We met her in Mexico City. My husband didn't like her. He said that her energy tired him, and it's true; one felt tired just watching her, but she required listening as well. She'd quote Marx, Hegel, Freud, Erikson, Perls, but her hero was Gramsci. She'd made a pilgrimage to the island of Sardinia, where he was born, and she couldn't even count the times she'd read his book, Prison Letters; "Can you imagine the founder of the Italian Communist party sitting in prison for eleven years?" The blue of her eyes seemed to deepen when she spoke of him and her hands, which were constantly shaping words—summoning them like birds fluttering around or above her, or thudding onto the table before her—seemed to tense as well. She fidgeted with her rings; there were three. She took them off, one by one, fit them on different fingers, all on one finger, into a triangle on the table. Her hair was long and blonde in a time when women wore theirs short and somewhat styled. And she dressed in Mexican peasant dresses, unaware they were no longer in fashion. But then she'd been in Latin America an awfully long time, and what did she care what wealthy people wore? Her life work was for the oppressed and poverty-stricken. She'd been all over Central and South America, and in the poorest barrios. She'd seen houses made out of sheets of milk carton, junkyards for neighborhoods, families of ten, twelve, thirteen living in one room. But things were going to change. Sometimes she couldn't sleep, thinking of all the work that had to be done—organizing, rebuilding, forming cooperatives; it had to be started now. She was ready; what was she waiting for?
My husband, with little patience for her brand of politics, stopped listening to her. At first he had listened in order to argue. But she would pounce on his one or two lines—he was still working up to a rebuttal—and out would come another torrent of words. It was impossible to argue with her. She lost you in her logic. And she spoke with a tremendous speed, even in a language that wasn't her own. Perhaps she was afraid we'd never stay to hear it all if she spoke at a normal pace. Or perhaps it was only urgency that propelled her hands and words.
I was helping her correct an article in English—her theory on the role of the individual in social change—for a symposium. The first draft was lost in Colombia when her bag was stolen, the second in the mail between England and Germany. She had reconstructed it from memory. The paper was very long and scribbled across the backs of old letters and Xeroxes.
My husband didn't see why I continued to work for her. He himself was a translator for a large publishing house in Mexico. His Spanish was flawless. My own Spanish was good, but never quite as good as his. He sometimes gave me things to work on—letters and articles, writing that didn't have to do with the creative side of novels; he said I needed first of all to fine-tune my Spanish. Every so often I did freelance work for a small company: insurance and banking, all very technical—something my husband looked down on. "Why waste your talent on an actuarial valuation or a financial statement? Why not wait until at least a good television script comes along?" He urged me to stop working for Karla—I wasn't getting paid; her prose ("if you can all it that") was tedious.
I thought I would give notice the next time she called, but instead I accepted "just a few more pages." I corrected the grammar, her syntax, her choice of words, so that all her sentences ran smoothly together like thoughts when we are half-sleeping. But I didn't understand the paper. The language was obtuse; it seemed to walk under, over and around, but never into her ideas. Every few paragraphs there was a quote from Hegel, Gramsci or Freud.
Each time we met she offered me small gifts, always wrapped in paper napkins. First it was a handful of cookies and a tablespoon of coffee. Then there were small twigs and berries in a pottery jar. And then two straw birds made by children in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Frayed at the edges and a little dusty, they looked as though they'd been hanging on her own apartment wall. I imagined her digging through her few possessions, trying to find something suitable to offer me. Soon her poor apartment would be bare; she'd have no more earrings, plants, decorations to give me. I tried to refuse the gifts, but this offended her deeply; they were humble, small details only, but didn't I like them? I had to show her where I'd hung the birds; I wore the earrings whenever she came by.
When I gave her the pages I'd revised, she seemed overjoyed. She hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. She was tall and smelled of perfume. Perfume wasn't something I associated with revolutionaries, but perhaps it was her European background. The house smelled like perfume long after she'd gone: a little too sweet, a little too strong.
She'd been coming and going for two weeks before my husband asked me: "Is that some new perfume you're wearing?" He'd kissed me too, having just got home.
"Oh no," I told him, "That's Karla's. She wears so much, you know."
"You mean you're still working with Karla?" He had an even-toned way of speaking which sometimes masked what he was feeling. I told him just until we finished the article, not much longer. "I didn't know exploitation appealed to you." He was trying out sarcasm. It didn't suit him.
Perhaps Karla knew he didn't like her. The first time she came to work with me, she looked around the apartment timidly. "You're alone?" When I told her I was, she looked relieved—no, almost pleased. We drank coffee before starting the work together. If I offered her food—some cookies, a sandwich, a piece of toast even—she refused. But coffee she drank lots of.
She thought I was extremely intelligent. My choice of words delighted her; the way I understood what she was trying to express, and so quickly! She said these things at least once during a session of working together, as if she'd forgotten she'd told me before. I denied her praise emphatically; English was my language, rearranging the words she'd labored over came easily to me. Yet I looked forward to hearing her praise. It was another one of her gifts, like the straw birds and owl earrings (because I was wise, she said). I waited to see what she would bring me each time.
"Where did these come from?" My husband had an amazing capacity not to see something new I'd bought or was wearing—a pair of shoes, a dress even—until at least a week had gone by. Then quite suddenly he saw it for the first time. So it was with the birds.
"Oh, some Nicaraguan children made them. Aren't they pretty?"
"Hmmm," he said. He was lifting up the lid from a pot on the stove, wanting to see what I'd made for dinner.
The birds were not very pretty really. Or only in a primitive way. They were made of lacquered burlap and straw. It looked as if the children had one pattern to follow—the two were exactly the same, as much as handmade crafts can be. They gave me a depressing feeling—muddy brown like their color, not how I imagined Nicaraguan birds at all. But I knew Karla treasured them, and I appreciated her sacrifice in giving them to me. No, it was more that that. I felt she was trying to reach me with them, in a way perhaps no one else had. As if she knew something about me that I myself was still learning.
We were nearing the end of the article. It seemed to me that it was much too long, even for a symposium, but I shoved the thought from my mind. My task was to revise it, not rewrite it. Still I felt sad that it was all coming to an end—what we'd worked so hard on—and I spent long hours on the last ten pages. I wanted the conclusion to be particularly strong. I told myself it was only because I wasn't a Marxist psychologist that it made little sense to me, except grammatically. There seemed to be too many threads of thought, all tangled together in one stringy knot, and at the same time, it seemed to be the same two or three ideas repeated endlessly. The diagram she'd made to clarify the main points only increased my confusion, with its arrows and lines crisscrossing the page. I devoted all my time to those pages. But there was a deadline. When Karla called, I reluctantly pronounced it finished.
She seemed a mixture of happy and sad. Soon she'd be off to Nicaragua. She had an envelope with her; she pressed it into my hand. "I'm going to call you tomorrow." She kissed me on the cheek and was gone.
The money slipped out as soon as I opened the card. It was a thousand peso note, equivalent to five dollars, but that cheapens it greatly. Thinking in pesos, it came to a lot more. But I was thinking neither in terms of pesos nor dollars, but in Karla's terms, and for her it was a great deal of money.
I read the card. She thanked me for all my help; it was invaluable to her. She said she'd come to cherish me and wanted me to join her in Nicaragua. She said I would be of great help there, and especially to her, who needed someone whose steady intelligence could balance her fits and starts of nervous energy.
What I read both surprised and pleased me. I thought about her offer for a very long time. I tried to be rational and intelligent, qualities she admired me for. But part of me just wanted to go there with her, and not think it over at all. That part of me made the decision.
I took out a suitcase from the hall closet, the smallest I could find, and started packing. What sort of clothes does one wear in Nicaragua? Light, yet strong and practical. A pair of sandals and walking shoes. My blue dress, green sweater, black slacks and favorite t-shirts. I felt weightless suddenly: no furniture, no dishes, no rugs or carpets, though these were things I'd spent a good deal of time searching and bargaining for in open-air markets. I'd always been told how good my eye was, how my skill at bartering was something to be proud of. How odd that none of that mattered to me now. I wanted only the necessities: toothbrush, a few clothes, some books—two or three choice ones. I began to look through my collection. A novel by Marquez I hadn't yet read, one by Cela... And what about my dictionaries—those thick books which had helped us so often (Karla had only a pocket one someone had lent her). I decided against them: much too heavy and cumbersome. Anyway my husband could send them later, if we needed them.
My husband. I'd been trying not to think of him. What would he say? (What would I?)
I let him open the door and kiss me before I told him. I hadn't forgotten to make dinner. He was looking into the soup pot. "Oh?" he said. I could see he wasn't listening.
"I'm going with Karla to Nicaragua," I repeated, more slowly and forcefully the second time. I waited for the meaning of my words to sink in. These were not just words; this wasn't a case of dreaming out loud.
"What?" he said. And then with his peculiar sense of timing, "Now wait a minute, since when have you cared about revolution? Or what is it you're interested in? Not Karla—?"
I ignored his questions. I didn't want to get sidetracked. "I've packed a small suitcase," I told him. "But I won't be taking my dictionaries. Maybe you could send them later on?"
This is when the phone rang. It was Karla. She wanted to know what I'd decided. I watched my husband as I spoke. "I'm going with you."
"Oh! That's wonderful! I'm so happy, I was hoping..."
My husband was glaring at me. Then he softened and laughed. "This is very amusing, you're doing so well. When do I get to clap?"
"It must have been difficult to make the decision, yes? I really didn't expect... I mean in your case, for me it's the only thing to do but I mean, well, let's say you're more tied to the material...and your husband, well that makes it difficult too..."
"Does this mean you don't want me to?" I was getting confused.
"No, no, not at all, it's just that..."
I couldn't catch what she'd said; she was talking extra fast again. My husband seemed to be practicing x-ray hearing, which was disconcerting. "There are some things to consider," I heard her telling me. "You need to be prepared. You must start attending the meetings with Rafael, Luis and Estela. I told you about them. You also need to do some reading..."
"Yes, I know, I've packed some books..."
"Yes, very good, Luis will give you a reading list. No, better you get the books from him. He can drop them by your house. Also, there's a course I think you should attend. Not at the University—it's taught by El Habanero. In his apartment: Tamaulipas 224—are you writing this down? In the Colonia Condesa—you see, not so far from where you live. It will be very good for you. Excellent, really. He will absolutely change your thinking. I'm going to go on ahead and then you'll meet up with me, we can say in two, three months? Or do you think you need five months to prepare yourself?"
"I really don't know... I'm getting confused..."
"Of course you are," she told me, "but only right now. With time it will all make sense to you, incredible, incredible sense..." She said the problem was I wasn't ready. Soon I would be. I had only to go to the meetings, follow the reading list, read her paper again (she'd left me a finished copy).
"Promise you will?" she asked.
"Yes... I mean... yes, I think so..."
My husband smiled as he hung up the phone for me. "Finished with that little daydream?" he said.
I ignored this. I hummed a tune, as if the whole thing was of no concern to me. "I've got some studying to do," I told him.
"And what kind would that be? I hope you're going to take that Cervantes class I told you about. You really should be improving your Spanish so that you can begin to translate literature, instead of those reports you're always doing... How much do you get paid for those things anyway?"
In the bedroom I could still hear him, but I pretended I was out of earshot. I glanced at the little brown suitcase sitting on our bed, so neatly packed, so compact. I couldn't bear to undo it. Instead I found room for it in our closet, behind the carton of shoes I still meant to give away.
"You know, I've been thinking." My husband was standing in the doorway. "We really are due for a vacation. It's not going to be given to us—that's how it is when you freelance—we just have to take it. And we should, you know."
For a moment I said nothing. And then, "Where would we go?"
"How about an island? Isla Mujeres? Or what about that new resort, Huatulco, is it?"
In the end we went only to Cuernavaca, just two hours away, but the hours in the sun were long and drinking Bloody Marys by the pool felt luxurious. I tried to imagine Karla in such a place, saw her in her long hair and dress, fidgeting with her rings: she would never sit so still. I was indulging myself in a way she wouldn't approve of. If only I'd brought one of the books she'd suggested; why hadn't I thought to do that?
Perhaps she knew; she did not write or call. Sometimes in the middle of doing something else entirely—walking, speaking with my husband, even shopping—the image of the suitcase in our closet would suddenly interrupt my thoughts. I would see it clearly: its imitation leather, its contents so neatly packed, and for a moment I was on a plane somewhere, suitcase tucked under my seat; there would be no need to check such a small one.
Jessica Treat is the author of A Robber in the House, a collection of short-short stories. Her new collection, Not a Chance, Stories and a Novella, is due out from Fiction Collective 2 in October. Her fiction has appeared in various journals and anthologies, among them, American Literary Review, Black Warrior Review, Ms. magazine, Epoch and Quarterly West. New work is forthcoming in Slipstream and Green Mountains Review. She was awarded the Dominion Review Fiction Award in 1996 and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.