Authors: Roberto Bolaño
A NEW DIRECTIONS BOOK
for Lautaro and Alexandra Bolaño
All writing is garbage.
People who come out of nowhere to try and put into words any part of what goes on in their minds are pigs.
All writers are pigs. Especially writers today.
Now I’m a mother and a married woman, but not long ago I led a life of crime. My brother and I had been orphaned. Somehow that justified everything. We didn’t have anyone. And it all happened overnight.
Our parents died in a car accident on the first vacation they took without us, on a highway near Naples, I think, or some other horrible southern highway. Our car was a yellow Fiat, a used car, but it looked like new. After the accident it was just a tangle of gray steel. When I saw it at the police yard with the other wrecked cars, I asked my brother about the color.
“Wasn’t it yellow?”
My brother said yes, of course it had been yellow, but that was before. Before the accident. Collisions warp color or warp the way we see color. I didn’t know what he meant by that. I asked him. He said: Light . . . color . . . everything. Poor guy, I thought, he’s taking it harder than me.
That night we slept at a hotel and the next day we took the train back to Rome, with what was left of our parents. We were escorted by a social worker, or a counselor, or a psychologist, I don’t know, my brother asked her what she was and I didn’t hear the answer because I was looking out the window.
The only people at the burial were an aunt, my mother’s sister, along with her horrible daughters. I stared at my aunt the entire time (which wasn’t long) and more than once I thought I caught a half-smile on her lips, or sometimes a whole smile, and then I knew (though actually I’d known all along) that my brother and I were alone in the world. The ceremony was brief. Outside the cemetery we kissed our aunt and cousins and that was the last we saw of them. As we were walking to the nearest metro station I said to my brother that my aunt had smiled — meaning that she might as well have come right out and laughed — as the coffins were slid into their niches. He said that he had noticed it too.
After that, the days were different. Or the passing of the days. Or the thing that joins one day and the next but at the same time marks the boundary between them. Suddenly the night stopped existing and everything was constant sun and light. At first I thought it was exhaustion, or the shock of our parents’ sudden disappearance, but when I told my brother about it he said that he had noticed the same thing. Sun and light and an explosion of windows.
I began to think that we were going to die.
But our life followed the same patterns as it had before our parents’ death. Each morning we went to school. We talked to the people we thought of as friends. We did our schoolwork. Not much, but some. After we filled out a few simple forms, our father’s pension was transferred to us. We thought we were going to get more and we filed a complaint. One morning, in front of a bureaucrat who was trying to explain that my father had earned X amount of money while he was alive and why we were due less than half of that after his death, my brother started to cry. He swore at the clerk and I had to drag him out of the office. It isn’t fair, he yelled. It’s the law, I heard the clerk say, sounding sorry for us.
I looked for work. Each morning I bought the newspaper and read the Help Wanted columns in the schoolyard, underlining whatever looked interesting. In the afternoon, after eating any old thing, I left the house and didn’t come back until I had stopped at each place. The listings, whether they spelled it out or not, were mostly for escorts, but I’m no prostitute. I used to lead a life of crime, but I was never a prostitute.
One day I found a job at a salon. I washed hair. I didn’t do any cutting, but I watched how the other girls did it and I prepared for the future. My brother said that it was stupid to work, that we could live happily on the pension we got from the government, on the income of our orphanhood. Orphanhood, ridiculous word. We started to add things up. We really could get by, but only by going without almost everything. My brother said that he could give up eating three meals a day. I looked at him and I couldn’t tell whether he was serious or not.
“How many times a day do you eat?”
“And how many times a day are you saying you’re willing to eat from now on?”
A week later my brother found a job at a gym. At night, when he got home, we talked and made plans. I dreamed about having my own hair salon. I had reason to think that the future was in small salons, small boutiques, small record stores, tiny exclusive bars. My brother said the future was in computers, but since he worked at a gym (sweeping floors and cleaning bathrooms), he’d started lifting weights and doing all the things people do to build their bodies.
Gradually we gave up on getting an education. Sometimes I didn’t go to school in the mornings (the incessant light was unbearable). Other times it was my brother who didn’t go. As the days went by we both ended up staying home in the mornings, yearning for school but incapable of going out, getting on the bus, walking into our respective classrooms, and opening the books and notebooks from which we would learn nothing.
We killed time watching TV, first the talk shows, then cartoons, and finally the morning shows with interviews and news about famous people. But more about that later.
and videos play an important role in this story. Even today, when I turn on the TV, I seem to get a glimpse of my criminal younger self, but the vision doesn’t last long, no longer than the time it takes the TV to fully come on. For an instant, though, I can see the eyes of the person I used to be, my hair, my scornful lips, my cold-looking cheekbones, and my neck, cold too, like marble. The sight always gives me a shiver.
Around this time, because of his job at the gym, my brother developed a strange habit.
“Want to see how I’m doing?” he would ask.
Then he would take off his shirt and show me his muscles. Even though it was cold and the apartment wasn’t heated, he’d take off his shirt or his T-shirt and show me the muscles that were timidly emerging from his body like tumors, protuberances that had nothing to do with him or with my image of him — of his scrawny adolescent body.
Once he told me that he dreamed of being Mr. Rome and then Mr. Italy or Master of the Universe. I laughed in his face and gave him my frank opinion. To be Master of the Universe you have to train from the time you’re ten, I told him. I thought that bodybuilding was like chess. My brother said that if I could dream of owning a mini-salon, he had the right to dream of a better future too. That was the word he used:
I went into the kitchen and got our dinner started. Spaghetti. Then I set out the plates and silverware. Still thinking. At last I said that I didn’t care about the future, that I had ideas, but those ideas, if I really thought about it, never extended into the future.
“Where do they go, then?” howled my brother.
Then we would watch TV until we fell asleep.
Around four in the morning I usually woke with a start. I would get up from my chair, clear the dirty dishes from the table, wash them, straighten the living room, clean the kitchen, put another blanket over my brother, turn down the TV, go to the window and look out into the street with its double row of parked cars: I couldn’t believe that it was still night, that this incandescence was night. It made no difference whether I closed my eyes or kept them open.
One day my brother rented an X-rated movie and we watched it together. It was horrible and I said so. He agreed. We watched the whole thing and then we watched TV, first an American series and then a game show. The next day my brother returned the movie and rented another one. It was X-rated too. I said that we didn’t have enough money to rent movies every day. He didn’t answer. When I asked him why he’d rented the same kind of movie again, he said it was to learn.
“Learn how to make love,” said my brother without looking at me.
“Watching dirty movies isn’t going to teach you anything,” I said.
“Don’t be so sure,” he answered in a hoarse voice that I had never heard before.
His eyes were bright. Then he started to do exercises on the floor, sit-ups and other things, and for a second I thought he was going crazy. I shouldn’t be so hard on him, I thought. I said that maybe he was right and I was wrong — maybe he was on the right track. “Are you still a virgin?” he asked me from the floor. “I am,” I said. “Me too,” he said. I said that was normal at his age.
The next night there was a new X-rated movie in the house. As we were watching it I fell asleep. Before I closed my eyes, I thought: I’m going to dream about this filth, but instead I dreamed about the desert. I was walking in the desert, dying of thirst, and on my shoulder there was a white parrot, a parrot that kept saying: “I can’t fly, I’m sorry, please forgive me, but I can’t fly.” He was saying this because at some point in the dream I had asked him to fly. He weighed too much (ten pounds at least, he was a big parrot) to be carried for so long, but the parrot wouldn’t budge, and I could hardly walk, I was shaking, my knees hurt, my legs, my thighs, my stomach, my neck, it was like having cancer, but also like coming — coming endlessly and exhaustingly — or like swallowing my eyes, my own eyes, swallowing them and at the same time trying not to bite down on them, and every so often the white parrot tried to help, saying: “Courage, Bianca,” but mostly it kept its beak shut, and I knew that when I dropped on the hot sand and I was dying of thirst it would fly, fly away from this part of the desert to another part of the desert, fly away from my expiring flesh in search of other, less expiring flesh, fly away from my dead body forever, forever.
When I woke up my brother was asleep in his chair and the screen was a gray sea, gray and black stripes, as if a storm was approaching Rome and only I could see it.
Soon I was going along with my brother on his video store forays. In the mornings, during school hours, while kids our age were in class or shoplifting or getting high or having sex for money, I started to visit the video stores in our neighborhood and the surrounding neighborhoods, at first with my brother, who was trying to find the lost films of Tonya Waters, a porn star he had fallen in love with and whose adventures he was getting to know by heart, and then alone, though I didn’t rent X-rated movies except when my brother had a special request, say for something featuring Sean Rob Wayne, who had worked twice with Tonya Waters and whose film career had thereby acquired a particular significance for my brother, as if anything that came into contact with Waters became automatically worthy of his attention.
Without surprise I discovered that I liked video stores. Not so much the ones in our neighborhood, but the stores in other neighborhoods. In that sense I was different from my brother, who only went to the video stores that were near home or on the way between our house and the gym where he worked. Familiarity was a source of comfort for my poor brother.
I, on the other hand, liked to try new places, plasticky sanitized stores with lots of customers, or dubious establishments with a single Balkan or Asian clerk, where no one knew anything about me. In those days I felt something that wasn’t quite happiness but that did resemble enthusiasm, wandering streets I had hardly ever been down and that invariably ran into Via Tiburtina or Trajan’s Park. Sometimes I went into a video store and spent half an hour or more scanning the shelves of video cases and then I would leave without renting anything, not because I wouldn’t have liked to, but because I had no money.
Other times, throwing caution to the wind, I’d rent two movies at once. I was omnivorous: I liked romance (which almost always made me laugh), classic horror, gore, psychological horror, crime horror, military horror. Sometimes I sat for a long time on Garibaldi Bridge or on a bench on Tiber Island, next to the old hospital, and I studied the video cases as if they were books.
Some cars would slow down as they passed. I heard whispers, which I ignored. Usually people would roll down the window and say something, make some promise, and then keep going. There were cars that passed and didn’t stop. There were cars that passed with the windows already rolled down and kids inside yelling — “Fascism or barbarism!” — and they’d keep going too. I didn’t look at them. I stared at the river and my videos and tried to forget the few things I knew.