Translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan
For the past six years, every afternoon between seven and eight in the evening, a young woman enters her apartment in the Village of New York City. The last building of a nineteenth-century apartment house, on Tenth Street between Sixth and Fifth – right across from the house where Mark Twain once lived – provides the perfect vantage point to behold the arrival that marks the end of the work day. From there, the angle is so propitious that one might speculate that each window, that of the gazer and that of the young woman, have been deliberately aligned, one exactly across from the other. The spectacle occurs as much in winter as in spring or fall, but is never the same even though the essential elements do not vary. The scenery framing the windows does change: at times the spectator watches from a window adorned with flowering wisteria and observes the woman framed like a cameo by small white blossoms, while other times, only a few gnarled branches and icicles surround the lustrous transparency of each window pane.
It is best to be there by seven in order to watch her. If the observer is late and takes his seat after she has arrived, he misses the sudden rush of seeing her appear in the doorway of her bedroom. To gaze at her in comfort, he must turn off the lights shortly before her arrival, and position himself in the center of the observation space, in this case, the living room of a nineteenth-century apartment. It is important to note that dim light is the only condition for observation, and that the semi-darkness should not be disturbed until after she has succumbed to slumber, at which time he may turn on the lights and resume his normal activities.
Observing her is, therefore, a decision that must be made in advance, with the same attention to detail required of a job. If one afternoon, for example, the observer should decide to spend the viewing hour doing something else, he need only close the blinds, turn on the lights, and make a concerted effort to disregard the scene taking place across the street.
She arrives, removes her hat, gloves, shoes, and takes off her sweater and blouse. Seated at the foot of the bed, her torso bare and her skirt still on, she struggles to unfasten the garter belt, then finally decides to take off the skirt, and with the skill of someone familiar with that article of lingerie, she releases the stockings from the garter belt and slips out of them as if lifting a veil. She never wears panties. She leaves everything in disarray, lights a cigarette, and leaves the room. As usual, she does not stay in the room, but goes in and out performing various acts, such as serving herself a drink, going in and out two or three times to see if the tub has filled (activities that can only be imagined: the sound of running water cannot be heard, neither can the ice clinking against the sides of the glass, or the music she listens to, which can only be conceived by the rhythmic undulation of her hips and shoulders, or the beat marked by her swaying breasts). While she takes a bath, her disappearance from the scene feels like an intermission, a suspension of action that turns the attention to the familiar objects in the room: the lamp on the night stand, the bed against a white wall, cushions, and the dresser on which she tends to lay her gloves, hat or purse when she arrives from outside. Aside from the bed linens, there is nothing in that room for covering up from the cold, from breezes or drafts, or from peering eyes. The square glass of the window, surrounded by its bright blue frame, is open or closed, depending on the outside temperature, but never to protect her from sunlight, or the night, or from any other circumstance; in fact, very few times is it open to let in fresh air, nor does it seem that she has ever thought of occupying her mind, body, or bedroom in any kind of domestic chores.
After her bath, she returns naked, with only a towel wrapped around her head. For several years, that clean body, which displays itself with audacity and at the same time innocence, has shown very few changes, but if one is worth mentioning it is her beauty that continues to grow as if her body were blessed by a mysterious capacity to become increasingly more voluptuous, as much for its harmonious silhouette as its assertive movements. A tuft of hair extends from her pubis nearly to her abdomen, and seems to be a thick and red, crying out to be caressed. She runs her fingers through the ringlets of her pubis, in the opposite direction of their natural growth, straightening an unruly swirl or stretching the locks to their end, as if playing with a head of hair.
The bed is the site for her body. During that preliminary stage, she may turn full circle in the room, and before finally lying on the bed, admire herself in a mirror (there must be one, on the wall by the window that cannot be seen, given that she strikes poses that duplicate the image of herself repeated somewhere in the room and creates figures with her arms and legs that only make sense if they are reflected by something). Her movements– generous for the spectator– seem to be an evaluation of some sort: of a solitary condition, of the call that will open that intimate space to the outside world, of the interlude that will last for hours until sleep sets in, of that dreamlike state that will envelop the last moments of the encounter with herself, of the imaginary tools that could, this time– and there is always a “this time” understood as a survival tactic– lavish her with the ultimate passion.
In the top floor apartment across the street, the observer has not taken any special steps to respond to the appearance of that naked woman who strips away the towel, the last vestige tying her to civilization, that provisional turban, which once concealed her wet auburn locks, now free, grazing her forehead, curling round her ears and neck. He is suspended in that time and space by his own choice, and partakes of that daily bread not only because it is his sustenance, but because that simple act of watching someone who lets herself be watched has become a type of operation whose extractions and additions provide infinite variations, even though its frame of reference is confined to the square of a room with a window on Tenth Street.
During the first years, he had resisted daily contemplation. That repetition of an act at a precise hour dictated his entire day. He lived for the moment he could go home, settle in, and gaze. Convinced that the vision of the woman had caused him irreparable damage, he forced himself not to watch her, inventing obligations at the exact hour she arrived, or worse yet, restraining his eyes and subjecting them to a torture that could be, depending on the magnitude of desire to watch that would overpower him, the methodical reading of a book, the kind of reading that calls for taking notes or creating files, incarcerating readings to temper the vocation of gazing through the window to the other window.
It is not that he had surrendered, once and for all, and in a submissive way, to the ceremonial afternoon enchantment. After the period of prohibitions, he came to the realization that they actually fueled his desire: if one afternoon he had forced himself to avoid the view, the very thought that the next day that deprivation was going to be rectified produced an accumulating effect on him, as if waiting for a day charged even more the urge to watch, as if it sharpened his gaze, his capacity to observe, his ability to focus, and the throbbing of his senses reached, after the sacrifice of the previous evening, its highest point.
She spreads her legs and stretches out on the fresh sheet, displaying her sex. The light is not too bright, but enough to see vividly. Her head is lower than her sex, as if she had slipped a cushion under her buttocks to give the observer the perfect angle of view. Her sex in the center of the scene, completely exposed between two columns, like a hearth lit by a tribe, a bird nest, a burning bush, or a sanctuary, makes him close his eyes, nearly blinding him with a blaze momentarily abstracted from the flesh and body, from the girl and even from the feminine condition. His eyes aligned at the exact level of her open and beckoning sex take a long time to readjust to reality. Surreptitiously, he lets the head of his penis peek out of his open fly. He tests the state of his erection and verifies that it has that optimum flexibility and texture, partially expressed, an indefinite state like the delicate sensation that begins to invade him.
The living room gets darker as the afternoon slips away and the evening draws near. The dim light in his room contrasts with the radiant glow of the room across the street. She lifts her legs, then crosses and uncrosses them. Suddenly, he notices that she picks up the telephone and that, oblivious to the commotion that her sex is provoking in the center of the stage, on the bed and between her legs, she repositions herself on a pillow, placing another cushion at the nape of her neck, letting her head and nipples appear between her open legs. She talks on the phone, with ease. She laughs, holding the receiver in her right hand and, with the other, begins to touch her legs, her belly, rolling to the right, then to the left. Her sex disappears between her legs, and then the curve of her ass comes into view. Her hands have the golden touch, always obtaining what they desire by design, without idle fondling. It may seem a careless caress that now inserts a finger into the deep crack of her buttocks. One might think the drumming of fingers is just a way of scratching herself, but no, even when she is talking on the phone, those hand movements are not accidental and each one provides a brief and intense moment of ecstasy. When the exaltation is too powerful, she covers the speaker, most likely so that her breathing, which becomes more and more agitated, cannot be heard.
He knows that phone call is not isolated from the scene. Supposedly that voice is giving her suggestions that suit perfectly the situation of nudity and solitude that performs its various compositions and arranges its figures on the bed, between seven and eight, on Tenth Street. The call has been made regularly throughout all those years, ever since he began to observe and enjoy the scene. When it was not made, she seemed to become desperate, but did nothing to rectify the situation. She did not call, and to mitigate the frustration, her performance turned more narcissistic than ever and the devotion to herself reached a fever pitch too unbearable for him to contemplate, as if his observation post and routine of gazing had imploded, overwhelmed by the circumstances.
She puts down the phone. A temporary pause, while she tends to the urgent need she feels to use both hands. She opens her legs again, picks up the receiver, says something, smiles, laughs out loud, places the speaker on her sex, almost as if she were inserting it into her vagina, but no, that is not the case, it is perhaps just the idea of letting her listener hear the sound of her lips opening and closing, or to invaginate the voice of the speaker, or to muffle it between that tuft of hair. Her dried locks are a dazzling cascade over that body delighting in gratification, which if it could lick itself completely, would not be licking the edges of the speaker at this very moment, or sucking on chips of ice, or wetting fingers to caress her sex.
His penis has gone from a state of flexibility to absolute stiffness. It is a weapon that points directly at the multiple mouths of the girl, loaded and cocked, and ready to fire, but the discipline of self-restraint he has exercised for years and whose objective has been to coordinate the amorous explosion, synchronizing it perfectly with the explosion that just a street away will erupt, keeps his erection at bay like an animal about to pounce. She seems to shout something, almost howling, her body convulsing as if it had reached a point of no return, and then collapses, vanquished. At that moment, the penis, on the other side of the street, overflows like a fountain, on its own, without any hand or stimulus forcing it to do so, from the mere concentrated effort of contemplation. The observer closes his eyes serenely, and before hanging up the phone, listens to the harmonious breathing of someone who has fallen asleep, soon after turning off the light.
Tununa Mercado (Córdoba, 1939 has earned a reputation as one of Argentina’s most acclaimed contemporary writers. She is also a journalist and translator from French to Spanish. Her novel Yo nunca te prometí la eternidad (2005) received the 2007 Sor Juana Inés Prize and Canon de alcoba received the 1988 Boris Vian Prize and has been published in subsequent editions and translations. Her other works include, among others: En estado de memoria (1990), La letra de lo mínimo (1994), La madriguera (1996), Narrar después (2003).
Rhonda Dahl Buchanan is a Professor of Spanish and Director of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of Louisville. She has published translations of fiction by the Argentine writers Ana María Shua and Perla Suez, and by the Mexican writer Alberto Ruy Sánchez. Her translation, The Secret Gardens of Mogador, by Alberto Ruy Sánchez, received an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2006, and chapters of the novel have been published in Literal.