4. Let's go where no one will judge us
Dris Larbi didn't like to stick his nose into his girls' private lives. Or that, at least, is what he told me. He was a quiet man, concerned about his business, a believer in letting people live the way they thought best, so long as they didn't pass the bill on to him. He was so even-tempered, he said, that he had even let his beard grow to please his brother-in-law, a boring-as-spit fundamentalist who lived in Nador with his wife-Dris' sister-and their four kids. He had the Spanish National Identity Document and the Moroccan neqwa (as Rifenos called the waraqa, or identity card), he voted in the elections, he killed his lamb on Eid el-Adha, and he paid tax on the declared income from his official business: not a bad biography for a man who'd crossed the border at the age of ten with a shoeshine box under his arm and fewer papers than a rabbit.
It was precisely that point-business-that had led Dris Larbi more than once to consider the situation of Teresa Mendoza. Because La Mexicana had
turned out to be special. She kept the Yamila's books and knew some of the business' secrets. Plus she had a head for numbers, and that was very useful in another sphere. Bottom line, the three hostess clubs that the Rifeno owned in the city were part of a more complex enterprise, which included facilitating the flow of illegal immigrants-he called it "private transport"-into Melilla and the Peninsula. That meant border crossings, safe apartments in Canada de la Muerte or old houses in Real, bribing the police on guard at the control posts, and sometimes more complicated expeditions, twenty or thirty people at a time, with clandestine disembarkations on Andalucian beaches, aided by fishing boats, launches, or other small craft that sailed from the Moroccan coast.
Dris Larbi had been approached by someone seeking to take advantage of this infrastructure to transport something more profitable, but besides being a good citizen and a good Muslim, Dris Larbi was prudent. Drugs were all right, and it was fast money, but working that line when you were a well-known businessman with a certain position on this side of the border implied, sooner or later, getting hauled into court. And it was one thing to grease the palms of a couple of Spanish cops so they wouldn't ask the girls or the immigrants for too many papers, but a very different thing to buy off a judge. Prostitution and illegal immigration implied less ruin in police proceedings, when it came to that, than fifty keys of hashish. Fewer hassles. The money came in slower, but you enjoyed the freedom to spend it, and not on lawyers and other bloodsuckers. So no thanks.
He had followed her a couple of times, not even concealing himself particularly, sometimes pretending he'd just bumped into her. He'd also made inquiries about that individual: Galician, trips to Melilla every week or ten days, a Phantom speedboat painted black. You didn't have to be an enologist or ethnologist or whatever they were called to figure out that liquid in green bottles with a cork had to be wine.
Two or three questions in the right places allowed Dris to discover that the person in question lived in Algeciras, that his speedboat was registered in Gibraltar, and that he was named, or was called-in that world, it was hard to know which-Santiago Fisterra. No police record, Dris was told confidentially by a corporal in the National Police, a fellow who was, coincidentally, quite a fan of getting blowjobs from Dris Larbi's girls in his patrol car while on duty. All these inquiries allowed Teresa Mendoza's boss to make a rough appraisal: Santiago Fisterra was inoffensive as a Yamila customer, but uncomfortable as a close, even intimate friend of La Mexicana's. Uncomfortable for Dris, that is.
He thought about all this as he observed the couple. He'd spotted them as he was driving down near the docks, in the area of Mantelete, alongside the walls of the old city, and after driving on for a hundred yards or so, he turned around and came back, parked, and went to the corner, to the Fisherman's Retreat, for a beer. In the little plaza, under one of the fortress' ancient arches, Teresa and the Gallego were sitting at one of three rickety tables in front of a food stall, eating kebabs. Dris Larbi could smell the heavily spiced meat on the coals, and he had to control himself-he hadn't had lunch- not to go over and join them. The Moroccan side of him loved kebabs.
Underneath, these girls are all alike, he said to himself. No matter how calm and serene they look, when a good screw comes along they listen to their hormones, not their heads. He sat for a while, watching from a distance, holding his Mahou, trying to make the young woman he knew, La Mexicana, efficient and discreet behind the cash register, jibe with this other woman, dressed in jeans, very high heels, and a leather jacket, her hair parted in the middle and pulled back tight, the way they wore it in Mexico, talking with the man sitting next to her in the shadow of the wall. Once again the thought struck him that she was not especially pretty-just one of many-but that depending on the moment, or how she fixed herself up, she could be striking. Her big eyes, that jet-black hair, the white teeth, the young body that so easily wore tight jeans, the sweet way she talked, and above all the way she listened when you spoke to her-quiet and serious, like she was thinking, so you felt you were the center of her attention, almost important. In the right circumstances, all that made her very attractive.
He knew the essentials of Teresa's past, and he didn't want to know more: She'd had serious problems in Mexico and some influential person had found her a place to hide. He'd seen her get off the ferry from Malaga with her bag and a confused look about her-banished to a strange world whose rules she was totally unfamiliar with. That little pigeon'll be eaten alive in two days, he'd thought at the time. But La Mexicana had shown a remarkable ability to assess the lay of the land and adapt to it, like those young soldiers from the country, accustomed to working in the sun and the cold, who later, during the war, stand up to anything, are able to bear up under fatigue and privation and to face every situation as though they had spent their lives in it.
That was why he was surprised by her relationship with the Gallego. She wasn't one of those to get mixed up with a customer or just anybody-she seemed to have learned her lesson. Seemed to be one of those that thought about things. Yet there she was, eating kebabs without taking her eyes off Fisterra. She might have had a future ahead of her-Dris Larbi was proof that a person could get ahead in life-but for the time being she didn't have a pot to piss in, and the most likely fate for her in the near future was ten years in some Spanish or Moroccan prison, or a razor blade on some corner.
Why, he was even sure that the Gallego was involved in Teresa's recent, unprecedented requests to attend some of the private parties that Dris Larbi organized on both sides of the border.
"I want to go," she'd said, with no further explanation, and he, surprised, couldn't, or wouldn't, refuse.
Okay, all right, why not. But you'd have had to be there to believe it-the way the girl that walked the straight and narrow behind the bar in the Yamila was now all dolled up, wearing lots of makeup, really attractive, with that same hairdo, the part down the middle and pulled back tight, and a black dress, very short skirt, very deep cleavage-one of those dresses that cling to a body that turned out to be not bad at all-with good legs, shown off by very high heels. Dressed to kill, he thought the first time, when he picked her up with a couple of cars and four European girls he carried to the other side of the border, beyond Mar Chica, to a luxurious place on the beach at Karia da Arkeman. Later, when the party got under way-a couple of colonels, three high-ranking government officials, two politicians, and a rich Nador businessman-Dris Larbi had not let Teresa out of his sight; he was curious to find out what she was up to. While the four European girls, aided by three very young Moroccans, entertained the guests in the way typical of such gatherings, Teresa chatted with almost everyone, in Spanish and also in an elementary English that until then he had not known she spoke. He himself knew only the words "good morning," "good-bye," "fuck," and "money."
All night, he observed disconcertedly, Teresa was attentive, charming, conversing here and there, as though calculatedly feeling out the territory. After fending off the advances of one of the local politicians, who by that hour was pretty full of everything ingestible in solid, liquid, and gaseous form, she chose a colonel in the Gendarmerie Royale, one Chaib. And Dris Larbi-who, like those efficient maitre d's in hotels and restaurants, remained discreetly distant yet always at hand, a touch here and another there, a nod or a smile, making sure that everything was to his guests' taste, and who had a nice bank account and three puti-clubs to run, plus dozens of illegal immigrants waiting for the green light to be transported to Spain, and who therefore was a master of public relations-had to take his hat off to the ease with which La Mexicana swept the gendarme off his feet. Nor was this gendarme, Dris Larbi noted with concern, some mere soldier. Because any drug runner that wanted to move hashish between Nador and Al Hoceima had to pay an additional tax, in U.S. dollars, to Colonel Abdelkader Chaib.
Teresa attended another party, a month later, where she rendezvoused again with the Moroccan colonel. And while Dris Larbi watched them conversing alone and in low voices on a sofa just inside the door to the terrace-this time the setting was a luxurious penthouse in one of the best buildings in Nador- he began to get nervous, and he decided there wouldn't be a third time. He even considered firing her, but he was bound by certain commitments. In that complex chain of friends of friends, the Rifeno had no control over the first causes or the intermediate links, and in such cases it was best to be cautious and not upset anybody. Nor could he deny a certain personal fondness for La Mexicana-he really did like her. But that didn't mean he was going to pimp for the Gallego or her with his Moroccan contacts. Not to mention that Dris Larbi tried to stay at arm's length from the cannabis plant in any of its shapes or transformations. So never again, he swore to himself. If she wanted to give Abdelkader Chaib or anybody else a blowjob to help Santiago Fisterra get ahead, that was fine, but he wasn't going to provide the bed to do it in.
He warned her the way he tended to do those things-without much fuss. Letting a word drop. They were leaving the Yamila together, walking down toward the beach and talking about a delivery of gin that was supposed to arrive the next morning. When they reached the corner of the sea walk, Dris Larbi saw the Gallego sitting on a bench waiting, and without any transition, between some remark about the cases of gin and paying the supplier, he said, "He's not the type who'll stay around."
That was all. Then he didn't say anything for a few seconds before returning to the gin, and also before realizing that Teresa was looking at him with a very serious expression. Not as if she hadn't understood, but more as if she were defying him to go on. The Rifeno felt obliged to shrug and add something-"They either leave or get killed."
"What would you know about that," she'd said-a statement, not a question.
She had said it with a tone of superiority and a degree of scorn that made Dris Larbi feel a bit insulted. Just who does this stupid Apache think she is, he thought. He opened his mouth to say something coarse, or perhaps-he hadn't decided-to tell this little Mexican tramp that he knew a few things about men and women, after spending a third of his life trafficking in men and women and cunts, and that if she didn't like it, there was still time to find herself another boss. But he said nothing, because he suspected that she wasn't referring to that-to men and women and the ones that screw you and move on-but to something more complicated, something that he wasn't fully aware of, something that showed in this woman's silences.
And that night, on the seaside where the Gallego was waiting, Dris Larbi sensed that Teresa's remark had less to do with men who move on than with men who get killed. Because in the world she came from, getting killed was a way of dying as natural as any other.
Teresa had a photograph in her purse. She had been carrying it in her wallet for a long time-since Chino Parra took it, of her and Guero Davila on his birthday: Guero wearing his aviator jacket, one arm over her shoulders. He looked great, laughing for the camera, that tall, thin gringo look of his, his other hand hanging from his thumb on his belt buckle. His smiling, sunny expression contrasted with Teresa's-she could manage only an uneasy smile, half innocent, half disconcerted. She was barely twenty then, and besides looking young she looked fragile, with her eyes very wide open at the flash, and on her lips that tense smile, almost forced, that couldn't quite manage to catch the contagious happiness of the man embracing her. The expression, as is often the case in snapshots, may well have been coincidental: just another moment, chance caught on film. But why not venture an interpretation now, with the lesson learned. Because often images and situations and snapshots are not fully understood until later events fully reveal them-they hang in suspense, provisional, to be confirmed or disproved further down the line.
We take photos not so we can remember, but so we can flesh them out later with the rest of our lives. That's why there are snapshots that are true, that hit the mark directly, and snapshots that aren't, that don't. Snapshots are images that time sets in their right place, giving significance to some and denying it to others, which fade on their own, like colors that fade over time.
That snapshot that she kept in her wallet was the kind that takes on meaning later. No one knew it when the picture was made, but in that photo one might now read, or interpret, everything that had happened so far. Everything, now, looked so obvious in Guero's attitude, Teresa's expression, her confused smile motivated by the presence of the camera. She was smiling to please her man, just enough-Come over here, prietita, look into that lens there and think about what you love about me, mi chula-while the dark premonition took refuge in her eyes. The foreboding.
Now, sitting next to another man at the foot of the walled city of old Melilla, she thought about that photograph. She thought about it because hardly had they gotten there that afternoon, while Santiago was ordering kebabs from the Moor at his charcoal brazier, when a street photographer with an old Yashica around his neck had approached them. Even though they told him no, thanks, she wondered what future might be read someday in the photo they weren't going to have taken, if someone should look at it years later, when everything had been played out. What signs might one be able to see in that scene next to the medieval wall, with the sea a few yards away, the waves battering the rocks behind the arch through which showed a piece of intensely blue sky-you'd almost be able to smell the algae and centuries-old stone and beach litter mixing with the smell of spicy kebabs on the coals. Because Teresa's most recent past gave that old snapshot an inexorable future, which was not yet revealed, either.
"I'm leaving tonight," Santiago said.
It was the sixth time they had been together. Teresa counted a few seconds before she looked at him, and she nodded as she did. "Where?"
"Doesn't matter where." He looked at her gravely, assuming it was bad news for her. "It's a job."
Teresa knew what the job was. It was on the other side of the border, because she herself had seen to what would be there. They had the word of Abdelkader Chaib-the colonel's secret bank account in Gibraltar had just gotten a little bigger-that there'd be no problems with the shipment. Santiago had been in his room in the Hotel Anfora for eight days, waiting for word, with Lalo Veiga watching the boat in a cove on the Moroccan coast, near Punta Bermeja. Waiting for the cargo. And now word had come.
"When will you be back?"
"I don't know. A week at the outside."
Teresa nodded slightly again, as though a week was about right for what he had to do. She would have made the same gesture if he had said a day, or a month.
"The dark of the moon is coming," he noted.
Maybe that's why I'm sitting here with you. The new moon is coming and you've got a job, and it's like I've been sentenced to play the same role all over. The question is whether I want to play it again or not. Whether it's good for me or not.
"I want you to be faithful to me," he-or his smile-said.
She looked at him as if returning from someplace far away. So far away that she had to make an effort to understand what the fuck he was talking about.
"I'll try," she said at last, when she understood.
"You don't have to stay here."
He looked her straight in the eye, almost faithful. All of them looked you straight in the eye, almost faithful. Even when they lied, or made promises they were never going to keep, even if they didn't know it.
"Bullshit. We've talked about that."
She had opened her purse and was looking for her cigarettes and lighter. Bisontes. Harsh, unfiltered cigarettes, which she had gotten used to almost accidentally; there were no Faros in Melilla. She lit one, and Santiago kept looking at her the same way.
"I don't like your job," he said after a while.
"Oh, I love yours."
It sounded like the reproach it was, and there were many things said in four words. He looked away. "What I meant was that you don't need that Moor."
"But you need other Moors… and you need me," she said.
She remembered without wanting to. Colonel Abdelkader Chaib was about fifty, and not a bad sort. Just ambitious and egotistical like any man, and as reasonable as any intelligent one. He could also, when he wanted to, be polite and friendly. He had treated Teresa very courteously, never demanding more than she had planned to give him, and without confusing her with the woman she wasn't. He kept his eye on business and respected the limits. Respected them to a certain point.
"Never again," he said.
"I swear. I've thought about it a lot. Never again."
He was still frowning, and she half turned away. Dris Larbi was on the other side of the plaza, on the corner at the Fisherman's Retreat, with a cold one in his hand, watching the people and cars pass by. Or the two of them. She saw him raise the bottle, greeting her, and she responded by bobbing her head.
"Dris is a good man," she said, turning back to Santiago. "He respects me and he pays me."
"He's a pimp and a cabron and a Moor."
"And I'm a puta Indian cabrona."
He said nothing, and she smoked silently, ill humored now, listening to the murmur of the sea. Santiago toyed with the metal skewers on the plastic plate, crossing and uncrossing them. He had strong, harsh, dark-skinned hands, which she knew well. He was wearing the cheap, reliable waterproof wristwatch he always wore-no gold, no chains, no rings. The light reflecting off the whitewashed walls of the plaza gilded the hairs on his forearm, over the tattoo. And made his eyes brighter.
"You can come with me," he said at last. "It's nice in Algeciras We'd
see each other every day. Far from this."
"I don't know if I want to see you every day."
"You're a strange girl. I didn't know Mexican girls were like that."
"I don't know what Mexican girls are like. I know what I'm like." She thought about it. "Well, some days I think I know."
She threw the cigarette down and crushed it under her shoe. Then she turned to see whether Dris Larbi was still at the bar across the plaza. He wasn't. She stood up and said she'd like to take a walk. Still seated, while he dug in his back pocket for money, Santiago stared at her, but his expression was different now. He was smiling. He always knew when to smile, to make the dark clouds pass and her mood brighten. To make her mood brighten, or make her do other things. Abdelkader Chaib included.
"Sometimes you look like a teenager, and I like that." He stood up, leaving a few coins on the table. "I mean when I watch you walk, you know, and all that. You swing your ass, you turn, and I'd eat you alive if I could… and those tits."
"What about them?"
Santiago tilted his head, trying to find a good definition. "They're pretty," he said, seriously. "The best tits in Melilla." "Hijole! That's the way a Spaniard pays a compliment?" "I wouldn't know." He waited for her to stop laughing. "That's what came into my head." "Just that?"
"No. Also that I like the way you talk. Or don't talk. It makes me… I don't know… lots of things. One of the things it makes me is… maybe the word is tender.'"
"Okay. I'm glad you sometimes forget my tits and get all tender."
"I don't have to forget anything. Your tits and me being tender are compatible."
She took off her shoes and they started walking through the dirty sand, and then among the big rocks at the water's edge, under the walls of ocher stone through whose loopholes protruded the barrels of rusty cannons. In the distance rose the blue-gray silhouette of Cabo Tres Forcas. From time to time the spray wet their feet. Santiago was walking with his hands in his pockets, pausing now and then to make sure that Teresa didn't slip on the moss-covered wet rocks.
"Other times," he added suddenly, as if he hadn't stopped thinking about it, "I look at you and all of a sudden you look older, a lot older… Like this morning."
"What happened this morning?"
"Well, I woke up and you were in the bathroom, and I got up to look at you and I saw you standing in front of the mirror, splashing water on your face, and you were looking at yourself like you were having a hard time recognizing yourself. And you had the face of an old woman."
"Horrible. Which was why I wanted to make you pretty again, so I swept you up in my arms and carried you to the bed and we screwed for over an hour."
"I don't remember."
"Being in bed?"
She remembered perfectly, of course. She had waked up early, with the first gray light. Roosters crowing at daybreak. The voice of the muezzin in the minaret. The tick-tock of the clock on the night table. Unable to get back to sleep, she had watched the light gradually grow brighter, more golden, on the ceiling, with Santiago asleep on his stomach, his hair tousled, half his face sunk into the pillow, the rough shadow of his beard grazing her shoulder. His heavy breathing and his almost perfect motionlessness, so like death. And the sudden panic that made her jump out of bed, go to the bathroom, turn on the faucet, and splash water on her face over and over again, while the face looking out at her from the mirror resembled that woman with wet hair who had stared back at her the day the phone rang in Culia-can. And then Santiago reflected behind her, his eyes swollen with sleep, naked like her, embracing her before he carried her back to bed to make love between the wrinkled sheets that smelled of them both, of semen, and of the warmth of entwined bodies. And then the ghosts fading away into the new order once again, with the shadow of the dirty dawn-there was nothing in the world as dirty as that undecided lead-gray light just before dawn-that the sunlight, now streaming in through the shutters, was banishing once more to the underground.
"With you, sometimes, I feel like I'm a little outside, you know?" Santiago was gazing out at the blue ocean, the waves rising and falling, splashing among the rocks-an experienced look, almost technical. "I've got you all controlled and then-bam!-all of a sudden you seem to go off somewhere."
"Stop it. I told you that's over."
Again the smile that erased everything else. Handsome as hell, she thought again, bien padre. Fucking smuggling hijo de su puta madre.
"You seem far away sometimes, too," she said. "God knows where you are, but it's fucking far."
"That's different. There are things that worry me… I mean things now. But you're different."
He didn't say anything else for a while. He seemed to be searching for an idea that was hard to pin down. Or express.
"You…" he said at last, "it's that there are things that were there before I met you."
They walked on a little farther before returning to the arch. The old kebab man was cleaning off the table. He and Teresa smiled at one another.
"You never tell me anything about Mexico," Santiago said.
She leaned on him as she put on her shoes. "There's not much to tell," she replied."… Some guy fucks over another guy because of drugs or a few pesos, or because he says you're a Communist, or a hurricane comes and everybody gets fucked."
"I was talking about you."
"I'm Sinaloan. A little wounded in my self-esteem lately. But stubborn as hell."
"That's it. I don't ask you questions about your life. I don't even know whether you're married."
"I'm not." He waggled his finger, negative, before her eyes. "And it pisses me off that you've never asked till now."
"I'm not asking. I'm just saying what I don't know. That was the deal." "What deal? I don't recall any deal."
"No stupid questions. You come, I'm there. You leave, I stay."
"What about the future?"
"We'll talk about the future when it gets here."
"Why do you sleep with me?"
"Who else is there?"
She halted before him, hands on her hips, as though she were about to sing him a ranchera.
"Because you're a good-looking guy," she said, appraising him, her eyes traveling up and down him slowly, appreciatively. "Because you've got green eyes, a great ass, strong arms… Because you're an hijo de la chingada without being totally fucking selfish. Because you can be hard and sweet at the same time… That enough?" She could feel the muscles in her face grow tense, without her realizing it. "And because you look like somebody I once knew."
Santiago looked at her. An awkward expression on his face now, naturally. The flattered expression had gone, and she could predict what he was about to say.
"I don't like the idea of you remembering another man."
Fucking Gallego, she thought. Pinches honibres de mierda. So easy, all of them, and such assholes. She had to end this conversation.
"Jesus Christ. I didn't say I remember another man. I said you looked like somebody."
"And you don't want to know why I sleep with you?" "Besides my usefulness at Dris Larbi's parties?" "Besides that."
"Because you have a great time in my dark little cave down there. And because sometimes you feel alone."
She watched him run his hand through his hair, confused. Then he took her by the arm.
"What if I slept with other women? Would you care?"
She pulled her arm away gently, until she felt free again. "I'm sure you sleep with other women." "In Melilla?"
"No. Not that I know of. Not here."
"Say you love me."
"Orale. I love you."
"That's not true "
"What do you care? I love you."