If you take the bus from Plaza Castilla, get off at the construction site for the new El Corte Inglés, and then trudge a few hundred meters through the mud, you’ll find a gypsy woman with eight kids and a crystal ball. If you have a few euros to spare, you can find out all sorts of things. It was Gaia who knew where she lived and we braved the muck during our lunch break. It was cold and you had to cover your ears so they wouldn’t chafe or whatever.
“Does he love me as much as I love him?” Gaia said, and the old lady looked into the ball.
“Yes. He does,” she said.
I wondered what to ask when it was my turn. Gaia had the good questions, not me. I mostly wanted to know what was for dinner, how big my boobs would get, and if my hair had that Mariah Carey thing where it just kept growing. But luck wasn’t on my side because one of the lady’s babies woke up. She stuck a sprig of rosemary between Gaia’s boobs and then the curtain fell right in front of our faces. It smelled like smoke and something else, maybe boiled chicken.
That visit was right after Gaia had had her surgery, and I was about to start ninth grade. Mom had a new job and couldn’t take us to or from school anymore. Jaime was growing up, hair had sprouted on his chin, and he’d gotten gross, like boys do. Once a week, Raquel, a lady from Ecuador, came over to clean and do the ironing. “You have no idea how hard I have to work to afford you,” Mom would say to Raquel.
Gaia would pose in front of the mirror, admiring her new boobs. Jaime would fish out boogers. One time when lunch was over, Gaia said she could take me back to school, since she was going that way anyway.
On the walls at school were pictures of angels, and the brushstrokes were like the ones in a painting I’d seen where someone with a really big mouth was screaming. I asked Gaia what she thought about them. She said I should make sure the boys were respectful. Not let them talk more than us girls did and stuff like that. Then she said she and her boyfriend, who was at least 25, had put her money in a high-risk fund in Russia and that she’d earned five grand in one night.
“If you have any money, I can give it to him,” she said. “Maybe you could get new boobs, too.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because they’re small.”
“Eh. They probably haven’t finished growing yet,” I said.
“Your call,” Gaia said with a shrug.
We kept walking.
“So, what do you do with them?” I asked.
“Don’t be stupid. Baby.”
“Like, I don’t even have a boyfriend.”
“Well, of course not. You don’t have any boobs.”
We arrived at school.
“And you,” said Gaia. “Remember what I said. Make sure you make your own decisions, OK? Like my boyfriend says: Stand your ground, or someone will stand in your place.”
She blew a bubble. It popped and stuck to her nose. “Ciao,” she said and left.
Gaia was the new Gaia now. The new Gaia with her new boobs. I was still the same old me, even though I was the youngest. Same old 13-year-old Encarna with her same old boobs. But, like, high-risk funds in Russia, I mean, I didn’t even have a boyfriend so who would even care.
“Money,” Mom said at the dinner table. “I hate money.”
“Why?” Jaime asked.
“Because it’s so damn dirty,” said Mom. “Who knows who’s touched it. At the checkout, all you do is handle it. Put it in small compartments and stuff it into tubes that go to some sort of money depot under the store. And if you scratch your nose before washing your hands, it’s curtains for you. Infection time.”
“What about fruit?” Jaime said. “Who knows about that. Somebody could’ve masturbated with the apple you’re eating.”
There was a long pause. Then Gaia said: “Jaime, have you ever masturbated with an apple?”
He replied by shoving his index finger up his nose. Gaia looked thoughtful, and those high-risk funds popped into my head.
“Let’s be clear about one thing,” said Gaia as she changed into her pajamas. “There’s nothing more fun than sex.”
“How many times have you done it?” I asked.
“I’ve lost count,” said Gaia.
“How was it?”
“Really fucking good. Amazing. The only thing that’s worth the pains.”
“Life, the struggle, hell—everything. There’s only one thing that balances out all the shit, and that’s sex.”
In school the next day the teacher said we had to think about our futures. He said there was a stand with brochures in the hallway, and you could have a poke around to help you decide what to be when you grew up. If you’re lucky the guidance counselor will pass by, he said, and then you can have a talk with her, because if there was anyone who knew about those things, it was her, after all she’d studied it for several years. The brochures were in alphabetical order. “Builder,” I could see clearly. “Assistant,” too. “Doctor” was also an option. Otherwise it was mostly the carpets I was seeing, cos they were pretty filthy. Somebody needed to give them a good vacuum. The striplights flickered and that meant they were almost dead. And the boys behaved. No one said anything stupid, even though I was ready for it.
And then she showed up, the guidance counselor. And it was just me standing there, so when she unlocked the door to her office she waved me right in. Next to her was a potted cactus. Behind her, out the window, was the gloomy schoolyard.
“How’s your sister keeping?” she asked.
“She has new boobs.”
The basketball net moved in the wind. The trees were bare, and the guidance counselor was wearing salmon-colored lip gloss and had straight yellow teeth. It was silent, except for the fans, which you could hear whirring in the guidance counselor’s office, the halls, the classrooms, and everywhere else in school.
“Is that so. New boobs. There you have it.”
She riffled through some papers on the desk. Her heel scraped the floor.
“All right. And what does this young lady want to do with her life?”
“It’s not that easy.”
“Dream. Wish. You’re young.”
“I can’t think of anything fun.”
I was mostly thinking about Julius Caesar when I said that. About how it was no fun taking notes while someone else was talking and how someone had said, the teacher maybe, that note-taking was a must if you wanted to get anywhere in this world. When I took notes I did it to practice my handwriting, so that all the love letters I’d write when I got a lover would look beautiful. And I thought about home economics, how woolen sweaters had to soak in fabric softener for two minutes before being rolled up in towels. Otherwise they’d never dry, and wool wasn’t something you could hang over the heater or in the airing cupboard. And equations. Somebody told me I didn’t understand them because they were too simple. You didn’t know what X was. But if you didn’t know, how was I supposed to know? It was really rare for me to know something that no one else knew, except for that thing about Gaia. And then there was biology, of course, dissecting worms that were pinned in place and sliced down the middle. Not for me.
“But you must like something? There must be something that’s fun?”
I thought about English. Our teacher had one of those toupees, and one time it blew off during a handball tournament he’d insisted on playing in. He was basically just kinda gross, and the English book was a harsh orange color. No, English was not for me. Physics could be my thing, smoke and Bunsen burners were fun, but I’d heard there was a lot of math when it got advanced so I think I’ll skip that too, I said to the guidance counselor.
She looked me in the eyes. She put her hand on my shoulder.
“But sweetie, there must be something you think is fun?”
“I can’t think of anything.”
“Maybe high-risk funds in Russia.”
“Building your future on high-risk funds in Russia might not be wise.”
“Then I don’t know.”
She looked through some papers. Maybe they were comments from teachers, maybe it was a manual for how to get young people to choose a high school.
She threw open her arms and smiled. “There must be something you like!”
She seemed unnaturally happy. As if something funny had occurred to her, beyond me and beyond the room we were in. Maybe she was thinking of her lover.
“I can’t think of anything,” I snapped.
“All children like something.”
I remembered what Gaia had said. She was my sister, so there was a chance I’d like what she liked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sex is pretty fun. I could imagine working in sex.”
The guidance counselor’s leg gave a little push and the chair rolled backwards. She looked at her papers and outside, behind her, the wind rattled the backboard. You were supposed to hit the red square with the ball. And if you hit it right in the middle and not too hard, you could almost be sure you’d score.
“Excuse me a moment,” she said.
After a while she returned with the school nurse. The school nurse asked me to follow her to her office, and I said goodbye to the guidance counselor, who shut the door behind us. I was handed a cup of tea and I added three sugar cubes, which left a syrupy gunk at the bottom. “So, tell me about your experiences,” the school nurse said.
“Yes. About what you just told Maruja. That’s terrible. You’re so young.”
“Hey,” I said. “I’m not that much younger than anyone else.”
After the 9:30 break, the principal was roped in. His desk was made of a reddish wood and through the window behind him you could see the cars in the parking lot. The principal’s car was in the middle of it and was red, maybe he’d let his wife pick it out.
“Did your wife pick out the car?” I asked.
“I don’t have a wife. I’m newly divorced,” he said.
“Did your ex-wife pick out the car?”
“Yes,” he said and sighed.
Then he said that in life, you must have goals. Fight and get ahead. Short-term and long-term goals. You have to fight, the fight was what was important.
“But it’s just all so boring. Taking notes and stuff,” I said.
“That’s the path you have to take. Don’t you understand? It’s like a highway. Imagine Madrid, and imagine Alicante. It’s impossible to get to Alicante if you don’t take the highway. It’s impossible to get to the ocean without crossing the scorched terrain of La Mancha.”
He looked pleased with himself for having said that.
“There has to be another way,” I said. “Other fun things to do.”
He looked at me. “What do you mean?”
“Other fun things. Like sex.”
He looked out at the parking lot, but it was too late. I’d seen that spark in his eyes. Gaia had talked about how something sparked in old men’s eyes when they wanted it. “Of course sex can be work,” I said and sat up straight in the chair. “You just have to find someone who wants to buy it. Demand and stuff, you know.”
I got perks. The physics teacher set up a special table for me to do fun experiments, made me the boss of the station. The others had labs about kinetic energy, while I was putting lithium in glasses of water. Cleaning up took forever, and by the time chemistry class started, I was still putting away the Bunsen burners in the closet with the skeleton in it, so I got out of writing organic formulas.
We go to the old gypsy lady sometimes, me and Gaia. Her children walk barefoot through the muck, and once she said that life always ends in tears, so you had to get some laughs in before you die, because then you’ve won. Once she said we were dumb for thinking we were going to be happy. You can’t choose what kind of happy you’re going to be, only the kind of unhappy, and that’s good enough.
Excerpted from Many People Die Like You by Lina Wolff, translated by Saskia Vogel. Copyright © 2020. Reprinted with permission of the publisher,