I live in a Mexican city known
for its bloody history, its mummies museum, and its many
courting couples on the hilly lanes at dusk. Severed heads
of patriots used to hang from the roof of the building behind
me, but I’ve been here long enough to take that bloody history
for granted. Like a thousand others that night, I was sitting
on the broad steps in front of the historic granary, my eyes
on the folk dance troupe pairing and separating under the
heat of the stage lights.
When I looked away from the
glare, I noticed a short woman wearing her own little hat,
not one of the straw sombreros given away earlier by the
dance troupe. She was getting up from a seat in front of
me with no apparent regard for what was happening on stage.
She passed empty seats toward a table in the aisle between
our special section and an outer wall.
I knew the woman well. She
was my friend Elena who died four months ago. Eduardo, who
heard the sad news first, stopped me in the street the day
it happened to tell me. He knew about my visit to the hospital,
where I had seen Elena lying on her back, unresponsive, covered
only by a blouse and a diaper. He knew I had complained about
leaving a woman exposed with so little dignity.
Now I was pinching myself,
knowing the woman walking away couldn’t my friend but also
knowing she was. True, the woman was shorter and wearing
a shawl, a style of dress the live Elena never fancied. Even
people who only passed her in the plaza near her house knew
her by the little striped silver and black hat she usually
wore pinned invisibly to her hair. Elena was not the type
to remove a hat from her own collection to put on a sombrero
given away by the hundreds.
The woman’s clumsy step, her
seeming disregard for the organized tumult on stage, left
me nearly certain I was seeing my dead friend. After all,
a returning person wouldn’t follow the usual rules. Why be
surprised at a little reshaping of the body here and there,
even a shift in taste or social class? Yes, in every important
respect, I was seeing Elena.
Even so, I stayed in my seat
without any desire to get up and attract her attention, say,
by touching her on the shoulder. I was wondering how she
managed her return across the River Styx, surely wider and
deeper than the one under our city. I didn’t even know whether
she could swim. We never talked about our childhood days.
Instead, she would scold me about my politics and disagree
over where to go to eat.
I sat there, oblivious to the
glare, thinking of the way Elena’s hands moved when she broke
cinnamon sticks to make tea.
By the time I looked up, the
woman was gone.
The dancing over, I returned
home to e-mail a friend of Elena’s now on the United States
side of the border. Claire is sometimes very rational, other
times very spacey. I didn’t know whether I would get an answer.
But I did. Claire had seen
Elena in a modestly cut red swimsuit at the pool in her city
the week before, an old-fashioned suit with a skirt at the
bottom. She said Elena was sitting by herself, drying in
the sun. Claire could see dampness on the concrete. “I didn’t
write because I thought you would laugh. But I know that
she wants us to see her.”
So then too Elena had changed
her apparel. I wrote Claire again. No, she had never seen
Elena in a swimsuit before, she hadn’t known her friend could
Late the next morning, I went
over to Elena’s old neighborhood to look for Eduardo and
Loreta, her old neighbors. unsure I would find them. I thought
they might have moved already but Eduardo was there, surrounded
by cartons. He gave me a painted box he had saved for me.
I said I had seen Elena the
night before when I went to the outdoor concert. He looked
at me for a moment before saying, “I don’t think she was
“You think I am trying to fool
you?” I wailed.
Again he paused.
“No, I don’t think that,” he
said, “But she doesn’t go to folklorico.” I stared at him,
thinking he was joking. “Besides she couldn’t have been there,
she was here. When I came in from shopping, she was opening
the refrigerator door, then she went out to the street without
saying goodbye.” He added in an injured tone that she wasn’t
the type to open a refrigerator in someone else’s house.
“Claire saw her, too,” I said, “in
Louisiana, wearing a wet red swimsuit.”
“Elena didn’t swim,” Eduardo
“The other night I saw her
in a shawl and her hat was different, too.”
“Before, she would never have
walked in without knocking,” Eduardo said.
I said there seemed to be a
Eduardo agreed. “She didn’t
talk to any of us and none of us tried to talk to her,” he
said, pronouncing each word with care. “And it will keep
“Coming into your house like
that,” I murmured, lost in my thoughts, and then I said goodbye
The next day I was reading
a newspaper published in the nearby city where Elena had
died. The front page showed a photo shot behind a crowd of
demonstrators at the city hall. In the last row, closest
to the photographer, I could see Elena’s back. In her right
hand, I saw the corner of a placard.
I went to a pay phone and called
Eduardo. “Did Elena ever take in demonstrations?” I asked.
“Elena?” he said. “I doubt
it. She never told me anything like that.”
“If she’s determined to live
her life differently,” I said, “who knows what she’ll do
We soon found out. The ninth
day of the Cultural Festival, I went with Eduardo and Loreta
to the opening night of the Vincente Cuenca retrospective.
We walked through the lower two floors of the narrow building
commenting on what we saw. The top floor had Cuenca’s newest
drawings, most of them done in the past half year. Even Eduardo,
who as an artist himself is often dismissive of other artists,
was admiring Cuenca’s recent work.
“He hasn’t lost interest in
sex,” Loreta remarked, scrutinizing one of the drawings,
then suddenly standing straighter. “Doesn’t that look like
The drawing was done from an
unusual perspective. Cuenca had drawn the area between the
woman’s legs in detail. Where her navel would have been he
had drawn a half-closed blue eye.
“As far as we know,” I said.
Then, “Well, how would we know?” And finally, “Elena’s eyes
were not blue.”
Two weeks later, Loreta was
shredding chicken for enchiladas. The caller told her he
was from the city morgue. “We need you down here at once,” he
said. “A woman with a slip of paper in her pocket saying
call Loreta Sanchez collapsed in the Plaza Grande. We’re
hoping you can identify her for us.”
Loreta collected herself to
ask what the woman looked like.
“About sixty years old,” the
man said, “slightly plump.”
Loreta told the man at the
morgue she would be there in the late afternoon. She went
out and found Eduardo in the café down the street. After
they ate the enchiladas, they went together to the morgue,
the two of them looking sideways at each other from time
“Well?” asked the man at the
morgue with both Loreta and Eduardo standing intent on the
corpse before them.
“We’ve never seen her dead
before,” said Eduardo apologetically. Loreta nodded her agreement.
“Do you know this woman?” the
Loreta said “This person is
very like Elena Valdez Urrea but Elena didn’t have blue eyes.
She had dark eyes like mine.”
The man informed them he had
already checked for contact lenses as if Loreta had criticized
him. Then he asked again, “Is this Elena Valdez Urrea?”
Eduardo was the one to have
the last word. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Dońa Elena did
not have blue eyes.” Loreta later told me she was shaking
in the cold room before she and Eduardo walked back out into
the heat of the day.
I was sitting with a cappuccino
in Sobrina Mia. When they came in I could see Loreta shivering.
Eduardo went into the next
room to place their orders. When he came back, Loreta looked
at him and murmured “blue eyes,” then looked from him to
me. I was sipping my cappuccino now. While they waited for
their coffee, Loreta kept repeating “blue eyes.”
“Twice in a row,” said Eduardo
suddenly. I glanced from one to the other.
Eduardo said again, “Twice
in a row.” Then, “Elena is running out of ideas.”
He sounded hopeful for the
first time since he heard the bad news about having to move
from his house.
He said he thought Elena was
getting bored, that she had made her last visit, that she
would return in the usual way with the others on The Day
of the Dead.
“But it’s practically November
already,” I exclaimed, without knowing why I said what I