Only from up close can one discover distance, and only in life can one perceive forms. You passed through my life at the very moment when everything had to be decided. The fact that I could see you arrive and walk away has given me all the wisdom I have been able to achieve, all I have needed… Much more than what this book can express. That is why I leave it in your hands.
Outline for dedication of the book Soul and Form by György Lukács, 3 August, 1910, Diary, 1910-1911.
Where are you? Are you hiding, have you been hidden? Are you still breathing somewhere? Are you alive or are you already in the grave and in what is left of the picture in the newspaper that is falling apart in my hands? I look for you, but no one had heard from you. It doesn’t bother me anymore to face or expose myself to those who must know your whereabouts: I scream in their faces, “Where is she?” I stand right in front of them, I hang your picture around my neck, I make demands in the street, before lawyers, before judges, before journalists, of thugs, of foreigners… Of course, sometimes I hide in fear, but I see this picture of you that proves you did not die inside, and I am shaken by pain and hope, and I begin again: Where are you? Are you hiding, have you been hidden? Are you still breathing somewhere? Are you alive, or are you just my memory now?
What I experienced with you was clarity and balance, torment and chaos, the heights of discovery and sensation, the pain of destruction and disappointment. Your two faces, exactly, or at least the two perspectives of your face, beautiful and sad… That face I still see in this photograph that revives your nature of death throes and life, that nature that made me so happy and brought me to the edge of myself to make me decide between living and dying.
When this picture was taken, we were together. You embodied the ideals of the National Independence Movement, NIM (so pretentious!). That is why this image of you is so important, so unknown to me and made public —surely without anyone really recognizing it— in the daily newspaper. You appeared as one of the protagonists in an event that forever changed the history of this country, and which at the time was just another chapter in the chaos of that history. That brief appearance, however, was not enough to leave proof of your existence: it was enough to show me that you came out of there alive.
Those were good times, because despite the political climate of conflict and the tension between different social forces, the city was exciting: a place for partying and intense, fleeting encounters, cut just to size for societies at the boiling point or about to fall away into an abyss. Mice start mating in the middle of a fire. A few blocks away from our Tower, in the brothels —or whiskey bars, as their regulars call them, those regulars who are nothing more than drunken-slackers-who-haven’t-got-a-red-cent-anyway— you could find what you needed to survive in the crossfire: cheap booze, upbeat music, someone to dance with, and above all, two-day whores with or without experience who sold themselves for prices anywhere between two and a hundred and fifty dollars.
My favorite dive was The Light. The girls there were protected by the iron fist of El Chulo, the worst kind of character who only cared about making money and fucking a few girls every night. His favorites, he said, were the young ones, little girls who had just arrived from nowhere (to nowhere, but they hardly ever knew that) who thought they were bettering themselves by being there. The Light took them in and gave them the necessary training for the trade, along with some bonus or other depending on the bidder. El Chulo was also fond of what he called the special ones, who he could easily recognize the first time he saw them. Women who could give him information about business deals that were profitable in one way or another: extortion, protection fees, middle-man jobs. After a while I found out he was an ex-cop and that he was worse than all those cops in the Turkish or Brazilian movies with their torture and disappearances. It was strange, then, that he seemed so friendly with the customers and that he made a concerted effort to act like a host in that rathole of his called The Light, which was a cave of cheapest kind of darkness. In the beginning, when I showed up there with money, I greeted him with a hug and even a bit of affection. He would sit with me attentively for a few minutes, let me buy him a drink, and, between the faked niceties, offer me the evening’s menu, that is, the chosen whore, the daily merchandise, which is how he referred to them with his best clients. That part about being the best is a euphemism, of course, because the only ones who ever showed up there were losers like me, bored and lonely public servants on a Friday night at six in the afternoon —or, depending on the loneliness, at six at night.
Emma worked in one of the rooms in The Light. She was an eighteen-year-old girl with her own ideas. She would say that women make love less often but more intensely. And that’s what she did: every time seemed like the first time. When she gave herself to you, it was pure passion and excess. That’s why I had become addicted to her a long time ago: not only was she good in bed, but she had an eloquence I found fascinating given the state of the place. In the fight, she said, she found pleasure, in the violence. And words like those drove me wild with desire in that little room that hardly hid anything behind its cardboard walls that let you hear everything happening in the next room.
For me, those moments with Emma were like vacations from my life, a space where I could forget the world around me that had become harder and harder to understand, a game for Friday night after work without consequences or commitments, an ideal relationship. There was something in the way that woman gave herself to me. I thought it was pure animal nature, a primal instinct, the kind of thing you always dream of in a woman. That was in the best of cases. In the worst cases, when she demanded to be hit or insulted, when she demanded sodomy, depending on how much she’d had to drink or how out of control she was at the moment, things got tougher, but it was still a turn-on for me. And I have to admit, I was about as carried away as she was, and when I squeezed her dark body dripping its fluids, I felt a kind of camaraderie and a genuine desire to keep up with her. Her performance left me as speechless as her language: between fucks and oh-my-gods of varying volumes she would reach orgasm. Maybe that’s why she was so popular with the customers. Because although I took it upon myself to act like the big man, El Chulo was quite sure to inform me she did it like that with everybody, that she was good at being a whore, it was in her blood; he said it was a real luxury in times like these to have a worker with such excellent merits. I just did it to her and let her do it to me, nothing more. I even listened to her when she felt like talking:
“Your body gives itself… to a man, fuck, to the man, and in the middle of all that it just keeps its secret.”
Emma kept that secret right there between her open legs that spread apart waiting for me. Then she cried, and she would cry with the tenderness of a newborn baby, with the beauty of a poem or a song. I took in her pleasure and her tears as part of my balance, ambiguous and alternative. All at once.
You and I had gone back to Medellin together. We felt a kind of unstable euphoria: as quickly as life bent itself to war, it moved toward ecstasy. And in hopefulness itself, this tension had that strange balance I was searching for. We were living an experience far from the world in every sense of the word because that world also pushed us away. Me, a simple clerk in a municipal criminal court with no more charm than the stories of dangerous union members that arrived to my office every day, and you, a being apart from the world by vocation, studying law or whatever it was, trying to be a part of the National Independence Movement at a time when that sort of thing already seemed obsolete, giving way to the discourses of economic success and capitalist development.
We lived in our Ivory Tower, which is what we called our hole in the wall, hoping that from one perspective or another it could be a space on the fringe of everything, a hovel of peace. It was on the tenth floor of an abandoned building at Caracas and 22nd. From there we could see The Light and the movement of the night that, without meaning to —what a paradox!—, beckoned us to the fall.
To make me happy, you had abandoned, at least for the week, the idea of destroying the materialistic world and also the orgy of alcohol, drugs, sleeping pills and tranquilizers that were an inescapable part of your nights… nights of partying and madness at bars like Picadilly and Odeon, two of your favorites. All of that was to spend time with me, with what was yours, you said, yours even above the Movement, although you were becoming more and more involved with it. And I, solitary by nature, took advantage of the pause, I wrote notes for novels I hardly believed in, stories of heroes lost in lust, books of travels (to the whiskey bars, of course), all nonsense, when the workday allowed for it or if I just damn well felt like it and didn’t have anything better to do, that is, if there was nothing interesting going on in the street or if no creole Lolita turned up somewhere, or if you weren’t in the mood to deal with me. You, in the middle of a kind of calm, read this with the clear purpose of discovering my motives, my thoughts, and later, like a boomerang, throw all of it back in my face in our frequent arguments.
At that time, strangely a good time, we really were going through a pause. We talked a lot about your past or about the country, a topic you were obsessed with. There were so many things to talk about! And our conversations were also games of wit that floated away with the cigarette smoke and the booze.
“It’s always been the same,” you said. “Two hundred years ago we debated about fake reforms that didn’t change anything. Our independence was nothing more than a succession of power from one privileged minority to another that belonged to the same families as before. From then on, we’ve just been going through a transitional period, because they never leave anything for the masses. We need a true national revolution for the people to come to power,” you said again. “We’re sick of the exploitation, the poverty, the class divisions, the lack of national sovereignty. That’s why we have to change everything.”
“…the utopias are gone, they have faded away in the mundane pipelines of individual interests and ambitions,” I read to you from one of my writings.
“That’s skepticism. You’ll see that everything can change, that things can happen to really move the world, that…”
“The world is too small for us. We live in a neighborhood that doesn’t exist beyond 13th and 7th.”
“Your world is small. That’s how you want to see it. I think we are part of a big world, and world that has its waves, its harmonic movements… that one of these days, the waves will make it here.”
You said this as you drifted on clouds of pot smoke, and your revolutionary ideas —I don’t know why— were our greatest connection. Talking! Talking! About the history of revolutions, the emptiness of faith, those wild ideas of yours about waves or whatever they were. And again and again about your childhood. Your father, you said, died of a stroke, drugged up and in a wheelchair. Back then, you barely understood what death meant.
“He died in my arms,” you would say. “I was the only person there with him. My mother… that bitch!... she was never home. She wanted to do her own thing, have her fucking affairs. That day I was there with a dead man in my arms, with my dead fucking father, and I couldn’t get away from him. He wouldn’t let me go! A long time passed before someone came along and got him off of me. I couldn’t even cry. I didn’t understand that he had died. I screamed at them not to take him away from me. I was the only thing he had, and he was good to me, he was my only friend…”
You would finish the story of this father in a wash of tears. Months ago, I remembered, the end of that story would have come with an explosion of hysteria, destruction, fists against the walls, uncontrollable sobbing. “You’ll leave me, too!” you cried, and I held you and told you again and again that no, that I would stay with you, fuck, that I wanted to love you, that you had to trust me, that...
Back then, almost around the time of the picture in the national newspaper, it seemed like we were past all that. At that time of rare peace, you went through a kind of melancholy that I could make poetic, even love. And your power of understanding also grew, it finally brought you out of yourself. You listened to me, you were interested in me. You managed to get out of that closed and inscrutable world you lived in, the world of your studies, of Capital, of sociology, and you tried to see the other, that other who was so close to you but seemed so strange, who you managed to reach little by little. At that time you listened to my own memories of my childhood. My widowed mother walking through the streets of Cali asking for change to feed my brothers and me. My mother leading me by the through indifferent crowds. My mother who had done the impossible so I could study at university and who, in the end, was left waiting in Cali for support from that son who could barely take care of himself. I couldn’t hold back my tears, either, at least then when you were being generous with your rare understanding. And I also thought about Emma, about her radiant body… about Emma waiting for me at The Light, alone, abandoned by those daily lovers who weren’t me. Emma in her bed being generous with her uncontrolled love. I want to be your slave. I want to be yours, she would say between mouthfuls of smoke and wildness. I want you to know that I will always be here for you. I will be waiting for you. Declarations of love that were both contradictory and fascinating.
That first war with you was far away, that war which was the worst in Medellin, or later, at the end. We were close then. We could even live a day-to-day life that was impossible before. I could make you orange juice in the morning, and you, lovingly, could make dinner at night. At that time, everything was strange, unusual: daily life between the two of us, who would have believed it! In spite of Emma or maybe —how strange!— thanks to her, because she started to visit the Ivory Tower. It’s really close, man, she said in her Medellin accent with that youthful and indifferent tone that gave her a terrifying finiteness which made it seem like everything would end there, at the last sound of her words that moved you so much and were often repeated. I don’t like to show up early because then people start to think you work on a different schedule. I’d rather come here and visit you both. And while she said that, she would take a look around the place and even walk through our bedroom. You went with her, sharing that joy she spread. You got along with her because she was from Medellin, like you. You showed her the bed, the bathroom, my notebooks all over the place, the typewriter… Sometimes you even invited her stay the night, after you finish work, you said. She accepted your invitation and some nights she even slept with us. It was cheaper for her, and we both liked it. All of that was so strange.
What I remember from that time are our days of love, our nights. I remember you in my bed. I love you more than anyone else in my whole life, you said. Even if that sounds like what everybody says. I love you more than anyone else. And then: you won’t leave me, will you? Say it! And I, looking at you, touching you, couldn’t understand your obsession with being abandoned. I didn’t want to leave you, it never even crossed my mind, and even though I was a little uncomfortable with our situation, because of Emma or because of whatever girl who —as El Chulo put it— was on duty and took care of me, I loved you. Maybe the problem was something else, it could have been something else. Maybe I should have explained my conditions clearly, maybe I didn’t express what I felt, and you needed that. Words don’t mean anything, they don’t add or subtract much of anything, I said in the end. And it was true. That was really what I felt. So simple. And I tried to make you feel that I would be at your side even if I didn’t talk much about the two of us. Beyond the short words, in spite of my condition, in spite of the circumstances, I wouldn’t leave you. I will be here with you, I said. I guess that’s love. Or at least that’s how I thought of the feeling then, only then. Maybe you can understand it in all of its dimensions, in my dimension. You understood something about balance. Maybe that’s why you gave yourself to me with devotion; and I gave myself to you in the same way. And again, it was truly a party of bodies and pleasure… like the first day, like the last day, like always. A game of skin and fluids, of heat. It was true that we loved each other in the most elemental sense of the word, and, if possible, the most traditional sense that is common to any relationship.
Proof of this unstable balance was left in that photograph: a part of your face is illuminated while the other is in shadow, turned toward the wall of the building. In a strange way, given the doomed nature of the event, the image in the newspaper shows that face I loved, that face that showed what was constructive, good, lovable… and at the same time, chaos, madness. The former was a face of a state that, quite simply, in that time when we had come back to Medellin, would not last.
(Originally published in Spanish, by Ediciones B, in 2013. Avalaible to publish in English. Translate by Mallory Craig-Kuhn)