The Bathers, by María GainzaTranslated by Thomas Bunstead

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From Portrait of an Unknown Lady, a novel, which will be published next month by Catapult. Translated from the Spanish.

I had been working in the art valuations department at Ciudad Bank for a year when I got up one Sunday morning to a message on my answering machine saying I was to meet Enriqueta, my boss and the country’s preeminent expert in art authentication, at 5 pm on the corner of Suipacha and Sarmiento, and to bring my swimsuit. Like a good soldier, I readied my kit and, approaching the appointed address, was reminded of the line about a person’s character being formed on Sunday afternoons. She was there standing in the doorway smoking one of her Gauloises—always smoked to the final millimeter, always dropped to the ground and crushed under towering high heels. She gestured for me to follow her—such intimacy in that gesture! “Commit a crime and the world turns to glass,” she murmured, eyes flicking left and right as we entered the Colmegna baths. The people working there, with their flushed faces, peremptory manner, and white uniforms, greeted her like a lifelong acquaintance.

In the airless changing rooms, I put on my swimsuit, the Lycra baggy, and made my way out to a pool around which firm-bodied sirens and sea gods had once frolicked, but which now stood in a state of semi-abandonment, the tiling loose underfoot. A cluster of elderly men and women, skin sagging, sat on the edges dangling their feet, harboring loneliness and fear.

Enriqueta appeared a few minutes later, looking unexpectedly stylish in her black swimsuit and gliding down the metal ladder, moving as fluidly as a signature’s flourish, to join me in the tepid water. We silently swam some breaststroke. Another truth: strong winds will keep you away from those of your own species, but water joins you together.

We got out, wrapped ourselves in the rough white towels, and, like Carthusian monks, went down a passageway sticky with grime. We came to a small wood-paneled room, the steps and platforms wooden as well, a hint of rosemary in the searing air. We sat down facing each other and then, seeing as nobody came in, turned over onto our backs. It was a good place for not saying anything. Outside the sauna, the elderly group had begun to make its way around the edge of the pool, and the high-pitched creaking of their walking sticks and Zimmer frames could be heard, a strange sound, as though those contraptions were made of ice. I started to feel like my head had a wool blanket wrapped around it, and soon fell into something resembling a dream.

“Now, if you don’t mind,” said Enriqueta, jolting me, “I am going to tell you one or two things. Things I want you to know.”

The usual hoarse concision of her speech was gone. Her voice grew distant, as though she were addressing me from horseback, or from high on a mountain, and in a language that in other circumstances I would have defined as biblical.

For a span of forty years, Enriqueta Macedo, upright and beyond reproach, had been giving certificates of authenticity to forged works of art. She earned a commission from each spurious piece that she authenticated, but money was not what drove her. Rather, she said, she wanted to raise the bar for art in general: the true measure of a painting, she said, was how good it was, not the accuracy of the signature in the corner.

“Can a forgery not give as much pleasure as an original? Isn’t there a point when fakes become more authentic than originals? And anyway,” she added, “isn’t the real scandal the market itself?” All of this she fired at me point-blank, with no expectation of reply. She was Enriqueta Macedo, the “She” of the valuations department: How on earth could I be expected to find fault with her arguments?

That first conversation lasted no more than twenty minutes, the recognized period of time after which it becomes very tedious to stay in a sauna. But we found our way back there again on several occasions. It quickly became clear to me why kingpins in the criminal underworld choose to run their private affairs in such places; even the most committed informer, reduced to a swimsuit, can’t wear a wire. O sauna! O great leveler! With bellies on display, there is nothing to tell the millionaire from the beggar, the low-down criminal from the most distinguished of citizens.

There were times when the billowing steam grew especially thick and, the figure of Enriqueta apparently vanishing, I felt that I was actually alone, and that the voice I could hear was coming from inside me.

This was my entry into the world of crime. I finally felt part of something, and the two facets of myself felt met—the one that yearned for protection and the other always in need of adventure.

It soon became clear that she and I were identical souls disguised under different identities. Unsereiner, Enriqueta said we were, quoting the great Bernard Berenson. At root, we were two romantics, rebels to the bourgeoisie and that whole way of seeing the world: the buying way.

With Enriqueta, my life was no longer bland and flavorless. We would spend evenings at her apartment on Pasaje del Carmen eating scrambled eggs (the secret to which, she showed me, was enormous quantities of butter) and watching Orson Welles’s F for Fake, a documentary that is to the world of art forgery as The Godfather is to the Mafia. Elmyr de Hory, the most notorious forger of the twentieth century, was our very own Vito Corleone: the first person to transform the criminal experience into something complex, noble, and heroic. The film never failed to leave us rapt, with some new detail emerging for discussion at every viewing. The same scenes always made Enriqueta laugh, a sound like vast amounts of coal rumbling down a chute; it was a sound from another world, and diabolically contagious.

The forgers we used had little in common with de Hory. They tended to lead obscure lives, often as graduates of the Fine Arts Academy who’d failed to break into the art scene and worked other jobs by day. There was Crosatto, a plumber and specialist in Butler; Chacarita, with his job in his family’s car-repair shop and his unerring Quinquelas; Suárez, who was in fact a successful artist but one who, out of a natural transgressive bent, painted Macciós that were—in his words—“better than the real thing,” and who had a whole family on the production line; and Mildred, a former hostess at the Dragón Rojo, legendary for having forged the Magritte held in the Klemm collection. All were good, said Enriqueta, consummate, even, but none had what she once saw in a forger called Renée: “The disconcerting ability to enter the soul of another.”

We would meet the forger in Las Delicias, a bar on the corner of Callao and Quintana, at a table in the back on the right. We would be accompanied by Lozinski, the Russian who acted as intermediary but who said next to nothing, intent instead on doodling on a paper napkin for the entirety of each meeting. He and Enriqueta acted like old friends, though the past was never explicitly mentioned. There would be gin and tonics, there would be bar snacks, and once the niceties were out of the way, Enriqueta would place the envelope containing the certificate of authenticity on the table, swiftly met by one from the forger containing the money. These were slid in opposite directions, like passing cars. Then it would be up to the ladies to count the money. Enriqueta’s practice was to make two rolls of a similar size, undo the top button of her blouse, and insert each into her bra. And every time, without fail, doing her button up and checking her appearance in the mirror, breasts newly bolstered, she would blow on the tip of her forefinger as if it were the smoking barrel of a gun.

I felt great kinship with Enriqueta, but at the same time began to wonder: Was it kinship with her, or with my own way of thinking? Enriqueta expressed all that I admired; the difference was that she also embodied it. Nobody in the office knew. “If nobody knows,” Enriqueta would say, “for all intents and purposes it doesn’t exist.” Though really my part was a minor one; it was a delectatio morosa sort of thing, me as sidekick, or voyeur. So if it was raining, let us say, it would fall to me to hold the umbrella above her head all the way to whichever assignation we were bound for, and when the rain stopped, carefully close it, shake the raindrops off, and hook it over my forearm for the rest of the way. The substance of our activities, the Rolodex and the phone calls themselves, was her domain. There were occasions when we would come out of a meeting and I would catch her observing me—trying to establish the thickness of my skin, I think. But for all our shady dealings, there was never a point at which I felt shocked. It was not that Enriqueta set me on the path to corruption, more that she revealed how far along it I had already gone.

There would be weeks when no forgeries came in, and that saw the two of us at odds with the world, and me submerged in the endless barrenness of paperwork. But eventually a piece would arrive, and it was like blood returning to our veins. “There’s just something about it,” Enriqueta would say, rubbing her hands together like a squirrel about to make mischief. “A pleasure that’s hard to describe, no? Wars have been started, and homes broken, and careers ended just for this very feeling.”


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