There were so many plants in the apartment that we called it the jungle.
The building looked like something out of an old futurist movie. Flat lines, overhangs, lots of gray, wide open spaces, huge windows. Our apartment was two stories, and the living-room window went all the way from the bottom of the first floor to the top of the second. Downstairs, the floor tiles were black granite with white veins. Upstairs, white granite with black veins. The staircase had black steel tubes and polished slabs for steps. A naked staircase, full of holes. The upstairs hall overlooked the living room, like a balcony, and had the same tube railing as the stairs. From there you could gaze down at the jungle below, sprawling in all directions.
There were plants on the floor and on tables, on top of the hi-fi and the buffet, between pieces of furniture, on wrought iron stands and in ceramic pots, hanging from the walls and ceiling on the staircase’s lowest steps, and in places you couldn’t see from the upstairs: the kitchen, the laundry room, the guest bathroom. All kinds of plants. Sun, shade, water. A few, like red anthurium and white egret, had flowers. The rest were green. Ferns both smooth and curly, shrubs with striped leaves, spotted leaves, colorful leaves, palms, bushes, huge trees that grew well in planters, and delicate herbs that fit into my small hand.
Sometimes, walking through the apartment, I had the feeling the plants were reaching out with their finger-leaves, trying to touch me; and that the biggest ones, in a forest behind the three-seater sofa, liked to envelop the people sitting there or brush up against them and cause a fright.
Out on the street, two guayacanes obstructed the view from the balcony and living room. In the rainy season, their leaves fell off and the trees became covered in pink flowers. Birds would hop from the guayacanes onto the balcony. Hummingbirds and tropical kingbirds—the most intrepid—would pop in to nose around. Butterflies would flutter fearlessly from the dining room to the living room. Sometimes, at night, a bat would get in and fly around, low to the ground, looking lost. Mamá and I would scream. Papá would grab a broom and stand, motionless, in the middle of the jungle until the bat flew out the way it had come in.
In the afternoons a cool wind came down from the hills and swept over Cali. It stirred the guayacanes, blew in through the open windows, and rustled the indoor plants too. The racket it made sounded like people at a concert. In the afternoons, mamá watered. Water overflowed pots, filtered down through the dirt, seeped out the holes, and dripped onto the ceramic plates, trickling like a little stream.
I loved running through the jungle, letting the plants caress me, stopping in their midst, closing my eyes and listening to their sounds. The tinkle of water, the whisper of air, the nervous, agitated branches. I loved running up the stairs and looking down from the second floor, as if at the edge of a cliff, the stairs a fractured ravine. Our jungle, lush and savage, down below.
Mamá was always home. She didn’t want to be like my grandmother. She spent her whole life telling me so.
My grandmother slept till midmorning, so my mother had to go to school without seeing her. In the afternoons, my grandmother played lulo with her friends, meaning that four days out of five, when mamá got home from school her mother wasn’t there. The one day she was, it was because it was her turn to host the card game. Eight ladies at the dining room table, smoking, laughing, tossing down cards and eating pandebono cheese bread. My grandmother didn’t even look at mamá.
One time, at the club, mamá heard a woman ask my grandmother why she hadn’t had more children.
“Ay, mija,” my grandmother said, “if I could have avoided it, I wouldn’t even have had this one.”
The two of them burst out laughing. My mother had just gotten out of the pool and was standing there dripping water. It felt, she said, like they’d ripped open her chest and reached in to tear out her heart.
My grandfather got back from work in the evening. He’d hug mamá, tickle her, ask about her day. But apart from that, she grew up in the care of maids, who came and went, one after the other, since my grandmother never liked any of them.
Maids didn’t last long at our house.
Yesenia was from the Amazon jungle. She was nineteen, with straight hair down to her waist and the rough-hewn features of the stone sculptures at San Agustín. We hit it off from the first day.
My school was a few blocks from our apartment building. Yesenia would walk me there in the mornings and be waiting for me when I got out in the afternoons. On the way, she’d tell me about where she was from. The fruits, the animals, the rivers wider than an avenue.
“That,” she said, pointing to Cali River, “is not a river; it’s a creek.”
One afternoon we went straight to her bedroom. A small room off the kitchen, with a bathroom and a tiny window. We sat facing each other on her bed. We’d discovered that she didn’t know any songs or hand games, and I was teaching her my favorite one, about dolls from Paris. She was getting it all wrong, and we were laughing our heads off. My mother appeared in the doorway.
“Claudia, come upstairs.”
She looked super serious.
“I said: come.”
“We were just playing.”
“Do not make me repeat myself.”
I looked at Yesenia. With her eyes, she told me to obey. I stood up and went. Mamá grabbed my schoolbag off the floor. We climbed the stairs, went into my room, and she closed the door.
“Never again do I want to see you getting friendly with her.”
“With any maid.”
“Because, my girl, she’s the maid.”
“Why does that matter?”
“Because you get attached to them and then they leave.”
“Yesenia doesn’t know anybody in Cali. She can stay with us forever.”
“Ay, Claudia, don’t be so naive.”
A few days later, Yesenia left without saying goodbye while I was at school.
My mother said she’d gotten a call from her hometown of Leticia, and had to return to her family. I suspected it was untrue, but mamá stuck to her story.
Next came Lucila, an older woman from the Cauca region who paid no attention to me and was the maid who stayed with us the longest.
Mamá did her housewife things in the mornings, when I was at school. The shopping, the errands, the bills. At lunchtime she picked my father up from the supermarket and they had lunch together at the apartment. Then in the afternoons he drove back to work, and she stayed home to wait for me.
When I got home from school, I’d find her in bed with a magazine. She liked ¡Hola!, Vanidades, and Cosmopolitan. There, she read about the lives of famous women. The articles came accompanied by large color photos of houses, yachts, and parties. I ate lunch and she turned pages. I did homework and she turned pages. At four o’clock, the only TV station began its daily programming, and as I watched Sesame Street she turned pages.
Mamá once told me that shortly before graduating from high school she’d waited for my grandfather to come home from work, to tell him that she wanted to go to university. They were in my grandparents’ bedroom. He took off his guayabera, let it drop to the floor, and stood there in his undershirt. Big and hairy, with his taut round belly. A bear. Then he stared at her with strange-looking eyes she didn’t recognize.
“Law,” my mother dared to add.
My grandfather’s neck veins bulged, and in his gruffest voice he told her that what decent señoritas did was get married: university, law, his foot! His furious voice booming as if through a megaphone. I could practically hear it as my mother, just a girl, cowered and backed away.
Less than a month later he had a heart attack and died.
In the study, we had a wall where family portraits hung.
The one of my maternal grandparents was a black-and-white photo in a silver frame. It had been taken at the club’s New Year’s party, the last one my maternal grandparents had spent together. Streamers fell all around, people wore paper hats and held party blowers. My grandparents were just emerging from an embrace. Laughing. Him: a giant in a tux, bifocals, drink in hand. You couldn’t see his hair, but I knew, from other photos and from my mother, that it sprouted out from everywhere. His shirtsleeves, his back, his nose, even his ears. My grandmother was in an elegant, open-back dress, with a cigarette holder between her fingers and a bouffant hairdo. She was long and skinny, an upright worm. Beside him she looked diminutive.
Beauty and the Beast, I always thought, though my mother would defend her father, saying he was no beast, he was a teddy bear and only got mad that one time.
My grandfather worked his whole life in the sales department of an electrical appliance factory. He had big clients, earned a good salary, and made commissions on every sale. After he died there were no more commissions, and the pension my grandmother received was a fraction of his salary.
My grandmother and mother were forced to sell the car, the club membership, and the house in San Fernando. They moved to a rental apartment in town, fired the live-in maids and hired one who went home at the end of the day. They stopped going to the beauty parlor and learned to do their own nails and hair. My grandmother’s was a short beehive, which she teased with a comb, using half a can of hairspray until it was piled up high. She forwent her lulo games, since hosting eight women every time it was her turn to entertain was too costly, and took up canasta, which was played with only four.
Mamá, fresh out of high school, began volunteering at San Juan de Dios Hospital, an activity grandfather would have approved of.
San Juan de Dios was a charity hospital. I never saw the inside but pictured it as filthy and dismal, with bloodstained walls and moribund patients groaning in the hallways. One day when I said so out loud, my mother laughed. Actually, she said, it was airy and luminous, with white walls and interior courtyards. A 1700s building, well taken care of by the nuns who ran it.
That was where she met my father.
My paternal grandparents’ portrait was oval, in a bronze openwork frame. They lived before my other grandparents’ time, in an age my child’s mind pictured to be as dark as the colors of the portrait.
This one was an oil painting of their wedding day, copied from a studio photograph, with a brown background and opaque details. The bride was the only luminous thing in it. A girl of sixteen. She was sitting on a wooden chair. Her wedding dress covered her from neck to shoes. She wore a mantilla and a demure smile, and held a rosary in her hands. It looked like she was getting confirmed, like the groom was really her father. He stood, one hand on her shoulder, like an old wooden post. A brittle man, bald, in a gray suit and thick glasses.
My grandmother, that girl, was not yet even twenty when she died giving birth to my father. They lived on my grandfather’s coffee farm. Grandfather moved to Cali. Devastated by the loss, I assumed. A forlorn man in no state to take care of anyone. The newborn and his sister, my tía Amelia, who was two, stayed on the farm and were cared for by a sister of the deceased.
Tía Amelia and my father were raised on that farm. When the time came, their aunt enrolled them at the local school, where the children of peasants and workers went. In second grade, when their shoes got too small, the aunt hacked off the tips with a knife and they went to class with their toes poking out.
“Were they poor?”
This was my tía that I was asking; she’s the one who told me the story.
“Ha! Not in the slightest. The farm was prosperous.”
“Then why didn’t they buy you new shoes?”
“Who knows,” she said, then paused and added, “my father never visited us.”
“Because he was sad about your mother’s death?”
The aunt fell ill. There was nothing the doctors could do, and after she died the children were sent to be with their father in Cali. He sold the coffee farm and opened the supermarket.
Tía Amelia and my father lived with my grandfather until they were grown up. He developed emphysema, since he smoked two packs a day, and died long before my time. That was when the two of them inherited the supermarket.
My tía Amelia knew everything that went on at the supermarket, but she didn’t work there. She spent all day at the apartment in a housedress, cigarette in hand, with a glass of wine if it was night. She had housedresses in every style and color. Mexican, Guajiran, Indian, tie-dyed, Cartago embroidered.
Whenever her birthday or Christmas was coming up, my mother would complain that she didn’t know what to get her. In the end, she’d give her a housedress. My aunt always received the gift with what seemed like authentic joy and said that she loved it, that she didn’t have this style, or that this precise color was exactly what she needed.
My father was the supermarket manager. He never took vacations. The only time he wasn’t working was when the supermarket was closed, on Sundays and holidays. He was the first to arrive in the morning, the last to leave in the evening, and sometimes had to go in to receive delayed shipments in the middle of the night. Saturdays, after closing, he used to go to San Juan de Dios Hospital to donate groceries for the infirm.
My mother was in the pantry, making space for the newly arrived food, when my father turned up. She didn’t notice him. He, on the other hand, was so taken that he went to ask the nun in charge who she was. The nun, in mamá’s words, was short and squat. The stump of a felled tree, that was how I pictured her, brown habit flaring at the bottom.
“The new volunteer,” she told my father. “Her name is Claudia.”
He and the nun stood gazing at my mother.
“And she’s single,” she added.
Perhaps that was what gave him courage. My father waited until she finished her shift. He approached, introduced himself, and offered to accompany her home. She, all of nineteen, looked him up and down and saw a forty-something-year-old man.
“No, thank you,” she replied.
My father didn’t give up. He’d turn up at the hospital with chocolates, pistachios, or some other delicacy he’d bought at La Cristalina, a shop that sold fancy imported goods. Mamá refused his gifts.
“Jorge,” she said one day, “are you never going to grow tired of this?”
“I brought you Danish butter cookies.”
They came in a big tin and my mother couldn’t resist. She took it.
“So, today do I get to accompany you home?”
This time she couldn’t say no.
My grandmother adored this gallant gentleman with a good inheritance who practiced Christian charity, donating groceries to the hospital.
“He’s an old man,” my mother pointed out.
“I thought you liked older men?”
This was true. Mamá couldn’t stand boys her own age, a bunch of dimwits in her view, who spent all day horsing around in the pool at the club.
“Not that old,” she said.
My grandmother rolled her eyes.
“Claudia, you’re impossible.”
The following Monday when my mother got home from the hospital, she found the canasta ladies at the house, shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke and eating Danish butter cookies. Four housewives with hairdos big as balloons and long painted fingernails, which they used to deal and spread their cards across the table.
It was terribly hot, my mother said. That terrible Cali heat, I thought, the kind that laid you out flat. The women led her to a seat, and she sat. Aída de Solanilla took a cookie and savored it.
“At forty,” she said once she’d swallowed, “a man’s not old; he’s in the prime of life.”
“He’s twenty-one years older than me,” my mother said.
Her own husband, Aída said, was eighteen years older; Lola de Aparicio’s was twenty; Miti de Villalobos, who wasn’t there but was a friend from their lulo days, had married a man twenty-five years older; and all three could attest to the fact that their marriages were as good as any could be, better than those between same-age spouses, where both bride and groom are young and rash.
The women turned to my mother. She contended that the man wore bottleneck glasses and was bald, short, and too skinny.
“Jorge is very dapper,” Aída de Solanilla countered. “I see him at the supermarket all the time. His clothes are expensive, well ironed.”
My mother couldn’t deny this.
“But he barely speaks,” she said.
“Ay, mija,” Lola de Aparicio retorted, opening her Spanish fan. “If you spend your life finding fault with every man you meet, you’ll end up alone.”
My grandmother and the other women nodded, staring at mamá. That terrible heat, I felt it, like a rope around her neck.
In my mother’s day, it was tradition for the parents of the bride to bear the cost of the wedding. But to my grandmother’s delight and relief, papá wouldn’t let her pay a single peso, and he let my mother plan it however she wished.
She didn’t want any parties, just a church ceremony. Her dress was white, though not exactly a bridal gown—a plain, knee-length dress with no veil—and she wore her hair in a simple bun, with a comb decorated with tiny flowers. My father was in a morning coat, just like his father in the photo, but older and balder.
The photo of my parents on the wall was black and white, in a wood frame. They were at the altar. The priest, the table, and Christ in the background. The bride and groom up front, facing one another, exchanging rings. He was beaming. She, her eyes cast down, looked sad, but that was because she was concentrating on putting on his ring.
Two weeks later my grandmother died of a brain hemorrhage.
At first the newlyweds lived in a rented apartment. My grandfather’s house was too big for my tía Amelia, so they sold it and used the money to buy two apartments. A small one for my tía in Portada al Mar, at the foot of the mountain, a few blocks from the supermarket and on the edge of a traditional neighborhood with both grand old houses and new apartment buildings. The other, for my parents, very nearby, in the twinned neighborhood on the other side of the river.
The previous owners of my parents’ apartment had left a plant on the balcony. A spider plant with long, white-rimmed leaves. The tips were burned and the colors faded. My grandmother had one like it at the house in San Fernando, back before my grandfather died and she and mamá had to upend their lives. Mamá, who was still mourning both their deaths, adopted it.
The dining room had wood-framed folding glass doors that opened out onto the balcony. My mother brought the spider plant inside. She watered it, transplanted it into a big pot, gave it fresh soil. Never before had mamá been responsible for a living thing and she was delighted when it turned green.
Seeing her joy, Doña Imelda, the cashier at the supermarket, gave her the offshoot of a Swiss cheese plant. Mamá planted it in a clay pot and put it on the coffee table. The cheese plant spilled down toward the floor. Then my father brought her a maidenhair fern, and tía Amelia, for her birthday, gave her a miniature umbrella tree.
Slowly the apartment began filling with plants, until it turned into the jungle. I always thought of the plants as my mother’s dead. Her dead, reborn.
The earliest memory I have is of me on the stairs. Me, behind a child-proof safety gate at the long, broken stairs: an impossible cliff down to the wonderful green world of the first floor.
My second memory is of being on my parents’ bed. Me and my mother, her with her magazine, me jumping.
Suddenly the explosion.
“Dammit, child! Can’t you be still?!”
Or maybe that was before the stairs and it only feels more recent because I relived it so many times. Mamá in bed with her magazine, and me lifting her shirt to blow bubbles on her tummy.
“Must you be all over me all the time?”
Me planting little kisses on her arm.
“Leave me in peace for just one minute, Claudia, for God’s sake.”
Gazing at her as she combs her hair at the dressing table. Long and straight, the color of chocolate, hair that made you want to stroke it.
“Why don’t you go to your room?”
Me, bigger, climbing onto her bed when I finished my homework.
Her, clearly annoyed, getting up and leaving me on her bed with the open magazine.
“Why did you stop working at the hospital?” I asked.
“Because I got married.”
“And after you got married you didn’t want to go to university anymore?”
She went to say something but then stopped.
“Papá wouldn’t let you?”
“It’s not that.”
“I didn’t even ask him.”
“You didn’t want to?”
“I would have liked to, yes.”
“So why didn’t you?”
She closed the magazine. It was an ¡Hola! On the cover, Carolina of Monaco in a strapless ball gown, with real rubies and diamonds.
“Because you were born.”
She got up and walked out into the hall. I followed.
“Why didn’t you have more children?”
“Another pregnancy? Another childbirth? A crying baby? Ay, no. No, thank you. Not for me. Besides, my body got damaged more than enough just with you.”
“If you could have avoided it, you wouldn’t have had me?”
She stopped and gazed at me.
“Oh, Claudia, I’m not like my mother.”
My birthday fell over the long school holiday, on Independence Day, when there were parades and people were out of town at their country houses or the beach. We could only celebrate with family, so we went to a restaurant.
My mother, as she did each year, recounted her pregnancy. Her giant belly, her swollen feet, how every five minutes she had to go to the bathroom, how she couldn’t sleep and struggled to get out of bed. The pains had started around lunchtime. They were the most awful thing she’d ever felt. Papá took her to the clinic, where she agonized all afternoon, all night, all the next morning, and all that afternoon, feeling like she was about to die, and then another whole night and into the early morning hours.
“She came out purple. Hideous. They put her on my chest, shaking and crying, and I thought: all that effort for this?”
And mamá laughed so wide you could see the roof of her mouth, hollow and grooved like an underfed torso.
“Ugliest baby in the clinic,” said papá.
He and tía Amelia laughed too, showing tongues, teeth, half-chewed food.
“The other baby born that day was beautiful,” my tía said.
The last photo on the study wall was from the day I was born. A rectangle, like the portrait of my maternal grandparents, black and white and in a silver frame.
My mother, in bed at the clinic with me in her arms, showed no signs of suffering. Her hair was done, eyes lined, lips glossed and smiling. My aunt and father, standing on either side of the bed, were smiling too. She was in a bell-sleeved dress with arabesque motifs and had a mushroom bob with one corkscrew curl hanging down to her chin. Papá had long sideburns, his bald head less bare back then. I was a blanket-wrapped blob. A tiny thing with black hair and swollen eyes.
“Am I still ugly?”
We were in the study. My father was reading the paper in his recliner. Mamá was pruning the bonsai, the only plant on the second floor.
“What are you talking about?” she asked, as if she didn’t know.
“You were joking today about how ugly I was when I was born.”
“All newborns are ugly.”
“Tía Amelia said the other baby was beautiful.”
Papá laughed out loud.
“Don’t laugh!” I screamed. And to mamá, “Am I still ugly?”
She put her shears down, came over and crouched down to my height.
“Tell me the truth.”
“Claudia, there are some women whose beauty doesn’t show till they are older, when they develop. At your age, I was short, dark, and scrawny too. You’ve seen the photo albums, haven’t you?”
I had, of course, but that didn’t help at all because the only thing we had in common was our name. The rest of me took after my father. Everyone said so; we were identical.
“Don’t you know the story of the ugly duckling?” she asked. And that was worse.
My father’s birthday, ten days after mine, was the last time the four of us—tía Amelia, my parents, and me—were alone together. We celebrated at our apartment. The jungle decorated with streamers, a big sign I made, and an orange cake my tía had baked. Mamá and I gave papá a new radio for his office. My tía handed him a box wrapped in silver paper from Zas, a department store at the mall. Inside was an elegant light-blue Italian shirt.
Soon after that my aunt took a trip to Europe. We assumed she was going on a tour with two old school friends, like when she traveled around South America or went to see the Mayan ruins. Mamá thought it was odd that she didn’t want us to take her to the airport or pick her up, but she wasn’t even close to guessing why.
From Abyss by Pilar Quintana translated by Lisa Dillman. Used with permission of the publisher, World Editions. Copyright © 2023 by Pilar Quintana. Translation copyright © 2023 by Lisa Dillman.
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