Voice

Eduardo Halfon was born in Guatemala City and lives in Nebraska. He has published ten books of fiction in Spanish. The Polish Boxer, his first in English translation, is published by Pushkin Press and Bellevue Literary Press.
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White smoke

When I met her in a Scottish bar, after I don't know how many beers and almost an entire pack of unfiltered Camels, she told me that she liked it when men bit her nipples, and hard.

It wasn't actually a Scottish bar, just some old bar in Antigua, Guatemala, that only served beer and was called (or was referred to as) the Scottish bar. I was drinking a Moza at the counter. I prefer dark beer. It makes me think of old-fashioned taverns and sword fights. I lit a cigarette and she asked me in English, sitting on a stool to my right, if I'd give her one. I guessed from her accent that she was Israeli.

Bevakasha, I said to her, which means you're welcome in Hebrew, and I held out the box of matches. She got friendly right away. She said something to me in Hebrew that I didn't understand and I clarified that I really remembered only three or four words and a random prayer or two and maybe how to count to ten. Fifteen, if I really tried. I live in the capital, I told her in Spanish, to show that I wasn't an American, and she admitted that she was confused because she hadn't imagined there were any Jewish Guatemalans. I'm not Jewish anymore, I said, smiling at her, I retired. What do you mean you're not? That's impossible, she yelled in that way Israelis have of yelling. She turned toward me. She was wearing a thin white Indian-style cotton blouse, torn jeans, and yellow espadrilles. Her hair was dark brown and she had emerald blue eyes, if emerald blue even exists. She explained to me that she had recently finished her military service, that she was travelling around Central America with her friend, and that they had decided to stay in Antigua for a few weeks to take Spanish classes and make a little money.

With her, she said, pointing to show me. Yael. Her friend, a pale, serious girl with exquisite shoulders, had served me the beer. I greeted her while they spoke in Hebrew, laughing, and I thought I heard them mention the number seven at one point, but I'm not sure why. A German couple came in and her friend went to serve them. She grabbed my hand firmly, told me it was a pleasure to meet me, that her name was Tamara, and then took another one of my cigarettes, this time without asking.

I ordered a second beer and Yael brought us two Mozas and a plate of chips. She stayed where she was, standing in front of us. I asked Tamara her last name. I remember that it was Russian. Halfon is Lebanese, I said, but my mother's last name, Tenenbaum, is Polish, from Łódź, and both girls shrieked. It turned out that Yael's last name was also Tenenbaum, and while she verified it on my driver's licence, I started to think about the remote possibility that we were related, and I imagined a novel about two Polish siblings who thought their entire family had been exterminated but who all of a sudden find each other after sixty years apart, thanks to the grandchildren, a Guatemalan writer and an Israeli hippie, who meet by chance in a Scottish bar that isn't even Scottish in Antigua, Guatemala. Yael got a litre of cheap beer and filled three glasses. Tamara gave me my licence back and the three of us drank a toast to us, to them, to the Poles. We stayed silent, listening to an old Bob Marley song and contemplating the immense smallness of the planet.

Tamara picked up my lit cigarette from the ashtray, took a long drag, and asked me what I did for a living. I told her seriously that I was a pediatrician and a professional liar.

She raised her hand like a stop sign. I liked her hand a lot, and I don't know why, but I remembered a line of poetry by e. e. cummings that Woody Allen quotes in one of his movies about infidelity. Nobody, I told her while I trapped her hand like a pale and fragile butterfly, not even the rain, has such small hands. Tamara smiled, told me that her parents were doctors and that she also wrote poems once in a while, and I supposed that she had attributed e. e. cummings's line to me, but I didn't feel like correcting her. And she didn't let go of my hand.

Yael filled our glasses while I clumsily smoked with my left hand and they spoke in Hebrew. What happened? I asked Tamara, and with a sorrowful pout she told me that the day before someone had robbed her. She sighed. I walked all morning, through the artisan market, by some ruins, everywhere, and when I sat down on a bench in the central park (that's what the Antiguans call it, even though it's really a square), I realised that someone had cut my bag with a knife. She explained to me that she had lost some money and some papers. Yael said something in Hebrew and they both laughed. What? I asked, curious, but they kept laughing and speaking in Hebrew. I squeezed Tamara's hand and she remembered that I was there and told me that the money didn't matter as much as the papers. I asked her what papers they were. She smiled enigmatically, like a Dutch tulip seller. Four hits of acid, she murmured in her poor Spanish. I took a drink of beer. You like acid? she asked me, and I told her that I didn't know, that I had never tried it. Tamara, euphoric, in her element, talked to me for ten or twenty minutes about how necessary acid is to open our minds and make us more tolerant and peaceful people, and the only thing I could think about while she chattered on was ripping her clothes off right there, in front of Yael and the German couple and any other Scottish voyeur who might want to spy on us. In order to stop her and also to relax a little, I suppose, I lit a cigarette and held it out to her.

The first time I tried acid, she said while we passed the cigarette back and forth, was with my friends in Tel Aviv, and I got all sleepy, and very, very relaxed, and I think I saw God. I seem to remember that she said Dios, in Spanish, although she also could have said Hashem or God or maybe G-d, the way Jewish people write God so as not to take his name in vain - in case they rip the paper it's written on, I guess. I didn't know if I should laugh and so I just asked her what God's face looked like. He didn't have a face, she replied. So what did you see? She told me that it was difficult to explain, and then she closed her eyes, taking on a mystical air, waiting for some divine revelation. I don't believe in God, I told her, waking her from her trance, but I do talk to him every day. She got serious. You don't consider yourself a Jew and you don't believe in God? she asked me reproachfully, and I just shrugged and said what for, and then went to the bathroom without giving any more time to such a useless topic.

While I was taking a piss, I noticed that, in spite of being a little drunk, I already had a slight erection. Then I washed my hands, thinking about my grandfather, about Auschwitz, about the five green digits tattooed on his forearm, which for all of my childhood I thought were there, as he used to tell me himself, so that he could remember his telephone number. And without knowing why, I felt a bit guilty.

I came back from the bathroom. I could hear Bob Dylan's raspy voice. Tamara was singing. Yael had filled my glass up again and was flirting with a guy who seemed Scottish and was very possibly the owner of the bar. I sat watching Yael. She had a silver belly-button ring. I imagined her in military uniform, carrying a huge machine gun. I turned back and saw that Tamara was smiling at me while she sang. I could only imagine her naked.

I took a long drink until the glass was empty. An old campesino had come in to the bar and was trying to sell machetes and huipiles. I told Tamara that I was already late for a meeting but that we could get together the next day. Can you come from the capital? she asked. Of course, gladly, it's a thirty-minute drive. All right, she said. I get out of class at six. Should we meet here again? Ken, I said to her, which means yes in Hebrew, and I half-smiled. I love your mouth, it's shaped like a heart, she said, and grazed my lips with her finger. I said thank you, and told her that I loved when women grazed my lips with their fingers. Me too, Tamara murmured in her bad Spanish, and then, still in Spanish and baring her teeth like a hungry lioness, she added: But I like it better when men bite my nipples, and hard. I didn't understand if she knew exactly what she was saying or if she was joking. She leaned toward me and I got chills when she gave me a soft kiss on my neck. With a shudder, I wondered what her nipples would look like, round or pointed, pink or red or maybe translucent violet, and standing up, I told her in Spanish that that was a shame, that when I do bite them, I bite them softly.

I paid for all the beers and we agreed to meet there the following evening, at six o'clock. I hugged her tightly, feeling something that couldn't be named but that was as thick and distinct as the white smoke of the Vatican on a dark winter night, and knowing very well that the next day I wouldn't be coming back.

Translated by Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead
and Anne McLean. From The Polish Boxer

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