La Adivinación, by Bein Leib

As Iliana and I walked Calle Orizaba, we talked about small things that felt much larger because of the cultural divide that distinguished our conceptions of the world. When we shared stories about traveling, I liked myself. I acted as if I’d been born un vago, though Iliana had seen far more of the world. She’d travelled nine months in as many European countries, hitchhiked Canada from the east coast to the west, spent two months in India and another month hiking the Himalayas in Nepal…

Iliana was a mystery to me, and I assumed that I was a mystery to her, though I was far less subtle a human being. As an American, I was ill at ease in the face of ambiguity, whereas I believed the cultural victory of the Mexican populace was its embrace of life’s unanswerable convolutions. Mexicans celebrated mystery, Americans were shamed by it, so I tried to prove myself different from the nation I represented.

Iliana didn’t retract when I took her hand. Rather, she pretended I had not touched her at all. When we reached Plaza Rio de Janeiro, we stopped. I looked down into tremendous brown eyes that seemed doll-like because Iliana was so small a human being. And, like a Margaret Keane portrait, Iliana could hold a gaze. She did not break that contact. Instead she cocked her head to the side, a gesture I found impossible to interpret. Her hair blended into the night of the ill-lit plaza, thick and so dark it threatened to overtake everything. I was already dreaming of the moment it might fall around me, spreading endlessly across a pillow.

I leaned toward her, but Iliana turned her head and my lips grazed her cheek. She grabbed me in a hug and patted my back gently, as if assuring a child. I shook my head like an idiot and cackled aloud.

“Why do you laugh?”

“You patted me.” Iliana might not have understood this word – pat – so I patted her shoulder to show what she had done.

“Was it bad? I hugged you like a friend.”

After I tried to kiss Iliana in Plaza Rio de Janeiro, we turned and began walking back. I had a room in El Centro Historico and didn’t know Condessa/Roma well, but I understood we were walking south, away from the metro line, and that it would be a struggle to get back to the hotel. But Iliana seemed content with my company, so I followed as she lead the way, and figured I’d find my way home.

She told me a story during that walk. “It is one of my best stories. I have two, but this is the best.” Iliana asked me if I’d ever heard of Lhasa de Sela. “I think that she is Canadian. Or maybe French. She sings in Spanish and sometimes in French. I was in a café when I first heard Lhasa’s music.” The Café was in Paris, and the moment Iliana described was infused with the magic of the city. She remembered the tea she drank and the cup in which it was served and the accent of the man who had steeped it for her. “Then they played the most beautiful song I had ever heard. When I asked who sang it, the garcon told me, Lhasa de Sela.” Iliana went directly to a record store, only to find they didn’t have any Lhasa albums. After departing Paris, Iliana visited record stores in Holland, Sweden, Brussels, and London, but still without luck.

“When I came back to DF I was very depressed.” Iliana implied that she’d felt stuck in Mexico. “I had a little money still, so I bought a flight to Quebec. Again I heard Lhasa – in the house of a friend I met there. I said, I have to find the record. But we could not make a CD then and didn’t have time to think about it later. So I returned to Mexico without the Lhasa record.”

Two years passed, time that seemed like a void without the music of Lhasa de Sela to accompany it. Iliana was unsatisfied. She had lovers but not partners. “I had a friend, a good friend, from London. He was here for work. For a little while he thought he would live in Mexico City. That friend bought me a present one day: two CDs he made, both Lhasa albums. He didn’t know that I had heard her before. He was just a friend who understood me very well.” Iliana didn’t talk so much about her friend, though it was evident that the nostalgia of Lhasa de Sela had become infused with memories of him. “He returned to London, and we are still good friends, but I have not seen him in a very long time.”

Lhasa de Sela sang melancholy music born of Mexican folk traditions. It brought sadness into consciousness, allowing Iliana to experience and exorcise it. “Two more years passed, and I discovered one day that she was coming to Mexico City. I was so excited, but I waited too long.” Iliana used the word guilt to describe her feelings when she was told that the show had sold out. It was her duty to see Lhasa de Sela perform – more than a desire – Iliana owed her respects to the artist.

Iliana had a doctor’s appointment on the day of the show, and the television was on in the waiting room. “…They were interviewing Lhasa, because now she had become popular. I had never seen her face before, but of course she was beautiful. Then, when I was walking back home, I passed the café in Roma and this beautiful woman was sitting outside – this beautiful guera who I have just seen for the first time on TV.” Iliana was shy by disposition, but she needed to tell Lhasa de Sela about the magic of her music. Iliana needed to convey that profundity, and when words failed, she grabbed hold of the musician and embraced her. “I was very emotional, but she let me hug her. She said, Don’t worry, and told me she would be back in three months.

And, of course, Iliana did not miss that performance. “Maybe it sounds funny to you – that a person is able to carry a magic, that a person can give it away. You might think I’m crazy, but I believe everybody has it in them, though only some find a way to share it.” Iliana was lucky to see the concert, as it was the last time Lhasa de Sela performed in Mexico. “She was sick and only a year later she died of cancer.”

We walked and there’d been a moment I’d taken my hand away – just for a moment – but Iliana grabbed a hold of it again. I liked the story: the best stories are not the happiest ones, but are about loss and sorrow. Even if they’re funny and you’re smiling while you tell it, if it has real meaning then it will always convey the truth that things are never easy.

“But this is not a sad story,” Iliana said. “This is a story about… what is the word? About synchronicity. I cannot say it was fate, but sometimes everything that happens by mistake, over many years, we understand cannot be coincidence at all.”

When we stopped walking we’d come to a street I didn’t know. I’d lost track of direction, though figured I could find my way back to the restaurant. From the restaurant, I could find the metro. Or, if the train had stopped running, I could flag a cab from the station, or even walk a couple kilometers. “This is my apartment building.” Iliana said, pulling a set of keys from her purse and unlocked the front door.

A month had passed, and I was sitting in the same living room we’d found ourselves in the evening we first met. “I want you to do something for me.” Iliana blushed. “Together with me.”

I understood that she trusted me, and promised I would not judge her.

“…You leave tomorrow, and maybe we will see each other again one day, but I do not believe so..” Iliana began to tell me her theories about sex: people have energies that are unique to each of us, and those energies are sharable. We give up a little of ourselves in moments of intimacy. “And if we give too much of it we are like puppets with strings stretched out across the map, so that we’re being pulled and cannot decide for ourselves what to do, and can never feel settled. It is not right that you leave with what I have given you and that I keep what you’ve given me…”

Iliana hustled to make a living. She’d graduated UNAM with a degree in graphic design and picked up contract work designing brochures for small businesses and books for small presses. Most of the work came from referrals, and one press that brought regular jobs her way, though the pay was almost charity-level. She also did massage, which was semi-professional in the sense that Iliana was not certified.

And then there were the therapies. “You’ll think I’m crazy, because I know that you will not believe. I have a sensitivity. I have the ability to – I don’t know the word in English – adivinación. I commune with the angels.” She explained that she was not a fortune teller and made no claims to see the future. Rather, the angels communicated with Iliana via images. She was a vessel. “I don’t know what the images mean, so I speak with my client. I tell them what I see. We talk together, and decide what the pictures mean.

“Because it is very personal, and because the angels are speaking through me, I cannot charge money. I can’t choose a price for something that does not belong to me.” With money convoluting the practice, the message could be tainted. She might be tempted to manipulate the truth of what she saw in order to make a paying client happy. She worked on a donation basis. Some clients paid money, and some paid in other ways – a home cooked meal, a dinner out, a piece of artwork. “Sometimes they can afford nothing, and that is okay too, because I believe those are the ones brought to me by the angels, and their need is greater…”

I imagined processes of interpretation: dark-skinned women whispering around at monochromatic canvasses upon which images were cast. In a dimly lit space, a theater or large gallery or showroom, shoulder to shoulder, they examined the canvasses, their own shadows interrupting the projections. Whether of their own making or derived from a mysticism that existed independently of them, these women saw images and decided together what meaning could be ascertained therefrom. And so long as they found meaning, there was purpose enough. Life, like the images, manifested significance that could be read and provide insight. Whatever message they bore, the images assured that things would be all right, because even in tragedy there is meaning: a conviction that might remain in the absence of all other hope…

On my last day in Mexico City, we’d left the apartment for an afternoon at UNAM. We ate in a park south of DF, and then we napped on the UNAM campus lawn until it started to rain on us. Iliana had an attack on the overcrowded afternoon metrobus. We debarked at the first stop and walked until our clothes were wet. Then waited beneath the narrow overhang of a cab stand when the rain got too heavy. By the time a taxi came for us, traffic was thinning, and Iliana’s panic had thinned with it. She apologized for the emotions that had overcome her. She was nervous that my last day hadn’t been perfect, but I would remember those imperfections as being the moments that brought joy to our final hours together. And when we were back in bed, warmed by each other’s bodies, I remembered the day as perfect.

But the morning comes too soon. Iliana wanted to have a therapy. She wanted to call down the angels so they could act as intermediaries while she offer my energy back to me and request that I return her own. She made a slicing motion with the edge of her hand. “You understand? We cut.”

“I can’t do a therapy with you.” It wasn’t because I disbelieved. Rather, I feared the images that might come to her. I always believed there was something dark inside me, and I’d leave a trace of that anywhere I left a trace of myself.

“You think I’m crazy.”

“Did I say that? No, I am afraid of what you might see.”

Iliana told me that the angels were never cruel, and I had nothing to fear because she could already tell I was a good man. But it might have been the love in her talking, because sometimes we mistake the things that make us feel good for the things that are truly good, and Iliana may have been dizzied by such misconceptions.

So I maintained my refusal. “If you have some of my energy, it’s because I gave it to you. I’m afraid to have it back. You’d take better care of it than I can…” But when I watched her eyes get sad, and I capitulated.

She lit candles and I sat on the edge of the futon, watching her make preparations. When she saw I was nervous, Iliana touched my face. She ran her hand through my hair so that her fingers tickled my scalp and then she took my ear between her thumb and her finger.

Then she began. Iliana gave me instructions on how to breathe, then Iliana took my hands in hers, rubbed her thumbs over my palms, opening them, and rested my hands on my knees. She shook scented oil from a vial into my left palm. Then she shook oil from a second vial. She tipped each of the vials into her own hand. One of the oils was mint, a fiery menthol, but I couldn’t identify the other.

“Do like this.” She mixed the oils with her forefinger. “And like this… here… and here…” Iliana dabbed the scented oil onto the divot on her forehead between her eyes. She rubbed a bit across each wrist, then massaged the rest into the back of her neck. I did the same. “Now you need to breathe the scent.” Iliana brought her palms to her face, took deep breaths, and exhaled, all with a slow, deliberate rhythm.

I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to close my eyes but I did anyways and a tear fell out. I was ashamed of that for some reason, and hoped Iliana’s eyes were also closed so that she didn’t see.

Iliana took my hands in hers. “Now I will talk in Spanish.” I could not understand all of what she said. I recognized amor. I heard her appeal to the archangel Michael, which was somewhat of a surprise since I thought Iliana had disavowed Catholicism in the name of a Buddhist mysticism. But to circumscribe her spirituality would have been a disservice to us both, and I didn’t consider it my place to rebuke the angels being evoked in my name.

Instead, I recited silent prayers of my own. I wished Iliana peace, happiness, and good fortune. I appealed to whatever powers were listening. I said that if luck were a transferrable thing, if it was something apportioned and allotted, then I’d been offered more than my fair due, and I wanted for her to have some of my own. Things were not perfect for either of us, and traumas abound, but I’d survived mine thus far and life seemed intent on paving an easy road, and my well-being was such that some could be spared.

Then Iliana was silent, and when she released my hands I knew it was okay to open my eyes. I didn’t weep when she stood from her stool and came to sit on my lap. It didn’t happen until she began to tell me what she’d prayed. “You were not afraid, were you? Because the angels were very kind to us. I asked them to take the energy I’d been given and return it to you. I told them you were willing to return my love, and asked them to assist, so that we could leave each other whole, as whole as when we met… It is okay for us to cry. That cleans us… I want you to know that you have nothing to worry about now. Everything will be good for you in your life. I asked that the angels look after you and they agreed to that. They agreed to watch for you and to keep you out of danger. Bad things still happen, but now you know that you will have help. And the angels tell me we can go. We will be able to remember each other, because they have allowed us to keep the good.”

She kissed me for a long time after that.

I told Iliana that I’d prayed for something similar. I wasn’t able to communicate directly with angels, but I spoke to them regardless. I asked them to bring her the peace we all deserve, and to help guide her toward whatever she needed in life. I agreed to return the energy Iliana had given me, despite that I was a selfish man. I explained that I’d been scared. I wanted her to take care of whatever piece of myself I’d entrusted to her, to keep it safe in my absence, because I never felt assured I’d be well taken care of under my own volition. But I agreed to it regardless. I agreed to cut, to sever.

“Yes. I know. Thank you.”

It was raining when we walked to the intersection of Calle Campeche and Insurgentes. It was an early afternoon rain, soft and suffused with sunshine, and Iliana’s face was damp when I put my hand to it. The cab waited at the corner but the driver did not rush us as we said goodbye. I was glad for the rain because I wasn’t sure if my eyes were dry yet, and I didn’t want my last vision of Iliana to be of her weeping. We touched as much as two people can who are slowly being pulled away from one another, and then there was no more contact except for a mutual gaze that we held until the cab pulled into traffic, and the city, rain-blurred, passed behind me.

*

Ben Leib used to drink and use hard drugs. He used to be a graduate student, and he also used to be a merchant marine. He is now a high school teacher. The wisdom of his life’s trajectory has yet to be determined. He fears the future of the world. You can check out his publication history at benleib.com.

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