Foreigner

Cristina Rivera Garza
translated by
Sarah Booker
Illustration by Claire Hungerford

I stopped at the restaurant off the highway because I couldn’t stay awake. I’d been driving for eight hours after learning that my mother’s health was quickly deteriorating. As soon as I hung up the phone with her, I put a few things in a little suitcase and, knowing it would be difficult to find a flight at that late hour, grabbed the car keys and ran out the door.

Following by memory the route I hadn’t driven in years, I took the interstate as far as I could. Then I turned right onto a state highway, and later, as it got dark, I proceeded down local roads. I’d forgotten about the beauty of that drive. The evening hues outside the city. The way the wind softly bends the grass on the hills. The shapes of certain clouds. I stopped several times along the way to drink coffee and ask myself, silently and guiltily, whether my quick response really had to do with a concern for my mother’s health or just the overwhelming desire to leave everything behind. Tabula rasa.

My life in the city was a disaster. I was working more hours than necessary and living off cheap food, coffee, and cigarettes. I hadn’t gotten a haircut in months, and I was wearing the same clothes I’d acquired years before, when I’d first arrived, full of dreams. Desires. Ideas for the future. None of it had come to frui­tion, I had to admit more than once during the drive. Other things had been achieved, that was true, but not the ones I wanted. Not the ones that had brought me there. The sense of failure, at first discreet and bearable, had become a permanent bitter taste in my mouth. An invisible snake slithering across the backs of my thighs, steadily creeping up my torso, under my clothes. An inner clatter that kept me from sleeping. I was not a happy man.

The person who was driving these narrow country roads, now skillfully avoiding the body of some nocturnal animal, was as bitter as the saliva he couldn’t swallow. I screamed it to the heavens: I am not a happy man. I shouted it out to the deer that forced me to screech to a stop in the middle of the road, the deer that kept look­ing at me with its big, bright eyes as I got out of my car and fell to my knees on the asphalt, crying. Who are you? I yelled. What the hell are you doing out here? I realized it was just a fawn, cocking its head to the left. I said it once I could finally stand and get back in the car, looking into the rearview mirror: I am not a happy man. I am barely a man.

At night, lying next to one other, sharing private landscapes, she’d always end up whispering: somewhere else.

I was wiping away snot when I remembered my mother’s youthful face. She’d also moved away, but in the opposite direction. Instead of going to the city, she’d bought a little cabin in a place difficult to find, even on a map. There, she told me, she would have time to think. She said nothing more, as if no further explanation were necessary. Time to think about what? I wondered for the first time, keeping an eye on the speedometer as I counted the insects crashing into the windshield. Time to think, I guess, about how to get even farther away. That’s what she did, anyway. She drifted away, to places I knew little about. One morning she woke up hav­ing finally become what she’d always wanted to be: a foreigner. Someone not from here. A person recently arrived. Tabula rasa. For years she’d talked about that with my father. At night, lying next to one other, sharing private landscapes, she’d always end up whispering: somewhere else. That was the only thing I could hear from my room. Sometimes it sounded like a plea. Sometimes it echoed threateningly. Somewhere else. Anywhere, but elsewhere. Not here. That’s what she’d said or asked for or offered. My father’s death didn’t throw her off. She treated the matter like she treated everything—efficiently. Cleanly. It was after the funeral that she pulled me aside to give me the news: she was leaving.

“Where to?” I asked, incredulous.

“Somewhere else, naturally,” she told me, her gaze calm and voice steady. A dark suit made up of two perfect pieces enveloped her body.

“Why?” I insisted, terrified. “What for?”

That’s when she said she was going somewhere else so she could think.

I wanted to shake her. I wanted to cry and fall to my knees—just as I’d done before the fawn—fall to my knees at her feet. I wanted to hurt her. Maybe that’s why I later avoided contact with her. I called her every now and then, mostly when I was drunk. We exchanged some letters; she insisted on writing hers by hand, on paper, and sending them by mail. I visited her cabin at the end of the world only a couple of times—not that her invitations were abundant. It was as I’d imagined it: a rustic construction on the edge of an anonymous village that somehow had potable water and electricity. It felt more like a cloister than a house. There was something hushed or sacred about it.

I sat down at her table, and she offered me something to drink.

“So, this is where you live,” I said.

“This is where I live.” She repeated my words without irony, as if embracing them. “That’s right.”

That meeting was three years ago, and, in that lapse, we’d exchanged even fewer calls and letters than before. She was living as she’d always wanted, somewhere else, and I didn’t have the time or energy to bother her. I was convinced that any attempt to get closer would be a disturbance.

I still felt that way as I opened the door to her cabin, like I was an intruder. A thief. A murderer. My mother, against my expecta­tions, looked serene. She was in bed but awake, her back against big white pillows.

“I almost hit a deer,” I blurted out, a result of my exhaustion and surprise.

She didn’t respond.

“But I started crying instead.” I tested a timid, self-pitying laugh.

Still silent, she softly patted the narrow space between her body and the edge of the bed, inviting me to sit down close to her side.

“I’m okay,” she informed me. “I’m not going to die this time.” She smiled. The rage that I realized had been boiling all day in my stomach erupted violently from my mouth. It erupted as laughter. A huge, euphoric laugh that reverberated off the flimsy walls of her space. A laugh that was audacious, egregious, and propelled me upright and out of her bed. A purulent, furious sound. It took me a long time to recompose myself.

“Are you ever going to tell me what you’ve been thinking about all these years?” I managed to ask at last, settling back down at her side.

She smiled again.

“About the air,” she said, “naturally. About how difficult it is, sometimes, to breathe this air of ours.”

Cristina Rivera Garza is the author of numerous works of poetry, fiction, and criticism. Recent publications in English translation include Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country, translated by Sarah Booker; New and Selected Stories, translated by Sarah Booker, Lisa Dillman, Francisca González Arias, and Alex Ross; and the self-translated Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice. Rivera Garza is the founder of the PhD program in creative writing in Spanish at the University of Houston, where she teaches.
Sarah Booker is an educator and literary translator working from Spanish to English. Her translations of include Cristina Rivera Garza’s Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country, Gabriela Ponce’s Blood Red, and Mónica Ojeda’s Jawbone, a finalist for the National Book Award for Translated Literature.
Originally published:
March 27, 2023

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