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Joaquin Buitrago, a photographer in the Castaneda Insane Asylum, believes a patient is a prostitute he knew years earlier. His obsession in confirming Matilde's identity leads him to explore the clinics records, and her tragic history. He discovers that she was a peasant adopted by a doctor uncle. She led a calm life until Cástulo, a young revolutionary chased by the authorities, finds shelter in her home. Matilde's eyes are opened to the social upheaval will lead her to break with her uncle and hide out with ...
Joaquin Buitrago, a photographer in the Castaneda Insane Asylum, believes a patient is a prostitute he knew years earlier. His obsession in confirming Matilde's identity leads him to explore the clinics records, and her tragic history. He discovers that she was a peasant adopted by a doctor uncle. She led a calm life until Cástulo, a young revolutionary chased by the authorities, finds shelter in her home. Matilde's eyes are opened to the social upheaval will lead her to break with her uncle and hide out with Diamantina Vicari. Diamantina's death devastates Matilde so much that she wanders about, completely lost, doing all kinds of jobs, including prostitution. As the photographer discovers more details, he becomes convinced that he and Matilde should live together. Ultimately, as they face defeat in a repressive society, they search to establish in the rubble an uncertain future that will somehow restore their freedom.
We see by something that illuminates us,
by something that we do not see.
"How does one come to be a photographer of crazy people?"
Inside Joaquín Buitrago's head there is a buzzing that will not let him sleep or rest in peace. Matilda. A word, a fluttering of wings. Wide awake, muscles tense and eyes open, he strikes a match. The orange light reveals his nicotine-stained fingers and the face of a pocket watch whose two gold hands, one atop the other, seem to have stopped forever at exactly twelve o'clock. With the same flame, he lights the oil lamp, the left burner of the stove, and a Monarch cigarette. On his face there is a shadow, almost violet, that threatens to become a smile, although it freezes into a grimace on his lips. Even without seeing it, that expression disturbs him, embarrasses him, but there is nothing he can do to wipe it off. He is happy. But he doesn't know what to do with his happiness.
Shirtless, Joaquín passes his handkerchief from time to time across his forehead, around his neck, to wipe up the sweat. At the same time, he runs water into a blue enamelware pot. He is preparing the infusion of sweetalmonds, morphine chlorhydrate, and orange-blossom syrup that no longer relieves his chronic insomnia but whose smell at least makes him dream, even with eyes open and muscles tense. He has tried everything-tincture of calumba, tincture of bitterwood, tincture of gentian, and cinchona bitters, thirty milliliters of each, mixed with ten centigrams of morphine. Three spoonfuls a day. Twenty. Whole glassfuls. He has also tried opium in ricewater; potassium bromide, perfect for those suffering from spiritual cares, depressive afflictions and excessive intellectual effort; sodium bromide, recommended in cases of constant irritation; paraldehyde in infusions of bay-leaf or linden. No remedy has been able to conquer his sleeplessness. Finally, only this almond emulsion is able to relieve it, as he awaits the light of dawn on the horizon. Then, between six and eight in the morning, he falls asleep on his cot, just as everyone else is waking up and the city once again begins to tie itself into its knot of noise and speed.
Light distracts him. He cannot help it. The moment a hint of amber light crosses that shifting boundary between darkness and the absence of darkness, his pupils turn toward the color as though by instinct. He has spent many years now pursuing light the way others stalk an animal. Years of hiding his face and body behind lenses, Gaumont Stereo Spido Metalliques bought in Paris and Eastmans or Graflexes shipped directly from Rochester. Many futile years, unrolled like a canvas of black muslin pierced from time to time, a very few times, by ephemeral, luminous punctures of light. Fireflies like women, and vice versa. Motionless, shackled once more by this phototropic automatism, Joaquín examines the four walls of his room. He takes a drag on the cigarette, hooks strands of greasy hair behind his ears, crosses his arms across his naked chest, and looks. There is nothing else that he does or remembers with more pleasure. Joaquín is a tense man, a man who feels comfortable only on the margins of days, behind mirrors. In the wan light of the oil lamp, the peeling layers of paint create shadowy landscapes on the adobe walls of the room. There is an autumnal woodland spreading without order or direction. In the background, aquamarine mountains and skies mantled with purple. Here and there, dogs' muzzles, open mouths, red with ire and melancholy, and in the background, in what was perhaps the first layer of original paint, curls of white snow, forced to fall by onslaughts of salt air and the humidity of the rainy seasons. Snow. The snow of time-gentle, white, lasting. For a moment, the desire to feel snowflakes is so fierce that Joaquín has to close his eyes. Then, sheltered within the shadows of his head, he remembers how much he dislikes the color white.
"Matilda," he mutters as he shakes his head and pours a little of the emulsion into a small clay cup. The liquid leaves a bitter, burning sensation on the tip of his tongue. Once in his stomach, though, the almonds and orange blossoms create a cool evening on his lips.
"How does one come to be a photographer of crazy people?" she had asked him. Joaquín, unaccustomed to hearing the voices of the subjects he was photographing, thought it was the whispering of his own conscience. There before him, sitting on the bench where the mad men and women were brought for him to photograph, wearing a blue uniform, the woman who was supposed to be sitting motionless, scared, with her eyes blank and a little thread of drool hanging from the corner of her mouth, was actually behaving with the irony and haughtiness of a young woman of the old nobility posing for her first carte de visite. He knew; he had done so many of them-hundreds. Before his arrival at the prisons and, after that, madhouses, he had been a professional photographer. A young man in a frock coat and shined shoes, a man to whom the most diverse women opened like doors. All it took was a phrase, a certain suggestive tone of voice, to bring out the most refined coquetry, the frankest female exhibitionism. What he sought was the slight flinch, the moment of bewilderment, the cracking of their modesty, the very marrow at their center. That was before. Nothing like it for years and years. Not until he ran into Matilda again. Instead of cowering back against the wall and staring silently into the void, she had leaned into the camera, arranged her long, mahogany-colored hair with suggestive gestures, and asked the only question that made him think of death. His death.
The photographer could have answered with the words he always spoke to himself: damned morphine. Or those he never spoke to himself but that today, July 26, at 3:30 in the afternoon, came suddenly into his head: Rome, the impossibility of the Roman light. For a few moments, still unable to believe that a madwoman had asked him that question, he was tempted to tell her of the miracle of his three years in Italy. 1897. The all-consuming practice of photography. Rome fixed forever on albumin-coated papers, gelatin-silver plates. Rome, wounding his twenty-six-year-old retinas. Three long Italian summers. A landscape of hills, clouds, rivers. A woman: Alberta. Rome, which had split his life in two: before and after. Before, Alberta; after, morphine.
"What's your name?" The sound of his own voice surprised him.
"Matilda. Matilda Burgos."
He repeated the name a couple of times, trying to focus the woman's attention on the lens. Then, the third time, the fourth, he began to taste it, savor it, chew it, squeeze it. She yielded. Her smile first, and then her eyes. The woman was now posing. At that instant, the July light was transformed and the water of the Tiber was up to her knees. Alberta was shouting his name and waving her hands as though he were on the other bank.
"Here I am," he told her.
"No, you are here," murmured the woman, bringing his hand toward her legs. Joaquín didn't know what to do. She pulled him toward her, mussed his hair, mocked his clumsiness.
"So, how does one come to be a photographer of crazy people?" Matilda's question jerked him rudely out of the waters of the Tiber and brought him back to Mixcoac.
In a very soft voice, almost inaudible, Joaquín said to himself, "Every failure begins with light, with the desire to capture light forever." Then upset, reacting with his customary hostility, he said something aloud:
"Why don't you tell me how a woman goes crazy?" And Matilda's only answer was a shrug of her shoulders and a wink of her left eye.
"You really want me to tell you?"
Joaquín Buitrago, who had forgotten how to laugh, was amazed to feel on his lips the loud burst of a guffaw. The sound echoed through the asylum, and since it had nowhere else to go, it entered him through his ears. The sound continued to echo in his head all day and all night. It was not the monotonous buzzing of a bee, but rather the quick, sharp crack of a glass shattering in his blood. Like always at six o'clock in the morning, he collapsed-exhausted, woebegone, and still tense-onto his rickety cot.
At eight o'clock on the morning of July 27, 1920, Joaquín recalled with absolute certainty where he had seen Matilda Burgos before. He instantly got up and went over to the brass trunk, which with the cot, the chair, and wooden table, made up the room's only furnishings, and his entire belongings. He anxiously opened it. Then, with extreme care, he removed his most treasured possession: the collection of stereoscopic photographs, mounted on pasteboard, that he had taken just after his return from Italy. Each card held the image of a naked woman, a woman exposed yet covered with desire. Looking through the viewer's two eyepieces, he viewed the photographs, one by one. An expression of satisfaction came across his face. As he shuffled through the cards, his unsociable, skeptical demeanor changed, and he seemed possessed by vertigo. He remembered himself at twenty-eight. His thick, still black eyebrows shadowed his sunken eyes with the playfulness of youth, and his aquiline nose regained the angle of his determined will. He once again believed in the possibility of fixing the uniqueness of a body, a gesture. The possibility of stopping time. There they were once again, imperishable, the unmistakable poses of the women of the bordellos. My women. In rooms filled with bric-a-brac, surrounded by figurines and mirrors, wearing transparent robes from the distant Orient or sometimes totally nude, the women were posing as though entering a pact. He remembered neither their names nor the names of the places. He hardly noticed the dates. He rarely took notes. The only thing that Joaquín was able to remember was stored in glints, gleams, gradations of light, images. Under this spell, everything was real and everything was possible. Outside it, all that existed was whiteness, the saturation of color that he associated with death and the beyond. What color might limbo be?
Card number seventeen was of Matilda Burgos, and Joaquín, without taking his eyes off the eyepieces, smiled. He didn't even realize he was doing it. Matilda had chosen the marble table and the fake bearskin; she reclined on them. Then, naked, she had leaned back on her right arm and without another word or gesture ordered him to begin the session.
"After all, you're the one who wants the photographs, not me."
Joaquín, amused, instantly obeyed.
Like all the other women whose portraits he had made in that particular bordello, Matilda chose the scene and the poses. Some of the women preferred to remain in their own rooms, lying on the same mattresses they worked on. Others, though, suggested a visit to a nearby brook. Some removed their clothes without the slightest hesitation, while others chose exotic Chinese regalia, and a few decided to face the camera in their customary dishabille. They had all no doubt seen the erotic postcards then in vogue on the market, and although Joaquín explained that their photographs had no commercial value whatsoever, most of them went through efforts partly ludicrous, partly sincere to imitate the languid or provocative poses of divas such as Adela Eisenhower or Eduwiges Chateau. Then, as the session went on and Joaquín's unthreatening attitude managed to create a tenuous confidence, some of the models, never many, would begin to "flow," as he called it. When that happened, it would be slow, almost subterranean, and might even pass unnoticed. At those times, Joaquín always thought about the movements of a sunflower. Sometimes it was just a gesture of amazement, a flicker of shyness or disgust and tiredness, the interrogation barely visible on the face: "What the hell am I doing here?" And then the women would turn inward once more, to the place where they saw themselves as they wished to see themselves. And that was the exact place that the photographer yearned to know, yearned to halt forever. The place where a woman accepted herself. There, seductiveness did not turn outward, nor was it one-way; there, in a gesture indivisible and unique, seductiveness was not a hook but a map. Joaquín was convinced that it was possible to reach that place. Joaquín Buitrago had still believed in the impossible that day when Matilda removed her clothes with no embarrassment whatever and, reclining on the marble table as she sought his eyes behind the lens, she asked him:
"How does one come to be a photographer of whores?"
He thought about Alberta; there was no help for it, although he preserved his calm. The only sign that he had been disconcerted was the slight tremor of his fingers as they adjusted the Gaumont. Will you dare answer this time, Joaquín? It was the question he had always refused to answer, no matter who asked it-much less if he asked it himself. Sometimes, on those rare occasions when he was sitting in a bar with acquaintances from San Carlos Academy, he would try cynicism. "We're all men, no? Do I really have to explain it?" And yet to find precisely the right tone of irony, he had to be drunk or distracted, his mind on something else. Had to be not himself. On other days, days sober and tense, the adrenaline would steer him directly toward vagueness. Rather than answering with complete sentences, he would utter words like beauty, spirit, eternity-which he would pronounce with the feigned lightness of a scholar. In time, as he attempted to ward off the curiosity of his acquaintances at all costs, Joaquín became expert at fabricating evasions, and eventually, tired of word games, he came even to avoid the acquaintances themselves. A man can seldom admit that he takes photographs of women in order to return to the place of a single woman. Alberta. In those cases, he preferred solitude. Preferred to retain the memory of Alberta whirling around, telling him, "All things are possible, Joaquín, except peace. Had you not noticed that?"
Joaquín finished the session with Matilda in the most absolute silence. The image of Alberta, leaving him, beaching him forever on the bank of a river, dogged his steps all the way back home. The blue dog of memory nipping constantly at his heels.
To develop the plates he used silver bromide; taking great care in the developing, he was able to achieve clear bright tones. Afterward, covered with sweat, the exhaustion of several days without sleep, and the shock produced in him by the images, he looked at them again before putting them away once more in his brass trunk. He sat on it. Suddenly, the fragility of the stereoscopic photographs brought on an attack of anxiety.
Excerpted from NO ONE WILL SEE ME CRY by Cristina Rivera-Garza
Copyright © 2003 by Cristina Rivera-Garza
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.