CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
Gabriela Torres Olivares
translated by Teresa Carmody
They come with the bearing of a retrovirus. Their bodies synchronize in certainty. An idea bustling between their eyebrows and taming their strangeness, bundling gesture between their eyes. After a brief survey of the place, the man in the wheelchair makes a sign to the accompanying blonde, and she holds the handlebars, sliding him on the irregular pavement. Their texture jumps out like a sticky mess, forcibly converting the landscape into a collage. And like that, they decontextualize any routine, disappearing like phantom disturbances through the wall of Doña Rosita’s door.
They had probably traveled kilometers, though it’s difficult to guess whether their disastrous countenance comes from their lives or from a hurried passage; afternoon itself is a mature morning with salty maps staining its clothes. Or maybe the sun ages their surprise, eroding their motives in puddles of sweat. The image of their arrival is like the accident of walking under a ladder, noticing, and trying to rewind or forget the amazing superstition: without success. The visitors exist despite the improbable scene, or maybe improbability is the stage for their appearance, a trick with the costume of fate. As if his rolled hat or dingy white cotton shirt, his discolored suede sack or his pants turned back to shelter his stumps (secured by a pair of pins), could pass unnoticed. With equal subtlety, her miniskirt, stiff, with her Asian umbrella and long leathery legs or her garish blouse of curlicues and her beige heels caked in mud: it seemed no one had bothered to tell them the costume party has been canceled.
News of their arrival disseminates throughout the neighborhood within a few hours. And, as expected, their appearance will mutate depending on the mouth. Some will ensure they descended from a limousine, assisted by a well-built bodyguard; others that they arrived in a Hummer colored in various speculations; others synthesize the rumor of the limousine and the Hummer (without specifying a color), placing the weightlifting blonde as the driver; and only a few others (perhaps the first) assert it was simply a dirty black Toyota, a new model. But everyone is looking for an excuse to pass Doña Rosita’s house. It is not a difficult pretence, given that the señora lives near the butcher; but it is difficult to buy meat halfway through a pay cycle. Though this is not too important as the butcher, a wise merchant even on irregular days, has bone meal, feet, necks, and guts for sale by the smallest weight. It sounds exaggerated but it’s pertinent to note the majority of people purchase chicken legs or necks and an aromatic cloud of laurel and salt vapors travels the colony’s streets. This afternoon, everyone’s stomachs celebrate with chicken broth and the boiling uncertainty of the visitors.
Despite subtle sideways looks and glances of shared complicity, the atypical daytime walks on the sidewalk and the hissed comments, the neighborhood seems suspiciously tranquil. It is a summer afternoon and the neighbors, rather than entrenching themselves in front of blue-bladed fans, break this habit, stretching their necks to see if they will be splashed with the event. The neighborhood isn’t much different than it was a decade prior. Prosperity has not built a single wall or plastered the neighborhood fences, it hasn’t parked new vehicles on the streets nor resurfaced the pavement, though many children were placed into the bellies of other girl children and unknown diseases passed over those lying in bed. It was the same place, similar in its proportions and portals, the size of its streets and number of houses, though with faded colors, dingier brown and more rusted; neglected maintenance, the evolution of oversight. Absence covers the space like teenage nihilism, desiring nothing except immediate and unquestionable survival. Several hours will pass before the neighbors know more about the arrivals. Several hours before the door will open and Doña Rosita will lean out, with barely space enough to glimpse her burgundy head and white roots, and the neighbors will retreat from the house in the twilight, crumbs of speculation in their throats. This visit could signify many things. Probably, in the future, they will invent mental epics about the antihero’s arrival or turn this event into songs of poorly metered verse.
Young Leo had gone out one similarly hued afternoon. No one had followed his footsteps, for no one imagined he was really leaving. Everyone smiled instead, having become indifferent to his pitiful wheelchair. And he, flushed from their glances or his unseen courage, grasped the wheels in his hands and propelled himself awkwardly along. On this occasion, Doña Rosita had not poked out her burgundy head to see him off. This happened: the afternoon, the absence of the mother within the door, and the wheelchair’s silhouette which decreased in speed frame by frame. Months later we know the story lauded within every mouth’s saliva: Leo left home. Given his condition, some will resolve his departure as anger and many others will believe it was death. But none wagered on seeing him in front of so many microphones, illuminated by the strobe flashes of cameras. Nor did they believe news of a trip to France for the nomination of his film, until the wise butcher framed a clipping from the local newspaper and underneath it, wrote by hand the list of products Leo used to buy from the place.
Leo was the name of his first film; it would take him to exotic locations and give him the designation of “cult director.” It was the story of a five-year-old girl victimized by her father’s wrath; as punishment, he tied her legs together with galvanized wire, leaving her that way for days. When her mother discovered the necrosis, cellular death reaching from her little feet up to her thighs where she was shorn like two legs of pork, her mother breaks. The father is jailed. And Leonor, the surviving protagonist, grows with phantom-limb syndrome. During her early years of loss, she forgets she cannot walk. And due to the profound discomfort this causes her femoral quadriceps, she begins using the muscle relaxant metocarbamol, while finding even more immediate relief in ethyl chloride; first as a topical, then she discovers the way it alters consciousness when inhaled. At the age of ten, Leo is addicted to chloride and exhibits signs of psychosis. To create the effect of changing consciousness within the narrative, Leo used filters to granulate the image, combined with techniques from the then-new movement, Dogme 95. Although it has a linear narrative, the film begins with a man in a wheelchair singing a lullaby: zoom out—travel around and we realize it is a simulated landscape: a destroyed neighborhood and then fade in the word LEO appears. Immediately we are placed in a bedroom, the man in the wheelchair sits on an unmade bed, his stumps uncovered as he parsimoniously cleans them with a damp cloth: close-up on his flesh: zoom in on the crusts of time’s rub. He unbuttons his shirt and we see a bandage that stops at his breasts, he unwraps it while a voice-over speaks about this mischief of dressing as a man.
My father came home earlier than expected, and told me I shouldn’t do it but I liked it, you know? Probably there wasn’t work and he had been at some bar drinking because when he hit me, I could smell it. Then he drew a wire and I thought he would hit me with that, but he encircled my thighs and legs and tied me to a wooden column. My mom worked cleaning people’s houses and she would arrive home almost at the same time as my father. But that day he arrived first. And when she came, she said nothing. He told her what he had done and they believed it to be just. I, too, thought it was just, though justice pressed.Medium shot: his fearless look across the lens. Short medium shot: bare-chested, flattened breasts. The following scenes display a small routine interspersed with simulations of Leo’s childhood psychosis; the pixelated face of a doctor appears with an explanation of phantom-limb syndrome. The film ends at a party where Leo meets Maty, a blonde Latina transsexual who changes her choreography in order to dance with him. The song is a nineties eurodance hit, its beat looses velocity in time with the camera’s slowing motion. As the film develops we see Leo’s routine, a transgender narrating his life story via voice-overs. (Aesthetically, the ideas clash. Example: mud-caked margarine on bread while he recounts the day his father raped his mother or a can with a pinhole for smoking crack and a voice-over says that was the best of his childhood Christmases.)
After the unexpected success of Leo, he was readily welcomed into independent film circles. Directors, writers, actresses and actors, producers, and the public wanted the pleasure of meeting him. And he, stimulated by the excellent reception, decided to continue his career. His subsequent films met the same reception: Parthenogenesis, Lizard Daughter; and the shorts, Mechanics of Absence, Party in the Sewer, and Life without Nails, the latter of which does not use natural actors. Once he declared in an interview (generally he does not give interviews, he gets nervous around cameras even though he works with them) that he was not prepared for success: It is an accident and no one is prepared for an accident, although I am a specimen of accidents, they are my scenery, I am an amphibian. He was born by accident, grew despite the accident and ran away from home; crossed the border by accident, became addicted to crack on accident, accidently met a videographer and learned the art of storytelling, and although the film Leo was not an accident, it was accidental the way it came into the hands of independent film festival organizers in Canada.
When Leo met Maty, she was experiencing a phantom pregnancy. They did not meet at a party as portrayed in the film. But it had been accidental; an artificial mishap over drugs. Both had arrived unconscious at the emergency room with different overdoses, one from amphetamines, the other from heroin. But with a common denominator that could be found on benches in diverse spots throughout the city. They shared a room divided by aqua-colored curtains, along with three other patients, all uninsured. Leo was drawn to the sleepy sound of Maty’s voice, her East Coast accent, but even more, her murmurs in Spanish. She claimed in Spanish (to herself) they wanted to take away her baby, where was her baby, who had stolen her baby. Until she faced the intern nurse with a shout: Yo, bitch! Where my baby at? You stole ma baby! And the young girl nervously responded: Calm down, ma’am … sir. And then the doctor explained she did not have a baby, she wasn’t able to have babies because she didn’t have a uterus: You’re not physically capable of having babies, sir, I’m sorry. “Mathew López (heroin overdose),” said the card above her head, which Leo managed to read as he was discharged. He had waited outside the hospital to meet her. At first, he was driven by curiosity, then he fell in love with the idea of Maty. He felt he loved her from the sound of her voice. She was slow to love him because, as she said many times until it became a deeply sad account, I do not like women, I am not a lesbian. After the accident they transistioned in symbiotic serendipity and pregnancy became the theme of the film: Parthenogenesis.
Maty and Leo would go on to live together and marry in order to regularize Leo’s migration status. After a few months of marriage, Maty would be pushed into by the car bumper of an up-and-coming videographer. They exchanged a little money, then friendship, and he also shared a love of whitetrash films with the couple. He was the one who taught Leo about film and who shot, with a group of friends, Leo’s first film. At the time, the videographer claimed Lars von Trier had stolen the idea for Dogme 95 from him when he was drunk. And, although von Trier never learned of these declarations made only to friends, the apprentice filmmaker finally did accept the reality that the videographer didn’t know von Trier and had dreamed his creation of the movement. Then everyone forgot.
messTizo, said Leo at the premier of Lizard Daughter, when asked if his films were related to whitetrash cinema. What I do cannot be called white because I am not white nor are there white people in my films. If anything, it is messTizo cinema, structurally and socially inspired by the whitetrash movement. From then on, messTizo would suggest whitetrash cinema made by Latinos.
One morning, two years after his latest film release and while on his apartment terrace watching the swarm of humanity seven floors below, Leo admitted he was suffering creatively. He told Maty he was blocked. But she thought that was silly and perhaps all he needed was to leave the city, the country, so they traveled to Milan with the excuse of accompanying a mutual friend who was launching a new clothing line. They bought books and underground films and visited museums and other sites they hadn’t known existed. And they ate in fancy restaurants where the waiters treated them with forced politeness. Until someone said at that table, the man in the wheelchair with the blanket over his missing legs, was Leo Rodríguez, the famous independent film director. And although they had never seen his films, they immediately behaved differently, some even said courtesy of the house when Leo asked for the bill; others simply offered a bottle of wine or a free dessert. Later, upon Maty’s request, they changed their itinerary to visit Belgrade. And that was where the release occurred, magically, in a corner.
Two dogs stuck together at their butts. They suffered postcoital effects, and shrieked at the corner of two illegible streets. Leo was not surprised at this image, but Maty, dumbfounded and smiling, stopped both of them from passing by. She shouted excitedly, pointing to what others looked at askance. Leo loved Maty’s gestures, her sinister naïveté, her inconsistencies: Maty was afraid of the dark but she loved the black light ambiance of bars, or her phobia of needles plus her love for intravenously injected heroin. Maty watched chickflicks but wanted to bomb Hollywood, Maty who suffered phantom pregnancies for babies whose gestations were from a couple of weeks to three years (then she forget or lost the product in a dream). Maty, who participated in orgies yet who, incredibly, confessed to never having seen two dogs stuck together: conjoined twins! With a smile, Leo explained the reason they were linked: the dilation, contraction and forced separation if they threw a bucket of cold water on them. He then bragged with exaggeration that in the neighborhood where he grew up there were conjoined dogs on all corners. On his return and with the idea of the dogs, he began working on his third feature, Doméstica.
Within Doña Rosita’s house, Leo shows Maty the column to which he was tied. The señora is anxious when she sees her daughter-in-law wiggle around the bar, simulating a table dance. She sits on the bed with Leo, nervously, as he tells adventures of other places. He does not mention how he met Maty or that he still has crack relapses. He explains the necessities of travel, the storm that left them stuck just as they crossed the border, the truck they rented because his car broke down halfway, the mud and the few clothes packed. He promises to take her to the dentist if she wishes to replace her lost teeth, and then he removes his dentures to show how he also has lost all his teeth. He gives her the gifts he’s accumulated from his travels. Postcards and photos, necklaces and Moroccan bracelets, an I Love NY T-shirt and a miniature metal Eiffel Tower. Doña Rosita accepts all of these with happiness and eyes thick with glaucoma clouds. She wishes she had something to give him, but she wasn’t ready for the visit. She gets a photo of Leo, when he was three and had legs. Maty looks at it and decides this will be her new baby. Doña Rosita ignores Maty, looking out the window instead where she discovers passersby who are either carrying bags of meat or simply walking the sidewalk.
Outside, the neighbors wonder what will happen. He will probably kill Doña Rosita, says one person without forecasting the way this idea will atomically travel between the gums of many, bursting in the children’s thoraxes before they commit parricide. The sun ceases shining on the cracked roofs as the butcher wraps up half a kilo of necks. The only neighborhood female dog in heat is tied to a column, howling her painful desire and warning males of the situation. Some strollers return home to cool their uncertainty with blue-bladed fans, and the colored light of televisions that do not transmit independent films. Others return from work, not knowing what happened that afternoon and, sitting at wooden tables with reheated broth, they learn between sips about the visit, which is not as important as the threads of meat beneath the yellow skin and the brightness of commercial cuts on the screen. Invariably everyone recounts the day Leonor was carried away in an ambulance with her necrotic legs. Or when the police arrived and arrested her father. Or how she crawled in the dust because the psychosis made her forget she did not have legs. Or the nickname resulting from her pathetic dragging: Lizard. Or when she began dressing like a man and made them call him Leo. Or how he began earning a living by selling gum, gliding himself around on his skateboard. Or the day he left home because Doña Rosita called him trash and confessed it would have been better if the necrosis had been complete. Or the glorious moment the butcher framed the news story about the release and reception of his first film. Or how the two of them had arrived in a limousine or a Hummer or a Hummer limousine or a Toyota. Or how when they leave Doña Rosita’s house she sticks her head out to give them a blessing. They will all have this praiseworthy anecdote to recount now and in the future.
Leo bids farewell to his mother. She does not want teeth or to move to New York. Leo will not return to the neighborhood to film Doméstica with natural actors, nor will he give Maty the pleasure of conjoined dog-twins. Doña Rosita touches his stumps, mentally reciting a Hail Mary, before poking her head out the door, looking around and quickly sinking back inside to avoid the crowds. Twilight blazes with an aroma that oscillates between urine and laurel. Maty, her skirt pleated, sits in the truck and Leo raises his hand to salute the butcher who is cleaning the blood on his apron. Leo tells Maty they must hire their friend, a Peruvian, to play the role of Doña Rosita in the film. She nods excitedly and touches her belly, signaling how the new baby kicked with his little leg.
Gabriela Torres Olivares was born in Monterrey, Mépico. She is the author of three collections of short stories: Enfermario (2010), which Reforma named as one of the Best Books of 2010; Incompletario (2007); and Están Muertos (2004). Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals, including Vice, Pic-Nic, Playboy, and Luvina. She recently received a grant from the National Fund for Culture and Arts to complete a novel. In 2017, Les Figues Press will publish Jennifer Donovan’s translation of Enfermario.
Teresa Carmody’s books include Maison Femme: a fiction and the story collection Requiem. Additional work has appeared in Two Serious Ladies, Faultline, Juked, Anomalous 11, Bombay Gin, and elsewhere. Carmody is cofounding director of Les Figues Press in Los Angeles and a PhD candidate in English and creative writing at the University of Denver.