I live in a Mexican city known for its sanguinary history, its mummies museum, and its many courting couples on the hilly lanes at dusk. Severed heads of patriots used to hang from the roof of the building behind me, but I’ve been here long enough to take that bloody history for granted. Like a thousand others, I was sitting on the broad steps in front of the historic granary, my eyes on the folk dance troupe pairing and separating under the heat of the stage lights.
When I looked away from the glare, I noticed a short woman wearing a little hat instead of the straw sombreros given away earlier by the dance troupe. She was getting up from a seat in front of me with no apparent regard for what was happening on stage. She passed empty seats toward a table between our special section and an outer wall.
I knew the woman well. She was my friend Elena who died four months ago.
Eduardo, who heard the sad news first, stopped me in the street the day it happened to tell me. He knew about my visit to the hospital where I had seen Elena lying on her back, unresponsive, covered only by a blouse and a diaper. He knew I had complained about leaving a woman exposed with so little dignity.
Now I was pinching myself, knowing the woman walking away couldn’t my friend but also knowing that she was. True, the woman was shorter and wearing a shawl, a style of dress the live Elena never fancied. Even people who only passed her in the plaza near her house knew her by the little striped silver and black hat she usually wore pinned invisibly to her hair.
The woman’s clumsy step, her seeming disregard for the organized tumult on stage, left me nearly certain I was seeing my dead friend. After all, a returning person wouldn’t follow the usual rules. Why be surprised at a little reshaping of the body here and there, even a shift in taste or social class? Yes, in every important respect, I was seeing Elena.
Even so, I stayed in my seat without any desire to get up and attract her attention, say, by touching her on the shoulder. I was wondering how she managed her return across the River Styx, surely wider and deeper than the one under our city. I didn’t even know whether she could swim. We never talked about our childhood days. Instead, she would scold me about my politics and disagree over where to go to eat.
I sat there, oblivious to the glare, thinking of the way Elena’s hands moved when she broke cinnamon sticks to make tea.
By the time I looked up, the woman was gone.
The dancing over, I returned home to e-mail a friend of Elena’s now living on the United States side of the border, wondering whether Claire had already forgotten us, whether she would answer. She was the first to visit Elena in the hospital, but now she was far away and probably still adept at stripping the nonessential from her life.
She emailed me back almost immediately, saying she had seen Elena in a modestly cut red swimsuit at the pool in her city the week before, an old-fashioned suit with a skirt at the bottom. She said Elena was sitting by herself, drying in the sun. Claire could see dampness on the concrete. “I didn’t write because I thought you would laugh. But I know she wants us to see her.”
So there too Elena had changed her apparel. I wrote Claire again. No she had never seen Elena in a swimsuit before, she hadn’t known our friend could swim.
Late the next morning, I went over to Elena’s old neighborhood to look for Eduardo and Loreta, her old neighbors, unsure I would find them. I thought they might have moved already but Eduardo was there, surrounded by cartons. He handed me a painted box he had saved for me.
I said I had seen Elena the night before when I went to the outdoor concert. He looked at me for a moment before saying, “I don’t think she was there.”
“You think I am trying to fool you?” I wailed.
Again he paused.
“No, I don’t think that,” he said, “But she doesn’t go to folklorico.” I stared at him, thinking he was joking. “Besides she couldn’t have been there, she was here. When I came in from shopping, she was opening the refrigerator door, then she went out to the street without saying goodbye.” He added n an injured tone that she wasn’t the type to open a refrigerator in someone else’s house.
“Claire saw her too,” I said, “in Louisiana, wearing a wet red swimsuit.”
“Elena didn’t swim,” Eduardo said flatly.
“The other night I saw her in a shawl and her hat was different.”
”Before, she would never have walked in without knocking,” Eduardo said.
I said there seemed to be a pattern.
Eduardo agreed. “She didn’t talk to any of us and none of us tried to talk to her,” he said, pronouncing each word with care. “And it will keep happening.”
“Coming into your house like that,” I murmured, lost in my thoughts, and then I said goodbye and left.
The next day I was reading a newspaper published in the nearby city where Elena had died. The front page showed a photo shot behind a crowd of demonstrators at the city hall. In the last row, closest to the photographer, I could see Elena’s back. In her right hand, I saw the corner of a placard.
I went to a pay phone and called Eduardo. “Did Elena ever take part in demonstrations?” I asked.
“Elena?” he said. “I doubt it. She never told me anything like that.”
“If she’s determined to live her life differently,” I said, “who knows what she’ll do next?”
We soon found out. The ninth day of the Cultural Festival, I went with Eduardo and Loreta to the opening night of the Vincente Cuenca retrospective. We walked through the lower two floors of the narrow building commenting on what we saw. The top floor had Cuenca’s newest drawings, most of them done in the past half year. Even Eduardo, who as an artist himself is often dismissive of other artists, was admiring Cuenca’s recent work.
“He hasn’t lost interest in sex,” Loreta remarked, scrutinizing one of the drawings, then suddenly standing straighter. “Doesn’t that look like Elena?”
The drawing was done from an unusual perspective. Cuenca had drawn the area between the woman’s legs in detail. Where her navel would have been he had drawn a half-closed blue eye.
“As far as we know,” I said. Then, “Well how would we know?” And finally, “Elena’s eyes were not blue.”
Two weeks later, Loreta was shredding chicken for enchiladas. The caller told her he was from the city morgue. “We need you down here at once,” he said. “A woman with a hand-written slip of paper in her pocket saying call Loreta Sanchez collapsed in the Plaza Grande. We’re hoping you can identify her for us.”
Loreta collected herself to ask what the woman looked like.
“About sixty years old,” the man said, “slightly plump.”
Loreta told the man at the morgue she would be there in the late afternoon. She went out and found Eduardo in the café down the street. After they ate the enchiladas, they went together to the morgue, the two of them looking sideways at each other from time to time.
“Well?” asked the man at the morgue with both Loreta and Eduardo standing intent on the corpse before them.
“We’ve never seen her dead before,” said Eduardo apologetically. Loreta nodded her agreement.
“Do you know this woman?” the man persisted.
Loreta said “This person is very like Elena Valdez Urrea but Elena didn’t have blue eyes. She had dark eyes like mine.”
The man informed them he had already checked for contact lenses as if Loreta had criticized him. Then he asked again,”Is this Elena Valdez Urrea?”
Eduardo was the one to have the last word. “I don’t think so,” he said. “Doña Elena did not have blue eyes.” Loreta later told me she was shaking in the cold room before she and Eduardo walked back out into the heat of the day.
I was sitting with a cappuccino in Sobrina Mia when they came in. Loreta was trembling
Eduardo went into the next room to place their orders. When he came back, Loreta looked at him and murmured “blue eyes,” then looked from him to me. I was sipping my cappuccino now. While they waited for their coffee, Loreta kept repeating “blue eyes.”
“Twice in a row,” said Eduardo suddenly. I glanced from one to the other.
Eduardo said again, “Twice in a row.” Then, “Elena is running out of ideas.”
He sounded hopeful for the first time since he heard the bad news about having to move from his house. He said he thought Elena was getting bored, that she had made her last unexpected visit, that she would return in the usual way with the others on The Day of the Dead.
“But it’s practically November already,” I said.
Our Mutual Friend was first published in Big Pulp, both online and in the March 2012 print anthology.
Featured image by Ani Carrington.