The Other Story – Guernica

2022-07-01 23:01:53 By : Mr. wade wu

What was I doing in Madrid? The question carried implications: that I appeared neither busy nor local. I heard it most often at the pharmacy. Spaniards, especially the women, could easily detect my Americanness. Embarrassed, I’d sometimes ask, “What gave it away?” and they’d laugh and say, “Well, everything.”

By the time I’d met The Gentleman, I had become reasonably adept at answering this question, having already been asked by bankers and salespeople and policemen alike, and this helped soften my usual reservations around men, leaving room for flirtation.

We were inside the Museo de América, standing in front of a collection of Casta paintings by the Mexican artist Andrés de Islas. Thinking I must not have heard him, The Gentleman asked again, his voice edged with impatience. What was I doing in Madrid?

There were sixteen canvases in total in the exhibition, each depicting a scene between a man and a woman with a child in the middle. Each panel was numbered and inscribed with the racial mixture of the figures at hand and the outcome of that mixing.

Aware of the encircling guards, I kept my voice low. “I’m here to paint” — and because this didn’t feel like enough — “and to research.”

The Gentleman thinned his eyes. “And this research — it satisfies you?”

I smiled, unsure of the answer, and perhaps sensing this, The Gentleman didn’t wait, turning instead to appraise panel No. 2.

The Gentleman was a well-groomed man in his forties. His hair was silvered at the sides and had been brushed casually with a wide-tooth comb or else very dexterous fingers. He had beautiful hands, nails filed and clean emerald veins ribboning his wrists. He wore cognac shoes, ankle-baring slacks, a white button-down with the sleeves folded at the forearms. I noticed his temples and nose bridge were lined with the pale demarcation of phantom glasses, and I imagined him sunning earlier on his balcony, reading the latest from Andrés Barba, Javier Marías, or any other male Spanish writer he deemed worthy of his attention.

I followed his gaze to what looked like a reflection of us in another time — De Español y Mestiza, nace Castizo, 1774. Oil on canvas. The panel depicts an elegantly-dressed Mestiza woman breastfeeding her infant. To her left, a Spanish man — implied to be the infant’s father — stands protectively, one hand resting around the woman’s neck, the other cupping the child’s head. Adorning the walls behind them are hints of elite domesticity: a European-style chair, a baroque mirror reflecting a single burning candle. De Islas captures the triad in a rare moment of familial intimacy. Except the Spanish man appears distracted. His gaze is lured by something beyond the frame, his mouth slightly agape, as if caught in the shift between stasis and surprise.

I wanted to talk about this. How not even the subjects of Casta paintings could embody the idealized notions of colonial life, how their expressions revealed the façade of their reality.

But The Gentleman did not notice. Instead, he raised his pinky to signal the couple’s upper-class status, signified by the woman’s pearl earrings, the man’s military waistcoat. “See here? This is where the story takes place — in the details.”

I knew this but let him explain it to me anyway, and even when he glossed over De Islas’ intent behind each panel — to capture the racial mixing of New Spain — I chose to say nothing.

The Gentleman leaned forward, locking eyes with the man in the painting. “So much history captured in so little space.”

I edged closer to him. “But why this one?”

He turned to me. “What do you mean?”

“Of the sixteen panels here, why this one? Why No. 2?”

I hoped this question might make up for my failure to satisfy his earlier question, might stir in The Gentleman so much awe and bewilderment that he’d reconsider any negative impression of me — another aimless American in search of something outside of herself. This was the first conversation in Madrid I’d managed to sustain beyond a morning greeting, and it seemed important to linger in the moment for the possibility of it opening into more.

The Gentleman ran a veiny hand through of the silk of his hair, and the motion effused the air with the woodsy notes of his cologne. “Because — it’s the only one here that matters.”

I didn’t know what to say to this.

“Tell me, are you a student?”

He crossed his arms. “So, you must be post-doctoral.”

I bit my lip. “Not quite.”

The Gentleman laughed and the sound echoed across the arched ceilings, stirring the nearby guards. “Why so much mystery?”

I crossed my arms. “Why the curiosity?”

He smiled, glanced me up and down.

That I was neither white nor college-aged should have alleviated his apparent distrust of me. I had every right to inhabit a space. If I were in Madrid to simply drink and eat and wander the city, I should be able to do so without being accused of mediocrity by the locals. I should be able to order sangria without being told it wasn’t what Spaniards drink, should be able to purchase overpriced replicas of historic monuments in the form of cheap refrigerator magnets. I should be able to exist in a country without an external purpose, without someone demanding to know why.

“We get a lot of painter-types here. The hobbyist. The Photorealist. The Abstract Expressionist. I only ask because I’m curious about —.”

The Gentleman nodded. “But why Madrid and not, say, Mexico City?”

I thought for a moment. I could tell him the truth. That I’d arrived in Madrid to accompany my husband Rubén while he completed a Ph.D. in film studies. I could tell him how earlier that day, I’d left Rubén at home more out of a growing madness over his voice than out of courtesy for his work. He’d been reciting an essay out loud, checking it for rhythm, for moments where he found himself straining for breath. Despite the heat, he’d been cloaked in a flannel housecoat. Ghostly thumbprints smudged his glasses, cowlicks peaked from his scalp, and his eyes were blued from insomnia. His dissertation was on the rise of contemporary Spanish cinema, specifically the films of Pedro Almodóvar, and he intended to reshape some of his chapters into stand-alone essays. I’d been reading a biography about Dora Maar’s life as told in private letters, but hearing the strain in Rubén’s voice — the starts and stops and repetitions — jarred what little focus I could summon, so I grabbed my keys and left to explore the city alone.

Soon I was speed-walking south on Calle San Gregorio, dodging a British couple peering into an Afghan rug shop, where giant kilims hung like Rothkos from the walls. It was only after I’d passed a café serving drinks to a group of teenage hipsters — the girls squeezed into mini dresses, the boys streaked by intermittent bands of shadow and sun — that I realized I’d forgotten my cell phone.

No matter. I hurried to the Chueca metro stop, only two blocks from our fourth-floor studio apartment. Six months in, and I’d memorized my way around Madrid’s underground network in an attempt to feel at home. I knew taking the green line to Callao, then the yellow to Moncloa, would deliver me to the Museo de América in under twenty minutes. The museum had become my most-frequented site. Each visit brought me closer to the artist I’d long imagined myself becoming. No other place — not the Prado, nor the Thyssen, nor the glass-encased Reina Sofia — reflected me as fiercely as that red brick facade. I was seeking belonging where there otherwise was none. Unlike me, Rubén knew exactly who he was — an American-born man of Basque descent, a scholar of Spanish cinema. I envied his sense of self-assurance, the simplicity of his identity. It anchored him to the world in ways I’d never comprehend. But here, in the museum, surrounded by ceramic vessels and ceremonial huipils and ancient scripts from the Codex Tudela, I’d found my place.

Judging by The Gentleman’s polished shoes and neatly-trimmed beard, I assumed he was also married. His wife was probably raised Catholic, while he was an atheist, though they both attended Mass every Sunday. She worked in real estate, selling posh flats in Chamberí and Salamanca, while he taught philosophy at La UAM. A job in academia would explain his intense curiosity — that urge to unearth and examine. They’d been together fourteen years — eighteen if you counted the courtship — and shared a pair of short-haired dachshunds that over time had razed their furniture with threads of glinting copper. And the most obvious detail of all — given his lack of obvious wrinkles — no children. I saw this scenario so clearly in my head, I was shocked when I saw no ring on his finger.

The Gentleman leaned toward the painting, as if wishing to enter it, and the yellow beam of overhead light caught a halo of gold in his eye.

Or maybe I was only imagining all of this.

Before Rubén, I’d had a tendency to project the romanticized global encounters of freshly-divorced white women onto my own experience. I’d read their books and watched their movies and, like most other millennial women, would position myself in edgy cafés and elegant bookstores with a vast and insatiable want.

The men that entered and exited these scenes were either too old or too young, too clinical or too criminal, and after feeling the heat of their equal disappointment, the way their grunts and grimaces revealed their grievance with existence, I stopped attending these places altogether.

This period of yearning never fully went away, even as I neared the age of settling down.

When it finally happened, at a mutual friend’s house party, my greatest disappointment wasn’t in Rubén’s face or his clothes or his ability to carry conversation, but in the banality of our surroundings.

The Casta exhibit was positioned in a white-walled corner, flanked by two stone pillars and tiled in golden marble. We’d been standing for nearly an hour, and I’d yet to feel encumbered by the ache in my knees or the numbing in my feet. Beside me, The Gentleman wanted to know things.

Was this my first time here, at the museum?

Yes. (A lie; I had lost count).

Of the sixteen Castas, which was my favorite — besides, of course, No. 2?

None, I said, by which I meant all of them.

Of the two, which was my preferred medium — oil or acrylic?

I laughed. Did I even need to answer?

An elderly guard approached us. “Excuse me but other people would like a turn at the art. Please move forward.”

I felt annoyed by the disruption, but then I turned and saw that a crowd had indeed gathered behind us — art students and tourists and British retirees. I met eyes with The Gentleman, and he led me to the next hall in silence. I tried not to follow too closely; the span of my shadow marked the distance between us. He had a slight hunch when he walked, which surprised me given his otherwise commanding demeanor.

He didn’t stop walking.

Without a word, he led me through the next hall, past two female guards perched on too-small stools, and then the next, where we passed an encasement of pre-Columbian pottery — rare, gourd-like vessels shaped from clay and smoothed in cinnabar — and then the next, until we’d reached the top of a staircase, which we descended like royals, until we arrived at the lobby.

The Gentleman did not look back as he pushed through the double-paned doors. He escorted me into the blinding ire of late afternoon.

We’d moved our conversation to a nearby terraza that served tapas and beer between lunch time and dinner. The Gentleman ordered two cañas, one for each of us, and he sipped his in-between blows of a shrubby cigarette. The waitress served us olive oil and bread but never offered to show us la carta. She disappeared inside and didn’t bother to return.

“Tell me more about your interest in Castas,” he said.

Tearing at bread made me feel childish, so I sipped my beer and went hungry. “I’m interested in the backstory.”

He didn’t ask me to elaborate, only shrugged and said, “you don’t find de Islas’ style — how do you say — ‘rudimentaire?’”

He laughed, blowing smoke through his nostrils. “That’s what happens when four languages are fighting for their turn to speak.”

I held my breath, feeling at once charmed by and resentful of the ease with which a person could brag about themself. I was too aware of the frailties of my Latin American Spanish and avoided using it whenever possible. Rubén was the opposite. He’d switched the language on his phone, tablet, and laptop to Español (España), which had inadvertently taught him the Castilian version of “attachment,” “download,” and “force-quit.” I reached for my phone, instinctively wanting to message him, before remembering I’d left it behind. on the couch next to the Dora Maar biography. I immediately felt naked. Rubén must have noticed by now. He must have called and felt the phone pulsing from in between the couch cushions. Seen his own missed calls on the home screen.

The Gentleman lit a second cigarette. “What are you thinking?”

“That I should probably get going.”

“You don’t want to finish your drink?”

I realized I still didn’t know The Gentleman’s name, and I also realized I preferred it this way. He hadn’t bothered asking me for mine either, and I hadn’t thought to offer it. The mystery made the whole thing less real.

“When do you go back? To the States, I mean. And where did you say you were from?”

“Two and a half years. And it’s Arizona.”

“Huh.” He tipped his drink to his mouth and the glass came back empty; Arizona rarely evoked curiosity.

I searched for the waitress, making a show out of craning my neck, but she was nowhere to be found. The Gentleman pretended not to notice. “Tell me about your paintings.”

I knew this was a trick and I still fell for it. There was never enough opportunity to talk about my work, especially to someone who seemed like they might get it. We were two adults sharing a conversation, I told myself. That’s all this was. A few minutes longer wouldn’t change our trajectory. I took a deeper sip of my drink.

“They’re Casta-inspired, at least in form. I paint family scenes, typically a man and a woman, except instead of a child, there is an object in the middle.”

He was watching me intently, so I continued.

“The object might be a broken carburetor on a table where there should be a bowl of fruit.”

“But why not stick to the traditional form and paint a mixed-race child instead?”

“Well, for one, Castas are inherently racist. And two, I don’t want to.”

He chuckled while shaking his head. “Americans believe everything is racist.”

“Sure, but that’s what humans are: a mix of races. And that’s what art is: interpretation of human life. Castas are simple depictions of another time. There is little else to examine, unless of course you’re a scholar, and from what you’ve shared with me, you’re more of an artist, so what does it matter?”

His statement propped me up in my seat. I told him it mattered because my point wasn’t to replicate but to reimagine. Castas forced me to interrogate the larger question of place and belonging. How I myself descended from a braiding of people — Spaniards and Natives, Natives and Mestizos, Mestizos and Castizos — before arriving at Latinidad, an antiquated blanket term that failed to include us all, the children of conquest. My entire life I’d clung to words like Hispanic and Latino with no real understanding of what these words meant, only the idea that they represented me and I, in exchange, felt a responsibility to uphold my half of that representation. But what did it mean, to be Latino, truly? And how did that affect my experience with the larger questions of place and belonging, especially now that I was in the homeland of my colonizer?

The Gentleman gestured in the direction of the waitress, and she magically appeared from somewhere. He ordered two more cañas, though I hadn’t finished my first.

“This is the problem with Americans — they’ve been raised to believe history owes them an explanation. All young people want is reparations. Can you take a guess at what would happen if this country sought reparations for the atrocities committed by the Franco regime?”

“That’s right. Nothing. Absolutely nothing would happen. And look, our universities are among the most prestigious in the world. Sure, our economy is shit, but in terms of culture, Spain is the wealthiest nation in all of the EU. More than France, more than Italy, and definitely more than the UK, I can assure you of that. And to answer your point, yes, the Castas might be ‘racist,’ but they are a portal into understanding who we are and where we come from.”

I pushed away my drink and reached for my purse. There were so many holes in his logic, it was pointless trying to respond. Or worse, maybe in some twisted way, he was right, and my discomfort with the truth was urging me to leave. Either way, I sifted through my wallet and began counting my change.

“Not even a little bit.”

He gestured toward the waitress, nixing the previous order and mouthing, “la cuenta,” then turned back to me.

“My ex-wife would like you. She’s a feminist and an artist.”

“Oh? What’s her medium?”

“I mean does she paint? Does she write? Does she snap photos of babies as sunflowers?”

“She’s a filmmaker. Her last film received Goya nominations in nearly every category. Do you like the movies?”

I withdrew three 2€ coins, to cover my drink plus the tip, and left them on the table. “If this is an invitation, I’m not interested.”

The waitress arrived with the bill and The Gentleman paid by tapping his card on a mobile scanner. They both ignored my dirty change.

“It’s still playing at a theatre on Calle de Luchana. There’s a showing at 4:00. What do you say we head there now?”

I shook my head. “Listen, I’m married,” to which he smiled and said, “I know.”

It was because The Gentleman knew I was married that I decided it was okay to join him. There was nothing else to hide. Now we really were just two people sharing a conversation, a bag of popcorn, an entire row to ourselves. In fact, there was no one else in the theater.

We settled into our seats. The lights dimmed, the screen went black. We waited in the dark for the film to begin, and while we waited, I acknowledged the intimacy of our scenario. How from a stranger’s view, The Gentleman might himself be confused for something more than a stranger.

The film began. No credits, no music. A wide-lens shot of an empty classroom, the walls white and windowless, a double pedestal desk framed by an enormous blackboard positioned at the front. The camera lingered on this image for an uncomfortably long time. I could feel my eyes begin to droop. And then from somewhere in the cinematic distance, the sound of sandals shuffling down a hall. I stirred in my seat. The shuffling grew louder, closer. I sat up and watched as the classroom door eased open.

Balancing a tier of cardboard boxes, face obscured from the audience, a black-haired woman emerged through the doorway.

“That’s her,” The Gentleman whispered. “My ex-wife.”

Hobbling from one end of the screen to the desk in the middle, the woman lowered the boxes atop the surface. She wore indigenous garb: embroidered blouse and textile skirt. She turned to face the blackboard and the braid of her hair swung like a pendulum. Her back was to the audience as she grabbed a piece of chalk and a second camera zoomed in on her writing. The effect blurred her face, the lens focused on capturing the edge of the chalk as it crumbled against the surface.

The frame then switched to the rear of the classroom, so that the audience could read what had been written. The title of the film drawn in an ancient Maya glyph. At the bottom of the screen, the Spanish translation followed by English in closed captions:

La Otra HistoriaThe Other Story 

The woman set down the chalk and dusted her palms. She turned to face us and walked toward the camera, which prompted the lens to once again go out of focus. Still no clear image of her face. Still no other sound except for the scrape of a chair pulled from somewhere off-screen, on which she positioned herself, no less than a foot from the camera, her features revealed for the first time.

And I was horrified to find that this woman was me.

The Gentleman had subtly lost his composure. He was fidgeting in his seat, and sweat spackled his forehead.

Esta es la historia de mi vida en fragmentos. This is the story of my life as told in fragments.

Beside me, The Gentleman crossed and uncrossed his legs. I watched him dab his face with a handkerchief, then unbutton the collar of his now-wrinkled shirt.

No sé como he llegado a este momento. I don’t know how I’ve arrived at this moment.

I switched my gaze between the screen and The Gentleman. I was more interested in seeing him react to the narrating woman — his presumed ex-wife — a woman who looked like the stereoscopic image of me, only crisper, more vibrant.

Solamente sé que me gustaría retroceder hasta llegar al principio. All I know is I’d like to rewind until I’ve arrived at the beginning.

The Gentleman infected me with his anxiety. In my unease, I fingered the tangles in my hair. For a moment, the woman appeared to do the same, reaching for the long shaft of her braid and resting it over one shoulder, her brown hands elegant and small. She scooted to the edge of her seat and looked directly at me.

“And isn’t it sad,” she said in perfect English, “how in the years of living in separate but parallel trajectories, it’s taken this long for us to meet?”

I looked toward The Gentleman to gauge his reaction, only to realize he was no longer there.

I turned to my parallel self. “Yes,” I heard myself say, at last relaxing. “But here we are, at last.”

Guernica is a non-profit magazine dedicated to global art and politics, published online since 2004. With contributors from every continent and at every stage of their careers, we are a home for singular voices, incisive ideas, and critical questions.