From “Tina Reyes,” which appears in The Houseguest and Other Stories. The book will be published next month by New Directions. Dávila was born in Mexico in 1928 and is renowned for her short stories, collected in Tiempo destrozado, Música concreta, and Árboles petrificados. Translated from the Spanish by Matthew Gleeson and Audrey Harris.
Tina Reyes said goodbye to the other girls from work and boarded the bus that would drop her near Rosa’s house. “I hope Rosa’s all right”: last week she’d looked very tired, it was only natural with no one but her to do all the chores and take care of the children and Santiago. Good thing Santiago was so kind with her and gave her everything he had; they were nearly always worried about money, but he loved Rosa so much, truly a good man, he never hung around with his friends or stayed out all night drinking. Rosa was lucky: a husband like Santiago, her children, a small house. If you thought about it, Rosa had a lot; she, on the other hand . . . . Tina sighed. She didn’t want to think about her own life. Living alone, without anyone to miss, was too painful; with nothing more than a room on the third floor of a dark and dirty building, a room so cramped that her things barely fit inside. Maybe it had been her destiny to be left alone in the world; the poor canary Rosa had given her had died right away, doubtless for lack of fresh air and sunshine. . . . What would it be like to have a husband, children, a man to embrace her and say “Tina” in an affectionate voice? To eat dinner together while chatting about all the events of the day, then to sleep with her head on his shoulder, she wouldn’t feel so cold at night anymore, she would sleep peacefully hearing him breathe. To watch the children grow up, to hear them say “Mamá” . . . . the tears were about to spill from her eyes, but she managed to pull herself together. She looked out the window. The bus stopped in front of the Bluebeard, which in daylight appeared even more sordid, painted a garish orange and blue. It was a dangerous neighborhood, but it was close to her work and the rent was only a hundred pesos. Those nights when sleep escaped her, she spent hours watching the luminous sign of the Bluebeard blink on and off, hearing that frenetic, insane music all night until dawn. She would see an infinity of couples come out singing or splitting their sides with laughter; sometimes they would get into fistfights there in the middle of the street, shouting the crudest insults at each other, then patch things up and disappear, arms around each other, down the dark streets; other times a patrol car would come and take them away. She had always despised those easy, perverse women; their laughter echoed in her ears, she had to cover her head with the pillow, sobbing in indignant protest until she fell asleep. . . . She stepped off the bus.
“Pardon me, señorita, may I walk with you?”
Tina opened her eyes wide, almost paralyzed by surprise.
“I find you quite charming—you struck me the moment you got on the bus. You have very expressive eyes.”
“Excuse me, señor,” Tina finally managed to say, “but I don’t make a habit of talking to strangers.”
“If you’ll allow me to introduce myself, I won’t be a stranger anymore,” said the man. “Why don’t you give me the opportunity? I think we’ll be friends, don’t you?”
Tina picked up her speed, wanting to save herself from this impertinent man. She crossed a street at a red light and had to run to avoid being hit by a car. When she reached the sidewalk she breathed in satisfaction, thinking she had managed to give him the slip.
“If we had a mutual friend, he would introduce us.” There he was again by her side. “But I very much fear we don’t have one. Won’t you give me a chance?”
Tina didn’t answer. Rosa’s house had never seemed so far away. And if Rosa wasn’t there and she found the door locked??. . . .
“But it’s so simple to be friends,” the man insisted. “You won’t tell me your name?”
Finally she made it to Rosa’s house, and she gave a sigh of relief when the door closed behind her. She remained standing next to it for a few minutes until she heard his footsteps move away. Rosa was ironing when Tina appeared, her cheeks aflame, panting after the dash she’d made. After drinking a glass of water, she told her friend about the incident. Rosa wanted to know what the fellow had looked like.
“I didn’t even see his face,” Tina confessed.
For a good while Rosa went on making comments and joking with Tina about what had happened. Suddenly she stopped and appraised her friend knowingly.
“You are looking good today, no doubt about it,” she said, dying of laughter. “Really, that blue sweater is lovely on you.”
Tina protested, saying it wasn’t what Rosa was thinking, but, as if without meaning to, she inched toward a mirrored wardrobe and contemplated herself in it, first with a certain shyness, fearing that Rosa would notice she was looking at herself, and then carefully and with attention. Her hands slid over her breasts and rested on her narrow waist. She wasn’t bad at all—to be honest with herself, she had to admit that she looked quite good, but how sad, what awful luck that this body, so well formed, would wither away in the shadow of solitude, without knowing a single caress, a single moment of pleasure. She couldn’t help lamenting it.
“All right, stop looking at yourself so much,” said Rosa.
Tina blushed and sat herself in a rocking chair. She had the air of a little girl caught misbehaving. She began to rock and to smile gladly. How good she felt whenever she saw Rosa! When they chatted, the hours flew by and she forgot her sorrows. She would love so much to see her every day, like back when they were neighbors and Rosa hadn’t married yet and she was living with her parents. . . .
The cashier at the factory where Santiago worked was going to get married and would be leaving her position open.
“Santiago thinks he could get it for you. Wouldn’t that be fabulous?” Rosa asked.
The news thrilled Tina, because she had always coveted the job. But she also couldn’t help feeling bad thinking that if she got the position as cashier, it was because the other woman was leaving to get married. The whole world had the chance to get married, thousands of girls got married every day, except her. As they were cooking dinner, Tina caught herself making plans: she was surely going to earn more money, and then she could rent a little apartment near Rosa and Santiago. How marvelous it would be to never again lay eyes on the Bluebeard. . . .
Since it was already past nine and Santiago wasn’t there to walk her to the bus, Tina decided to leave before it got much later. When she reached the corner, she had her second surprise of the day: there was the man who had followed her that afternoon. She thought about turning back to Rosa’s house, but since her bus pulled up at just that moment, she boarded it without further hesitation. She thought he hadn’t had time to get on, and she began to calm down. The bus swerved sharply and Tina nearly fell. Someone steadied her just in time. When she turned to say thank you, she saw with fright that it was the same man, and swallowed her words. He only smiled. Then she saw his face: “He’s quite young and not bad-looking at all.” In fact, she found him attractive, and she almost wished that, instead of a stranger, he were a friend of Santiago and Rosa’s whom she might have gotten to know under other circumstances. . . . “Here, Tina, this is X, he’s my best friend. . . . X says he’s very interested in you, and he’s such a fine young man. . . . X says that once they give him a raise he’ll ask you to marry him, I swear you won the lottery, he’s a real catch.” Someone asked about a stop, and Tina realized that she had taken the wrong bus. In her haste to board she hadn’t noticed. The blood pounded in her temples and her legs went weak. She stepped off into the street.
“I was waiting for you,” he said. “I had a hunch you would come back out.”
Tina looked in all directions to see where she could catch a bus that would take her home.
“See, it’s destiny,” he said, pleased.
Those words were like a lightning bolt suddenly striking her. She felt that she had gone down a dead end, and her mind began to whirl like a spinning top. All of a sudden she remembered all the stories she had read in the newspapers: this was how they all began, it was always identical, the same thing had happened to that poor girl named Celia, she’d read about it not long ago, she remembered it very well. . . . She paused at the corner, not knowing what to do or where to go. She didn’t see a bus stop anywhere. Opposite her there was a bustling ice cream shop; she thought to ask there. Then the man said: “May I invite you to a soda?”
She knew it was too late to try to escape; no one ever managed to flee their destiny. She could try a thousand things and all would be useless. Sometimes destiny suddenly presented itself, just like death. All that was left was for her to resign herself to her sad end. Convinced of her fate, she meekly let herself be led along.
They sat at the only free table and he ordered two Coca-Colas. There were lots of people and lots of noise, voices, peals of laughter, the jukebox blaring. Tina was completely dazed and very frightened.
“I still don’t know your name,” he said. “I’m Juan Arroyo.”
“Cristina Reyes,” said Tina, and instantly reproached herself for not having given another name—but then, what did it matter in the end?
“Cristina, Tina, that’s a very pretty name, I like it,” said the young man, smiling.
When he smiled his eyes lit up. His eyes were black, somewhat almond-shaped. “He really does have a handsome gaze,” Tina couldn’t help thinking. The waitress arrived with the sodas. While he poured them, she closely observed the bottles and the liquid. She was well aware, thanks to the newspapers, that they would drug your drink, and as the sodas had been brought uncapped, it would be very easy. . . .
“Tell me about yourself, Tina. What do you do?” the young man asked, showing an interest she knew was completely false.
Tina began to tell him, with great difficulty, that she worked in a sweater factory. She recited the words reluctantly; fear had dried out her throat. She took a sip of Coca-Cola, just a swallow, enough to wet her mouth and also try to discern whether it had a funny taste, but she didn’t notice anything strange about the soda and she calmed down. Although maybe they put something flavorless in it. They had slipped something in Celia’s drink, and the poor girl didn’t realize a thing until the next day when she woke up. . . .
The young man insisted on knowing more details about her: her family, whom she lived with, what she liked to do, where she liked to go. . . . Tina began to exhume her dead and invent brothers and sisters. She couldn’t tell him she lived alone and had nobody to protect or rescue her. If he found out, he was capable of coming into her room and right then and there . . . . they had suffocated one poor girl with her own pillows, in her own house, after . . . . “How horrible!” . . . . And icy water poured down her spine, making her shiver.
He was telling her that he worked at a printing press; this wasn’t, of course, what he wanted, but since jobs were scarce and hard to find, he had to be satisfied with it. It had been a year since he’d come here from Ciudad Juárez, where his whole family lived. He had risked leaving home, thinking that there were more opportunities in the capital. He was living in some distant relatives’ house, where he went only to sleep, and he still missed his home and his family enormously. . . . Tina listened, knowing ahead of time that everything he said or might possibly say was false. A lesson learned by memory and practiced many times, God knew how many. All guys like him operated the same way. It seemed as though butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths, and they lied up until the final moment, when they unmasked themselves with the utmost cynicism. She didn’t deserve such a cruel end, her loneliness and poverty were hard enough on her without adding another punishment. She wondered desperately what she had done, why or in what way she was going to be punished.
There were three couples at the next table. Without wanting to, Tina saw a woman with dyed blond hair throw her arms around the neck of the man next to her and begin to kiss him in front of everyone with total shamelessness. Tina immediately looked away, sensing herself blush all the way to the roots of her hair. They were just like the girls she saw come out of the Bluebeard, she couldn’t understand them or excuse them. . . . She suddenly felt a terrible, mortal fear of the hours to come: Where would he take her? How would he begin? she wondered, full of anguish, trapped in a blind alley.
“Do you want another soda, Tina?” he asked.
“No, thank you,” she said.
“Really, feel free,” he insisted.
Again she refused, but then she thought it was a good idea to spend as much time as possible in the ice cream shop, because nothing could happen to her there. They drank another soda, and he went on chatting and asking questions, coaxing words from her. He conversed with a smooth and well-modulated voice, in caressing tones. “He must have a lot of practice.” And a kind of burning tingle swept through her whole body each time she thought: How would it begin? Was he one of those men who beat girls brutally? Or perhaps with no further explanation he would pounce on her and rip her clothes off; then again, there were some who killed first and afterward . . . . she felt very hot; she took out her handkerchief and fanned herself with it, then wiped her forehead.
He asked whether she was feeling ill, and Tina could barely answer no, that it was very hot in there. Then the young man paid the bill and they left the ice cream shop.
“We’ll have to take a cab,” he said. “There aren’t any more buses at this hour.”
This was the usual way, what she’d read about in the newspapers, they were always in league with a taxi driver, maybe he planned to take her outside the city and bring her to one of those sinister places . . . . that’s what had happened to poor Celia . . . .
He suggested they go to a certain corner, because taxis always passed there, at all hours. And Tina went on telling herself that the accomplice taxi must be there. But she let herself be carried along, convinced that this was her destiny, which had to be fulfilled whether she resisted or not. And sure enough they had hardly arrived when he stopped a cab.
When the young man asked for her address, she gave it to him without hesitating, certain that he would take her to another very different one. She settled into the back seat, shrinking against the door, and watched him out of the corner of her eye: the poor man thought he was deceiving her, as if she didn’t understand what was going on. Many times she almost had the desire to laugh, but when she realized that the end was near, she felt as though the tightrope she’d been balancing on had snapped and she was falling into the void, plunging all at once into the darkness.
“What a beautiful night!” the young man remarked, drawing closer to Tina. “I think it’s the company that makes it seem that way. It’s not cold at all. Did you see how big the moon is?” And he took Tina’s hand between his own.
Tina’s hand was cold and damp, the young man’s were warm and dry. Tina gazed outside, upward, wondering whether she would ever see another night, another moon like this one, whether she would come out alive, although in the end it was almost the same: if he didn’t kill her, she wouldn’t be able to live after what happened. She would die of shame without ever being able to show her face, surely she would appear in the newspapers, like so many other girls who suffered the same fate—how could she look Rosa and Santiago in the eyes then, how could she kiss their children?
“I haven’t felt this happy in a long time. You look like a girl I knew in Ciudad Juárez—we were boyfriend and girlfriend, I loved her very much and I remember her all the time. I had bad luck, they wouldn’t let her marry me and we ended things. Later she married another man who took her away with him, and I haven’t seen her since.”
She told herself that it was only natural the parents had been opposed, surely she was a good girl and he had . . . .
“I love your eyes because they’re so big and so pretty, like hers,” said the young man, squeezing her hand.
A strange and unfamiliar feeling was invading her; she noticed all of a sudden that the young man was pressing her hand tightly between his, and she pulled it away in great shame, vexed with herself for her unpardonable carelessness. She tried to console herself by thinking that she wasn’t to blame for everything that was happening to her; at no point had she prompted it, she had behaved as seriously as always, it was fate, that was all, she was the victim of an implacable destiny, but—how would it begin? She saw herself stripped of her clothes, in a sordid room, at his mercy, and him coming closer, closer. . . . A hot wave of shame engulfed her and at the same time the chill of her nakedness made her shiver and shrink further into the corner of the back seat as if she were an animal crouched in hiding.
He went on talking about how much it had struck him to see those same eyes again. At first, when she had boarded the bus, he had thought she was his old girlfriend. But it was better this way, he was very happy to have met Tina, to have found her, when he felt so lonely and so bored, with no one to go out with, no one to chat with, and he said other things that Tina, her head spinning with her unleashed thoughts, barely heard. The moment was near and she was seized with terror. She didn’t even have the possibility of calling for help and escaping. It all made her feel ashamed: What would they think of her? Maybe that she had been asking for it, they’d probably think she was “one of those girls,” and they would treat her like one. . . . How terrible the police stations must be, the police themselves, the endless and degrading questions—what would he say? the confrontations, the two of them face-to-face and full of hate, she the target of everyone’s gaze, the photographers harassing her, the medical examination, with her lying completely naked on a cold table, fastened by the wrists and ankles, and all of them above her like vultures, hands, eyes, on her, inside her and outside her, everywhere, and she naked in front of a hundred eyes that devoured her—never, never, she’d rather suffer whatever happened alone, in silence, without anyone else knowing. . . .
The car stopped. The young man paid and they got out.
The moment had arrived, and she was swept up in an enormous whirlwind of thoughts and images that thronged and spliced and succeeded one another with the speed of a cinematographic film suddenly and vertiginously unwound.
“Is this where you live, Tina?” he asked.
Tina lifted her eyes, which had been glued to the ground, and saw the building where she lived: but it wasn’t, because it couldn’t be, because he had taken her somewhere else, and it was her eyes that were deceiving her, that made her see what wasn’t real, her room on the third floor of a miserable building, where she would have liked to arrive just like any other night, what she wished were so, but it wasn’t . . . .
“Would you let me pick you up at work tomorrow?” the young man was saying.
But Tina would hear him no more.
She had crossed the threshold of her destiny had passed through the door of a sordid hotel room and went running down the street in a frantic desperate race crashing into people running into them all like bodies alone in the dark that meet intertwine join together separate join together again panting voracious insatiable possessing and possessed rising and falling riding in a blind race to the end with a collapse a sudden fall into nothingness outside of time and space.