Peripeteia

[Leer cuento en español]

The first arrival will be early riser Manoli, the baker, an untroubled pond in an undiscovered forest, from whose tongue words must be ripped; next up is Juan, the one who just bought a little house in the new development, a parrot particularly proud of his ability to speak who leaves one’s head feeling like a drum; later he will have the two sisters, the older ladies who live a little bit up the street, beams of sunlight who always compliment him on the striking contrast of his eyes, one amber and one green; at four o’clock the owner of the bar in Church Square, Mari, will arrive, taking this rare respite from her loneliness as a chance to vent to an audience and inevitably releasing one of those little tears that leave a lump in the throat, but with her self-esteem boosted through the roof by the time of her departure; then the little guy will come in, the young man who works at the lottery, what’s his name, he can’t sit still and gets on your nerves and the only way to calm down is to tune out all sound and count to one hundred; showing up as the day wraps up will be Julito, the school janitor, who appreciates Dioni’s advice and mastery and leaves looking sharp; and squeaking in before the bell, Antonio, the potato chip maker, who brings tranquility and a breath of fresh air, and they catch up amidst the unrelenting banter of solid friendship.

For the first day back, it’s not half bad. It’s been difficult to piece everything together: the phone has been ringing nonstop since he announced the reopening less than a week ago, and he’s had to skillfully juggle clients, because the slightest chance of overlap must be avoided for safety purposes. He is dying to get to work. It’s been hard, so hard. And so weird. At first, he saw everything through his amber eye and took to endlessly brushing the cat from pure nervousness. He would come across him and, snap, grab him in a flash and kill time brushing and brushing, the cat enduring without a meow, with the patience of a saint not at all confident of his own hunting ability. Now, although Dioni could touch the finish line by stretching his fingers, he still has bouts of anxiety and tries to comb the animal, but the cat is no fool, and there is now only an unkempt blur as soon as he spots his comb-wielding master.

At last, the tables are about to turn, and no one will flee his combs — quite the opposite: the people with appointments for today will arrive, eager, as if drawn by a magnet to his brush. He swelled with anticipation just raising the metal shutter of the salon — the dry click of the padlock, the clattering ascent, the sweet chime of the bell — and his spirits have continued rising with each step towards opening. Now his shining green eye surveys the scene: he is passionate about his work, and the masses of untamed lockdown hair he takes as a challenge which will require creativity and drastic transformations, snip, snip, snip. He can imagine today’s parade perfectly: tangles and mangles and ends split to their base and traces of that dye from the supermarket, which saturates the hair and drowns it — look, I warned you not to use that swill, but you wouldn’t listen. 

Since he started as a barber at the age of sixteen in the posh Salamanca district and then opened his own business in 1991 in his native Leganes, he had never sheathed his scissors for such a long period. The last week before lockdown he felt certain misgivings and worries, but the virus seemed distant and alien, so when he actually announced the closure of the establishment, he did so in disbelief, and his entire vision of the world was focused through his amber eye.

The lockdown has given him a strange feeling of desolate calm, no longer the incessant bell of the door that opens and closes constantly, the sudden absence of people entering, ring, ring, and leaving, ring, ring, and entering, ring, not straining to keep one conversation going, and then another and another, discovering the silence of the abandoned hairdryers. Overnight, his universe took refuge within the four walls of his home, now also his prison, with all the time he had never had before with Reme and the children, getting to know each other.

Yes, getting to know each other, because before they only crossed paths at dinner time and on weekends, but in the last two months they have done everything together and created wonderful memories; although, of course, there are also moments when he feels a build-up of pressure in his amber eye and flees like a cat from a brush. Then he goes down to the garage for a while, no time at all, thirty, forty minutes, and he follows one step with another and is plunged into the claustrophobia of gas, electricity, water, the telephone bill, condo fees, rent, insurance, property taxes, VAT, invoices, product inventory, self-employment tax, accountants, social security payments for his employee… and then his anxious thoughts drift to his children, whose only concern is high school, hastily scribbling their homework just before handing it in. And he follows one step with another, pacing from wall to wall in that dark, musty garage, and he secretly smokes again, and his thoughts unravel with each step, and he takes deep breaths —inhale, exhale— and returns home with the green eye on fire and with determination to improve his new skills in the kitchen and to play Parcheesi with that well-coiffed family and enjoy the frenetic energy of his son, the curiosity of his daughter, and Reme’s humor.

It was she, Reme, who seized the reins to power through and get all their expenses in order and tighten their belts however necessary, end of discussion. She was also behind decorating the salon’s window for Mother’s Day, as she ingeniously does for all special occasions, and this was going to be no different — we will entertain ourselves, even if in the end we aren’t able to open and the shop stays locked up, because the government ultimately decides that we can’t progress to the next phase, and nobody else even sees the display. It turned out beautiful: those flowers, those colors entered Dioni through both eyes, amber and green, and he still carries them inside, whirling around his stomach. That explosion of bloom made him love his partner more, what great fortune to have her by his side, but don’t tell her, she doesn’t like that sappiness, and he planted a kiss on her lips that echoed in the empty salon, and she realized that he had started smoking again, but this time there was no scolding, because she understood.

This government, well, well, who knows what another would have done, the same or worse. The ambiguous limbo of the early days ate at him, financial ruin stalked him like a fateful storm, and anguish swirled in his amber eye until he tore at his hair and screamed and cried as he paced and paced in the garage. Fortunately, it never got so bad that he had to borrow money from his friends, because little by little he was granted this and that: deferrals on VAT payments, breathe, waiver of the self-employment and social security taxes for March and April, breathe, breathe, concession of discounted rate for water and electricity, breathe, breathe, breathe. And the banks, well, as bad as always, veritable vultures, massive profits only years after being bailed out: he’d been forced into a high-interest loan just to get a little liquidity and be able to make payments.

In recent days he has been going to the salon to set it up and start getting used to the strict protocols: wipes and sprays, disinfection after each customer, mandatory masks, limited capacity, sterilization of utensils… As he goes back and forth, he walks through the neighborhood in disbelief and thinks of all the other small business owners and each shuttered storefront breaks his heart. He wonders how the other businesses are doing, if they managed to apply for aid by the deadline, if they will meet all the requirements, if they were granted it. His amber eye starts to water. He expected rising optimism, but in those streets filled with infection and death, uncertainty and worry reign. Dioni gives a name, surname, and face to each of the victims, because there is no scalp in the neighborhood that has not passed through his hands: his parents were among the first to arrive there when this was nothing more than cottages and shacks and narrow, unpaved streets. Dioni is the neighborhood, everyone knows him. His customers are a second family, and his family helps with the customers. They help each other in their time of need… Lately, people in the neighborhood always want to help, there are initiatives, donations, food drives. He muses that human beings are wonderful, and the green eye begins to sparkle.

The clock is about to strike ten. He puts on a surgical mask and the N95 on top to be extra safe. Reme’s handyman has made him and his employee protective shields that cover their entire face so that they can fix those rivers of hair that will flow in starting today. He has missed it so much… He has spent thirty-six years dedicating himself to meandering through that branch of psychology that involves listening and advising while he washes hairs, snips away — and a little more, just a little bit, to neaten things up, you’re gonna have an a-do-ra-ble cut — straightens, curls, shapes, pins and sprays, from morning to evening, hour after hour.

Manoli arrives with a long mane and asks him to cut it, to cut a lot, because she is going to donate it. He wants to hug her, give her a kiss, but he has no choice but to transmit everything through his voice, a voice distorted by the endless regulations. As he brings scissors to hair, he feels a gust of breath on his arm that escapes the woman’s mask, and a shiver runs through him, but he continues, because a long day remains, and we have to transform fear into rational caution and come to terms with the new normality, and his irises turn to rainbows.

{Translated by Adam Lischinsky}

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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