The Woman From Uruguay

Pedro Mairal, translated by Jennifer Croft

August 9, 2021 
The following is excerpted from Pedro Mairal's novel The Woman From Uruguay, newly translated by Jennifer Croft, a story that takes place over the course of a single day. Mairal is an Argentinian novelist, poet and writer who has published more than a dozen books. Croft is an American author, critic and translator who works from Polish, Ukrainian and Argentine Spanish, and has received the Man Booker Prize for her translations.

I took my ticket and my ID and entered the departure lounge. The rest of the passengers were there already, in one long line. Through the glass I could see the ferry completing its maneuvers to dock. I bought the most expensive coffee and croissant in history (a sticky croissant, a radioactive coffee) and devoured them instantly. I went to the end of the line and heard some Brazilian couples around me, some French people, and some accent from elsewhere in Argentina, the North, maybe Salta. There were other men going solo, like me; maybe they were also going to Uruguay for the day, for work or to bring back cash.

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The line moved, and I walked down the carpeted hallways and got on the ferry. The biggest section, with all those rows of seats, looked a little like a movie theater. I found a place by the window, sat down and sent you a message: All aboard. Love you. I looked out the window. It was getting light now. A yellow mist had swallowed up the jetty.

That’s when I wrote the email you later found:

Guerra, I’m on my way. 2pm okay?

I never left my email open. Ever. I was very, very careful about that. It comforted me that there was a part of my brain I didn’t share with you. I needed my lock on the door, my privacy, my shadow run, even if only for some quiet. It terrifies me the way couples become conjoined: same opinions, same degree of drunkenness, as if man and wife shared one bloodstream. There must be a chemical leveling that occurs after years of maintaining that constant choreography. Same place, same routines, same diet, simultaneous sex life, identical stimuli, shared temperature, income, fears, incentives, walks, plans . . . What kind of two-headed monster gets created that way? You get symmetrical with your partner, metabolisms synchronize, you operate as mirror images; a binary being with a single set of desires. And the kids are there to giftwrap that lockstep and slap an eternal bow on it. The idea is pure suffocation.

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I say “idea” because I think both of us fought against it despite the fact that we were slowly being conquered by inertia. My body stopped ending at my fingertips; it kept going into yours. A single body. There wasn’t any Lucas, any Catalina anymore. But then the hermeticism was punctured, cracked: me talking in my sleep, you reading my emails . . . In some parts of the Caribbean, couples name their kid a composite of their names. If we’d had a daughter, we could have called her Lucalina, for example, and Maiko we could have named Catalucas. That’s the name of the monster you and I were, decanting into each other. I don’t care for that idea of love. I need a nook of my own. Why did you go through my emails? Were you trying to pick the fight, to tell me how you really felt at last? I never checked your emails. You always left your inbox open, and that decreased my curiosity, true. But it also just wouldn’t have occurred to me to start rifling through your things.

The ferry set sail. The dock got smaller. You could see a bit of the coast out the window, guess at the buildings, their outlines. What an enormous relief. To leave. Even if it was just for a little while. To get out of the country. The loudspeakers announced the safety guidelines—in Spanish, in Portuguese, in English. Life vests under every seat. A moment later: “We are pleased to inform you that the duty-free shop is now open.” Whoever invented the term “duty-free” is a genius. The more restrictions they put on trade, the more we like that term in Argentina. What a bizarre idea of freedom.

It terrifies me the way couples become conjoined: same opinions, same degree of drunkenness, as if man and wife shared one bloodstream.

Here I was, traveling to smuggle in my own money. My advance on my last book. The cash that was going to solve everything. Even my depression, my sense of imprisonment, and the great “of course not” overriding everything in my life. Not going out because I don’t have any money, not sending the letter, not printing the form, not inquiring with the agency, not letting on how mad I am, not painting the chairs, not handling the mold, not sending out my résumé. And why not? Because I don’t have any money.

I’d opened the account in Montevideo in April. Only now, in September, were the advances from Spain and Colombia coming in, despite my having signed the contracts ages ago. If they had transferred the money in dollars to Argentina, the bank would have converted it into pesos at the official rate and then taken off the tax. If I went to pick it up in Uruguay and brought it back in bills, I could exchange it in Buenos Aires at the unofficial exchange rate and end up with over twice as much. The trip was worth it, worth even the risk that they’d catch me with the cash at Customs on the way back, since I was planning to cross the border with more dollars than anyone was allowed to bring into the country.

The River Plate: never has its name—from the Spanish word for “silver,” and the South American for “cash”— been more apt. The water was beginning to gleam. I was going to be able to pay you back what I owed you for the months I hadn’t had any work, when we’d lived off your salary alone. I was going to be able to dedicate my time exclusively to writing for ten months or so, if I was careful about what I spent. The sun was coming out. My losing streak was coming to an end.

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I remember that day we actually paid the toll on the highway in coins. We were going to visit my brother in Pilar. The woman in the booth couldn’t believe it. She counted the coins, fifteen pesos in coins. “There’s fifty centavos missing,” she said. The honking had started behind us. “It has to all be there, count it again,” I said. “It’s fine, just go,” she said, and we took off laughing, you and I, but deep down there was something painful about it, I think, something we never confessed. Because you used to say: we have some issues with our finances, not with how much money we have. And I thought you were right. But I kept not finishing projects, kept not quite finalizing any deals with anyone. I didn’t want to teach, and a silence was born and grew bigger with every passing month, as the kitchen sink fell in and I propped it up with some cans, and the Teflon got scratched in our pots, as one of the light fixtures in the living room burned out and left us in partial darkness, as the washing machine broke, and the old oven began to give off a strange smell, and the steering wheel in the car shook like the a space shuttle making its way through the atmosphere . . . And my tooth ended up only half fixed because the crown was expensive, and we suspended your IUD until further notice, we owed two months at Maiko’s preschool, we fell behind on our bills, our premiums, and one day both our cards were declined at Walmart while Maiko threw a tantrum on the floor between the registers, and we had to return all the items we had put in our cart. We were angry and ashamed. Insufficient funds. We fought on the balcony, once, and then again in the kitchen, you sitting on the marble counter, legs crossed, crying, putting ice on your eyes. “I have to go to work tomorrow with my eyes like this, fuck,” you were saying. You were fed up with me, with my toxic cloud, my pollution. “You seem beaten,” you told me, “defeated. I don’t get what you want.” I was standing next to the refrigerator, anesthetized, not knowing what to say. I flailed about, I felt cornered and couldn’t think of anything better to talk about than my own frustration. I provoked you just to see what you would say. “If you want to limit your sex life to a couple of orgasms a month, you do that, I can’t live this way,” I told you.

When I went out or finished a reading or spoke on some roundtable at some cultural center, I’d have a drink, and someone would come up and talk to me, a girl of 25 or a MILF of 50, ask me a question, smile at me, want it, want me, and I’d think, just a couple of beers and then off to the telo, the hourly hotel, a little adventure, my fangs would come out, I was a lion tied up with deli string, “I have to go,” I’d say, a kiss on the cheek, “Too bad,” she’d say, “Yeah, I have a small child, bucket of cold water, he’ll wake me up tomorrow.” That’s it, c’est fini.

And I’d go out into the night, get on a bus, get home, you’d be sleeping, I’d spoon you, hold you, nothing, you’d be exhausted, fast asleep. Maiko would come and get in bed with us early. We’d get up. We’d make him his Nesquik, take him to preschool, you’d go to the city center. “Chau, see you tonight,” and when you’d come back, you’d be tired and want to go to bed without dinner, and I’d watch TV, accumulating anger, venomous testosterone. We’d go on like that for months.

“Am I supposed to congratulate you for not fucking some girl?” you asked me, “Am I supposed to say thank you?” You were raring for a fight, a big one. And you would not let it go. You’re good at arguing. “Tell me what it is you want,” you were saying. I didn’t say any more. I didn’t want to go on.

At what point did the monster you and I were start getting paralyzed? We used to fuck standing up, remember? On the terrace at your apartment on Agüero, up against that wardrobe we painted together, in the shower, on the dining room table one time. We were splendid, wanting one another. Hungry for each other. From the front, lifting up your leg against the wall, from the back on the armchair, knocking over the table arrangements, you on top and arching suddenly like you were about to be abducted by an alien spacecraft. We’d think of things, we’d switch positions, rotating, dynamic, on fire. Gradually our beast with two backs grew hobbled, lay down, didn’t get up again, or got up only because the bed was there, because we were touching, horizontal, the beast now lazy, our orgasms derived from just one position, predictable missionary, or maybe you’d be facedown, almost absent. Together and alone. Or those nights when you were so tired you didn’t even make it all the way into bed, staying suspended between the quilt and the sheet, and later in the darkness I would get under the sheet and not even be able to spoon you, let alone slip my hand under the waist of your pajamas, or hold your breasts, or kiss your neck, we were separated by the taut fabric, next to each other but inaccessible, as if on two distinct planes of reality.

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Most nights it went like that. I lay awake on my back, listening to your breathing—and then, around two in the morning, the drip that we would never identify the source of, the exact sound of insomnia, the leak of the unconscious. The most annoying part was that it flowed irregularly, it was unpredictable; but it was accumulating somewhere, no doubt forming a puddle, creating more mold, rotting the plaster, the cement, weakening the structure of the household. I’d have to go to the armchair in the living room, surf the web a little more, fall asleep there, then go back to bed, defeated. Because I guess you were right, I was defeated, I don’t know exactly why or by whom, but I took pleasure in it. “I was down for the count for a long time, a lover of errors,” goes the song I’d sing drunk later that day.


Excerpted from The Woman From Uruguay by Pedro Mairal, translated by Jennifer Croft. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Bloomsbury. 

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