Memories That Burned Me
La memoria en donde ardía
Translated by Tanya Huntington.
For Daniel Drubach.
Is it possible that what we have forgotten wields a greater influence over us than what we are able to recall? I lifted my fingers to my lips. There it was, that same fire across the passage of time. The taste of gasoline made me press down gently on the brake pedal. I pulled over to the curb and turned off the engine. I gazed into the rearview mirror, where I could make out the fire-eater’s scorching blast from blocks away.
I walked back to the intersection, where the adolescent was still doing his thing. He stopped time. Or maybe it was time that stopped air, smoke, flame…
It looked like a pretty tricky business, and he gave it his all: the swig of gasoline, the mouth inches away from the torch, the blowing. No: the roaring. The instant flare.
It felt rehearsed but still, it was thrilling. I watched from afar, the glow of heat on my face.
He was just a kid. When I first saw him through the windshield, I hardly even registered his face. His rickety silhouette. With all the impatience of someone eager to go about her business without the spectacle of poverty rearing its ugly head, I offered him some change. It was then that our hands had grazed.
Now I examined him outright: he was beautiful, with aquiline features and slightly slanted eyes. I found his reddened mouth, his swollen lips disturbingly attractive.
What was it I had lost there, on that street corner?
My father ran out of gas one afternoon and had to improvise: he took a gallon jug, asked a taxi driver for some fuel and used a hose to suck the gasoline out of the taxi driver’s tank until, by the laws of physics, I guess, the gas flowed up through the hose and into the jug of its own accord.
Dad tossed the hose into the trunk and forgot about it, but I stole it later on. I liked to mimic him with my brothers and their toy cars. I was definitely not one of those girls who played with dolls. Everyone realized this the day I burned them all, spraying them with a little fuel I had extracted from the tank of our car.
Some other afternoon: Alan and I had to hitch a ride all the way across an island, from the Corsican wilderness to the port of Bastia. The cars roared past at full speed because of the fuel crisis, until one little red coupe drove off the road; the driver couldn’t speak a word of English and kept cursing in Russian or something. The smell of a gas leak sent all three of us running back onto the pavement, where we hitched another ride with a few bumps and bruises and life in all its infinite generosity on our side. How could I have known that a few months later, it would all be consumed by a single word? Aneurism. I would become a widow at the age of twenty-seven.
Not long before Corsica, another island: I visited every corner of Matanzas with Alexis, my longhaired lover. At the time, we possessed the eternal youth of the fire-eater. We were practically children. We took the gasoline he was hoarding for his old Studebaker and exchanged it for a bottle of rum. We drank it down to the last drop by the seaside at Varadero. Melancholy and drunk, we bid farewell to a romance that said nothing about either of us because, to be honest, we never had any faith in it.
One Sunday, when it was my turn to cover the night shift at the newspaper where I worked: they assigned me to cover an uprising in a small town; some police officers had been kidnapped, and people were threatening to burn them alive unless the government guaranteed to keep its word, which was worthless. By the time I got there, the ominous smell of burnt flesh already rose from the main square. Only one of the officers survived; he had embraced his executioner with all the terror and love for life he could muster.
They sometimes say that one comes undone through apologies or tears. I came undone through memories. The God of Time had given me other lives to live and I, why deny it, had spent them all. There was no aftertaste of gasoline in my heart.
It was like being mugged: those memories had been torn from me. Like when you remove an old ring that has been in the same spot for so long you don’t even know it’s there, until suddenly in its place there is a strip of whiter skin and the void, the absence, become evident. A fortuitous encounter with my own self as a lost object; that was what was happening to me. But it wasn’t just that. I was also eating fire.
The kid spotted me. From behind the black smoke, he managed a pained smile. He would ask drivers for money with one hand extended, his torch in the other. When the light turned green, he would run for the opposite curb. A barrage of cars passed between us. He rinsed his mouth out with gasoline, leaned toward me in a graceful bow then roared with renewed vigor. A tongue of flame rose up over the cars; gleefully, avidly it cut through the clear air, penetrating the pores of my memories. It had found me after such a long, long time.
Socorro Venegas is the winner of the 2002 Premio Nacional de Poesía y Cuento “Benemérito de América.”In 2004, her first novel, Será negra y blanca, won the Premio Nacional de Novela Ópera Prima “Carlos Fuentes. Translations of her stories have appeared in Concho River Review, The Modern Review, Literal, and The Listening Eye, among other publications.