Nagasaki (en el corazón) / Gabriel Payares

Nagasaki (In the Heart)

for Ednodio Quintero

Man lives everything all at once, for the first time, and without preparation. As if an actor were playing his role in the show without any type of rehearsal. But what value can life have if the first rehearsal for living is life itself?

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

This would never have been the city I would have chosen for my old age. If some emissary of destiny had consulted me about the matter, my finger would have pointed without hesitation to the East, to distant cities in an improbable country, to places where being a foreigner and reaching maturity are, at the end of the day, indistinguishable conditions. I feel a sincere mistrust toward cities such as this one, built on the constant memory of the fall; a city where you wander with the sensation that any unexpected stumble could mean violently rolling toward hell, without anything to prevent the body from falling like a boulder. This vertigo is surely the source of the confident way of walking of those born in these mountains: they grip the asphalt closely with each step and never look back –below– unless they’ve reached their destination. Only then do they allow themselves a quick glance toward the abyss. And it’s just that their eyes, fixed on the ground, don’t seem made for looking toward the sun, but instead toward their own shadow on the earth that feeds them, the same one that will eventually receive them in its arms.

Though I inhabit my own exile amidst them, the product of bad decisions taken in even worse moments, I don’t tend to really complain too much: I’ve always been able to abandon these steep corners with the frequency and impetus of the moment, with that gesture of a human boomerang that for years pursues a distant homeland and doesn’t manage to return with anything save a few postcards and a couple rolls of film. And in the end you grow tired of betting everything on the debauchery of the trip; I often ask myself if homeland might not just be that soft ground in which it hurts the least to grow our final roots, and home the place you choose to welcome death. My problem is that I’m a descendant of a much warmer lineage than this one, conceived during the restless galloping of the plains, among distances measured with the wind and a father who would predict the drizzle with just a glimpse of the vultures in the distance. I come from a family that raised other people’s horses. I preferred to teach literature.

My classes are the only thing that give me oxygen from day to day. The passion and curiosity that once threw me headfirst into reading have been dying over the years until becoming soft embers: ideal for cooking and digesting, but of a barely notorious presence. My students, on the other hand, semester after semester exhibit the sterile flame that characterizes one’s twenties, that time when males pursue thoughtlessness and women a substitute father whose heart they might destroy. And literature, that odious and untouchable object, at once serpent and charmer, is the site from which I contemplate their epidermic passions, with a mixture of desires and emotions that I’ve preferred to think of as envy. I continue to be amazed, year after year, by the nearly identical reaction I obtain from them when reading certain poets, almost always the same ones: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Ramos Sucre. Always those three, in any order. Kids are exceedingly enthused by the suffering of the figure of the poet, the daring their verses display and the tragic fate that awaits them. They love death, an abstract concept without any real ties to their existence, and they name it in nearly all their final essays. I wish you could maintain that romantic vision of fate throughout life, instead of this blind panic at the disappearance of the senses.

In class I often explain that life, were it not for memory, would barely be a brief alternative to emptiness: each daybreak would always be the last, but each verse we read would always be the first. My students pretend to understand, they nod and wrinkle their brows; but I know you need a great deal of mastery in the art of losing to understand the deceitful web of memory: what Dalí saw in melted clocks, a ductile and deceitful time that promises to leave us eternally in our own and same point of departure. We’re terrified, deep down, that death might be the only memory impossible to formulate; we’re terrified that we can’t even dream it.

“But poets can, professor,” her voice interrupts me and I direct my glance to the end of the classroom, stumbling on her face for the first time. It’s not hard, doing so: each classroom holds about thirty different kids and I’m in charge of three simultaneous courses. But among the ninety or so students that year, none has given me the first impression she does, nor has anyone ever known how to answer anything, besides repeating what I said minutes before, or at most asking impudent and insistent questions, which must be pulled out from the roots in order to proceed with the seeding and plowing. Maybe it’s my own foreignness, reflected in her citrine factions or in her elongated eyes and vowels, that immediately seduces me about her; something in her gestures seems to invite me to play, a certain ingenuousness that has already abandoned its larval stage, a pupa of future perversions, and offers itself to me with an air that is irreverent and sweet at the same time, like an angry grimace in a declaration of love. Or maybe it’s her eagerness for recognition, a veiled promise of another type of seduction. I don’t know. I immediately assent, not knowing if I’m supporting her intervention or my own ruminations, and with the cruel determination power endows I ask her to share with the class some example of what she’s saying. My inquisitorial tone intimidates her, she doesn’t know whether to back down or wave a banner. She finally traces a line in the sand: she timidly names Ramos Sucre. That would have been the appropriate instant for agreeing with her with a condescending gesture and letting her run like rain. But no: I prefer to indulge myself and contradict her for long enough to get her excited about writing a final essay on the poet from Cumaná. I tell her, as a game, that if she manages to convince me about her point she’ll get the highest grade; but otherwise she’ll have to retake my class. She accepts without a pause. I understand, looking back at the moment, that she does this under the impulse of some secret and Artemisal instance, an inner voice that convinces her she can’t lose in this wager, that it’s a game of fools, won at the very instant I formulate it.

And that’s how things happen, with a subtle violence we both seem to propitiate. Although precarious, my command of her tongue is sufficient to initiate a game of mirrors: translation implies knowing how to reflect oneself in the other and both of us seem very willing to peek into the opposite corner. A couple of timid conversations, under the excuse of coffee, leave the panorama sufficiently open for us. But reluctant to interpret the unpleasant role of a Lolita, we keep our lips as free of chalk as possible. Our encounters occur far from the academy, vertiginously sheltered in the excuse of chance and the small city, until they become nights that close in a spiral, as if spinning, falling toward my apartment and my bed.

Within a few days, her company becomes notably pleasing: she never asks about my divorce, although she often imprisons the mark of the ring on my finger between her teeth, nor does she allude to the faces on my few photo frames, despite the fact that many of them are roughly her age. I let her wander through my memory with the delicacy of a cat, indifferent to everything except my vocation for the Far East, a trait that soon becomes evident in my disorganized library and at times seems to call her attention. While she browses the bookshelves, briefly checking out one book or another with the air of confidence recognition brings, I ask myself if some of those names make her feel more at home perhaps, if her parents might have named one of them during dinner or if they read their last names aloud in the newspaper. But I don’t dare ask; youth always carries its homeland between its legs. In any case I prefer to contemplate her path with discretion, entertaining myself with her air similar to arrogance, a respect like that of the conqueror who inspects aboriginal ruins. I’m grateful for that silence to a certain degree, the false side of the coin, because it provides me with additional time for the memory: that time she still has plenty of, since she still has too many memories left to build.

We ignore each other during the day, so far from the other that her nocturnal visits seem to be the echo of fortunate dreams. And though I never dare attempt it, I have the constant sensation that the slightest gesture of indiscretion on my part would unleash a wrathful response from her, who knows if even some type of public denunciation for harassment; as if the day erased in her the naked traces of the previous night in my parquet. Her interventions in class continue, likewise, discreet and distant, playing to perfection her role of star student; sometimes I have the impression she is two completely different people. Everything about her is peculiar: she hardly shows any interest in luxury and the experiences it might be able to offer her, closed off to the perspective of traveling or going out together beyond our nocturnal hunts, or even to receiving gifts other than books or some minor detail. I’m also baffled by the absence of a young and jealous boyfriend who might make our romance difficult: after all she’s an attractive girl, endowed with an unusual beauty, contrary to the voluptuousness of the tropics; but a solitary girl above all, whom I never see forming part of a group, or involved in parties, or establishing any type of lasting connections. One would say she knows she’s transitory, indisposed to allowing herself to lay anchor among us.

As the days pass, however, her barriers give way, almost imperceptibly showing me softer zones, with the same urge of the bee that has stuck its stinger and runs the risk of tearing its own belly if it tries to fly off. Too old to not realize it, I leave the dagger at the bottom of my pocket, certain that she’ll be the one who’ll try to plunge it in first: sooner or later she’ll know who I am and where I come from, why I suffer and with what ghosts I speak while I sleep; sooner or later she will have conquered everything and she’ll grow bored with lending me her body. I know very well seduction consists in maintaining a shadow of mystery in what you reveal, in withholding a little from everything you give so as to keep the other waiting for the missing crumb; because ignorance is conducive to love as much as understanding mutilates it. But even though when you reach your fifties you resign yourself to occupying your place in the world and abandoning the youthful anxiety to resonate within it like a giant tuning fork, there are things within you that never lose their primitive force: a youthful and voluptuous glance is not something you’ll renounce without a sincere moment of doubt. So I decide to await the sword thrust; I decide to let myself be stabbed.

Abundant excursions in the world of lovers taught me to pay close attention to the minutes after sex. That pause in the fury of the senses contains the exhausted serenity of the re-encounter: with your body, with your own dimensions, with the hoarse silence of breathing. And in contrast to my usual drowsiness, she prefers to talk, almost as if something stuck in her belly has been liberated during the orgasm. Hypnotized by the scent we leave in each other, again and again I accept the distracted role of the listener: I accompany her to a childhood of wretched frustrations, to a violent relationship with a pusillanimous and manipulative father, to a painful and abusive first time at the hands of a much older cousin, silenced by the irrational fear of disgrace. Finally, she tells me about her unfinished studies in modern languages, a bridge toward a fellowship fallen from the sky to study Spanish abroad. There’s something of Ulysses in her hairless body, a certain hardening that makes me ask myself if I’ll be Calypso or Polyphemus when the adventure comes to an end. Regardless, I listen to her inventory as if through the little door of a submarine: I’ve heard it all before, in so many different faces. If people knew how similar our lives are, how indistinct we can become after a few years, like similar waves succeeding each other in a pond, sooner or later they’d reach the same exact conclusions: there are no good or bad initiations, but there are first and second times, and the only thing that can mediate between one and the other is the sieve of memory. That’s why old age consists of repetitions: memories of memories, anecdotes told over and over. A long life is like an enormous cavern: everything echoes inside it. Finally, her tale interrupts itself in search of the appropriate word and stops, excusing itself with the furious grammar of Spanish. As for me, I limit myself to assenting in silence. Soon she catches that silence.

I convince her to have dinner at my house on the following weekend. I like the idea of making her try new flavors, of silent recipes that come to mind murmured by my mother on Sundays, the only day her six children shared the house and her attentions. What remains of my mother are the seasonings and the rough skin of the plains, and at most a couple photos chewed by mice; taking a portrait, in those days, was still something exclusively for the rich. And for those of us who grew up without the support of the shutter, without being able to hold on to fragments from life, memory turns out to be a form of evanescence, a ghost you can’t depend on: faces and details blur over time, until they barely leave in their place ideas and sensations, weak erasures of the absent. Young people, on the other hand, lack this defect: they came to the world to register everything on their cell phones, to own everything that happens as if the real had always belonged to them. Eternally hungry, they’ve been promised the whole world: one so big their lives won’t be long enough to even dream it all. I doubt, for example, that my foreign lover can even imagine the place where I grew up; and that’s assuming she could understand the words I need to describe it. Not everything, as we can see, can really be shared.

Guessing my reflections, that same night she gives me the story of her most recent nightmares: she imagines herself abandoned in the inner patio of some prison or fort, perhaps an ancient deserted monastery, invaded by an invisible terror in the pit of her stomach. And though she claims to be fully conscious during the dream, constantly repeating this to herself, she isn’t able to wake up until she discovers a giant wave approaching in the distance. I listen to her with my brow furrowed, but there’s not much I can tell her; in any case, she seems preoccupied with starting each day with the same foggy sensation of disaster. She says she is suspicious of the imposing heights that surround the city: her own, she explains, rests on a coastal plain, with cordial hills like the size of her breasts, quite far from the fury of the sharpened Andean peaks. I ask her if she misses seeing the horizon, free from the green walls that prevent her from doing so, and she agrees placing both hands on her chest and directly assuming, for the first time since we’ve been together, her already evident condition of being a foreigner: “Nagasaki is always in the heart.”

Nagasaki: the four syllables of that name so distant and so well-known, so mine and so hers at the same time, repeat themselves in my lips with indifference, quick despite their consonants. Na-ga-sa-ki, just four syllables, enough to evoke an entire city I simultaneously know and don’t know, like a naked woman under my sheets: a girl engendered in horror. I ask her in a whisper to repeat that name –her name, from now on–, as if it were some spell or prayer known only by those raised in the scars of the world. And at that instant from her lips surge entire generations born of that flapping of butterfly wings: litters of children baptized with the ashes of their ancestors, raised looking toward the sky with mistrust; entire families marked from within, having more and more children deformed like mummies, living in a ruined city, a home that others give to them already broken. That name unleashes a fever within me, perhaps infected by some millenary curse locked in its round consonants, Na-ga-sa-ki, a word repeated by the children of impoverished Africa, by 15-year-old Vietnamese girls holding their babies to their chest to stop them from seeing the face of death, by men resigned to sleeping in cattle trains or in hermetically-sealed trucks loaded with families suffering the horror of a border, by the wind in small villages devastated by the fire of conquest; always the same word, spoken from the beginning of time, in primitive languages, in mournful howls, in the exhausted silence of the cemetery. Nagasaki: four syllables repeating themselves in the mouth of those who perish, a few sounds to name human cruelty. Noticing the total confusion her look professes, I’m barely able to mutter a few sweaty apologies. Her home has become a nightmare in me; her nostalgia, my violent shame. Two sides of the coin.

I explain there hasn’t been a more cruel gesture in the history of humanity than that second atomic bomb, dropped just three days after the first nuclear massacre ever was perpetrated. But if Hiroshima meant the awakening of humanity to its own moral failure, like a child who opens his eyes for the first time, Nagasaki then was its first blink, its first moment of doubt, first repetition of a mistake already made, of a nightmare that recurs from then on and consequently its greatest sentence of eternity. Were the horror and shame of the first detonation not warning enough, so as to prevent the second one at all costs? Fooled me once, shame on you; fooled me twice, shame on me, goes an English proverb, since reiterating mistakes is the most human of all traits. Nagasaki is at once a human gesture par excellence and a total failure of the moral existence of mankind: the second chance wasted, the reprise that allows itself to happen so as to stupidly repeat the first. Nagasaki is the negation of experience and apprenticeship: it is what we decide to relive. Good and bad intentions don’t exist; only first and second chances.

I’m about to retract my words, ashamed, sure that I’ve brutally trampled the sensible fibers of her native land, when she merely shrugs her shoulders. The atomic bomb and its horrors belong to a remote past, a life she not only didn’t live, doesn’t remember and doesn’t understand, but also one she probably knows through the same photographs as me. And with that gesture I confirm the abyss that unites and separates us: we are, at the core, just as foreign to each other, both of us from an alien world; lost adventurers, like Gulliver, in a completely unrecognizable world. With just two phrases, she avoids the topic at full speed, something she manages to do without much effort: a small grimace, a barely perceptible movement of her face are enough for her to awaken in me the parts made drowsy by the horrendous panorama of the bomb, and in a few moments my lips silence the possible responses from hers. I let her do it, abandoning myself to her as always. Nagasaki falls asleep amidst damp sheets.

Now I understand that we’ve associated our women and cities for a specific reason. Determined for the world to go into decline and die like us, we’ve wanted to see the aging of the former in the decadence of the latter; that’s why each new generation has a better city to remember in its childhood, and a reality that’s a little sadder to live: nations are founded in the shadow of their own nostalgia. The ruins of the bombing for which we were born too late, the war in which we didn’t participate, the economic debacle we never witnessed, everything we missed without knowing it and which occurred before we did, denies our memory of a lost paradise, of the better time it sealed: the Garden of Eden is barely someone else’s memory, a loan, an impossible inheritance that dies with our parents. And home, then, is that place where we play at repeating their gestures: we have descendants, we offer them a world and we tell them how it’s barely the shadow of what we were given. “You got here late,” is the welcome we give them.

Doubting, at that instant, the sincerity of her ignorance, I insist on discovering the details my student forgets, in asserting others I’m unaware of and asking about the many I’m already clear about: I’ve never been to Nagasaki, but there are masks of eloquence. Something unhealthy in me, I now realize, wanted to take her by the skin and chest and open her up, like a leather sack or a child’s lunchbox, and stretch her out on the same bed in which moments before I had crumbled grunting between her thighs. But my odd games soon disconcert her, or bore or intimidate her, I don’t know what’s worse, and from that point on she measures her answers, pretending to forget certain words or to not understand my questions about her country, her parents, her grandparents charred in a fraction of a second. She denies me her home, and with it the possibility of repeating it in others like her: she wants to be unique, all of them want it. Spanish, she says as an excuse, is an irregular and capricious language, and my accent is quick and serpentine. I acknowledge she’s right, even though I don’t believe a word she says.

Thus we submerge ourselves in a prolonged state of mourning from which neither of us is able to gain an advantage: the fearlessness of youth compensates for the calm cynicism of maturity, which lets one glimpse much stronger blows in the past. Assuming that sensual combat, I postpone for as long as possible the instant of giving in to her lean and ferocious flesh, to her bony hands as if made of wood; I know very well once I’m inside her my resistance won’t last long, and that the only thing left for the vanquished is the honor of a long battle offered. And yet, the Cold War doesn’t last too long: a few days later she disappears, without explanation, from my class and my bed and from all our places in common. She doesn’t answer my calls or my messages, as though she had never existed. And after a couple days of patience, I resent her silence in silence.

But there’s little I can do, besides abandoning the classroom each day looking back over my shoulder, like Lot’s wife, fearing I’ll leave her forgotten face amid the crowd. And it seems as though what’s been lived is made to be seen in this manner, like someone who flees from a beast that pursues him and he twists his neck to make sure he still keeps a certain distance between them. Finally, already defeated, I ask her classmates about her, disguising my interest as mere academic preoccupation, and they respond vaguely, evasive, parricidal accomplices whom I start to hate immediately. How many of them know about what I thought was a secret between us? How many laugh, behind my back, about the emptiness my questions reveal? The worst tortures, however, are inflicted by my own hands: day and night I imagine her in younger, fiercer arms, that make make mine seem like weak and emaciated bundles in comparison; and though the frown of jealousy is present at every thought, at every suspicion, little by little routine imposes itself again.

I’ve given her up for good, when one afternoon she knocks on my door, hidden behind the enormous eye of an instant camera. I observe her for a few moments, hidden behind the peephole, tempted to leave her out there and in that way enact a stupid vengeance. But acknowledgment has its own laws: the two cyclops smile at each other. I let her in without saying a word and she steals a few playful portraits with the Polaroid. I don’t know whether to welcome her, like the prodigal son, or if I should try to demand some explanation; I opt to smile in silence. “They’re so I can take you home with me,” she responds to my surprise at the unexpected gesture of possession. I ask her who she plans on showing them to, and she says there’s no one awaiting her return. So then I ask her for the camera and we switch roles for a few moments: there’s no doubt this was her true intention, to be photographed. She came to leave me her portraits, to endure in my memory and to say goodbye. She wants to be the only one, just like all of them do.

Her first portraits are lugubrious and distant, as though she had suddenly been left without batteries; so I turn my attention to other parts of her body: strong white thighs, breasts barely noticeable beneath the blouse or a neck dotted with red freckles, until I finally convince her to model for me. Initially with timid poses, full of smiles and adolescent expressions, or false gestures of seduction. I let her exaggerate at will, since only a few clicks of the machine are enough to reach the living light inside her: a nipple hidden between the fabric, a glimpse of her pubic hair or a completely naked back. Her body is offered to me in pieces, and the plastic squares that contain them flutter around us, falling onto the pieces of her clothing on the ground. I imagine her like a naked tree, prostrate on her knees, staring at my only open eye while her hands rise to liberate my sex. The image is nearly religious. The camera functions at full speed, and I photograph her devouring me, given over to her cannibal caresses until she extracts the last drop from me. She rises licking her lips while I collapse, now a felled tree, and then, victorious, she announces the imminence of her departure.

My offers to accompany her to the airport are politely rejected: no love, or desperation, or passion; politeness, like someone who thanks you for a seat on the bus. And with a chilly cordial gesture, Japanese. Her only goodbye gift consists of the pile of photos I took of her: breasts, legs, lips, hands, dissociated segments of her body, sometimes mixed with mine, without lipstick traces, or the bold handwriting of a tenebrous oath of love. Only fragments of a very brief collage, that I keep in my coat pocket. I don’t see or hear from her again.

I spend the following days in a rare solitude, trying to listen to certain inner echoes that have been stirred by her second departure. It’s a cliché to say life rarely gives us second chances: actually it’s made up of them. A debut is appreciated only when you see the piece performed again, a recipe is verified after having tried it for the first time in someone else’s hands and an abandonment is truly suffered to the degree it echoes previous ones; every second time alienates the spirit of the first, pursues and claims it: it demands we ignore what we know and pretend we don’t see, that we look the other way instead of sounding the alarm. The place of second chances is always the same as the first: always identical, always unprecedented, second times are the moments we spend realizing it’s déjà vu, what we decided, in one way or another, not to foresee.

Seduced by these ideas, I lose myself in my dusty encyclopedias and wander about for hours on the computer, tracing an unknown path until I unwittingly penetrate previously veiled territories: forbidden drawers, notebooks sentenced to ostracism in some cabinet, dedications torn out of books given as gifts or thrown away. I pursue some answer to the enigma of Nagasaki in my old notes for class, in my research journals, in the letters I should have thrown in the trash or in that timid collection of poems I chose to never publish. Everything returns to my eyes, traveling backwards in time, backwards in lost faces: love is the eternal promise of a new attempt, of an impossible second chance composed of forgetting and forgiveness. All lovers are in Nagasaki. I go through so many lines written by a now distant I, in hopes of finding in my own handwriting the answers to recent questions: some type of alchemy that will turn the painful past into a magic key to the present, because what value does it have if not memory, that expanded memory with which we keep notebooks, books and ledgers? What’s the purpose of tolerating suffering, if not as a promise of peace in experience?

“Poets can, professor,” the memory of her whispers in my ear. Poets can work that alchemy. Beauty will save the world. I laugh, finally, at my own reflections, dictated in class with such grandiloquence for those who see the world for the first time: if every second time is cruel, it’s because in it memory and experience are tested. And the repetition of the mistake is the very proof of its nonexistence, the final triumph of the abyss: growing old means making the same mistakes over and over again, being mercilessly conscious of them but desiring youth’s tragic freshness. All old age insists on the mistake, we are exhausted echoes of ourselves.

I pull out her photographs and one by one I place them, savoring their familiar sweetness, behind the glass in my old photo frames, on the shelves of my library, on the little table in the dinning room. And quietly giving up everything else, I take up my routine again, smiling sadly, traveling through this city both foreign and my own, this path I’ve taken so many times. Traveling, in the end, has lost any purpose: wherever I might find myself I will always be looking over my shoulder at the end of the day, languidly waiting to see it happen again. Wherever I might go, I tell myself with a bitter smile of resignation, I’ll always find myself, again, in Nagasaki.

Winner of the 66th edition of the El Nacional short story contest. Published on 5 August 2011, in the anniversary edition of the newspaper.

Gabriel Payares (London, 1982) is the author of Cuando bajaron las aguas (Caracas: Monte Ávila Editores, 2008). He lives in Caracas and writes a blog called Blog Caribe.

{ Gabriel Payares, Las Malas Juntas, 6 August 2011 }

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