By Guillermo Saccomanno
Translated from Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger
We’ve just come home from burying Mama. I’m going to take a bath, says Ruti, who pretends to be such a clean freak but isn’t capable of rinsing out the teacup she’s just used. The sky is scummy, as filthy as this apartment, which has been on the market for as long as I can remember. Even if it is on Avenida Corrientes, you have to understand that you can find Marion Singer, Haute Couture, only by passing through a gallery of discount storefronts, eight stories, and an elevator in back. We’re alone now. I pour myself some tea in the cup she used.
Through the kitchen window I see the city, all mist and drizzle. Antennas, cables, towers, closed windows, a solitary pigeon seeking shelter outside our window. There comes a moment in life when we’re like that pigeon. Mama, poor thing, was that pigeon, all the time. And me, a feygele. Ruti, on the other hand, was different. She didn’t need anyone. In fact, we were more than she needed. I was more than she needed. That cold blood of hers froze everything around her; you could detect it in her expression. It seemed impossible that the two of us had come from the same womb, just seconds apart. First her, then me. But in the alignment of the stars, those seconds must have made the difference. I faced the river; Ruti, the back. Since I was born good, I won’t dredge up all the times Ruti tried to get rid of me. Please love Debi, Mama begged her. I hated that she had given us such similar names. We were born after Papa’s heart attack at the casino in Monte Carlo. The trouser workshop went bankrupt. It left us broke. Mama, who was pregnant, had to take over the bills. She even had to sell the menorah. We gave up the house in La Paternal and moved to the Once district. Mama started to work as a dressmaker. Marion Singer, Haute Couture. Bridals, the sign said. But considering what she charged, she had to add High Fashion. And she taught me her art. Ruti never wanted to know anything about it. She preferred the life of the street. Mama claimed that her dresses were economical. She never said “cheap.” That was her secret, that it wasn’t a great success, but at least it got us out of the hole. Here, in these two rooms, we grew up. One was the high fashion workshop, the daydream in the mirror where brides-to-be tried on lace, tulle, satin.
After Mama got sick, Ruti started to work at a jeans factory but she said she was the CEO of a textile business. Just like when she worked at a call center, she said she was the director of a telecommunications firm. That’s Ruti for you. And Mama wanted to believe her, even if she didn’t. If it wasn’t for me, you two would die of hunger, Ruti used to say. I devoted myself to Mama. Where was I supposed to go, with these varicose veins? But I did my part. I took her to the doctor, gave her the medications, and when, at the end, she was paralyzed and unaware from the stroke, I changed her diapers. I never complained. Whenever that moment came, Ruti found some excuse to get away. I have an appointment, she would say, chewing on a breath mint.
Ruti’s hated me ever since we were little girls. One time she spilled boiling tea on me; another time she slammed the door on my fingers, and still another she tripped me as we were crossing the street. She shrugged it all off: accidents. And if she never stabbed me with a scissor, it was only because she hadn’t yet worked up the nerve. While I, the favored child, earned better grades, Ruti cared only about finding a boyfriend. One day you’ll see, she would say, I’m gonna wear a bridal gown, but not a cheap one. And yet, even though she had so many suitors, she was left with no one. Today, at fifty-eight, she still hasn’t given up the chase. Ruti spends hours in the bathroom. It takes her forever to brush her teeth, floss, rinse, and gargle. As if she could hide her bad breath. Off she goes on her fishing expeditions, all made up. You, she says to me with a treacherous smile, if you don’t get rid of your mustache and lose a few pounds, you’ll never hook anybody. And I’ve got to admit she’s right. First it was the rheumatism, then the ulcer, then Hashimoto’s disease, then the cataracts, and then I started losing my vision. I couldn’t even thread a needle. My ideas became disconnected. And I also lost my touch for sewing. But what always hurt me most was Ruti. In fact, she didn’t hurt me. She wounded me. You could feel her resentment. You should go to shul, Ruti, I said. It’ll soothe your mind. What would soothe my mind would be for you to be different, she retorted. I said: You’re the different one, Ruti. She didn’t like that. And she said: You’re lucky I have a guilty conscience. What Ruti says is true: I fell apart after Mama’s death. Awareness of the body comes with age. As the years go by, it reminds you of how you’ve neglected it. And it doesn’t forgive you. It’s true: I can recall her bad breath, but I’m not spiteful.
Always, day and night. Night was Ruti. A night so black that it was frightening. Even though Mama dressed us alike when we were small, we had nothing to do with one another. Just look at that photo of us at the zoo: I’m a timid little doll. Ruti is hugging me, but her smile is fake. Mama never took her eyes off Ruti. Not because she loved her more, but in order to keep her in plain sight. Or rather, to protect me from her wickedness. But thanks to the potential killer’s resentful character, I managed to make Mama totally dependent on me. And that filled Ruti with jealousy. Mama, always fretting over the risks I ran. Swear you’ll take care of yourself when I’m not around anymore, she once said to me as I was testing her glucose. The more my sister tried to push me out of the way, the more Mama suffered. Mama, like Papa, also had heart disease. Any setback drove her pressure up. And my sister gave her plenty of reasons, too.
I still wonder which is worse, paralysis or unawareness, which is a kind of paralysis, but of the mind. I never abandoned her. Not even after the last attack, the one that finally carried her off. Which Ruti caused, when, seemingly by accident, she pushed me down the terrace steps as we were going upstairs to hang Mama’s sheets. I ended up with a cast and a cane. And Mama ended up with Papa, in Tablada Cemetery. Her death, I’m convinced, was caused by her fear of leaving me alone with that evil one. Her last words were directed to me: Be careful, Debi, she said. If Ruti was the one to close her eyes, it was so she’d never again see the desperation with which Mama had looked at me.
The two of us alone at the cemetery, in the rain. You’re out of luck, Ruti must have been thinking. No doubt she figured she’d get the apartment. Soaked to the skin, we rode the bus back home. As soon as we walked into the house, she said she needed to wash off the funereal atmosphere. She locked herself in the bathroom. I heard the water running.
I hope she vanishes in the steam and drowns in the bathtub under the foam. I walk in, plug in the hair dryer, turn it on.
Ruti: nice and quiet, bathed and clean. I dress her in a bridal gown that fit me like a glove before I got the herniated disk. A princess. Ruti would’ve loved to see herself with that bouquet of violets, Mama’s favorite. She’s keeping Papa and Mama company at Tablada Cemetery. I leave the bouquet in a little can of cool water. The next time I come back, I grab a bucket with detergent and bleach. And, using Ruti’s toothbrush, I start to clean.