Passageway

By VANESSA VILCHES NORAT

Translated by AURORA LAUZARDO UGARTE

 

The hole is behind the headboard. We opened it some time ago. I couldn’t say exactly when we became aware of the weariness lurking around us, maybe eight years ago. It lasted for hours, sometimes for days. Then it disappeared. During those anxious periods, we didn’t know what to do. It’s a horrible feeling. You can’t stand being with that person any longer. It’s not boredom in the strict sense of the word. Intolerance, perhaps. Everything annoys you. The way they click their tongue, the unexpected smile, the wrong word said at the wrong time, the obsequious caress. Even the things that you thought were funny before seem unbearable now. It may be the cumulative effect, a friend said. A sort of allergy—you stuff yourself on your favorite food until one day your body says: Enough! You break out in red spots, itching and sweating, which only makes it worse. Just like that. Too much of a good thing, I say. One day we looked at each other and we couldn’t take it anymore—I was fed up with him, and he with me—and we searched for a solution.

“Let’s make a hole,” he said, as if he had rummaged through my thoughts.

“Let’s make the hole,” I replied, trusting our desire.

And so we did. We began to make way for ourselves.

We figured out the most discreet way to do it; we didn’t want to make the neighbors suspicious. We decided to work at night, after everyone had gone to bed. We went to get the tools. We only had a hammer and a chisel in our house. That wouldn’t do. It would take us months to get to the other side. How do you open a hole without bringing down the wall? To pass through the wall and out into the open is rather ambitious. To carefully breach it as if poking a needle through a piece of fabric without tearing it is an art. It took us weeks to figure out the perfect way to open the wall of our bedroom. We decided that was the ideal place. It’s not a load-bearing wall; it’s thinner. Besides, the antique wooden headboard would hide the opening.

Breaking through is not that easy. One might think that all it takes is will and strength, but we had to do a lot of thinking; there were so many factors to take into consideration. First, the diameter of the hole. It had to be big enough for us to escape. We measured ourselves; we calculated the pounds that come with age, regardless of how much you exercise, and we agreed to make the hole just a little bit bigger. We didn’t want to get stuck in it. It is forty inches wide. Second, what would we do with the debris? That’s how the inmates who tried to escape from the state prison were discovered. Poor men. They dumped the rubble in the toilet until it clogged. The water streaming down the hallways betrayed them. We decided to keep the debris in the back room and then put it in the dumpster of a shopping center far away from our house. It was quite a strenuous venture. It took us hours to carry the rubble to the back room using only a shovel. You can’t believe the crap that comes out of a hole in the wall. Then we had to put it in the car, avoiding the neighborhood watch. As a result, after all these years, I still suffer from a slight pain in my lower back. Third, having figured out the size of the hole and the place where we were going to dump the debris, we had to think about the tools we would use. A chisel and a hammer are not enough for a concrete wall. Back then I wished I had a house made of wood. It would have been a lot easier to open a hole in a wooden wall. We thought about using a drill, but no—too much noise. We didn’t want anyone to find out. So we got a cold chisel, a sledgehammer, and a hacksaw, and slowly, little by little, carefully breaking here and there, cutting the steel rebar, we carved out our circle of joy. It was so much fun. We began late at night, around midnight, and sometimes we went on until dawn. 

It takes a lot to make a hole of one’s own. We went on like that for a couple of weeks. There were big disagreements. He wanted to make a rectangle. It was a lot easier, he said. I suppose so. It would probably have been simpler, but I’ve always been very demanding, and my sense of aesthetics imposes itself on me like a curse. No one can challenge a circle. A circle represents absolute perfection. A circle has no sharp corners or angles. Nothing would get stuck in it. Wasn’t that what we wanted?

It was a beautiful project. We were tickled by it, like little kids. The hole made us frisky, like dogs on the prowl, frantic puppies playing nonstop, digging in the wall like a pair of hounds, until we saw the other side. It was at daybreak. The light was glorious with the perfect combination of mauves and dew, so typical of tropical sunrises. We could see the paperbark trees planted on the left side of the house. No more obstacles—we had our secret passageway to the outside. The truth is we were stunned. It is common knowledge that the end of a project is followed by a letdown. So many hours of intense work and coordination and then, all of a sudden, there it was: the way out. Now we needed to restructure time and the night. Fortunately, we had already agreed on an exit and entry schedule. It wasn’t going to be a free-for-all. We thought it out very carefully. There were rules. For instance, we would respect each other’s sleep, we wouldn’t put the house at risk, we wouldn’t bring anyone in from the outside, and we wouldn’t miss work. In other words, our life together would go on. The passageway was a shelter, a break from the inside. Just that.

Who could have imagined? He was the strict one. He even wanted us to sign a written agreement. I found such a regulation of fantasy very amusing. I tried to persuade him that it doesn’t fit in a contract. We flipped a coin to see who would be the first to go out. I wanted it to be him. He had worked so hard that I thought he deserved the first turn. I got my wish. He looked me in the eye, and I detected a strange mixture of joy and fear. He kissed my lips like he hadn’t for a long time. It seemed as if he was leaving for the moon. He turned around and slowly put his head through, his neck, his shoulders, his waist, and I saw him vanish. I waited for a few minutes and then returned to the book I was reading. This time he didn’t stay for long. He was back within the hour, happy and illuminated. He told me that everything looked different. He spoke of the new light that came from the lampposts, the peculiar sound the cars made on the pavement, and the beauty the shadows cast over the bodies. That was the sweetest dawn in a long time. It was well worth it, I said to myself.

The next day I woke up giddy with anticipation. It was my turn. I couldn’t concentrate at work. When I got home, Rubén was already waiting for me. He had decided to come home early from work, I suspected. He wanted me to take the cell phone. I told him it wasn’t necessary. I reminded him of the rules: the one who stays pretends that they don’t notice that the other one has left the house; there’s no tracking, no waiting, no suffering over the other. The one who goes out decides when to leave and when to come back, as long as they keep to the agreed-upon schedule. He made me promise that I would call if something happened, and I told him I would, just to calm him down. I felt the experiment wasn’t working.

In order to avoid a scene, I left while he was in the bathroom. On the threshold, I remembered my first time in an airplane, the unique sensation of traveling in a flying bridge, and my heart was as excited as it was back then. I slipped my head through, my neck, my shoulders, my chest, my waist. I noticed the thickness of the wall. When I was able to see outside, I discovered the new light that Rubén talked about. I paid special attention to the bodies, not only the shadows cast over them but also their voluptuousness and their sounds. Voices have always been my weakness. I pride myself on my ability to recognize them, to make out a person’s character just by the tone of their voice. High-pitched voices annoy me; they foretell a hysterical personality on the other side of the sound waves. Deep voices, however, are my ruin. Maybe it’s my corny taste for boleros, but there’s nothing like a silky voice. So, that night they swept me away. When I was ready to head back home, two hours had passed. Time is unpredictable. I peeked in from the outside. The tunnel seemed darker. Stealthily I slipped back into our room. I noticed it had changed. It seemed smaller and hotter. I undressed and tried to curl up in our bed without waking Rubén. We had agreed on that. I thought he was pretending to be asleep, but I didn’t check.

At breakfast I shared my impressions. He had woken up in a bad mood, but I ignored him. And things began to work out as planned. He went out one night, I the next, religiously. There were moments of tension, but once we amended the agreement to include a clause stating that we would not tell each other anything the following day, we overcame the crisis. Still, smells are treacherous and words excessive. Filtered through their own experiences, each one imagined what the other had done. To some this would seem like the perfect state, the ideal coexistence. You choose to stay because you can escape. And so the years went by. Until now, I believed it was harder for him than for me. Since he was such a stickler for rules, I assumed that he would follow them.

Now, I don’t understand why he’s taking so long to come back. I’ve been waiting for a week. He has never done this. He has always been the keeper of the agreement. The one night that I didn’t come back, he really chewed me out. I’d never seen him like that. He had a fit of jealousy, poor thing. I told him that I lost track of time, that I was very sorry to have broken the rules. The truth is that I ran into a deliciously deep voice that night and couldn’t make it back on time. Besides, I got lost. All of a sudden I couldn’t find the street; I went to the wrong house. I confess that I seriously considered staying out. It would have been terribly cruel. It was also cruel to ignore that voice. But I had given my word, and I always keep my promises. At noon, when I peeked into the bedroom, Rubén was heartbroken. His chin trembled. An old grudge shone in his eyes. He even threatened to brick up the hole. I showed him the contract, and he had to shut up. That’s how agreements work. Now I understand how he felt. I never thought it could be so hard.

Last night, as I was waiting for him, I poked my head into the hole and saw a puddle. I hadn’t noticed it before. I decided to clean it up, so I took a broom to the stagnant water. Snails and moss had taken over the tunnel walls. A swarm of mosquitoes inhabited the pond. I thought I heard a frog. I closed my eyes as I swept out the water so I wouldn’t have to see the snakes or the rats in the swamp. A circle isn’t that perfect, no matter how beautiful it appears to be. If you look at it long enough you will find a crack, a line that cuts through it, spoiling its perfection. For a moment I thought about plugging it up, yes, closing it, filling it with concrete. He would get lost that way. He wouldn’t be able to come back. He wouldn’t be able to find the hole. I’m furious. It’s been six nights and he hasn’t returned. He has broken the rules. And to think it was he who insisted on putting everything in writing. Resentment is an old demon, and you never know how far it can take you when you are on the other side of the threshold. Now, of course, I won’t be able to go out either. I’ll have to stay here, stagnant, like the water in the puddle. I’ll probably get covered in moss and nest in my body venomous frogs that are poised to pounce.

 

[Purchase Issue 16 here.]

 

Vanessa Vilches Norat is a short story and essay writer in Puerto Rico. She has published three short story collections, Geografías de lo Perdido, Espacios de Color Cerrado, and Crímenes Domésticos. She is also the author of the essay collection De(s)madres o el Rastro Materno en Fuera de Quicio. She is professor of Spanish and literature at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras. Her newspaper columns have been published in Del Desorden Habitual de las Cosas and las Escrituras del Yo.

Aurora Lauzardo Ugarte is a tenured professor and co-director of the Graduate Program in Translation at the University of Puerto Rico, where she teaches literary and theater translation. Her work includes publications in literary, theater, scholarly, and audiovisual translations into both Spanish and English.

DoostiPassageway

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