Mexico City

Fictio Legis

In this short story, two strangers begin a conversation on a plane ride to Mexico City.

by Valeria Luiselli

The Roman jurist Modestinus describes marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman—comprising divine and human law. Lavish gifts from the family of the woman are an obligatory accompaniment to the celebration of the alliance. However, according to the law enacted by Caesar Augustus, if the woman marries a eunuch, her family is exempted from paying the costly dowry. In the opinion of the father of Tachi’s wife, the man who had wrested his divine jewel from its crown was exactly that, a eunuch. In his own words: a frigging mayate. But Tachi is just pale, short and a little melancholic.

With some anxiety, I note the Y of a blue vein springing up—rich with aristocratic blood—along his translucent neck as, with great effort, Tachi vainly tries to lift his backpack and place it in the overhead compartment of the aircraft—in aeronautical jargon—or up there, according to his wife, who has to come to his aid with the stuff: Tachi, she says, why do you always bring so much stuff?

The couple sit down directly behind us. The four metal buckles—almost simultaneously—click. A fifth buckle clicks, belonging to a passenger sitting in the seat opposite her, on the other side of the aisle.

Just as soon as the flight attendant—an authoritarian Sevillian woman, a bit overweight and definitely too old to be wearing braces on her teeth—has passed for the last time, I unfasten my seatbelt and drape the blanket over myself.

In Mexico, is this little blanket called a rug? I ask my husband.

It’s called an airline blanket, he replies.

The Sevillian woman announces our imminent departure. The flight time will be 11 hours 55 minutes—smoking is strictly prohibited, even, or especially, in the toilets—we should turn off our electronic equipment immediately.

Before switching off my telephone, I open Instagram. The hipsters in Mexico City now read Allen Ginsberg in editions they buy second-hand—the world out there is better than in here—and use words like “roommies” instead of roommates—a world in which roommates exist—light of the summer of 1968—a perpetuated world—frozen—converted into an app.

The plane advances heavily along the runway.

Tachi had had a moment of glory, we learn at the zero hour of the flight, when the instructional video about possible disasters begins. At the age of twenty-three he worked for six months in a radio studio. The emergency exits are on both sides of the plane—right—left. Not so much in the studio as close to it—more outside than inside—in backup and production to be exact. Children’s oxygen masks should be put on after, never before, fitting your own. But on one particular occasion he’d interviewed a politician. It hadn’t really been an interview—but almost, Tachi adds. Next comes the video animation about the yellow inflatable slides, which have always made me wish an unexpected disaster would occur during the flight—a landing on water with a happy ending. Tachi had expressed his admiration and the politician had—in exchange—patted the edge of his left shoulder. This selfsame politician had been everything: local representative, parliamentary delegate, secretary of state, governor of an important state and very, very nearly a presidential candidate. He couldn’t now remember which state he’d headed—but thought—was almost certain—that it was a very prosperous—big—important—one. His wife agreed—but she couldn’t remember the name of the politician either, much less the name of the state. A disembodied voice hopes we will enjoy our flight.

I wonder what politician he’s talking about? my husband whispers in my ear. He’s in in the seat next to mine, halfway through a Spanish newspaper.

I don’t know, I say, maybe Hank González.

Poor Spain, he sighs—turning the page.

Are you sure this thing isn’t called a rug? I ask again.

In Mexico it’s called an airline blanket. But then it’s a country that has politicians called El Profesor and La Maestra.

I refasten my seatbelt under the blanket—I don’t want the Sevillian woman to come around again and tell me off.

Not that the name of the politician or the state are important since the person listening to Tachi’s story is Hans, a passenger somewhere in his early sixties—judging by his grainy, self-assured voice—who is sitting on the other side of the aisle, in the first seat of the terrifying middle block. Nobody should ever travel there: if the plane crashes and you’re in that block, it’s certain death—you end up squashed under the overhead compartments crammed with stuff—everyone knows that.

Tachi in the window seat—his wife—the aisle—and a passenger called Hans. We two—I’m in the aisle and he’s by the window—in the seats directly in front of the couple.

Hans confesses that he doesn’t care what the name of the politician in question is, because he thinks politics is beneath contempt and he hasn’t read a newspaper in years. She agrees. But Hans admits that the actor showing us how to fasten our seatbelts could be a PRI politician.

From the old Partido Revolucionario Institucional, Hans specifies, the good PRI: resolute men with those bushy Spanish eyebrows—President López Portillo eyebrows—President López Matéos eyebrows—but not President López Obrador ones, he hasn’t got eyebrows or a National Project. So says Hans, who also says he despises politics.

The plane turns slowly onto the main runway, accelerates, and, as if it were weightless—I put my hand in my husband’s—rises up.

They formally introduce themselves seven seconds after liftoff, at 0.07. Tachi and Pau—Hans. Hans tells them he is Swedish-Mexican, so both my husband and I have the impression that he is definitely Mexican. The obligatory question should have been why—how—Tachi got to be nicknamed Tachi. But it was a difficult question for the Swedish-Mexican to formulate since he had no sense of humour. My husband turns to me to say:

That’s what they call taxis in Barcelona: “tachi.”

I laugh, say it’s wrong to make fun of the poor Spanish these days—but he stops me short:

It’s absolutely true, that’s what they call them.

The Sevillian woman apologizes—in Spanish—to the passengers of flight 401 in the name of the airline: Our entertainment system is not working—I repeat—I repeat again—our entertainment system is not working. However, she tells us that the passengers can make use of the synchronised map showing the flight path. She then repeats the same thing all over again, but in English.

At 3.04 in-flight time: Chicken or pasta. Chicken or pasta at 11.14 a.m., Spanish time. Altitude: 10,400 meters.

Another Roman jurist, Ulpianus, specifies that there is a significant difference between eunuchs who have been castrated and those who are born without reproductive organs. In the former case, the law holds: the family of the woman is exempted from paying a dowry. In the latter, however, they are not. The natural born eunuch has an irrevocable right to a dowry.

The fact was, as we learn later from a comment by Tachi’s wife—whose name I find it difficult to pronounce without giving a slight shiver and who, at 12.47 a.m. Spanish time, 4.37 in-flight time, is drinking her third plastic glass of wine—that they had just got married, and that her father hadn’t given them any kind of present, not even a bit of help in setting up the marital home. They had a flat in Calle Platón, very nearly on the corner with Ejército Nacional. And, partly due to the father, they were having a hard time making ends meet and had to skimp on important details of the renovation of the flat. There’s no need to repeat the exact words Tachi’s wife used to say just that: skimp. What is important is that, as a result, they didn’t know what to do about the kitchen. And there, the motive for the trip to Spain. 4.55. She wanted a pre-designed, fitted kitchen, to save a little money—but he, Tachi, preferred something tailored to meet the needs of the future family. That’s why they had travelled to Spain: they had IKEA there and she wanted to “see the kitchens in person.” Also, because they had airmiles and friends in Madrid.

Hans, who confesses that he has never finished any degree, is, definitely, an expert in design history: The first fitted kitchen, he says in complicity with Tachi’s wife, was invented by a brilliant woman: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Judging by the way he pronounces the name, Hans clearly speaks German well. My husband looks at me, his lower lip pouting and his eyes turned up—I pinch his shoulder, acknowledging receipt of that expression I know so well, which means: I couldn’t give a fuck. She, Tachi’s wife, however, is very interested in this Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. She asks for more information. Her row-mate passes it across—in torrents—from his side of the aisle to the other.

Hans—5.14—5.42—her.

I lower the plastic blind, stretching my arm across the space occupied by my husband’s body. The dazzling Atlantic light outlines the rounded shape of the window. A stabbing pain in my right eye warns me it is just the sort of light that sets off my migraines. I try to close my eyes. My husband reads—dozes behind the newspaper—perhaps a primitive form of reading—and Tachi reads too. Hans asks him what he’s reading. It’s an action story, he says, about the situation in Mexico. That’s what he says: An action story with a bit of sex about the Situation in Mexico. I suppose, in essence, Tachi is right.

Hans, who’s also an expert in literature, compares Tachi’s novel with the work of Kertész and the duty not to remain silent in the face of such horror, then he talks about Conrad, the horror. The horror. After that, Dostoevsky, Beckett and then even Plato—which in fact is the street where you live in Mexico, says Hans condescendingly, turning towards Tachi’s wife. She knows very well who Plato is.

Plato’s my favourite author, she declares.

Hans names, and he knows a lot of names. He thinks it’s right that Mexican writers—all of them—talk about the horror. It’s our horror, our holocaust. And it’s our duty to talk about it with every means available to us. That’s what Hans believes. Tachi’s wife, presumably, nods and raises her eyebrows. But neither of the two offers an opinion. When she manages to find a gap in the conversation, she leaps in and asks Hans about the relationship between Frankfurt kitchens and the Taylorism thing. She’d been really interested in that and wanted to know more about it. Maybe they could contract a specialist builder to copy Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky’s kitchen designs for them—with a little upgrade.

I try to memorise that impossible name: Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky.

Perhaps that’s what the original kitchen in our rented apartment on the top floor of a building on Avenida Revolución was like—like the Frankfurt kitchens. It’s a tiny space—our kitchen—and a bit dark. There is just one window that opens on to a T formed by two very narrow streets at right angles to each other, crammed with formal and informal businesses. More—in number—informal than formal. Which means that the street functions not as an exterior but an interior—a neverending, dizzying market, roofed with blue and pink canvas—the ground carpeted in chewing gum, gobs of spit, seeds, fag ends, fingernails, hair, insects, ten-centavo coins, vast archipelagos of cat and dog shit. Originally, when the streets surrounding the building were really streets, the Ermita had the ‘porous’ peculiarity—as one historical guide to the city puts it—of opening the private space to the outside world, and vice versa. On the ground floor there were pharmacies, cafés, businesses. The first functionalist building in the city, the first project of a fully modern, urban middle class. We have—they had—we have all had—a project for happiness. We moved there as newlyweds—very young—because a friend told us that Tina Modotti had lived in that very building—though we later discovered that this wasn’t true—that Modotti had lived in a colonial house a few blocks away.

Hank González! cries Tachi. Agonising 6.57 in-flight time. The conversation between his wife and Hans has just come to the point of opening a window to exchange emails and he is experiencing a stab of rage or terror. They scarcely register Tachi’s howl—Hank González! That’s what the politician was called!—and go on spelling out their electronic addresses. Hers: sleeplessnights@hotmail.com. His—life’s full of amazing coincidences: wakefulslumber@hotmail.com.

It was Hank González! I say with a little nudge to my—sleeping—husband.

We also moved to the Ermita because that’s where the first sound cinema in the city was opened. And we liked that idea—living over a cinema. There was a project there for us. No matter that, in fact, the cinema had, for the past twenty years, been for adults only—that is, for decrepit fifty-somethings and curious teenagers. It was a cinema, and that’s what counted—a cinema integrated into the building but structurally separated from it by sort of Schrödinger’s box. In other words, a hypothetical box, because while we are cooking above that cinema several actors and actresses are fucking noisily—like cats—all at the same time. To be honest, they don’t fuck and we don’t cook: they get hot and we reheat—because there’s no place for sex in pornography and no room for a stove in our kitchen. But we do have a good microwave. Last year, while we were listening to the serialised adventures of the Savage Cowboy—a gringo who whips Mexicans for Juanitos (as he calls his members)—we invented Tupperware eggs Benedict. We absolutely adore them—even if ours are made with mayonnaise and my husband now thinks that I use it too liberally.

Tachi’s wife suggests to her travelling companion that she show him the plans of her house—perhaps he might be able to think up better solutions than theirs—than her husband’s in particular she ought to say—but doesn’t. My seat shakes slightly—a handrail for the woman who now stands up to take the bags down from up there to examine the plans of the house with the Swedish-Mexican, who, to her, seems to be most of all Swedish and only a little Mexican. She asks her husband to exchange seats with Hans, because it’ll be awkward to study the plans across the aisle—and they’ll annoy the other passengers—and the flight attendant will tell them off, and so on.

Tachi looks reluctant—he never travels in the middle block, she should know that by now.

Well, it’s for our little home, she counters.

Hans moves to the window—she needs to stay in the aisle because she can’t bear to imagine the abyss beyond the plastic blind. Hans thinks this is ideal, because he likes nothing better than the window seat. In fact, if they let him sit there for the rest of the flight, he’d be very grateful because nothing moves him more deeply than seeing the urban sprawl of Mexico City from the air, minutes before landing. It is so, so very much like landing on water. The Swedish-Mexican shares what he considers to be a fascinating datum: the very first map of Mexico City—water, nothing more—is in a Swedish museum.

Landing in Mexico City at night is like alighting on a mantle of stars—she rounds off, very much the mistress of her words.

Ulpianus also spoke about the “rights of the husband.” If he discovers that his wife has committed adultery, he is urged to sue for divorce and it is recommended that he submit evidence against her. The only problematic situation is when the adulteress is under twelve, says the wise, cautious Roman, because, since she is legally underage, this represents an ambiguous case. But Tachi’s wife, despite her twittery-bird voice, does not really personify the ambiguous case Ulpianus sets out.

Hans’s first recommendation, at 7.00 in-flight time, is the Charlotte Perriand dining-room suite. Such a large room is crying out for a Perriand.

I try to read the first page of the Martin Amis novel I’ve chosen for the journey—as if I’d ever managed to read more than two or three pages on a plane.

And neither is Tachi making much of an effort to protect the lifelong nature of his conjugal union at 7.04 in-flight time—when Hans has already moved into the master bedroom and is suggesting that the south window be enlarged by a few centimetres and they install sliding windows.

The first lines of the novel are beautiful and a little sad. They speak of cities —cities at night—when couples are sleeping and some men—asleep—cry and say Nothing. I think about Martin Amis’s teeth. I look at my husband’s slightly open mouth and think that I don’t know exactly what his teeth are like. Years ago I had a boyfriend who used to grind his teeth in his sleep. The Perriand dining-room suite is a work of art, Hans insists, while making a sketch of it. The point of his pencil squeaks on the paper—presumably the airsickness bag provided in case of turbulence. The persistent grinding of those teeth when I was fast asleep used to cause me a certain amount of angst. Sometimes—unjustifiably—that sound—even—really annoyed me: it seemed to indicate that the man, in essence, was sleeping very far from me. I used to wake him up and ask if he was feeling all right. Nothing, he’d say. Amis is right—they say Nothing. The decision is taken: the dining-room suite will be a Perriand. I close my book.

7.12 in-flight time. Tachi announces that he’s going to the toilet.

Yes, she says.

Hans asks if she’d like a mint—7.13.

Yes, she says.

Tachi walks to the toilet, perhaps to wash his face, perhaps to clean his teeth, perhaps to have a pee. Perhaps to cry. He’ll undo the button and lower his trousers. Like they taught him to as a boy. Perhaps he grew up surrounded by women who liked clean toilet bowls—no splashes. He learnt to pee sitting down when he was very young. He covers the seat with two lengths of toilet paper and sits on them—his two thighs landing simultaneously—to press the paper onto the surface—so it doesn’t move a centimetre—no way is his skin going to come into direct contact with even a drop of foreign urine. He pees, pushing back his penis with his index, middle and ring fingers. The same fingers he uses to masturbate. Just a few tears—more from rage than anything else.

Whilst Tachi is washing his hands, Hans asks his wife why her family disapprove of the marriage. She, for the first time, becomes a bit defensive. Her father doesn’t disapprove—she assures him. It’s just that he and Tachi aren’t on good terms—so much so that her father hung up on her the last time they spoke, after telling her that her husband was a frigging mayate. She confesses that she had to look that word up in an online dictionary. Between the two definitions—1. Beetle of various colours and regular flight; 2. Homosexual man—she knew her father was referring to the second. But she prefers not to even think about it. Better to talk about the bathroom: Bathtub or shower?

Ulpianus writes: “It is not copulation but its marital affection which constitute the marriage.”

Hans, at 7.25, talks about his nephews and nieces. He isn’t a parent either but he’s a very good uncle, he assures her. He adores them. And he’s also godfather to his niece, the daughter of his sister, who lives in Connecticut.

She repeats: Connecticut.

I don’t know exactly where Connecticut is, I think.

Where exactly is Connecticut? she asks.

Hans says it’s not important—that Connecticut is close enough to New York. Because every time he goes to Connecticut he manages to slip away to New York. He’s got friends there, in Brooklyn. She and Tachi know New York well, they like Times Square. But Tachi isn’t really into walking—he gets tired. She, on the other hand, adores walking. So does Hans. In fact, he did the Camino de Santiago de Compostela last year. She really wants to do that one day, but it would be difficult with Tachi. Hans assures her that there’s nothing better than getting into bed—in the nude—after a good bath and a glass of wine, having spent a whole day walking through that landscape.

Tachi comes back from the toilet. 7.29. He doesn’t sit down—he wants to walk along the aisle a little to stretch “the old legs.”

7.30

7.31

7.32

The emperor Valerian, at 7.33 in-flight time, in the year 258 before the birth of Jesus Christ, wrote that the man who is married to two women at the same time is steeped in infamy. That’s not Tachi’s case. But he knows infamy—he prods it with his tongue—between his teeth—he has it between his legs.

7.34 in-flight time—10,600 metres above sea level—time at point of destination 3.23 a.m.

I lift the armrest and lay my head on my husband’s lap—perhaps sleep a while. On the lobe of my right ear, I feel the seam of his flies—and on my cheek, his slight sleeper’s erection. I can’t see him, but Tachi is standing by his seat, resting a hand on the backrest of mine. He’s talking to his wife. She asks how he’s doing. Fine, he says, although his legs ache. She asks if his father’s driver will pick them up at the airport. Of course, Tachi says, that had been agreed all along. I pull the rug up over my eyes. I run through the list: here, my tongue—my first, second and third molars—my cheek—the denim—the metal track of the zipper—the stripes of his briefs—the warm tip of his penis—the seat—the carpet—the various layers of metal—the guts of the aircraft—and then, 10,600 metres of nothing between us and the surface of the sea.

And the white—constant—light that the plane rips through like scissors through a piece of cloth.

 

For breakfast—10.41—there are eggs Benedict with lots of mayonnaise. The Sevillian stewardess wakes me and I wake my husband. I’m excited by the coincidence. He doesn’t notice it. He smiles at me—yawns—vigorously kneads his eyes with his wrists. We eat.

Why are you called Tachi? asks Hans, his mouth full of Benedicts. 10.43—the hour of cruel questions.

Who’s going to meet you at the airport? my husband asks me.

I’ll take a taxi, I reply. And you?

A friend’s picking me up. If you want, I’ll call you on Sunday and we’ll organise it so that you don’t have to be there when I come to get my things on Monday.

Whatever, I say.

It’s a nickname, says Tachi.

But how did you get it? insists Hans.

Too much mayonnaise, she interrupts. They agree on this.

Just because, says Tachi. My name’s Ignacio, but my little sister used to call me that when we were kids.

Ulpianus indicates that three conditions have to be fulfilled for a marriage to be considered legitimate: proof of fitness to marry; that the man has reached puberty and the woman is of an age to have sexual relations; the consent of both parties.

11.03. The Sevillian woman and a male flight attendant collect the trays.

11.17. The Sevillian woman collects the earphones, which no one has used. I pretend to have lost mine—I’ve put them in my pocket—in case they come in useful.

11.22. The descent begins.

11.30. Tachi doesn’t want to sit in the middle block for the landing. It frightens him—he doesn’t like it, he insists. Hans offers to change back. The city had dawned cloudy and wet, so the view from the air wouldn’t be much to talk about anyway.

11.45. Tachi and my husband look out the window in silence—the city blanketed in thick —milky—clouds.

The aircraft descends—touches down—bounces slightly—comes to earth again—moves forward—gradually brakes—and comes to a complete halt.

CONTRIBUTOR

Valeria Luiselli

Valeria Luiselli is a Mexican author whose work includes Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions and Los ingrávidos. Her work has appeared in the New YorkerMcSweeney's and Granta.

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