She Came but He Was Gone
She was breathless when she rounded the corner by the cathedral. Clutching her money like it was a wild animal, Gabriela came to a stop, her heart heavy. She felt betrayal in the empty space. The stall was gone, the shoe salesman gone. In his place a bicycle had been parked against the cathedral wall. For the first time in her life Gabriela fell to her knees and rested her forehead on the stones wishing she were dead. Then a light breeze crept over her and she looked up at a priest, his black cloak like the wings of a bat. He said,
“Are you all right, child?”
“The shoe salesman?” Gabriela said. “He’s gone.”
Gabriela stood, her money tight in her fist, and the eyes of the priest tracked from her fist to her face. He smiled and said,
“Ah. He has moved to the other side of the zócalo by the trees on the avenida.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Gabriela said.
She ran then, cutting through the crowd—the tourists, women with babies, a tall blond Norteña carrying bags of native handicrafts—until she came to the trees lining the avenida. There he was—his tables set up, his awning in place. He sat on a high-backed chair smoking a cigarette. When Gabriela arrived, panting, he stepped down from the chair and said,
“So, you came. Are you going to buy something this time?”
“I thought you had gone.”
“No. Jorge the snakeskin man died so I took his place. Is better here. More Norteñas buying, not like the godless Mexicanos who just want to look and pray in the cathedral.”
“I’m so happy,” Gabriela said.
“Why? There are many stalls with running shoes.”
Gabriela opened her fist with the wad of wet bills that unfurled like flowers opening and spread the money out on the table beside the running shoes. She said,
“Is this enough?”
The salesman picked up the damp bills one by one, shook them with a flick of his wrist, and laid each one back down, counting as he did—one, two-twenty, two-fifty, three, three-seventy, three-ninety-one, two, three, four five. He said,
“Hmmm, uh. Uh.”
“Not enough?” Gabriela said.
“Wait. I think …”
The salesman picked up one of the bills and shook it and it separated into two and he said,
“Another hundred. So you have four-ninety-five.”
“Enough?” Gabriela said.
“Well. Five hundred is the price on them.”
“Ay,” Gabriela said.
She looked away, lips puckered.
“You want the white ones, don’t you?” the salesman said.
The salesman nodded and looked at Gabriela, whose mouth was drawn in a tight line. Plucking a cigarette from a pack of Piel Roja, he lit it and blew the smoke into the air. He said,
“Girl. I have watched you for months. You really love these Nikes, but there are other shoes that don’t cost as much.”
“These I want,” Gabriela said.
“Made in China,” the salesman said.
“I don’t care.”
Gabriela shrugged. The salesman said,
“Because of the Norteñas?”
Gabriela nodded yes and she reached for her money on the table, but the salesman said,
“OK. Because I like you and because you remind me of my niece, I’ll give you the white Nikes for four-fifty.”
“Oh, Señor,” Gabriela said.
“Wait. I’ll also give you two pairs of socks because you can’t wear Nikes without socks.”
He smiled, reached under the table and brought out a pair of white Nike running shoes already laced. In each shoe was a pair of white socks.
Gabriela rocked back on her heels. The salesman said,
“I knew you’d come back.”
Gabriela gathered the shoes in her arms, held them, kissed them, and then, smiling, looked up at the salesman who was stuffing her money in a wallet. He said,
“Try them on. I think they are your size.”
“My size?” Gabriela said.
“Yes. Your size. You have small feet.”
“They’re not all the same?”
The salesman laughed. He rolled his eyes. Shaking his head, he said,
“Ay no. They are not all the same. You have small feet. High arches. Thin toes. Las Norteñas have big feet and big … well … you are what they call petite.”
“Petite? Not Nike shoes?”
“French,” the salesman said. “In French, petite. Means small. It’s what everyone says.”
“Petite,” Gabriela said. “I am petite.”
“You are very tall, but your feet … they are petite.”
Gabriela looked at her white Nikes and then at the other shoes on the table and saw that her feet were smaller.
“You didn’t know?” The salesman said.
“No, I want Nikes. They are all Nikes, aren’t they?”
“A dishonest man would take your money and laugh at you for being such a peasant. Where are you from?”
“Ah. Terrible place. The war.”
“Yes,” Gabriela said. “The war.”
“Try them on,” the salesman said again.
Gabriela sat on the sidewalk under the big trees. On the avenida behind her the cars ran and buses hummed. She unstrapped her leather sandals and tugged them loose and pulled on her white socks. They were soft and smooth on her feet. Then, the moment she had been waiting months for—a Nike running shoe.
She slid it on and, fumbling with the laces, grunted.
The salesman knelt and touched Gabriela’s leg. She glanced at him, and he said,
“Look at you. You spend all your money on Nikes and you can’t tie your laces. Let me show you. You make two little rabbit ears, like this, see? And then you wrap one of the rabbit ears under the other and you pull it through and there you have it. And don’t take them off until you learn how to tie them.”
“I’ll learn,” Gabriela said. “I’ll learn.”
He patted her leg and, standing, he smiled. Gabriela got to her feet and she slung her sandals over her shoulder but then she stopped. She said,
“I don’t want the sandals anymore. I have Nikes.”
“Yes, you look exactly like a Norteña now. My niece, Livia, she lives in Mexico City and she has the same disease. She wears Nikes in the hotel where she works. I’ll give you her address and when you go to Mexico City you can meet her. She has been to El Norte.”
“And she came back?”
“She returned to bury her grandmother and then her father died. It was a tragic death. He was a miner in Cosala … you know where Cosala is?”
“No,” Gabriela said.
“In the great caldera … minerals. Los Gringos want all the silver there. But that’s another story. Livia’s father, my brother-in-law, along with twenty others, died in a cave-in. Now Livia has no money and she can’t return until she has enough to pay the coyote. Yes, you must go to Mexico City. I’ll write her about you. I’ll tell her about the tall one from Tepeñixtlahuaca who desires to look like a Norteña.”
After thanking him and thanking him again, Gabriela ran back across the zócalo and down the street. As she ran, she saw herself in the glass windows of the shops, her white Nikes floating. When she arrived at the shop she glanced inside but Nando was not there. She hurried through to the back, where she peeled off her pinafore and slid on the yellow dress she had taken in at the waist so that it snugged against her. She looked down at her white Nikes, feeling so happy. And she waited.
Later, when she was sleepy, the bell at the front of the shop clanged and she heard laughter. She took a deep breath and walked to the drape that separated the shop from the room where she and Nando slept.
Nando stood with his back to her. He was kissing a woman that he pressed against the same wall where he had taken Gabriela when he was drunk. Even at a distance, Gabriela smelled his cigarettes and the scent of aguardiente. The woman giggled. Nando had his hand under her dress and then the woman said,
Nando turned his head. Gabriela saw his runny eyes, the way they seeped when he was drunk. He faced Gabriela. He sneered. He grabbed the woman’s hand and pulled her to him. Gabriela saw then that she was the woman from the dress shop, the woman who read soap opera magazines. She was as tall as Nando and her breasts were large and laced into the bodice of her red dress. The laces were dangling free. Her hair was up in a long braid that whipped over her shoulder and curled between her breasts. Nando, hissing, pushed the woman. He said to her,
“Go to the back. Get. Go.”
The woman obeyed and as she passed Gabriela she sniggered and ran her hands over her breasts and down to her thin waist and over her hips. Gabriela smelled Nando on her. Smelled his sweat. His cologne. His cigarettes. Gabriela’s heart beat so fast she thought she was going to fly away but Nando closed in on her, grabbed her wrists. He said,
“What’s that hideous thing you’re wearing?”
“My yellow dress,” Gabriela said.
“You think a yellow dress will make you into a woman? And Nike running shoes? You pig. You’ll never be a Norteña. They’re women, they have tits. They give men sons, but you? You sow.”
“Nando, this woman—”
“This woman’s a real woman. Big ass, big tits. She screams when we fuck and she’ll give me a son. Two sons, half a dozen sons, but you, you sick cow—a year and a half with me and you give me nothing. Why don’t you go kill yourself? Jump off the cathedral, you dog.”
And then he shoved Gabriela against the wall and she hit her shoulder on the glass case. Nando kicked at her, hard, and as he kicked, she crawled away from him but he followed her and his kicking tore at her, caught her in the belly, the side, the chest. Such pain, and still she crawled—shouting for him to stop—to the door and behind her she heard the woman laughing. At the door, rising to her knees, Gabriela shoved it open and rolled onto the sidewalk and still Nando kicked her. She crawled on her knees into the cigarette butts and the orange peels and the bottles on the street and she rolled onto her side. Nando kicked her one last time and then he spat on her and went back into the shop, closed the door and locked it. Gabriela, hurting from neck to ankle, knelt on the sidewalk. Through the glass door, she watched Nando enter the back room where—standing in the doorway, the curtain draping her naked body—the woman from the dress shop waited. Nando pushed her and she laughed and the curtain closed and there was darkness.
On her knees, Gabriela looked at herself reflected on the glass door. Her hair clung to the yellow dress like black rain. She knew she was lost. She glanced left and right but there was no one to help her. A trickle of blood dripped from her nose. She caught the blood in the palm of her hand. She didn’t want the blood to stain her dress and so she walked. Blood continued to drip as she walked. She did feel like a dog, one of the skinny dogs the soldiers had chased from her village.
She had nowhere to go. No one to tell her what to do. She thought about death and dying and she wondered how she could end her life. Jump off the cathedral? Run in front of a bus? Fall on the subway tracks? As she walked down the sidewalk to the zócalo she remembered the shoe salesman who had sold her the Nikes. With nothing else to do and no hope of anything to save her, she made her way across the plaza to the avenue, to the place where the shoe salesman set up his stall under the plane trees. There, she sat down.
She leaned against one of the trees and waited. After a while she fell asleep.
Sleeping, she dreamed and in her dream she stood outside a glass box. Inside the box she saw the woman from the dress shop floating on a thin shiny skin like a mirror that lapped at her as if the glass had turned to water. Then she saw herself floating on the shiny skin and she beat her flat chest the way she had seen the supplicants torture their bodies during Holy Week. In the dream, she was chilly and she reached out to the mirror that turned to water and rained down on her and she opened her eyes. There, squatting before her, was the shoe salesman. His eyes were still kind, and he was smoking a Piel Roja. He said,
“Your man has thrown you out, hasn’t he?”
“He has another woman,” Gabriela said.
The shoe salesman sat down beside her and he circled her shoulders and in that moment she was warm. She said,
“It’s the woman from the dress shop.”
“Carmen. I know Carmen. She has big dreams of owning her own shop.”
“I don’t know what to do,” Gabriela said.
“My niece in Mexico City? She lives in Texcoco. You know Texcoco?”
“No,” Gabriela said.
“It’s … well, it’s a slum, but it’s cheap. I’m going there tomorrow to talk to my distributor who’s been cheating me. You will come with me.”
“To Mexico?” Gabriela said. “Is it far?”
“Far? Oh. It’s another world.”
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Genre – Women’s Fiction
Rating – PG
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