Nocturne

A short story by Moira Adriana Pulino

Translated from Italian by Giulia Po

I am blindfolded, but the fabric is a little worn out and I discern something: a tea-colored room, with no windows, a door in the back corner with a tiny grid that drips a sallow light.  I don’t know if it is day or night. I am cold, and scared, or both, because I am trembling, naked, my hands tied with a nylon stocking behind my back. I could untie them, but I do not move a muscle and my attempts to become invisible are in vain. I smell like urine. My mouth is a desert. I make myself small, small, looking for the peeling paint on the wall to disappear into the cement. Suddenly, I hear some steps, those steps. I breathe with difficulty, and the door starts opening, and that rusty sound makes me scream and scream…

I wake, my heart a drum. A silent glance over my soft, banal bed, my body naked but clean and young, with no scars.

That dream has devoured what is left of my sleep; I take a shower and walk outside. The night seems a deep empty basket. It’s two o’clock in the morning.

Dear Soledad, it is Buenos Aires’s fault if I like to walk at night, or  at first light.  People don’t often walk here, at least not for pleasure. But even when we wander aimlessly, we find ourselves in very precise locations. Here I am again at the milonga. Every place in the world, you know, has a milonga, even if people don’t necessarily dance the tango; for some it is the waltz, while for others it might be rap. Places to forget your solitude.

"Free Parking - LA River" - Photo by John Nyboer

She is on the dance floor, her long legs moving. It is a warm night, she is not wearing stockings. But I tired of her stocking games a while ago. Or maybe I am just tired of her obtuseness.  It is true, women come here looking to meet someone, but they all are superficial, satisfied to grab the Argentinean, the good dancer, a trophy to take to the milonga.  And then? None of them has ever looked at me till now. None of them – I am sure – has seen me. In the end, there is always and only you, Soledad.

I burn through my night in embraces and circular trajectories. You come here to forget: a dream, pain, daily life. Even when you think you come for a different reason.

When the night ends, and the nightmare has quieted, I start walking again.

Someone offers me a ride, but I prefer talking with my feet and with you, Soledad.

Outside, the night is still full of empty spaces. Sitting on a step, a guy who is probably my age shoots up. I avert my eyes to protect the intimacy of his disgrace, another possible destiny. Rubén’s face, with his eyes half-closed from the smoke of his joint, appears like a ghost and I smile at him, remembering my first puff and his amusement  at my novice smoker’s cough.

Rubén’s memory brings me back at the time when I still dreamt of wolves and flying carpets. My father would teach me how to play chess at home, while mom would sing and sew on her rocking chair. Her death surprised us as an unexpected and genial move, while the absence of those slightly off-key songs filled our hearts with rhythmic silences. At the beginning we would turn the radio on, seeking an echo of her presence. But ultimately, we preferred the silences that allowed us to find those musical whispers surprisingly wrapped around the teacup, embroidered on the chessboard, or twisted in the toothbrush.

Dad was doing his best, but was only comfortable with me in front of the chessboard, and those mute games became our conversations.

Rubén’s mom saved us. She was alone as well, and maybe looking for a new life. And dad wasn’t so old, even if I thought he was ancient. Anyway, after mom’s death, I gained a brother. He was two years older than me and always seemed to know the right thing to do. He was never afraid. He took me around the neighborhood, and I would watch his joyrides as a silent little journalist.

It was Rubén, Soledad, who prevented you from kidnapping me, giving me an almost sunny childhood. We came up with dreams and stunts under the grapes of Don Rodrigo, who let us come and go in his backyard as we pleased.  He was lame and had hundreds of versions about what happened to his leg, though our favorite was the impossible one about how he had participated in the Conquest of the Desert against the Indians. When he would tell this variant, we would surround him, dancing as if we were part of a tribe, hurling what we thought were terrifying shrieks, anticipating his defeat. Afterwards, the prisoner, the torturers and the cripple leg made peace over a good snack.

Now all this seems like a beautiful dream, Soledad. Not like the strange dreams that I have had since I was a little boy and never told anybody about, not even my mom. In school, I became fascinated by the stories of men who resembled the ones in my visions: prisoners, warriors, men who suffer. Rubén, who didn’t enjoy history, could not understand my obsession with the past, something he considered a morbid fixation. He was interested in the present and, maybe, the future. And yet he has neither anymore.

Yesterday, I tried to escape you, but I met you at Adrián’s and Martina’s. We drank some yerba mate, passing the bombilla from mouth to mouth, delighting in that archaic ritual of bitter brotherhood. Being Argentinean means being spontaneous, in love with friendship and solidarity; and to fear torture, the legalized abuse of power, violence, detesting the cunning lying in wait in the corners of the everyday.

Like Adrián, many feel constricted, re-educated: they have learned to arrive on time, avoid the ironic jokes regularly misunderstood, speak a little bit more softly, not to touch others or ask “invasive” questions. But from their distance, they have minimized the worst defects of their lovers.  No, I have no patience for those who lament the distance. If I feel close to you, Soledad, it is not because I am far from my country.

Sure, it might take a century to receive a lunch invitation from someone here, but who prevents us from importing our best customs? Giving an unexpected hug, asking spontaneous and intrusive questions, breaking and filling with graffiti the wall of “good manners,” dispensing pills of irony! Here, Soledad, if you started an import-export business of customs and traditions, you could find yourself again.

The night accompanies my steps, and a dog, with his slow breath, shadows me and comes closer to sniff me. He might feel your presence, or I might not be of any interest to his nose, because he moves on almost immediately. A little farther away an old man digs through a trashcan while two young people kiss under the porch next door. At night, like in a dream, it seems to me that all the countries are similar.

My feet are tired, from the dancing, the long walk, and the thoughts that chase them. Three friends pass me laughing, and I look back to the time when I was like them. The memory that we feel is intimately ours, it is nothing but a foreign land that sometimes hosts us. Mine is made up of out-of-tune songs, chess, fragrant grapes, and you. But also the winds that the night brings me: men who boarded a boat, fastening their luggage with string and hope; men imprisoned and tortured by someone’s arrogance; men who went to war without knowing why, with their eyes on the front and their hearts at home; women who daily wait for someone to return. And the most recent ones: my father’s broken heart when the government had decided to keep his savings, Rubén’s illogical death when he did not want to give his new sneakers to someone with a gun and nothing to lose.

The city is awakening, the lamps are fading. The aroma of bread caresses me, almost as if to comfort me. But you hold me tight, Soledad, and in that aroma, I find Don Ramón’s snacks, and the cookies prepared by the goodness of my mother’s hands many years ago.

Thank goodness I am not like that poor devil who Borges made remember everything since birth, and maybe even earlier. An immense and unbearable burden. I only suffer from some memories and someone else’s nostalgia. Maybe it is because my dreams take me to different places, Soledad, and I am never home completely. Or maybe because I am part of the immigrants’ backwash brought by the sky and not the sea to discover the wonder of the places praised by our grandparents.  To find that even their memory was full of holes.

Many nights, I wake up sweaty and trembling, my skin saturated with remote visions. I suffer a little, but I cannot help wondering: if everybody dreamed about being someone else sometimes, in some other place, suffering injustice, making love, praying to another God, wouldn’t we all, travelers of the night, finally be citizens of the world? If everybody had that little pinch of nostalgia for others, maybe you would be the one to be forgotten, Soledad.

Breakfast at dawn. I go through an exercise in finding similarities, on a bustling street and in a bar that resembles the old “Britannico” in Buenos Aires as much as an elephant resembles a mouse. On the opposite side, the man who runs the newspaper kiosk unfolds his paper kingdom, positioning travel magazines to the left, glossy geography distant from the dusty images of memories. It is true, I sometimes miss the finite and empty horizon of the morning’s cleaned sidewalks or those chalked by kids for hopscotch, on which I would happily challenge my balance. But if I chased those past afternoons spent under the grapes, I know that I would not find them where I left them, even if I looked a hundred times. You are right, Soledad, you can’t go home again, and that is fine.

The geography of memory is nothing but a route with imperfect coordinates, a drawing that you can only watch: the closed window of Peter Pan. Though he knew how to fly, nonetheless.


Moira Adriana Pulino was born in Argentina and currently lives in Bologna, Italy, where she works as a translator.

Giulia Po earned a Ph.D in Comparative Literature with a specialization in Italian Literature from The Graduate Center of The City University of New York.  She works as an Italian lecturer and lives in Boston.


Story reproduced with the kind permission of the Eks&Tra Association.

The original story (in Italian) available here.


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