As a girl, whenever my mother said, "You know you resemble your uncle...," I would immediately feel a vibration. And, by sheer magic, I would invoke the labyrinthine house, which I had imagined from multiple perspectives but was never allowed to visit. The invocation made me feel happy, very happy, as if I had once inhabited the house myself but had been pushed out, with Irene and Jules, when it was taken over.
The vibration disappeared and then, shortly after I got over my painful divorce, it resumed again. Looking back, I realized I had not experienced it for years. Certainly more than a decade. I had forgotten its sour-sweet aftershocks, its pleasure and fury intertwined.
It would always begin... It would begin as an eerie sensation. The strange, unspeakable sensation of a tiny, porcelain-like ant climbing up my left leg until getting lost amongst my pubic hair. A parasite crawling inside my body. Almost simultaneously, I would feel a rough cheek passionately caressing my breasts. Then the ant would inhabit my vagina, twisting and staggering and jolting and arching.
My uncle's abandoned the house sometime around 1950. They had been born there, and so had my mother. The house had been the family's property for generations. People would say that its old, spacious rooms smelled of ancient memories. You could sense the presence of relatives in every dusty corner.
I was 3 years old when Uncle Jules left the country. I had seen his picture in newspapers, in the back jacket of many books. But I didn't remember him as a presence. And yet, I would often dream about him. Frightening dreams. I would wake up sweaty and badly shaken. He would appear in a dark, overused jacket, with his long, unruly beard, smoking his cigarette, always laughing. He would point down at the floor--to what seemed to me to be a sewer. And he would tell me that I had not yet done what I promised him to. I never promised him anything. Although perhaps I did.
My mother kept the whole affair of the house to herself. A family secret. I soon realized it was hard for her to talk about it. Only slowly, in a fragmentary fashion, she would let things go. She had never kept a healthy relationship with Irene and Jules. And she left the house early on, still in her teens. So she preferred to change the subject every time I asked. But I pressed her because I wanted to know more. I wanted to know every detail, every bit of information. Deep inside I felt that the house had always been mine. As if I was part of a long chain of generations and sooner or later I would be called to reclaim my lost property.
The ant... My immediate reaction would be to salivate. My underpants would get wet and an unusual, irregular heat, a passionate heat, would follow.
The whole thing, salivation and heat and passion, could occur at the middle of the night. But it also happened at the middle of the day. The rough cheek would possess me. It wasn't like making love with my ex-husband. Something more profound and painful. As if a child had been incubated in me. The child of an ant. As a result, I would be confused. Totally confused. I would be ready to scream. But what for?
I remember when I first saw the house from afar. I must have been 6 or 7. My mother and I, I think we were on our way to the grocery store, walking on Rodríguez Peña. I suddenly sensed a strange silence in her. The vibration, did I feel it that day? We stopped and she looked up. "A horrible house...," she uttered. "Irene and Jules used to live here."
She added very little. Something about my aunt spent her entire life knitting on the bedroom sofa. And about her dying after Uncle Jules moved to Europe. "Hers was a slow death," my mother said. "She had to work on it two or three years. Nostalgia and the absence of companionship... She paid the price." At the moment of death my mother was next to Irene. But she nurtured a deep filial hatred toward her. One day she told me, "Your uncles, they behaved liked a married couple."
I remember asking her if we could go in. "Impossible. No one can get in." I asked who lived there. "Nobody lives inside. Empty. It's always empty. And it will always be."
I now wonder if every time I passed in front of the house, I would feel a vibration. Perhaps. As a little girl, I didn't pay much attention to it because... Because I thought it was normal. Or at least I think I did.
I have read, time and again, Uncle Jules's diary of the loss of the house. It's curious the way he predicted that one day I would reenter the house. He surely loved the place. No doubt about it. He loved it from beginning to end. "Irene and I would die here someday," he wrote. "Obscure and distant cousins would inherit the place, have it torn down, sell the bricks and get rich on the building plot."
His description of the layout is quite graphic: the dining room, a living room with tapestries, the library and three large rooms. A corridor separated that section from the front wing, where there was a bath, the kitchen, Julia and Irene's bedrooms and the hall. He makes a written map so that others can begin to understand the siege under which both he and Irene lived.
He also writes in his diary that the forced evacuation happened without much fuss. He began hearing noises in the library and in the dining room. Soon after, entrance to those sections of the house was prohibited. He constantly writes about a "They." "I had to shut the door to the passage," he writes, "because they have taken over the back part." To which Irene, calmly and without remorse, would reply: "From now on we'll have to live on this side."
Uncle Jules wouldn't show any fear. "Aside from our nocturnal rumblings," he writes, "everything was quiet in the house. During the day there were the household sounds, the metallic click of knitting needles, the rustle of stamp-album pages turning."
* * *
Days before I had the strongest vibration of all, a photograph of the house appeared in the newspaper. A murder on Rodríguez Peña, a couple of yards away. The reporter accompanied his text with a picture, which I studied carefully.
Nothing had changed. It remained just as I remembered it. I called my mother. She didn't want to talk about it. But she did say a postcard from Uncles Jules had arrived from Marseilles. The first one in decades because I don't remember ever seeing his handwriting.
He didn't say anything in particular. Just that he had been traveling with a girlfriend to and from Paris, and was overwhelmed by the thought of his distant family in the southern cone.
When I heard about the postcard, the vibration increased. And then, they immediately ceased. But now I knew that the ant, shaking and revolving, had remained inside me and would not vanish.
I kept the whole thing to myself. At least for a while. Until the next night, when I think I called my mother. I was determined to explain to her the bizarre feelings I was having. But the moment we got on the phone, I couldn't. Was unable to. Instead, I asked her more about the postcard and about the house and about Uncle Jules and Aunt Irene. I don't remember what she answered. That's precisely the time when I stopped paying attention. Within minutes I found myself en route to the house once taken over. As I walked, the vibration appeared again, less intense.
My left leg felt numb. I was affected by a high fever and felt terribly sick. Terribly sick.
But I didn't stop walking.
I stopped three or four blocks away from the place, to catch my breath. Then I resumed walking and found myself right in front of its main door.
I remember Uncle Jules's description of how one enters the house through a vestibule with enameled tiles, beyond which a wrought-iron grated door opens onto the living room.
I stood immobilized. Should I enter or shouldn't I? It had been empty for decades. I looked around suspiciously and saw, to my surprise, a sewer.
I didn't have a key to the house. Was there ever one? I pushed the entrance door and the lock, too rusty, fell apart. Just as in a gothic tale one reads in high school, the door opened, making a macabre noise. Although, now that I think of it, perhaps somebody opened it. Somebody's hand.
Darkness, silence. A feeling of liberation and then again, imprisonment. The rough, indelicate cheek... Its fingers were... I was being penetrated. I thought of Irene and Jules. They would complain of terrible boredom because nothing worthwhile would happen in Buenos Aires. And yet, their life was quite pleasurable.. At least until they were forced out of the house.
I felt ashamed, overwhelmed by the kind of shame a child feels after a parent points at a stupid mistake done. My mother had forbidden me to enter this house. And yet, here I was, entering. Or better, being entered by the house. I began hearing voices. I knew Irene used to walk in her sleep. That would wake Uncle Jules up and keep him awake all night.
"It's not here."
"I know I am."
I wanted to turn around and leave. But I couldn't. I knew I couldn't. The ant was moving inside me. Obsessively. Consistently. Without compassion. I was provoking and was being provoked. My vagina... I imaged a map to my vagina: a large empty box with tapestries, a cold corridor with the ant at its end.
My breath accelerated.
I couldn't.... I wanted to stop but I couldn't. Yes, I wanted to stop.
"You look tired."
"In that case, we'll have to live on this side."
"Look at the pattern I just figured out. Doesn't it look like a four-leave clover? Or like a tropical tree?
"No tropical trees around here. You know that, my dear."
I was shaking. I turned around and abruptly found myself lying on the floor.
A glimmering light appeared in what I thought was the dining room. At a far distance I saw a woman relaxed on a sofa. Soon after, as the wrought-iron grated door opened, I saw a lofty figure. Probably a man. Yes, a man, very tall and thin. "You know you resemble your uncle...," I heard my mother whispering in my ear. "You really do look alike."
Again, a voice. "They've taken over our section, too."
The man moved toward me. A long beard, a cigarette. Uncle Jules. It was Uncle Jules. He was laughing. "Yes," he said. "Yes. And I didn't have time to bring much. We had what we had and that was it. I even remembered 15,000 pesos in my bedroom wardrobe. But it was too late. I had to leave. The whole country was possessed. You know that, don't you? I only had my wrist watch on, so I felt terrible."
He pointed toward a window. "I locked the front door up tight and tossed the key down the sewer. It wouldn't do to have some poor devil decide to go in, would it? But I'm proud to say I have recovered it."
I felt very angry. Angry and annoyed. I hated him. I hated Uncle Jules. Actually, I realized I had hated him since I was a little girl. Silently. I closed my eyes and with an agile move, touched my pubic hair.
I began to masturbate. It wasn't that I wanted pleasure. No, not the least. I had decided to extirpate the ant and fight the rough cheek persecuting me. To get them out and away of my system as soon as possible.
Sitting alone on the cold floor, surrounded by darkness, my fingers moved diligently. In ecstasy, I said to myself: "They liked the house, Irene and Jules."
Yes, we like the house. And as I raised my head, I realized that, after a difficult struggle, I had finally caught the ant and could now squeeze it if I wanted to. I smiled happily, stood up and walked toward the door. Not far from it, in a dusty corner, I found its lost key.