Translated from the Italian by Pina Piccolo
“So, we are on the same page, then.”
These are the laconic words Juana used to seal the conversation. It was the verbal firebreak needed to prevent the kindled fire from becoming enflamed into high-pitched words, followed by the irrepressible propagation of name-calling. All of which they would come to regret a few minutes later when the heated argument cooled down.
Outside the landscape was beginning to change. The last offshoots of Mexico City gave way to patches of greenery and childhood memories and the Xitle volcano dominated the right side of the road. As a child, led by her grandmother, Juana used to climb to its summit for a propitiatory ceremony for rain in advance of the upcoming season.
On the other hand, José Luis, who was at the wheel, seemed ready to throw in the match of discord when suddenly he received a call from his supervisor. Juana listened to the speakerphone with an amazed look on her face, recalling all those times that their outings in remote areas had been ruined exactly by this sort of thing. As a matter of fact, though on Fridays, José Luis was supposed to be working ‘remotely’, frequently his supervisor would ask him to please return to the office to solve some problem or other.
All stretched out in the back seat, Totò was the most relaxed of the three passengers. A few days before his adoption, Juana and José Luis had seen an old comedy sketch with Spanish subtitles featuring Totò, the Prince of Italian comedy, and had fallen in love with the name. And, at the kennel, who should the first dog to cling to their legs be but Totò. Now he was about middle age, and though rather tame, he was still playful enough. Seeing the tension painted on Juana’s face, Totò placed a paw on her shoulder, then took it off and lay his big black snout there. José Luis hung up.
This was no ordinary trip. Although they had made long and reckless ones with José Luis’s ruby red convertible, which was even rather old twelve years before when Cupid had shot his arrow at the two of them, now the convertible looked like an automotive Methuselah, so lovingly well-maintained but also so prone to sickness, making short trips a better option. They were headed for Tepoztlán , no more than a couple of hours from Mexico City. Bare necessities for camping and a cooler bag with basic provisions were stored in the trunk. By now in a state of total relaxation, Totò took up the whole of the two rear seats, placidly oblivious in the land of sweet dreams. At this point, Juana too had relaxed, seeing that they hadn’t been forced to take the tangle of freeway arteries to return to the capital. Even José Luis had calmed down and looked at it as a brief respite from his work environment which kept him busy all week long with experimental research on 3D tissue and organ bioprinting.
His supervisor’s demands had stressed him out a little, so he pulled over and parked as soon as he saw a kiosk. Juana and Josè Luis exchanged a knowing glance, time for the complicity of a coffee break. He ordered an Americano so as to prolong that pleasant sensation of the drink, and just stood there spying her out of the corner of his eye, as she sipped and smiled, bathed in the late afternoon sun. His eyes lingered on her hair tussled by the breeze and suddenly he realized that he had mapped out each of those sporadic white hairs of hers. And she too had made a map of his as well. That white deposited by time on their pitch-black hair: entwined in a double helix, together they had made the leap from student life to young adulthood.
After a series of switchbacks, they got closer to their secret place, but reaching the cave still required quite a hike. The path was covered with bushes and small shrubs, a sign that the trail hadn’t been walked upon much lately. Totò appeared and disappeared among the vegetation. At a certain point, he raced ahead, probably attracted by some wild animal. Juana called him back, quite sternly. The last time they had taken that hike, Totò had been a little more than a puppy and, like this time, had started zigzagging in the woods. Finally, he appeared a few minutes later bearing a macabre trophy in his mouth: a tlacuache he had just slaughtered along with her cubs protruding from her marsupial pouch. Totò was smiling, unaware that he had committed a massacre. Written in his DNA, this was his way of showing loyalty and self-denial.
They reached the summit at dusk and proceeded immediately to look for a suitable place to camp. José Luis pitched his comfortable tent and Juana set up her own too, about ten meters away. This, in fact, was not a cheerful outing like others. After so many years, after several times being on the verge of marriage, they had decided to part ways and perpetuate with a ritual the memory of their life together. After their coffee break, their faces had darkened and it seemed like an extra ten years had been loaded onto their bodies. Following the initial surge of euphoria and adrenaline at the start of the journey, this was the moment they realized they were about to complete their planned separation. They had expended quite a bit of energy to make that plan come into being, proof of disagreements and tensions that had driven them to the verge of a bad ending.
Only their breathing and footsteps had marked their progress towards the cave, neither having uttered a single word. But then, interspersed with birdsong, came Juana’s calling back Totò. Perhaps Juana would have preferred to listen to José Luis’s usual jokes, perhaps José Luis would have gladly endured one of Juana’s tired old retelling of weird family events. But both thought it was better to end it this way after all. Get rid of those words that had caused so many fires. Silence, though embarrassing at first, became a shelter for both. After a frugal dinner, they exchanged a dull smile and went to bed, each in their own cold tent.
That night, the hours ran at an alternating pace. To distract herself, Juana picked up a novel she had started and used her headlamp to get some light. She read through the lines one after the other, but couldn’t retain anything, she was totally unfocused. She put her book down and for a few seconds was tempted by her cell phone, but partly because of the poor reception, partly because it seemed like such a trivial thing to do, she left it in a corner. She got herself tucked completely inside her sleeping bag which had remained half open, folded her hands on her chest, and took deep breaths, following a technique she had learned in some yoga class until she fell asleep.
At that point, José Luis was still tossing and turning in his sleeping bag. What was really behind the obsessive thought that a huge spider had taken possession of his tent—a paranoia that led him to turn the flashlight on and off every two minutes, turning his tent into a traveling disco—was his trouble with managing his emotional load. He had appeared to be cool and collected about the choice they had made, at times even advocating how rational it was. Yet even that night, a few hours before the ritual was to take place, some mysterious flicker caused his heart to leap out of his chest. He remembered Juana’s profile, the warmth of her embrace, how he could cup her breasts perfectly in his hand. Then he saw a curtain drop suddenly and destructively on them and impose itself on their relationship. All of a sudden it struck him that perhaps, it would have been easier if his ribcage had contained one of those 3D bio-prostheses he designed, instead of that ball of yarn streaked with passion and melancholy. Hard as he tried to act as if he had one implanted there, he was indeed concealing a passionate nature. At times, a mere trifle was enough to spark his rage, on those occasions, he turned into another man, more adherent to that impulsive nature he struggled against every day. Foolish circumstantial things caused him to get upset but that never happened with things that really mattered. He kept tossing and turning until he felt something warm behind his head. It was Totò who was licking his head through the canvas tent and trying to reassure him.
On the fourth day after their birth, newborns must undergo a ritual bath and be taken close to the fire. The fontanelles at the top of a baby’s head—the tonally, are the privileged access points for life’s energy. As such, they must be gently stimulated to activate the channels and create connections with the other two soul aspects present in the body. That was also the day when infants traditionally received their name, following the ritual calendar which, in a sense, determined a person’s character, though it would be the person’s behavior that made it better or worse. These concepts echoed in Juana‘s mind through the words her grandmother had told her as a child when she had stayed with her for a few months in the Pahuatlán valley . That was before her maternal uncle and aunt had adopted her as their fourth child, following a fatal car accident that had mowed down the life of her parents. All this came up to the surface of her consciousness as the crackling sound of the fire rose, while José Luis marked the ritual space inside the cave, securing multicolored wax candles on the cave’s floor and marking the space between one candle and another with a few kernels of corn. Totò had remained outside the cave, all curled up. Silence reigned supreme, apart from the crackling sound of the fire. When he had finished arranging everything, José Luis played melodies on his flute. The fire was now burning steadily.
Juana took out a needle and pricked her thumb offering a drop of blood that gushed out into the flames, José Luis did the same. Each took some scrolls, placed them in a bowl, and wrote something that he or she wanted to erase from their own personality, from their past, and from their internal projections of the future. Anything that had come between them, and could lead them to heal their wounds, to part in peace. Each time they threw a scroll into the fire, they sprinkled cornmeal over it, kept feeding it, balancing, and thanking it for its cleansing work. The candles had melted almost to the ground now, a couple of them had already gone out. José Luis played a few more tunes, then they exchanged an intense and interminable glance and Juana threw water on the candles and embers.
Leaving the secret place behind, they walked down to the car. After loading everything in, José Luis got behind the wheel. But no sign of life from the ignition. The engine, that worn-out heart of the car, seemed to have given way. José Luis had not renewed his insurance, so bye-bye towing services, he thought. They had to look for a local mechanic and fork out the money for whatever was needed. Juana and José Luis tracked down three or four numbers of mechanics shops on the internet, but only one was open: there was a big festival in the village and evidently, rather than being at work, the mechanics had preferred a nice shot of mezcal , Tehuixtla rompope , pulque, or Zacualpan brandy or a sip of acachul .
“I’ll be there as soon as I am done assisting another customer.” This was the curt message from the one last standing mechanic. But the fact is that 5 o’clock came and went and not even the shadow of a mechanic was to be seen. José Luis called him back. But this time, after trying several times, he got no answer. Had he too succumbed to the yellow temptation of the rompope?
“Let’s sleep here. Tomorrow, we will find a solution.”
Full of determination, Juana pitched her tent once again. This time, they were almost next to each other, and the space in between had been reduced. She retrieved the car instruction manual, which was to be her lullaby book. José Luis looked for information on the internet and that adrenaline surge, added to the effects of the ritual, made him sleep like a log. Totò, at an equal distance between the two tents, watched over their sleep.
A couple of apples and a bottle of water were all that remained in the cooler. The shortage of food produced in José Luis a faint concert of stomach sounds, but Juana resisted hunger as best as she could. Fortunately, Totò did not have to suffer so much, since they had loaded a one-kg bag of dog food. They started the round-robin of calls to mechanics’ shops all over again, but this time the results were even worse: answering machines reigned over their ears. But they did not lose heart: they had a toolbox in the trunk. After all, Juana and José Luis were a geneticist and a 3D printer programmer and though a car was a complex creature, all in all, it was quite approachable. Somehow, they recovered two pairs of gloves.
“Start the engine again, please.”
Keeping the hood raised, Juana scrupulously observed everything while José Luis tried to get their Methuselah of a car to start. This time it reacted a little, albeit making strange noises.
“Did any lights come on?”
No, they racked their brains, running from the engine compartment to the steering wheel, looking for any signs. The sun rose shyly beyond the skein of clouds and seemed to give a pinch of vital energy to the convertible, the engine was now coughing. The three entities that made up its soul had not yet left its body.
“A light came on, look!”
They figured out that the problem was the fuel pump, which luckily was only malfunctioning but not completely broken. They ended up spending several hours trying to fix it, going through false starts, a thousand tests, and a few moments of stress, not counting their empty belly. But in the end, they succeeded. At long last, they started on their way back, their faces still half-smeared with grease.
Going back, but where to? José Luis had stayed in the apartment they had rented for a long time together, while Juana was momentarily staying at a friend’s house. Once again, their euphoria gave way to anguish. They had come up with a detailed agreement on how the separation ritual was to be performed, but things were sketchier on how they were to deal with the aftermath of their breakup. A shortcoming, forgetfulness, or coincidence? For sure, their car breaking down had unexpectedly brought them back together. The traffic was heavy, many people were coming back to that urban monstrosity called Mexico City. José Luis was very concentrated on driving; Juana kept silent and stared at an exposed vein pulsating on his temple. Totò wore a puzzled look, as though trying to figure out at whose house he would end up. After driving past one of the exits, they broke the silence in unison:
“So, what page are we on now?”
Also, read five Italian poems by Amalia Guglielminetti, translated into English by Alani Hicks-Bartlett, and published in The Antonym: