by Inés Fernández Moreno
translated by Andrea G. Labinger
By the sea she still feels young. She doesn’t exactly run, but rather trots briskly, at a pace she’ll be able to maintain without too much effort, covering the entire beach to its northernmost tip, where the rocks begin and it becomes more and more deserted, wilder, and unpopulated: no people, no umbrellas, no scent of suntan lotion. She walks, eyes half-closed, trying to preserve that dreaminess brought on by the sea without losing sight of the surf as it hypnotically breaks against the shore – the initial fury of the wave, its fall, the gentle residue of foam – that perfect, inexhaustible spectacle. In spite of everything, or maybe precisely because of the sea, its vastness, her thoughts turn to the fragility of life, to her fifty years and her fear of old age. That past winter she had studiously observed old women, considering possible models, as if senescence were a garment she would soon change into. Because it’s a comfort, she thinks, it might be a comfort to find women who have finally rounded that final curve with elegance and joy, without overdoing their makeup, hair color, or clothing, women who have found their own style, a sign that they’ve remained on good terms with life. Women who still have interests, loves, imagination. On a daily basis she’s confirmed – in the streets, on the subway, in the plaza or at the movies, standing in line at the bank – that as one advances toward old age, the most common trait is inertness, as well as an unyielding melancholy, a certain expression, eyes dully fixed on the ground, like an anticipation of death.
But every so often, like a rare gem, an old woman appears who pleases her (she’s elated whenever she discovers one of them, imagining for a moment that she can choose). She remembers one she saw walking along Calle Florida, dressed in a dark raincoat, whose bold eyes scrutinized her with the same curiosity with which she stared back, though certainly for different reasons. From the vantage point of that woman’s apparent seventy years, she had thought at the time, her own fifty would seem enviably youthful. She also remembers that Doris Lessing character in Good Neighbors: the languid bubble baths she took, the time she devoted to choosing her silk shirts, her exquisite clothing.
That’s where she finds herself right now. A still-young woman, her senses keenly attuned to the smell of iodine, the fine salt-water mist on her face, the contact of the sand as it yields, crunching softly beneath her feet.
But fifty is also an age when threats lurk. Her dear friend Inés, struggling with cancer. Laura’s sister, with her convulsions. The routine tests, increasingly frequent, increasingly cruel. The horrific specifics of what the damn body is capable of. What were a few wrinkles compared to that?
Then there would be a moment of sense, of awareness. (Death’s practicality, extinguishing all pretensions of beauty, inflicting health concerns, comfortable shoes, loose clothing). A moment of relief when one might finally give up that monotonous, fruitless war against wrinkles or flabbiness, when, one might stand back and look upon youth’s burning desire to please men, to please oneself, with tender indifference. To face the mirror and accept the daily disappointment of no longer seeing that familiar, beloved image, the perplexity and rage of discovering that we’ve been robbed of what had always been our own. (And it was that – that betrayal – which filled women with resentment, the secret source of their malevolence or bitterness). Suppose, then, that the moment had arrived, that she was already mired in old age: Which old woman would be acceptable to her? Which one would she choose? In the distance she saw someone exercising on the beach. She imagined that the still-blurry image was destined specifically for her. Although she couldn’t distinguish her clearly, she was able to follow the rhythmic sequence of a pair of arms stretching skyward and then reaching forward and down, touching the sand; she thought she could discern a black two-piece swimsuit, and on the woman’s head, a kerchief or a bathing cap. As she drew nearer, she could see that the bathing cap was actually a head of very short, white hair that contrasted with her bronzed complexion. She stopped short. Hadn’t she been looking for an old woman to help her come to terms with life? There she was. The sea had brought her in, like those unexpected objects deposited on the shore by the tide. How old was her mermaid? Seventy-five? Seventy-eight? Could she possibly be eighty? In any case, she was very old, but she was tall and erect.
She lay down on the sand, about fifty feet away, so that she could watch her more closely. Now the woman was twisting from the waist, swinging her arms from side to side. Yes, it was true, the body, if slender, more and more resembles the corpse it will one day become. The skin, loosened from the bones. And yet, beneath that dry, flaccid skin, the muscles can still retain some elasticity. That’s how she imagined herself: old, but flexible. But most impressive of all was the woman’s determination to exercise alone by the sea, totally unconcerned with what others might think of that aged body. Being her own center. She smiled. And the old woman, with each twist to her right, also revealed a smiling face with pale eyes and an angularity that contained no rancor or melancholy. What could her name be? She imagined something foreign-sounding, an actress’s name like Marlene or Yvonne.
At last Marlene or Yvonne declared the exercise session over, took two or three deep breaths, and bounded into the sea. None of those pitiful, tentative dips that old people take in water up to their knees, no splashing herself with pathetic little handfuls of water on her shoulders, abjuring the joyful play of the waves. No, her elderly foreigner (yes, she’s definitely a foreigner; she must have come to Argentina as a very young girl), frolicked in the sea, tossing about almost like a child. She watched her move, churning foam with her hands, like blades against the water, dipping her head beneath one wave and then another, running forward to mount the waves just as they reached their apex, and then, from behind the break, body-surfing, her face extended toward the sun. Watching the woman was soothing, a balm that drove away her dark thoughts. If only she could negotiate the danger zone between fifty and sixty, she might become an old woman like Marlene. Was it possible to choose? To make a secret pact before that sea and that sky? Her heart leaped. Why did the idea of becoming someone else terrify her so? It meant taking a risk, of course. But what about those shadowy old men and women she had been observing all year long? A cavalcade of horrors. This woman, on the other hand . . . there was vitality and joy in her. More than that. She must have been beautiful once, with a resilient kind of beauty, capable of retaining a touch of grace till the very end. Well then, why hesitate? She might not get another chance. She would take her, as one takes a spouse. She would accept any kind of death in exchange for this version of old age. Elated, she watched Marlene emerge from the sea and pause at the water’s edge to arrange her hair in a manner that seemed unique: it might have been her long, elegant hands, that special way she had of lifting them above her head and then forward, first displaying the back and then the palms, and of raising her head at the same time, as in a ceremony, offering her entire body to the sun. Just like that, she said very quietly, addressing the old woman or perhaps announcing it to the world in general, to its indifference or its cruelty: That’s how I will be. She looked at her with pride, like something she’d just acquired. And with an owner’s unembarrassed eye, she allowed herself to stare at certain details a little more shamelessly. She observed Marlene’s two-piece swimsuit, plastered to her body by the water. Something was wrong with the ensemble. The consistency of the fabric, its bagginess, the too-high bottoms, or maybe those overly narrow straps . . . Could it be a slightly old-fashioned two-piece swimsuit? Or was it actually underwear? The idea disturbed her. No matter how similar the garments might have been, even if it was just a social convention, who would ever think of going to the beach in a bra and panties? Unaware of her observer’s distress, Marlene headed away from the shore toward the rocks. There was a moment of uncertainty. The sky was no longer such a perfect blue, and a few gusts of wind chilled the air. She discovered a tiny golden spider on her leg. It was as minuscule as a grain of sand, and it determinedly climbed up her thigh, a colossal effort for its size and strength. She thought that if it were ten times larger she would feel terror, rather than that naïve admiration of its minuteness. She picked it up with one finger and deposited it on the sand. Then she rose quickly and began walking in the same direction as Marlene. Like her Chosen One, she took the sandy path that led to the next beach, avoiding the rocks. She continued following her at a discreet distance, so that she could see her appear and disappear intermittently. Now that she had found her, she was reluctant to let too much space come between them. Not because she needed more evidence. After all, if Marlene wanted to go swimming in a bra and panties, so what? A swell of pride drove away her initial alarm. How could it possibly matter to Marlene? For a moment she felt undeserving of her; she imagined herself still a little too stupid and slow-witted to understand the independence and humor that might have influenced Marlene’s decision to dress for the beach any way she wanted. And if at that very moment Marlene were to peel off her swimsuit – or whatever it was – behind the rocks and wade naked into the sea, so much the better. She would stand on the highest rock and give her a round of applause.
The voices she heard in the distance startled her from her reverie.
It was Marlene. Her voice! She’d probably run into some acquaintance or friend – a woman like her would have so many – and most likely she was chatting with them. From where she stood, only isolated words or syllables reached her, distorted by the wind. “Hey,” “nooo,” “when?”, “lovely,” “Juan”, or maybe “gone.”
She decided to stop stalking and walk right past Marlene and her friends and be done with it. After all the most important connection between the two of them had already been established. Then she advanced, her eyes on the path so as to avoid the protruding rocks, like the tips of icebergs beneath the sand. After walking a few more yards, she sees her. She’s sitting with her right shoulder resting against a rock. Her long hands gesticulate as she speaks, exclaims, asks and answers spiritedly, as in any normal conversation. Only it’s not a normal conversation, because there’s no one with her. An imaginary conversational partner who must be responding with very few words, just enough for her, Marlene, to become offended and launch a long diatribe that changes from a hissing, threatening tone to a falsetto, culminating in a brief, hard burst of laughter. She walks by without raising her eyes from the ground, although she hears a whistle; surely it’s not directed at her, but rather at Marlene’s imaginary interlocutor, with whom she seems to become more and more irritated, because now she’s shouting at him harshly, and she picks up her pace, it’s not easy with so many stones on the path, but she no longer cares if she gets injured, she’s so desperate to reach the next beach where she’ll be able to trot briskly, almost running, so that old age, already treading on her heels, won’t catch up with her so soon. And so that the solemn pacts she’s made by the sea will dissolve, like foam on dampened sand.
Inés Fernández Moreno, the daughter and granddaughter of renowned poets César and Baldomero Fernández Moreno, respectively, was born in Buenos Aires in 1947. She graduated from the Facultad de Filosofía y Letras of the Universidad Nacional de Buenos Aires and completed graduate work in Semiotics at the Sorbonne. Since 2002 she has worked as Creative Director in an Argentine advertising agency. She currently resides in Buenos Aires, where she organizes and directs literary workshops.
Fernández Moreno has contributed to notable periodicals such as Clarín, La Nación, and Revista Ñ. Among her published titles are the short story collections La vida en la cornisa (Emecé 1993), Un amor de agua (Alfaguara 1997), Hombres como médanos (Alfaguara 2003), and Marmara (Alfaguara 2009). Her novels include La última vez que maté a mi madre (Editorial Perfil 1999) and La profesora de español (Alfaguara 2005). The English translation of her short story “Carne de exportación” (“Argentine Beef,” trans. Andrea G. Labinger) was published in in The Argentina Independent.
She is the winner of many literary awards, including the Primer Premio Municipal de la Ciudad de Buenos Aires for La vida en la cornisa and La última vez que maté a mi madre, as well as the Premio Max Aub and the Premio Hucha de Oro in Spain for her short stories. Inés Fernández Moreno’s work has been translated into several languages and appears in numerous anthologies.
Andrea G. 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) , Death as a Side Effect, a translation of Ana María Shua’s La muerte como efecto secundario (University of Nebraska Press, 2010), and Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012). Forthcoming titles include Shua’s The Weight of Temptation (University of Nebraska Press) and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis). Please visit Andrea’s website at: http://www.trans-latino-trans-lation.com