City Unknown

Arelis Uribe

Artwork by Elizabeth Gabrielle Lee

When I was little, my cousin and I used to kiss each other. We dressed up our Barbies, built houses in the dirt, and played hand games. I stayed at her house every other weekend. We slept in her bed. Sometimes we’d take off our pajama tops and play around, touching our nipples to each other. At the time, they were barely two pink stains on a flat torso. My cousin and I had been together since forever: Our moms got pregnant two months apart. They breastfed us together and changed our diapers together. We got chicken pox together. It almost went without saying that when we grew up, we would live together and play house with dolls, but in real life. I thought it would be me and her, always. But adults mess things up.

There were seven siblings in my mom’s family. Three men and four women. The men lived like the brothers they were. They had studied engineering at the same university, liked the same soccer team, and got together to talk about wine and watches. The four women were a disaster. One left to work in Puerto Montt. We were lucky to see her at Christmas. Another followed a boyfriend and had a bunch of kids and lives in Australia now. She barely existed. The two that stayed—my mom and my cousin’s mom, my Aunt Nena—married brutish men. My dad was an animal and so was my cousin’s dad. Like those people who get drunk on New Year’s and make everyone else cry. I never saw the seven siblings reunited. Sometimes we’d run into each other at funerals or when our grandparents celebrated an anniversary. Once, we went to one of our uncles’ plots of land, and there were peacocks in the yard. Pandora, an enormous mutt who killed our neighbors’ cats, barely fit in our house. I never understood why we lived so differently if we were from the same family.

My mom and my Aunt Nena were similar, which is why they were friends. People tend to group themselves by type, in a voluntary segregation, like blood donations or the recycling. Until one day, I don’t remember why, they got mad at each other. Maybe because my mom asked Aunt Nena for money and never paid it back. Maybe because my aunt came to lunch and criticized the food. I don’t know, but they got mad at each other, and what always happens in a family like mine happened: instead of resolving their problems, they quit speaking. I suppose it was a truce, an act of faith. They trusted that silence would dissolve the problems and that by not naming them, they would cease to exist.

For my cousin and I, the distance happened by extension. The last important thing we shared was that our periods came around the same time. She had taken out a book from I-don’t-know-where that explained everything. It had drawings of a man and a woman without clothes on. We read it. That was the first time we touched like that. We checked to see if we had hair. We were alone in her house. That afternoon, my mom came to get me. She yelled at my Aunt Nena about something I didn’t understand, and we never went back.

At first, I kept going to my cousin’s birthdays. I’d go by myself on the bus because my mom didn’t even want to go near Aunt Nena’s house. I’d call her on the phone too, or we’d send each other letters in the mail. The distance grew little by little. Important things happened to me and I didn’t tell her about them. I had a boyfriend, I got involved with his friend, I kept repeating classes, they hospitalized my little brother, I went to night school for senior year. Maybe she found out anyway, because those kinds of screw-ups get around in families. I heard that she won a literary contest, that her parents separated, that she had a cast on one leg, that she left the scouts because a leader touched her. I also found out when she got into the University of Chile to study journalism. She was the oldest cousin and the news spread fast. My uncles were proud that Nena’s daughter had gotten into their university. My grandfather boasted that there would finally be a true intellectual in the family. He imagined her as a reporter at the Supreme Court or something.

I graduated after senior year and started university prep classes. I worked at a candy shop to pay for it. People cheered me on, as if I’d lost an arm and, with hard work, could recover. As if my disability was being too stupid. I didn’t tell anyone and paid my high school math and language teachers to tutor me. The only thing I wanted was to get into the University of Chile, I didn’t care which major. I wanted to prove I could do it. And I did: I got in to study philosophy. At twenty, I was the oldest student. I had to read a ton. I didn’t like it, but I resolved not to drop classes and to finish however I could.

I knew my cousin and I were on the same campus. Sometimes I wanted to run into her. Other times, I was terrified just thinking about it. One Friday, we were drinking out in the grass, and I saw her pass by. She was gorgeous. Shiny black hair down to her waist; her smooth, dark face; a hippie outfit that showed her midriff. I talked to her, and we hugged each other tight. Our chests touched like when we were kids. She invited me to hang out with her group, and I followed her. We smoked weed and told people about the dumb stuff we did when we were ten: The time we choreographed a whole Michael Jackson routine for her dad’s birthday. The year we sold copies of Sailor Moon books in catechism. The summer we founded an ecology club that cut down live trees to preserve their branches for future generations. I watched her laugh, her teeth, the knowing look in her eyes, like when you go to a club and look at a guy who looks back at you and you know and he knows that you’re looking at each other and why.

After that night, it was as if we were chasing each other. I ran into her a lot. In the humanities library, in the dining hall, on the quad. It was always the same. We talked about when we were kids and a little about the university. We didn’t talk about our moms or our soccer fan uncles or our grandfather’s illness at the time. As if our family was only what happened until the day Aunt Nena yelled at my mom, a breakup that marked a before and an after, as irreversible as the birth of Christ or the invention of writing.

The second semester, we happened to take the same seminar. It was eight classes and I saw her in the first one. She was sitting with a tall, blonde guy who had his arm around her. I sat next to her, because I didn’t know anyone else and to mark my territory, like a dog. Like Pandora, who growled at the people who passed my house. The seminar was about Latin America. Each week an expert on a different country would come and talk. The best part was that after the last class we were going to Bolivia. The coordinating professor wanted the experience to be practical. We were going to confirm that the Bolivians were real people and not details from a book or a deranged mass that allied with Peru in 1800 to force its most unpleasant neighbor into submission.

From the workshop, I concluded that if South America was a neighborhood, Chile would be the upstart neighbor that buys a big car and a tiny dog and always uses a checkbook and credit card. My cousin compared it to the TV show El Chavo and said that Chile was the Quico of the Southern Cone. I didn’t say it, but I thought about our family and felt like my uncles were Chile and her mom and my mom were the loser countries, or a mix between Doña Florinda and Don Ramón: miserable housewives, never able to pay the rent.

I talked with my cousin about the trip to Bolivia. She proposed that we go a week early and stay with a friend she’d met at a poetry reading. We got some money from our grandparents, the university gave us a small travel allowance, and we contributed all our savings. My cousin had been to Peru, but for me, it was the first time outside of Chile. We traveled by bus and got to La Paz at dawn. I pulled back the curtain and looked out the window. I noticed the advertising most. There were posters selling cell phones with company names I’d never seen. Obviously every country has businesses with different names—you even see it in the commercials on cable TV, Omo detergent is called Ala in Argentina—but confirming it affected me. I noticed how I felt like a strange body, discovering that my codes weren’t valid there, even though we shared the same language and the same corner of the continent.

We arrived at the Bolivian friend’s house. It was an old building, next to the United States embassy. The apartment was on the fourth floor and had a parquet floor, three big bedrooms, and some sort of yard. There was an enormous bookcase full of titles by authors I didn’t know. The furniture looked like it was from the last century, like the kind they sell at Persa Biobío: fancy, flashy, inherited. The friend showed us to our room and we threw our sleeping bags on the floor. I was exhausted. I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow I’d made, stuffed with a jacket and a pair of pants.

The next day we woke up late. Jessica—that was the friend’s name—had already gone to work. We went out to explore. The neighborhood was very green, with enormous mansions. Kind of like Ñuñoa, around the Juan Gómez Millas campus. I never imagined that there would be places like this in Bolivia. We walked toward downtown and that’s when we started seeing the other houses, the ones we would have lived in if we were born Bolivian. They looked like Brazilian favelas: a bunch of little boxes made of bare bricks, piled one on top of the other, covering the mountain. I thought it was just like Valparaíso, but there the misery goes unnoticed behind colorful paint.

We walked to a cyber café. We called our moms but didn’t say we were together. After checking our email, we read the newspaper a little. Later, my cousin called our grandfather, told him we were doing well, and reminded him to please not say anything. My grandfather—so loving when he was alive—said yes, he was on our side. Daughters, he said, had no reason to interfere in the affairs of granddaughters.

We kept exploring and went to the market. We ate some kind of stew, which cost about 500 Chilean pesos. Not even at university had we eaten food so cheap. We walked off our lunch. On the street we saw boys with hoods over their faces who shined shoes. We saw indigenous women carrying their children on their shoulders, like mother kangaroos, who evolved to carry and protect their young longer. We saw bare feet, police chatting and relaxing, and girls with slanted eyes and the reddest, most weather-beaten cheeks in this impossible place.

That night, Jessica made us coca tea and we sat on her terrace to smoke. I knew she worked as a language teacher in a private Montessori school. I knew what the Montessori method was. I knew that Jessica was one of those Jessicas who had English last names. I knew that in her family, she had a senator uncle and a cousin who had been Miss Bolivia.

Jessica invited us to her boyfriend’s house. We arrived at some kind of party full of white people in an apartment as big as Jessica’s. The people there studied at or used to study at the Catholic University of Bolivia. There was wine and slices of raw squash smeared in sour cream. I tried Paceña and a sweet fruit stuffed with cheese. Things I’d never even eaten at my uncle’s house. Some guy heard that we were Chilean and said we had to hear this story. He said: This happened to two Chilean friends in some kind of whorehouse, one of the ones in the center of Santiago, with the windows painted black. They ordered two cheap drinks. One looked at tits, and the other, asses. Then it was “happy hour”—he made air quotes—and this asshole Chilean, who was obsessed with enormous tits, buried his nose in the server’s cleavage. When he pulled away, he had a mouth full of cracker crumbs.

We laughed. It was a filthy anecdote and repulsive stories are always funny.

Everyone got excited and started telling vulgar stories. I didn’t have any, but my cousin did. She said: One time I went to Machu Picchu with the scouts. A lot of dirty things happened on that trip—she ended the sentence with a long, worried sigh, then continued—I’ll tell you what happened on the bus. From Cuzco to the ruins you have to go up the mountains. It’s a dirt road, full of sharp curves, along a cliff. We paid for the cheapest transportation, some trucks that smelled like the projects, with the seats losing their stuffing. The service came to pick you up at 6:30 on the morning of the camping trip. The night before, the leaders had gone out to eat and, even though it was off limits, to drink. The leader in charge of my group was Carlos, too fat and too much of a pisco lover to be a scout. We got in the van and since it was so early, I fell asleep immediately. I took my shoes off so my feet wouldn’t swell up. I left them on the floor, next to the backpack with my lunch, and I curled up on the seat. I had a dream about the rabid breath of a puma chasing me on Huayna Picchu. He roared so loudly that I woke up. I smelled a bitter odor, like something decomposing. An orange liquid ran under my feet, and it had reached my shoes and backpack. I grabbed my shoes. The laces dripped. I looked back and discovered the roaring was real. It wasn’t the puma, but the leader Carlos. He had drunk so much the night before that when the truck began to zigzag up the hills, his body regurgitated everything. It was disgusting, the scout leader Carlos was disgusting.

When my cousin finished her story, the laughs of the audience were awkward and concerned more than happy. My cousin’s face darkened, too. It made me want to hug her, want to have been with her on that trip. I looked at her clavicle and wanted to smell it. To touch her abdomen with the tip of my nose. I looked at her with eyes like a player in the club, and she winked in return. I wished that house where we were going to live existed. I wanted to fall asleep with our bodies together that night. I wanted her to tell me her secrets, to feel her sweet breath on my face.

By that time of night, Jessica was super drunk. She asked all of us if we wanted to hear something really nasty? She didn’t wait for us to respond (I wanted to say no) and started talking. Her grandfather had been an important Bolivian military man, decorated with medals, his name memorialized in history books. His proudest accomplishment, said Jessica, is that he’s the one who gave the order to kill Che. I can’t remember if she said “El Che” or “Ernesto Che Guevara” or “El Comandante Che Guevara,” but I do remember the awful silence that came after. I never found out if it was the first time she’d told her friends or not. After a few seconds, which were as intense as when you hear a song for the first time, Jessica broke the silence and said: But the really disgusting thing is that we never talk about it in my family.

That sentence killed me. The most disgusting thing is that in my family we never talk about it. I took in the words and looked at my cousin. We were both thinking the same thing, about everything vicious and rotten in silenced family secrets.

After Jessica’s story, the get-together started deflating and people began to say goodbye. Jessica said she wanted to stay at her boyfriend’s place and gave us the keys to her apartment. We walked in the dawn, alone and holding hands, through the streets of a city unknown. Dizzy but strangely happy, we laughed at every stupid thing that crossed our path. A poster for Chinese food with a printed photo of the owner, a pay phone that was too small, the top of a tree that looked like my dad’s head.

We got to the apartment and lay together in the sleeping bags on the floor. My cousin snuggled up next to me and began to shake. Gently at first, more violent later. I touched her face, and it was wet with tears. “He came into my tent, and I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to,” she started, repeating those words endlessly, like the soft tap of a hammer. “I didn’t want to, I didn’t want to.” I brought my nose to her mouth and smelled her breath, as sweet as when we were ten. “I didn’t want to either,” I told her. I took her face in my hands, dried her cheeks, and gave her a kiss, deep and slow. “Me either,” I said again, before hugging her and beginning to cry.

translated from the Spanish by Allison Braden

This story first appeared in Arelis Uribe’s collection Quiltras, published in Chile in 2016 by Los Libros de la Mujer Rota and in Spain in 2019 under the Editorial Tránsito imprint.