by Efrén Ordóñez
Come back and make up a goodbye, at least. Let’s pretend we had one.
A woman on a staircase
The wall is about twenty inches high. The construction worker and I didn’t talk before he started this morning. We locked eyes a few times as if he understood my situation and his role in this story: making a few extra pesos out of my misery. Nothing more. We didn’t say a word, but the CNN en Español anchors helped break the tension between us. I hadn’t turned the TV on before he came in. She’d left it on this morning before going out to run some errands that probably didn’t exist. Argentinian, Venezuelan, Costa Rican, and Mexican reporters have all been talking about Mr. Toupee’s inauguration, dissecting the implications of every decision made since he was sworn in as president. All week I’ve been hearing about bans, tweets, and plans for building a much bigger wall; a greater, more expensive wall than this one being built in front of me, a wall that’s supposed to separate two countries and keep out a horde of bad men and women who could very well be brown monsters with a thirst for white patrimony. Bad hombres, the President called them. I usually keep my distance from politics and avoid such discussions, but even I knew they were absurd—all these ideas, all the theories being tossed around by the Latino anchors. Was the project even realistic? Might it be idiotic as this wall in our apartment, this fake-cardboard attempt to send me away, to lock me up in my own space?
Until a few days ago, I used to come to this room just to write, facing the window, the half-Roman arch behind me. But after she informed me that our wall would be built to convert my writing studio into the bedroom of a nonexistent faceless roommate after my departure, I decided to turn my desk around to watch my demise. Call it masochism. It probably is. I waited for two days after her announcement, which she delivered the morning after we broke up, or after I was told we were breaking up. That’s how long it took me to clear out my side of the closet, to move from the bedroom to the studio. I did it and then I sat here working, writing, contemplating the rest of the apartment in front of me, not knowing when or who was coming to build the wall.
Then the man showed up this morning. I was in the studio when I heard the doorbell. It rang two, three, four times. I wasn’t expecting anyone, so I didn’t move. The doorbell rang a fifth, sixth, and…she stormed out of the bathroom, dressed in her washed-out black jeans and a gray t-shirt, her hair all wet, cursing—at no one in particular, but I knew that in some way it was me—and opened the front door. I heard some mumbling, deciphered a word here and there. The man’s name was Chuy, I heard. But I couldn’t see him; he was still on the other side of the door. After they agreed on what I guess were his rates, he left to get his tools, the front door wide open. She came into the studio to explain what was going to happen, and how long Chuy was going to take, and that she preferred to have someone (me) stay here while he worked. I said yes to everything because she wasn’t asking for my opinion anyway, and also because I was clinging to the naive idea that maybe, just maybe, my politeness would glue the pieces back together. It didn’t. At least not that day. I think she just heard half the yeses I was vomiting in regret. As she spoke, the only thing I could think about was how much I hated those jeans but loved everything inside them: the whiteness, the imperceptible green and purple veins. She stopped talking and looked at me. Seconds went by. The silence between us growing thicker. More seconds passed. She turned around and went back into the bedroom. Her bedroom. I looked around my new temporary room with just a small window, no bed, a couch and boxes, my clothes strewn on the floor. Everything I owned, except for my books, which still adorn the living room—neutral ground—was now trapped in here. A few minutes later, she left the apartment without saying goodbye. That’s when I started to write.
Chuy is a slow worker. Writing with him in the background, I listened to the news all day. Mr. Toupee went on about an incessant war with the media, the oh-so-dishonest media: “They are among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” said the President. Then images of a massive march in Washington, D.C., and speculation about what would happen with the wall and the Twitter feud between the American head of state and Mr. Pompadour, el presidente. Chuy left after a few hours of slow but steady labor. Whatever he did, I couldn’t see it from my side of the wall. He just said he would be back the next day.
I read the first line in the Wikipedia entry: “A wall is a structure that defines an area, carries a load, or provides shelter or security.” It never says “separates.” What I found is that a “wall” could also be a murus, which is Latin for a defensive stone wall. The Spanish-language news anchors never use the literary translation of “wall,” which is pared; they refer to Mr. Pompadour’s folly as muro, in Spanish. They say wall, we say muro. They’re defining an area, a shelter; we think of it as a way for them to defend themselves from the brown monsters. There’s a linguistic difference that makes more sense when compared to what’s being built in an area that is still my apartment. Not a wall, but a muro. A defensive wall. Then I read in a random essay that walls aren’t built for security, but for a “sense” of security. I kept reading.
For Germans, Mauer im Kopf means a wall in the head. It’s a term coined after the Berlin Wall fell, when they realized that some people still wanted a separation: the physical wall was down, but the psychological ones are tougher to raze. Walls to protect the people who build them not from the physical dangers of the other, but from their own fears. That’s the kind that will destroy a person from within, I know, because they’re imaginary. You build it yourself .
Chuy finished around six. Even though I couldn’t yet see what he’d done—the room already had part of a wall below the half-arch—I could tell it was a thick, sturdy wall-base because he’d been carrying bricks inside the apartment. So it wasn’t the cardboard structure I’d imagined; the wall was going to be as solid as possible. He said nothing after he was done, just picked up his things and left without a word. I wasn’t the boss. I could see the apartment slipping through my fingers by the second; I was on my way out. To him, my name was Mr. Irrelevant.
She came back late. I assumed, since we were now leading separate lives under the same roof, that she had better things to do than to run back home to me and drink wine and watch reruns of whatever sitcom she was in the mood for. I admit that the thought of her having fun out there, laughing, even kissing someone else—it got to me. I didn’t think she could be kissing someone yet, not so soon, but you can’t help but torture yourself in these situations. Or at least I can’t. When she came in, I hadn’t moved from my desk. I’d been writing all day—I only stopped punching at the keys to read about walls—so I got to see her cross the threshold, carrying her black backpack on her shoulders and a grocery bag filled with food in her hands. Food just for her. No more Sunday shopping together. She stuffed everything in the fridge without switching on the light, went into the bathroom, took her time, then came out, checked the base of the wall, ran her fingers over the bricks, stood up, and planted herself right under the door frame with her hands on her hips. It was strange seeing her wearing the same clothes she’d worn a week or two before. They were the same clothes I used to take off of her, with the same scent I could get high on, but they fit differently somehow—they still made her look beautiful, but she was different now, she was some femme fatale who didn’t even notice she was tearing my insides apart. We didn’t talk. We’d had enough of that during the previous days, when we established that my flaws weren’t a good match for her flaws and my virtues weren’t exactly getting along with hers. We’d been living in the apartment for ten months when tragedy struck. She said it hadn’t happened overnight, of course. I’d been a distant imbecile for quite some time: one slip after the other that she interpreted in her own way, from inside her own twisted world. So we’d been unknowingly awaiting the imminent arrival of my final mistake.
She stood there, arms crossed, miles away, not looking me in the eye, and started talking about some of the practical things that would be required of me before I left (bills, rent, contract terminations) and who would keep what: the coffee table, a few framed prints, a floor lamp we’d bought at an antique market downtown. Other things, too. We had to decide. She was facing me, talking to me, but I could tell she was picturing a blurred face. Like the day before, I agreed to everything; again, though, she was just reading or listening to a fraction of my words and I couldn’t get an answer from her. My sentences were all broken up. When she turned around and went into the bedroom, I was left regretting everything I’d ever said or done in the past. I remembered the time I walked out on her in the supermarket. We’d argued about something I can’t even remember, or maybe I chose to forget, but we walked in silence, next to each other, and this I remember: we were in the frozen food aisle and she picked up a gallon of ice cream, turned to me to suggest a new flavor, trying to make up, and I just walked away. I left her there. I walked home.
The TV has been on for three days now. Same channel. Latin accents with an American touch. Today I followed Mr. Toupee working at full speed—Inauguration Day was behind him now—to sign documents that served as imaginary German walls on trade and funding. It was a day of tax scandals for the orange-skinned man. He talked about cuts and border taxes, high border taxes, which I really didn’t get. Wall threats continued, but I didn’t pay much attention to his nonsense. I’m skeptical about lunatics and their rants, even if there isn’t one positive thing I can say about our own Mr. Pompadour. I slept on the couch in the studio again, as I’d done in the days prior, but this time with my clothes on. I wasn’t in the mood to undress or to look for something to sleep in amid the piles of clothes I’d brought in from her bedroom.
This was the first weekday after our separation and the first one when her morning ritual was entirely her own. I’d like to believe that she was crumbling inside, too, but she seemed to be in total control. She spent the early morning speeding around the apartment, from the moment she flounced out of the bedroom and turned on the shower right up until she left. I knew she’d turn on the water first, wait a few minutes, and then jump in. I think the moments she’d spend behind that door were the only part of her day I didn’t know by heart. After that, I could anticipate every single step she took to get ready. Her day was my day. Her insignificant rituals were as much part of me as anything else. She’d usually emerge wrapped in a towel and lay out a few different outfits on the bed. One after the other, they’d end up tossed onto her chair in the corner. A heap of clothes she’d try on two or three times in front of the mirror. Some days I used to lay in bed with a book and try to catch a glimpse of the process. I never reacted, really; I just stored the images unconsciously. After she made her decision, she’d have breakfast. Something light, like oatmeal and fruit. She’d sit down and check her email, call her office, and then go into the bathroom to put on her makeup. It’s not a complicated routine; she was fast and precise. After that, she’d cook something for lunch, nothing fancy, pack her backpack, and leave the house, always in a hurry. She went through the whole routine today, as I wrote, only I wasn’t there on the bed to watch, I wasn’t leaning again the bathroom door in silence while she put on her eyeshadow, annoying her. Today, we didn’t dance the silent synchronized choreography of our routine.
Chuy and I haven’t developed a relationship yet. He just came in for his fourth day and got to work. He isn’t crouching as much as he did yesterday, so I assume the wall must be getting higher. Not quite halfway, but close. I don’t care about him, but I question the amount of time he’s taking to build this thing. I’m far from seeing him as my executioner; he’s more of a torturer. With every click and clack I hear, every spatter of concrete onto what I now know are bricks, the pads over each piece of material, I remember I’m being shut out. Mauer im Kopf. As the wall grows higher, my chances of winning her back decline.
Not every wall is built in the name of forgetting. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. actually exists to remember soldiers who fought in that war. It doesn’t obviously separate people, nor does it make them forget, but it evokes what the other walls are about. Granted, it’s a monument more than a wall, something that stands for memory, not something to lock memory away, but I found it online and read about it even so.
Thirteen minutes after two. Another man came in. He rang our (her) doorbell and Chuy immediately went to the door, not even looking at me to see if I, as the previous tenant, wanted to get it. He knew it was the Man with the Door. A really short hombre was hidden behind a black wooden door with a golden doorknob. He placed the thing near the door frame in front of me, said something to Chuy, shared a laugh, patted him on the back, and left. Chuy stood under the frame, as if measuring the wall with his eyes, but not doing anything else. He sighed and got back to work. Between six and nine p.m., the apartment was an empty room and yielded to the news anchors. Mr. Toupee was still giving everyone a lot to talk about, so his face was already “the face” of CNN en Español, and I’m sure it was the same on the other channels. A few minutes after nine, she came in and did the same thing as the night before—icing me out—but she didn’t go about her nightly routine. She just stopped to pat the black door and jiggled the doorknob a bit; she seemed pleased. She quickly went into her bedroom, turned out the lights, and switched on the TV.
Here I am, retracing old lines, going over hundreds of pictures, archived chats, and old emails, trying to figure out what went wrong in a relatively stable relationship. But the photos of us hiking, buying furniture at Home Depot, and walking downtown all pale before a single image that keeps flitting back into my mind: her: sitting next to me, her hair all wet, wearing a loose blouse, and reading another expensive green volume of Losada’s Masterpieces of Thought: rereading, imagining her dissertation, moving her lips; and I’m reading, too, one of the old Anagrama editions I collect, this one by Jean-Phillipe Touissant. The image is actually pretty boring, or at least not special, but I find myself remembering it, her hair, her moving lips, her braless chest under the green cotton blouse, her white almost translucent legs curled up on the couch, her yellowish feet…and at that moment I felt a sense of everythingness that I thought was just a myth. The image resurges, then disappears every time. As it just did, when Chuy spattered concrete over a new brick.
Today was an important day for Mr. Toupee: his attempts to separate and forget were made “official” by the signing of an executive order to actually start the process of building his wall. He ordered agencies and departments to “take all appropriate steps to immediately plan, design, and construct a physical wall along the southern border, using appropriate materials and technology to most effectively achieve complete operational control of the southern border.” Then he ordered the hiring of ten thousand ICE officers to banish bad hombres, to send them back from where they came from.
We had a plan to go away. The idea was to go to Norway for a year, with a quick stop in Chile to visit her family. She was going for a master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of Bergen, and I was planning to spend my days writing and translating children’s books and shitty detective stories while working on the next great Mexican novel—or better yet, the northern Mexican novel par excellence. We were planning to live a life of adventure, the bohemian fantasy I’d been reading about in all the Chilean, Argentine, and Colombian novels that were now boxed up. This had been our plan since the very first week of our relationship. By the end, though, I think it was the last bastion for a fracturing love.
About three-quarters of the Roman arch is now bricked over. By the end of the day, I could only see Chuy’s head and part of the tall semi-empty bookshelves in the living room. I can’t see the TV now, but I can still hear the anchors. Also, there’s still the doorless doorframe I saw her walking through after work, coming in, heading toward the bedroom before storming out again in her exercise clothes. And again, later, a few minutes ago, wearing a towel, dripping wet, holding her cell phone, as if she didn’t want to look at me or at the apartment when she went into the bedroom once again.
I’m sure the wall will be done tomorrow.
About a year ago, I marveled at the fact that I’ve only ever truly understood what “the other” means after sleeping several nights next to someone. Not even all the Carver stories I read before moving in with her made me grasp that souls are obscure and selfish entities. Every night I’d go to sleep with the awareness that I was actually sleeping with a whole different person, a different world, a different set of thoughts and ideas. Not one person, but two. I never knew what that meant—if it was something to build on, feeling so far away from the person I was sharing my life with. Otherness. But now, as I write from a room that’s being physically walled up, now that I can’t even catch her eye in passing, I’m the one who feels like the Other.
This morning, she waited for Chuy after she got ready for work. She sat on the living room couch, legs crossed, eyes fixed on her telephone, texting. When the dreaded worker knocked on the door, she opened it, shot him a reproachful glance for being late, and left. He got down to business. I couldn’t see him, but I caught a glimpse of his hands as he was placed bricks on the last quarter of the wall. He finished and covered it with plaster. The important part was done. He left early.
The news is still on. I can hear that Mr. Toupee and Mr. Pompadour were supposed to meet today, but the former called it off with a tweet, alleging that if Mexico was unwilling to pay for the wall, then there was no point in meeting to begin with. At least I’m not being strongarmed into paying for this wall.
She came back from the gym, dropped her bag on the floor, and went into the kitchen, making an effort, I believe, to briskly open and close every drawer with a sense of purpose to get my attention. She emerged with a bowl and sat down in front of the TV, a spoon in one hand, her cell phone in the other. I could only see the top of her head, so I knew she wasn`t looking in my direction, nor was she trying to: she hasn’t turned to look at the studio in two days, and since we no longer have much to talk about, I assume we’re supposed to respect our vow of silence.
The night was especially quiet. I didn’t pay any attention to the late-night news and I pressed my ear to the wall dividing her bedroom from mine. It was hard to hear anything, I’d tried it before, all of the other nights, but this one was different because I could hear her. She was crying. I don’t know what that means.
The crying went on for some hours until she finally fell asleep.
The wall looks like the work of a fourteenth-century architect. Solid. Thick. Impossible to bring down. The only thing left is to shut the door, but Chuy wouldn’t do that. I think he finally sympathized with me and understood my isolation. Which is why, after the last turn of the last screw, he packed up his tools, cleaned up, and gave me the most heartfelt look I’ve received in days. He put the key into lock, left the door open, turned around, and left.
I’m sitting here, still writing. It’s nine-thirty, so she should be here any minute now to take in her work. The work she ordered done. I don’t want to turn the light on. I want to keep writing this, whatever it turns out to be, waiting for her to come in and finally finish the job.
Mr. Toupee finished his first week at the Pentagon and declared his intent to rebuild the poor, dismayed country’s armed forces. It was a perfect example of persecution delirium. The desperate need to gain the other’s respect, although they never really lost it. And a great way to fight for the freedom they already have. So he signed new executive actions that established vetting measures to keep the bad men out. Like I said, documents can be walls, too.
It was almost ten. She came into the apartment and closed the door carefully, as if not wanting to let me know she was back. As I’d expected, she walked around in the dark and I could hear her heels clicking and clacking closer to the wall. She came to the other side of el muro, maybe touched it, felt safe, protected by its heft: it was massive, solid, reassuring. There was enough moonlight for her to see, to realize that the wall would be there forever, keeping everything on the other side, away from her, pretending nothing is there until it’s forgotten. Or maybe because walls are built not just to keep things away, but also to not let them go. So a wall for me is also a wall for her. I heard her heels again. I saw her silhouette against the door frame, hands on her hips, as if silently scolding a ghost. I was in front of her, the glow of the screen illuminating my face, but she wouldn’t look at me. I am the ghost, or at least I’m becoming it. She just stared into a dark room, perhaps trying to remember if there was anything that needed to be taken out before pulling it shut forever. We suffered the silence. I don’t think she even remembered I was in the room, trapped, far away, kept, contained. I tried to speak. Nothing. It had to be the worst of all goodbyes, if it can actually count as one. What she did after a few seconds was simple: she closed the black door. Without a word, she closed it. A few seconds passed. Then I heard the key turn. I stood up and tried the doorknob. Nothing.
It can’t be opened from the inside. Chuy knew that. I started wondering if I wasn’t supposed to leave the apartment. If her plan was to keep me in, but away. So I’m here, but I’m not. The only thing left for me to do is write. Write about her, about us, write her face, write her hands, her eyes, the way her wet hair smelled, write about her crooked nose, her small teeth, the way she stirred a bowl of soup, write about the way she leaned over the table to eat, write about her bare feet after a hard day at work, write about every single time I saw her coming in through the door, write about her sunglasses, about her skin and her voice, write about her accent, the worn-out jeans, the smell of her shampoo. I realize this is where I’ll live from now on. In a dark room with my computer. Writing. She won’t open the door. She might have even thrown away the key.
The apartment is dark and silent, so I can hear her nightly ritual, how she drops her shoes to the floor, the drawers opening and snapping shut, the water running, how she washes her face. Even the light switch when she turns it off, ready for bed. I know what will happen in the morning, one step after the other. I’ll hear her life and write about it. And she’ll remember I’m behind the wall until she forgets.
Efrén Ordóñez is a writer, editor, and translator. He founded Editorial Argonáutica in 2017. He is currently finishing his second novel, written under a grant from Young Creators Program part of the Fondo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes, in Mexico. He translated Melville’s Beard/Las barbas de Melville, by Mark Haber, for Editorial Argonáutica. In 2017, Mexican Nitro Press published his first novel, Humo (Smoke), which received the State of Nuevo León Prize in Literature in 2014. He also wrote the short story collection Gris infierno (Gray Inferno) (An.alfa.beta, 2014) and the illustrated children’s book Tlacuache. Historia de una cola (Possum. A Story of a Tail) (FCAS, 2015). He was a grantee at the State of Nuevo León Writers Centre in 2013. He also works as a writer and translator in the writing agency he founded, Courier 12 Escritores, and as a part-time creative writing teacher at Literaria in Mexico City. You can find him on Twitter: @efrenordonezg.