Idiosincrasia

Ensimismada por la insistencia de su cilantro en amarillear, Angélica se imagina su propia muerte con una clarividencia abrumadora por enésima vez en la vida. Y eso que ahora no fuma. Antes, cuando se acomodaba durante horas en la barda de la Casa de Cortés, para ver a la gente de paseo y susurrarse efímeras ficciones ajenas mientras se vestía los interiores con humos, jamás le invadían pensamientos obituarios. 

El fulgor verde de sus lechugas al atardecer la suelen llenar de brío, pero a veces empatiza con el cilantro: al ser grupo de riesgo, su esposo y el hijo que todavía vive en la casa familiar apenas si la dejan salir. Arranca las hojillas malheridas de cuajo, porque dejarse hipnotizar por sus humores ocráceos sería como volver a los años de amargura en Emiratos Árabes Unidos, cuando la mera idea de enfermar o morir le producía tal pánico que se sumía ya en las garras de un insomnio anclado en la ansiedad, ya en esos sueños profundos de hasta veinte horas de quienes quieren escapar de la realidad.

Ahí sí que estaba sola por sentencia: empujada al exilio por el despido masivo de aquella criminal empresa que, de un día para otro, puso a ocho mil quinientas familias de patitas en la calle, sin declarar quiebra ni dar finiquitos ni indemnizaciones ni salarios caídos ni nada de nada. Se robaron hasta las cajas de ahorros de los trabajadores con el apoyo de ese ratero de Calderón, quien jamás se mereció el honor de presidir la República Mexicana.

En los Emiratos, sus hijos no aguantaron ni un tris y su esposo pilotaba aviones sin descanso: no se le veía el pelo durante seis días seguidos y luego se marchaba de nuevo a las pocas horas de volver al hogar. «Hogar», en ese caso, servía de eufemismo para «departamento teñido de la soledad impuesta de existir en medio de la arena de un país donde las palabras de una mujer se equiparan a la nada y su valía solo depende de la de un hombre y más como extranjera, que una pasa a la categoría de ciudadana de tercera clase».

Escapa de los tormentos añejos gracias a la palpabilidad de un fruto maduro de su huerta. Hace unos días leyó que «aguacate» en náhuatl significa «testículo», así que lo saborea regodeándose en la etimología y evitando mirar de reojillo las hojitas secas del cilantro, que le recuerdan a toda la gente que está muriendo —decenas, cientos, miles: las cifras no paran de subir—. A través del gusto regresa a su ser, a su presencia en Coyoacán, donde vive y donde fallecerá, porque ya no piensa morar ni morir en ningún otro lugar del planeta jamás.

Aquella otra vez que vislumbró la parca, estaba atrapada casi en las antípodas con una depresión coronada por la certeza de que la mataría. Su temor la llevó a hacer jurar y perjurar a su marido que, si la muerte llegaba, mandaría sus restos a México para que sus cenizas se desperdigaran por cada rincón de Coyoacán; daba igual si en las banquetas, los maceteros, los charcos o incluso los botes para la basura: ella quería desperdigarse por su barrio querido, por la tierra que la llenaba de sollozos y nostalgias incluso cuando se sumía en esos sueños profundos de los que despertaba empapada en sudor y suspiros con el amor por su polícroma tierra exacerbado. Si sus restos permanecieran hasta los confines de la eternidad en esos territorios remotos, sería como morir por duplicado. 

Allá, inmersa en el desamparo, viviendo algunos de los peores años de su vida, se acostumbró a hilar palabrillas en el silencio más absoluto y ahora espera a que ennegrezca el día y su familia se deje embelesar por la caída de los párpados, para que el ruido sólo quepa en el pasado y en el futuro. Y entonces, sólo entonces, consigue escribir los portentosos microcuentos y poemas que le brotan de las uñas al sigilo de su fascinante guarida crepuscular. 

Pero hay veces en que el silencio se llena del ruido causado por la incertidumbre del mañana y entonces anhela la inspiración pasada: ya no se puede sentar en la barda de la Casa de Cortés, su lugar favorito para observar a la gente e inventarse historias. Aunque mejor, ya que el mequetrefe del alcalde ha anotado una escabechina más a su lista de barbaridades cometidas y por cometer, afeando el edificio al cubrir de blanco el radiante amarillo pretérito y alejando de la zona toda brizna de inspiración.

Con el confinamiento se ha aferrado a las letras y está más activa que nunca: a sus cincuenta y siete años se ha convertido en toda una marisabidilla de la tecnología e imparte cursos en línea, participa de proyectos de escritura virtuales y hace de las noticias, añoranzas, reminiscencias y rutinas sus musas. En días como hoy, se cuestiona su propia supervivencia y se convence de que permanecerá en este mundo cristalizándose en la literatura. 

Ha comenzado un microcuento —«Escurrían sobre sus redes los sudores de varios bichos»—, pero necesita llenarse los entresijos de brisillas para poder continuarlo. Sube a la azotea del edificio a tomar ese aire nocturno que parece tan limpio —la contaminación se camufla, sibilina, entre las maravillas de la noche— y disfruta del sonido de los árboles mecidos por el viento y del canto de los grillos que festejan el verano. Su casa, ese refugio donde se narra por dentro, se envuelve entre las cálidas páginas de sus libros, los deliciosos zarandeos de sus plantas y los entrelazamientos con su familia. 

Una tormenta de verano le recuerda que está viva con el vigor de la lluvia y el arte fugaz de los relámpagos sobre el cielo violeta; y sobrelleva con dulzura su enésima certeza de la propia muerte, pero se resiste a sucumbir a sus promesas de descanso porque desearía no marcharse todavía de este mundo. Aunque, si pereciese, habría cumplido con lo que ha venido a hacer: se encuentra en su país, sus hijos ya se dan de comer solos y ha plantado semillitas literarias acá y acullá: no teme su partida, qué va, empero le tiene pánico a irse con dolor y sufrimiento. 

Ya enraizada donde debe, se permite el lujo de ponerse tiquismiquis: si se muriera ahora —de golpe, por favor, de golpe—, no querría que sus restos cayeran en cualquier agujero de su barrio: le encantaría que se arremolinaran alrededor del quiosco del parque Hidalgo y acariciaran a los mimos y los payasos callejeros que entretienen a un público, ahora medio ausente, por unas cuantas monedas; adoraría que sus cenizas bailotearan entre los sones y huapangos que ensayan los jaraneros en el parque de La Conchita; disfrutaría que se colaran por las fosas nasales de los gringos que se apelotonan en la casa de Frida Kahlo y se niegan a soltar jamás una mísera palabrita en nuestra lengua, para hacerlos al menos estornudar en español.

Desde el sosiego de la azotea se siente más coyoacanense que nunca. Es feliz en el lugar correcto, aunque la muerte ronde. Medita un poco —pero poco, que si no se queda dormida— y se dice que mañana inundará de amor a su familia con besos, abrazos, rica comida y les dirá que ya saben que ella es muy apapachona —porque revienta si no se llena la boca cada día con su palabra favorita, exiliada del diccionario academicista— y se inventará que falta algo indispensable y saldrá al supermercado o a la farmacia para empaparse los sentidos brevemente del arcoíris urbano hoy negado por el confinamiento. 

La pandemia no le ha arrebatado ni un gramito de hambre, y hoy Angélica sueña que las calles se dejan pasear libremente de nuevo y que come quesadillas en el mercado de antojitos, un chocolate en El Jarocho y un helado de higo con mezcal sentada en una banca oyendo el sonido de la fuente de los Coyotes mientras se llena las pupilas de las variopintas personas que, sin darse cuenta, le regalan esas historias que nutren las hambrientas líneas de su literatura.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

Acribia

Cada vez que ve su propia imagen, se le aparece Alfonsina Storni para susurrarle alguna perogrullada. «Al mirar mis mejillas, que ayer estaban rojas», le canturrea, dejándole a Giselle con la duda si se referirá al maquillaje o a las ronchas.

Como en las videoconferencias con los alumnos apenas si se aprecia el colorete, la máscara de pestañas y el labial —a diferencia de cuando había clases presenciales—, quizás la poeta hable de cómo Giselle ha renunciado a ese color rojizo con el que siempre se aderezaba. Pero Giselle de verdad cree que Storni tiende más bien a la sororidad, así que la estará piropeando porque el confinamiento se ha llevado los sarpullidos que antes le invadían la cara.

Giselle se queda largo rato observando su reflejo: hacía demasiado tiempo que no veía ese rostro que es intrínsecamente suyo. Lo mira y remira y lo admira. En el aula, se sentía el centro de todas las miradas e intentaba acudir de punta en blanco, para que sus estudiantes no la sometieran a un interrogatorio mordaz: que si la profe Gise está muy pálida, que si la profe Gise no se peinó hoy, que si la profe Gise lleva un pantalón muy ajustado. Por primera vez no siente la presión de cubrirse con la feminidad reglamentaria ni de tener que esconder cualquier anomalía: ahora no existe el estrado, sino que ella ocupa un cuadradito más en la pantalla y está a la misma altura que el resto de la clase.

La pregunta más inquisidora, sin duda, versaba sobre el porqué de las ronchas. Qué sé yo, les decía siempre, rehilando sobremanera el «yo» avivada por el puñal del incordio. Tener que exponerse así y que dar explicaciones que ni ella misma tenía alimentaba las ronchas hasta que el maquillaje no servía y rasca, rasca, rasca y se veía obligada a recurrir a aquellas dolorosas inyecciones de corticoides.

Qué sé yo, qué sé yo. Nadie sabía el origen de esos ronchones que llevaban dos años brotándole por todo el cuerpo: ni los médicos generales en Río Cuarto, ni los dermatólogos en Córdoba, ni, desde luego, aquel doctor que aún creía en las brujas y en la histeria y que le recetó que se marchara un tiempito a Gigena porque todo se debía a la locura.

Pero las cremas y los comprimidos ya forman parte de esa realidad remota en que Giselle corría de un lado para otro automáticamente, todo el día, todos los días —las clases en dos institutos, los exámenes, las atenciones familiares, los mates con las amigas—. Su vida dependía del cronómetro inexorable de los hábitos repetidos y no podía parar, no podría parar; pero ahora que las agujas del reloj llevan meses retenidas, ha resuelto el misterio de esos molestos sarpullidos: lo que le irritaba el cuerpo era el purito estrés.

Giselle lleva tanto rato frente al espejo, que Alfonsina reaparece: «Ser alta, soberbia, perfecta, quisiera, como una romana». Y sí: la muchacha extraña su aspecto impoluto y se siente petisa, porque no le apetece alisarse la rubia melena ni andar de tacos para estar en casa.

A decir verdad, a veces sí recurre al repiqueteo para poner orden: cuando las hormonas de sus estudiantes están en huelga antiliteraria, se calza los zapatitos rojos, esos de tacones portentosos, y camina de un lado para otro de su cuarto, para producir ese sonido hipnótico que amaina a cualquier bestia. Y, en cuanto vuelve a las pantuflas, se jura que jamás se las sacará aunque la vida se rebobine y nunca se pongan de moda.

Su cuarto, como el resto de la casa, ahora hace las veces de hogar y de lugar de trabajo, y se desdibujan tanto las líneas entre ocio y obligación que siente a menudo que sus días se espachurran en una sola dimensión en que siempre está a un clic de todo el mundo, dispuesta a recibir encargos y deberes y dictámenes y protestas.

Enciende el ordenador y prueba la cámara para ver que todo esté perfecto: el ángulo idóneo, el fondo y la camisa y el peinado profesionales y la luz a una buena temperatura. Se cuela por la ventana una conversación que no puede evitar entreoír —el año está perdido, che, los profes no hacen un pedo—, y antes de que se unan sus estudiantes al aula virtual, Storni la sosiega: «gimen porque nace el sol, gimen porque muere el sol…». Al mirarse en la pantalla, se siente poderosa y la vocecilla de la poeta runrunea y la vigoriza. Cuando comienzan a aflorar adolescentes en la pantalla, los saluda con dulzura y distancia, porque los adora, pero necesitan rigidez para concentrarse y recitar poesía. Se le pasa la mañana volando entre los versos dorados de sor Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Emiliano llega del hospital a las dos, puntual, con la jornada laboral a la espalda y el canturreo cordobés colgando de su sonrisa permanente. Se ducha ipso facto, porque Río Cuarto presenta ya cien casos, los primeros, aparecidos meses después que en las zonas del mundo más pobladas, y hay que ser más precavidos. Entretanto, Giselle pone la mesa y sirve la comida. Se besan antes de sentarse, torpemente, aún desacostumbrados a la diferencia mayor de altura desde que los tacones no forman ya parte de su rutina. Piensa en pedirle a su novio que se encargue de quitar la mesa más tarde, pero vendrá cansado, no importa, vos hacés otras cosas.

La profesora se enreda últimamente en reflexiones flamantes que le brotan desde lo más profundo de su fuero interno: al salir a trabajar, una siente que se equipara con el hombre, pero, al contrario que su novio, ella sí puede teletrabajar y, al pasar todo tiempo en casa, pareciera que Emiliano es quien labura de verdad, que ella solo enreda un poco por el ciberespacio y plin.

Por mucho que pugne con sus adentros —que yo no vine al mundo para hacer esto, que mi mamá me enseñó a no ser esclava de las tareas domésticas, que no me tengo que reducir al hogar—, no puede evitar arrastrar ancestralmente las tradiciones que la aplastan y la anulan, y es ella quien sobre todo acondiciona ese lugar, hilando el trabajo remunerado con el invisible y gratuito, porque no le cuesta nada, porque le gusta que todo esté limpio y ordenado, porque lo siente más suyo porque lo habita más rato y, asúmelo, porque los siglos a las mujeres se nos ha encasquetado todo embrollo doméstico, y es más fácil continuar con la costumbre que nadar contracorriente.

Una vez acabado el almuerzo, la pareja se rinde a la siesta, a la que no quieren renunciar, porque es lo único que les queda intacto de aquella vida pasada que se pierde en la neblina y se descascarilla sin remedio. Justo antes de caer en las redes del sueño, los iris de Emiliano reflejan un par de Giselles y mana ese rumor convincente de que «la casa era un arrullo, un perfume infinito, un nido blando» y la melosidad de la escena la amodorra apaciblemente.

Al despertar, él estudia y ella trabaja en la cama, arrecida por el frío invernal de agosto en la ciudad de los vientos y despojada de la culpa que la carcomía al principio de la cuarentena por corregir las tareas desde la comodidad de cojines y cobijas y no desde la rigidez adusta de un escritorio. La culpa también se le dibuja como una penitencia femenina, que se multiplica al dedicarse a la docencia, porque siente el escrutinio incesante de la fama que tienen los profesores de vivir eternamente de vacaciones.

Giselle mira por la ventana y Alfonsina musita desde el cristal aquello de que «¿qué mundos tengo dentro del alma que ha tiempo vengo pidiendo medios para volar?». Emiliano rompe el reflejo, y su novia le pregunta extasiada que cómo hacíamos todo lo que hacíamos, de verdad, cómo, cómo lo hacíamos. Él se encoge de hombros y la ve iluminada y declara con un beso que él hoy hará la cena, para demostrarle que también anda últimamente cuestionándose los roles.

En las imperfecciones de la nueva normalidad, Giselle ha encontrado un bálsamo: no madruga tanto, no corre de un lado para otro y no se llena de ronchas y ronchas por el estrés. Que el mundo se haya parado de golpe le ha regalado ese tiempo que no sabía que necesitaba, y ahora se siente más ella que nunca, porque ha recuperado su altura, su rostro y su piel y  porque cada día le ofrece un huequito para reordenarse, reorganizarse y readaptarse.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus, de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas

Prolepse

[Leer cuento en español]

Enquanto toma ar na sacada, Phil se junta na dança eterna das copas das árvores que cobrem com dificuldade a realidade urbana de cimento e azulejo. Seus cabelos alaranjados não saem para passear mais do que o justo e necessário; ao contrário de sua mente: aquela vegetação o hipnotiza mais uma vez até que sua imaginação foge e vê — e sente — a terra sempre úmida de Londres a cada pisada, as cosquinhas da lavanda movida pelo vento e a mão minúscula do pequeno Colin, que entrelaça os dedos de sua outra mão com os do Adrien.

A caminho da fazenda urbana, Colinho vai correndo sem se soltar dos seus pais e conta como foi o primeiro dia da creche e pergunta incansavelmente por quê, por quê, por quê. Phil o entretém ensinando os número em português, Adrien enche seus ouvidos de continhos franceses e logo cantarolam sussurrantes Thinking Out Loud porque sempre encontram um espaço para entoar a canção deles. Na fazenda, Colinho gargalha e às vezes se assusta com algum grunhido e repassa os nomes dos animais em todos os idiomas de seu universo. Quando fica com desejo de um doce, Phil não sabe se seu filho quer um muffin, um éclair ou um brigadeiro, e a dúvida o tira do devaneio.

A interrupção não o incomoda, certamente porque a volta à realidade o converte em um limbo delicioso onde o tempo que habita as copas das árvores transcorre em câmera lenta. O que o chama a atenção é como seu subconsciente sempre escolhe os nomes mais britânicos que existem hoje saiu Colin, ontem imaginou uma Prudence, na quinta-feira era Freddy e outro dia era uma Daisy ; e acha muito engraçado como em seguida já os aportuguesa, como se sua língua materna se impusesse quase indignada aos anos e anos de residência na Inglaterra.

Volta com tudo à realidade com o som de um e-mail novo. Sempre que vê o nome da assistente social na tela do celular, sente um aperto no coração, cruza os dedos, chama o Adrien mensagem da Ginnie! e abre a missiva digital em sua presença. Suspiram: novidades sem novidades mais outra entrevista juntos.

Nunca sabem muito bem o que vão encontrar na próxima reunião com Ginnie. Adrien é mais contido nas palavras, mas para o tagarela do Phil sempre há mais e mais do que falar. Nas entrevistas individuais, passou mais de duas horas contando minuciosamente os pormenores dos casos de amor do seu tio favorito, as disputas que definem o lado mais obscuro da história familiar e como sua avó desafiou as rígidas normas sociais do Brasil dos anos 60 ao criar suas filhas. As entrevistas juntos obrigam o casal a se olhar além de suas pupilas, confessar crenças que nem sabiam que tinham e a tomar decisões distantes e intangíveis firmemente. E não só a explorar um ao outro: a cada entrevista, Phil e Adrien sentem que mergulham um pouco mais nas profundidades de si mesmos.

Apesar dos temores iniciais, a pandemia os presenteou com certas facilidades no processo. Para as reuniões com a assistente social antes do confinamento, ambos eram obrigados a pedir o dia livre no trabalho, chegar com uma pontualidade britâniquíssima, se pentear, se arrumar e esconder qualquer tique nervoso repentino. Mas agora tudo está muito mais simples, porque as entrevistas por Skype combinam bem com a jornada de trabalho, há mais permissividade com os cortes de cabelo e reina um verdadeiro alívio ao falar no conforto do lar.

Na última entrevista, Ginnie os avisou que na etapa seguinte teriam que decidir a idade. Caso quisessem um bebê, teriam que parar de trabalhar por um ano, mas a empresa só concede três semanas pagas, mas Londres é caríssima e eles não têm muitas economias, mas poderiam ter mais se mudassem para um apartamento mais barato, mas mudar é um símbolo de inconsistência e a agência de adoção exige uma estabilidade de pedra, mas com a ajuda do governo, mas ter tudo isso só mesmo se fosse o Sir Elton Hercules John.

Na próxima entrevista, terão que falar o porquê querem adotar. Isso foi Ginnie que disse, além da data e da hora, que confirmaram ipso facto. Adrien resmunga e entra em casa; Phil prefere ficar na sacada e busca e busca um porquê não tão batido.

Antes de abandonar a brisa da sacada, Phil olha uma última vez ao exterior e sente uma certa fricção entre a esmagadora inatividade daquelas ruas (em que nada parece acontecer) e a exaltação da mudança iminente que chegará em semanas, meses ou um ano? Ao contrário do lado de fora, suas vidas se inundam de velocidade e emoção.

Hoje é a vez do Adrien de cozinhar e como sabe que o Phil tem tendência à melancolia e sente falta das noites de Camden, preparou um fish and chips de bacalhau, como no Poppies, acompanhado de uma caneca de cerveja e as melhores canções de ser bar favorito, The Hawley Arms, temporariamente fechado, mas hoje aberto em um lar qualquer de Londres. Para evitar falar das perguntas de Ginnie e dos medos, as expectativas e os desafios da paternidade, falam sobre seu dia de trabalho em casa: Adrien estava criando um comercial de grão de bico para Luxemburgo e Phil selecionou desenhos dos filhos de seus amigos para aparecer no canal de TV. Como suas vidas sociais são unicamente um com o outro, a conversa escolhida chega rapidamente ao fim e não conseguem evitar que o futuro volte às suas bocas e acabam falando de quando os três forem a Mantes-la-Jolie visitar os pais de Adrien, do bom exemplo que vai ser a carinhosíssima afilhada do Phil, Lily, de quando visitarem Petrópolis para fazer a apresentação especial do novo membro da família, e das danças que farão na pista ao ritmo das Spice Girls.

Todas as noites incluindo as noites de Camden , o casal assiste a uma série, e hoje estão com sorte: há um episódio novo de uma de suas preferidas. Mas aos 6 minutos e 16 segundos, Adrien já está dormindo com a perna esticada, como de costume, então Phil decide deixar Killing Eve para amanhã porque entende os limites fixados pelo código moral de uma união sagrada e sabe que não pode ver uma cena a mais sozinho.

De natureza mais noturna, Phil ainda continua um bom tempo até que o cansaço o invada. Como Adrien não liga muito para Friends, ele assiste a dois episódios contendo as risadas com as piadas, mesmo que já saiba todas de cór. Entre piadas e piadas, olha de canto de olho o seu marido que, quando dorme, fica cheio de ternura e parece quinhentos anos mais novo. Aos poucos, vai chegando ao seu lado e Adrien cede seu corpo para aconchegar-se, como se magnetizado pela inércia sonolenta de seu idílio. Nesse momento e como todas as noites, Phil adormece com a absoluta certeza de que seus corpos se encaixam perfeitamente e lembra de Colinho e Prudencinha e Fredinho e Daisinha e suas pálpebras cedem às saudades do futuro.

{Tradução de Philippe Ladvocat}

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Este relato pertenece à coleção de contos pandêmicos
baseados em histórias reais
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus
(«Amor nos tempos do coronavírus»),
por Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas

Onirismo

[Read story in English]

Al fin y al cabo, Keza lleva ya un tiempo practicando la omnipresencia: añadir otra ciudad a la lista no tiene por qué cambiar nada. El sábado arranca con una entrevista de trabajo por Zoom, que le había dicho a Ganza que acabaría a las doce como mu-chí-si-mo, pero ya han pasado tres cuartos de hora desde el mediodía y la muchacha sigue ahí, con la lengua embadurnada de sus escarceos curriculares como ingeniera informática, el desparpajo que la caracteriza y augurios de mudanza: si la eligen, llegará a Seattle, Washington, en seguida, sí, sí, ningún problema, si me pilla cerquísima, no hay nada que me ate. 

Sin pretensiones de cotillear, Ganza no puede evitar escuchar de fondo cada promesa de Keza y le entristece el mero hecho de pensar en su partida. Intenta centrarse en la cocina: ya tiene preparadas desde hace un buen rato las mimosas (se van a aguar), las tortitas (se van a enfriar), la fruta (se va a oxidar), las bolas de helado (se van a derretir). La paciencia se le está consumiendo, pero sabe que se trata de una gran oportunidad laboral para ella, pero no quiere que se marche de Nebraska, pero en realidad son menos de cuatro horas en avión, pero él tampoco es que se pueda mudar ahora, pero no tendrá problema para encontrar algo allí como ingeniero eléctrico cuando esté libre, pero ojalá se quede, pero cuelga ya, copón, pero.

Cuando Keza termina, se nota que la entrevista la ha dejado exhausta, pero se recupera con ese brunch aguado, frío, oxidado, derretido y lleno de amor que le ha preparado su Ganza. Ninguno menciona los desperfectos culinarios y disfrutan mucho de ese comienzo de fin de semana cumpleañero, a pesar de los incesantes soniditos de notificaciones, que Keza ignora, pero que enervan a Ganza, con tanto bip-bip-bip, bip-bip-bip. Keza no se molesta en mirar el móvil: a las nueve de la noche en África central, sus tías por fin han aparcado el ajetreo diario y le mandan recomendaciones en forma de fotos y memes y vídeos y textos de copia-pega con kilómetros de faltas de ortografía sobre cómo lavarse las manos, los beneficios de comer carne, los robots antiepidemia en los hospitales, los maleficios de la delgadez, los horrores de los vestidos demasiado cortos. Y también envían selfies, muchos selfies, todos los días, con luces y perspectivas que resaltarían inevitablemente cualquier papada de cualquier tía. No todas son sus tías-tías: en Ruanda, cada bebé crece en el seno de la comunidad, consanguinidad mediante o no, y las mujeres que se involucran en la crianza derrochan una generosidad vestida consejos ad æternum, por mucho que una ya tenga una edad. Las tías-no-tías con WhatsApp son el antónimo de silencio.

A pesar de las truculencias del bip-bip-bip, la mezcla explosiva de champán y vitamina C los empieza a poner mimosos, pero enseguida llega una llamada interruptus. Ganza le pide que no lo coja, anda, que tu cumpleaños no es hasta mañana, pero sabe de sobra cómo funcionan esos paquetes de veinticuatro horas de llamadas e internet en su patria: si no contesta ahora, igual no hablarán hasta dentro de una o dos semanas.

Es la madre de Keza. Ya sabes, chitón. Que no podía esperar a mañana, que qué tal por Maine, que muy bien, muy bien, tranquila, que si por aquí todo como siempre. Las conversaciones con mamá rozan lo soporífero, y más ahora que se ha hecho a la narración desde el embuste —antes, al menos, las verdades a medias la llenaban de adrenalina—. Le cuenta qué estaría haciendo en Maine y reproduce su día en Nebraska, cambiando un poquito de escenario, imaginándose confinada en soledad en aquel apartamento que lleva semanas sin pisar. Ya no se pone nerviosa cuando hablan, porque está cómoda en la acolchada mentirijilla piadosa: por si mamá llama hoy —como en Ruanda es invierno, siempre pregunta si hace frío—, tiene la costumbre de revisar cada mañana el clima de la ciudad donde paga el alquiler pero que no pisa desde marzo. 

A Keza le parece normal no contarle toda la verdad sobre sus amoríos, aún tiernos, inciertos, frágiles, pero mentir sobre la situación meteorológica le parece el sumun de la sinvergonzonería, porque sería negar la naturaleza. Sentir la piel de Ganza también forma parte de la naturaleza, pero sucede en un recoveco, y no en el absolutismo del sol y el viento. Como jamás le haría eso a su madre, en Omaha, Nebraska, siempre se viste según los dictámenes atmosféricos de Portland, Maine, para mantenerse fiel a la mujer que le dio la vida, aunque eso implique algún achicharre ocasional. Total, según los meteorólogos, ambas presumen de un clima continental templado, así que por qué poner el grito en el cielo por nimiedades de seis u ocho grados.

Keza cambia de tema en cuanto puede: todo bien por aquí, todo igual, como siempre, como siempre, nada nuevo, tú qué tal. La vida en Ruanda ha pegado un cambio con el virus, claro, y al principio le despertaba interés conocer los pormenores, pero ahora ya las novedades se visten de antigüedades: los negocios familiares siguen luchando por mantenerse a flote, la gente se arremolina sin mascarillas ni remordimientos en las motos y en la iglesia y la mayoría de personas viven al día. A papá le gusta pensar que está salvando la situación porque saca algo de dinero de aquí y allá, en esos negocios en los que siempre está enredado y que Keza y el resto de hermanos desconocen. Mamá desenreda: no se dedica solo a las tareas de casa —eso es de ricas—, sino que trabaja en la compañía de gas, tiene ahorros y le hace pensar a su marido que sí, que sí, que sin ti no saldríamos adelante. Nada nuevo bajo el sol, excepto el trasfondo vírico.

Sus padres no están muy al tanto de lo que pasa en Estados Unidos —papá no está al tanto de nada, para qué engañarnos: nunca llama—. Saben lo de la esclavitud pretérita y para de contar: no tienen ni la más remota idea de las injusticias actuales. Jamás han oído nombrar a George Floyd —ni mucho menos a Breonna Taylor— y Keza tampoco les cuenta nada sobre #BlackLivesMatter ni sobre las protestas en todo el país. ¿Para qué? ¿Para preocuparlos? Todo bien, mamá; como siempre, mamá.

La madre conoce lo básico: que Keza trabaja desde casa —¿casa?: «casa»—, que hace algo con ordenadores, algo, que Ganza existe, que obviamente es tutsi, que hoy no ha llovido. No necesita saber nada más: adentrarse en los intríngulis de las vidas de las hijas está sobrevalorado. 

Keza lo mencionó una vez hace meses, un amigo, y luego no soltó ni prenda cuando se mudó a dos mil quinientos kilómetros para sobrellevar la incertidumbre pandémica en la casa de aquel muchacho al que tampoco conocía tanto. Antes procuraba colocarse siempre delante de muro blanco, para no despertar sospechas, pero poco a poco ha conseguido pergeñar una reproducción del salón de su piso en Maine, un escenario diseñado a golpe de clic, tan perfectamente idéntico que Keza se mueve por él, videollamada en mano, con una mezcolanza de comodidad y repelús. No sabe por qué se ha molestado tanto; total, qué más da: al final sus conversaciones se componen de píxeles, ecos, repeticiones y ¿qué, qué, qué? 

Hoy la mentira se le está haciendo bola, pero al final se las apaña: se inventa un cumpleaños paralelo, en Maine, donde sí que vive su hermana, y le cuenta a su madre los planes que harán juntas con todo lujo de detalles y se embarulla y embarulla en el embuste y ella misma se imagina a la perfección hasta el color del confeti inexistente de su celebración imaginaria.

Cuelgan y tanta trola le deja un mal sabor de boca. Da igual: seguirá ocultando su ubicuidad y hablará sobre el clima, le hará luz de gas a su madre sobre cualquier extrañeza fruto del despiste en el mobiliario y se armará de paciencia una vez más (y otra y otra) para explicarle a su madre cómo activar la cámara delantera.

Keza está encantada. Le tiene un cariño tremendo a Ganza, tremendo, pero ha de ser un secreto todavía, porque ha crecido escuchando «no te eches novio hasta que no te cases» o «esconde a tu prometido de tu padre hasta la boda». Y eso hace, lo omite, lo separa del universo que comparte con su madre. Al verbalizar una realidad imaginaria en la que está soltera y confinada en soledad, sin darse cuenta ha creado una doble vida que domina cuando está despierta, pero que se solidifica en sus pesadillas.

Apenas si llevan seis meses saliendo, pero para Ganza este fin de semana es el más especial del año. Le da su primer regalo: una cena sorpresa con amigos en la terraza de ese restaurante africano en el centro, su favorito de la ciudad. La velada empieza con guantes, mascarilla y besos al aire y acaba inevitablemente con fotos sin distanciamiento social y chinchines con copas baboseadas. La guinda a una noche perfecta la pone el segundo obsequio, que emociona a todos los comensales: unos trajes tradicionales ruandeses con estampados a juego, que la pareja se enfunda en un periquete en el baño, que les da un aire aún más fuerte de tortolitos y que acabarán manchando de brindis y carcajadas.

Duermen en cucharita, sin quitarse esa ropa con lamparones, en un gesto de amor improvisado, silencioso y envolvente. Keza vive en el centro del país, paga el alquiler de su piso vacío en la costa este y tiene las miras laborales en la costa oeste. A veces se pierde en sus pensamientos noctívagos cuestionándose la corporeidad de su existencia, pero hoy se adormece en el convencimiento absoluto de que su hogar verdadero converge en este abrazo secreto.

Despierta desde el placer de un masaje en los pies, de millones de besos conmemorativos y del olor a café y a las sobras recalentadas de la cena. Keza se despereza y observa los trajes que ahora conforman su unidad como pareja, y se siente dichosa y tranquila. Su propósito de hoy, la calma: nada de correos de trabajo ni de competiciones sobre quién dobla la colada más rápido.

Aunque los domingos acostumbran a comenzar el día comentando la actualidad con las bocas llenas de soluciones y desayuno, Ganza intenta hablar de banalidades y cambiar el rumbo de la conversación cada vez que sale el tema, porque hoy es un día alegre, mejor hablemos de otra cosa, que hoy querías relajarte, ¿no? Pero Keza argumenta que no puede haber nada más valioso en su cumpleaños que la palabra, su único poder, de hecho: como residentes temporales en Estados Unidos, no pueden ir a manifestaciones, ya que cualquier sombra política en la que se involucren podría acabar fácilmente en una deportación. Por no poder no pueden ni siquiera caminar en su propio barrio residencial de noche, porque quedan a la merced de que cualquier vecino blanco los considere sospechosos y llame a la policía. 

Les encanta que el sistema se tambalee, pero les toca resignarse a vivirlo desde una lucha sombría y castrada y refugiarse en hablar de lo que ocurre a su alrededor, ver vídeos de la brutalidad policial, remover conciencias en internet desde seudónimos, consumir en negocios afroamericanos y africanos. Su trinchera la conforman esos pequeños gestos. Quieren ayudar y participar, porque también han arado durante años parte de su historia en esta tierra, aunque no tengan pensado quedarse aquí para siempre, en este lugar con tantas oportunidades como desprecio, que ha dibujado sus identidades desde una perspectiva que jamás los rozó en Ruanda. Ambos rechazan desde las entrañas cualquier posibilidad de tener hijos en un lugar donde el mero hecho de ser una persona negra equivale a estar en peligro constante.

Pero por ahora no ven ningún motivo para volver a Ruanda: sus trayectoria profesionales van viento en popa, cada uno de sus hermanos está en un país distinto, todos sus amigos han emigrado y se tienen que gastar cientos de dólares en regalos cada vez que van de visita. Cuando vuelvan, en el futuro, será para abrir su propio negocio, pero su presente está en algún lugar de la vastedad estadounidense. Mejor no manifestarse, no.

Tiene razón Ganza, es mejor no pensar en ello: olvídalo, da igual, que el plan para hoy consiste sumirse en la relajación más sublime. Pero durante la sesión de manicura y pedicura, Keza se acuerda del gas pimienta que la policía lanzó en la manifestación del jueves pasado; en plena película de matiné, le viene a la mente el comentario racista que le soltó aquel hombre por la calle hace un par de semanas; y hasta al leer un libro —con esa incesante sinfonía de bip-bip-bip de fondo—, se refuerza en la idea de que la gente solo escucha cuando hay revueltas y le apena no poder acudir.

Solo al cocinar juntos la cena especial de cumpleaños —isombe, ubugali y waakye—, Keza se sume por completo en el fulgor de la ternura que le ha regalado el confinamiento y observa a Ganza remojando las hojitas de zahína. Se olvida de Seattle y de Portland y su presencia se enraíza por completo en Omaha, y la escena irradia tanta belleza que se convierte en óleo sobre lienzo: la amalgama de colores, la luz perpendicular que divide el rostro de su chico, las sombras que dramatizan la col y los tomates, la perspectiva aérea dada por aquel sfumato de harina de yuca.

Interrumpe el bodegón una llamada y, en cuanto descuelga, Keza siente de sopetón de que mamá ya no vive en la ignorancia. Se siente ridícula, minúscula, insignificante. No sabe cómo lo sabe, pero lo sabe. Una corazonada, qué quieres que te diga, chica. El pensamiento dura el lapso de un segundo —¿se lo cuento o no?—, pero enseguida vuelve a fingir verdades, agradece la felicitación y se centra en las preguntas entrecortadas con respuestas certeras: no, mamá, nada de frío, nada, hoy hace un tiempo de lujo aquí en Maine.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas

Oneirism

[Leer cuento en español]

After all, Keza has been exercising omnipresence for some time: why should one more city be a problem? Saturday kicks off with a job interview over Zoom that she’d told Ganza would finish by 12 at the absolute latest; three quarters of an hour past noon, she’s still there, her tongue coated with the minutiae of her value as a computer programmer, pert as ever, full of assurances that the location is perfect. If she’s hired, she’ll be in Seattle right away, yes, yes, no problem, it’s practically next door, there’s nothing tying me down here.

Much as he tries not to eavesdrop, Ganza overhears each of Keza’s promises, and the mere thought of her departure saddens him. He tries to focus on cooking: he long since finished the mimosas (they will be watered down), the pancakes (they will get cold), the fruit (it will go brown), the scoops of ice cream (they will melt). His patience is wearing thin, but he knows that this is a great job opportunity for her, but he doesn’t want her to leave Nebraska, but in reality it’s less than four hours by plane, but he’s tied down here, but it will be a great place for an electrical engineer once he can go, but he hopes she stays, but hang up already, goddamnit, but.

When Keza finishes, it’s obvious that the interview has left her drained, but she revives herself with that watery, cold, browned, melted and love-filled brunch prepared by her Ganza. The culinary shortcomings go unmentioned and they thoroughly enjoy the start of the birthday weekend, despite the incessant pinging of notifications, which Keza ignores, but which irritate Ganza, so much beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep. Keza doesn’t even bother glancing at her cell any more: at nine o’clock at night in Central Africa, her aunts have finally finished the daily grind and are free to flood her with advice in the form of photos and memes and videos and copy-pasted texts full of painful misspellings about how to wash your hands, the benefits of eating meat, anti-epidemic robots in hospitals, the evils of thinness, the horrors of too short a dress. And they also send selfies, many selfies, every day, with lighting and perspectives that would inevitably accentuate (or create) double-chins on even the best of aunts. Not all are really her aunts, of course: in Rwanda, every baby is raised in the bosom of the community, family or not, and the women involved in that upbringing are generous enough to bestow their precious advice ad æternum, no matter how old the baby grows. The non-aunt aunts of WhatsApp are the antonym of silence.

Despite the aggressive beep-beep-beep, the volatile mix of champagne and vitamin C starts to have its effect, but just as things are really progressing, a call comes in. Ganza tells her not to take it, come on, it’s not your birthday until tomorrow, but she knows all too well how the twenty-four hour phone and internet packages work in her homeland: if she doesn’t answer now, they may not talk for another week or two.

It’s Keza’s mother. You know the drill, shhhh! I couldn’t wait until tomorrow, how is Maine, very good, very good, quiet, here it’s the same ol’ same ol’. Her conversations with Mom verge on the soporific, now more than ever since she fully dedicated herself to lying as a narrative form before, at least, the half-truths gave her a rush of adrenaline. She recounts to her mother what she would be doing in Maine by reproducing her day in Nebraska, changing the backdrop a little, imagining herself confined in solitude in that apartment she hasn’t seen in weeks. She no longer gets nervous when they talk because she is at peace with this compassionate white lie. In case Mom calls that day (since it is winter in Rwanda, she always asks if it is cold), Keza has gotten into the morning habit of checking the weather in the city where she pays rent but hasn’t set foot since March.

Keza considers it perfectly normal not to reveal the whole truth about her romantic situation, which is still tender, uncertain and fragile, but to lie about the weather somehow seems to her the nadir of shamelessness, because that would be to deny nature. Feeling Ganza’s skin is also part of nature, but it happens in a modest recess, not exposed to the totalitarian sun and wind. She would never do that to her mother, so in Omaha, Nebraska, she always dresses in accordance with the meteorological whims of Portland, Maine, to remain faithful to the woman who gave her life, even if it means sweltering occasionally. Besides, science assures her that both cities have temperate continental climates, so who’s she to quibble about 10 or 15 degrees?

Keza changes the subject as quickly as possible: everything is fine here, everything is the same, the usual, how about you? Life in Rwanda has changed with the virus, of course, and at first she was interested in keeping up-to-minute on all the daily ins and outs, but now it has all begun to blend together: the family businesses are still struggling to stay afloat, people are swarming around without masks or remorse on their motorbikes and in church, and most are living hand to mouth. Dad likes to think he’s the one saving the day because he’s bringing some money in here and there from those ventures he’s always tangled up in that Keza and the rest of the siblings are kept blissfully ignorant about. Mom keeps things running smoothly: she doesn’t merely do housework that’s a perk of the rich she works at the gas company, has savings, and ensures her husband thinks that yes, yes, without you, we couldn’t manage. So the usual, but with a pandemic in the background. 

Her parents are not really aware of what is going on in the United States Dad is not at all aware, let’s not delude ourselves; he never calls. They know about historical slavery and stop telling us about it: they have no idea about the current injustices. They’ve never heard of George Floyd, much less Breonna Taylor, and Keza doesn’t tell them about #BlackLivesMatter, or protests around the country. What for? To make them worry? Everything’s all right, Mom; the usual, Mom.

Her mother knows the basics: that Keza works from home (home? “home”), that she does something with computers, something, that Ganza exists, that he is a Tutsi, obviously, that it hasn’t rained today. She doesn’t need to know anything else: delving into the intricacies of daughters’ lives is overrated.

Keza mentioned him once months ago, a friend, and then didn’t breathe a word when she moved 1,000 miles away to hunker down through the uncertainty and loneliness of the pandemic in his house, all timelines accelerated. At the beginning, she always made sure to Skype from in front of a white wall, to avoid arousing suspicion, but little by little she has managed to assemble a reproduction of the living room of her apartment in Maine, a stage designed with a click, so perfectly identical that Keza moves through it, phone in hand, with a mixture of comfort and repulsion. She doesn’t know why she has gone to so much trouble; in the end her conversations are made up of pixels, echoes, endless repeating, and what, what, what?

Today lying seems unusually daunting for some reason: she invents a parallel birthday in Maine, where her sister still lives, and recounts to her mother in great detail the plans they have together, but soon she gets caught up in the fabrication and is able to visualize every detail, even the color of the non-existent confetti at her imaginary celebration.

They end the call, and so much dissembling leaves a bad taste in her mouth. No matter she’ll steel herself by the next call and continue to hide her omnipresence and talk about the weather, gaslight her mother if she remarks on anything off about the furniture and patiently explain once again (and again and again) how to activate the front camera.

Keza is living in a joyful glow. She really cares about Ganza, but it must remain a secret, because she has grown up listening to “don’t go out with a boy until you’re married” and “hide your fiancé from your father until the wedding day.” And that’s why she must omit him, separate him from the world shared with her mother. By verbalizing an imaginary reality in which she is single and confined in solitude, she has unwittingly created a double life that overwhelms her sleep-weakened defenses to erupt into her nightmares.

They’ve barely been dating for six months, but for Ganza this is the most special weekend of the year. He gives her his first gift: a surprise dinner with friends on the terrace of the African restaurant downtown, her favorite of the city. The evening starts with gloves, mask and air kisses and inevitably ends with photos of abandoned social distancing and santés with spit-covered glasses. The cherry on top of a perfect night is his second gift, which the whole group gets excited about: traditional Rwandan outfits with matching prints. The couple quickly changes in the bathroom, making them look even more hopelessly like lovebirds, and their garb ends the night stained with toasts and laughter.

They sleep spooning, without taking off their soiled clothing, in an improvised, unspoken, and enveloping gesture of love. Keza lives in flyover country, pays rent on an empty apartment in the Northeast and has her sights set on working on the West Coast. Sometimes she gets lost in nocturnal musings, questioning the tangibility of her existence, but today she drifts off with the absolute conviction that her true home lies in that secret embrace.

She awakes to the pleasure of a foot massage, a barrage of celebratory kisses and the smell of coffee and reheated dinner leftovers. Keza rouses herself and looks at the outfits that now marks their unity as a couple, and she feels happy and calm. Her objectives for today: tranquility and repose no work emails or competition over who folds the laundry faster.

Although on Sundays they usually start the day discussing current events with mouths full of solutions and breakfast, Ganza tries to keep things trivial, steering the conversation away every time a fraught topic comes up, because today is a happy day, we should talk about something else; today you wanted to relax, right? But Keza argues that there is nothing more worthy of her birthday than words, their only power, in fact: as temporary residents of the United States, they cannot risk going to demonstrations, since getting involved in any hint of politics could easily end up in deportation. They can’t even feel secure walking in their residential neighborhood at night, because they are at the mercy of any white neighbor who deems them suspicious and calls the police.

They love to see the system finally teetering, but they have to resign themselves to a struggle from the shadows and take solace in talking about what’s going on around them, watching videos of police brutality, stirring up consciousness on the Internet under pseudonyms, patronizing African American and African businesses. Their trench is built of those little gestures. They want to help and participate, because they have become a part of this country over the years, even if they don’t plan to stay forever, in this place as full of opportunities as of contempt, this place that has defined their identities from a perspective they never could have conceived of in Rwanda. They both reject from the core of their beings any possibility of raising children in a land where merely to be black is to be in constant danger.

But for now they see no reason to return to Rwanda: their careers are going well, each of their siblings is scattered in a different country, all their friends have emigrated, and every visit means hundreds of dollars in gifts. When they return, in the future, it will be to open their own business, but their present is located somewhere in the vastness of the United States. Better not to protest, no.

Ganza is right: on this day it is better not to think about any of that. Forget it, it doesn’t matter, the agenda for today is to immerse herself in utter relaxation. But in the midst of her mani-pedi, Keza remembers the pepper spray that the police used against demonstrators last Thursday; as they watch a matinee, a racist comment from a man in the street a couple of weeks back races through her mind; and even trying to read a book (with the incessant beep-beep-beep symphony in the background), her eyes glaze over as she reaffirms to herself that people only listen when there are riots, and she feels devastated that she cannot be there.

It is only when they cook the special birthday dinner together isombe, ubugali and waakye that Keza becomes completely immersed in the glow of tenderness that has been a gift of the lockdown and stands watching Ganza dipping the sorghum leaves. She forgets about Seattle or Portland and for once is fully present in Omaha, and the scene radiates so much beauty that it becomes an oil painting: the blending of colors, the perpendicular light that divides his face, the shadows that infuse the cabbage and tomatoes with drama, the atmospheric perspective created by the sfumato of yucca flour.

The still life is shattered by a sudden ringing. As soon as she picks up the phone, Keza has a mysterious premonition that her mother is no longer living in ignorance. She feels ridiculous, tiny, insignificant. She doesn’t know how she knows, but she knows. A hunch, what do you want me to tell you, kid? The thought lasts for a second should I tell her or not? but then she returns to constructing a simpler life, thanks her for the well-wishes and focuses on the staccato questions with precise answers: no, Mom, not at all cold, not at all, the weather here in Maine today is gorgeous. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Atmosphere

[Leer cuento en español]

A storm like this is unheard of at Kilstonia during the dry Oregon summer. Strange to see the pounding rain; only this morning, the baked cloudless sky had set off in stark shadows a beaver brazenly gorging himself on the willow tree on the island. Vera’s willow tree. She jumped out of bed, 81 years and recent foot surgery at once forgotten, grabbed her .22, unlatched the lock to the balcony, paused a brief instant to avoid spooking the critter, and edged the door cautiously open. Resting the gun on the railing to avoid any unwanted trembling, she closed an eye to aim carefully, mumbled “I got you, you little bastard,” and shot him to doll rags, one more witness to her excellent aim.

While she was at it, she picked off a couple of passing nutria, an exotic invasive species with no business in these parts. The beaver may have a bit more local cred as the state animal, but he should have thought more about the responsibilities which accompany that honor before sinking those blunt teeth into her willow tree. Blasting those animals away filled her with peace. Vera already has enough to bear with the geese blanketing the shore of her lake with shit, the birds pecking at her corn, and the deer invading her garden every time she forgets to latch the gate. What a glorious morning.

That happiness was shattered when Vera remembered that the bridge was being repaired, and leaving the animals there to gaze at the sky might mean an unbearable stench in a few days, because it’s hard to guarantee the prompt services of a vulture or a hawk. Normally she would have asked Steve to collect the inert animals, but her husband was still inert himself, and she decided that, in the end, it would be less trouble to take care of it herself than to spend all day begging him to. Anyway, she knew very well it wouldn’t take long: she gathered her gray hair in a ponytail, grabbed the boat, rowed the thirty feet needed to reach the island, seized the beasts by their necks and, once back on terra firma, tossed them into the woods to be eaten by a fox, a lynx, a cougar or any other carnivore that should take a liking to these nasty creatures.

When she got back to the house, its 10,000 square feet imposing even amidst the natural splendor stretching out in every direction, Steve was impatiently waiting to go on their daily morning stroll to pick up the mail, on many days their only lifeline to civilization. When he heard about Vera’s spree, though, he took an unusual step: in case they crossed paths with any hungry animals lured by the sweet stench of his wife’s victims, he fetched the hunting knife that usually only accompanied him on late night walks.

As they returned home under the clear blue sky, Vera felt a sudden sharp pain in her temples and told Steve that a storm was brewing, but he sternly disabused her of that misconception with that universal reflex of husbands that always drove her to desperation. Fine, let him think whatever he wants, time will tell. She can’t be touched by negativity, because pacing the paths of those 40 acres that are her corner of the earth cures her of all ills: she has always dreamed of having her own forest, and now she has much more than that at Kilstonia.

Like every morning, the couple did the New York Times crossword puzzle, side by side, the effects of the coffee mingling with the rush from solving the trickiest clues. Vera was surprised that Lidia the spider was not in the kitchen, but she didn’t take it as a bad omen at the time. What did begin to arouse her suspicions was that, in all the hours and hours she spent tending the garden, she didn’t spot a single arachnid among the daisies, the roses, the delphiniums, the achillea, the lilies, the hollyhocks, or the columbines. And this despite painstakingly searching for them because, in the tradition of the Czech community of Baltimore where she grew up (still the foundation of her vision of the world seven decades later), spiders bring good luck.

This mysterious absence sent a chill down her spine, intensified by the dark, bruised clouds lurking in the west that merged with the tops of the dozens of pine trees encircling the house. She remedied this by wrapping herself in her favorite sweatshirt, which reads “My body is a temple (ancient and crumbling).” She continued busying herself with her wonderful flowers, where today not one bee was buzzing, playfully, to bathe itself in nectar… “Ježíš Marjá,” she exclaimed. She had been so fixated on spiders that she had overlooked the complete disappearance of insects. She listened intently: there was no bird song either. She shook her head. Ježíš Marjá, Ježíš Marjá. When she swore, the words always came out in Czech.

Curiosity outweighed any real concern and, since there was nothing to disrupt her habits, at four o’clock in the afternoon she sat down in the sunroom with her book — she was currently immersed in the mammoth History of the Persian Empire — a white wine and soda — to help her relax — and a bowl of potato chips, such a treat that she broke them into progressively smaller and smaller pieces to stretch them across time — something her brother taught her as a child.

That’s when the storm arrived suddenly, a violent barrage of hail assaulting the skylights with such force that Vera felt dazed, transfixed for several long moments before staggering to her room to take her second nap of that strangely dark day at the end of June.

Now, the couple of retired aerospace engineers is quietly cooking dinner, but the storm and Vera’s headache rage unabated. So powerful is Steve’s sweet tooth that Vera expresses love through fine pastry, but today she just wants to do something quick and dirty, so she can get to bed and sleep all night long. Steve’s warm voice and the meticulous narrative style he learned as an only child in a bookish Jewish environment massage Vera’s aching temples. Her husband recounts his day and laments lacking time to do everything he wanted: he played the piano for a while in the music room but not the violin, he played chess online but didn’t read, he did a few push-ups and weights in the attic but no abs, he grumbled at length while reading the President’s latest tweets and jotted a couple of notes but didn’t add a single paragraph to his book Feeling Our Universe. Same old same old.

The coronavirus has barely tickled them. There have been a few changes, of course: they can’t receive visits from their children and grandchildren, or hold the music camp they’ve been hosting for years, or attend the monthly Eugene Atheist luncheons, or play string quartets, or meet with Cottage Grove Community United, the group they founded to upend the area status quo, already triumphant in shutting down the infamous “fascist knife shop” (two of the owners having been recently convicted of hurling rocks through the windows of a synagogue). They miss the energy of group creativity, activism, and family, but the routine, the essence, is still intact.

Vera rubs her temples, and Steve recommends that she take an aspirin and heads to the first floor to fetch it. Five years younger than his wife, he is concerned about her health and takes zealous care of her, especially now: Vera has already made it through six or seven bouts of pneumonia, so the virus would strike her mercilessly. Steve does all the shopping so that Vera needn’t come into contact with people at the supermarket, but he’s not too worried about Laura, the woman who cleans the house every week, or Jake, the bipolar gardener who lives illegally in the cabin next to the barn, the rusting hulks of his cars covering the lawn, and whom they’ve been politely inviting to vacate the premises for some time without effect. After all, Vera has been practising social distancing all her life — thank God for her Central European origins — and she still has excellent hearing, so she doesn’t need to get too close to anyone.

The clouds cling to the treetops of Kilstonia and drape the entire sweep of the heavens without diluting their fury, and by 7 PM, an unusual greyish darkness has already fallen almost two hours before sunset. The first blackout hits when Steve is descending in the elevator, aspirin bottle in hand, but it doesn’t last long and he escapes the funereal claustrophobia within a few minutes. Neither of them is scared, because they live with the simple conviction that fear is not a useful recourse.

For dinner, they have spaghetti in a thick sauce overflowing with meatballs. No calorie counting or fad diets here — the blood of generations of butchers run in Vera’s veins, after all — but they eat so gracefully that neither of them allows a single drop to escape onto the spotless white tablecloth, still immaculate and unwashed after hundreds of meals. Under the flickering chandelier, Steve tells her how salt was a monopoly of the Spanish royal family from the Middle Ages until 1869, prices tyrannically raised when unforeseen expenses arose, such as a war or the fancy for one more palace. Vera has been intentionally undersalting her cooking for decades because Steve never asks her to pass the shaker without unearthing another tale from the annals of salt, apparently endless, of which she never tires.

In the same week in August 1966, Steve discovered and named the comet Kilston and gave a ride to a funny, intelligent blonde girl whose car had broken down in the Berkeley hills and would become his wife ten years later, after a decade-long soap opera involving irresolute sisters, the Summer of Love, and three children thrown in. The comet will not return for another 180,000 years, and his love for Vera would not repeat any sooner.

For dessert, they have toast with Plum Impeachment Jam from the 2017 summer harvest, lacking flavor for Steve but leaving Vera content. That’s when the generator explodes.

“It seems like the Donald isn’t a fan of his jam,” declares Vera, who never loses her cool, but they immediately get into an argument about whose turn it was to fill the propane tank — yours, no, yours, no, yours, yours.

Well, we’re not going to fix this tonight: Steve scrounges around for some candles, clearly with no intention of going to bed, but Vera is not up for any nonsense — there is a storm pounding outside and inside her skull — so she climbs step by step by step up the majestic double stairway, supporting herself with her cane and the bannister (when was the last time she dispensed with the elevator?). Before she gets into bed, she gives herself a quick sponge bath and goes out on the terrace to admire the vast moonless night from the balcony: what extraordinary beauty, that absolute darkness that does not exist in the city, and that she had never known until moving to the kingdom of Kilstonia.

She sleeps peacefully and, at around one in the morning, in the midst of that dream where she shoots zombies from the balcony as they lurch towards the house, their faces uncovered, their coughing virulent, their hands clutching “Trump 2020” signs, she is awoken by frenzied footsteps ringing on the metal spiral staircase by her window. She peers out and sees Jake, waving a shotgun with crazed blue eyes popping out of their sockets, in what looks like another one of his psychotic breaks. Not again… She calmly draws the curtain, opens the door to the hall and proclaims with that authoritative echo that is a gift of grandiose architecture: “Steve! Go out to the east wing and see what the hell is wrong with Jake.”

She tries to get back to sleep, because she has a couple of zombies left to deal with, but the loud notes of the piano reverberating through the floor ensure that she can’t sleep a wink. What a drag. Steve clearly didn’t pay any attention to her at all. She grabs her cane and heads downstair — step, step, step — engulfed in inky blackness illuminated sporadically by relentless flashes of lightning. She reaches the bottom with a stumble and raises her cane up high so the grandiloquent excoriation that Steve is about to receive for not dealing with Jake will be more theatrical. She opens the door to the music room and the piano stops playing. She tells herself that it must be the ghost of the music camp that will never happen this year, and she lets out one of those guffaws which only one’s own unsurpassed wit can elicit, and it rumbles through the walls of the mansion and mingles with the thunder.

But Vera only believes in one ghost, that of her mother, who haunts her from the morning, when she carefully arranges everything in its proper place, through the afternoon, every time she finishes a task with iron perfection, to the evening, when she performs her washing ritual (hands, face, and feet) before going to bed.

When she closes the door to the music room, she hears Paganini clattering from the radio in the dining room, and Vera is led there by blows of her cane and lightning. In the brief pallid clarity of a flash, Vera sees a red gush that has ravished the cleanliness of the tablecloth and fleeting legs dragged across the floor. Fear grips her for the first time in decades: she has not known terror since fleeing her mother’s wooden spoon after revealing her engagement to her first husband.

She doesn’t know how to react. She flicks the nearest light switch, as if to illuminate her house and her mind, both immersed in darkness, in the nightmare of Steve’s blood on the tablecloth, of his feet now disappearing from her view through the glass door. Nothing. Should she climb stair by stair by stair to retrieve the .22 from her room? How could she have left it upstairs? What a blunder. But there’s no time to go back for it: she could lose Steve. A sudden Socratic epiphany blazes, and she remembers the wild hemlock she’s been trying to dispose of for ages, but which she subconsciously has always known she’d eventually resort to.

She creeps outside stealthily. The sky roars, the rain drums down ceaselessly, the branches of the garden mosaic writhe and turn to snakes, the raven Cicero croaks his long-winded discourses without respite, the wind chimes abandon their delicacy and howl with metallic fury, Vera tears the hemlock out with her gloved left hand and ponders how to administer the poison. Of all the possibilities, her favourite is undoubtedly shoving the herbs up Jake’s ass, but she realizes the logistics may prove tricky — although, well, as a child she threw a boy twice her size into a hole when necessary to defend her brother: no doubt she’ll manage to make it work now. She’ll have to improvise based on what she’s given. That bastard Jake, clinging to them like a limpet, unabashedly calling himself one of the family — pah, as if they didn’t already have family to spare with five children and seven grandchildren — with his gun collection filling his illegal hut, worse than a thousand hungry beavers or nutria. She, like the police, had believed him when he claimed his wife woke up in the middle of the night and shot herself, but now she is filled with doubt. She remembers the crimson stain, the slack feet bouncing, the protruding eyeballs of a maniac with coronavirus (I mean, he never wears a mask, this guy). Hemlock. Up the ass.

Vera, limping in sandals and socks and a white nightgown, her hair disheveled, spots movement in the pond, like a struggle, and advances quickly under the pitiless rain, taking advantage of the fact that the noise of her footsteps is swallowed by Cicero’s incessant harangue and the hooting of the owl from the windowless barn. The shadowy figures of the two men are battling for their lives amidst the water lilies, and Vera remembers Baba Sklutskem, draped in muck and algae, that club-wielding water spirit lurking in the depths of lakes to drag men to their death, who appears with her mother’s face, and the vision makes her recoil and turn around. Steve calls out Vera’s name.

Her Steve, her beloved Steve, the apple of her eye! She will sniff his tie-dye shirts every day, erect a shrine in his honor in the geographical centre of Kilstonia adorned with orchids and marshmallows and chess pieces, cry every time she sees the North Star shining in the sky. Ježíš Marjá, Vera, save your husband, your mother is long dead and lives only in your daily routines, and Baba Sklutskem exists only in folklore and certainly isn’t welcome in Kilstonia. Vera tosses away her cane and runs with an agility she’d thought long-gone; she thinks of the red blood on the tablecloth, of the dragged feet…

Vera, Vera! Steve keeps yelling, and the yells fill her with such fury that she crushes the hemlock into juice. When she arrives at the shore, panting, Steve turns casually to her and informs her with the greatest tranquillity in the world that Vera’s shrieking about Jake startled him so much that he had soaked the tablecloth in stewed rhubarb, that he was forced to eat the entire bowl so it wouldn’t spoil with the fridge off after the generator explosion, hehe, some people might think it was too sweet to eat plain, but the final bite hadn’t lost any of the relish of the first bite, fancy that, an entire bowl, well, until she’d made him upend it! That Jake was hysterical and lost, and that Steve had to soothe him by explaining the magical essence of our gentle universe, how everything is connected and how for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. That Jake suffered a real shock when he got wind of this, and Steve had to drag him into the lake so the icy water would bring him back to his senses, because there was no other way to revive him, look how calm he is now, our dear Jake. That the two of them are tangled up in the pedicels of the water lilies, though in no danger, but the hunting knife has sunk to the bottom of the lake, so a pair of pruning shears would really come in handy.

Because of her unwonted exertion, Vera’s hips, left knee, right big toe, and upper eyelashes hurt, and she is drenched with rain and foaming rage. Now she would love to use the hemlock on Steve instead, via the same orifice, but she can’t, not for lack of enthusiasm, but because it has all disintegrated along the way. Vera, who had avoided the pinch of fear for more than sixty years, peers down on the miserable duo crouching damply among the plants and melts back into the storm, illuminated by a continuous explosion of lightning bolts: Ask Baba Sklutskem to help you out, or perhaps I could cut off the stalks from the upper balcony with my .22, but I can’t vouch for my aim at night, so maybe you lovebirds had better manage on your own, and after you’ve gotten out, the two of you can see to it that the tablecloth is sparkling by the time I’m up for breakfast, because there’s no place for stains in Kilstonia. And she departs screaming an endless flurry of Ježíš Marjás at the top of her lungs.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Gastronomía

[Read story in English]

Todo se debe al fatídico festival de durian en la oficina y al consecuente atracón. Y lo peor es que la idea la ha tenido el propio Ong, animado por la llegada de junio y con ganas de complacer a sus compañeros, con paladares sumidos en la pesadumbre y anhelantes de los sabores arrebatados. 

La temporada de la reina de las frutas siempre se tiñe de alegría, pero este año de carencias culinarias, el manjar preferido de los penanguitas ha adquirido las cualidades de maná, en tal desierto de monotonía y aislamiento. Por eso, cuando Ong se ha presentado esta mañana con esos paquetes de plástico desechable —bien envueltos, bien sellados, que no huela en el autobús, que no huela—, sus compañeros lo han recibido con vítores.

Son pocos, los compañeros, nada, cuatro gatos: muchos se han pedido vacaciones no remuneradas indefinidas, por no exponerse o por la inestabilidad política, quién sabe. Da igual, había que celebrar este momento tan esperado, así que se han arrejuntado en un par de mesas —a dos metros de distancia, desinfectando a conciencia cada paquete, sin pasarse nada de mano en mano— y se han dispuesto a disfrutar de esa fruta salada, dulce, cremosa, con un aroma que invade el aire, el pelo, la ropa, las almas. El durian, como el amor, existe para compartirlo. Con tan pocas bocas con quienes compartirlo, al final Ong ha acabado cebándose de lo lindo, engatusado por aquella seducción irremediable de fruit fatal

Incluso en ese placentero momento, Ong no ha podido evitar despotricar. Qué mal, qué mal lo está pasando el cielo de su boca. Y sus compañeros sufren la misma carencia: nadie sabe cocinar, ¿para qué?, si viven en una meca culinaria donde comprar comida casera es más barato y rápido que liarse a guisar en casa. Una compañera le ha recomendado, con la boca llena de durian y el corazón plagado de angustia, una marca de dim sum congelado, que no queda tan mal al hervirlo en casa, no te creas, hace el apaño, y se ríen de tal aberración y cada cual vuelve a su puesto de trabajo. 

Ong, hipnotizado por los dictámenes de su barriga, no se puede sacar de la cabeza su restaurante de dim sum favorito y lleva toda la tarde sin poder pegar un palo al agua. Cuánto van ya, ¿ocho, diez semanas? sin poder sentarse en un restaurante. Ahora dejan, pero con seguimiento de contacto y distanciamiento social y así uno se sumerge en una paranoia vírica que nubla y marea y no hay quien disfrute de nada.

Ong está ahí, entre las cuatro paredes de ese edificio gris en un polígono industrial al ladito del aeropuerto, plantado frente al ordenador como un pasmarote, sumido en una espiral obsesiva en la que solo piensa en volver a degustar una de sus comidas favoritas, aunque sea en versión congelada. Pero antes tiene que mandar unas facturas en inglés, dim, registrar el último flete aéreo del día, sum, autorizar la partida de un cargamento naval en malayo, dim, negociar precios en hokkien para el transporte en vuelos comerciales sin pasajeros, sum, explicarle en mandarín a un importador singapurense los problemas resultantes de tan insaciable demanda para tan esmirriada oferta, dim, porque, si no, los estantes de los supermercados se vaciarán, sum, y él no va a ser el responsable de tal barbarie. 

A duras penas, lo deja todo bien atado y se larga de una vez por todas, que ya no soporta más la insistencia de su insaciable estómago, que, por mucho que esté lleno de durian, insiste en degustar dim sum. Aunque la mente le diga que seguramente le espere una insípida birria de primera categoría, el estómago gana la pugna al proyectar espejismos hacia la mente, donde aquella delicada y deliciosa delicatessen resplandece en bandejitas meticulosamente ordenadas sobre carros repletos y vertiginosos en algunos de los coloridos edificios con encanto carcomido pergeñados durante el colonialismo británico en pleno Georgetown, donde se come el mejor dim sum de todo el país.

Ong se siente afiebrado, pero sospecha que la sensación se la brinda esa gula visceral que le fustiga con una furia psicosomática. No puede ser otra cosa: como ya es costumbre, esta mañana, antes de que le permitieran acceder a la oficina, le han tomado la temperatura, le han invitado (invitado, ¡ja!) a echarse gel antibacterial y a registrarse en la entrada, con el nombre, DNI, hora, minutos y segundos de llegada, temperatura exacta y casi la talla de calzoncillos. Y, en fin, bueno, no tenía fiebre. Ni él ni nadie. Se toca la frente y quizás siente un ligero ardorcillo, pero nada, nada. No hay virus que valga. Esto viene todo de la añoranza culinaria, sin duda. Agarra sus cosas con una parsimonia infundada por su propia convicción de que todo va bien. Acalla cualquier paranoia en ese cuaderno lleno de garabatos, que guarda en su maletín con todos sus miedos y lo cierra con llave ahogando el pánico en el interior de la cerradura.

Sale a la calle y esos treinta y dos grados húmedos le dan un soplamocos más calenturiento de lo habitual. No pasa nada de nada. Es hora punta y los precios de Grab están por las nubes, así que, como se encuentra tan bien, va a la parada del autobús y empuña el arma necesaria para tan bizarra gesta: la paciencia. Cogerá el autobús a Komtar y luego irá al centro en taxi. Hay una cola larguísima, que al principio lo intimida, porque le recuerda a las filas que se crearon cuando cerraron la ciudad hace unas semanas y la gente se comenzó a arremolinarse frente a las comisarías para pedir los permisos necesarios para realizar viajes interestatales. Entonces el caos empezó a reinar poco a poco, con controles policiales en todos los caminos y aquellas decisiones gubernamentales que ni los guardias entendían y nadie sabía cómo actuar. Las alertas de emergencia lanzadas por el gobierno, que llegaban a todos los móviles únicamente en malayo y con sonidos estridentes que parecían anunciar una guerra, no solo sembraban pánico, sino que además excluían deliberadamente a dos tercios de la población de la isla. En esos días se dio cuenta de que esta vez no iba a ser como las epidemias de SRAG y MERS, sino que se trataba de algo enorme, que en las últimas semanas había traído consecuencias radicales en la economía, en la libertad de movimiento, en la política malaya, en sus nervios.

Pero esta fila se debe a la hora punta y a la vergonzosa frecuencia del autobús 301. Espera, desespera, empieza a sudar. ¿El fuego es interior o exterior? Reboza la cara en el frío cristal de la marquesina, lentamente, en un gesto tirando a gatuno que espera que nadie vea. Al menos las calles están bañadas del dulce aroma del durian; el virus no ha impedido que los maleteros vayan cargados de frutas, que broten tenderetes que las venden en cada esquina. Adopta el método de supervivencia de sumergirse en la fragancia mientras sigue refrescándose la frente.

Por fin llega el autobús y se queda el último, porque no le gustan las aglomeraciones, y menos con gente contagiosa (¿como él?). Antes de subir las escaleras, reúne fuerzas y pone su mejor cara de no tener fiebre. El conductor le toma la temperatura una vez, frunce el gesto, otra. Ong sonríe desabrido —como si se le transparentara la boca con la mascarilla—, sube, anda, sube, son solo un par de décima, y agradece el gesto con un terima kasih enclenque que es más bien un suspiro.

Hace como que se sienta tranquilamente derrumbándose junto a una anciana que parece que no ve tres en un burro, así que posiblemente no juzgará los sudores de Ong. Pega la cabeza al frío cristal de nuevo, en un alivio solo perturbado por sus pensamientos: se acalora más aún al pensar en ese golpe de estado sibilino apoyado por el mismísimo sultán y orquestado aprovechando el brote de COVID para quitarle el poder a Mahathir tras declarar el confinamiento, aunque siguen en una democracia, ¿no?, aunque no hayan votado por el nuevo primer ministro, aunque ahora Muhyiddin tiene todo el poder, aunque ya da igual, porque tienes coronavirus y ya está, asúmelo, Ong, la muerte te besa la nuca, desaparecerás de la faz de la Tierra y la libertad que la luchen los vivos. 

No tosas, no tosas, ponte un capítulo de Normal People en el móvil, con lo que te gusta, y relájate. Pero no se distrae y se obnubila con la idea de no toser y, aunque no tiene ganas, tose como un descosido y la anciana saca lentamente del bolso dos ventiladores a pilas para que el virus no le roce la piel. La ingenuidad y la futilidad del gesto resulta tan extremadamente adorable, que a Ong le encantaría apoyar la cabeza en el hombro de esa afable mujer y casi lo hace, pero se reprime, y su estómago empieza a gritar «¡dim sum, dim sum!» como si no estuviera al borde de la muerte. Al joven lo conmueve tanto el significado etimológico de esas palabras —«acariciar suavemente el corazón»— que el estómago gana una vez el debate interno entre morir comiendo o en la cama. 

Su restaurante favorito queda lejos y, a medida que sube la fiebre, le va pareciendo más y más irresponsable ir; además, está a más de diez kilómetros de su casa, así que legalmente no podría hacerlo, aunque ya lo haya hecho dos veces esquivando a la policía, pero entonces no tenía coronavirus. 

Lo mejor sería volver a casa directamente, pero aparece en su cabeza la recomendación de dim sum congelado de su compañera de trabajo. Ya que va a morir de todas maneras, merece la pena un esfuerzo final, enmarcado en un plan más factible, aunque sea por dim sum congelado: se bajará en un par de paradas e irá al supermercado, eso es, entrar y salir, sin contagiar a nadie, sin hablar, sin mirar a nadie. En casa solo podría comerse las plantas —y no piensa a hacerle eso a sus bebés—. Aquel óbito que lo acecha no le va a privar de un último placer culinario, qué va. Mataría por ese manjar. 

Se le empañan las gafas al pasar del gélido autobús a la sauna exterior y la neblina le hace sentir más mareado, así que le compra un teh tarik con mucho hielo a un vendedor ambulante que no debería estar ahí, pero está y, bueno, parece sano, y Ong le paga sin contagiarlo. Espera en la cola del AEON —es corta, ya no hay tantas compras de por si acasos—, algo que no haría si esta no fuera su última cena, porque odia las filas, las odia, pero se distrae pensando en lo que daría por ver el templo Kek Lok Si y el bosque de manglares en Balik Pulau, por pasear con sus amigos ang mo por la turística calle Chulia e introducirles en el mundo del curry mee (sin confesarles que en Penang se prepara con sangre de cerdo), por hacer otra caminata por la selva hasta llegar a la playa y hasta por que los monos le robaran la comida de nuevo… Pero sobre todo, ay, le encantaría ir en bici por ese camino junto a los huertos de durian y llenarse de aquel olor acre que siempre lo hace viajar a su infancia. Se le inundan los ojos de recuerdos líquidos mientras se pega la fría bolsa de plástico a la frente, qué placer, qué gusto, qué satisfacción, y se le mezclan lágrimas, sudor y condensación en la cara.

Cuando se acerca su turno, se bebe el té de un trago, se seca con la manga y entra al supermercado, del tirón, y el frescor combinado del hielo y del aire acondicionado le recorre el cuerpo en un escalofrío que lo deja aterido y le recuerda que la gélida mano de la muerte le roza la piel, pero está convencido: cumplirá la Misión Dim Sum aunque sea lo último que haga.

En la entrada, pone cara de no tener ni frío ni calor y le toman la temperatura en esa frente gélida de bebida callejera, ningún problema, pasa, pasa, la mentira cuela. Le piden que se ajuste bien, bien, bien la mascarilla, le echan una pegajosa y desinfectante mezcla de agua y jabón con espray en las manos, le pegan un número al cuerpo que tendrá que entregar en caja y le hacen registrarse con un código QR para controlar el tiempo que pasa en la tienda: quince minutos, ni-un-se-gun-do-más. Va flechado a la sección de congelados, agarra una bolsa, paga —pero ¿la gente no deja distancia de seguridad en esta cola tampoco?—, sale y se planta los glaciares dim sum en la frente de virus y fuego. Un abrir y cerrar de ojos: eso es lo que tarda.

Ya solo tiene que coger un taxi, un Grab, un MyCar, un trishaw, lo que sea. Pronto llegará a casa y besará a su madre, su hermana y sus plantas por última vez. Qué pena, pero qué suerte verlas a todas. 

Dos conductores lo echan a patadas y sin explicaciones en cuanto se sube al coche. Ya está, obviamente tiene coronavirus y se ha convertido en un paria. Abre la bolsa a mordiscos, se intenta comer una bolita de dim sum congelada. Ha llegado su hora, no cabe duda: nadie en su sano juicio se metería eso a la boca, vaya última cena de mierda. Lo escupe. El tercer conductor también lo rechaza, pero al menos le da un motivo: señala un cartelito colgando del reposacabezas con un durian tachado, muy habitual en el transporte malayo, porque en los espacios cerrados el aroma de la fruta se afea e impregna sin remedio todas las superficies.

En ese preciso instante precioso, Ong se da cuenta de que apesta a la dichosa fruta y piensa en el empacho y en la fiebre que siempre le da la ingesta masiva de su adorado durian. Le lleva pasando desde pequeño, pero el pánico de las últimas semanas ha impedido que lo achacara a la glotonería. El rostro se le inunda de alegría y se gasta todo el gel antibacteriano que le queda para lavarse las manos y la boca requetebien y dejar de expeler ese hedor.

Se monta en el cuarto taxi, relajado en la fiebre, olvidándose del estrés y la ansiedad que le produce pensar en estos tiempos totalitarios y en la incertidumbre del futuro. Haber superado el coronavirus de mentira lo tranquiliza de verdad y se sumerge en la felicidad de este instante al pegar la frente en la fresquísima ventanilla hasta quedarse dormido.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas

Gastronomy

[Leer cuento en español]

It was all caused by that fateful office durian party and his resulting binge. And the worst thing is that Ong himself had come up with the idea, inspired by the arrival of June and hoping to cheer up his coworkers, their palates plunged in sorrow and longing for vanished flavors.

The arrival of the king of fruits is always an occasion of joy, but in this year of culinary deprivation, Penang’s favorite delicacy has become manna in a desert of monotony and isolation. That’s why, when Ong showed up this morning with those disposable plastic packages of durian well-wrapped, well-sealed, no smell on the bus, no smell his coworkers had greeted him with eager cries.

His few coworkers who were still there, that is many had asked for indefinite unpaid leave to avoid infection or because of the political instability, who knows. But now is one of the most joyful periods of the year, and they gathered round a couple of tables eight feet apart, disinfecting every package, not passing anything along and enjoy the savory, sweet, creamy fruit, its smell permeating the air, attaching to their hair, their clothing, and their souls. Durian, like love, is meant to be shared. With so few left to share with, though, Ong ended up gorging himself, entranced by the irresistible seduction of that fruit fatal.

Even in this rare moment of bliss, Ong couldn’t resist complaining. What misery, what misery it has been for his taste buds. And his coworkers are going through the same suffering: nobody knows how to cook, what’s the point? They live in a culinary mecca where buying food crafted by a specialist is cheaper and quicker than getting tangled up with pots and pans at home. A colleague, mouth full of durian, heart full of desperation, recommended a brand of frozen dim sum which is quite edible when boiled at home, don’t be close-minded, it does the job, and they laughed at this perversity, and each returned to his job.

Ong, mesmerized by the demands of his belly, can’t get his favorite dim sum restaurant out of his head all afternoon and hasn’t done diddly squat. What’s it been, eight, ten weeks now? Without being able to sit in a restaurant. Now they do let you, but with contact tracing and social distancing, and eating out means being immersed in a viral paranoia that clouds and dizzies you, and it’s impossible to enjoy anything.

He sits there, in that grey building in an office park in the Free Industrial Zone, gawking foolishly at his computer, caught in an obsessive spiral in which all he can focus on is tasting one of his favorite culinary treats again. But first, he has to send invoices in English, dim, record the last air freight of the day, sum, authorize the departure of a shipload in Malay, dim, negotiate prices in Hokkien for transport on passenger-free commercial flights, sum, explain in Mandarin to a Singapore importer the problems of meeting the voracious demand with the current meager supply, dim, because, if not, the shelves of the supermarkets will be empty, sum, and he will not be responsible for such an atrocity.

With difficulty, he wraps everything up and leaves once and for all, no longer able to resist the urging of his insatiable stomach, which, though already full of durian, insists on tasting dim sum. Although his mind may tell him that a bland slop is all that awaits him for dinner, his stomach prevails by projecting mirages before his mind, of laden carts groaning under a dizzying array of neatly-arranged plates amidst a halo of light, surrounded by the dingy colonial charm of the colorful shophouses of central Georgetown, where the best dim sum in the country is eaten.

Ong feels feverish, but suspects that the sensation is fruit of the visceral gluttony that is whipping him with psychosomatic fury. It can’t be anything else; as usual, this morning, before he had been allowed into the office, they had taken his temperature, invited him (invited him, ha!) to apply an anti-bacterial gel and check in at the entrance, with his name, ID, hour, minute and second of arrival, exact temperature and practically his brand of underwear. And, anyway, well, he doesn’t have a fever. Neither he nor anyone else. He touches his forehead and perhaps there is a slight burning, but nothing, nothing. There’s no virus whatsoever. This is all just a result of culinary nostalgia, no doubt. He grabs his things with a calmness grounded in his own conviction that all is well. He shuts all his paranoia in that scrawl-filled notebook which he puts away in his briefcase with all his fears and locks up, suffocating the panic behind the lock.

He goes out into the street, and the humid 90 degrees pack more of a punch than ever. There’s absolutely nothing wrong. It’s rush hour and prices on Grab are sky high, so, since he’s feeling so well, he heads to the bus stop and unsheathes the weapon he needs for such an inexplicable whim: patience. He’ll take the bus to Komtar and then continue in a taxi. There is a very long line, which at first intimidates him, because it reminds him of the lines that formed when they shut down the city a few weeks ago, and people began to pile up in front of the police stations to apply for the necessary permits to make interstate trips. Then chaos had seized dominion little by little, with police checkpoints on every road and those government edicts that even their enforcers did not understand, and nobody sure how to behave. The emergency alerts issued by the government, which were pushed to all cell phones in Malay only, with shrill alarms that seemed to announce a nuclear strike, not only spread panic but also deliberately excluded two thirds of the island’s population. It was during those days that he realized that this time it wouldn’t be like the SARS and MERS scares, that this was something huge, which in recent weeks had already wrought radical consequences on the economy, on freedom of movement, on Malaysian politics, on his nerves.

But this line can be blamed only on rush hour and the embarrassing scarcity of 301 buses. Wait, wait, he’s starting to sweat. Is the fire from within or without? He rubs his face against the cold glass of the shelter, slowly, with a cat-like gesture that he hopes nobody sees. At least the street is awash with the sweet smell of durian; despite the virus, it seems like every trunk is loaded with the fruit, and stalls have sprouted up overnight along the side of the road. He focuses on that fragrance as a survival method while cooling his forehead.

Finally the bus arrives and he ends up last to board, because he doesn’t like crowds, much less of contagious people (like him?). Before climbing the stairs, he gathers his strength and puts on his best “I don’t have a fever” face. The driver takes his temperature once, frowns, once again. Ong smiles grimly (as if his mouth were visible through his mask) get in, c’mon, get in, it’s only a few tenths of degrees, and acknowledges the favor with a terima kasih that is more like a sigh.

He pretends to sit tranquilly, collapsing next to an old woman who doesn’t seem like she can see her hand in front of her face, so she probably won’t be judgmental about Ong’s sweat. He presses his face to the cold glass again, his relief only spoiled by his own thoughts: he grows even hotter at the thought of that devious coup d’état supported by the sultan himself and orchestrated to take advantage of the COVID outbreak and seize power from Mahathir after instituting confinement, even though this is still a democracy, right? even if they didn’t vote for the new prime minister, even if now Muhyiddin has consolidated power, even if it doesn’t matter anymore, because you have coronavirus and that’s that, admit it, Ong, death is kissing the back of your neck, you will disappear from the face of the Earth and leave the living to squabble over freedom. 

Don’t cough, don’t cough, watch an episode of Normal People on your phone and relax. But he can’t lose himself in the show and is obsessed with the idea of not coughing, and although he doesn’t really need to, he starts coughing like a Sabah coal miner, and the old woman asks him if he is all right while she edges away and pulls out two tiny plastic battery-operated fans to try to push the virus away. The ingenuity and the futility of this gesture somehow seems adorable in that moment. Ong has an urge to lay his head on the woman’s shoulder, but he holds back, and his stomach starts screaming “dim sum, dim sum!” as if he weren’t teetering on the edge of his grave. The young man is so moved by the etymological origin of that term “to gently caress the heart” that his stomach triumphs once and for all in the internal debate between dying while eating or dying in bed.

His favorite restaurant is far away and, as the fever continues to rise, it begins to seem more and more irresponsible to go; besides, it’s more than ten kilometers from his house, so legally it’s not even permitted, even though he’s already done it twice by dodging the police, Admittedly, he didn’t have coronavirus back then.

He should just go home directly, but that recommendation of frozen dim sum from his co-worker pops into his head. Since he is going to die anyway, it is worth one final effort, on a smaller scale, even if it is for frozen dim sum. He will get off in a couple of stops and go to the supermarket, that’s it, in and out, without infecting anyone, without talking, without looking at anyone. At home, the only thing he has to eat is his plants and he would never do that to his babies. This specter which is haunting him will not deprive him of one last culinary pleasure, no way. He’d kill for that delight.

As he passes from the icebox of the bus into the sauna of the outdoors, his glasses fog up, and the blur makes him feel even dizzier, so he buys a teh tarik with extra ice from a street vendor who shouldn’t be there, but he is and, well, he looks healthy, and Ong pays without infecting him. He waits in line at the AEON it’s short, there’s no longer so much precautionary hoarding something he would never subject himself to if this weren’t his last meal, because he hates lines, he hates them, but he manages to lose track of time thinking about what he would give to see the Kek Lok Si temple or the mangrove backwaters of Balik Pulau once again, to go walking with his ang mo friends along touristy Chulia Street and introduce them to the world of curry mee (without telling them that in Penang it’s served with pig’s blood), to take another walk through the jungle to the beach, even to have his food stolen by monkeys again… But above all, he would love to ride his bike along the trail of durian orchards, bathing in that pungent smell that brings him back to his childhood. Once more, just once more. His eyes flood with liquid memories as he sticks the cold plastic bag to his forehead, what pleasure, what delight, what relief, and tears, sweat, and condensation mix on his face.

When his turn comes, he downs his tea in one gulp, dries himself with his sleeve, and enters the supermarket, all in a single movement, and the combined coolness of ice and air conditioning courses through his body in a chill that leaves him terrified and reminds him that the icy hand of death is still clutching at his skin, but he is convinced: he will fulfill this Dim Sum Mission if it is his last act on Earth.

At the entrance, he carefully puts on his “neither hot nor cold” face, and the guard scans the temperature of that forehead frozen from street drinking, no problem, enter, enter, the lie sticks. The guard asks him to fit his mask tight, tight, tight, puts a sticky, disinfecting mixture of soap and water and spray on his hands, sticks a number on his body that he will have to display at checkout and makes him register with a QR code to monitor the time he spends in the store: fifteen minutes, not-one-sec-ond-more. He beelines to the frozen food section, grabs a bag, pays but doesn’t anybody respect safe distances in this line either? exits and presses dim sum glaciers to his forehead of virus and fire. A blink of an eye: that’s how long he takes.

Now all he has to do is get a taxi, a Grab, a MyCar, a trishaw, whatever. Soon he will arrive home and kiss his mother, his sister, and his plants one last time. It’s sad, but what luck to be able to see them all.

Two drivers kick him out without explanation as soon as he gets in the car. That’s it, it is obvious to everyone that he has coronavirus, and he has become a pariah. He bites open the bag, tries to eat a frozen dumpling. That’s it, his time has come, there’s no doubt about it: nobody in their right mind would put that in their mouth, what a shitty last meal. He spits it out. The third driver also rejects him, but at least gives him a reason, gesturing to the sign on the headrest with a crossed-out durian, familiar in public transport across the Malay peninsula. In the enclosed space, every surface and fabric would be impregnated with the powerful smell. 

In that blessed instant, Ong suddenly realizes that he reeks of the cursed fruit and recalls the indigestion and fever that has always punished him for overindulgence in his beloved durian. It first happened when he was a little boy, but with panic in the air, he hadn’t even thought to blame his suffering on gluttony. His face floods with joy, and he uses the entire remainder of his anti-bacterial gel to wash his hands and mouth thoroughly and conceal the odor.

He gets into the fourth taxi, relaxed in his fever, leaving behind the stress and anxiety caused by pondering these totalitarian times and the uncertainty of the future. His conquest of the false coronavirus fills him with assurance, and he immerses himself in the happiness of this moment by resting his forehead against the icy-cool window until he drifts into sleep.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

[Tales of the pandemic based on real stories from around the world with a touch of fiction.
Ongoing literary project.]
Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, by Mary Cassatt

Oneirism

After all, Keza has been exercising omnipresence for some time: why should one more city be a problem? Saturday kicks off with a job interview over Zoom that she’d told Ganza would finish by 12 at the absolute latest; three quarters of an hour past noon, she’s still there, her tongue coated with the minutiae of her value as a computer programmer, pert as ever, full of assurances that the location is perfect. If she’s hired, she’ll be in Seattle right away, yes, yes, no problem, it’s practically next door, there’s nothing tying me down here.

[Read more]

Atmosphere

A storm like this is unheard of at Kilstonia during the dry Oregon summer. Strange to see the pounding rain; only this morning, the baked cloudless sky had set off in stark shadows a beaver brazenly gorging himself on the willow tree on the island. Vera’s willow tree. She jumped out of bed, 81 years and recent foot surgery at once forgotten, grabbed her .22, unlatched the lock to the balcony, paused a brief instant to avoid spooking the critter, and edged the door cautiously open. Resting the gun on the railing to avoid any unwanted trembling, she closed an eye to aim carefully, mumbled “I got you, you little bastard,” and shot him to doll rags, one more witness to her excellent aim.

[Read more]

Gastronomy

It was all caused by that fateful office durian party and his resulting binge. And the worst thing is that Ong himself had come up with the idea, inspired by the arrival of June and hoping to cheer up his coworkers, their palates plunged in sorrow and longing for vanished flavors.

[Read more]

Melomania

Andrei dreams that once again his hands will be a blur as he plays Rachmaninov’s preludes to an adoring crowd, the frenzy will create a gale that rips the socks off the pot-bellied, mustachioed man in the front row, and the performance will end with the piano bursting into flames from the hammers’ unrelenting assault on the strings.

[Read more]

Geography

Strawberry and cream tarts, lemon bundt cake, artisan tiramisu, blueberry muffins, Dutch apple pie, chocolate eclairs, cherry cobbler, cinnamon rolls, and bread, bread, and more bread. All expired, but it’s better than nothing.

[Read more]

Mnemonics

The idea of actually calling the police occurred to the Daughter. By no means did she want him to be arrested and spend the night in lock-up — which no doubt nowadays served more as a breeding ground for the virus than anything else — but it couldn’t be denied that, in a way, he had brought it on himself; driving all the way to Zhuanghe was truly a preposterous idea.

[Read more]

Autarchy

Beyoncé is trapped in her gel nails. Well, not Beyoncé Beyoncé, it’s just that Maria refuses to allow her real name to be used, because it’s simply too distinctive, and she prefers not to be recognized in the street. So we’ll have to turn to her idol for a pseudonym (surely, there must be more Beyoncé fans than Marias in the world). Anyway, what happened is that Beyonce got sick before the virus got its official papers cleared to leave China, and she endured nine days of fever and misery, but she didn’t die, because she took good care of herself, and because she was lucky, and because she’s not in a high-risk demographic, and because she doesn’t know if she had coronavirus or just the flu or who knows the hell what.

[Read more]

Theophany

The neo-ancient emergence of the phrase “streaming mass” had launched her into delight tinged with relief. She has stoically resigned herself to renouncing her walks to the Dish, her jazzercise classes, her meandering bike rides, no matter how much she longs for them. All for the common good. And, well, she has a big backyard, where she can run, dance, or do flips on the trampoline if she wants. She never actually has, but why shouldn’t she?

[Read more]

~ Leer los cuentos en español ~

Geography

[Leer cuento en español]

Strawberry and cream tarts, lemon bundt cake, artisan tiramisu, blueberry muffins, Dutch apple pie, chocolate eclairs, cherry cobbler, cinnamon rolls, and bread, bread, and more bread. All expired, but it’s better than nothing.

Each time he readies this cornucopia for his people, it fills him with excitement, but ever since the chase and the $130 fine a few months ago, there is always the nagging concern that maybe this time will be another disaster.

He has just left the only supermarket that responded to his pleas the Albertsons in South El Paso from which he has been taking a daily cartful for the past five years and he realizes he is already feeling unusually tense. Will they let him cross? He arranges the surplus and expired products with the restraint and methodical efficiency of someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s already become rote: he arrives every day at the loading and unloading zone, passes through to the bakery and pastry section, collects everything his compatriots don’t want, to be taken to those who can’t choose what they want, puts it in the cart, and distributes it among the coolers he always carries in the trunk.

Calm down, calm down, he sips water, exhales, gets in his pick-up truck, murmurs a rapid prayer. His nerves are on edge after three border crossings in a single day last week. Normally things aren’t so hectic, but it appears that, in these times, perishable goods have lost their attraction for American shoppers, and they pile up, pile up, pile up and usually land in the dumpster.

He buries his anxiety, starts the engine, and heads for the border, temporarily imbued with the tranquillity of hope and faith. That journey of barely five minutes is filled with the faces he will hopefully see today. First appears little Maria Fernanda from the orphanage, whose parents were murdered a couple of months back, but is always full of affection, seeking to be hugged, embraced, cradled. Then he decides he will leave some bread at Angélica’s house, partially repaired after another rampage of her teenage son, who sniffed glue as a kid, and then went on to marijuana and then cocaine and then meth. Wresting his thoughts away, the visage of Rahui comes to him, Rahui, who himself lives precariously in the Tarahumara settlement, is always eager to help unload the pick-up truck and distribute food to his neighbors. Just before he arrives, there flashes into his mind an image of that wryly upbeat woman everyone calls La Perrita, who loves chocolate and dirty jokes and who was thrown by her children into the teeming chaos of the overcrowded psychiatric hospital after she fell on the train tracks and lost both legs and an arm. Merely thinking about them fills him with warmth: the loneliness of a childless divorce vanishes like smoke when he arrives in Juarez, when he joins his makeshift Mexican family. He sees them every week, they kiss and hug (nowadays much less), play, pray, sing, laugh and even celebrate together at Christmas and Easter. God willing he will be able to get across. God willing.

Agents on both sides of the border have him firmly in their sights. While returning to the U.S., despite a digital trail of his countless arrivals and departures, is usually a breeze (because it’s his own country, and he has the SENTRI pass for trusted travelers), Mexico often poses problems. As he approaches customs, Jeff plans how to proceed. There are five entry points at the border — he knows them all too well, after 23 years of experience. To lessen suspicion, Jeff tries to repeat as infrequently as possible, keeping a running mental record of which is due. Although controls are less comprehensive in this direction, Jeff is often accused by officers of carrying too much food. Through painstaking trial and error, he has determined what is likely to be considered an acceptable amount — two four-foot containers per trip, three at the most — but today they may say even that’s too much. Then he will have to go back and wait for another day and try to distribute the food to the homeless people he finds in El Paso or to his neighbors, because food banks only accept donations of non-perishable food. As a last resort, Jeff will eat what he can himself before it goes bad, but what the supermarket discards is already on its last legs, and not a single eclair more can be crammed into the freezer. What can he do: sometimes the trash is an inevitable fate, and his thoughts always turn to his children whenever he’s forced to toss the spoiled food.

He’s approaching that high wall that’s been steadily growing since 1819, and Jeff can’t stop sweating. Come on, you’ve been doing this for years and years. There are a couple of cars ahead of him. No comparison to what it’s usually like; the border closed on March 21, and only those considered essential can pass. He’s essential, in theory, but they can refuse him on any pretext.

If they don’t let him through, he won’t try his luck at another checkpoint. He would hate to repeat the experience of last year’s pursuit and ticket, when he was carrying four coolers loaded with pastries and the agents wouldn’t let him cross, and he switched to another entrance and initially managed to get through, but the first guards had tipped them off, and he was commanded to stop, and he started singing loudly to feign incomprehension, and they chased him down with a truck, and they dumped him back in the United States and screamed at him, and he had to pay a fine of $135 to boot. And 2300 pesos goes a long way on the other side. No, if they don’t let him pass, he’s not going to gamble again. Now he treads carefully: better to live to fight another day, even if he has to throw away precious expired food. 

The border gets closer, closer, and Jeff tenses his shoulders, squeezes the steering wheel with his hands, prays and prays that they don’t give him any trouble, turns down the K-LOVE music that always accompanies him, fits the yellow cap over his gray hair, adjusts the tiger-print mask (better to leave it on, right?), readies his passport, and hands it to the officer with gloves and caution and his blue eyes glowing with supplication and prayers crouched at the corners of his lips. Will he manage to get across? 

In general, he knows the weak points and proper approach for each of the border patrol officers, who don’t give a damn about the starving people in their country or the children wasting away in orphanages. However, the agent he’s drawn today, Jorge Lopez, always keeps him guessing, because depending on what side of the bed he woke up on, he sometimes displays compassion, sometimes blazes with fury; and he’s just as likely to dutifully process the official food transportation tax as he is to cough with the self-importance of petty authority to elicit a bribe.

Jeff forces his eyes into a smile and says good morning, how are you, sir, thank you very much. To avoid any sign of weakness or concern about his lengthy entry record, he concentrates on mentally plotting his course for the day. Before starting the deliveries, he will head to kilometer 27 to buy meat, milk, eggs, and fruit at the El Roble supermarket. The cash, cobbled together from various donors as well as a sizable portion of the profits Jeff makes from his own eBay store, provides for a decent haul of fresh food. On recent trips, he’s wandered bewildered through the richly-stocked supermarket aisles: piles, mountains of toilet paper gleam under the fluorescent glare, because this battered city can’t afford the luxury of descending on stores like locusts to hoard for a catastrophe. In these times, a full supermarket is synonymous with thousands of empty cupboards and refrigerators. In Ciudad Juarez, hunger and drugs kill many more people than any damn virus.

Officer Lopez addresses him as if they haven’t faced each other two hundred and forty-two times previously, and Jeff responds with restrained friendliness, and Officer Lopez asks if he has anything to declare, and Jeff mentions the three coolers full of bread and pastry, and Officer Lopez peers at him with puzzlement and examines the vehicle with eyes filled with the eternal suspicion of one who works every day in the uncertainty of discerning good from evil.

Suddenly, this inspection, now so routine, seems to him like an oasis of calm, and he is flooded with a sense of tranquility. Let God’s will be done. What truly worries Jeff is that the lords of this jungle will exploit the situation to lure in and conscript the most desperate for the skirmishes of their lethal trade. In April, obligatory social distancing was imposed in Mexico and more than 70 percent of the large factories in Juarez closed. Now many are on the streets and dying of hunger: staying home is not a choice, but a privilege.

On top of everything, this virus has the cartels pissed off, because most of the ingredients for making drugs come from China and the ban on shipping goods from the Asian behemoth is, in this land, a ban on getting rich. Incensed. The closed borders are decimating the drug routes. Downright infuriated. A few weeks ago, five gringos were executed, including a school teacher Jeff had been working with.

But Jeff doesn’t fear these thugs, and he drives around quietly in his pick-up truck, with his Christian music and “You have a friend in Jesus” on the license plate, telling himself, repeating to himself, that the bad guys may not fear him, but they fear God. At sixty-seven years old, maybe what he should really fear is the virus, high-risk group and so mobile, but what terrifies him much more is that his people may not have anything to put on their plates.

Agent Lopez regards Jeff with apathy: it seems that today it will be the official tax; two, three hundred pesos per cooler, he will have to pay. Times aren’t so hard now really: the health crisis doesn’t stop civil servants from drawing their salary, so Jeff is only forced to cough up a bribe a third of the times he crosses the border. The situation always gets worse after federal elections, when every departing president has the nasty habit of emptying the state coffers and leaving the customs agents trembling. Since they won’t get paid anything for three or four months, they forget to ask for the official paperwork to be filled out, and their mouths fill with absurd sums, knowing that the flow of gringos will feed their families when the state can’t. There’s still a year or so to go before the next election, so, putting aside morals, Jeff is essentially indifferent: he just declares what he’s carrying, and the cost of the bribe ends up equivalent to that of the tax only the pockets in which it ends up change, but that’s not his problem. He just wants to get to the other side.

He waits as the agent fills out forms, signs such and such document, pays for this, that, and the other, and finally crosses the border to his second home, that city forsaken by God and man without drinking water, without sanitation, without paved streets, and without hope and sighs with relief. Jeff is determined that he will not stop he will keep on making his three weekly trips in this pick-up truck that has only seen El Paso and Juarez and that already bears 300,000 miles and tarts and cake and tiramisu and muffins and pies and eclairs and cobblers and rolls and bread and experience.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Mnemonics

[Leer cuento en español]

The idea of actually calling the police occurred to the Daughter. By no means did she want him to be arrested and spend the night in lock-up — which no doubt nowadays served more as a breeding ground for the virus than anything else — but it couldn’t be denied that, in a way, he had brought it on himself; driving all the way to Zhuanghe was truly a preposterous idea. 

Xu Wei was between a rock and a hard place. All the siblings were taking turns looking after Grandma, and now he was up. If he didn’t go, either he’d just be leaving someone else in the lurch, or he’d be dooming Grandma to rapid (and lonely) deterioration. And Grandma already had afflictions enough, given that she wouldn’t be able to celebrate nongli xīnnián for the first time in eighty-six? years — at this point, it’s hard to keep track. No, it was Xu Wei’s turn to stay with Grandma, so he would accept his burden. 

Ever-methodical since his birth under the sign of the goat, he packed his bags in a matter of minutes, resorting to his old trick of humming rhyming lists to avoid forgetting anything. Socks in the glove box, cigarette packet in my jacket, ID and cash on the dash, shoes and hat and suit always in the boot, yan xu bing’zi on the seat next to me.

Li Na, whose enduring love for this man had been anchored in those rhyming ditties for decades, was on the verge of a conniption fit. She had already tried, actively and passively, to keep her husband from leaving, because the virus is spreading, because I swear I’m getting a divorce, because you’ll die and give the Daughter a stroke, because nobody cooks a wǔcǎi xuěhuā shànbèi like yours, because I’m too young to be a widow, because it’s freezing cold, because I’m too old to find a boyfriend, because you’re staying here, and that’s final!

But Xu Wei blithely kept going back and forth to the car, with his dopey grin and unwavering devotion to being contrarian, and those unescapable, sing-song rhy-yming li-ists began to grate on Li Na more and more. As he passed from one room to another, the song remained reverberating, like one of those pungent farts that lingers endlessly in a room: “Socks in the glove box, cigarette packet in my jacket, ID and cash on the dash.”

“ID and cash on the dash…” ID AND CASH ON THE DASH…”

In the end, that pestilential song gave Li Na an idea and, as impulsive as any good horse, quickly slipped that detestable “ID and cash” off the hapless dashboard and left him bereft of ID, driver’s license, and credit card.

That cheerful farewell with a have a good trip and a call when you arrive and a smile perplexed Xu Wei, but at the same time, he regarded it as a small triumph, the respect due to the man of the house.

As soon as the car pulled out, Li Na pulled up WeChat to video call the Daughter and report the scheme that had been launched with the theft of the wallet, improvised and without follow-up. It was then that the Daughter, a distant spectator of this drama from her home in the United States, brought up the police, with Machiavellian resolve and a thirst for harmony.

Li Na recounted everything in minute detail to the young man who picked up the phone, that my husband is in a metallic orange Chang’an, with license plate 辽B-C1603, that he doesn’t have any papers, that, remember, it is dangerous to leave Dalian, that if he is stopped, send him home right away. But the receptionist transferred him to a clerk. But the clerk transferred him to a detective. But the detective transferred him to the highway patrol. And even though the story shrunk inexorably with each telling — Chang’an, metallic orange, 辽B-C1603, home, right away — Li Na never despaired.

When Xu Wei called to tell her he had been stopped by the police, she feigned surprise as she sighed with relief, but he wouldn’t let her get a word in edgewise in his eagerness to tell her that according to AutoNavi, I’ll arrive at my destination in Zhuanghe in one hour and forty-six minutes, that the police let me go because you know what a smooth talker I can be, and my charm has only grown with the years, that what no longer work so well for me are rhyming lists, that I was convinced I had my ID and cash on the dash, that I’ll see you in a few days, that in a week at the very most. 

At the very least… what a horrible month. Not only did the city of Zhuanghe close its borders two days after Xu Wei’s arrival, but it forbade him from even leaving the apartment because he didn’t have his papers and had traveled from another city. They treated poor old Xu Wei like a leper, there, locked in his apartment, with sensors monitoring his door to make sure he didn’t leave, and a sign warning his neighbors of the mortal danger of breathing the same air as this undoubtedly virus-ridden intruder. How eternal those few weeks seemed: two cases immediately emerged in the building, one of his brothers had to bring him food, three cases, they played game after game of mahjong (the old biddy is invincible), five cases, he bathed Grandma every day to cleanse her of the virus, the virus, the virus, six, he looked ever poorer and dirtier as his beard grew — which also brings bad luck, and he has nothing to shave with — seven, eight cases.

Li Na has been calling the Daughter and Xu Wei every day; at first with concern, then with melancholy, and finally out of inertia. She had never lived alone before and, to alleviate her isolation (and to celebrate it) she has decided to change things up. Inspired by the Daughter, she has chosen to lead a gweilo lifestyle: she has done zumba every morning, binge-watched the complete filmographies of Audrey Hepburn and Janet Leigh, paraded around the house in a man’s shirt, and eaten caesar salad every day. She has missed Xu Wei, of course, but by the Great Lady of the Three Foxes, what bliss, but how sad, but what a treat.

Today Xu Wei is finally back, hurrying, hurrying, to get to a barbeque at a friend’s house in the outskirts of Dalian, visions of succulent lamb dancing before his eyes. In a rush and excited to return home, Xu Wei struggles to turn the lock, and when he finally opens the door, he does so with a thunderous crash. Li Na hears it (as if it were possible not to) and slips in the bath from surprise and nervousness — positive or negative, who can say?

Despite the spurts and spurts of blood gushing cinematically down the drain, Li Na doesn’t want to go to the hospital because, as she well knows, eating lamb when one has stitches goes against thousands of years of medical lore. And she’s going to devour that lamb whole after a month of salads. She won’t let them give her a single stitch.

Eight stitches. 

Xu Wei absolutely refuses to go to the party under any circumstances, because he doesn’t dare to tempt fate any more, because what wretched luck he’s had: it’s as if he’d been on a fourth floor, as if he’d dressed in white, as if someone had gifted him a clock, as if he’d left his chopsticks stuck in the rice, as if he hadn’t followed the tenets of feng shui, as if he’d adopted a turtle. But either we go to the party, or you can go back to live with your mother and leave me in peace.

In a few minutes, Xu Wei, clean-shaven, will check that his ID and cash are on the dash before starting the car to take his beloved wife with eight stitches on her scalp to dine on lamb. And whatever must happen shall happen.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Theophany

[Leer cuento en español]

The neo-ancient emergence of the phrase “streaming mass” had launched her into delight tinged with relief. She has stoically resigned herself to renouncing her walks to the Dish, her jazzercise classes, her meandering bike rides, no matter how much she longs for them. All for the common good. And, well, she has a big backyard, where she can run, dance, or do flips on the trampoline if she wants. She never actually has, but why shouldn’t she?

Physical exercise is not, then, her main concern, but missing Sunday Mass is a harder pill to swallow. Now that is something unpardonable. She has given more than a chance to guided meditation videos on YouTube and theological chats over family dinner but, after two weeks devoid of the reverend’s velvet words, the pit in her stomach bores deeper every second. How is it possible to face these apocalyptic times without the spiritual peace of Sunday’s congregation?

That’s why just reading “streaming mass” on her church’s website in spite of the friction of its meaning, its almost paradoxical chronology had made her feel a little bit closer to heaven.

This Sunday, dressed to the nines, she’s set up to correct exams while she waits for the service to begin. She dialed in to the video call twenty-three minutes and fifty-seven seconds before the start of mass, when there was not yet another soul to be seen in this cyber-limbo, so she continues to wield her red pen, less focused than usual due to the angelic chime every time someone new joins.

Six minutes and fourteen seconds before the streaming mass, she puts the exams aside to be dealt with in a clearer-eyed moment and begins to focus on the images of the other devotees. There are dozens of them and, every time one speaks, her picture fills the screen and ruthlessly unveils all the secrets of her home, at a stroke transforming all the others into petty, unwitting domestic spies.

Although the longevity of the parishioners is hardly news to her, Caroline can’t help but be struck by the great host of pills in the foreground, of respirators in the background, of canes and walkers strewn about not judging, not judging, that would be a sin, but you have to admit it’s striking. She, who drags the average age down quite a few years, finds it almost sinful to peer into room after room of these old people, the poor devils, awash among their pillboxes, their orthopedic devices, their embroidered cushions, and their antediluvian photos.

Holy Mass begins; and it turns out that the seniors, for whom this first encounter with video-conferencing is a baptism by fire, are not at all acquainted with the concept of “muting the microphone”. The reverend’s words are incessantly and irrepressibly interrupted by, “I don’t know that man from Adam,” and “Heavens, how does this work?” and “Turn up the goddamn volume, Joseph, for Chrissake.” Images of the reverend are interspersed with ladies in their Sunday best shouting that they don’t understand, with half deaf gentlemen who don’t understand that they are shouting, with shouting grandchild after grandchild, not understanding what’s not to understand.

Bedlam and chaos. The blind leading the blind.

Caroline, all dolled up for this long-awaited moment, finds herself getting more and more distracted. She tries again and again to focus on the word of God praise to you, Jesus Christ but the situation is more hilarious than solemn. And exasperating. So funny, but so maddening, but so funny.

The reverend sighs, blesses, sighs, sighs.

A young man well, not so much young, as younger than the others materialized on the main screen as if descended from from the heavens and demonstrates on a sheet of paper the steps for muting the damn microphone, written in letters the size of a soft-boiled egg. Caroline sees the promised land beckon, but the blessed vision lasts but a few moments; the Methuselahs click, click, click, they try, click, click, click, but nothing, click, nothing, click, click, nothing, nothing, nothing.

Hell, now in streaming.

Caroline boils inside one must have the patience of Job… She bites her tongue, crosses herself, makes a perfunctory gesture of farewell and hangs up, closing her computer with restrained violence.

And her house is plunged suddenly into the deepest silence. And, there, in that sacred hush, there, there, hidden, there dwells her God.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Autarchy

[Leer cuento en español]

Beyoncé is trapped in her gel nails. Well, not Beyoncé Beyoncé, it’s just that Maria refuses to allow her real name to be used, because it’s simply too distinctive, and she prefers not to be recognized in the street. So we’ll have to turn to her idol for a pseudonym (surely, there must be more Beyoncé fans than Marias in the world). Anyway, what happened is that Beyonce got sick before the virus got its official papers cleared to leave China, and she endured nine days of fever and misery, but she didn’t die, because she took good care of herself, and because she was lucky, and because she’s not in a high-risk demographic, and because she doesn’t know if she had coronavirus or just the flu or who knows the hell what. 

Now she’s completely cured. She may not know the precise nature of what she had, but she’s definitely cured. To celebrate her recovery, she’d forked over twenty euros for an old Chinese lady to attach some beautiful pink — natural-toned — gel nails, with a little flower at the edge, natural in a totally different way. To attach them tightly to the nail plate, attach them very, very tightly. 

It was the first time she’d ever gotten gel nails, but she deserved it, for fuck’s sake; she’d been clinging on to life by a thread (or at least had a really nasty fever) for nine days. She deserved some gel nails as a reward. Of course she deserved it. 

The only hitch was the arrival of the pandemic, this time officially and with a stamped tourist visa, so all businesses that weren’t strictly essential had been required to close indefinitely, by decree of the Bundesregierung. And now it turns out that gel nails aren’t a necessity. Unfuckingbelievable. All the Chinese nail salons closed. Every single one.

And now two weeks have gone by since she stuck her hand in that device with a UV lamp that burned like bloody hell. Two weeks — the nails are starting to look battered. Wikipedia informs her that nails grow an average of 0.1 millimeters per day. So that’s 1.4 millimeters already. Beyoncé’s voracious half-moons are encroaching further and further onto her cuticle. 

Poor Beyonce, half-heartedly telecommuting from the confinement of her apartment, types endlessly on her laptop and misenters number after number in Excel because those damn claws protrude farther every day and stick themselves where they’re not wanted, and everything gets messed up. She has to pore over every formula with a microscope. 

And worst of all, she can’t concentrate, because her friend Carmen (we’re going to have to call her Gwyneth due to privacy concerns) told her that oy, oy, oy, those nails and that gel must be veritable nests of coronavirus. Disinfect, disinfect. Ne-e-sts. 

Beyoncé checks the cells, half of them wrong, because those nests of coronavirus relish chaos. She is completely incapable of concentration, Gwyneth’s words a relentless drumbeat behind every thought. Plus, the laptop was brought to her from the office only a few days ago; no doubt it’s still bathed in viruses. She sprays her nails with disinfectant at every chance. Calculation, psss, psss, correction, psss, multiplication, psss, psss, etcetera, psss, psss, psss

And then there’s grocery shopping, yet another ordeal. She couldn’t get it delivered without pawning one of her more important organs, because she lives alone, and you have to buy provisions for a football team to qualify for free delivery. So she goes to the supermarket, whatcha gonna do? At least she gambles the lives of her gel nails: on previous excursions, two of them were ripped off by the cursed, blessed handles of the shopping bags, but she can’t have such misfortune every time (no matter how hard she tries).

When she ventures into the terrifying world outside her apartment, she applies every last tip forwarded to her on WhatsApp: she wears gloves and a mask, she doesn’t touch anything at all, she scolds a woman who is manhandling loaf after loaf of bread with her bare hands (c’mon, lady, Jesus Christ!), she keeps six feet apart in the queue, she sprints across to the other sidewalk when she spots a figure approaching in the distance. Look what she’s come to. When she arrives home, she initiates disinfection protocols as soon as she reaches the landing — a bucket of bleach at the entrance for her shoes, plastic bags to shield the plastic bags, coat banished to the disinfection zone (which she doesn’t have, of course, because she lives in a studio, not a mansion). She washes her hands as if digging for a secret layer of skin. She scrubs and scrubs the nests of coronavirus, which have been well and truly exposed. And then she rounds it off with a psss, psss, psss, and then a few more for good measure.

She feels hideous, with her nails in this state. One day she straightens her hair, which she always keeps curly nowadays, unstraightened since her last wild night at Fabrik; pwah, more than five years ago. She looks strange: between that hair and those nails, she looks like God knows what. She Skypes her mother, how ugly you are, then her best friend, how ugly, how ugly. And she sulkily washes her hair to bring back the glory of her curls, but her nails don’t fall out no matter how long she keeps on at her scalp.

She has learned to knit from YouTube videos, and the hours fly by, but she can’t get her nails out of her head, because they are always before her eyes, dancing to and fro with the needles. The nails without gel, the ones that broke carrying the groceries, still have remnants stubbornly glued on, and those can’t be pried off either. The other nails are increasingly on their last legs, but well-anchored, shining pinkly and in bloom, the half moon on the cuticles now full. Perhaps the cure is worse than the disease. 

Beyoncé only leaves the house to go shopping, but what truly makes her feel trapped are those tacky gel nails: what on Earth was I thinking when I get them done, I want my twenty euros back, I’ll never get gel nails ever again in my life, never.

With all her fretting about nails this and not nails that, the days rush by: she watches a film about explosions and sweat starring Angelina Jolie, and she forgets her nails; cooks and there her nails are, staring at her; psss, psss; sunbathes on her balcony in the breaks between the Berlin snow and nails? what nails?; does a HIIT workout and everything hurts except her nails; sews and sews and nails and nails and psss; she takes a nap and dreams about nails; reads Julia Navarro and sometimes they creep past the edge of the page, psss, psss, and other times, they are lost in the drama of the novel; she organizes bingo games over Skype and the nails knock the balls away when she tries to pick them up, psss, but it’s fun, and she doesn’t mind so much — not for nothing was she crowned “Online Bingo Queen.” 

She’s already been confined for 2.1 millimeters (or three weeks), and it seems like it’s going to be long-term, but the days are losing form, are losing form more and more. Her main concern in life is whether the Chinese women will open the nail salons. Well. Perhaps someday the gel nails will plunge over the finger cliff inevitable with the march of time. Perhaps that day will arrive before the uncertain date of the end of the quarantine. Perhaps. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

More tales of the pandemic based on real stories at
Love in the Time of Coronavirus,
by Patricia Martín Rivas.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Mnemotecnia

[Read story in English]

Lo de llamar a la policía se le ocurrió a la hija. Ella tampoco es que quisiera que lo detuvieran para que pasara la noche en el calabozo —con un foco mayor de virus que de presos, seguro—, pero, en cierta manera, se lo había buscado él solito: conducir hasta Zhuanghe era del todo descabellado.

Xu Wei estaba entre la espada y la pared. Todos los hermanos se iban turnando para cuidar a la abuela, y ahora le tocaba a él. Si no iba, u otro tendría que comerse el marrón o el estado de la abuela empeoraría a pasos agigantados. Y la abuela ya tenía bastante con asumir que no iba a celebrar nónglì xīnnián por primera vez en ochenta y ¿seis? años —uno ya pierde la cuenta—. No: le tocaba quedarse con la abuela a Xu Wei, así que él se responsabilizaría.

Metódico desde que nació bajo el influjo de la cabra, hizo las maletas en un santiamén, porque recurrió a su viejo truco de canturrear listas con rimas para no olvidarse nada. Calzoncillos al bolsillo, el sombrero al maletero, la cartera en la guantera, camiseta y chaqueta y bragueta siempre en la maleta, yan xu bing’zi en el asiento junto a mí.

Li Na, cuyas razones para seguir enamorada de ese hombre se habían enraizado durante décadas en esas cancioncitas con rimas, estaba al borde de la convulsión. Ya había intentado por activa y por pasiva que su esposo no se marchara, porque el virus se está extendiendo, porque te juro que me divorcio, porque te mueres y a la hija le da un patatús, porque nadie cocina un wǔcǎi xuěhuā shànbèi como el tuyo, porque soy demasiado joven para enviudar, porque hace un frío que pela, porque soy demasiado vieja para buscarme un novio, porque te quedas aquí y punto. 

Pero Xu Wei seguía y seguía, con una sonrisa bobalicona y altas dotes de desobediencia, y a ella cada vez le invadía más la furia con esas enervantes e indelebles lis-ti-tas con ri-mi-tas. Al pasar de una estancia a otra, cada canción de Xu Wei reverberaba durante largo rato, como si se tratara de una de esas horribles ventosidades que se alojan en las habitaciones por un tiempo indeterminado: «calzoncillos al bolsillo, el sombrero al maletero, la cartera en la guantera…».

«La cartera en la guantera…» «LA CARTERA EN LA GUANTERA…»

Aquella pestilente canción por fin le dio una idea a Li Na y, zodiacalmente impulsiva como buen caballo, sacó la odiosa cartera de la dichosa guantera y lo dejó sin documento de identidad, sin carné de conducir y sin tarjeta de crédito. 

Esa despedida con un buen viaje y un llama cuando llegues y una sonrisa le extrañó muchísimo a Xu Wei, pero, a la vez, la sintió como una pequeña victoria, como el respeto que se le debe guardar al hombre de la casa.

En cuanto el coche arrancó, Li Na se metió en WeChat para hacerle una videollamada a la hija y esbozar el plan que había comenzado con el robo de la cartera y que rebosaba improvisación y carecía de futuro. La hija, espectadora del drama desde Estados Unidos, dijo entonces lo de la policía, con resolución maquiavélica y sed de paz.

Li Na le contó todo con pelos y señales al joven de la centralita, que si mi esposo va en un Chang’an naranja metalizado, con matrícula 辽B-C1603, que si no lleva documentación, que si acuérdense de que es peligroso salir de Dalian, que si deténganlo y mándenmelo a casa inmediatamente. Pero el joven de la centralita transfirió la llamada a servicio en comisaría. Pero servicio en comisaría le pasó con un radiopatrulla. Y, aunque la historia se fue desinflando sin remedio —Chang’an, naranja metalizado, 辽B-C1603, casa, inmediatamente—, Li Na jamás se desesperanzó.

Cuando Xu Wei la llamó y le dijo que lo había parado la policía, ella se hizo la sorprendida y suspiró con alivio, pero él no le dejó abrir el pico: que si según AutoNavi en una hora y cuarenta y seis minutos llegaré a mi destino en Zhuanghe, que si la policía me ha dejado seguir porque ya sabes que soy encantador y que mi talento ha ido mejorando con los años, que si lo que ya no me funciona tan bien son las listas con rimas, que si estaba convencido de que tenía la cartera en la guantera, que si nos vemos en unos días, que si en una semana como muchísimo.

Como poquísimo: qué mes más horroroso. No solo la ciudad de Zhuanghe cerró las fronteras a los dos días de que llegara Xu Wei, sino que ni siquiera se le ha permitido salir del apartamento de la abuela, por carecer de documentos y por haberse desplazado desde otra ciudad —lo han tratado como un apestado al bueno de Xu Wei: ahí, encerrado en casa, con sensores en la puerta y un cartel advirtiendo a los vecinos de lo peligrosísimo que sería respirar el mismo aire que aquel tipo foráneo y probablemente vírico—. Menudas semanitas: en seguida brotaron dos casos en su edificio, les ha tenido que traer comida uno de los hermanos, tres casos, han jugado y jugado al mahjong (esa vieja es invencible), cinco casos, ha bañado a la abuela todos los días para limpiarla de virus, de virus, de virus, seis, parecía cada vez más pobre y más sucio con esas barbas —que encima dan mala suerte, y no tiene con qué afeitarse—, siete, ocho casos.

Li Na ha estado llamando a la hija y a Xu Wei todos los días; primero con preocupación, luego con melancolía y al final por inercia. Jamás había vivido sola y, para amenizar el aislamiento (y para celebrarlo) ha decidido hacer algo distinto. Inspirada por la hija, le ha dado por llevar una vida de gwailo: ha hecho zumba todas las mañanas, se ha tragado toda la filmografía de Audrey Hepburn y de Janet Leigh, se ha paseado por la casa en camisa de hombre y ha comido ensalada césar todos los días. Ha echado de menos a Xu Wei, claro, pero, ay, por nuestra señora de los tres zorros, qué felicidad, pero qué pena, pero qué a gustito.

Hoy por fin regresa Xu Wei, con prisa, con prisa, para no perderse esta tarde una comida con montones de cordero en casa de unos amigos, en las afueras de Dalian. Embriagado por la emoción de volver al hogar, Xu Wei lucha y lucha con la cerradura y, cuando por fin abre la puerta, lo hace con un estruendo espantoso. Li Na lo oye —como para no oírlo— y se resbala en la bañera, por la turbación y por los nervios —no se sabe si de los buenos o de los malos—. 

A pesar de los borbotones y borbotones de sangre que escapaban cinematográficamente por el desagüe, Li Na no quiere ir al hospital, porque comer cordero con puntos atenta contra las milenarias creencias de la medicina tradicional. Y ella va a engullir ese maldito cordero, que lleva un mes a base ensaladas: no piensa dejar que le den ni un solo punto.

Ocho puntos. 

Xu Wei se niega rotundamente a ir a la comida, por no querer tentar más a la suerte, porque ya ha tenido bastante mala pata: parece como si hubiera estado en un cuarto piso, si hubiera vestido de blanco, si le hubieran regalado un reloj, si hubiera dejado los palillos clavados en el arroz, si no hubiera seguido lo que dicta el feng shui, si hubiera adoptado una tortuga. Pero o vamos a la comida o te vuelves a vivir con tu madre y a mí me dejas tranquila.

Dentro de un rato, Xu Wei, bien afeitadito, comprobará si la cartera está en la guantera antes de arrancar el coche para llevar a su querida esposa con ocho puntos en la cabeza a degustar cordero. Y que pase lo que tenga que pasar.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas

Prolepsis

[Ler a história em português]

Cuando toma el aire en el balcón, Phil se sume en el baile sempiterno de las copas de los árboles que cubren con ahínco la realidad urbana de cemento y ladrillo. Sus cabellos anaranjados no salen de paseo más que para lo justo y necesario; no así su mente: aquel verdor lo hipnotiza un día más hasta que su imaginación se desboca y ve —siente— la tierra siempre húmeda de Londres en cada pisada, las cosquillas de la lavanda movida por el viento y la minúscula mano del pequeño Colin, que a su vez entrelaza los dedos de su otra mano con los de Adrien.

De camino a la granja urbana, Colinho va trotando sin soltarse de sus padres y les cuenta cómo ha ido su primer día de guardería y pregunta incansablemente por qué, por qué, por qué. Phil lo entretiene enseñándole los números en portugués, Adrien le llena los oídos de cuentitos franceses y luego canturrean susurrantes Thinking Out Loud, porque siempre encuentran un hueco para entonar su canción. En la granja, Colinho se ríe a carcajadas y a veces le asusta algún gruñido y repasa los nombres de los animales en todos los idiomas de su universo. Cuando se le antoja un dulce, Phil no sabe si su hijo querría un muffin, un éclair o un brigadeiro, y la duda lo saca de cuajo de la ensoñación.

La interrupción no lo incomoda, sin embargo, porque la vuelta a la realidad se convierte en un deleitoso limbo donde el tiempo que habita en las copas de los árboles transcurre a cámara lenta. Le llama la atención cómo su subconsciente siempre elige los nombres más británicos que existen —hoy le ha salido un Colin, pero ayer se imaginó a una Prudence, el jueves a un Freddy y la otra tarde a una Daisy—; y le hace mucha gracia cómo enseguida los portugaliza, como si su lengua materna se impusiera casi indignada a los años y años de residencia en Inglaterra.

Vuelve del todo a la realidad con el sonido de un nuevo correo electrónico. Siempre que ve el nombre de la asistenta social en la pantalla de su móvil, le da un vuelco al corazón, cruza los dedos, llama a Adrien —¡mensaje de Ginnie!— y abre la misiva digital en su presencia. Suspiran: novedades sin novedades: otra entrevista conjunta más. 

Nunca saben muy bien qué les deparará la próxima cita con Ginnie. Adrien es algo parco en palabras, pero para el dicharachero de Phil siempre hay más y más y más de lo que hablar. En las entrevistas individuales se pasó más de dos horas contándole minuciosamente los pormenores de los amoríos de su tío favorito, las disputas que dibujan el lado más oscuro de la historia familiar y cómo desafió su abuela las rígidas normas sociales del Brasil de los 60 al criar a sus hijas. Las entrevistas juntos obligan a la pareja a mirarse más allá de las pupilas, confesar creencias que ni siquiera se habían planteado antes y tomar decisiones lejanas e intangibles férreamente. Y no solo se exploran el uno al otro: con cada reunión, Phil y Adrien sienten que ahondan un poquito más en las profundidades de sí mismos.

A pesar de sus temores iniciales, la pandemia les ha regalado ciertas facilidades en el proceso. Para la reuniones con la asistenta social antes del confinamiento, ambos estaban obligados a pedir el día libre en el trabajo, llegar con puntualidad britaniquísima, repeinarse, emperifollarse y esconder cualquier posible tic nervioso repentino. Pero ahora todo resulta mucho más sencillo, porque las citas por Skype se compaginan fácilmente con la jornada laboral, hay más permisividad con los cortes de pelo y reina una verdadera distensión al hablar desde la calidez del hogar.

En la última entrevista, Ginnie les avisó de que en la siguiente etapa tendrían que decidir la edad. En el caso de que quisieran un bebé, uno de ellos tendría que dejar de trabajar durante un año, pero en la empresa solo les concederían trece semanas pagadas, pero Londres es carísima y no tienen tantos ahorros, pero podrían si se cambiaran a un piso más barato, pero mudarse es un símbolo de inconsistencia y la agencia de adopción exige una estabilidad pétrea, pero igual con una ayuda del gobierno, pero todo esto solo se lo podría permitir el mismísimo Sir Elton Hercules John. 

En la próxima entrevista, tendrán que hablar de por qué quieren adoptar. Eso ha dicho Ginnie, además de la fecha y de la hora, que han confirmado ipso facto. Adrien refunfuña y entra a casa; Phil prefiere rezongar en el balcón y busca y rebusca un porqué no tan manido. 

Antes de abandonar la brisa del balcón, Phil echa una última mirada al exterior y siente una cierta fricción entre la abrumadora inactividad de aquellas calles (en las que no parece pasar nada) y la exaltación por el inminente cambio que llegará dentro de ¿semanas, meses, un año? Al contrario que ahí fuera, sus vidas se inundan de celeridad y emoción.

Hoy le toca cocinar a Adrien y, como sabe que Phil tiende a la melancolía y extraña las noches en Camden, ha preparado un fish and chips de bacalao, como el de Poppies, acompañado de una pinta de cerveza y de las mejores canciones de su bar favorito, The Hawley Arms, temporalmente cerrado, pero hoy abierto en un hogar cualquiera de Londres. Para evitar hablar de las preguntas de Ginnie y de los miedos, las expectativas y los desafíos de la paternidad, se ponen al día sobre su jornada de teletrabajo: Adrien ha estado elaborando un anuncio de humus para Luxemburgo y Phil ha recopilado dibujos de los niños de sus amigos para que aparezcan en el canal de televisión. Como su vida social se viste únicamente de la del otro, la conversación elegida para tan especial velada se extingue pronto y no pueden evitar que el futuro vuelva a sus bocas y acaban hablando de cuando vayan los tres a Mantes-la-Jolie a visitar a los padres de Adrien, de lo buen ejemplo que será la cariñosísima ahijada de Phil, Lily, de cuando visiten Petrópolis para hacer la presentación oficial del nuevo miembro de la familia, de los bailes que se pegarán en el salón al ritmo de las Spice Girls.

Todas las noches —incluso las noches de Camden—, la pareja ve una serie, y hoy están de suerte: hay un nuevo capítulo de una de sus favoritas. Pero a los seis minutos y dieciséis segundos, Adrien ya está durmiendo a pierna suelta, como de costumbre, así que Phil se resigna a dejar Killing Eve para mañana, porque conoce los límites fijados por el código moral de su sacra unión y sabe que no ha ver ni una escena más él solo. 

De naturaleza más nocturna, a Phil aún le queda un buen rato para que le invada el cansancio. Como a Adrien Friends no le hace tilín, se clava dos capítulos, conteniendo la risa con todos los chistes, aunque se los sepa de memoria. Entre broma y broma, mira de reojillo a su marido, quien, cuando duerme, desborda ternura y parece quinientos años más joven. Poco a poco, se va ovillando a su lado y Adrien le cede su cuerpo para acurrucarse, como imantado por la somnolienta inercia de su idilio. En ese momento y como cada noche, Phil se va adormilando con la absoluta certeza de que sus cuerpos encajan a la perfección y recuerda a Colinho y a Prudencenha y a Freddinho y a Daisynha y sus párpados se rinden ante la añoranza del futuro.

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Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas

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Beyoncé está atrapada en sus uñas de gel —no es Beyoncé Beyoncé, pero es que María no quiere que se sepa su nombre verdadero, porque es demasiado común y prefiere que no la reconozcan por la calle; así que mejor utilizar el de su ídolo como apodo (seguro que existen más fans de la diva que Marías hay por el mundo)—. Bueno, pues resulta que Beyoncé enfermó antes de que el virus saliera de China con el pasaporte en regla y estuvo nueve días con fiebre y mucho malestar, pero se recuperó, porque se cuidó y porque tuvo suerte y porque no es grupo de riesgo y porque desconoce si tenía coronavirus o solo gripe o vaya usté a saber qué.

Ya está del todo recuperada. No conoce los pormenores de su padecimiento exactamente, pero el caso es que está recuperada. Para celebrar su mejoría, se gastó veinte euritos para que una señora china le hiciera unas bonitas uñas de gel rosadas —naturales—, con una florecilla en un costado —naturales en otro sentido— y bien pegaditas a la lámina ungular, bien, bien pegaditas.

Era la primera vez que se hacía las uñas de gel, pero se lo merecía, coño, que estuvo al borde de la muerte —o al menos tuvo una fiebre horrible, horrible— durante nueve días. Se merecía un premio en forma de uñas. Claro que se lo merecía.

El problema es que llegó la pandemia, ya oficialmente y con visado de turista, y los negocios que no fueran absolutamente necesarios tuvieron que cerrar temporalmente, por órdenes del Bundesregierung. Y ahora resulta que las uñas de gel son un capricho. Jódete y baila. Todas las chinas de las uñas cerradas. Todas. 

Ya han pasado dos semanas desde que metiera la mano en un cacharro con una lámpara ultravioleta que abrasaba como los mil demonios. Dos semanas: las uñas están fearrutas. Wikipedia dice que crecen a una velocidad promedio de 0,1 milímetros al día. Eso son ya 1,4 milímetros. A Beyoncé se le asoma la luna creciente por la cutícula.

La pobre Beyoncé, confinada en su casa y teletrabajando sin disciplina, teclea y teclea en su ordenador y mete mal los números en Excel, porque esas malditas añadiduras a sus pezuñas cada vez sobresalen más y presionan donde no deben y se le desbarajusta todo. Tiene que revisar cada cálculo con lupa.

Y lo peor es que no puede concentrarse, porque su amiga Carmen (vamos a llamarla Gwyneth por cuestiones de privacidad) le dijo que uy, uy, uy, que esas uñas y ese gel son un nidito de coronavirus. Desinfecta, desinfecta. Un ni-di-to.

Beyoncé revisa las celdas, la mitad mal, porque los nidos de coronavirus adoran el caos, y no encuentra la manera de concentrarse, porque las palabras de Gwyneth le rondan por la cabeza sin respiro. Además, el ordenador se lo trajeron del trabajo hace unos días: seguro que todavía tiene bicho. Se va desinfectando las uñas con un espray cada poco rato. Operación matemática, flis, flis, corrección, flis, multiplicación, flis, flis, etcétera, flis, flis, flis.

Luego la compra, que esa es otra. No pueden traérsela a domicilio sin que le cueste un ojo de la cara, porque vive sola y tendría que pillar comida para un regimiento para disfrutar del servicio gratuito. Así que va al súper, qué le vamos a hacer. Por lo menos, con suerte, arriesga la vida de las uñas de gel: en las compras anteriores, se le han desprendido dos con las malditas asas benditas de las bolsas, pero otras veces no va a tener tanta buena mala suerte (aunque lo intente). 

Cuando sale, pone en práctica todos y cada uno de los consejos que ha visto en los vídeos que le han pasado por wasap: lleva guantes y mascarilla, no toca nada de nada, regaña a una mujer que manosea pan tras pan a toda piel —pero ¡señora, copón!—, hace la cola a dos metros de distancia, se cruza de acera si viene alguien de frente. Un sinvivir, mire usté. Al llegar a casa, sigue los protocolos de desinfección desde el descansillo —que si un cubo con amoniaco a la entrada para los zapatos, que si bolsas de plástico para apoyar las bolsas de plástico, que si dejar el abrigo en una zona de desinfección (que ella no tiene, claro, porque vive en un estudio, no en una mansión)—. Se lava las manos como si no hubiera un mañana. Se frota y se refrota los niditos de coronavirus, que han estado muy expuestos. Y luego mata y remata con un flis, flis, flis.

Se siente fea, con las uñas así. Un día se alisa el pelo, que ya siempre lo lleva rizado y no se lo plancha desde la última vez que fue al Fabrik; puf, hará más de cinco años. Se ve rara: entre ese pelo y esas uñas parece un nosequé. Hace videollamada con su madre, qué fea estás, con su mejor amigo, qué fea, qué fea. Y se lava el pelo enfurruñada para que le vuelva el rizo, pero las uñas no se caen por mucho que insista e insista en el cuero cabelludo.

Ha aprendido a hacer punto con vídeos de YouTube y se le pasan las horas volando, pero no se quita de la cabeza las uñas, porque las ve danzando y danzando con las agujas. Las uñas sin gel, las que se le rompieron al cargar la compra, tienen restos repegados y no se los puede quitar tampoco. Las otras uñas están cada vez más al borde, pero bien adheridas, brillando en rosa y en flor, y con la luna de las cutículas ya llena. No sabe si es peor el remedio o la enfermedad. 

Beyoncé no sale de casa más que para hacer la compra, pero lo que le hace sentirse atrapada son esas uñas de gel ñoñísimas: en qué momento me las hice, quiero mis veinte euros, no me vuelvo a poner uñas de gel jamás en la vida jamás, jamás.

Entre que si uñas esto y que si no uñas lo otro, los días se pasan rapidísimo: ve una peli de explosiones y sudores protagonizada por Angelina Jolie y se le olvidan las uñas; cocina y ahí están las uñas, mirándola, flis, flis; toma el sol en el balcón cuando no nieva en Berlín y ¿uñas, qué uñas?; hace ejercicios de HIIT y le duele todo menos las uñas; teje y teje y uñas y uñas y flis; se echa una siesta y no sueña con uñas; lee a Julia Navarro y a veces se asoman por el bordecillo de las páginas, flis, flis, y otras se pierden entre las tramas de la novela; organiza partidas de bingo por Skype y las uñas empujan las bolas, flis, pero es divertido y no le importa tanto —por algo ostenta el título de Online Bingo Queen—. 

Ya lleva 2,1 milímetros (o tres semanas) confinada, y parece que va para largo, pero los días se van diluyendo, se van diluyendo, diluyendo. Su mayor preocupación en la vida es que las chinas abran las tiendas de uñas. Bueno. Quizás algún día se caigan las uñas de gel por el inevitable precipicio dactilar que supone el paso del tiempo. Quizás ese día llegue antes que la fecha incierta del fin de la cuarentena. Quizás.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Más cuentos pandémicos basados en historias reales en
El amor en los tiempos del coronavirus,
de Patricia Martín Rivas.

El amor en los tiempos de coronavirus_Patricia Martín Rivas