How would you define masculine and feminine?

The Tiee

seeping through her very pores, burning her with its coldness. And she saw everything bathed in that cold light: Luis, his wrinkled face, his hands crisscrossed with ropy discolored veins and the gaudy cretonnes.

Frightened, she runs to the window. The window now opens directly on a narrow street, so narrow that her room almost brushes against a shiny skyscraper. On the ground floor, shop windows and more shop windows, full of bottles. At the corner, a row of automobiles lined up in front of a service station painted red. Some boys in their shirtsleeves are kicking a ball in the middle of the street.

And all that ugliness lay embedded in her mirrors, alongwith nickel- plated balconies, shabby clotheslines and canary cages.

They had stolen her intimacy, her secret; she found herself naked in the middle of the street, naked before an old husband who turned his back on her in bed, who had given her no children. She does not understand why, until then, she had not wanted children, how she had resigned herself to the idea of a life without children. Nor does she comprehend how for a whole year she had tolerated Luis’s laughter, that overcheerful laughter, that false laughter of a man who has trained himself in joviality because it is necessary to laugh on certain occasions.

Lies! Her resignation and serenity were lies; she wanted love, yes, love, and trips and madness and love, love …

“But, Brigida … why are you leaving? Why did you stay so long?” Luis had asked. Now she would have to know how to answer him.

“The tree, Luis, the tree! They have cut down the rubber tree.,’

Tianslated by Richard Cunninghafti and Lucia Guerra

Culinary Lesson

Rosario Castellanos

Th” kit”h”n is resplendent with whiteness. A shame to have to dirty it with use. One should rather sit down to admire it, describe it, closing one’s eyes, to evoke it. On examining this cleanliness, such beauty lacks the dazzling excess that makes one shiver in the sanatoriums. Or is it the

halo of disinfectants, the cushioned steps of the nurses, the hidden pres-

ence of sickness and death that does it? What does it matter to me? My place is here. From the beginning of time it has been here. In the Ger- man proverb woman is synonymous with Kiiche, Kinder, Kirche. I wan-

dered lost in classrooms, in streets, in offices, in caf6s; wasting my time in skills that I now need to forget in order to acquire others. For exam- ple, to decide on a menu. How is one to carry out such an arduous task

without society’s and history’s cooperation? On a special shelf adjusted to my height are lined up my guardian spirits, those admirable acrobats who reconcile in their recipes the most irreducible opposites: slimness and gluttony, decoration and economy, rapidity and succulence. With

theirinfinite combinations: thinness and economy, swiftness and visual harmony, taste and … What do you recommend for today’s meal, ex- perienced housewife, inspiration for mothers absent and present, voice of tradition, open secret of the supermarkets? I open a cookbook by

chance and read: “Don Quijote’s Dinner.” Literary but not very satis- factory. Because Don Quijote was more of a crackpot than a gourmet’

Although an analysis of the text reveals that, etc., etc., etc. Uf. More ink

has run about this figure than water under the bridges. “Little birds of

the face’s center.” Esoteric. Center of what? Does the face of someone or something have a center? If it had, it wouldn’t be very appetizing’ “Bigos, Rumanian Style.” But who do you think I am? If I knew what

tarragon and anan6s were, I wouldn’t be consulting this book, because I


+ J



44 Culinary Lesson

would know a heap of other things. If you had the slightest sense of re- ality, you or one of your colleagues would take the time to write a dictio- nary of culinary terms, with its prologue and propaedeutic, to make the difficult art of cooking accessible to the layman. But they start off with the assumption that we’re all in on the secret and they limit themselves to enunciations. I solemnly confess that I for one am not in on it and have never been apprised of that game you seem to share with others, nor any other secret, for that matter. Frankly I have never understood anything. You can observe the symptoms: I find myself standing, like an idiot, in the midst of an impeccable and neutral kitchen, with a usurped apron to give a semblance of efficiency, whichwill be ignominiously, but justly, snatched away from me.

I open the refrigerator compartment that announces “meat” and remove a package, unrecognizable beneath its mantle of ice. I dissolve it in warm water and there appears a label, without which I would never have guessed its contents: beef for roasting. Wonderful. A simple and healthy dish. Since it doesn’t offer the solving of an antinomy or the posing of an aporia, it doesn’t appeal to me.

And it’s not only the logical excess that turns off my hunger. There’s also its appearance, rigidly cold, and its color that is clear now that I have opened the package. Red, as if it were about to bleed.

Our backs were the same color-my husband’s and mine-after or- giastic tanning on Acapulco’s beaches. He could allow himself the lux- ury of “behaving like a man,” stretching out face down so that nothing would touch his skin. But I, submissive little Mexican woman, born like a dove for the nest, smiled like Cuautemoc on the rack when he said, “This is no bed of roses,” and then fell silent. Face up I bore not only my own weight but his as well on top of mine. The classical posture for lovemaking. And I moaned, from excitement, from pleasure. The classical moan. Myths, myths.

Best of all (at least for my burns) was when he fell asleep. Beneath the tips of my fingers-not very sensitive because of prolonged contact with typewriter keys-the nylon of my nightgown slid away in a decep- tive effort to simulate lace. In the darkness I played with the buttons and other ornaments that make one feel so feminine. The whiteness of my neglig6e, deliberate and repetitive, shamelessly symbolic, was tem- porarily nullified. Perhaps for a moment it had consummated its mean- ing in the light and beneath the gaze of those eyes now overcome by l’irtigue.

I’lyelids closed and here once again in exile. I am not the dream that

llosario Castellanos

dreams, that dreams, that dreams; I am not the reflection of an image in the glass; I am not destroyed by the turning off of a consciousness or by any other consciousness. I will continue to live a dense, viscous, dark life, though he who is at my side and he who is far ignore and forget me, postpone me, abandon me, fall out of love.

I am also a consciousness that can turn off, abandon the other and expose him to ruin. I . . . The piece of meat, now that it’s salted has muf- fled the scandal of its redness and is now more familiar, more tolerable. It’s the same piece I saw a thousand times when, without realizingit,l looked in to tell the cook that …

We weren’t born together. Our meeting was due to chance (a happy one?). It’s too soon to decide that. We coincided at art exhibits, lec- tures, a film society; we bumped into each other in an elevator; he gave

me his seat on a trolley; a guard interrupted our perplexed and par-

allel contemplation of a giraffe because it was time to close the zoo. Someone (he or I, it’s all the same) asked the stupid but indispensable question: Do you work or study? Harmony of interests and of good

intentions, indications of a “serious” purpose. A year ago I hadn’t the slightest notion of his existence and now we lie together with our thighs intertwined, wet from perspiration and semen. I could get up without waking him and go barefoot to the shower. To purif myself? I’m not in the least disgusted. I prefer to believe that what unites me to him is something as easy to remove as a secretion and nothing as terrible as a sacrament.

So I remain still, breathing rhythmically to imitate peacefulness, per- fecting my insomnia, the only unmarried woman’s jewel that I have re- tained and am disposed to hang on to until I die.

Under the brief shower of pepper the meat seems to have gotten grey. I remove this sign of old age by rubbing it as if I were trying to get beyond the surface and impregnate the essential thickness within. Because I lost my old name and am still not accustomed to the new one, which isn’t mine either. When an employee called me in the hotel lobby, I remained deaf, with that vague uneasiness which is the prologue to recognition. Who is that person that doesn’t answer the call? It could be something urgent, serious, a matter of life or death. The one who calls becomes desperate, leaves without a trace, without a message, and any chance of a new encounter is gone. Is it anguish that presses on my breast? It’s his hand that touches my shoulder. And his lips that smile with benevolent irony, more sorcerer than owner.

Well, I assent while we are walking toward the bar (my shoulder




46 Culinaru Lesson

burns, it’s peeling). It’s true that in the contact or collision with him I havc suffered a profound transformation; I didn’t know, and I know; I didn’t feel and I feel; I was not and I am.

I’ll have to leave it there. Until it thaws to room temperature, until it becomes impregnated with those flavors I have showered on it. I have the impression that I didn’t judge well and have bought too large a slice for the two of us. Out of laziness, I am not carnivorous: he. for aesthetic reasons, wants to keep his figure. Most of itwill go to waste! Yes, I know I shouldn’t worry; one of those spirits who hover over me will figure out what to do with the leftovers. At any rate, it’s a false step. Married life shouldn’t begin in such a slovenly manner. I’m afraid it shouldn’t begin with such an ordinary dish as roast beef.

Thanks, I murmur, as I dry my lips with the tip of the napkin. Thanks for the translucent glass, for the submerged olive. Thanks for having opened the cage of a sterile routine so that I would close myself in the cage of a different routine which, according to all indications, will be fertile. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to show off a long and opulent gown, for helping me to walk forward in the church as the organ filled me with emotion. Thanks for …

How long will it take to be ready? I shouldn’t be concerned, since I won’t have to put it in the oven till the last moment. The cookbooks say it’s done in a few minutes. How much is a few? Fifteen? Ten? Five? Naturally the text is not precise. They assume that I have an intuition, which according to my sex I should possess but I don’t, a sixth sense I was bornwith thatwill tell me the exact momentwhen the meat is done.

And you? Don’t you have anything to thank me for? You’ve spelled it out with somewhat pedantic solemnity and with a precision you thought was flattering but to me was offensive: my virginity. When you discovered it I felt like the last dinosaur on a planet in which the species was extinct. I wanted to justi$r myself, to explain that if I came to you intact it wasn’t because of virtue or pride or ugliness but simply a matter of adhering to a tradition, a style. I am not baroque. The tiny imperfection in the pearl is intolerable. My only other option is the neo- classic one and its rigidity isn’t compatible with the spontaneity needed for lovemaking. I lack the agility of the oarsman, the tennis player, the dancer. I don’t practice any sport. I consummate a rite and the gesture of surrender freezes on my face like a statue.

Are you waiting for my transition to fluidity, hoping for it, needing it? Or is this devotion that impresses you sufficient, so that you take it to be the passivity that corresponds to my nature? And if yours hap-

Iiltsaio Castellanos

pe ns to be inconstancy, you may rest assured that I won’t interfere with vour adventures. It won’t be necessary-thanks to my temperament- lirr you to stuffme, to tie me down with children, foryou to smother me with the thick honey of resignation. I’ll remain as I am. Calm. When vou let your body fall on mine, I feel as if I am covered with a stone lirll of inscriptions, of names of others, of memorable dates. You moan irrarticulate sounds, and I would like to whisper my name in your ear so that you may remember whom you are possessing.

It’s me. Butwho am I? Yourwife, of course. And that title is enough to distinguish me from past memories, from future projects. I bear a stamp of ownership, yet you observe me with suspicion. I am not weav- ing a net to catch you. Not a praying mantis. I’m glad you take stock in such a hypothesis. But it’s false.

This meat has a hardness and consistenry unlike that of beef. It must be mammoth. Those preserved since prehistoric times in Siberian ice that the peasants thaw and season for their meals. In the boring docu- mentary they showed at the embassy, with its superfluous details, there was no mention of the time needed to make it edible. Years, months. And I am permitted a space of …

Is it a lark? A nightingale? No, our timetable will not be ruled by those winged creatures who warned Romeo and Juliet of the coming of dawn but by a stentorian and unmistakable alarm clock. And you won’t descend today on the ladder of my tresses but by the steps of minor complaints: a button missing from your jacket, the toast is burnt, the coffee cold.

I will ruminate silently on my anger. I have been assigned the re- sponsibilities and duties of a servant for everything. To keep the house impeccable, the clothing clean, the rhythm of mealtime infallible. But I’m not paid a salary, have no day off, can’t switch employers. On the other hand, I am required to contribute to the maintenance of the house- hold and I must efficiently carry out a labor in which the boss makes demands, the colleagues conspire and the subordinates are resentful. In my moments of leisure I am transformed into a society lady whcl prepares lunches and dinners for her husband’s friends, who attends meetings, has a subscription to the opera, watches her weight, keeps up with the gossip, stays up late and gets up early, who runs the monthly risk of pregnancy, who believes in nightly meetings with executives, in business trips and the sudden arrival of clients; who suffers olfactory hallucinations when she senses the emanations of French perfume (dif- ferent from hers) on her husband’s shirts and handkerchiefs; who dur-




48 Culinaty Lesson

ing solitary evenings refuses to think of the whys and wherefores of such anxiety, prepares a heavily loaded drink and reads a detective novel with the fragile temperament of convalescents.

Isn’t this the moment to turn on the oven? A low flame. to heat the rack slowly “which should be coated with oil so the meat doesn’t stick.” Even I know that, it wasn’t necessary to waste space on such recommendations.

As for me, I am clumsy. Now it’s called clumsiness; it used to be called innocence and that delighted you. But I was never delighted by it. Before I was married I used to read things on the sly. Sweating with excitement and shame. Fact is I never learned anything. My temples throbbed, my eyes clouded over, my muscles contracted in a spasm of nausea.

The oil is beginning to bubble. It got away from you, blunderer. Now it’s sputtering and leaping and you burned yourself. Thus I will burn in hell for my crimes, for my guilt, for my immense guilt. But, child, you’re not the only one. All your school girl friends do the same or worse, they accuse themselves in the confessional, are assigned pen- itence, forgiven and then repeat it. Everyone. If I had continued to see them, they would subject me to an interrogation. The married women to reassure themselves, the unmarried ones to find out how far they can go. Couldn’t possibly disappoint them. I would invent acrobatic feats, sublime fainting spells, “raptures” as they are called in the Thousand and One Nights, records of endurance. If you were to hear me then, you wouldn’t recognize me, Casanova!

I drop the meat on the grill and instinctively retreat to the wall. What a racket! It finally stops. The piece of beef lies quietly now, true to its nature of cadaver. I still think it’s too large.

But you haven’t disappointed me. Certainly I didn’t expect anything special. Little by little we’ll reveal ourselves, discovering our secrets, our little tricks, learning to please one another. And one day you and I will become a perfect pair of lovers, then in the midst of an embrace we will vanish and there will appear on the screen the words The End.

What’s happening? The meat is shrivelling up. No, I’m not having hallucinations, I’m not mistaken. You can see the outline of its original shape on the grill. It was larger. Fine! Now it’ll be the size of our appetite.

For my next film I would like a different part. White witch in a na- tive village? No, today I don’t feel like heroism or danger. Rather, a famous woman (dress designer or something of the kind), indepen-

Ilosaio Castellanos

dently wealthy, lives alone in an apartment in New York, Paris or Lon- don. Her occasional affairs amuse her but are not troubling. She is not sentimental. After breaking up with her last lover she lights a cigarette and contemplates the urban landscape through the high windows of her study.

Ah, the color is more decent now. Only at the tips does it persist in recalling its raw state. The rest of it is golden and gives off a delicious aroma. Will it be enough for the two of us? Now it looks too small.

If I were to dress up right now, if I were to put on one of those models from my trousseau and go down to the street, what would happen then, huh? I might latch onto a mature man, with automobile and all the rest. Mature . . . Retired. The only type that can allow himself to go out cruising this time of the day.

What the devil is happening? This wretched piece of meat is starting to give off an awful black smoke. I should have turned it over! Burnt on one side. Well, at least there’s another.

Miss, if you will allow me . . . Please, I’m married. And I warn you that my husband is jealous. Then he shouldn’t let you go out alone. You’re a temptation for any passerby. Nobody says “passerby.” Pedes- trian? Only the newspapers when they describe accidents. You’re a temptation for any Mr. X. Silent. Sig-ni-fi-cant. Sphinx-like glances. The mature gentleman follows me at a prudent distance. Better for him. Better for me, because at the corner, wham! My husband, who’s spying on me, who never leaves me alone, who is suspicious of every- thing and everyone, Your Honor. I can’t go on living this way, I want a divorce.

And now what? Your momma forgot to tell you that you were a piece of meat and should behave as such. It curls up like a piece of brushwood. Besides I don’t know where all that smoke is coming from, since I turned off the oven ages ago. Of course, Dr. Heart. What one should do now is open the window, turn on the air purifier and the odor will disappear when my husband arrives. I’ll dress up to greet him at the door in my best outfit, my most ingratiating smile and my most heartfelt invitation to go out to eat.

Now that’s a possibility. We’ll examine the menu in the restaurant while this miserable piece of charred meat lies hidden at the bottom of the garbage can. I’ll be careful not to mention the incident and will be considered a rather irresponsible housewife with frivolous tendencies, but not as mentally retarded. That will be the first public image I will project, and afterwards I’ll need to be consistent, although it may not





\ l l Culinary Lesson

I t ( ‘ ( ‘ \ i t C t . ‘l

hcre’s yet another option. Not to open the window, not to con- rrcct the purifier, not to throw away the meat. when my husband gets hc’c, let him sniffthe air like the ogres in the fairy tales, and I’ll tell him that the air smells not of burnt human flesh, but of a useless wife and h’usekeeper’ I’ll exaggerate my compunction in order to encourage his magnanimity. After all, the incident is quite commonplace. what newly-wed woman hasn’t done the same? when we visit my mother-in- law (who hasn’t quite reached the stage of attacking me,

-because she

doesn’t know my weak points) she will tell me abouiher own mishaps. Like when her husband asked for a couple ofdropped eggs and she took him literally and … Ha, ha. Did that stop her from beioming a fabu- lous widow, that is, a fabulous cook? Because the matter of wiJowhood came about much later and for other reasons. From then on she let go with her maternal instincts and spoiled her children rotten.

No, it won’t strike him funny in the least. He’ll say that I was dis- tracted, that it’s the height of carelessness. As for me, I will acquiesce, accept his accusations.

But it’s not true. I was carefully watching the meat, taking note of the peculiar things happening to it. with good reason SainiTheresa said that God may be found in the stew pots. or, that matter is energy, or whatever term is in vogue now.

Let’s recapitulate. First of all, there’s a piece of beef with a certain color, shape, size. Then it changes and gets prettier and one is quite pleased. Then it changes again and it is not quite as pleasing. ind it goes on changing and changing and one doesn’t know how 6 put u stop to it. Because, if I leave this piece of meat in the oven, it witt ue consumed till there’s not a trace left. And the piece of meat which gave the impression of something real and solid wilr no longer exist.

The meat hasn’t disappeared. It has merely suffered a series of metamorphoses. And the fact that it is no longer visible to the senses doesn’t mean that it has completed a cycle, but that it has made a qual- itative leap. It will go on operating at different levels: in my conscious- n9ss, in my memory, in my will, transforming me, determinirrg -“,

“r_tablishing the direction of my future. From this day forward I will be that which I decide at this momenr.

Seductively scatterbrained, deeply reserved, hypocritical. From the start I will impose, impertinently, the rules of the game. My husband will re- sent the stamp of my domination that will widen like circles on a lake’s surface on the stone’s impact. He will struggle to prevail, and if he gives

Ii, tttt rio Castellanos

,n. I will repay him with my scorn, and if he doesn’t, I will forgive hrm l r r 1 i 1 .

Il’ I assume another attitude, if I am a typical case, that is, femininity *hich seeks indulgence for its errors, the scale will tip in favor of my ,rntrrgonist, and I will compete with a handicap which apparently will [‘rrd me to failure but which, at bottom, will guarantee my triumph by rlrc same sinuous path my ancestors took, those humble women who r,nly open their lips to assent and who won the other’s obedience even lor the most irrational of their caprices.

The prescription is an old one and its efficacy is well known. If I rtill have doubts, all I need to do is to ask my nearest neighbor, she will ( ()nfirm my certainty.

Nevertheless, it repels me to behave in this manner. This descrip- tion is not applicable to me, nor is the previous one, neither of which corresponds to my inner truth, neither of which saves my authenticity. Must I adhere to any of them and embrace their terms only because it

is a commonplace accepted by the majority and perfectly clear to every- one? And it’s not that I am a rara avis. You could say of me what Pfandl said about Sor Juana: that I belong to a class of cavilling neurotics. The tliagnosis is easy, but what are the consequences of assuming it?

If I insist on affirming my version of the events, my husband will treat rne with suspicion, will feel uncomfortable in my presence and will live with the constant expectation of my being declared insane.

Our relationship could not be more problematic. And he tries to

avoid all kinds of conflicts. Most of all conflicts that are so abstract,

so absurd, so metaphysical as those which I present. His home is the quiet cove where he seeks shelter from life’s storms. I agree. I accepted this situation when I was married, and I was ready for any sacrifice on

behalf of conjugal harmony. But I assumed that such a sacrifice, the

utter renunciation of everything that I am, would only be required on the Sublime Occasion, at the Hour of the Grand Resolutions, at the moment of the Final Decision. Not with regard to what occurred today,

which is something utterly insignificant, something ridiculous. And yet

Tianslated by Julidn Palley

5 1

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