Mnemonics

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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 interloper. 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.

{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

Theophany

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The neo-ancient birth of the phrase “streaming mass” brought Caroline delight mixed with relief. She has stoically resigned herself to renouncing her walks with friends to the Dish and her jazzercise classes, 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 fair shake to guided meditation videos on YouTube and theological chats over family dinner but, after 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 all 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 — materializes 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.

{Translated by Adam Lischinsky}

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

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

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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’d rather not 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 puts the lives of her gel nails in jeopardy: 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 the 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 amidst the fun 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 cliff towards which time marches inexorably. Perhaps that day will arrive before the uncertain date of the end of the quarantine. Perhaps. 

{Translated by Adam Lischinsky}

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

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