The following story, "Laika," is an excerpt from Paulina Flores' book, Humiliation: Stories, out November 5.
Josefa woke up from a brief dream. In the darkness, someone was shaking her shoulder, gently but insistently. Someone was saying her name, whispering. "Josefa, Josefa, wake up."
"Hi, Fede," she replied in a sleepy voice.
"Hi, Josefa," he said. She could barely see his face as she reached out her hand to be sure he was there; he caught it and kissed her open palm. "We're going to the beach to see UFOs," said Fede.
"I'm sleepy," she said, and now she could see him in the darkness of the room. She loved that, how her eyes could adjust to the night like a cat's.
"Come on, kiddo," Fede insisted, and when he said it she felt afraid. Fede's eyes shone like a sky full of UFOs.
"I'm scared," said Josefa.
"It's all right, UFOs are as harmless as the stars," he soothed her, "and plus, you're with me." Her mother had told her to behave with Fede, because the Argentines were going to help them. Josefa didn't want to make her mother look bad, or to disobey her. Lately her mother had been scolding her a lot, and she didn't want to get into any more trouble. She didn't want to disappoint her anymore. "Can I bring my shovel?" asked Josefa, still a bit unsure. It wasn't a toy plastic shovel, but a real one, a metal one her mother used for gardening and that Josefa had begged to borrow, to bring with her on vacation. An adult tool. Josefa's dream was to become an adult quickly, wake up one day and realize that she was a grown-up and could do all the things adults did, or that she thought adults did, like use a metal shovel and not a plastic one.
"Sure," said Fede, smiling. "You never know when it might come in handy."
Josefa pointed him to where it was. He pulled the covers off her, picked up the shovel from the nightstand, and knelt down, holding it horizontally in his hands as if he were offering her a sword. Josefa took it, laughing, and held it tightly. "See, I'm a real knight-errant," said Fede, and he wrapped her in a blanket and picked her up, feeling his way in the darkness.
At that early morning hour the beach was deserted. Fede said that if they were going to see a UFO they'd have to get as far away as possible from civilization. He crossed the rock bed that edged the cabins to reach a small deposit of sand. Cradled in his arms like that, Josefa could see part of Fede's profile against a starry background. Still holding her he sat down in the sand, then tilted his head back to look at the sky.
Several minutes passed and Fede stayed in the same position, thoughtful and silent, maintaining a certain gravity, as if to add scientific authority to the matter. If it hadn't been for the cold, Josefa would have fallen asleep.
"Look," said Fede suddenly. He pointed up, and his index finger followed a luminous ball as it slowly crossed the sky. Josefa clutched the shovel more tightly and brought it to her chest and started to tremble, although not out of fear of the UFO, but because she was cold.
Fede lit a cigarette. "Josefa," he said very seriously, "I'm not going to lie to you. I would love it if we saw one together, but that's not a UFO, it's a satellite. See how it's moving? It's an artificial satellite that circles Earth. There are lots of them. Some are old and don't even work, they just orbit without a purpose. They're what's called space debris. There's another one, see it? "
Josefa saw it.
"Are they like Laika?" she asked, pointing at the sky.
"Oh!" Fede said approvingly. "You know about Laika! I always said you weren't just another pretty kid." He kissed her on the nose, and she smelled his tobacco breath. Josefa laughed shyly. If she knew about Laika it was only because of the song by Mecano that her mother listened to. She loved that song. It seemed so mysterious, and when she listened to it she was filled with questions. What had become of Laika? Where was she now? Did she know she was famous, and there was a song in her honor? There were a lot of things that seemed mysterious to her; the world held secrets that no one knew or understood: ships and planes that got lost in the Bermuda Triangle. The Egyptian pyramids. The disappearance of the Mayans and the dinosaurs. Fire. Ants. Rasputin surviving poison and bullets. Marylin's murder. Michael Jackson's skin. Josefa believed that when she died and went to heaven, God, or one of his angels, would clear up all of these great enigmas, and sometimes her wish to know was so great that she wanted to be dead, to die just for a little while.
"You know what the spaceship they sent Laika up in was called?" asked Fede, exhaling smoke.
Josefa shook her head. She worried that Fede would realize that she really didn't know much more about Laika.
Once, when she was in kindergarten, a teacher had asked, "Who knows how to draw a star?" Josefa raised her hand along with all the other kids and went to the blackboard, smiling and confident, and with the chalk she drew a kind of circle with points. All the kids laughed and shouted that that wasn't a star, and then Josefa looked at the chalkboard again and realized it was true, that what she had drawn wasn't what she'd seen in her mind, it wasn't a star. In the afternoon, at Mauricio's house, she started to cry. Mauricio was the son of the neighbor who took care of her in the afternoons, and he consoled her, telling her not to worry, that he would teach her the easiest way to draw a star. First she had to draw an inverted V, then an upward line to the left, another horizontal line to the right, and finally a downward one to meet the initial point of the V. "It draws itself, see?" said Mauricio. "And you don't even have to lift the pen." That was another reason Josefa wanted to be an adult. If she learned how to draw stars and do all the other things adults knew how to do, no one would laugh at her again.
"Sputnik Two. A Soviet ship," said Fede, delighted with his own words. "Laika was a mutt, a street dog. Her real name was Kudryavka, and she beat the other two dogs the Russians were training. She was the first living being to travel in space, and after seven hours, the first to die in orbit."
Josefa didn't like hearing that Laika was dead. Really, it was pretty stupid on her part to think the dog could still be alive, flying around out in space, but that's how she'd imagined her, just like in the song, looking out through the rocket's window at the colored ball that was Earth.
"She's carved beside Lenin on the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. There's a poem on the monument. One verse says, 'We have forged great flaming wings.' In Russian, of course. I like the Russians more than the Yankees, how about you?"
Huddled in Fede's arms, Josefa said she preferred the Russians too, but she didn't really know what that meant, and she said it in a voice so quiet it was as if she'd said nothing at all.
Fede knew a lot of things, she thought. Just like Mauricio. Although they knew different things. What Mauricio knew mostly had to do with superhero stories. She liked Fede, same as Mauricio. But Mauricio didn't hug her like Fede did. In fact, Mauricio almost never hugged her, what he did was take her arms and make her hit herself in the face with her own hands while he asked her, "Why are you hitting yourself?" or attack her with tickles until she couldn't take it anymore. And one time, she hadn't been able to stand it and she'd peed her pants, and Mauricio had laughed for like two hours, until she'd started crying from shame. Then he told her to go to the bathroom and take off her wet underwear so he could wash them and dry them with the hair dryer, and that's what happened, and when her mother came to pick her up that night, Mauricio didn't say anything, he didn't tell on her for peeing her pants.
"I'd love to study astronomy. I graduate from high school this year, but I'm not doing so well. And astronomy is a really hard major, I wouldn't have the head for it," admitted Fede, a little gloomily. "And, well, it looks like we're not going to see UFOs today."
Josefa giggled at his accent, so Argentine and exaggerated. "What're you laughing at? You laughing at me, midget?" said Fede, teasing. "Let's see, stand up, let's just see how tall you are. I bet you don't even come up to my knees."
Josefa laughed again, and Fede threw his cigarette into the sand. "Litter bug!" she said, growing more confident.
"What do you mean, litter bug? Who're you calling a litter bug?" He let her tumble from his arms into the sand, took the shovel away from her, and stuck it into the sand behind him. Then he took Josefa under the armpits and stood her up in front of him.
"Let's see, let me look at you," he said, bringing his hand to his chin as if in doubt. He pulled off the blanket that covered her.
"Do you like me?" he asked her, his hand still on his chin, his eyes half closed.
Josefa looked down at the sand and nodded.
"How much do you like me? From here to the moon?"
She nodded again. She thought Fede was the cutest boy on the face of the earth, as cute as the leading men on TV, or her father in old photos from when he was young.
"I like you from here to Pluto," he said, and he lifted her face with his hand so she would look him in the eyes. "There and back."
"What about Paola?"
"Paola? Who's Paola?"
"From cabin nine."
"That kid doesn't know anything, not like you. You know all about the space age." Fede winked at her. Josefa couldn't contain her joy.
"Plus, she doesn't know how to kiss, and you do."
Josefa's face lit up. It was true, she did know how.
"Have you given a lot of kisses?"
She nodded over and over, excited.
TV kisses. She practiced on her dad and her mom, suctioning with her lips and moving her head from side to side, like the protagonists did.
Fede slowly moved closer and took the girl's little head in his hands. His breathing was agitated. He closed his eyes and placed his lips on Josefa's, and she blinked nervously. She was about to start with her head movements when she felt a soft cone, damp and cold, penetrate her mouth. She opened her eyes wide and she couldn't move her head, she practically couldn't move a muscle with the surprise of the tongue. She didn't know that part, they didn't show it on TV.
Fede pulled away.
"Hmmm," he said, sounding disappointed. "You've still got some learning to do."
Josefa lowered her head and felt like crying.
"No, kiddo, don't take it like that," he said, raising her head with his fingers. "It was really good for how little you are." Josefa was relieved. "Plus, I can teach you. You have to imitate what I do in there. So when we get married you'll be an expert kisser."
She opened her eyes wide as saucers again. "Because you dowant to marry me, right?" Josefa nodded vigorously.
Fede unclasped the chain he wore around his neck.
"Like it?" he asked, showing her the golden sun hanging from the chain. "This will be the symbol of our engagement." He put it around her neck. "When you turn eighteen, I'm going to come to Chile to find you and we'll get married." He gave her another kiss, but this time shorter, without tongue; a brief aspiration, like the ones Josefa's parents gave each other. She knew other kids were grossed out when their parents kissed, but she loved it, even if on the rare occasions that they did, it was like that: no head movements, as if in passing.
Josefa took the sun between her hands. She looked at it as though hypnotized, and she puffed out her chest to show it off better.
"Now we have to seal our pact in the ocean," said Fede, looking at the water. He tied Josefa's wavy hair back with an elastic band. "You don't want to catch cold on vacation from going to bed with wet hair," he said, smiling, and he started to undress her. First her pajama top. It was yellow, her favorite color, with an embroidered elephant holding a half-melted ice cream cone. Then her socks, and finally her pants.
Josefa's chest caved in and she blushed, and the sun sank along with her chest. All of her sank.
Naked in front of Fede, Josefa felt ashamed again, but it was a different shame from what she felt when she saw the badly drawn star on the classroom chalkboard. It was more like the emotion that came over her when they'd given vaccinations at school. She'd moved along in the line of children, shyly, because she knew that everyone would see her half naked when she took off her uniform blouse, but she was also eager to do it. It was a disappointment when her turn with the nurse came and she only unbuttoned the sleeve and rolled it up above her elbow.
"That little belly is mine," said Fede, stroking Josefa's prominent stomach. He kissed her belly button and again farther up. A kiss with tongue on her nipple, and when his mouth separated from her skin, Josefa saw a little thread of shining saliva that joined her body and Fede's lips like a spider's silk. A shiver ran over her body, like when her mother was braiding her hair and accidentally pulled a few solitary hairs.
Fede pulled her to him and hugged her very tightly and licked her neck like it was a stamp. "You taste like sunscreen," he said, "beach flavor."
He took off his pants, his jacket, shirt, and underwear, quickly. And Josefa looked at the parts of his body that weren't so tanned, and his erect penis that pointed toward the ocean like the needle of a compass. She had never seen one before and she was fascinated. From then on, that would be her image of penises. Not fallen and flaccid like her father's, which she would see one day when she opened the bathroom door and surprised him coming out of the shower, but rather straight and firm. Implacable, like the broomstick her mother used to clear the plums off the porch. Perpetual like the hands of the watches she drew on her left wrist when she was bored in class.
They walked to the water hand in hand. And Josefa thought that they were like Adam and Eve in her children's Bible, which she read from every night. Her favorite story was Samson and Delilah, because it was the most romantic.
As she walked, she turned back and looked at their footprints. The marks in the dry sand, shallow and imprecise. The marks in the wet sand, more detailed, reflecting the difference in their weights and sizes. They would all be erased soon and would go back to being part of the beach. Some sooner than others, but they would all disappear. When Josefa saw them she realized that everything she was experiencing with Fede was real. It sometimes happened that she had very vivid memories from when she was little that later turned out to be dreams or inventions, confusions of hers. There were two in particular. In the first one she was with her mother, and they were home alone at night. She woke up to some strange noises, and she called to her mother. Together they went into the living room, and in the darkness there they saw the thieves. They were hidden, crouched down under the dining room table, behind the sofas, the gas heater. There must have been four of them, and Josefa remembered seeing the outline of their black uniforms with the high collars of thieves, and how they seemed like children playing hide-and-seek. The other memory was of an afternoon she spent with her father. She couldn't picture very well what they were doing, but at one point he'd told her that he had the power to disappear, and he went running to the bedroom. She followed him, but when she got there, he wasn't there. She looked for him all over the room, and then all through the rest of the house, but she couldn't find her father. Then she sat down in front of the mirror, and while she looked at herself and played at tracing the outline of her flat reflection, she came to the conclusion that her father had drunk a potion like in Alice in Wonderland, to shrink down to a tiny size and hide. The images of those memories were very clear in her mind, even clearer than others that actually happened. They had gradually lost their authenticity as she'd gotten bigger, when they no longer seemed logical or possible, and she had to force herself not to call them up.
But there were the footprints, two pairs for two people. Some the wind would erase, and others the sea. They wouldn't be permanent, they would pass into oblivion like everything, and that made them real.
They went out until the water covered his chest and they let themselves be rocked by the calm sea. He hugged her from behind and sucked on her neck like the mollusks on the rocks all around them. "I'm in love," he repeated. "I'm crazy for you."
Josefa's eyes were on the horizon. The sea and the sky seemed to her a single darkness, just as the world of Genesis must have been, before God separated the waters that were above the firmament from those below it.
The sea and the sky were a single darkness, and the UFOs could just as well be above as below, flying and floating at the same time.
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