Palabras Errantes Latin American Literature in Translation

Palabras Errantes
Mom’s Birthday, 1991

By Alejandra Zina. Translated by Frances Riddle.


Same as always.

That’s what you thought.

Same as always.

Negra and José were your best friends. The only ones you let come over to the house. It wasn’t the first time your mom had invited them to her birthday. They’d come before. They didn’t mind. The one who minded was you. Why did she have to invite your friends? Why didn’t she make friends her own age? If there had been other guests, that’d be one thing. The problem was they were the only ones.

And her boyfriend? After your dad she’d started seeing a man. His name was León. He was a nice guy, who you both really liked. You never knew what happened between them, but one day the visits and calls stopped. Before he disappeared from your lives, León wrote a letter to each of you. His words were sweet and full of well wishes for your future. It was his way of saying goodbye.

So no. She didn’t have a boyfriend.

And her family? Your grandmother lived in La Cumbrecita and she’d stopped talking to your aunts and uncles so long ago that no one remembered when it had happened.

She said that her only family was you two: you and your sister Paula.

The night of her birthday you used the big table in the living room. Birthdays, Christmas, and New Year’s you ate there. And when you ate there everything was different. You drank your soda and wine out of glasses, you used metal silverware and white china dishes.

It was true that Negra and José were there every other day, but that didn’t mean they weren’t going to be treated like guests at the party.

It had always been just the three of you. Meals, movies, emergency room visits, long bus trips. Just your mom, Paula, and you. Your closeness formed an equilateral triangle. Any other person, anyone, was a point outside the grid. A little point, a nothing.

The first to arrive was Negra. She wore a denim miniskirt, olive green tank top, and leather sandals. Negra always wore tight shirts to show off her tits, which were heavy and round like those of a woman who’d breastfed several children. She was born that way. She was lucky. Nature had made you as flat as a board, back to front.

Negra brought a bouquet of freesias as a gift. Your mom thanked her and complimented the flowers in an exaggerated manner. She said they were her favorites. But if they’d been jasmines, roses, or carnations, she would’ve said the same thing. What mattered was what she got to say next: that her daughters, that is to say you two, wouldn’t give her flowers until she kicked the bucket.

Your mom told Negra to make herself at home, and you, to take care of the flowers. She had to turn over the chicken and Paula was watching TV in her room. You took the cellophane wrapping off and put the freesias in a vase of water. Then you took them to the table to display them. That’s what you thought. That flowers should be displayed where people can see them. Like Negra’s tits under her tight shirt.

José showed up with the smell of cologne, pleated pants, and a short sleeve dress shirt. You thought it was funny to see him like that and you told him so. You also told him that he looked better in his frayed jeans and his dirty Frank Zappa T-shirt. Jose shrugged his shoulders. He, on the other hand, liked your high heels. In his humble opinion you should wear them more often. His opinions were never humble. But you didn’t mind the compliment.

Your mom heard your voices and ran out of the kitchen. Why did she run like someone might be trying to escape? When she saw José she put an arm around his shoulder and pressed him to her.

“All dressed up!”

José smiled without showing his teeth and let your mom hug him. He was embarrassed. You were too.

“I bet you have a girlfriend . . .” she said, bringing her words around to her favorite topic.


“All right, let’s eat. Get your sister.”

You shouted several times, but since Paula didn’t answer you had to go up to her room to get her. This pissed you off. You didn’t like to leave Negra and José alone with her.

When you went into the living room, they were already seated at the table.

“We waited for you so we could toast,” your mom said.

“Lucky us,” you answered, not trying to hide your annoyance but not intending to start a fight either. It just came out.

“What bad vibes . . .” she said, and that annoyed you even more. She stole your words too.

Negra understood and touched your leg under the table. So that you’d know she was on your side. Or encouraging you to hang in there till the end. Or to shut you up. You looked at your friend and raised your glass. The others did the same. Everyone stood up and toasted the birthday girl. Before sitting, you all had to toast again because Paula had poured herself water instead of wine, and, who knows why, with water you have to toast twice.

“It’s self-service,” your mom said and everyone served themselves a stuffed tomato and a portion of Russian salad.

José started to talk about a Polish movie he’d seen the day before. The four of you all listened attentively. You noticed your sister’s infatuated gaze as José recounted the protagonist’s tragic and emotional tale. He talked like that, showing off.

Negra made vulgar jokes about the movie as she served herself another scoop of salad. Movies weren’t her thing. She liked boys and dancing.

“Negra is like me,” said your mom. “When I was young, I lived for dancing. In my day we called it discoing or boogieing.”

José swallowed a bite of stuffed tomato while your sister swallowed him with her eyes and you prayed that your mom wouldn’t start up with her same old stories: the days when your dad was her superstar boyfriend, the trips they took in the tiny Fiat, their wonderful life without kids or responsibilities.

“We didn’t deny ourselves anything. At all. And the girls’ dad was a great dancer. It was hard to keep up with him, let me tell you,” she said looking you in the eye.

“Should I bring the chicken out?” you asked with your best bitch face.

Her smile faded and you immediately felt like garbage. Why did you treat her like that? Why? Was it so hard to indulge her on her birthday? What did it hurt to let her tell those stories about the past?

“I’ll get it. You’re so clumsy you might burn yourself again like you did last week,” your mom said, returning the blow.

When she left, Paula asked shyly, “Where did you see the movie?”

“I rented it at the video store.”

“It sounds interesting.”

“If José liked it, it must’ve been boring,” said Negra.

“I don’t know . . . I might like it.”

“Don’t bet on it. This guy’s dragged us to see some real crap.”

José smiled, unoffended. His confidence was unshakable.

Your mom brought out the chicken and asked who wanted a drumstick. It turned out that the drumstick was everyone’s favorite and so she proposed a raffle. You said you didn’t mind eating breast or thigh, but she liked the idea of the raffle and insisted on doing it. She wrote your names on five strips of paper, shook them up in her hands, and asked you to pull out two. José and Paula won. Everyone applauded except you. The winners toasted drumsticks in the air like they were wine glasses and then each took a bite.

Another bottle of wine was opened and your mom decided to put on some music.


“What do you mean why? Music lifts the spirits,” she said and she walked over to the unit where the albums were kept.

You started to clear the table just to have something to do. Just so you wouldn’t have to be there when the music started playing. Negra helped you take the plates away. In the kitchen, she seized the chance to ask you if Paula liked José.

“I don’t know. My sister and I don’t talk about boys.”

“But it’s obvious something’s up with them,” Negra insisted.

“That’s their business,” you said before you stuck the candle into the middle of the cake.

The music started to play at top volume.

When you got back to the living room, your mom was dancing with José.



Some ancient song.

She hummed the melody as she spun in circles. When he saw you, José shrugged his shoulders as if apologizing. Negra’s face lit up, she grabbed Paula by the hand and started dancing with her.

You stood still, with the cake in your hands. They shouted for you to join them and you shook your head no. They called you stuffy, no fun, said you had two left feet. Your eyes started to itch. Your hands shook and you almost dropped the cake on the rug. You set it on the table and licked your nails stained with chocolate. They didn’t notice. Negra was leading them all in a choreography: hands on the waist, hips around and round, turn, right arm up, left arm up, jump in place, spin.



They’d now formed a conga line with your mom at the head.



The four started to conga around the table.

“Come on, dance with us,” Negra suggested.

“Grab on to me, grab on to me,” José shouted.

“Dance-with-us-Dance-with-us-Dance-with-us,” they chanted.

I’m leaving.

This is what you thought. As the stuffed tomato, the salad, and the chicken swirled inside your stomach. It was such an obvious solution. Why hadn’t you thought of it before? The thought began to repeat itself without stopping and you couldn’t hear the music or the sounds of the others laughing, like you were inside a rocket that was taking off into space.
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Your head suddenly turned off when your nose filled with the smell of her skin and the wine on her breath. That familiar smell. The smell of her room. Of her clothes. Of her sheets. The smell you missed when you went to spend the night at a friend’s house. That was the smell that came at you. And, without knowing why, a hot tear rolled down your cheek. And another.

That’s why you look like that in the photo, with your makeup running, as your mom wraps you in her arms and kisses your hair.


Cumple de mamá, 1991-b

Artwork by Rocío Muy Bien


Lo de siempre.

Eso pensaste.

Lo de siempre.

La Negra y José eran tus mejores amigos. Los únicos que dejabas entrar a la casa. No era la primera vez que tu mamá los invitaba a su cumpleaños. Ya habían venido antes. A ellos no les molestaba. A la que le molestaba era a vos. ¿Por qué tenía que invitar a tus amigos? ¿Por qué no se hacía amigos de su edad? Si hubiera otros invitados, todavía. El problema era que ellos iban a ser los únicos.

¿Y su pareja? Después de tu papá salió con un hombre. Se llamaba León. Era un buen tipo, al que quisieron de verdad. Nunca supieron lo que pasó entre ellos, pero un día las visitas y los llamados terminaron. Antes de que desapareciera de sus vidas, León le escribió una carta a cada una. Sus palabras eran tiernas y estaban llenas de buenos deseos para el futuro. Esa fue su forma de despedirse.

Así que no. Pareja no tenía.

¿Y su familia? Tu abuela vivía enLa Cumbrecitay con tus tíos había dejado de hablarse hacía tanto tiempo que ninguna recordaba cuándo fue la última vez.

Ella decía que su única familia eran ustedes dos: vos y tu hermana Paula.

La noche del cumpleaños usaron la mesa grande del living. Cumpleaños, navidad y año nuevo comían ahí. Y cuando comían ahí todo era distinto. Tomaban la gaseosa y el vino en copas, cortaban con cubiertos de metal y se servían en platos de loza blanca.

Era cierto que La Negra y José te visitaban día por medio, pero no por eso dejaban de ser los invitados de una fiesta.

Lo normal era que estuviesen las tres solas. En las comidas, en el cine, en la guardia de un hospital, en un micro de larga distancia. Sólo tu mamá, Paula y vos. La intimidad de ustedes tres tenía la forma de un triángulo equilátero. Cualquier otra persona, cualquiera, era un punto fuera del plano. Un puntito, una nada.

La primera en llegar fue La Negra. Llevaba minifalda de jean,  musculosa verde oliva y sandalias de cuero. La Negra siempre usaba remeras ajustadas para lucir sus tetas, que eran pesadas y redondas como las de una mujer que ya dio de mamar a varios hijos. A ella le tocaron así de nacimiento. Tuvo suerte. A vos la naturaleza te hizo tablita de atrás y de adelante.

La Negra trajo un ramo de fresias de regalo. Tu mamá se lo agradeció y elogió las flores de forma exagerada. Dijo que eran sus preferidas. Pero si hubiesen sido jazmines, rosas o claveles, habría dicho lo mismo. Lo más importante era lo que seguía: que sus hijas, es decir ustedes, estaban esperando a que espichara para pasar por el florista.

Tu mamá le dijo a La Negra que se pusiera cómoda y a vos, que te encargaras de las flores. Ella tenía que dar vuelta el pollo y Paula estaba viendo la tele en su cuarto. Quitaste el celofán y pusiste las fresias en un florero con agua. Después lo llevaste a la mesa para que se lucieran. Eso pensaste. Que las flores se lucen cuando alguien las ve. Como las tetas de La Negra debajo de la remera ajustada.

José llegó con olor a perfume, pantalones pinzados y camisa de manga corta. Te hizo gracia verlo así y se lo dijiste. También le dijiste que preferías los jeans desflecados y la remera roñosa de Frank Zappa. José se encogió de hombros. En cambio a él le gustaban tus zapatos de taco. En su humilde opinión, tenías que ponértelos más seguido. Sus opiniones nunca eran humildes. Pero el piropo no te cayó mal.

Tu mamá escuchó las voces y salió corriendo de la cocina. ¿Por qué corre si nadie se va a escapar? Cuando lo vio a José le pasó el brazo por el hombro y lo apretó contra ella.

-¡Pero mirá cómo te viniste!

José sonrió sin mostrar los dientes y se dejó abrazar por tu mamá. Se sentía avergonzado. Vos también.

-A que tenés novia… -dijo ella, tirando la lengua para donde le gustaba enredarse.


-Bueno, empecemos a comer. Llamá a tu hermana.

Gritaste varias veces, pero como Paula no respondía tuviste que subir a buscarla a su cuarto. Eso te dio bronca. No te gustaba dejar a La Negra y a José a solas con ella.

Cuando entraron al living, ya estaban sentados a la mesa.

-Las estábamos esperando para brindar -dijo tu mamá.

-Menos mal –respondiste, sin preocuparte por esconder tu enojo pero tampoco con la intención de seguir la pelea. Simplemente te salió así.

-Qué mala onda… -dijo ella, y eso te puso peor. También te robaba tus palabras.

La Negra se dio cuenta y te tocó la pierna por debajo de la mesa. Para que sintieras que estaba de tu lado. O para que aguantaras hasta el final. O para que te callaras. Vos miraste a tu amiga y alzaste la copa. Los demás hicieron lo mismo. Se pusieron de pie y brindaron por la cumpleañera. Antes de sentarse, tuvieron que volver a brindar porque Paula se había servido agua en vez de vino y, vaya a saber por qué, con agua se brinda dos veces.

-Es autoservice –dijo tu mamá y cada uno se sirvió su tomate relleno y una porción de ensalada rusa.

José empezó a contar una película polaca que había visto el día anterior. Las cuatro estaban atentas a él. Sin querer, descubriste la mirada embobada de tu hermana mientras José explicaba el sentimiento trágico de la protagonista. Él hablaba así, dándose aires.

La Negra hacía chistes guarangos sobre la película mientras se servía otra cucharada de rusa. El cine no era lo suyo. A ella le gustaban los chicos y salir a bailar.

-La Negra se parece a mí –dijo tu mamá-. Cuando yo era joven, moría por ir a bailar. En mi época decíamos ir a la disco o ir la boîte.

José comía el tomate relleno mientras tu hermana se lo morfaba con los ojos y vos rogabas para que no empezara con la cantinela de siempre: los días en que tu papá era el novio superstar, los viajes en fitito, aquella maravillosa vida sin hijos ni obligaciones.

-Nosotros no nos privamos de nada. De nada. Además el papá de las chicas era un gran bailarín. Había que seguirlo, eh –dijo ella mirándote a los ojos.

-¿Traigo el pollo? –preguntaste con tu mejor cara de culo.

A ella se le borró la sonrisa y enseguida te sentiste una basura. ¿Por qué la trataste así? ¿Por qué? ¿Tanto te costaba complacerla el día de su cumpleaños? ¿Qué mal te hacía contando esas historias del pasado?

-Dejá que voy yo. Sos tan torpe que por ahí te quemás como la semana pasada –dijo tu mamá devolviéndote el cachetazo.

Cuando ella se fue, Paula preguntó tímidamente.

-¿Dónde viste la película?

-La alquilé en el video.

-Parecía interesante.

-Si le gustó a José debe ser un embole –dijo La Negra.

-No sé… Por ahí me gusta.

-No te hagas ilusiones. Éste nos llevó a ver cada bodrio.

José sonrió sin ofenderse. Se sentía seguro de sí mismo.

Tu mamá trajo el pollo y preguntó quién comía pata. Resultó que la pata era la presa preferida de todos y ella propuso hacer un sorteo. Vos dijiste que no te molestaba comer pechuga o muslo, pero ella se encaprichó con la idea del sorteo y había que hacerlo. Escribió los nombres en cinco papelitos, los sacudió dentro de sus manos y te pidió que sacaras dos. Ganaron José y Paula. Todos festejaron menos vos. Los ganadores chocaron las patas de pollo en el aire como si fuesen copas y se las comieron.

Destaparon otra botella de vino y a tu mamá se le ocurrió poner algo de música.

-¿Para qué?

-¿Cómo para qué? La música alegra el alma –dijo ella y fue hasta el modular donde guardaban los discos.

Te pusiste a levantar la mesa como para hacer algo. Como para no estar ahí cuando empezara a sonar la música. La Negra te ayudó a llevar los platos. En la cocina, aprovechó para preguntarte si Paula gustaba de José.

-No sé. Con mi hermana no hablamos de chicos.

-Pero es obvio que algo pasa -insistió La Negra.

-Cosa de ellos -dijiste antes de hundir la vela en el centro de la torta.

La música empezó a sonar a todo volumen.

Cuando volvieron al living, la viste a tu mamá bailando con José.



Una canción del año del pedo.

Ella tarareaba la melodía mientras giraba en el lugar. Cuando te vio, José se encogió de hombros como disculpándose. A La Negra se le iluminó la cara, agarró a Paula de la mano y la sacó a bailar.

Vos te quedaste de pie, con la torta entre las manos. Te llamaron para que te sumaras y dijiste que no con la cabeza. Te dijeron amarga, aburrida, pata dura. Los ojos te empezaron a picar. Te temblaron las manos y por poco se te cae la torta a la alfombra. La apoyaste sobre la mesa y te chupaste las uñas manchadas de chocolate. Ellos no lo notaron. En ese momento estaban siguiendo una coreografía que propuso La Negra: manos a la cintura, cadera en ula ula, giro, brazo derecho arriba, brazo izquierdo arriba, saltitos en el lugar, giro.



Ahora habían formado un trencito con tu mamá a la cabeza.



Los cuatro empezaron a bailar alrededor de la mesa.

-Dale, subite al final -invitó La Negra.

-Agarrame, agarrame –gritó José.

-Que-se-suba-Que-se-suba-Que-se-suba -cantaron todos.

Me  voy.

De pronto, pensaste eso. Mientras el tomate relleno, la rusa y el pollo se revolvían en tu estómago. Fue tan fácil pensarlo. Cómo no se te había ocurrido antes. La frase empezó a repetirse sin parar hasta que dejaste de oír la música y las risas de los demás, como si estuvieras adentro de un cohete que sale disparado al espacio.
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Tu cabeza se apagó de golpe cuando sentiste el aliento a vino mezclado con el olor de su piel. El de siempre. El que olías en su pieza. En su ropa. En sus sábanas. El olor que extrañabas cuando ibas a dormir a la casa de tus amigas. Ese fue el olor que se te vino encima. Y, sin saber por qué, te corrió una lágrima caliente por el cachete. Y otra.

Por eso en esta foto saliste así, con el maquillaje corrido, mientras tu mamá te envuelve en sus brazos y te besa el pelo.

Copyright © 2018 Alejandra Zina
English Translation © 2018 Frances Riddle

Alejandra Zina (Buenos Aires, 1973) is the author of the short-story collections *Hay gente que no sabe lo que hace* (2016) and *Lo que se pierde* (2005), and a novel *Barajas* (2011). She has also published the anthology, *Erótica argentina* (2000) and is the co-author of *Correspondencia argentina en dos siglos* (2003). She teaches creative writing and her stories have been published in various anthologies in Spain, Mexico and Buenos Aires.

Frances Riddle lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina where she works as a translator, writer, and editor. She holds an MA in Translation Studies from the University of Buenos Aires and a BA in Spanish Literature. Her book-length publications include *A Simple Story* by Leila Guerriero (New Directions, 2017); *Bodies of Summer* by Martín Felipe Castagnet (Dalkey Archive Press, 2017) and *The Life and Deaths of Ethel Jurado* (Hispabooks, 2017). Her translations, interviews, articles, and reviews have appeared in *The White Review*, *Electric Literature*, *Berfrois*, *Catch and Release*, *Asymptote*, *The Short Story Project*, *The Portable Museum*, *Palabras Errantes*, *Ventana Latina*, and *The Argentina Independent*, among others.

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