Innocent Spirit - Alicia Steimberg

En memoria de Alicia Steimberg, fallecida el 16 de junio de 2012.
(publicado en este blog el 2/2/2011)

¡Hasta siempre, Alicia!

Título original: "Su espíritu inocente".
El texto en español no se encuentra en la Web.

Traducido al inglés por Andrea G. Labinger.

Excerpt One

I’m thirteen. I ask permission to do this or that; if they give me permission, I do it, if not, I don’t, or else I do, depending. But I don’t have to ask permission to look. I’m really interested in looking at older people. Lots of them are married and have kids. It’s a big deal, this business of getting married and having kids. First they’re boyfriend and girlfriend; she gets all dressed up and he brings her presents. Then they get married, and for a while they still seem like they were before, boyfriend and girlfriend: they live in a cute little apartment with all new furniture and she waits with her freshly polished nails for her husband to get home from work. But everything falls apart when the baby comes: diapers and bottles and little jars of baby food are everywhere, and in the overheated room there hangs a strong smell of baby poop mixed with alcohol. The grandmothers, one of them scrawny and the other big and fat, float from one room to another. The mother drags along in her nightgown from the bed to the bathroom. More and more visitors arrive, and the newborn baby screams like a stuck pig. Not even a shadow of the engagement remains and the new mother’s breasts are crossed with little blue veins. I’m thirteen. I watch all this with great interest, but then I sit down in a corner to read whatever I can find. A newspaper, some comics, a big, fat novel – anything to take my mind off that horrible room with no trace of romance at all.
It’s the greatest pain and the greatest joy, says Matilde’s mother, talking about childbirth. I listen attentively, not understanding. So a woman feels very happy when she has a baby? Well, if the lady says so, she must know what she’s talking about. I understand about the pain: the lady explains that when the baby passes through the canal that will bring him into the world, “he splits his mother’s bones wide open.” I tremble and run to look up “childbirth” in the encyclopedia. I find a detailed description of the suffering and the final stage in which, according to the encyclopedia, the mother recovers her strength and spirit and helps the baby to be born. Now that I’m on the P’s, I look up penis, penetration, prostitution. This volume is full of interesting words. The encyclopedia uses quotations to illustrate the words. Under prostitute, it says “See whore, and then a little poem: “Whore of a bitch/whore of a pup/whore of a blanket/that covers ’em up.” That saying reminds me of another one that I’m sure I read in this same encyclopedia:
“In bed we laugh,/in bed we cry;/And, born in bed,/in bed we die.” I don’t talk about these things with anyone, and I’m convinced that I’m a degenerate, a pervert who’s interested in the most disgusting things in the world. The most terrible thing is God’s nearness. God’s not a shadow or a ghost: He’s right there, in a dark corner of my room staring at me, while I think disgusting thoughts and touch forbidden parts of my body. The devil surely lives in those parts of my body, because if I touch them for a while, God disappears. In that corner of the room there’s nothing but a broken-down chair with some clothing that I’ll have to put on the next morning, and the devil possesses me. Then I fall asleep, and by the next morning God’s right back in His usual place. He’s invisible to everyone, but not to me: I get dressed quickly, thinking about Him and His punishment, which no doubt will come if I don’t change my ways and do penance. But, my God, I can’t change. As I walk the four blocks from the subway entrance to my school, I think: I’ll have to change, sooner or later, and I think about it even more when I look around me in the classroom and see my classmates, who, I believe, aren’t capable of abnormal behavior like mine. Although maybe Matilde … No, no, she’s too Catholic; she’d have to confess everything to the priest. She’d stop herself, even if it was only because of that. I say she’d stop herself, but what do I know? And what about Francisca, the girl who dances the muñiera? That one probably has no shame; maybe she doesn’t even realize how bad she is. Señorita Hesse, our Geography teacher, tall, thin, and blonde, who’s wearing her pool table green dress again, with the four aces appliquéd on the bodice, calls my name. I stand up, startled, smiling in order to hide the traces of daydreaming that probably show on my face. Isobars, isotherms, isohyets (isohyats?) – imaginary lines, all of them; they cross continents and oceans on the map before my eyes.
I wonder if she, Hesse, I mean, practices coitus very often. Sure she does, with those four aces on her chest. Love is a vice, just like gambling and drinking. Señorita Granate, on the other hand, probably doesn’t practice it and never did. She has huge tits, but they’re not pretty. In the first place, they look like she’s wearing a corset; I’ve seen those one-piece garments with whalebones, dreamed up to give fat women that squarish appearance. Granate teaches us Alfonsina Storni’s verses:
On this divine October afternoon,
How I’d love to stroll along the sea’s distant shore …
“All right, girls, who wants to recite?”
“Recite it yourself, miss, with that sour voice of yours,” Rosario whispers at my side. I’m the only one who hears her, but I don’t even move a muscle. Old Granate would die if she knew anyone was making fun of Alfonsina, her one true love.
And the married teachers: do they practice coitus with their husbands? The old ones, too? I imagine them one by one, legs spread wide, in bed with their husbands. The husbands don’t take off their glasses or their ties. They just drop their pants.
At recess three other girls and I draw a chalk skull on Nélida Rigalta’s backpack. Underneath we write: “The Fearsome Foursome.” “The Fearsome Foursome” consists of Rosario, Matilde, María, and me. All four of us with our cotton socks and lace-up shoes, and all of us missing a button on our coats. Nélida Rigalta, who’s prettier than anyone else and wears finer stockings and moccasins, walks back into the classroom, looks at her backpack, and bursts out crying. The Fearsome Foursome stares straight ahead at the blackboard. That afternoon I phone Nélida Rigalta’s house, and her mother tells me her daughter won’t talk to me because I’m one of the girls who torture her.
So she figured it out, I guess. What a shame, because it’s a long, boring afternoon. And Nélida lives in the neighborhood. If I ask permission, they’ll let me walk the six blocks to her house, and I’ll be able to look at her album with pictures of movie stars, especially Sonja Henie, the ice skater, Nélida’s favorite. I phone again and apologize to the mother. I end up crying. Nélida’s mother weakens, and Nélida must be awfully bored, too, because she says yes, I can come over. I’m allowed to go to Nélida’s house because her dad’s a doctor; it seems that’s a guarantee of I-don’t-know-what.
Nélida’s little house is modest, but she has a satin bedspread and some composition dolls in her room. They invite me to stay for dinner; I call home and ask permission. Granted immediately, because Nélida’s dad offers to drive me home afterward. Nélida’s mother serves a piece of juicy meat, a few sticks of fried polenta, and a lettuce salad with vinaigrette. To me it tastes like divine ambrosia. We browse through Nélida’s dad’s collection of detective novels on some shelves in the garage that bend under the weight of the books: Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen …
“My papa doesn’t like practicing medicine,” Nélida confides to me.
“Oh, no? What would he rather be?”
“A sailor.”
“Why didn’t he become a sailor, then?”
“My grandpa didn’t want him to. He wanted him to become a doctor. Anyway, now that he’s a doctor, he’d like to become a surgeon.”
“So why isn’t he a surgeon?”
“His hands shake.”
I don’t know what to say, and I imagine that Nélida Rigalta, who has become very serious and sad, doesn’t expect me to say anything.
“Papa teaches me everything about sex so I won’t turn out like his sisters,” she says.

“What happened with his sisters?” I ask.
“They read a book called Why Pleasure Doesn’t Last Long Enough, and other books like that, and now they’re hookers.”
Now I’m really quiet. Nélida’s mother shows up, all dressed up and elegant, to tell me that they’re ready to take me home.
“We’re going to a dinner party,” she announces. “All doctors and their wives.”
I imagine that table surrounded by doctors and their wives as if it were a gathering of Olympian gods.
Sometimes I close my eyes and see myself sitting on the toilet in the bathroom of the old house. I open them again and see myself at my work table, but only one second has gone by, not thirty years. Eyes closed, I see myself back on the toilet again, pondering so many things. More recent moments from my past, when I no longer lived in the old house and was surrounded by other people, my own children, for example, my husband, my friends, less clear and much more distant. They seem to belong to another life. At the back of the classroom sit those big girls who are also thirteen years old but look eighteen. Their voices are huskier; they flash ironic smiles. They look at us with pity. Of course, time will smooth over the differences, but for now, in their eyes we’re a bunch of pathetic little insects who haven’t yet managed to emerge from our cocoons. They belong to the real middle class, and they’re not afraid of anything. They reply with self-confidence when they’re asked a question, and they don’t look like they’re always daydreaming. Then comes the group of aristocrats who talk about “benefits,” parties they attend in order to collect money for the poor. There are three or four pariahs: Francisca, who has no bench-mate; Ema, who everyone thinks is macrocephalic; the English Brown sisters, one of them with the green felt piano key cover draped around her neck, and then there are the wild girls who laugh for no reason at all and commit atrocities like torturing Nélida Rigalta, or eating the sandwich of an absent-minded girl who left it on her desk during recess and not confessing to the crime even under duress, making horrible caricatures of themselves and the others …
Spring has come again. I take a shower with water that’s been warmed on the alcohol burner and I sing:
They try to tell us we’re too young …
Too young to really be in love.
They say that love’s a word,
A word we’ve only heard
But can’t begin to know the meaning of …
Since I’m no longer thirteen, but rather seventeen, and I’m wearing a Scotch-plaid taffeta dress and shoes whitened with a cotton ball dipped in liquid … And since I’m wearing Peach Flower cologne and creamy lipstick, and tonight there’s a party at Patsy’s…
The minute I go out into the street, everything changes: behind me are the decrepit walls, the leaks, the enema bag in the bathroom. And boys look at me, compliment me, ask me to dance – why should I care about the rest of it? I turn the corner and pass by the house of the neighbor who wants to burn the walls down. The fragrance of native jasmine drifts into the street. The sky is filled with stars; vampires can’t see their reflections in the mirrors. The aroma of French fries emanates from certain houses; it’s very typical to make French fries for dinner. Sweet families sit down to eat, fathers don’t look at anyone, mothers scuff their slippers along the dining room floor. Two fried eggs, like two big, merciful eyes, fall on each serving of French fries. The eyes of He Who Sees All, perhaps. I laugh to myself as I walk down the street. Not because I’m crazy, but because I’m happy.

Excerpt Two

“It isn’t true.”
“It’s true.”
“It can’t be. It simply can’t be.”

“Yes, it’s a fact. Matilde leaves her used sanitary napkins under the dresser. The maid complains, and rightfully so.”
“But it can’t be.”
And yet something tells me that it can. I remember how Matilde carries around a cruddy piece of paper in her pocket, and when you ask her what she’s got there, she shows you the contents: face powder. And an equally cruddy piece of string, the kind you use for tying packages, sticks out of the collar of her school smock. I try to pull it off, thinking it got caught there by mistake. But it’s tied in a knot.
“What’s that, Matilde?”
Matilde smiles, pokes her hand around inside the neck of her smock, and shows me a medal of her favorite saint dangling from the string. I remember my visit to her house, the pile of empty bottles on the patio. Anything is possible.
Then I’m not the only one who’s miserable?
But we never discuss our respective misery. In our class there are at least two girls who are driven to school by a private chauffeur. It’s a sure bet they don’t leave used sanitary napkins under their dressers. And they don’t carry a thermos with hot coffee and milk into their bedrooms, either, in order to be able to get up in the icy mornings when it’s colder inside the house than out.
I never mentioned that business about the thermos, but it was a great invention. I used to place it on a chair beside my bed, and when the damn alarm clock went off, I’d stretch out one arm, trying to wake up as little as possible, and pour some coffee with boiling milk, already sweetened, into a cup I’d left on the chair for that purpose. Once the hot café con leche had run down my gullet, I would be alert and brave enough to climb back underneath the covers and remove my nightgown. Then I’d stick out my arm, grabbing and putting on, one by one, the items I’d laid out so carefully the night before, like the thermos and cup; my underpants; the garter belt – a hateful garment that served to hold up stockings and which was always missing some hook or fastener. Petticoat, shirt, skirt, sweater, stockings. Once my stockings were on, I’d poke my legs out from the warmth of the bed, exposing them to the frigid bedroom air, in order to put on my shoes. Overcoat, scarf, cap, and off I’d go to the bathroom. Crossing the patio in that temperature was no less complicated than crossing Avenida Nueve de Julio. I returned to my bedroom for the thermos, carried it into the kitchen, and consumed the rest of the café con leche, this time with bread and butter. I grabbed my book bag and headed for the street. It was as dark and freezing as midnight. Once, because I had set my alarm clock incorrectly, I arrived at school an hour early. I had to wait for them to open the doors, and then I entered the empty vestibule. At least I had a roof over my head, although inside it was even colder than it was outdoors. In the vestibule there was a group of reproductions of Impressionist paintings. I studied them in detail, one by one. They had a lot of foliage, but not a single human figure. Much later another student came along, and then many others. Some arrived without gloves, their hands swollen with chilblains, like Francisca, the one who danced the muñeira. Others had pretty, knitted angora gloves. We all chattered until the head monitor arrived, a woman whose mere glare was sufficient to cause chills, even in summer. But it was early and school hadn’t officially started yet: she smiled. A bell rang and we filed out to the patio to sing the hymn. Then to our classrooms.
As she calls roll, our monitor keeps her free hand in her pocket and hops around a little. She’s cold, too. This year our classroom faces the street. The window’s very high, so from our desks we can’t manage to see the people passing by. You might say this is a kind of jail, and we can only guess at the faces of the free people walking around out there. But it’s not true. This isn’t my prison: it’s my freedom. In here, I’m not who I am, but who I want to be, or rather, I’m the most presentable part of myself. At home I’ve left behind the Jew, the sinner, the girl who replaces the missing fastener on her garter belt with a safety pin, the one who prepares her thermos of café con leche to face the icy mornings, the one who thinks about penises, vaginas, and coituses. To school I bring the nice, lively girl, the one who knows how to make the others split their sides laughing, the one who says she’s Catholic, although nobody believes her, the one who invents lies about her ancestors, but who, on the whole, is acceptable and even envied, because now that the clouds of her earliest years have parted, she understands everything and can even explain it. I’m sixteen years old, seventeen. I’m split in two pieces that are, nonetheless, irreconcilable, and for a long period of my life I’ll go on that way: split in two.

Alicia Steimberg

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