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Headlights
 Samanta Schweblin

  Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell



When she reaches the road, Felicity understands her fate. He has not waited for her, and, as if the past were a tangible thing, she thinks she can still see the weak reddish glow of the car’s taillights fading on the horizon. In the flat darkness of the countryside, there is only disappointment, a wedding dress, and a bathroom she shouldn’t have taken so long in.
Sitting on a rock beside the door, she picks grains of rice from the embroidery on her dress, with nothing to look at but the open fields, the highway, and, beside the highway, a women’s bathroom.

Time passes during which Felicity throws off all the grains of rice. She still doesn’t cry; deep in the shock of abandonment, she smooths the folds of her dress, examines her nails, and, as though expecting a return, stares out at the highway down which he disappeared.

“They don’t come back,” says Nené, and Felicity screams in fright. “The highway is shit.”
 
The woman is behind Felicity, and she lights a cigarette. “Just shit, the very worst kind.”
 
Felicity gets control of herself, and as the shock dies down, she rearranges her straps.

“First time?” asks Nené, and she waits unappreciatively for Felicity to regain enough courage to stop trembling and look at her. “I’m asking if the guy is your first husband.”

Felicity forces a smile. She discovers in Nené the old and bitter face of a woman who was surely once more beautiful than Felicity herself. Amid the marks of premature old age, clear eyes and perfectly proportioned lips still remain.

“Yes, the first,” says Felicity, with that shyness that turns the sound of a voice inward.
 
A white light appears on the highway, illuminates them as it passes, and vanishes, glowing red.

“So? You going to wait for him?” asks Nené.

Felicity looks at the highway, at the side where, if her husband was to return, she would see the car appear. She can’t bring herself to reply.

“Look,” says Nené, “I’ll make this short because there’s really not much to it.” She steps on the cigarette, emphasizing the words: “They get tired of waiting and they leave you. It seems waiting wears them out.”

Felicity carefully follows the movement of a new cigarette toward the woman’s mouth, the smoke that blends with the darkness, the lips that press the cigarette.

“So the girls cry and wait for them...” Nené goes on, “and they wait... And especially, the whole time they’re waiting: they cry, cry and cry.”

Felicity’s eyes stop following the cigarette. Right when she most needs sisterly support, when only another woman could understand what she is feeling in front of a women’s bathroom beside the highway after being wholly abandoned by her new husband, she has only this arrogant woman who has been talking to her, and who is now shouting.

“And they keep crying and crying at all hours, every minute of every damned night!”

Felicity takes a deep breath, and her eyes fill with tears.

“And screw all that crying and crying... I’ll tell you something. This is it. We’re sick and tired of hearing about your stupid problems. We, little miss... What did you say your name was?”

Felicity wants to say Felicity, but she knows that if she opens her mouth, the only sound will be uncontrollable sobbing.

“Hello... your name was... ?”


Then the sobbing is uncontrollable.
“Fe... li...” Felicity tries to control herself, and though she doesn’t really succeed, she does finish the word: “...city.”

“Well, Feli-city, I was saying that we can’t keep putting upwith this situation. It’s unsustainable, Feli-city!”

After she takes a long and noisy breath, Felicity’s sobs start to swell again, dampening her entire face, which trembles as she breathes and shakes her head.

“I can’t believe...” she gasps, “that he’s...”

Nené stands up. She crushes her unfinished cigarette on the bathroom wall, looks at Felicity with contempt, and walks away.

“Rude!” Felicity shouts at her.

But a few seconds later, once she realizes she’ll be left alone, Felicity catches up with Nené out in the field.


“Wait... Don’t leave, you have to understand...”    

Nené stops and looks at her.
“Shut up,” says Nené, and she lights another cigarette. “Shut up, I’m telling you. Listen.”

Felicity stops crying, chokes down something like the beginnings of another outbreak of sorrow.

There’s a moment of silence during which Nené does not feel relief. Even more nervous and distraught than before, she says: “Okay, now listen. Do you hear it?”

Nené looks out at the black field.

Felicity is quiet and she concentrates, but she cannot hear anything. Nené shakes her head in disapproval.

“You cried too much, now you have to wait for your ears to get used to it.”

Felicity looks off toward the fields and cocks her head a bit.

“They’re crying...” says Felicity, in a low, almost ashamed voice.

“Yes. They’re crying. Yes! They’re crying! They cry all the damned night!” Nené gestures to her face: “Can’t you see my face? When do we sleep? Never! All we do is listen to them every damned night. And we’re not going to take it anymore, understand?”

Felicity looks at her, startled. In the fields, voices of wailing and plaintive women repeat the names of their husbands over and over.

“And they all cry!” says Nené.


Then the voices begin to shout:
Psycho!
Miserable, unfeeling bitch!


And other voices join in:
Let us cry, you hysterical shrew!

Nené looks furiously all around her. She shouts into the fields:
“And what about us, you cowards... ?

“Some of us have been here more than forty years, abandoned same as you, and we have to hear your stupid little problems every damned night? Huh? What about us?”

There’s a silence, and Felicity looks at Nené in fear.


Take a pill! Crazy woman!
Although they’re out in the fields they can still see the highway. Parallel to where they are standing, a pair of white lights pulls up beside the little building.

“Another one,” says Nené, and as if this were the last thing she could bear, she drops to the ground, exhausted.

“Another one?” asks Felicity. “Another woman? But... is he going to leave her? Maybe he’ll wait...”

Nené bites her lips and shakes her head. In the fields the cries grow ever more unfriendly.


Come on, you hussy, let’s see you show your face...

Come on, now that you don’t have your little rebel friends...

Feeble old hag...

Felicity takes Nené’s hand and tries to pull her up, pointing toward the bathroom.

“We have to do something! We have to warn that poor woman!” says Felicity.

But then she stops and falls silent, because Felicity has seen the exact image of her painful recent past: the car driving off before the woman who got out has had the chance to get back in, and the lights, previously white and bright, disappear, reddish, in the other direction.

“He left,” says Felicity, “he left without her.”

Like Nené did before, she lets her body collapse to the ground. Nené rests her hand on Felicity’s.

“That’s how it always is, dear.” Nené pats Felicity’s hand. “It’s inevitable. On the highway, at least... Always.”

“But...” says Felicity.


“Always,” says Nené.

Where are you, slut? Say something!
Felicity looks at Nené and understands how much bigger this woman’s sadness is than her own.


Sorry ass tramp!
Ugly old bitch!

“Leave her alone!” says Felicity.


She moves closer to Nené and hugs her like a little girl.

Oh... Scary! says a voice. So now you’ve got a little sidekick...

“I’m not anyone’s sidekick,” says Felicity. “I’m just trying to help...”

Oh... she’s only trying to help...
“Shut up!” says Nené.


You all know why she was left on the highway?

Because she’s a skinny walrus!
No, she got left because—laughter—because while she was trying on her little wedding dress, we were already gettin’ it on with her man...

The laughter is closer now; it completely drowns out the crying. From the bathroom, a figure is walking, slowly, toward Nené and Felicity.


Look, here comes another one... tramp!
As the figure comes closer they discover the face of an old woman. Every few steps, she turns and looks at the highway. She is dressed in golden tones, and from her neckline peeks the sensual black lace of lingerie. Once she is close, before she can ask questions, Felicity cuts her off:

“Always. Always on the highway, Grandmother.”

When the old woman sees them, sitting in the field in their wedding dresses, she straightens and looks indignantly toward the road.

“But how—?”


Felicity interrupts her: “Don’t cry, please,” says Felicity. “Don’t make things worse.”
“But it can’t be...” says the old woman, and in her disappointment, her hand opens and a marriage certificate falls to the ground.

She looks contemptuously at the highway down which the car has disappeared, and says, “Scoundrel! Impotent old coot!”


Come on, hussy!
“Why don’t you shut up, you windbags!” shouts Nené, and she gets brusquely to her feet.

The old woman looks at her in fright.


“Old biddies!” Nené goes on.

We’re gonna get you, you snake!
Trying to understand, the old woman looks at Felicity, who, like Nené, has stood up and is anxiously peering into the darkness of the fields.


Show your face, come on, the women’s voices can be heard ever closer.
Felicity and Nené look at each other. Beneath their feet they feel the ground tremble as hundreds of desperate women advance through the field.

“What’s happening?” asks the old woman. “Who are those voices, what do they want?” She kneels down and picks up the marriage certificate. Like Felicity and Nené, she backs toward the highway without turning around, without taking her eyes from the black mass in the dark fields that seems to be moving closer and closer to them.


“How many are there?” asks Felicity.

“A lot,” says Nené. “Too many.”
There are so many curses and insults coming from so close by that it’s useless to respond or try to placate them.

“What should we do?” asks Felicity. The three of them back up faster and faster.

“Don’t even think about crying,” says Nené.

The old woman, clutching at her wedding dress and wrinkling it in one nervous hand, grasps Felicity’s arm with her other.

“Don’t be scared, Grandmother, it’s okay,” says Felicity.

But the taunting is so loud now that the old woman can’t hear her words. On the highway, off in the distance, a white dot grows like a new ray of hope. Perhaps this is the moment when Felicity thinks, for the last time, of love. Perhaps she thinks to herself: Don’t let him leave her; don’t let him abandon her.

“If it stops, we get in,” shouts Nené.

“What did she say?” asks the grandmother. They are close to the bathroom now.

“That if the car stops—” says Felicity.


“What?” asks the grandmother.

The murmur is converging on them. They can’t see anyone, but they know the women are there, just a few yards away. Felicity screams. Something like hands brush against her legs, her neck, her fingertips. Felicity screams and she doesn’t hear Nené, who has moved farther away and is telling her to grab the old woman and run. The car stops in front of the bathroom. Nené turns back toward Felicity and tells her to move, to drag the grandmother with her. But it’s the grandmother who reacts and drags Felicity toward Nené, who is already next to the car and waiting for the woman to get out so she can get in herself and order the man to drive.

“They won’t let go!” screams Felicity. “They won’t let go of me!” And she desperately tries to break free of the last hands holding her back.

The old woman pulls. She yanks on Felicity with all her strength. Nené is waiting anxiously for the door to open, for the woman to get out. But the one who emerges is the man. With the headlights shining on the road, he still hasn’t seen the women, and he gets out in a hurry while he fumbles for the zipper of his pants. Then the din grows. The laughing, taunting voices forget Nené and fixate purely and exclusively on him. They reach his ears. In the man’s eyes, the fear of a rabbit facing the furies. By the time he stops, it’s too late. Nené has gone around and gotten into the man’s seat. She restrains the woman, who is trying to escape, and she opens a back door for Felicity and the grandmother.

“Hold her,” says Nené, and she lets go of the woman to leave her in the grandmother’s hands. The old woman obeys the order wordlessly.

“If she wants to get out, let her,” says Felicity. “Maybe these two do love each other and it’s not for us to stand in their way.”

The newcomer wiggles free of the old lady but she doesn’t get out of the car. She asks, “What do you want? Where did you come from?”—one question after another, until Nené opens the passenger door.

“Get out, quick,” she says.

They can hear the women’s cries even once they’re in the car, and in front of them, detached from the darkness by the headlights, stands the frozen, terrified figure of a man who is not thinking about the same thing he was a minute ago.

“No way am I getting out,” says the newcomer. She looks at the man without tenderness, and then at Nené: “Get going before he comes back,” she says, and she locks the door from inside.

Nené puts the car in drive. The man hears the noise and turns to look at them.

“Go!” shouts the newcomer.

The old lady claps nervously, then squeezes Felicity’s hand; Felicity looks fearfully at the man as he approaches. The tires on one side are off the road, and the car skids in the mud. Nené turns the steering wheel wildly, and for a moment the car’s headlights shine into the fields. But what they see then is not precisely the fields: the car’s light is lost in the immensity of the night, but it’s enough to distinguish in the darkness the swarming mass of hundreds of women. They’re running toward the car. Or, more accurately, toward the man standing in front of the car, waiting motionlessly for them, as though for death.

The newcomer presses her own foot down on Nené’s to floor the accelerator. And with the image framed in the rearview mirror of the crowd of women falling upon the man, Nené manages to get the car back on the road. The motor drowns out the shouts and insults, and soon all is silence and darkness.

The newcomer shifts in her seat.

“I never loved him,” she says. “When he got out of the car, I thought about taking the wheel and leaving him by the side of the road. But I don’t know, the maternal instinct...”

None of the other women are listening. All of them, and now the newcomer, too, just look out at the highway and are silent for a while. That’s when it happens.

“It can’t be,” says Nené.

In front of them, in the distance, the horizon starts to light up with small pairs of white lights.

“What?” asks the grandmother. “What’s going on?”

In the passenger seat, the newcomer throws glances at Nené, as if waiting for an explanation. The pairs of lights grow, coming closer. Felicity peers between the two front seats.

“They’re coming back,” she says. She smiles and looks at Nené.

On the highway, the first pairs of lights are now cars, almost on top of them, and now they pass at full speed.

“They changed their minds,” says Felicity. “It’s them, they’re coming back for us!”

“No,” says Nené.

She lights a cigarette and then, exhaling smoke, she adds: “It’s them, yes. But they’re coming back for him.”






Samanta Schweblin is the author of three story collections that have won numerous awards, including the prestigious Juan Rulfo Story Prize, and been translated into twenty languages. Her debut novel Fever Dream was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2017. Originally from Buenos Aires, she now lives in Berlin.

Megan McDowell has translated books by many contemporary South American and Spanish authors, and her translations have been published in The New Yorker, Harper’s and The Paris Review. She lives in Chile.


Samanta Schweblin’s short story Headlights is excerpted from the collection A Mouthful of Birds (published by Oneworld, February 2019—see here)

Copyright © Samanta Schweblin (2010-2019)
English translation copyright © Megan McDowell (2019)
Photograph by
© Graciela Iturbide, ‘Pájaros en el poste,’ Guanajuato, Mexico (1990)







2019

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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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