The good thing is that nobody gives you dirty looks; I mean, nobody stares at you. It’s considered impolite, and the people in this city are very discreet, regardless of how you look. When somebody gets on the streetcar with a hot dog in hand and the whole carriage starts reeking of onions, nobody objects. When someone gets on who looks like he hasn’t had a bath in three months, the more sensitive people, at most, might change seats… but that’s as far as it goes.
I can’t do it. I get out; I get straight off and wait for the next streetcar – which is normally right behind, because instead of coordinating with each other to pass at regular intervals with space between them, the drivers seem to like to play elephants and keep their streetcars together in groups of two or three as if one was holding the other’s tail with its trunk. That’s just what the streetcars are: elephants. Slow, huge and heavy. Bulky, I mean. Actually, given how old they are, sometimes I think they’re more like mammoths. But really, in cities like this where you have to go out to work in thirty degrees below zero, you get used to anything… even to riding a mammoth. I have to admit, one thing I’ve seen that does get an annoyed look out of the people here is a crying baby. As if it’s the baby’s fault that it’s so wrapped up tight that it doesn’t even have enough air to breathe, or in one of those modern wrap-arounds where mothers have their kids hanging off them like an accessory to match their handbag and shoes. A stroller won’t even fit into one of these streetcars. Lucky I don’t have kids and I don’t plan to. It would be a nightmare living here with kids if you had to go anywhere. Better to have a dog. Dogs here get smiled at and fussed over. People who never speak a word suddenly get up and ask “what’s his name?” or cry out “how cute!” with a sweetness and a high-pitched squeal that is beyond bearable. The dogs aren’t even that nice, really. Although sometimes I think in my next life I’d like to be one of those little pampered dogs that wear winter boots. It must be a great life; I’ll bet they eat better than a lot of people I know here, or back in my country, or in a lot of other places I’ve never even seen.
No, I’m not complaining; it’s a nice city. It’s got its great big tower that I always like looking at in the night; it looks so pretty. The lake that’s as big as a sea. It’s great, really. But I don’t know if you’ve heard about the plague. There doesn’t even seem to be any problems here, right? That always happens in these countries where there’s plenty of everything: you see the good and don’t even notice the bad until it bites you, for real. My dad came from Mexico one time to visit me and he said: “Ay, my girl, this place is too clean; it can’t be healthy. You’re going to get sick.” And naturally, since I’d only been here a short time, I treated him like he was ignorant, like he had no idea. But he was right. Now I’ve realized that the people here are allergic to everything. There are all kinds of things they can’t eat. You get a job here and pretty soon they’re warning you not to bring this or that for lunch because somebody could die from so much as smelling a peanut. Now tell me, in any poor country who has ever died from smelling a peanut? Nobody. Between hunger and dust storms, nobody could ever allow themselves such luxuries. Then when I went to the market with my dad to do the shopping and we were looking at the meat trays, searching for a steak to fry, he said to me: “Look, my girl, they only sell half the cow here. What do they do with the other half? Where’s the good stuff?” I didn’t know at the time so I couldn’t answer him. But later I found out that the other half of the cow is sold to the Asian markets and to the people who make dog food. Didn’t I tell you that the dogs here have a great life? Ah, but I got off track there. I was talking about the plague. Nobody talks about it; it’s too embarrassing. They’re called chinches, or bedbugs in English. And there’s a lot of them. Never in my life have I seen a bedbug, but if I’ve seen fleas and lice and that’s enough for me, thank you very much. My mother used to spend her time picking up animals off the street near our home, and they were always flea-ridden, and she would douse them in detergent and then pluck out the fleas one by one. She’d crush them between her fingernails, crunching them and putting them together in piles of ten, because she liked to count them and then tell us how “the poor kitty had seventy-eight fleas.” And then one time, one of my brothers got lice and they shaved our heads, and I’ll never forget how cold I felt for weeks, or how ugly I felt until my hair no longer looked like a startled cactus and began to grow out again. No, those bugs have more than my respect; I’m terrified of them. And bedbugs are as tough as cockroaches, only in miniature. Nothing can kill them. It’s been in all the newspapers, but nobody seems to care because everyone goes on like nothing’s happening. Bedbugs are contagious. You could be just standing next to someone who’s got them, and pow! The little devils will leap onto you and make you their lifelong home. They take over the mattress on your bed, your chairs and sofas… hell, they even get into your books and survive. Once a woman who worked waiting tables at the same place as me told me that they’d invaded her, and she had to vacuum everything right up to the roof every day and fumigate four or five times but she still hadn’t gotten rid of them. She thought they’d jumped her in the subway or the streetcar, because they can hide in the fabric of the seats and then cling onto your clothes. I almost fainted from shock when she told me. No! I quit that job right away. I didn’t even say goodbye to anyone. I boiled the clothes I was wearing that day as soon as I got home and I stood under the shower with the hot water running until my hands were wrinkled. And that was when this idea occurred to me.
To tell the truth, this is the first time someone has asked me. I kept this yellow raincoat from the time I took my dad to Niagara when he came to visit. I didn’t want to throw it out because it reminded me of my dad and the fun we’d had getting drenched behind the falls, watching all that water pouring down endlessly. And a good thing too that I didn’t throw it out, because now I wear it whenever I go out. And I’ve got more of them, because I went back there just to ask the tourists coming off the boat to give me theirs, and a lot of them did. I have about fifteen of the blue ones, but my favourite is this yellow one. It’s the one I wear on special occasions. Whenever I’m out in the street I wear a raincoat, regardless of whether it’s hot or cold. I keep my hair tucked up under the hood so that no bedbugs or lice can clamber onto me, and I cover my clothes with the plastic as best I can. The rubber boots are to protect the cloth of my trousers, just in case a bedbug tries to jump at me from some other pair of pants. These streetcars get really crowded at peak hour, so you can’t be too careful. I don’t want to scare you, you just got here and, well, how are you going to know if nobody tells you? So now you know, and you also know why I’m dressed like this in an August heatwave. Today is a special day; that’s why I’m dressed in yellow. I’m starting a new job – cleaning up the changing rooms and around the pool at a community centre. I deliberately searched for a job where there’d be water and chlorine to protect me better from the plague. Are you itching yet? You are, aren’t you? Sometimes it can make you itch just thinking about those bugs – it’s incredible. You know what I just realized? The next stop is mine! I’m going to start moving toward the door, ok? Excuse me. Oh, and welcome to Toronto!
Martha Bátiz is a Mexican-Canadian writer who has been living in Toronto since 2003. She holds a doctorate in Latin American literature and is an ATA-certified translator. She is a professor at York University (Keele and Glendon campuses) and runs a workshop in creative writing at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education. She is also the author of several books and her work has received accolades in Mexico, Canada, Spain and the Dominican Republic. Her most recent novel, Boca de lobo, was published in English by Exile Editions under the title The Wolf’s Mouth.
Translated by Martin Boyd