Standing in front of the mirror, Ramón opened his mouth like an angry baboon confronting its own reflection. Though he tried to see down his throat, the dim light in the bathroom at La Montejo, his favorite cantina, failed to reach the spot where he felt a pain so searing and exquisite it made a gallstone seem like an insignificant country cousin. He knew as he closed his mouth that the pain would make it impossible to eat the spicy pork sandwich he’d just ordered. He straightened his tie bitterly, turned his back on his reflection, and left the bathroom. A client awaited him at their table, where they were about to celebrate the favorable outcome of an administrative hearing. Ramón summoned the waiter and asked him to pack up the sandwich to go and bring him a chicken lime soup. He felt unpleasant spasms in his tongue as he spoke. He would have to be stingy with his words, and tolerate the dismal soup the waiter brought him instead.
Before they began to eat, the client raised his tequila to toast their triumph in court. “Your health,” Ramón replied, never suspecting that the next morning he would wake with a paralyzed tongue, unable to form the consonants needed to utter those happy words again.
“Ma mou i uur,” he said to Carmela, his wife of 20 years. She was alarmed. Instead of giving Ramón a dose of cough syrup like the day before, she made an appointment with the family doctor to whom she usually took their teenage children, Mateo and Paulina, when they had a bad flu or needed a note to get them excused from school.
“From what your wife tells me,” the doctor said, “it seems like we might have a little inflammation of the thyroid. Any tingling in your hands or feet?”
Ramón shook his head.
“All right. Let’s have a look, then.”
He took a headlight and attached it to his forehead with an elastic strap.
“Now let’s open our mouth nice and wide.” The doctor was used to treating children, and spoke in a manner Ramón found patronizing. “That’s right. Very good.”
The baboon reappeared, and the doctor inserted a tongue depressor into its gaping mouth. As soon as the instrument touched Ramón’s paralyzed tongue, he felt as if he were being examined with a cattle prod, or perhaps an ice pick. He thought of the techniques used by trial lawyers to interrogate suspects and was sure that under these conditions he would have said anything to end the torture, whether it was true—that he’d always had the hots for his sister-in-law Angélica—or false—that it was he who’d killed Luis Donaldo Colosio, the presidential candidate gunned down in Tijuana. But the doctor was searching for a secret Ramón could not confess.
“We have some unusual swelling here,” he concluded after removing the depressor. “Let’s do an ultrasound and take a look at what’s going on.”
He added that it might be a case of sialolithiasis, an infection caused by a salivary stone. Three weeks were wasted as they tried to confirm this diagnosis. Meanwhile, the presumptive salivary stone expanded, causing the tongue to swell at an alarming rate. When he observed this, the doctor referred his patient to Dr. Joaquín Aldama, “a highly experienced oncologist.”
Ramón and Carmela were more distressed by the idea of seeing an oncologist than they were prepared to admit. They suffered their anguish in silence. Though they tried to make light of the appointment scheduled for December 4, they decided not to tell their children, who were in the midst of their end-of-semester exams. Mateo was in his last year of high school, and Paulina was in her first. While Mateo attempted, as far as his innate idleness allowed, to pass the four classes he usually failed—math, chemistry, physics, and history—Paulina aspired to crush her only rival, the arrogant and diminutive Jesús Galindo. Focused on achieving their academic goals without forsaking their respective hobbies of masturbation and karaoke, Mateo and Paulina were oblivious to their parents’ suffering.
At Ramón’s legal firm, Martínez and Associates, the unresolved cases began to stack up. There were certain matters only he could settle, especially those needing to be lubricated with alcohol. Mario Enrique López, the owner of Sagittarius Real Estate, rarely made any decision without first imbibing at least half a bottle of rum. The firm’s public relations depended entirely on the charisma and eloquence of Ramón Martínez, Esquire, but the impairment of his tongue was beginning to undermine those qualities. The sound of his own voice made him feel like a deaf-mute thief had stolen his body; in the mirror he now met with a face much fatter than usual, bitter and frowning, with a mouth stuffed full of cake.When Ramón called the next day to ask if the roses had arrived, Carmela’s voice betrayed her blush as she thanked him.
Unable to raise his voice as usual, Ramón took to venting his anger behind the wheel, making his car bellow on his behalf. He pounded the horn to hurry distracted drivers at stoplights, scatter arthritic pedestrians, or simply to blare his frustration at rush-hour traffic. The car’s nasal, impotent honk was a cruel reminder that he wasn’t driving the powerful German car he’d always coveted, but a four-cylinder Japanese knockoff with fake leather upholstery.
On Friday, December 15, after a painful biopsy in which several millimeters of his tongue were extracted with a thick needle, the most decisive part of the wait was finally over. A team of pathologists in the hospital basement analyzed the cells with a range of antigens and solutions to reveal their nature under the light of a microscope. The report was sent to the oncologist’s clinic. There it waited, in a sealed envelope, for the doctor to explain the results to his patient. That was still several hours away.
Husband and wife arrived early for the appointment, and sat down beside an enormous ornamental fish tank. Carmela picked up a magazine and began leafing through it. Ramón fixed his gaze on the aquarium and began to worry about his recent absence from work. He thought he should send his clients Christmas baskets to reward them for their patience and loyalty to the firm. Ramón was known for his strong relationships with his clients, whom he charmed with a well-balanced mix of irreverence and flattery. Besides that, he wasn’t hypocritical, opportunistic, or corrupt. He always acted in strict accordance with the law, or at least those laws with which it was convenient to comply. Heaven knew both local and federal regulations were plagued by omissions and inconsistencies that not even the most virtuous jurist could navigate without contention. Given his spotless track record, however, Ramón was sure his reputation wouldn’t be damaged by a streak of ill health.
The aquarium distracted him from his woes. A dozen tropical fish swam laps around the tank, which was furnished with rocks and coral. It was a hypnotic dance. How could the oceans contain such an array of patterns and colors? Biologists put it down to natural selection—a slow, accidental process that little by little refashioned all creatures, transforming colossal dinosaurs into defenseless poultry. Every rotisserie chicken was a poignant reminder of the twists and turns of fate.
Carmela interrupted his musings with a friendly nudge. “Look,” she said, showing him the magazine. It was open to a photo of a young couple posing in front of a castle. “Remember?”
Ramón nodded. They had spent their honeymoon in France, and he remembered it well. Carmela turned the page. The couple from the previous photo were now half naked and sunning themselves on a yacht. The caption described them as newlywed Spanish aristocrats. For his part, Ramón considered the aristocracy a regressive abomination.
Twenty years earlier, Ramón had met Carmela beside the buffet at a birthday party for his law school friend Luis. He’d noticed her as soon as she arrived, and waited intently, drink in hand, for the right moment to strike up a conversation. When he saw her leave her friends and approach the table, he made his move.
“Have you tried the chorizo sopes?” he asked her warmly, convinced that the best way to break the ice was through her stomach.
There were two possibilities: either she had, or had not, tried the chorizo sopes. (In those days, vegetarians were so unusual that this likelihood needn’t be factored into the equation.) These two possibilities branched off into four potential answers: If she replied that she had indeed tried them and they were delicious, his advances could continue aggressively. If she admitted that she had tried them but made no further comment, he would have to proceed with caution. If she had not tried the sopes and indeed did not care to, the mission would have to be aborted. But if she hadn’t tried them, and proceeded to take one, he would be close to full triumph. Ramón was convinced he had every possible outcome under control, but he hadn’t considered the chance that she might respond analytically.How far he was at that moment, as he waited to see the oncologist, from the young Ramón who got turned on whenever he saw Carmela.
“Yes. The chorizo is good, but the sopes aren’t.”
“Really?” said Ramón, taken aback.
“They taste like cardboard,” she explained.
“Interesting,” he said, nursing his wounded pride. “I’m going to have another and see.”
“Go ahead,” she said, turning and heading over to another corner of the party.
Ramón was left alone with a paper plate loaded with traditional Mexican party snacks. He found a strategic spot to observe Carmela, who was sitting with a couple of friends. Ramón took a bite of the sope and savored it carefully without letting her out of his sight. He left his plate on top of a cabinet and went over to where Carmela was sitting.
“Excuse me,” he interrupted her, “I just wanted to let you know that you’re absolutely right. They’re just not the same after they’ve gone cold. Actually, I brought them myself . . .”
“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize,” Carmela said, struck by the formality of this young man who, instead of showing up at the party with a bottle of vodka and a bag of ice, had taken the trouble to bring a dish of sopes.
“No, really, it’s fine, I’m glad you told me. You have no idea how good they are when they’re fresh, though. I said to Luis—who by the way is my dearest friend—‘Fear not, I’ll bring you the best sopes in Mexico City.’”
“They’re really that good?”
“I’d swear it solemnly in front of a notary,” he said, “but they have to be nice and fresh.”
Carmela, who was also a lawyer and worked at a firm with its own doleful notary, laughed heartily at the seriousness of Ramón’s advocacy for his sopes. Her uninhibited laughter left him defenseless. He was floored by the perfect Cupid’s bow of her lips, her straight, flawless teeth, and her dark, perfectly outlined almond eyes. A flame melted his composure. He fell silent, averted his eyes, and pretended to lose himself in the swirling pattern on the carpet. And now what do I say? he wondered.
“Where did you get them?” Carmela asked.
“It’s a secret,” he replied, coming to his senses.
“I don’t even know your name.”
From that moment on, Ramón was unstoppable. He was witty and charming. He told amusing stories and asked flattering questions. He managed to rein in his usual loquaciousness. Carmela told him about her plan to become a civil attorney. She was brilliant. He was so thrilled by their conversation that he didn’t dare go back to the buffet for fear of losing her. Despite being hungry and sober, he left the party ecstatic.
The next Monday, Carmela received a bouquet of roses at her office, along with a calling card that said in elegant, printed letters, ramón martínez, esq. attorney. Underneath were some handwritten words, plagiarized from an Armando Manzanero song: When roses look redder and more beautiful, it’s because I’m thinking of you. She didn’t recognize the quote, but it didn’t bother her, though her sentimental education owed more to fashionable Spanish bands like Mecano and Presuntos Implicados—a far cry from a crooner of romantic ballads from Yucatán. When Ramón called the next day to ask if the roses had arrived, Carmela’s voice betrayed her blush as she thanked him. Then he invited her to dinner on Friday evening. She accepted.
Ramón arrived to collect her at the appointed time.
When Carmela’s mother, Antonia, answered the door, she discovered not the elegant, polite young man she’d been expecting, but a mestizo. Carmela’s mother belonged to the most ambitious subgroup of the Mexican middle class, and since Ramón’s dark complexion interfered with her racist social aspirations, she didn’t invite him in. “Just a moment,” said his future mother-in-law, before practically closing the door in his face. In his mind, he was still waiting on the steps for Carmela to emerge when a feeble elderly couple crept grimly into the waiting room.
The couple greeted Dr. Aldama’s receptionist like an old friend, then sat down opposite Carmela and Ramón. When he saw how slowly and tentatively the old man took his seat, Ramón surmised that he must have prostate cancer. Poor bastard, he sympathized, he must have to piss sitting down. I should start going to the urologist, I probably have an enlarged prostate, too. It’s natural. But that thing where the doctor sticks his finger up your . . . I hope I don’t get a hard-on.
How far he was at that moment, as he waited to see the oncologist, from the young Ramón who got turned on whenever he saw Carmela come out of her office in a tailored suit. After two months of chaste encounters in cafés and restaurants, it was Carmela who’d suggested that they go somewhere else. Ramón took her to a motel in Colonia Roma. They finished undressing clumsily between clean sheets in a dark room, and just as he kissed her with all the thirst of his 28 years, he heard the receptionist’s piercing voice call his name, 20 years later, announcing that his turn had finally come to see Dr. Aldama.
Excerpted from The Mutations by Jorge Comensal, translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle. Reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. English translation copyright © 2019 by Charlotte Whittle.