A Nice Boy From a Good Family
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Ana Maria Shua
Translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
Laurita’s head throbs as she stands there for a moment, pausing but about to leave, with her hand on the doorknob, as she tries to understand the force of that surprising gust of wind that’s lifted her so high, all the way to the seventeenth floor of the Santos Dumont building on Avenida Gorlero, Punta del Este, to this empty apartment, beside Kalnicky Kamiansky, who, sitting on the floor in his underwear, sobs in anguish, invoking his Grandpa León while the radio blares Hey Jude by the Beatles.
Her guilt is so evident that it’s pointless to try either to justify or refute it. Laurita isn’t looking for absolution, just a slightly reduced sentence. At this point she’s not even attempting to reconstruct the facts or figure out where her culpability began: when she accepted the invitation to go upstairs and into the apartment, or much earlier, when her own grandmother offered to introduce her to a nice boy from a good family, and she’d said yes, of course, she’d love to, all too eager to demonstrate that she had nothing against the good Jewish families that were prepared to offer their coveted male offspring on the open market.
The fact is, Laurita was growing bored during that terribly hot summer in Punta del Este, where (as her mother had reminded her once more before they left, as they loaded the car with jars of jam and blocks of cheese because everything was so expensive in Uruguay), such a nice atmosphere prevailed.
A few days earlier, wordlessly rejecting the comfortable, casual old clothes that Laurita usually wore, her mother had taken her to the finest boutiques on Callao, Quintana, and Avenida Alvear, where she’d bought her three new outfits consisting of bell-bottom pants and short-sleeved jackets, a light summer coat, several blouses and shirts, and even a long, golden cocktail gown, an item her mother had declared essential for places like the San Rafael Casino. Feeling humiliated, Laurita had protested and argued with her mother as well as with the blameless saleswomen, but now she was quite happy with her new wardrobe, which her mother had insisted on packing into the suitcase herself, carefully folding the garments to avoid wrinkles, like an experienced hunter who examines, oils, and carefully lays out the weapons that his son must learn to use on their next expedition: Punta del Este, elite game preserve.
The atmosphere, however, was indeed fabulous, and Laurita wasn’t about to object to going out with one of those luminous, tanned young men whom she saw and ogled (but never directly) on the beach, those boys who took their parents’ cars out at night, speeding along the ocean drive toward unknown destinations, accompanied by slender blondes.
But Laurita had no friends in Punta del Este. She had never been there before and so wasn’t familiar with the local rituals of flirtation. Every afternoon she strolled fruitlessly down Avenida Gorlero, bedecked in her best finery, and even though by a week after arriving there she was resigned to the general lack of knowledge of Hinduism, the lack of sensitivity toward the Latin American political situation, the total ignorance of Borges’ work, and even the confusion of the subjunctive mood with the conditional tense, not a single gentleman had invited her to join him for a spin in his turbocharged vehicle along that oceanside speedway.
Hey, where are you from? a smartly coiffed young man had shouted at her from his car after Laurita had endured ten days and ten long evenings of playing knock rummy with her grandma, who, equally devoid of friends and nearly as bored as Laurita, missed the unruly crowds at the Bristol, where everyone or practically everyone spoke Yiddish and drank tea with pastries.
Japan, Laurita shouted back, but as she would later learn, the question made sense because Miguel was from Uruguay, was formally engaged, and in three months would be married forever. And so naturally he was concerned about the nationality of his casual dates and was careful to avoid Uruguayan girls, especially if they were from Montevideo. He tried not to be seen with Laurita in places where he knew he might run into his compatriots. And even though she had liked his opening moves, the way he showed his hand from the start, she couldn’t help wanting to take a bit of revenge by refusing to remove her kerchief when he showed up the following afternoon to invite her out for tea and cake at an inn on the road to San Rafael.
Two enormous rollers with their respective clips crowned Laurita’s head, which was adorned with seven additional bobby pins that poked their own tiny, curious heads out from beneath the green scarf that covered the masterpiece; a thick, gooey fragrance of Pantene completed the ensemble that any bride, a real bride just three months before her wedding, would never have allowed herself to wear.
On the way to the inn, Miguel stopped his little Fiat and attempted the difficult maneuver of embracing her with one hand while with the other trying to activate the mechanism that would lower Laurita’s seat, converting it into a kind of bed. It was obvious from the careful coordination of his movements that Miguel had practiced this complicated operation many times before, and Laurita wondered if there had been an actual woman present during those rehearsals, because Miguel seemed much more interested in completing the maneuver with his left hand as planned than in securing her cooperation with his right.
But the seat-lowering lever was stuck, and Miguel returned to his own place to consider the situation with both hands on the wheel, so demoralized and furious, so absent from Laurita, that he seemed to have forgotten about her completely. Damn lever, Miguel repeated, punctuated by harsh invectives hurled against cars in general, those manufactured in Turin by Fiat in particular, and all the inhabitants of the Italian peninsula and its territories, without even stopping to consider the possibility that Laurita might be willing to move ahead despite the mechanical breakdown. One minute later he let her out of the car and concentrated on dismantling the damaged mechanism, dirtying his hands with grease, huffing and protesting while Laurita stood, bored, by the side of the road.
One hour later they arrived at the inn, both of them in a foul mood. Laurita ordered a waffle with honey and Miguel a lemon pie. They gazed at each other as they ate, revived a little by the sugar. Miguel was a chemist. His father owned an important laboratory. His friends called him Tenfingers – You’ll soon find out why, he said with wicked pride, rubbing his legs against Laurita’s under the table.
But Laurita never found out why because that very night Miguel came back and announced that his fiancée had unexpectedly arrived in Montevideo, but that he’d try to see Laurita at all costs, would see her, in fact, in very short visits for the rest of that month, never at night, and never for long enough to allow Miguel to develop his seduction technique, that incremental series of advances which, considering the embarrassing failure of his initial attempt, he now considered indispensable to her conquest.
Why not be grateful, then, for the unforeseen arrival on the scene of Kalnicky Kaminansky, deus ex machina summoned by her grandmother to rescue Laurita from long afternoons devoted to Lautréamont and filled churros, an act of simultaneous consumption that in her mind would forever link Maldoror, terrifying as an eagle, with the taste of sugar on the crispy, golden, slightly greasy crust of the churros. Laurita had always enjoyed reading, but especially in winter: the cold beckoned her to armchairs, solitude, and woolen socks. In the summer it was nearly impossible: the heat gently, acidly called out to her, forcing her to lose herself, eyes heavenward, in the color and texture of the sand.
I’m a doctor, Kalnicky Kamiansky had told her as they walked along the shore, avoiding the jellyfish that evaporated sadly amid the seaweed and oil stains, unfortunate details that it was best to ignore if one was to justify the high price of ice cream and rentals. And, pausing to emphasize what he was about to announce, Kalnicky completed the utterance: not just a doctor, but practically a cardiologist. He was specializing, working at his uncle’s practice. Kalnicky Kamiansky, pride of his parents, he of the very close-set eyes and ample hips, said that his only regret was that his Grandpa León hadn’t lived to see him receive his medical degree.
“Do you know,” he asked Laurita, “do you know who León Kamiansky was in the Jewish community?”
But Laurita, alas, had no idea who León Kamiansky had been, let alone in the Jewish community, an entity that had always struck her as a little vague and always intimidating, one with which she’d never maintained a relationship, one to which she so inevitably belonged that it seemed unnecessary to participate in it, its institutions or its groups.
I am a Kamiansky, Kalnicky Kamiansky, he assured her with enviable pride. Do you know who the Kamianskys were in Russia under the Czar? Laurita tried to collect her scattered knowledge of Russia under the Czar, but her readings of Tolstoy or Pushkin had nothing to say about the Kamiansky family’s activity in the court of the Emperor of All the Russias.
Laurita liked Kalnicky Kamiansky’s fierce attachment to his Grandpa León; in fact it was the only thing about him she did like, and while he insisted on pointing out the wonders of the apartment that his parents had given him on the seventeenth floor of the Santos Dumont building, living room and bedroom with an ocean view, she would have preferred to steer the conversation toward the subject of León Kamiansky, deceased leader, philanthropist, temple founder, businessman.
Her parents were happy to see her finally dating a nice boy from a good family: the investment was beginning to pay off, and Laurita wanted to demonstrate her goodwill to the utmost, although she secretly felt it was unfair because, like her, they wouldn’t have been able to tolerate the joyous itemization of possessions in which Kalnicky Kamiansky obviously delighted and wallowed: his resonant surname, his university degree, his Peugeot 404, his apartment in the ghastly bulk of the Santos Dumont building. Kalnicky Kamiansky grossly exceeded the virtues that her parents had expected in a nice boy from a good family.
However, Kalnicky Kamiansky had invited her to dinner. To a restaurant. For seafood. Never before had a man invited Laurita to have seafood with him at a restaurant. Sometimes men had asked her out for coffee and it was perfect: Jungian archetypes with a latte; cultural malaise and spaghetti al pesto at Pippo’s; Laurita had even wangled a memorable barbecue at Pichín along with Hegelian dialectics; the mythical horizon and croissants; Engels and Gramsci with a crepe at La Martona; and everything was comme il faut except for the fact that sometimes Laurita had to pick up the check. But never, never before had a man been prepared to make such an investment in her by inviting her to a restaurant in Punta del Este for seafood.
Laurita was touched, shaken, and, above all, astonished to discover this unexpected, whorish vocation of hers: a man was going to spend money for the pleasure of her company, and that pleased her. It pleased her enormously. Women, she had once read— randomly opening one of the volumes of Freud’s Complete Works, so nicely bound in real leather, so expensive, so official-looking — women, because they are polymorphous perverse, are especially suited for prostitution, what nonsense, but it wasn’t that sort of polymorphous perverse pleasure that she expected from Kalnicky Kamiansky, but rather to be paid for, evaluated, the as-yet-unknown pleasure of watching a man take money, genuine money, out of his wallet in order to pay a lofty amount for the pleasure of being, of having been, with her. How lovely, Laurita, her mother had said, at last you’re going out with a well-dressed, decent boy who takes you to dinner, a nice boy from a good family.
And so Laurita chose moderately expensive dishes, and Kalnikcky Kamiansky didn’t even wait for the shrimp cocktails, overflowing with Russian dressing and too much lettuce, before explaining that he also owned an apartment of his own in Buenos Aires, Barrio Norte, living room, two bedrooms, two baths, even though for now he still lived with his parents. Ever downward, unaware of the steep precipice over which his words were pushing him, he went on enumerating, taking inventory: my family has a chalet in Los Troncos, a huge chalet, in the neighborhood of Los Troncos de Mar del Plata, it used to belong to my grandfather, you should see the garden, what an incredible garden, said Kalnicky Kamiansky, gazing at her tenderly over the fried calamari.
But Laurita wasn’t inclined to go on with the real estate survey; she wanted to enjoy her dessert. Laurita had discovered that all men and women in this world have at least one story, a good story worth listening to; even Kalnicky Kamiansky, doctor-and-practically-a-cardiologist, one-bedroom apartment in Punta, bachelor pad in Buenos Aires, shared chalet in Los Troncos, had one, and it wasn’t hard for her to find it, extract it from him. Kalnicky Kamiansky’s story was a love story, and it both pained and delighted him to tell it.
It also pained Laurita to listen to it; his boring, meaningless words hurt her ears; it was painful to hear him express an affection that was probably real with the conventional vocabulary and monotonous, hackneyed expressions of a soap opera.
She wasn’t Jewish, this true love of Kalnicky (now more than ever) Kamiansky’s. She was a neighborhood girl who studied at the Pitman Academy. He loved her dearly, she loved him dearly, but she wasn’t Jewish, and he suffered to think of the name Kamiansky, that surname so distinguished by his Grandpa León in the Jewish community, linked with a miserable Sánchez, a common Sánchez, dragged through the mud. Kalnicky Kamiansky had suffered terribly, deliberating over the problem, and when his Grandpa León fell ill he knew he had to leave her. She herself asked me to, you see how much she loved me, she herself asked me to break it off so that she wouldn’t see me suffer so much. Don’t think my Grandpa León said anything to me; he wasn’t that kind of person; he never pried into my life; he knew everything, and he just looked at me, nothing else, with those sad eyes of his, and I understood. It was worse when he died. I felt like crap whenever I was with her; it always seemed like my Grandpa León was right next to me, looking at me with his sad eyes.
When I have a son (at this point Kalnicky Kamiansky had regained his composure; after a brief pause he remembered the charlotte and was pouring the warm chocolate sauce over the nearly-melted ice cream, which overflowed the dish), he said calmly, looking right at Laurita, I want to give him my grandpa’s name, but a little more up-to-date; León is sort of old fashioned, don’t you think? When I have a son I’m going to call him Lionel.
Later, on the way home, they kissed in Kalnicky Kamiansky’s comfortable Peugeot, and Laurita once again had the opportunity to be surprised at herself, at her body, always ready to desire, even a man as radically undesirable as Kalnicky Kamiansky, practically-a-cardiologist, nestled against her chest. Only abstinence, Laurita told herself, could justify this urge, this general, mechanical urge, which chance had at that moment centered on that disagreeable man who was kissing her enthusiastically and ineptly. If you’re willing to make me happy, Kalnicky Kamiansky ickily murmured as they said goodnight, I’ll treat you like a queen.
It was hard, then, very hard, to explain why Laurita agreed to see him again the next afternoon, one more date that she’d decided would be their last. Hard to explain why she had allowed herself to be embraced so tightly on that lonely little beach where it was cold, seagulls squawked unpleasantly, and reality dully overcame imagination.
You’ve made me happy, Kalnicky Kamiansky unexpectedly announced to her, and not even then did Laurita quite understand the exquisite metaphor he used to refer to his orgasms; so summarily had poor Kalnicky Kamiansky come, so abruptly, not even against her body, so drily that she didn’t even notice; but many years later it came back to her when an enormously fat taxi driver, after staring at her intently in the rear-view mirror, had gushed: I’ll give you everything, baby, if you make me happy I’ll give you everything, even my Ford Falcon, baby, everything.
You’ve got to see my ocean-view apartment, Kalnicky Kamiansky had proclaimed on the little beach. You’ve got to see it: it’s wonderful, amazing, a gift from my parents when I graduated from medical school; you’ve got to see the ocean from the seventeenth floor of the Santos Dumont building, what a sight, you can’t miss it, you’ll have to see it.
I don’t want to go to bed with you, Laurita told him. No, silly, you’ve got a dirty mind; you can only think of one thing. I want to show you the ocean, the ocean view, you’ll see what an apartment it is; besides, it’s empty, there’s no bed; it’s all mine, a gift from my parents. I’m not going to bed with you, Laurita had repeated in the elevator, as he carefully abstained from touching her in order to demonstrate the purity of his intentions; it was merely a question of showing off his property, his horizontal wealth.
I’m not going to bed with him, Laurita said to herself. So then why are you here, you stupid fool, when you know perfectly well what comes next? And it was true: it had an ocean view, Kalnicky Kamiansky’s one-bedroom apartment did, just as he’d claimed, and he insisted on leaving the door open so you’ll see what a dirty mind you have, and it was empty, I’m going to furnish it next season, we’ll see if the exchange rate improves, completely empty, just a portable radio on the wooden floor, it’s so hot in here, he said, aren’t you hot, it’s awfully hot, why don’t you take off your shirt? Wanna dance? I said dance, that’s all, don’t think I meant something else, said Kalnicky Kamiansky, that heartbreaker, with incredible subtlety, I can’t stand the heat, what a miserable climate, as he stepped out of his pants, a nice boy from a good family in underpants moving to the beat of Hey Jude sung loudly over the radio by the Beatles, one of them anyway, whom Laurita’s terrible auditory memory was unable to identify.
Laurita’s head throbs as she stands there for a moment, pausing but about to leave, with her hand on the knob of the half-opened door, halted by the sobs of Kalnicky Kamiansky, who sits on the floor, crying, invoking his Grandpa León. Why? asks Kalnicky Kamiansky between hiccups and tears, Why does this have to happen to me, Grandpa León, why did you die, Grandpa, why did I have to break up with that nice girl who really loved me, Grandpa, and now I have to get involved with one of those psychoanalyzed Jewish chicks who thinks she’s so smart because she’s read Mahatma Gandhi’s latest best seller, when any woman of mine would live like a queen, Grandpa?
Copyright © Ana María Shua 2012
Ana María Shua was born in Buenos Aires in 1951. She has published books in various genres and is the recipient of many literary awards. Three of her novels and three of her books of microfiction have been translated into English and published in the United States. Among her many international recognitions, she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for her novel, The Book of Memories. Shua’s novel, Los amores de Laurita (Laurita’s Loves), from which the following excerpt comes, was converted into a motion picture.
Shua is recognized as one of the principal Latin American cultivators of the microrrelato, a genre of extremely short fiction. Her fiction for adults and children has been widely anthologized and translated into many languages, including French, Chinese, English, Italian, German, Korean, and Portuguese.
Andrea G. Labinger (the translator) has published numerous translations of Latin American prose fiction, three of which were PEN USA finalists. Her recent work includes Ana María Shua’s Death as a Side Effect (Nebraska, 2011); Ángela Pradelli’s Friends of Mine (Latin American Literary Review Press, 2012); and Liliana Heker’s The End of the Story (Biblioasis, 2012). The University of Nebraska Press has published her translation of Ana María Shua’s The Weight of Temptation this fall, and Purdue University Press has just released her translation of Guillermo Martínez’s Borges and Mathematics.