Here's that rare slice of laugh-out-loud-but-still-cathartic-as-anything fiction from Magdalena Navarro. Having identified a pitch directly on the line between bildungsroman and sex comedy, Navarro casts us into small town Spain, adolescence (with its attendant innocent and not so innocent transgressions), and flavors generously with the anxiety of a "normal" girl.
My parents' divorce didn't rank particularly high among my friends. It lacked the drama, the quotable cruelty of all epic dissolutions. Take Monica's parents: her mom had cheated on her dad with several people, but most notably, their own marriage counselor. What a coup de grâce. Or Alba's dad, who convinced her younger sister to scratch her mom's car for tickets to Disney On Ice. Turning your offspring against their mother: bonus points. Even Silvia's parents, who taught Sunday School, had broken two plates and almost a glass (it hit the floor but didn't shatter) during a row in the kitchen.
But not my parents. Only a dog would have been able to hear the cracking of all the hairline fractures in their marriage. They just shrugged it off, without yelling, without smashing any plates or slamming any doors. There wasn't anything they felt strongly about, so everything they owned, myself included, had been equally divided and settled in record time. See? Not even a torturous, protracted legal process. We just didn't stand a chance against the other divorces.
"At least you have the surprise factor," Monica consoled me one day. We were sitting on a bench during recess. "Honestly, no one thought your parents would divorce. Everybody was like 'Whaaat!' when it got out. Seriously. In fact, I was sure hers would be next," she said, pointing with her chin to Eva Basalte.
Eva Basalte was what my mother would call a "fast girl". She had been the first to get her period, the first to have a boyfriend, the first to smoke a cigarrette. Legend had it she had given her cousin a handjob in a bathroom stall at Decathlon (or Telepizza, depending on the source). She had admitted, on a bus trip to the Dali Museum, that she and her sister had watched the porn tapes their parents kept secretly stashed in their bedroom. That unleashed a storm of winces, giggles and cupped mouths.
"You mean they watch it?" someone had asked, cheeks aflame.
"Obviously," Eva had said. "Everybody does."
Obviously, parents who watched porn had to be next in the divorce line. That kind of slime couldn't glue two people together for long. I mean, what kind of parents like sex? Shortly after that memorable schooltrip to the Dali Museum, I had caught a glimpse of Eva's parents one day, after piano lessons. To my astonishment, they didn't look like the kind of people that watched porn. Sure, her mom wore pink nail polish and a ponytail, but nothing in her features betrayed an interest in that sort of stuff. Her husband wore a fanny pack, which conjured images of wholesome excursions. I had stared at them long after they disappeared down the street.
"Yeah." I told Monica. "I thought they'd be next, too. You can kind of tell just by looking at them."
A year later, I became one of those people, too. Not the kind that you can tell right away watches porn, but the kind you don't. I was almost fifteen years old and painfully lonely. I wanted to blame my parents' divorce for it, but it had been so exemplary I didn't dare. I tugged at the corners of my life, desperate to create some wrinkles, to stir up some change. The problem was I had no spine whatsoever. For example, I never allowed myself to cry before I finished all my homework (work first, play later). Whenever I fantasized about Marc García, whom I had been in love with since fourth grade, it was in a postapocaliptic setting: I knew I didn't stand a chance unless all other humans had been wiped out.
To love him this intensely and unilaterally was agony. My journal documented his days so carefully it would have put the Stasi to shame. I analyzed everything he said with talmudic zeal, trying to squeeze a drop of hope out of his words and, at the same time, extremely aware of how delusional that distillation was. If only he could see me, the real me, past the Thursday piano lessons and the navy blue sweaters! Yet, I resolved to do absolutely nothing about it. If fate wanted us to be together, it would find a way to make it happen. I would wait for it safely ensconced in my head, getting my thrills off the late-night tv I started watching when my mom worked the night shift at the hospital.
Late night TV is the televisive subconscious. A dimension in which re-runs, softcore porn and exercise machines tangle up when they think nobody's watching. It's blue loneliness flickering on people's windows past midnight; an erratic, twitchy indulgence. I took it all in: the canned laughter, the dog movies, the miraculous penis-enlargement devices. But mostly, I became addicted to the glimpses of flesh in steamy showers, where a rugged, masculine hand would would slither between quivering breasts and women with bouffants parted their lips in silent ecstasy. Soon it didn't even matter if my mom was out or not. I would wait until I heard her light snoring to tiptoe into the tv room and go through the looking-glass.
Of course, developing a nightlife took a toll on my daytime self. An alarmed call from school informed my mom I was nodding off in class and that my grades had taken a hit. They also wanted to know if I was seeing a therapist. I heard my mom sigh, and imagined her rubbing her eyes with nicotine-stained fingers. "Well, she seemed to be fine, she's very mature for her age. We talked about it.” From the other end of the line came an ominous account of all the things that could be falling apart in me without her knowing. It worked. I started seeing a therapist a week later, and my mom started unplugging the tv and taking the cable with her every night.
But it was too late. I had already grown roots on the other side of midnight. I conjured the things I had seen and started filling a green notebook with women with disproportionate breasts being impaled by crude erections, always in different positions, no matter how anatomically challenging. Drawing them left me with a dry mouth and a painful throbbing between my legs that made me want to be different. It was scary and wonderful. Even the terror of being caught was wonderful. No matter where I was, I knew that in my room, tucked behind the Tintin Collection and the 2001 Student Atlas, was a piece of midnight and it was mine. If only people knew! If only Marc García knew!
But a secret so juicy can't stay a secret for too long. I was a criminal mastermind who sought recognition, and all it took was a semester sitting next to Eva Basalte for me to spill it.
"Really?" She eyed me with surprise. "Like, what kind of stuff?"
Funny. I could draw the most obscene things, but I couldn't bring myself to explain them out loud, not even to her.
"Just...porn stuff," I said lamely. "But super explicit." She raised her plucked eyebrows and I felt a surge of pride. "I can show it to you tomorrow, if you want".
"Tomorrow? Why not today?You live next to the bakery, right?"
I felt deflated. I was someone who lived next to a bakery and had to go to piano lessons that day.
"I can't today." I said, trying to look like I was busy. "But my mom will be out tomorrow afternoon.”
The following day, I told my mom I would have a friend coming over after school and I almost felt sad when I saw how excited she was about it. We found a big bottle of Coke and a tray of mini-chocolate croissants waiting for us on the table when we walked in.
"Nice!" said Eva. She didn't even wait to drop her bookbag to pop a croissant in her mouth. "Hmm. Hmm, hmm, hmm! Very nice!" She licked the powdered sugar off her lips and then let her bookbag down with a thump. "Okay, where is it?"
"Oh, you want to see it now?" I asked stupidly. For some reason, I had thought we would do our homework first and then I would show her the green notebook. I had hoped she would stay for the afternoon.
"Yeah. What else?" she snickered.
"Okay", I said, and we went to my room, where I climbed on the shelf to pluck the notebook from behind the Tintin Collection.
We plopped down on the blue rug and I watched anxiously as she flipped through the pages.
"Not bad," she mumbled, and I swallowed loudly. "You need a bit of variety, though. Maybe two lesbians licking each other, or some anal. But this is pretty good."
"Yeah?" I was so giddy.
"Yeah. Who would have thought."she chuckled, closing the notebook and dropping it on my lap. She stared at the Tintin collection in silence for a while, so I did the same.
"You know, you could sell this."
"Sell it? To who?"
"Guys. They jerk off to this."
"But don't they have like, magazines and movies? Why would anyone want to... do that with drawings. I mean... they're not that good"
"Well, some of them don't know how to get that stuff," she offered, stretching her legs in front of her.
"We'd just sell it to guys in schools. My dad has a photocopy machine, it wouldn't cost us a thing."
I shook my head. The thought of mass producing that stuff was terrifying.
"I...don't want to get caught." I said, ignoring the roaring in my ears. "If anyone finds out I drew that..."
"Who's gonna know?" she laughed. "Who would suspect you?" she caught herself. "I mean, your grades are great. Nobody would think you're the kind of person who'd do this. It's really cool."
I felt my knees go weak at that.
"Yeah, but I don't want to get caught,” I repeated, but with less conviction than before.
"So don't,” she smiled. "I know a guy that can help us. But you'd have to show him this first."
The Guy That Could Help Us was a couple of years older and attended a high school a few blocks away from us. He was tall and lanky, with bony wrists emerging from his tracksuit jacket and the tentative, unfinished beauty of a seventeen-year old. Since I hadn't spent my whole life in a classroom with him, I didn't feel comfortable opening my mouth, so I let Eva do the talking and watched him anxiously as he thumbed his way through my drawings.
"So you drew this," he finally said, meeting my eyes above the notebook. I nodded. "Well, they're okay, but there are a few things.”
I cleared my throat. "Sure".
"Dicks are not that far up" he pointed out in a dispassionate voice. "You draw them here, but they're actually here,” he said, pointing at his crotch.
"Yeah, I know," I lied, averting my gaze. My ears were incandescent. "Those are just quick sketches."
"Also," he continued, flipping through the pages quickly, "I see no pussies. You don't draw them?" he asked, raising his eyebrows.
"Those are just sketches," intervened Eva. "If you like it, there will be more. We'll take commissions."
He nodded and handed her the notebook back.
"I think we could sell this. But it needs more detail, otherwise no one will pay for it." He turned his gaze to me. "Can you draw a pussy?"
"Obviously," I said, feeling the heat from my ears spread to the rest of my face like lava.
"Cool. Bring it tomorrow and then we'll see."
I quickly found out that drawing a vagina was not easy. I had hoped my biology book would come to the rescue, but it had no pictures of the silky gates. Just aseptic diagrams of where everything was, like the floor plan of a mall. To round it off, my mom was home and she kept coming in and out of my room to bring in folded laundry. Not optimal conditions for my budding career as a pornographer.
Eventually, I just gave up and headed to the bathroom with notepad and pencil. My heart was fluttering when I lowered my panties and straddled the bidet. Inside I placed a small Barbie mirror facing up. I was blocking the light with my body, but there was enough to make out my physionomy down there.
I had seen myself before, but I had never stared at it, not like this. My first thought was that it looked complicated, like a VCR with tons of buttons that only guys could figure out. Then I thought it looked strange, like an angry carnivore flower. I didn't understand why anyone would want to see this. But then I imagined the Guy Who Could Help Us looking at it, and when I did, the muscles contracted. Just a quick, tiny spasm that sent a tingling up my spine. I stared at my sex in awe. It was glistening. It didn’t look that ugly anymore.
I propped the notepad on my thigh and started drawing, not without dropping the pencil at least twice.
“Wow,” said Eva, a little too loudly.
“Shh!” I looked up nervously to see if the teacher had heard, but he was still writing on the whiteboard.
“It’s so detailed,” she continued. She had the drawing open on her lap. “Were you wet when you drew it?”
“I told you, it’s not mine!” I hissed. I tried to snatch the paper from her lap, but she slapped my hand.
“A movie I saw last night” I said, ignoring the look she gave me. “On TV.”
“It must have been a movie from the ‘80s. From 1984.” she snorted.
I blushed furiously and snatched the paper from her lap. My right temple started throbbing with the familiar jabs of a migraine. What had seemed exciting a few hours ago now felt stupid and senseless. What had I been thinking? Of course they would know it was my pussy right there. The details had betrayed me.
“I’m not gonna do it.” I said, folding the drawing and stuffing it inside my math book. “This was a bad idea from the beginning”
“Oh, come on! I was joking!” she said.
“No, you were not. He’ll think it’s my pussy, so I can’t do it.”
Eva opened her mouth, but then she saw the teacher looking at us, and bent her head over her homework.
After a while, she said:
“Honestly, it could be anyone’s.”
I stared at the biology book opened in front of me on a diagram of invertebrates and said nothing.
“It could be mine. They all look the same. Seriously,” she insisted.
I still said nothing.
“Look, he won’t think it’s yours because nobody would ever suspect you of doing this, same with your other stuff,” she reasoned. “Trust me, he’ll just look at it and won’t think anything about it. Plus, it’s just a sample! So he can see you can really draw, which you can, because it’s fantastic, and we can make some money with it. What’s the problem?”
“This is just a sample, so you get an idea of what she can do,” said Eva.
The Guy That Could Help Us nodded and extended a bony hand to accept the folded drawing. He was sitting on the backrest of a bench, wearing exactly the same clothes as the day before. There was a blue sports bag next to his dangling feet.
I held my breath as he unfolded the paper. He didn’t make a sound, but his eyes grew wide for a second, and I saw his Adam’s apple bob up and down. Then, he looked at me and I felt he hadn’t seen me before until now. He parted his lips, but he didn’t say anything. He just looked at me.
“It’s a still from a movie,” said Eva.
“Right,” he said, still looking at me. He folded the paper and cleared his throat. “It’s good.”
“So I’ll talk with a friend, and then we’ll start,” he said, stuffing the drawing in his pocket. He picked up his sports bag. “Pleasure doing business with you,” he said, with a smug little smile.
We didn’t hear back from him again. At first, Eva said he’d just gone away for the Easter holidays, but when May rolled in without news, she admitted she had no idea. “Can’t you call him?” I had asked. But then she said she didn’t have his number; he was a friend of her now ex-boyfriend, and “it would be weird to ask him for his number.”
But then rumors started circulating in our school. Someone had a picture of a pussy, of a real one, someone’s cousin, a real slut apparently, and for 25 cents you could get a copy. I felt betrayed. I accused Eva of going behind my back with my work.
“Do you have any idea of how exposed I feel?” I asked her.
“I thought it wasn’t yours,” she retorted.
It was all in vain. The Guy Who Betrayed Us had played us. We never saw any profits, and it would have been a rather lucrative affair, because it seemed every guy in our school owned a copy. You could even tell some were copies of the copy, since they were growing fainter and blurrier with each generation. I was surrounded by replicas of my most intimate self-portrait, and utterly powerless to control their spread.
Then, Eva’s ex-boyfriend talked. Apparently, the drawing had sold well in his school too, and since he no longer owed my partner in crime any loyalty, he was very happy to claim his part in the operation’s success… which included disclosing its source. The news traveled to our school via the water polo team, accelerated by scandal, and exploded in our principal’s office exactly ten days before summer break.
I denied everything, of course. I cashed in my token as the only child of recently divorced parents, a girl who lived by the bakery, had piano lessons on Thursdays, and never got less than an A. I let them chalk it all up to the influence of Eva Basalte, the kind of girl who no longer surprises or disappoints anybody; the kind of girl whose parents watch porn.
Facing my parents was harder, but I adopted the same approach. I denied everything, and agreed to move piano lessons to Wednesday so I could squeeze in an extra visit to the therapist on Thursdays. In a sense, things got much worse. I was certainly lonelier than before now that Eva had stopped talking to me and Monica was acting cold. Although nothing had been proven, suspicion was enough, and I was facing a long summer grounded in a small, sleepy town in the middle of Spain.
That’s why, on the last day before summer break, I didn’t pass around my math textbook to have people write summer wishes in it, like everyone else. The classroom’s windows were wide open and the breeze made the papers on the wall flutter.
I stole a glance at Marc Garcia’s blonde head. I had heard he was switching schools to be closer to water polo practice, so that was probably the last time I would be able to do that. I took in his pale eyelashes and the strong line of his jaw. I was sure I’d never love anyone the way I loved him. Then, he suddenly looked over and caught me. I panicked and looked away, but then made a gesture with his head: look. So I did.
Under the table, his hands unfolded a piece of paper. I didn’t have to see it to know what it was. His eyes were on me again and he was smiling cheekily, the way I had seen him smile for other girls. His right hand recreated a jerking motion. I blushed. He nodded.
That felt good. Very good.
MB: Where’d this come from? What was the experience of writing it like?
MN: This is loosely inspired on a rumor that hit my school when I was young, but it only became a short story when I found myself frantically searching for something to write about for this writing workshop I have with three friends. It was either this or an essay on my mom’s mistrust of artificial lakes, and I’m happy I went with the first, because it was very fun to write.
MB: Our hero’s occupation is compared a couple times to pornography, which is comic because in terms of scale and medium what she’s doing might not ordinarily be characterized that way. But any thoughts on whether her efforts are authentically pornographic?
MN: I don’t think so, but she is convinced they are, which is very endearing. She just wants to be…seen. She feels lonely and invisible, without any outlets for her frustration. She feels her good girl persona has gotten her nowhere, so she decides to do something uncharacteristic with the mild hope she gets caught. So closer to an amateur sex-tape? This story sounds much more interesting post-facto, haha.
MB: Are the (ethical) problems that crop up inside of porn related (fundamental) to the genre, or are they marginal/avoidable?
MN: That’s a very good question. I’d say there’s nothing wrong with porn per se, but the industry tends to be exploitative in many cases and its representations of women (and sex, actually) aren’t exactly the healthiest. I’m a firm believer in “to each his own”, but it wouldn’t hurt if it was “her own”, too.
MB: Where’s the line between fiction/nonfiction in your work generally? In this work in particular?
MN: I am afraid I am not interesting enough to have come up with a business model based on my vagina, haha. As I said, this is loosely inspired by a story that went around school when I was 14, so that part and a lot of the descriptions was autobiographical(just not that one). This is practically my first time writing fiction. I borrowed details from my own experience because it feels comfortable, but I’d still say it’s a 30% non-fiction, 70% fiction ratio.
MB: Are you working on anything now?
MN: Not now, but I’m toying with a few ideas for another short story.
MB: What are you reading right now?
MN: I am reading Stoner, by John Williams. And Spurs and Lace, a romance novel that takes place on a ranch in Montana. That’s me in a nutshell.
MB: What’s the funniest book you’ve ever read?
MN: David Foster Wallace’s Something Supposedly Fun I’ll Never Do Again and Eduardo Mendoa’s Sin noticias de Gurb. I laughed to the point of tears with both.
MB: Does this story exist in Spanish? Do you write more fiction in Spanish or English?
MN: No, it was fully conceived in English. It still feels a bit odd, since English is not my native language and you can definitely tell by my writing, but I’ve been away from Spain for so long that most of my thoughts and feelings as an adult have begun shaping themselves in English. Still negotiating this one.