“Oh, God, oh God!” My grandmother is chewing cautiously; she always looks as if she were trying to eat very carefully just in case she should find any foreign bodies in her food; in fact, it’s because her false teeth aren’t of quite the same high quality as Aunt Mary’s.
“For Heaven’s sake, Grandma, now what’s wrong with you?” Carmina is sitting next to her and reluctantly puts her fork down beside her plate. She turns her large, round head to meet Grandma’s gaze.
When she sees that the ruminative process is continuing normally, she relaxes her facial muscles and picks up her fork again.
“Granny, stop frightening us.”
“To do that she’d have to be born again with a different face,” comments Aunt Mary, to my grandmother’s complete indifference.
“I wasn’t talking about the food,” my grandmother says, looking at my sister Carmina. “It’s just that last night I dreamed that they came to take away the only thing a woman my age has left.”
“And what’s that?”
“Her happy memories.”
I laugh, and my niece Paula looks at me with wide, questioning eyes. That girl is so damned serious.
“I still feel as if I were in that dream. I’m starting to feel breathless…Ela, I can’t eat any more of this…this…whatever it is. Bring me some ham,” my grandmother orders.
“There isn’t any. I used up the leftovers in the stew.”
“Oh well, never mind, I’ve had enough anyway.”
“Eat a bit more, Mama.”
“I don’t feel like it.”
I’ve heard it said that in order to know how someone makes love, you just have to watch how they eat. I’ve heard it said that people have the same manners eating as they do copulating; the same style, shall we say. I begin to study my family carefully. There are nine women around the table, a load of greedy pigs with their chairs pulled up to the trough, all brandishing their knives and forks with varying degrees of skill and incompetence. I look at my own hands; I haven’t even been able to touch my knife because I get the shivers just thinking about all the things one could do with a sharp instrument. The things that could be done to my fair head with one of those cheap household knives. The knives at home are all blunt because, since Carmina is a butcher, Mama always brings the meat home perfectly filleted, sliced or cut up. We don’t’ need any stupid jack knives with a point on them like D’Artagnan’s dagger. The most difficult thing we have to do is slice open watermelons, and if they prove stubborn, Carmina disembowels them by smashing them down on the table, and we eat them like that. Nevertheless, even a blunt knife that has never been sharpened is still a knife. And right now there must be at least two unscrupulous men on my train, with, instead of teeth, knives as long as the highway to Andalusia. Really. Almost certainly.
The result is that I don’t eat, I’ve no appetite. Consequently, we might say that I am also anorexic in bed, as far as sex is concerned.
Beside me is Paula, my niece. She has the receding chin and frightened face of a little mouse. She is so thin you can count her bones. Her eyes are as big and round as the salad bowls and are dirty blue in color. her mouth is stuffed with frozen hake, but she can’t swallow. Then again, she is only five years old. It’s hard to know what she’ll be like in bed when she’s older.
Then there’s Gádor, sitting on the other side of her daughter. I imagine that the new pregnancy has left her slightly traumatized. I watch her pick up a piece of vegetable, put it eagerly in her mouth, then start fiddling with her fork and gazing with disgust at the stew on her plate.
My grandmother hardly eats a thing, apart from ham or, very occasionally, a sandwich made from thin slices of bread and pork loin; she cost us less to feed than a stuffed canary. One day, I asked her: “Are you following some kind of special regime, Grandma?” and without even glancing up, she said: “Regime? The only regime I ever followed, and then only a bit, at the start, was the Franco regime…And look what happened to that? Don’t talk to me about regimes. A lot of modern nonsense.”
Beside her, Carmina is devouring her food as if, rather than just eating the vegetables, she wanted to hurt them, to vent her spleen on them. I regard her with interest. She spears a Brussels sprout with her fork and carries it to her mouth, then, before she has had time even to begin to chew, she spears some beans and puts those in her mouth too, along with a little pile of peas, two bits of fried ham, some carrots and onion…and only on the sixth mouthful does she allow herself to chew and momentarily close her mouth. She’s voracious. That’s Carmina for you, if she fell over, she’d bounce. I dream to think what she’s like in bed. I’m too much of a prude to think everything I could think about Carmina if I wanted to.
My mother eats resignedly. I blush and move on.
Ah, Aunt Mary. What a sublime sight. Something dribbles out of the corner of her mouth, and she greedily licks it up. She takes a large swig of sherry and makes a few pathetic attempts to reach the bread basket, meanwhile shooting furious glances at us all, hoping that one of us will help her without her having to ask. She snorts when Bely passes her the bread. She eats too much, but she doesn’t put on weight, and when she goes to the john, she leaves behind her turds the size of a small child. I fear that she will live a very long time.
Bely eats slowly, but without pauses or interruptions, as if she were immensely patient and determined to get to the end regardless of what awaits her there.
And Brandy is a sight to see; she has transformed the act of chewing into an art form. The way she chews her food is almost lascivious, or, rather, it’s totally lascivious, perhaps because she’s imagining sharing the table with eight Canadian lumberjacks, which we most certainly are not. Before she got married, Gádor said to me one night that Brandy pulled more men than anyone she knew. “What does she put behind her ears, Essence of Cunt?” she said rather irritably. I suppose that for Gádor, who lives by the slogan: “Liberty, Equality, Maternity,” I must be very hard to accept that there are women like Brandy in the world.
For her part, Brandy knew – as we all did – that when Gádor got married, and despite being twenty years old, she had had no previous sexual experience; she had always been the kind of unvanquished virgin you see at the Parthenon in Athens, only a flesh-and-blood variety of very little brain. So that when Brandy went to congratulate her, once the wedding ceremony was over, if the bawling choirboys at the parish church merit the name “ceremony,” instead of saying, “Congratulations, little sister,” she whispered in her ear: “You know what they say, a cock in the hand…” and Gádor burst out crying all over my freshly ironed pink organdie collar, whining “How could she, the whore, the slut, how could she…”
I’ve lost my appetite completely now. We’re like some perverse, gastronomic version of Little Women.
“May one know why you’re pulling that face?” Mama asks me while she dabs carelessly at her mouth, chin, throat, and – very, very nearly – the cleavage of her flowery bosom.
As soon as they married, Victor and Gádor decided to opt for family planning and bought some fluorescent condoms off an African selling them in the street market and which were about as impermeable as a tea bag; she became pregnant, acquired loads of dark stretch marks all over her breasts and, after giving birth to Paula, assured me, that it has been the longest, most unpleasant experience she had ever been through. “Absolutely awful,” she told me, as she was tenderly covering up her little girl, asleep in a wicker basket decorated with some cotton fabric printed with little red bears, each one of whom had the charming smile of a psychopath stamped on its little purple snout. “When I was five months gone and realized that what goes in must come out, I didn’t sleep a wink until the pregnancy was over, because it’s a real shock, you know, it’s not just like putting in a Tampax and then taking it out again, and God knows I found it hard enough to learning how to use a Tampax,” she told me.
And yet during her first year of marriage, Gádor seemed contented enough. Ignorance is a marvelous antidote to common sense. One day, she asked Brandy and me what she should give her beloved husband for their wedding anniversary.
“Well,” said Brandy, while she was applying some aubergine-colored dye – like coagulated blood – to Gádor’s scalp, “in my experience, men are always in need of two things: socks and fellatio.”
“Fellawhat?” Gádor looked up and a drop of the disgusting goop ran along her right eyebrow.
“It comes from Latin, idiot. Languages never were your strong point, were they? Socks will do fine,” replied Brandy.
After that, Gádor and I went to the local library, and I looked at Dr. López Ibor’s Sexual Encyclopedia for her, because, at the time, I myself couldn’t give her an entirely accurate technical description of what was involved; I had my own ideas on the subject, but I never was much good at Latin and indeed discovered that I was completely on the wrong track and had got the wrong terminology and even the wrong body parts. From then on, Gádor improved her family planning with, for a few years, considerable success, until eight months ago: one must study constantly in order not to forget what one already knows.
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.
Reprint by permission of Seven Stories Press.
Angela Vallvey has published books of poetry and prose in her native Spain.