The day I turned eight, my sister—who absolutely always had to be the centre of attention—swallowed an entire cup of bleach. Abi was three. First she smiled, maybe a little disgusted at the nasty taste; then her face crumpled in a frightened grimace of pain. When Mum saw the empty cup hanging from Abi’s hand, she turned as white as my sister.
‘Abi-my-God,’ was all Mum said. ‘Abi-my-God,’ and it took her a few seconds longer to spring into action.
She shook Abi by the shoulders, but my sister didn’t respond. She yelled, but Abi still didn’t react. She ran to the phone and called Dad, and when she came running back Abi was still standing there, the cup just dangling from her hand. Mum grabbed the cup and threw it into the sink. She opened the fridge, took out the milk, and poured a glass. She stood looking at the glass, then looked at Abi, then at the glass, and finally she dropped the glass into the sink as well. Dad worked very close by and got home quickly, but Mum still had time to do the whole show with the glass of milk again before he pulled up in the car and started honking the horn and yelling.
Mum lit out of the house like lightning, with Abi clutched to her chest. The front door, the gate and the car doors were all flung open. There was more horn-honking and Mum, who was already sitting in the car, started to cry. Dad had to shout at me twice before I understood that I was the one who was supposed to close up.
We drove the first ten blocks in less time than it took me to close the car door and fasten my seat belt. But when we got to the main avenue, the traffic was practically stopped. Dad honked the horn and shouted out of the window, ‘We have to get to the hospital! We have to get to the hospital!’ The cars around us manoeuvred and miraculously let us pass, but a couple of cars up we had to start the whole operation all over again. Dad braked in the traffic, stopped honking the horn, and pounded his head against the steering wheel. I had never seen him do such a thing. There was a moment of silence, and then he sat up and looked at me in the rear-view mirror. He turned around and said to me:
‘Take off your underpants.’
I was wearing my school uniform. All my underwear was white, but I wasn’t exactly thinking about that just then, and I couldn’t understand Dad’s request. I pressed my hands into the seat to support myself better. I looked at Mum and she shouted:
‘Take off your damned knickers!’
I took them off. Dad grabbed them out of my hands. He rolled down the window, went back to honking the horn, and started waving my underpants out of the window. He raised them high while he yelled and kept honking, and it seemed like everyone on the avenue turned around to look at them. My underpants were small, but they were also very white. An ambulance happened to be a block behind us. The driver must have seen our distress flag, because its siren came on, and it caught up with us to start clearing a path. Dad kept on waving the underpants until we reached the hospital.
They left the car by the ambulances and jumped out. Without waiting, Mum ran into the hospital with Abi. I wasn’t sure whether I should get out or not: I didn’t have any underpants on and I wanted to see where Dad had left them, but he was already out of the car and slamming the door, his hands empty.
‘Come on, come on,’ said Dad.
He opened my door and helped me out. He gave my shoulder a few pats as we walked into the emergency room. Mum emerged from a doorway at the back and signalled to us. I was relieved to see she was talking again, giving explanations to the nurses.
‘Stay here,’ said Dad, and he pointed to some orange chairs on the other side of the main waiting area.
I sat. Dad went into the consulting room with Mum and I waited for a while. I don’t know how long, but it felt long. I pressed my knees together tightly and thought about everything that had happened so quickly, and about the likelihood that any of the kids from school had seen the spectacle with my underpants. When I sat up straight, my jumper stretched and my bare bottom touched part of the plastic seat. Sometimes the nurse came in or out of the consulting room and I could hear my parents arguing. At one point I craned my neck and caught a glimpse of Abi moving restlessly on one of the cots, and I knew that, at least today, she wasn’t going to die. And I still had to wait.
Then a man came and sat down next to me. I don’t know where he came from; I hadn’t noticed him before.
‘How’s it going?’ he asked.
I thought about saying ‘very well’, which is what Mum always said if someone asked her that, even if she’d just told me and my sister that we were driving her insane.
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘Are you waiting for someone?’
I thought about it. I wasn’t really waiting for anyone; at least, it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing right then. So I shook my head, and he said:
‘Why are you sitting in the waiting room, then?’
I understood it was a great contradiction. He opened a small bag he had on his lap and rummaged a bit, unhurried. Then he took a pink slip of paper from his wallet.
‘Here it is. I knew I had it somewhere.’
The paper was printed with the number 92.
‘It’s good for an ice cream. My treat,’ he said.
I told him no. You shouldn’t accept things from strangers.
‘But it’s free, I won it.’
‘No.’ I looked straight ahead and we sat in silence.
‘Suit yourself,’ he said, without getting angry.“At one point I craned my neck and caught a glimpse of Abi moving restlessly on one of the cots, and I knew that, at least today, she wasn’t going to die. And I still had to wait.”
He took a magazine from his bag and started to fill in a crossword puzzle. The door to the consulting room opened again and I heard Dad say, ‘I will not condone such nonsense.’ That’s Dad’s clincher for ending almost any argument. The man sitting next to me didn’t seem to hear it.
‘It’s my birthday,’ I said.
It’s my birthday, I repeated to myself. What should I do?
The man held the pen to mark a box on the puzzle and looked at me in surprise. I nodded without looking at him, aware that I had his attention again.
‘But. . .’ he said, and he closed the magazine. ‘Sometimes I just don’t understand women. If it’s your birthday, why are you in a hospital waiting room?’
He was an observant man. I straightened up again in my seat and I saw that, even then, I barely came up to his shoulders. He smiled and I smoothed my hair. And then I said:
‘I’m not wearing any underpants.’
I don’t know why I said it. It’s just that it was my birthday and I wasn’t wearing underpants, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those circumstances. He was still looking at me. Maybe he was startled or offended, and I understood that, though it wasn’t my intention, there was something vulgar about what I had just said.
‘But it’s your birthday,’ he said.
‘It’s not fair. A person can’t just go around without underpants when it’s their birthday.’
‘I know,’ I said emphatically, because now I understood just how Abi’s whole display was a personal affront to me.
He sat for a moment without saying anything. Then he looked towards the big windows that looked out onto the parking lot.
‘I know where to get you some underpants,’ he said.
‘Problem solved.’ He stowed his things and stood up.
I hesitated. Precisely because I wasn’t wearing underpants, but also because I didn’t know if he was telling the truth. He looked towards the front desk and waved one hand at the attendants.
‘We’ll be right back,’ he said, and he pointed to me. ‘It’s her birthday.’ And then I thought, Oh please Jesus, don’t let him say anything about my underpants, but he didn’t: he opened the door and winked at me, and then I knew I could trust him.
We went out to the parking lot. Standing up I barely cleared his waist. Dad’s car was still next to the ambulances, and a policeman was circling it, annoyed. I kept looking over at the policeman, and he watched us walk away. The air wrapped around my legs and rose, making a tent out of my uniform. I had to hold it down while I walked, keeping my legs awkwardly close together.
He turned around to see if I was following him, and he saw me fighting with my skirt.
‘We’d better keep close to the wall.’
‘I want to know where we’re going.’
‘Don’t get persnickety with me now, darling.’
We crossed the avenue and went into a shopping centre. It was an uninviting place. We walked to the back towards a big clothing store, a truly huge one that I was pretty sure Mum didn’t go to. Before we went in he said to me, ‘Don’t get lost,’ and gave me his hand, which was cold and very soft. He waved to the cashiers with the same gesture he’d made towards the desk attendants when we left the hospital, but no one responded. We walked down the aisles. In addition to dresses, trousers and shirts, there were work clothes: hard hats, yellow overalls like the trash collectors wore, smocks for cleaning ladies, plastic boots, and even some tools. I wondered if he bought his clothes there and if he would use any of those things in his job, and then I also wondered what his name was.
‘Here we are,’ he said.
We were surrounded by tables of underwear for men and women. If I reached out my hand I could touch a large bin full of giant underpants, bigger than any I’d seen before, and they were only three pesos each. With one of those pairs of underpants they could have made three for someone my size.
‘Not those,’ he said. ‘Here.’ And he led me a little further to a section with smaller sizes. ‘Look at all the underpants they have . . . Which will you choose, my lady?’
I looked around a little. Almost all of them were white or pink. I pointed to a white pair, one of the few that didn’t have a bow on them.
‘These,’ I said. ‘But I can’t pay for them.’
He came a little closer and said into my ear:
‘That doesn’t matter.’
‘Are you the owner?’
‘No. It’s your birthday.’
‘But we have to find better ones. We need to be sure.’
‘Okay, darling,’ I ventured.
‘Don’t say “darling”,’ he said. ‘I’ll get persnickety.’ And he imitated me holding down my skirt in the parking lot.
He made me laugh. When he finished clowning around he held out two closed fists in front of me, and he stayed just like that until I understood; I touched the right one. He opened it: it was empty.
‘You can still choose the other one.’
I touched the other one. It took me a moment to realize it was a pair of underpants because I had never seen black ones before. And they were for girls because they had white hearts on them, so small they looked like dots, and Hello Kitty’s face was on the front, right where there was usually that bow Mum and I don’t like at all.
‘You’ll have to try them on,’ he said.
I held the underpants to my chest. He gave me his hand again and we went towards the changing rooms, which looked empty. We peered in. He said he didn’t know if he could go with me because they were for women only. He said I would have to go alone. It was logical because, unless it’s someone you know very well, it’s not good for people to see you in your underpants. But I was afraid of going into the dressing room alone. Or something worse: coming out and not seeing him there.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘I can’t tell you that.’
He knelt down. Then he was almost my height, or maybe I was a couple of inches taller.
‘Because I’m cursed.’
‘Cursed? What’s cursed?’
‘A woman who hates me said that the next time I say my name, I’m going to die.’
I thought it might be another joke, but he said it very seriously.
‘You could write it down for me.’
‘Write it down?’
‘If you wrote it you wouldn’t say it, you’d be writing it. And if I know your name I can call for you and I won’t be so scared to go into the dressing room alone.’
‘But we can’t be sure. What if this woman thinks writing my name is the same as saying it? What if by saying it, she meant letting someone else know, letting my name out into the world in any way?’
‘But how would she know?’
‘People don’t trust me, and I’m the unluckiest man in the world.’
‘I don’t believe you, there’s no way she’d find out.’
‘I know what I’m talking about.’
Together, we looked at the underpants in my hands. I thought that my parents might be finished by now.
‘But it’s my birthday,’ I said.
And maybe I did it on purpose. At the time I felt like I did: my eyes filled with tears. Then he hugged me. It was a very fast movement; he crossed his arms behind my back and squeezed me so tight my face pressed into his chest. Then he let me go, took out his magazine and pen, and wrote something on the right margin of the cover. Then he tore it off and folded it three times before handing it to me.
‘Don’t read it,’ he said, and he stood up and pushed me gently towards the dressing room.
I passed four empty cubicles. Before gathering my courage and entering the fifth, I put the paper into the pocket of my jumper and turned to look at him, and we smiled at each other.
I tried on the underpants. They were perfect. I lifted up my jumper so I could see just how good they looked. They were so, so very perfect. They fitted incredibly well, and because they were black, Dad would never ask me for them so he could wave them out of the window behind the ambulance. And even if he did, I wouldn’t be so embarrassed if my classmates saw. Just look at the underpants that girl has, they’d all think. Now those are some perfect underpants.
I realized I couldn’t take them off now. And I realized something else: they didn’t have a security tag. They had a little mark where the tag would usually go, but there was no alarm. I stood a moment longer looking at myself in the mirror, and then I couldn’t stand it any longer and I took out the little paper, opened it and read it. I came out of the dressing room and he wasn’t where I had left him, but he was a little further down, beside the bathing suits. He looked at me, and when he saw I wasn’t carrying the underpants he winked, and I was the one who took his hand. This time he held on to me tighter; we walked together towards the exit.
I trusted that he knew what he was doing. That a cursed man who had the world’s worst luck knew how to do these things. We passed the line of cash registers at the main entrance. One of the security guards looked at us, adjusting his belt. He would surely think the nameless man was my dad, and I felt proud.
We passed the sensors at the exit and went into the mall, and we kept walking in silence all the way back to the avenue. That was when I saw Abi, alone, in the middle of the hospital parking lot. And I saw Mum, on our side of the street, looking around frantically. Dad was also coming towards us from the parking lot. He was following fast behind the policeman who’d been looking at his car before, and who was now pointing at us. Everything happened very quickly. Dad saw us, yelled my name, and a few seconds later that policeman and two others who came out of nowhere were already on top of us. The unlucky man let go of me, but I held my hand suspended towards him for a few seconds. They surrounded him and pushed him roughly. They asked him what he was doing, they asked him his name, but he didn’t answer. Mum hugged me and checked me over head to toe. She had my white underpants dangling from her right hand. Then, patting me all over, she noticed I was wearing a different pair. She lifted my jumper in a single movement: it was such a rude and vulgar act, right there in front of everyone, that I jerked away and had to take a few steps backwards to keep from falling down. The unlucky man looked at me and I looked at him. When Mum saw the black underpants she screamed ‘Son of a bitch, son of a bitch,’ and Dad lunged at him and tried to punch him. The cops moved to separate them.
I fished for the paper in my jumper pocket, put it in my mouth, and as I swallowed it I repeated his name in silence, several times, so I would never forget it.
“An Unlucky Man” is excerpted from BOGOTA 39: New Voices from Latin America, published by Oneworld Publications. Copyright © 2018 by Samanta Schweblin, English translation copyright © 2018 by Megan McDowell.
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