Regression

Other memories appear: the afternoon she accompanied Tamara to her iaia’s house. Every day, she’d see the grandfather, a yarmulke on his bald head, collect Tamara after English class. They didn’t attend a religious school, and when her friend confessed that her family was Jewish it gave her a strange feeling. There were so few Jews in Spain, it was as if her friend were special, a rare jewel.

Perhaps it had been so fantastic that she’d assimilated it into a dream

Michelle Nguyen, Opal Isle. 2018, oil and oil pastel on canvas. 42 × 57". Courtesy of the artist.

The following is an excerpt from Elvira Navarro’s story collection Rabbit Island, out next week from Two Lines Press.

The memory gushes in: She and Tamara at the age of ten with some dollhouses, several floors high, which could be opened down the middle. They were playing The Colbys or Falcon Crest, throwing dice to decide who got which clan and which mansion was going to be theirs. They used the slightly pompous word “mansion,” which they had learned from the American series. In her hometown, no one referred to a house that way, no matter how luxurious it was. Although they had never seen anything even remotely similar to the mansions on The Colbys and Falcon Crest, when they imagined themselves as grown-ups they were always the owners of beautiful palaces standing by lakes and surrounded by wineries.

Another memory appears: Tamara leading her to La Calavera, a copse of very tall trees with a clearing in the middle where beggars sometimes slept. The children they used to have water bomb fights with said you could see decapitated birds in La Calavera first thing in the morning, and, according to their older brothers, satanic rituals were performed there. When the kids told them about the headless birds, just before filling their water bombs, Tamara laughed out loud, mocking them mercilessly, then whispered in her ear that there were no decapitated birds; what you could find there were weird animals from the center of the earth that had the ability to stay alive even when their body parts were separated. Their feet, torsos, and necks could hop around on their own.

They lived near the park that separated Espriu, with its wealthy families, from El Canal, a very old neighborhood bisected by an open sewer that poured its stinking contents into the sea. None of the relevant authorities would take responsibility for covering the sewer, and the rumor was that they all hoped the reek in the summer months along with the ruinous condition of the buildings would eventually prove too much for the residents. The authorities wanted to extend the main avenue of Espriu through El Canal to the sea. What actually happened was that, whenever an apartment was left empty after the death of the tenant, Romany people and junkies squatted there. In those days there were still a lot of junkies around.

Other memories appear: the afternoon she accompanied Tamara to her iaia’s house. Every day, she’d see the grandfather, a yarmulke on his bald head, collect Tamara after English class. They didn’t attend a religious school, and when her friend confessed that her family was Jewish it gave her a strange feeling. There were so few Jews in Spain, it was as if her friend were special, a rare jewel.

Although she’d even gotten as far as speaking to her friend’s grandfather once or twice, it was a long time before she met the grandmother. Tamara tended to surround her with an aura of reverence and mystery: “She can hardly move,” she’d say, “but she makes the best baked rice in the whole city without getting out of her chair.” Her friend always made a big secret of having lunch with her grandmother. She’d only found out by asking bluntly. Tamara finally said, “OK. Let’s go to iaia’s. But if you rat me out, you’re dead.” She’d kept her mouth shut because visiting an old lady didn’t seem like a secret worth telling.

Her friend sneaked her into her iaia’s home. She was surprised that it was in El Canal, in one of the very old buildings with blackened façades. That first impression was nothing in comparison with what she saw at the end of a terrazzo passage that didn’t seem to fit with the peeling, discolored wallpaper. The grandmother—an obese old woman who smelled of burned eggplant—was floating, motionless in a corner of the room by the curtain rail. She had her back turned to them and was looking out into the street. They crept across the room until they were directly below the grandmother. Her thighs were so fat that from underneath all they could see were rolls of flab. The soles of her small, perfectly formed feet were like those of a child that has been flattened by the weight above. She started to shiver, and Tamara spat out something defiant, possibly spiteful. They backed out of the room, their eyes fixed on the grandmother. When they were halfway across, her friend bumped into a rocking chair. The grandmother turned around and looked at them unsmilingly, as though they were pieces of furniture. Tamara blushed bright red.

That afternoon, sitting in the park, her friend explained that the old woman floated because she was full of gas. “A gas that comes from the center of the earth.” She refrained from asking how the iaia managed to cook the best baked rice in the whole city. Perhaps they had put the kitchen appliances on the ceiling. She was sorry not to have insisted on seeing the rest of the house, but on the other hand the idea of staying much longer in that place where everything was so grimy and stank of dried fish wasn’t appealing.

How could she have forgotten it? How had an experience that should have made her doubt the whole of reality been substituted by another? Perhaps it had been so fantastic that she’d assimilated it into a dream. Perhaps its singularity had prevented her from processing it. Of the days after the visit, she remembered only pain. A hard, unspoken suffering. The next morning, when she boarded the school bus, Tamara was already there, sitting next to Juana; her friend didn’t even look in her direction. Juana, a thin, grubby girl, who managed to avoid being ostracized by inventing gossip, gave her a malicious smile. From her seat, she spied on the two girls and was met with the spite of that bitter kid who wasn’t content that Tamara had chosen her as a companion, but needed to rub it in. Her friend’s metamorphosis seemed incredible: surely she had the right to pretend it hadn’t happened. The way Tamara walked resolutely out of the classroom at recess, without once speaking to her or detaching herself from the huddle of other girls, the way she shared her chocolate croissant with them, should have been enough. But it wasn’t. She tried behaving as if her friend were making a mistake. Couldn’t she see that the others were just getting between them? Watching that pack of kids chewing their chocolate-filled croissants gave her an excuse for pulling Tamara away from those frauds. The words faded as they issued from her mouth: “They’re using you.” Only the “you”—a sort of pitiful grunt—was audible. The children fell silent and, in a loud, clear voice, Tamara said, “Can’t you just go away and stop bothering me? You make me sick.”

For months that “You make me sick” hung over her like a disgusting, shameful halo. In the past, she’d always been tough, but now she started to hide away, even trembling when her classmates pointed at her and whispered. Tamara’s betrayal sank her in the typically sullen depression of girls who will never admit they are in the wrong. “Me, badly behaved? What the fuck are you talking about?” she shouted at her mom one day. And she got a slap across the face for that “fuck.” For the rest of the school year she traveled alone.

She didn’t hate her friend, just missed her. She watched her from a distance, hoping she wouldn’t notice, and spent more time with the other marginalized girls in the class. There were various categories of marginalization: the fat, the geeky, the dull, the goody-goodies, the sneaks, the tomboys. Adolescence found her unsure which of those labels she’d been assigned, and in the habit of wandering aimlessly around the park that separated Espriu from El Canal. As the image of Tamara’s grandmother floating in a corner of the living room had faded almost instantly from her memory, she never associated the snub with that event. On the other hand, she still remembers going to La Calavera in search of those disjointed creatures that, according to her friend, came from the center of the earth. All she found were used tissues, empty beer cans, and cigarette butts.

One night she came home late after binging on alcohol. Before turning onto the street where she lived, she stood quietly for a while on the edge of the park, her eyes peeled. She wanted to be sure that it was empty, that no one was watching her. There was no way she could be certain of either; the cabbage and sago palms at ground level, plus the thick trunks of the fig trees would provide cover for anyone who didn’t want to be seen.

She headed for La Calavera, following the path she took almost every afternoon, and ducked through a gap in the undergrowth, from where she could see the moon, tinged yellow like a tooth coated with plaque. She was very frightened; certain that someone would be there. Someone who was waiting for her, and her alone. But that didn’t prevent her from going on.

When her eyes had adapted to the dark she saw something glowing. It looked plastic but at the same time like living flesh. The thing moved slowly, making a hissing noise. She thought it might be a snake. A snake that was too rigid and thick. She ran.

Lying in her bed, everything throbbed.

The following morning she put it all down to drunken delusions.

Tamara spoke to her again when she turned eighteen. They bumped into one another at the window of a record shop. “I’m going in to buy Portishead,” she said. “Do you want to come along?” They spent a long time standing in front of the “P” for Portishead repeated on the black sleeve and the screen on the back wall of the store. She liked the sound: Portishead. Portishead-Tamara: those names were linked for her. They went to the park and sat on the grass to continue their conversation about music and about when they used to play among those shrubs whose name had something to do with skulls. They didn’t mention the six years of not talking to each other, as if everything that happened between the ages of twelve and eighteen had been erased. Then they walked into El Canal. Some of the older houses were okupas now, squats. Beer and calimocho were for sale in the front yards and ska music was playing. They finally ventured into one of the okupas, and after a few drinks went to another, which was on the street where Tamara’s grandparents had lived. She would have sworn that it was even the same building.

Her memory of the day they had visited Tamara’s iaia was vague. It included a dish of baked rice that an obese woman who wasn’t floating near the ceiling served to Tamara’s parents, siblings, and grandfather—not wearing his yarmulke—at a table that filled so much of the living room it was impossible to go to the bathroom until after dessert without everyone having to get up. She has no idea what they did afterward, or why she’d even had lunch with Tamara’s grandparents. The images froze there, the aftertaste of garlic, potatoes, and beans mixed with the rice and the iaia’s bulging calves. As if the old woman’s legs were basic ingredients of the dish.

The okupa was a two-story building with a terrace and patches of dirty blue and white tiles on the façade. In recent years, whenever she’d passed through El Canal—heading north to the market gardens rather than to the beach—she scrupulously avoided this side street. If she ever accidentally found herself at the intersection, she ran in the opposite direction, her eyes fixed on the ground, convinced that her refusal to look would save her from an encounter with Tamara. Her incursions into El Canal had nothing to do with her friend; what interested her was the neighborhood’s reputation, a notoriety whose origins were lost in time (within the short time of her own life, in fact). Apparently its inhabitants possessed certain qualities not shared by the rest of the population, and on more than one occasion she’d followed someone, hoping that their journey through the narrow backstreets would reveal something beyond her reach. A secret city. Bodies from the rock or from the sea.

“We could take a look around the whole okupa,” said Tamara. They had crossed the threshold into a kind of large foyer surrounded by rooms without doors; the size made her doubt if it had ever been the home of her friend’s paternal grandparents. The brief scene filed away in her memory had been played out in a small, airless room. Had the house perhaps been inhabited by a number of tenants? Did poor families live, piled one on top of the other, in the former summer villas of the well-to-do? She knew nothing about the neighborhood. Why had she spent more time imagining what it was like than reading up on its history?

They were sitting on tiny stools on a patio with planters in which a few vegetables grew among the withered weeds. On the upper floor, they could see more people on a terrace with paper lanterns, candles, and although they had the impression that it wasn’t open to customers—for the simple reason that no one had shown them how to reach it—they thought that it would be a good place to begin their exploration. Without asking permission, they walked through the dark rooms until they found the stairs.

She was certain then that it really was the house where her friend’s grandparents had lived, and that it was the second time she’d been in this place whose essence had been razed to the ground but was still alive. The grandfather with his yarmulke and the iaia were standing on a step somewhere or sitting in the bright eastern light of one of the bedrooms, the lace curtains fluttering in the breeze.

The staircase was steep and there were chips in the terrazzo. A strip of light filtering under the doorway at the top might be coming from a room it would be better not to enter: probably the same one she had preserved in her memory. She didn’t ask herself why she put such value on that vague, uninteresting memory; eating a meal with her friend’s family, mild astonishment at a pair of fat legs.

They opened the door cautiously because they could hear nothing from the other side. A blank wall of silence had fallen between them when they reached the head of the stairs. They pushed the door, expecting to find someone sleeping or undressed, but what they found was the terrace; the looks the people gave them made it clear they weren’t welcome. The area must be reserved for the residents of the okupa. A girl—the embodiment of El Canal punk—with a crest of red hair, wearing a black top, plaid skirt, and ripped stockings pierced by safety pins said, “You looking for someone?” Their jaws dropped at the sight of her. El Canal punk girls had leading roles in the stories told in the schoolyard. “He was mugged by an El Canal punk girl;” “She left home and became an El Canal punk girl;” “He’s dating an El Canal punk girl.” They had seen punk girls from a distance on Friday evenings in the Rambla, where the bars frequented by high school seniors were located. But this was the first time they had viewed one close up, one who—what’s more—was talking to them. Their dumbstruck awe gave way to the shame of not being able to come up with an answer. You could tell a mile off that they were two nice young Espriu girls. Thoroughly embarrassed, they turned and left, and it was only after they had been walking for a while, starting to enjoy the quiet of the streets, that she found the courage to ask her friend if her iaia had once lived in that okupa.

Tamara gave a loud laugh.

“Are you out of your mind?” After a silence her friend continued: “My grandparents had an apartment in Benicalap. Don’t you remember when you came to lunch there?”

It had been only a couple of hours since the wake of that meal had washed up against her, but she was still unable to speak of it. Suddenly it no longer felt like a vestige of something real. She had the strong impression that she’d invented the whole thing. The idea that Tamara might be participating in the farce terrified her.

“I’m going home.”

Her friend oozed disdain. There was a note of sarcasm in her voice when she said:

“Don’t you want to see my grandparents’ apartment?”

They walked south through El Canal, holding their noses when they passed the open sewer. The occasional old summer villas interspersed among fishermen’s cottages gave way to three-story brick buildings. She wanted to turn, to leave Tamara on her own, but continued to follow her, as though they were walking through a long narrow gorge instead of along city streets. She fixed her eyes on her friend’s back, the long mane of black hair, or on the ground so as not to trip. The sidewalks seemed unusually dark, and once or twice she almost fell flat on her face, not because of the cracks in the pavement, but from the sensation that she’d come across an unexpected step. That feeling—which lasted the milliseconds it took her foot to find solid ground, and made her body think it had dropped into a hole, an abyss—also had its origin in Tamara’s long, thick hair. She was scared that her friend would turn around and have a different face, the features of that fat, deformed grandmother who had floated in the air—a fact that she suddenly remembered. Her fear contrasted with the peaceful night. It was past one in the morning and the bars were closing. Groups of people who had come out for dinner were slowly disappearing, like the embers of a cigarette thrown on the ground. They came to a square where some boys were sitting on the curb, drinking from large plastic cups. They whistled as the two girls passed.

“That was my grandparents’ apartment,” said Tamara, pointing to a long, narrow rather depressing balcony.

“I must have gotten muddled,” she replied.

The impression of madness or that Tamara was pulling her leg vanished.

That summer they wandered together through the empty city, never thinking that it was the last time they would be together in those deserted summer streets in just that way. On a number of occasions they explored El Canal, walking along the dirt tracks in the orchards that wound down to the beach, where trash was burned in the late afternoon and everything was clouded by a layer of bluish smoke. Only bikers and dogs haunted such godforsaken places. Once or twice they ventured into other neighborhoods to see what they were like with the stores closed—it was mid-August and midweek—and the dim orange streetlighting filtering through the leaves of plain trees in the smooth humidity. They never sweated. They were at that age when the body deals more easily with heat than cold, and they spent that month alone. Their parents and siblings were on vacation for the month. They bought marijuana and smoked it in a tasca where reefer was allowed, and then they bared their souls to each other, lying on the grass in the park with a liter bottle of beer that was always too warm, and from which they only drank to quench their thirst.

That August was as intense as a whole childhood. Then September arrived with the parents and other people. They saw each other secretly and never told their respective circles of friends about their meetings at the entrance to La Calavera, from which came the murmured rustling of something dragging itself along the ground. She’d call up the image of the creatures Tamara had described years before—something like lizard tails—and also, above all, the fat old woman. The question still burned on her lips.

They went to different universities. Her friend chose psychology, while she studied humanities. For a while they telephoned and arranged to meet occasionally on a Sunday, until Tamara moved to another neighborhood and they lost track of one another.

—Translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney

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