translated by James Rumsey-Merlan and Camila Vélez Valencia
The day we get to Paris, the police confirm that the cannibal is hiding in the city. He landed on a commercial flight and the airport cameras show him shuffling through security, hidden under a copper-colored wig. He’s wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt and he has a sort of distant beauty—something fragile that makes him look more like a teenage rockstar than a butcher. It’s May, and its raining. From the seventh floor of our hotel room, the city’s streets seem like oceans of wobbling heads speckled with multicolored umbrellas. My suitcase remains unopened, exactly where the bellboy left it when Vanessa and I entered the room. We were speaking softly, as if he could understand us.
Vanessa turns to me, smiles, and gives me a very long kiss, which I answer with my whole body. A kiss that holds us together—suspended almost—as we fall into the bed and her scent and my scent get mixed up. My hands reach under her clothes. Vanessa sighs and her entire body quivers in my arms. Suddenly she pushes me softly away, puts her weight on her elbows, and says, better later, she has to work now. But we’re on vacation, I whine, and Vanessa assures me that the whole thing will take less than an hour, that the most difficult part is over and done with, and that we’ll soon be completely free. Everything has worked out, hasn’t it? she asks, and then adds, you are my lucky charm, just like she did on all our other trips. She fixes her bangs in the mirror, which takes up the entire bedroom wall. She rifles through her bag looking for her cell, sticks a French simcard into it and dials a number she knows. I get under the sheets and watch her do her thing, watch her negotiate with her phone and her lipstick. I blow her a kiss and she smiles, distractedly. She walks over and hands me the room service menu.
I turn on the TV and look for something in Spanish while Vanessa pees. She leaves the bathroom door open as she goes over the details of the delivery in that keyed-up lingo I can sometimes decipher (Peter, for example, is paste). On TV I see suddenly the cannibal’s boyish features, the same ones I saw not so long ago on all the airport’s screens. Right now, he could be anywhere, says the anchor, and shows a digital portrait of the cannibal; his painted lips and long hair flashing on the screen. The cannibal is also a drag porn-star and the authorities believe that he was able to get into Paris because he made himself look like a woman. I think about telling Vanessa that tonight we should have dinner in some restaurant that serves snails. In France snails are called escargots and they are forced to fast for a week before they are cooked alive. Do snails feel pain? I wonder. I see myself pacing the streets of Paris in a few hours, Vanessa laughing loudly, like that time she pulled up her blouse and showed her boobs to an old couple in a plaza in Barcelona, or like that time we rode the Mountain of Death in Amsterdam, and she got terrified at how fast it went. I imagine Vanessa tanning in a terrace in a hotel in Ibiza, wearing a white bikini. Martini in one hand, purse full of cash in the other. Vanessa passing through immigration with a fake passport, no trace of nerves in her body. Vanessa at dawn with her makeup all spread out. Vanessa about to leave. Vanessa leaving.
According to the TV anchor, the Paris Police have received over 200 tips from people claiming to have seen the cannibal roaming different parts of the city. His victim, a Chinese student, is also shown on TV, posing right beside him. He’s a boy so much like all other boys, that he took a selfie with his boyfriend—the same boyfriend who, a few days later, butchered him with an ice-pick and fed bits of his body to his cat. The very same boyfriend who filmed himself eating his lover’s raw flesh with a knife and a fork. I wonder what human flesh tastes like. Once, when I was giving my grandmother a massage, she said to me that humans tasted a lot like pork. We are dirty, our bodies are impure and we are like pigs even in how we taste, she said keeping her eyes closed, while I kneeled down to massage the little hard balls of her varicose veins. How do you know? I asked, and as I passed my finger over a knot of veins, her face wrinkled in an expression of pain. My grandma had heard the story on the radio. A woman in La Paz had minced-up her daughter with a butcher’s knife and served her in the market as if she were bacon. None of her customers noticed a thing. Without opening her eyes, she added: that’s collas for you, they eat each other, everyone knows that.
When Vanessa comes out of the bathroom she finds me glued to the television. When I focus on the screen I can forget almost anything, even her. She pouts, irritated, like she does any time she’s contradicted. Can’t you watch something else, babe? she asks, and turns off the television, making me promise not to stop filling my head with truculent nonsense, and adds, I have to leave now. The others are waiting for the delivery. I want to ask her to show me where the package is hidden, I want to ask her so many things, but I don’t dare to; she thinks that the less I know about the whole thing, the safer we’ll be. I happen to think this is an unnecessary precaution, because I always feel safe when I’m with Vanessa. If there’s anyone capable of always landing on her feet, it’s her. She empties her suitcase, its bits and pieces land on the carpet. Later I’ll follow her from store to store as she squanders her money like it’s going out of style, but right now, we have just arrived, and there’s still work to be done. Do snails feel pain? I ask out of nowhere. She fixes her hair again; absorbed in her own reflection, now multiplied in all of the room’s mirrors. Vanessa always sees herself everywhere. The chestnut fringe of hair on her forehead gives her a childish air. It makes her look more like the star of a silent film than the wife of a taxi driver in Cobija. I’m jealous of the man who met Vanessa when she was young and in love with his taxi and the possibility of leading a different life in a different place. I pretend the taxi driver doesn’t exist. I try to deny the parallel world in which her two sons grow old. I drive from my head the image of Vanessa, mother and wife, and replace it with the image of the businesswoman who sleeps with me in fancy hotels. Do they, or don’t they? I insist, as I realize that now it is she who is distant. Everything that’s alive suffers, no? she answers, anxious to immerse herself in the sound of the street.
I’ll be back in an hour, says Vanessa with her yellow coat buttoned all the way up to her chin. Her high boots over her jeans, from her left hand hangs a bag, almost empty. She’s ready for the streets, ready to meet those strange men. Where is it? I ask. In the house of some man, Alain, she answers, from the music, I suppose, a party. Can I go? I ask, low on conviction. I’d rather leave you out of this. Have a good night, she adds right before she closes the door and disappears, taking with her, her smell and her warmth.
I sit on an armchair beside the window, open a bottle of champagne I found in the minibar, and think that we lead fast, romantic lives. I’m in Paris, in a fucking five-star-hotel, I say out loud, as if by so doing I’d be able to hold onto this moment and give it some sort of permanence. I could get used to this—ordering hamburgers and Coca-Cola's from room service, waking up every day in a new city. I go to the bathroom and beside the jacuzzi I find a bar of soap engraved with the hotel’s initials. I bring it up to my nose, inhale its perfume and put it in my pocket. I collect the soap bars of all the hotels we sleep in, maybe to convince myself that this is real, that I won’t wake up to the sound of my grandma’s voice, at the crack of dawn, yelling that “it’s time for my shot!”. My grandma mistrusts all doctors and years ago taught me how to inject her with vitamins that wave off infections but leave abscesses in her butt cheeks. After the shot I have to massage her cheek with baby oil, until my kneading makes it numb. And so she stays, nodding her head until it’s eight thirty, when she calls me again, asking for her can of coffee with milk and her breadbasket.
I raise my champagne glass and toast with Vanessa’s ghost for the pleasure of never having to see my grandmother’s battered butt, and never having to drink coffee out of a can again. Vanessa claims that these trips are part of my deprogramming, of the process through which I will forget my past life—a life I must be cured of. Long ago she told me that she grew up wearing clothes passed down to her by her older sisters, all of them fatter and taller than her, and she promised herself that one day she’d have a closet full of expensive, unworn clothes. When she travelled to Spain for her first job, she bought an angora coat that Santa Cruz’s humidity covered with fungi. The truth is, she never really intended to wear the coat: letting it rot was like ripping from herself the mark of the poor, for whom everything has a certain utility. I am still followed by the disgusting scent of the motacú shampoo with which we used to bathe, she said to me that day; I’m not afraid of the border patrol, but that scent makes me tremble. It’s easy to lie to the cops, but it’s impossible to wash off the smell of poverty.
The alcohol gets to my head, making me warmly and pleasantly lethargic. I go to the minibar and grab a beer. I drink it, quickly, and open another one. It’s been more than half an hour since Vanessa left, and I am starting to get bored without her. My hand reaches for the remote, but then I remember what I promised her, and I let it drop. Why didn’t she let me go with her to deliver the package? There’s a bad feeling fluttering in my chest but it quiets down as soon as I turn on the TV. The news channel plays and replays the details of the cannibal’s crime. The report sobers me up. It cuts off the venomous stream of thoughts I was dabbling in and takes me right back to the present. I imagine the cannibal in one the city’s hostels turning on the TV, finding his face on the news. I think of all the stories I’ll have to tell when we get back to Santa Cruz. I can just imagine the faces the people at the Camboya will make when they find out that we were in Paris at exactly the same time as a famous psychopath. But the truth is that the people at the club never read the news and never find out about anything. Deep down, it’s this last thing that keeps us coming back.
It was at the Camboya that I first saw Vanessa. My relatives were chasing me around with the bill while I hid in a corner, surrounded by some people I had just met. Back then Vanessa’s hair was blue; she’d just split-up with the taxi driver again, and was dating some guy who tried to kill himself drinking Clorox when she left him for me. That same guy would later walk around the club wishing me dead. I don’t like to think about his super skinny shoulders, or that venom in his eyes. Especially not now.
As the minutes pass by, my heart fills itself with moving things. I remember that night in Rio, just a few months ago. Vanessa got lost in a crowd in the club in Lapa, supposedly on her way to the bathroom, and abandoned me in the bar, funk shaking the dance floor. I had to go back to the hotel on foot, at four in the morning, as I ran away from a gang of boys trying to steal my purse, which was empty. Vanessa didn’t think about leaving me some money to pay for the taxi ride back before she abandoned me. She showed up wasted the day after, tripping on her super high heels that clacked on the floor of the hotel lobby. As soon as she saw me she ran into my arms and cried. Because Vanessa leaves, but she always comes back.
As I get ready to leave, I go over each and every one of her movements, filling them with meaning. Why did she slip away from me when I started kissing her? Why did she spend so much time preening herself to go out? Why didn’t she give me the address of where she was headed? I go over to the window and place my hands against the glass. I’m looking out for Vanessa’s yellow coat among the people walking in the street, when a cloud breath fogs-up the glass. The vapor fades, and I see instead the face of the cannibal, which seems to float far off at the end of the street. His eyes sparkle with a mix of ferocious happiness and brute indifference. I jump back, and the cannibal’s eyes become my own. The news must have finished a while ago. Now it’s a documentary about gorillas in the Congo. It’s getting dark and it’s still raining outside. I want Vanessa to come in through the door and tell me that everything is alright, that we are free, that I’m her lucky charm.
A couple hours later, after the rain has stopped falling, I ask the Peruvian barman for another gin and tonic. He’s been pouring me drinks in this dark noisy, bar ever since I came in, at the end of a long and aimless walk. Dentro de poco vamos a cerrar, he says. Meanwhile Vanessa’s answering machine replays the same message in French it has by now played over ten times. I dial again, and hang up before I can hear her mailbox ding. The barman leaves me a gin and tonic and I down it one gulp. Una más, I say to him. There’s only a few of us left in the bar, and we are all holding onto our glasses and the music that comes out of the speakers; songs that keep us suspended in a state of drunken loneliness. On my phone’s screen I stare at a picture of her and me in a beach in Ibiza, not long after we fought. Vanessa said that she liked me, but that she also had needs. Ultimately, I am a woman, she explained. She must have noticed the insult because that same night she tried to make it up to me by bringing up this trip to Paris. I find her number again and try to summon the one word capable of neutralizing her, of destroying her: puta, I write with difficulty on the screen, as I see Vanessa at Alain’s party, dancing with a couple guys at the same time. Bitch, I write, and I think of Vanessa on her knees, her bangs wet, sticking to her forehead, as she sucks some dude off and another one fucks her from behind. I press the send button and my message travels to wherever it is that Vanessa is right now.
This one’s on the house, says the barman, tonic and gin spilling over. He’s dark and short and behind his words I can see his wife and kids waiting somewhere for his call. I go through the motion of paying, but he pulls the bill aside and says no with his head. He has a golden hoop in his left ear and some name tattooed on his neck in gothic letters that sparkle with droplets of sweat. Twirling his beard, he points to my phone. Looking for someone? he says, faking intimacy. And I want to tell him to shut up, but instead I say yes with my head and sip at my drink. On holiday? he asks. I sit there in silence, holding on to my glittered glass so tightly I think it will burst into my fingers. In a minute I’ll close down, and then we can talk, the barman says, and then smiles as if a secret had just come into being between us. Before he turns around, I notice a golden ring on his stubby, dark hand—a big, dirty ring encircling his thick flesh. And I think again of the Chinese student, his hand rotting inside the box the Cannibal sent to a school in Canada, his swollen foot piled somewhere in the post office. And I see my grandmother’s legs stretched above the wooden stool, her varicose veins sprouting like islands. The voice on the radio announces a new song, bailemos el bimbó que está causando sensación. It's hot, and my grandma’s asleep, her head’s on my chest and my knees are burning, con esta melodía que te va derecho al corazón, her varicose veins are hard with old, coagulated blood. I push up and down with the palm of my hand, bailando cantarás sus aires tan románticos, did someone ever want her? My grandma’s blood turns to rock under her skin, and I can’t stand it, but I can’t leave this place, even if that’s the only thing I want and have ever wanted, verás que fácil es bailar bimbó, I can’t leave until I’ve petted each and every one of those bulky, blue veins, dejándote llevar por el vaivén y el ritmo mágico, a fly walks over the coffee can and flies away, my grandma opens her eyes, dazed, and I press again, this time with all of my strength, and the vein swells and it rises and it’s about to burst.
Days later, when everything’s utterly and completely lost, I’ll try to bring all of this back for Vanessa, tell her about the foot, and the hand and the torso of the Chinese student, of the Mickey Mouse shirt and of all those hours I spent in the hotel, while it rained outside, and she refused to come back. Vanessa won’t listen to me, Vanessa will get drunk, and she’ll ask me to forgive her, she’ll demand that I forgive her, she’ll call me her kitten and then she’ll lean over to kiss me, and when her scent pours down over my head I’ll feel something different, or more precisely, I’ll feel nothing at all. And that’s when I’ll know that this’ll be the last trip we’ll ever take together. And for a long time, I’ll continue to not feel anything at all, until one night in the Camboya someone will tell me in between lines of coke that the police have found Vanessa’s body in a dump in São Paulo. They still haven’t caught the killer, they’ll tell me, and I’ll throw up on the bar, and as I arrive to my grandmother’s house I’ll watch the sunrise with my head full of whiskey and klonopin. A couple hours later I’ll be woken up by my grandmother screaming, and I’ll get up to take care of her, my clothes covered in vomit, knowing that this is the beginning of a life without Vanessa, without Vanessa’s laughs, without the possibility of Vanessa.
The barman has said goodbye and sent the last of his customers into the night. Outside, under the lampposts, the garbage bags are piling up. He puts down the bar’s metal shutters and looks at me with hungry eyes. The lights of the bar shine only for us and they make everything new.
Now we are alone, he says, smiling.
Now we are alone.
Liliana Colanzi was born in Santa Cruz. She’s a Bolivian writer, editor and journalist. She currently teaches Latin American literature at Cornell University.