citizen showed it was almost half past four in the afternoon when the hinges of the green door creaked and finally emerged, as if from a shower of stars, Elba Juarez herself.
She said my first name smiling, Gabriela. It was not a question but an affirmation, Gabriela. I felt uncovered, naked like Judy after she came out of the bathroom with a broken bun and Scottie’s expectation of having gotten her to become Madeleine. I nodded awkwardly, stood up and threw some things and when I went to pick them up, they caused others to fall. I have decided to carry only the indispensable and I have not been able to free myself from the attachment to deodorant and oral spray, less to sweets in case anxiety attacks me. With the signal from Elba Juárez, I walked towards unknown territory.
She walked around the room. It seemed to me that she was dancing a type of slippery dance.
How are you? I did not expect such a direct question. A less elementary interrogation would have left me more satisfied. My own silence froze me. I didn’t know what to do with her gaze. My most recent pains sprouted from my mouth: the headache, the backache, the forehead pain, the eye pain and, although there are those who say that bones do not hurt, the sternum.
We sat facing each other. She occupied her wicker chair with clamps; me, the violet sofa. The yellows, greens and reds of Monet’s Japanese Bridge fell down her lap in an almost liquid spill from her waist to her ankle. She crossed one leg over the other, an espadrille stopped mid-calf showing yellow- painted nails and the biggest foot I’ve seen. Her hair exposed her earrings, two black circles: the swings of a magical creature.
I’m sure her foot greeted me by looking at it like the ticking of a cartoon alarm clock. The smell of myrrh penetrated my airways all at once, I made an effort not to cough. Another scent, sweet peppermint, seemed to come out of her hair, armpits, throat when she spoke, hoarseness in her voice, so delusional, so trickster.
She began with my obsessions. The third time I put my hands in my bag to make sure my car keys were there, she asked me, why do you do it? I’m nervous, I told her. One of her hands fell like a bird’s feather on mine: It felt huge and solid, as if it were a warm blanket. I didn’t want her to take it off, I didn’t want to, but she slowly withdrew it, hooking her pinky at the end with one of my fingers. It was a sticky heat.
It took me several Tuesdays to understand that the stupidest way to waste Elba Juarez was to let time tick in silence. The question, how are you? It was a detonator. After a few visits I learned to immediately release the answer, in defense of precious time. Silence was a lead creature, devouring the minutes.
One Tuesday, before lounging in her chair, Elba Juarez stopped being so tall despite the heel of her red suede boots that stood out like clappers from her bell bottoms. In a fleeting approach she brushed her face with mine. That Tuesday, unlike her normal Tuesday, she got up several times and traveled the distance to her desk in deep thought. Today I think of the charm of that wrist’s flexibility in trimming, folding and unfolding a paper body, as in the frieze of drunkenness. I’m not hyperactive, it’s just that my blood pools and I have to get it moving, I thought it was unheard of for Elba Juárez to explain.
Sometimes I wake up with those red boots in mind. I was wearing them on the twenty-fourth of Tuesday when I opened the floodgates to my demons. Nothing, not even the famous ingredient of Clonazepam, the protector of memories, prevents my brain from reliving the details with unbearable precision: the skin, the elegance of the heels, the glass oracle in the buckles.
One afternoon she established a relationship between my inner conflicts and the way I sit, going forward she kept asking me to try different positions. She wanted to know in what position I got in touch with my feelings, a pending sore, a nook only removable under that special stimulus. Perhaps her goal was also to exercise an impulse on my pliable person, to play dolls. I learned to obey: I must say that docility is not one of my virtues, perhaps it is instead of imitation, duplicity, the second part. So, she adopted a posture and I reproduced it.
The first version with which she sent me to the dressing rooms was that of my ten-year-old self. She asked me to write a fragment, a task from Tuesday to Tuesday. I arrived with half of a page because I easily lose the linearity of writing. I titled it Return, in absurd literalness to my teenage notes. She celebrated a few lines the gardens of bushy red, purple, lilac bougainvillea, the talking silence of the old tunnel, I sweated, smelling that ancient moisture, stepping on the same pests, those that so long ago jumped on my shoes, climbed up my legs.
On another occasion she asked for an account of the events that took place from my birth to my first decade. I invented an emergence to life with special characteristics. Rather than speaking, I wanted to hear her, so I reduced my comments to the indispensable minimum, enough to unleash her response, her interference, her comment. I was too smart not to notice. She punished me with what could hurt me most: a theatrical indifference in which I did not exist and she wandered around the room as if she thought about something; She took her chin, looked out the window and pretended to check a note in his rainbow cover notebook until she gave the terrible verdict: I’ll see you Tuesday.
A paragraph by Oscar Oliva reminded me of a song stanza, a piece of something I heard when I was nine, ten, or eleven. That parallelism made it difficult, it opened a new knot: not to perish in that memory was the chant. I managed to get some Tuesdays, struggling with the recollection that I never found but brought out other beasts of the past.
When I lost my Citizen, I also lost hope in synchronizing my time with Elba’s clock; I’m sure she was five minutes ahead, five precious minutes in my favor, which means she owed me five minutes for twenty-four Tuesdays: one hundred and twenty drops of soul that will never be replenished. However, I like that the invisible thread of being her creditor matches us in some way, perhaps in the way that the living are still attached to the dead by that damn act of imagining: the downfall of sleepwalkers.
Come in Gabriela Mistral, she announced one afternoon when I had absolutely nothing to say. With her face pressed to her window with fabric curtains, she invented what to say, what new problem to bring to light, to make time out of lost time. My genealogy had me deeply bored. That happens with genealogies, they run out, they have a limited number of characters; just like stories, even the densest, one day they finish being told. I was thinking about how to make the most of that glorious day. I could throw away any day, but not a Tuesday. She approached me, to watch my confusion closely. An insect crashed into the window leaving a milky star-shaped footprint. The heat raged in the street. A parked car shot a spark at me that lost strength at some point. That shock was what brought me back to the reality of the countdown of my suicidal minutes. Elba was still next to me, standing at the window: a giant. With an unusual cry, I became miserable, needy. The Island of the three Mermaids of Wallace rested on her desk. Her peppermint armpits hugged me tenderly, it was as if my mother, my sister, my daughter, my dog, Hitchcock, Madeleine, Oscar Oliva, all hugged me together.
Elba was made of ivory and at the same time of cooked mud, perfidious to hit the sharp nerves and the most tender in crises of cries and desolation; that is, she was the one who provoked and cured them. I wanted to cry to be hugged, I would not otherwise be able to wrap myself in that cloth whose engravings told a story of animals, people, plants, all in a single universe and spirit.
On Monday nights I used to invent next day’s thoughts. You had to study and prepare something that could move her. A pain in the sternum, for example, alone would not get you another minute. I managed to convey the same, but with more color; I wanted to reflect the exercise and the task. One memorial afternoon she stopped in her comments longer than the regulation, she gave me seven more minutes, seven joys especially for me, not caring that another patient was waiting for her.
The day we talked about names was the prelude to hell. Elba means elf, she told me, Nordic elf. A spirit in the air dancing with a line from Gabriela Mistral, said and recited, without name, race or creed, naked of everything and herself. Gabriela, Gabriela, what am I going to do with you? The question trembled on its own. I said that my name came from the archangel Gabriel, who was in charge of announcing to Mary that she was going to be the mother of Jesus. You’re protected by God, you see, someone like that doesn’t need therapies, she said. Her words were lead. In a single blow she announced that she was leaving the city, the details do not matter. Elba Juarez was leaving, as if nothing, taking that and every Tuesday, my ephemeral happiness. That afternoon she drank an almost colorless tea, played a few moments with the infusion, until she left the spoon and asked me, how do you feel? I wanted to tell her why the hell did she care about how I felt, screaming at her that I had considered her incapable of abandoning her dead, just like that… but when I started crying I couldn’t contain myself anymore and she had to come over to tell me things, to take my hand, to cover the pain of losing her.
I hated the substitute even before I met her, for being an outrage, an invader, a stepmother. They told me later that she was the perfect substitute, with the addition that punctuality was one of her virtues. I did not believe it, nobody can be better than Elba Juarez, thinking about it even broke my longing, fragmented my memory of her to such an extent that I made an appointment and went right on time, ready to unravel the damage. At four o’clock the door opened, a witch appeared in the doorway and approached me, greeted me with a kiss on the cheek and invited me to come in. I hated the dishonesty of her courtesy, the perfect coordination between the color of her blouse and her shoes… after an unbearable forty-minute session that seemed like a thousand, I paid for a prescription and left Elba Juárez’s office forever.
This short story is part of the book
Posted: February 13, 2020 at 8:54 pm