To put off returning to the cold sheets that awaited me in my apartment, I took refuge in Areopa, which, owing to its music and happy customers, always exuded a warmth far removed from the winter outside. There I saw her for the first time. She was working as a waitress, and she was the most beautiful woman that I had ever had near me: thin hips, harmonious legs, small, firm breasts, maybe a little taller than most men would prefer. Her liquid eyes dared me to take her into my arms and cover her with kisses. “Singular” would be the only adjective that could describe her. She was awakening in me an urgent desire for sex and tenderness.
I’m not one for extravagant gestures, but I felt like I had to be holding a bouquet of flowers when I waited for her to leave work that night. She smiled graciously, her hands trembling. On our third date, I had her in my arms, her breasts pressed against my chest. The experience was both frustrating and miraculous. It made me uncomfortable that she was rejecting my caresses and my attempts to be intimate.
I knew that her work was closer to prostitution than to cooking. She looked me in the eyes with a kind of anguish or reproach.
“If you want, I’ll marry you,” I said, in an outburst of love and desire.
“It’s not what it seems,” she murmured. “Nothing is completely true.”
“Ah, it turns out you’re a philosopher.”
I caressed her large hands; I kissed her neck.
“I like you too, a lot.”
Her serious voice was sensual and warm.
“Do you want to live with me?”
I nibbled on her white shoulder. She smiled.
“Not everything is what it seems. Did you know that my destiny was revealed to me by a cat?”
“You like literature? You know, cats are messengers.”
Another skeptical smile.
“It’s not literature. If you really care for me, I’ll tell you how a cat brought me the key to my existence.”
“I’m ready to take care of you for the rest of your life.”
I felt passionate and drunk and ready to make myself the slave of this beautiful feminine creature, ready to love her and take care of her and die by her side. She set her glass, which had been trembling in her hands, on the table. Her eyes seemed close to tears.
“Listen to me. You’re very young. Try to understand me. I lived then in a small city, Tepic or Aguascalientes, give it whatever name you like. I had two children, an eight-year-old boy and a six-year-old girl, and I loved them . . . well, you know . . . like everyone loves their kids, although I didn’t like to show affection. ‘Pamper kids and soon they’ll be climbing your neck,’ my father used to say. My relationship with them was distant and firm. They never lacked anything. They had a clean house, healthy food, everything they needed for school, and even some toys. I’m talking about just a few months ago. Four years ago, my father died. He was a hard man. He formed my character with beatings and punishments. We weren’t poor. My father had been in the military and he had a pension that I suppose was sufficient because we didn’t have large bills to pay at our house. In spite of this, more than once he didn’t allow my mother and me to eat, ‘so that we would appreciate what we had,’ he would say. He gave me hard chores to do: carrying bricks from one side of the patio to the other, cleaning the toilets and endlessly washing the blue Valient that he drove from time to time. We were made for an austere life. I never knew the pleasure of a trip or the joy of a toy that I chose myself. When I fell off a borrowed bicycle, his response was always, ‘Don’t you cry! Hush!’ The few relatives who came to his funeral were not surprised by how calmly I took his death. My mother died a year later. She was all sweetness and affection. She lavished on me an almost secret love since in our house it was strictly forbidden that she treat me with tenderness. In my childhood, she caressed me exactly two times. Do you remember the smell of the sea or of freshly baked bread? That’s how I remember those two caresses. The first one I associate with a straight-A report card—I was so afraid of my father that I always made good grades. I came home from school and showed it to her. She sat down at the table, and while she read it, she ran her hands softly over my legs. For the second caress, it was necessary for me to have an appendectomy and an infected incision. In the hospital, as the nurse drained thick liquid from the stinking wound, my mom ran her hand over my body. In order to repeat that moment of warm contact, I would have gladly endured another operation. I had two caresses in my childhood. There were no more. Despite feeling profound pain, I was unable to shed a tear at her grave. I loved her deeply, but there was no sadness when she was no longer by my side. Dad, in a magnanimous gesture, had allowed me to study accounting as an alternative to a military career. I felt honored to enter a boring, monotonous profession, one in which I quickly found employment. I married and formed a lovely family. In our house, there was no cruelty or violence, though maybe there was a kind of constant coldness that none of us knew how to remedy. Our children, an eight-year-old and a six-year-old (as I already told you), were quiet and serious. They did well in school, thanks to my help, and in our house there was order and silence. Then the cat appeared. It was a very small cat, gray with black stripes, the common sort of animal that people leave in the streets. One night it meowed on the patio—a long, pathetic meow. I told my kids to throw it out, but they couldn’t. I went out with a big slab of wood to scare it off. It gathered itself up into a ball of fur, and for the first time, the first of many first times, I wasn’t able to hit an animal: I felt pity. ‘Leave it there,’ I said, ‘but don’t feed it.’ They didn’t need to feed it. I was the one who saved scraps from my meals and took them to the patio. I justified my actions by saying that it was better to feed it than to have it eating mice. At night, in the window of my bedroom, I was surprised by the phosphorescent blue of its stare. It’s a female, I said to my children. Look at her small size, and more importantly, notice what kind of visitors she has: big male cats fought with claws and meows over the right to mate with her. My house, so quiet before, became the site of a constant concert of erotic complaints. My kids ran to watch the licentious sex of the cats, cackling and guffawing, and I lost the ability to discipline them. We called her Tita. She was never ours. She lived on the patio, but she would never come near us. A neighbor explained to me that, past a certain age, cats lose the ability to be domesticated, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we humans become incapable of domesticating them. There’s a name for this: they’re feral cats. Not savage or wild: feral. They live at our expense without giving us company or affection. They’re untrusting and stubborn. Tita was feral. She didn’t grow. She remained small and unsociable. I always saved food for her, and she, through the glass, illuminated my nights of insomnia. One night we heard acute complaints even louder than usual. These animals make love with the cries of newborn babies, I told myself, trying to quell my own anguish. I looked out and saw Tita trying to fight off the aggressive attempts of a yellow cat to mount her. ‘She must be pregnant,’ I explained to the malicious smiles of my children. ‘When female cats are carrying kittens, they reject all of their suiters. That’s nature. Go to bed.’ The next day, we found her balled up and sad. When we tried to get close to her, she threatened us with her claws. ‘Let her be, ungrateful animal.’ That night there was no phosphorescent stare through the window. Two or three days later, she laboriously picked herself up and, with shaky steps, came to find me. She just looked at me, looked me in the eyes, and then turned around and threw herself down at my side. I was less sensitive then than I am now, but even so I felt a contraction in my chest. I drew close to her and examined her meticulously. She had a deep laceration in her side that gave off a hot, black aroma. The wound came all the way down to the testicles. ‘Then she’s not female,’ I said to myself, and I said to my children, ‘I don’t know why two males were mating. It’s not natural. I don’t understand. She’s hurt. We have to help her get better.’ I spent the weekend soothing her and giving her antibiotics that the family doctor prescribed. On Monday, before going to work, my heart trembled. I whispered loving words, I brought her water closer to her, I put some food in her tiny, trembling mouth. Tita ate, and afterwards she dragged herself to a corner of the bathroom and became quiet. When I returned, I found her pale and stiff. I remembered the temperature of my mother’s body when she died; I remembered the absent eyes of my father. I remembered all the times he said, ‘Don’t you cry! Hush!’ I doubled over with sobs. A river of grief poured out through my mouth. My children looked at me with amazement. I had to hide myself in my room. I cried for all of those sorrows, for the lack of love, for the two caresses that my mother gave me, for the undeserved punishments, for the difficult chores, because I never had a doll to play with, because I don’t know how to give kisses, because I married a good woman and had two children I loved but had never hugged. I cried. I cried for many hours. I understood many things—the message of Tita. I said to my dead father, ‘You were wrong, old man, men do cry, and if I can’t cry as a man, today I know what I am, what I have always been.’ Two days passed, but my grief did not. My wife looked at me as if she didn’t know me. My children were even quieter than before. I decided to move to another city. I abandoned my children and my wife. My presence was harming them. I’m learning to live as the person I am. I’m getting to know myself. As you know, I work in the Areopa, where I meet nice people like you, and I’m studying for a career that I will really like.”
She wiped tears from her profound eyes.
“I’m in hormonal treatment and waiting to decide on surgery. I miss my children, but I want to be honest with them. I hope that they’ll understand me one day. Before coming here, I gave them a cat.”
As a teacher (and reader) of queer literature and someone who has been having a love affair with Mexico for the past twenty years, I have long had an interest in queer Mexican literature, but aside from a few classic texts (such as Luis Zapata’s El Vampiro de la Colonia Roma), I’ve found it surprisingly hard to find. For this reason, when I had an opportunity to take a sabbatical in 2015, I decided to spend much of that time in Mexico, searching for, reading, and translating Mexican LGBT fiction.
In all of the queer Mexican stories I translated, patriarchy and sexism were also themes, a coincidence that reveals the link between the struggles for LGBT rights and women’s rights in Latin America. The tyrannical intolerant father in “Cat” resembles characters in every other story I translated (and much of the other fiction that I read).
I read “Gato” in del rosa al rojo (from pink to red), an anthology of LGBT short fiction that I bought at Voces en Tinta (Voices in Ink), a queer/feminist bookstore in Mexico City. When I read the story for the first time, I was so surprised and moved by it that I immediately read it a second time. I shared the story with several Mexican friends who responded to it with equal enthusiasm. I am happy to help bring this wonderful writer’s work to an English-speaking audience.
While translating “Gato,” I was struck by the contrast between the two narrators. The first narrator, young and male, uses hyperbole to describe his feelings for the second narrator, whose language is more guarded and restrained. In the Spanish original, the male narrator says, “No me gusta la cursilería,” a sentence that was challenging to translate into English, as there’s no English equivalent for the word cursilería. It can mean tackiness, corniness, kitsch, affectation, over-the-top histrionics. In this case, since he was using it to describe giving flowers to someone he had just met, I translated it as “I’m not one for extravagant gestures.” Ironically, he is one for extravagant gestures, and he is also given to exaggeration. I find that the contrast between these voices gives the second narrator’s story greater emotional power. Though the second narrator’s voice is more muted, it is the voice of years of painful experience.
Ma. Teresa Figueroa Damián is a Mexican writer and story teller. She is a regular contributor to the journals Papalotzi, INPer, and Ágora. Her work has appeared the anthologies El Otoño Come su Hoja, Tonalá: Tradición Viva, El Color del Árbol, and del rosa al rojo (in which “Cat” was originally published). She was born in Mexico City and now lives in the state of Jalisco, where she works as the director of Los Ariles, a cultural center in Tonalá.
Michael Langdon is an English professor at Chabot College in Hayward, California. Among other courses, he teaches LGBT Literature. He spent much of 2015 on sabbatical in Mexico, where his project was to read and translate queer Mexican literature. You can read about his travels on his blog, quebuenaonda.net. He lives in Oakland with his husband, Bradford.