By Angelina Muñiz-Huberman
Translated from Spanish by Andrea Labinger
At one time, things reached such a point that I decided to stop on a street corner and never cross again. I was amazed. My body didn’t obey the mental order to keep walking. I was filled with panic: not because I had to cross the street in front of row upon row of cars of all shapes and colors, despite the reassurance of the green light that I could do it without risk, but rather because my mind accepted my body´s immobility and I couldn’t take a single step. At my side, the other people who, like me, had respectfully waited for the light to turn green were already halfway across. By my calculations, it would be impossible to catch up with them and seek protection among them. I couldn’t do it by myself, even if I ran and got it over with. I decided to wait for the green light to change, wait through the next red, and take advantage of the very first moment the light turned green again, crossing immediately. Of course, that might not happen so quickly, either. If a car came by too fast, it might not brake in time, and it would jump the red light and run me over. It’s better to wait for the green to stay on for a while before crossing. But it’s hard to figure out just how long that while is. If I wait too long, I’ll start to worry again about whether there’s time to do it.
This thing about having to cross streets is a real dilemma. Between action and inaction. It reflects my own hesitancy: I can never decide anything in an immediate, definitive way. And if I do, I’m filled with self-doubt: Am I abandoning my old self? The one I’m so fond of and accustomed to? The one who’s so dear and affectionate and comfortable to me? No, no. It’s a hundred times better to keep vacillating.
When I´m feeling Freudian, even though I´ve never been psychoanalyzed (in this regard, I´m pure), I say to myself: Cherchez l´enfance. There must be something, something in my childhood that keeps me from crossing streets. My parents weren’t experts at crossing streets. When I was a little girl, I´d walk between the two of them, with my right hand in my mother´s left, and my left hand in my father´s right. And so we’d all cross together, bravely. Wedged between both of them, I could hardly notice what was going on with the movement of the cars. I trusted them, and that was that. In fact, I even tried not to see what was going on, and consequently I have no experience. No suffering, either. There were no traffic lights during my childhood so I had to learn later in life what the colors represented. Red: stop. Green: go. That fearsome yellow (because it can be ignored): warning. The only thing we had during my childhood was a desperate red lantern that a policeman would wave on every corner, only at night (and especially if it was raining), not to stop traffic, but to move it along. That is, so the cars could keep moving in both directions. The pedestrian had no possibility whatsoever of finding out when it was his turn. Therefore: he could never cross. Umbrellas popped open, and people waited.
That must have been my apprenticeship: waiting and waiting in the rain. And getting all the colors mixed up, because whenever the policeman took pity on the pedestrians (or whenever there were so many
of them that they started to become a nuisance), he would indicate, with an agitated, impatient wave of his red lantern, that they could cross. For me, red means I can cross the street, from corner to corner, under the flaming red protection of the law-enforcement authorities. Later, with modernization, traffic lights were installed throughout the city: at first, somewhat timidly — only at major intersections where there was heavy traffic – and later, with great boldness, at every corner. Thus, walking became a spasmodic ritual of stopping and waiting, crossing and running, with the consequent improvement of sight and hearing. Nearsighted or color-blind folks had to correct their defects and take pains to see better. Seeing-eye dogs had to learn the meaning of a tall pole with three lights that blinked on and off. They did learn, and now they help the blind cross. Sometimes I´ve thought to myself, ‘What if I bought a seeing-eye dog?’ I just might do it. Then I could cross in peace.
Sometimes I feel embarrassed when people watch me and notice how panicky I am. But, who could be watching me? Crossing is so complicated that each pedestrian has to take care of himself. As far as the drivers of cars and trucks are concerned, they don’t waste any time on pedestrian types. And so neither one of those groups is about to stop and observe me. That´s one of my problems: I always feel like I’m being watched. A huge eye is watchful of all my movements. I´ve got to be extremely careful not to disappoint that huge eye.
I pretend I´m not interested in crossing. I could be waiting for something or someone, right? It might be the predetermined location of a date. But what if I´ve been stood up? What will everyone else think? Although it´s almost better if they think I´ve been stood up instead of discovering I´m afraid to cross the street.
There´s one more detail I must confess: I´m from the country. From a little town in the mountains. Before I came to the city, I didn’t even know what a street was. A road, yes, but even that was very far away. And there, for sure, anyone crossing was more than likely to get run over and killed. The association between asphalt and death is binding.
Well, now. The light’s turned red again. I can’t cross. I´ll go over to the newspaper stand and read the headlines. But just a few. The green’s going to come on right away. There. It’s green now. But, what if there’s not enough time? I don’t think I´ll have time. Better wait a while longer. I could also go down to the middle of the block, where there’s a space between the cars, and cross there. By the time I get there, it’ll be too late, and other cars will have caught up with me.
What I ought to do is wait until midnight, or six in the morning, to cross. I could wait till Sunday, and in that case, I wouldn’t have to get up so early, and at 8:00 AM I could cross. Of course, if I’m going to buy food, the stores won’t be open. I´ll have to wait for them to open. But it doesn’t matter. Meanwhile, I´ll think about street-crossing strategies. When I come out of the store, the traffic will be frightful, so I´ll just walk around the block until midnight. Buying two oranges, a pear, and a banana could mean watching the sunrise and sunset from the same corner, by merely turning my body. Nevertheless, I´ve got to take care of myself. That´s why I do it.
And why do I have to take care of myself? Who says I have to? The huge eye watching over me? Or my parents, who wouldn’t want anything bad to happen to me?
Ever since I was a little girl, my parents overprotected me. Of all their children, I was the only survivor. They all died, run over by cars. What? Run over? Yes, yes! Run over. One after another. Of course. Now I can explain everything: that´s the cause of my panic (then Freud was right, even though I´ve never experienced it in the flesh). (I have the idea that the huge eye is Freud. If Freud were still alive, would he show me how to cross the street?).
Yes, my parents overprotected me when I was little. I never went out into the street alone; I was always between them, like a prisoner flanked by two policemen. If we had been run over, we’d all have died together. Whenever we traveled by car, they stuck me in between them as well, and a powerful arm from each one of them automatically shot
forward to stop my body if the car came to a sudden halt. Protection was one thing I didn’t lack.
Ever since then, traveling by car has made me suspicious. Instead of being run over, the car I was traveling in might have hit another one. In any event, it was a question of a violent death. It seems I couldn’t escape.
These ostentatious deaths flashed before me with complete clarity and influenced one of the strategies I devised, as the hours went by, before the prospect of crossing the street. And what was that strategy? It was terrific: to hail a taxi to take me to the opposite sidewalk. But, in light of the possibility of a crash, my right hand, the one I use when I want to signal a taxi to pull up by my side, became paralyzed.
In short, I realize my situation is complicated.
Of course, now that I´m thinking about it, if I take a taxi to cross the street, I can do it only if the light is green, which means that it’s red in the other direction, and the cars aren´t moving. But an accident´s an accident, and what if one of the cars runs the red light and hits mine?
I´ll have to find another solution. This one’s no good.
In order to keep justifying what the hell I´m doing on this street without crossing it, I decide to buy a magazine at the newspaper stand, and I start reading it. I amuse myself this way for a while, and time flies. I start to feel hungry. I discover there’s a vendor selling cucumbers and jicamas with chile. I go over to him and buy some. It’s very tasty. This gives me courage. Maybe now I can cross the street. Now I feel thirsty. Yes, the vendor also has sodas. I buy one from him. Delicious. I really am enjoying this excursion out on the street. If it weren’t for having to cross over to the other side, I’d turn around and go back home. That’s enough for today.
No. I have to be brave. I’ve got to die somehow. If I shoot out as soon as the next green light appears, I´ll have time to cross. But what if I slip? Well, no problem, I´ll just get up and keep running. And what if I’m too panicky to get up? It’s true, I should be prudent. I don’t think I´m going to cross.
But, how can I give up? There’s the red again. This is becoming a never-ending story. Red, green, red, green, and yellow in between. The lights are changing faster and faster. The light must be broken. I´m right: it’s dangerous to cross the street. More than likely, I´ll make up my mind to walk and suddenly the light will turn red, and I´ll get run over immediately.
It´s a nightmare. I´ve got no other choice but to connect with someone. But, who? Because it can’t be just anybody. I have to choose the person with whom I´m going to cross the street very carefully. It has to be someone who doesn´t suspect what´s going on with me. The bad part is that when people cross the street, they do it one after another; they don´t line up side by side or stand too close together. Unless they know one another or are friends, or a couple, or kids. Old people don’t do that, either, because, even if they’re a couple, there’s always one of them walking in front of the other. If I moved up to stand next to someone, he’d get offended, or he’d be annoyed. Why am I stealing his walking space? The space that escapes from a pedestrian with every step belongs to him, as long as he still has his foot in it. I’d be regarded as an intruder, a person who doesn´t know the rules, the rules of transit.
The idea of connecting with someone is no good, either. Of course, if I pretend to act rashly, why should I give a hoot what other people think? I´ll just go up to someone and say, ‘Excuse me, I´m afraid to cross the street. I´m a crossophobic. Don’t take this the wrong way, but, can I do it with you?’ He’d be completely taken aback and he wouldn´t refuse. Meanwhile, we’d have wasted precious time, and the green would be about to change again. Another failed attempt.
Is it possible I´ll never cross this street? I´ve done it before. What´s wrong with me today? What is this? Drops are falling. Great, just what we needed — it’s raining! The traffic will go berserk. The lights will get messed up. Cars will skid on the newly-wet asphalt. What a disaster! It’ll be the end of the world. I´ve got to protect myself. I´ll take refuge under this overhang as long as the rain lasts. I can´t even go back home: I´d get drenched to the skin.
What bad luck I have! It’s best never to leave home. The newspaper vendor has closed up his stand, and as far as the cucumber and jicama vendor is concerned, I didn’t notice when he left, but he’s not there anymore. It’s starting to get dark. The rain is letting up. And here I am, in the same place. I haven’t had a chance to cross the street. Things are conspiring against me. Why won’t they let me cross? Why do drivers have the right-of-way over pedestrians?
I can’t think of what else to try in order to cross the street. Because it’s not my fault: I´ve tried everything. I´ve been standing here, on this corner, all day long. Really, all day. It’s not only dark out, it’s cold, too. When I left the house this morning, it was hot and I didn’t put on a sweater or a jacket. Besides, it was just going to be for a moment. I’m shivering. I feel sick. Two choices: either I dash out without thinking about it, no matter if the light is red or green, or I turn around and go back into my house. This never happened to me before. At least not before my parents died — run over, as well, in keeping with the family tradition.
I´ve just realized something: I miss my parents. I always used to cross the street in between the two of them, with my right hand in my mother´s left and my left hand in my father’s right.
I´ll never cross the street.
“I´ll Never Cross the Street” is a short story included in Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s The Confidantes, published by Gaon Books.
Angelina Muñiz-Huberman (Hyères, France, 1936) has lived in Mexico since 1942. She teaches at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) and is a guest lecturer at international universities. She is the author of 40 books of fiction, poetry and essays. Some of her literary themes are Jewish mysticism and Cryptojudaism. Her work has been awarded with major prizes and translated into various languages. Some of her titles published in English are: Enclosed Garden, The Confidantes, and A Mystical Journey. She is included in The Oxford Book of Jewish Stories; With Signs & Wonders; The Scroll and The Cross; The Schocken Book of Modern Sephardic Literature; Miriam´s Daughter, Jewish Latin American Poets, among other anthologies. At present Angelina Muñiz-Huberman holds a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts (Mexico).
Andrea G. Labinger is Professor of Spanish Emerita at the University of La Verne. Labinger specializes in translating Latin American prose fiction. Among the many authors she has translated are Sabina Berman, Carlos Cerda, Mempo Giardinelli, Ana María Shua, Alicia Steimberg, and Luisa Valenzuela. Call Me Magdalena, Labinger’s translation of Steimberg’s Cuando digo Magdalena (University of Nebraska Press, 2001), received Honorable Mention in the PEN International-California competition. The Rainforest, her translation of Steimberg’s La selva, and Casablanca and Other Stories, an anthology of Edgar Brau’s short stories, translated in collaboration with Donald and Joanne Yates, were both finalists in the PEN-USA competition for 2007.The Island of Eternal Love, her translation of Cuban novelist Daína Chaviano’s La isla de los amores infinitos, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in 2008. More recently Labinger has published The Confidantes, a translation of Angelina Muñiz-Huberman’s Las confidentes (Gaon Books, 2009) and Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Please visit Andrea’s website at: http://www.trans-latino-trans-lation.com