The Inn (1)
The cigarette smoke was making her ill, as always when her mother smoked in the car. But today she didn't dare ask her to put it out, because her mother was in a very bad mood. She exhaled the smoke through her nose and it blew into Florencia's eyes. In the backseat her sister Lali was listening to music with her earphones jammed into her ears. No one spoke. Florencia looked out the window at the mansions along Los Sauces and waited eagerly for the tunnel and the dam and the colored hills. She never tired of the landscape even though she saw it several times a year, every time they went to the house in Sanagasta to escape the summer heat.
This trip was different; it wasn't for pleasure, and it wasn't summer. Her father had practically driven them out of La Rioja. Florencia had heard them arguing the night before, and by morning the decision was made: until the elections—Florencia's father was running for La Rioja's city council—the girls and their mother would stay in Sanagasta. The problem was Lali. She went out every weekend and got drunk and had a lot of boyfriends. Lali was fifteen and had straight, dark hair that fell below her waist. She was beautiful, although she really shouldn't use so much makeup, and she should lose the long painted nails and learn to walk in heels already. Florencia watched her in her new boots and laughed at how she walked so crooked and slow. She thought the blue shadow Lali used on her eyelids was ridiculous, not to mention those horrible pearl earrings, but she understood why men liked her, and why her father didn't want her running around La Rioja during the campaign. Florencia had often had to defend her sister after school, and sometimes things came to blows. Your sister the whore, the skank, the dicklicker, cocksucker, has she taken it up the ass yet, or what? It was always the girls who insulted Lali. Once, Florencia had gone home with a split lip after a fight in the plaza. While she was washing up in the bathroom and thinking of a lie to tell her parents—that she'd gotten a ball in the face at volleyball practice—she felt like an idiot. Her sister never thanked her for defending her. She never talked to her at all, really. She didn't care what people said about her, she didn't care that Florencia stuck up for her, she didn't care about Florencia. She spent all her time in her room trying on clothes and listening to stupid music, crappy love songs, vas a verme llegar, you'll see me coming, you'll hear my song, you'll enter without asking for the key…the same sappy song all day, it was enough to make you want to kill her. Florencia didn't like her sister, but she couldn't help getting mad when people called her a slut. She didn't like it when they called anyone a slut; she would have fought for anyone.
No one was ever going to call Florencia a slut, she knew that for sure. She rolled down the window to get a better look at the dam and the Gypsy's Skirt, that part of the hill that looked like the stain from a now-dry waterfall of blood. Her mouth filled with barely damp air. No, they'd call her carpet-muncher, freak, sicko, who knew what else.
“Mom, can you put some music on? My batteries ran out,” said Lali.
“Don't bug me, kiddo, my head's splitting and I have to drive.”
“Ugh, you're so lame.”
“Shut up, Lali, or I'll smack you.”
So this is what it's come to, thought Florencia. Her mother didn't like Sanagasta. Like many people from La Rioja she went to the town in summer, when the heat in the province's capital rose to fifty degrees and there was no sleeping during siesta and you just wanted to die. She always talked about going to Uspallata instead, or to the beach. She said she was sick of Sanagasta; there were no restaurants, the people were sullen and hostile, and in the craft market the wares never changed—they didn't even move things around! She was sick of the procession of the Virgin Child, of the little shrines everywhere, of the fact that there were three churches and not a single place to drink a cup of coffee. If someone told her there was coffee at the Inn, she got riled up as well. She was sick of the Inn. Sick of its owner, Elena, whose excessive friendliness struck her as false and conceited. Sick of how the only entertainment was to go and eat baked chicken at the Inn, play roulette and the slot machines at the Inn's casino, talk to some European tourist at the Inn. It was lucky, she'd often say, that they had a swimming pool at their house; otherwise they'd have had to use the one at the Inn, and then she'd really go crazy. Not even a steak house in the whole town, she complained. Not a single steak house.
They reached Sanagasta at the same time as the first evening bus, around six thirty. The low-hanging sun had changed the color of the hills, and the green of the valley's trees was a velvety moss. Lali was crying. She hated Sanagasta and she was so angry, so convinced that when high school finished she would run away to Córdoba, where one of her boyfriends lived…Florencia had learned of the escape plan when Lali told a girlfriend about it over the phone.
The house was fairly cool and her mother, who always felt cold, lit the heater. Florencia went out to the yard. Her family's vacation house was small because her father had opted for a large plot of land so they could have a pool, trees, a lot of space for the dogs to run, a gazebo, and even flowers. Her father loved flowers, much more than her mother, who preferred cacti. Florencia flopped into the hammock-chair and started to observe the colors: the rust-orange and fuchsia flowers, the turquoise of the pool, prickly pear green, the coral-pink of the house. She sent a message to her best friend, Rocío, who lived in Sanagasta: I'm here, come meet me. They had a lot to talk about: Rocío had told her in an email that she was having family problems, too. That is, she had problems with her father, because Rocío's family was minimal: her mother was dead and she didn't have any siblings. Rocío messaged that they should meet at the kiosk, which was open by then, and without telling anyone Florencia went running out, a little money in her pocket so she could drink a Coca-Cola. Of all the things she liked about Sanagasta, one of her favorites was being able to come, without her parents getting angry or scared.
There was a smell of burning in the air, probably a bonfire of fallen leaves. It was the nicest moment of the day. Rocío was waiting for her, sitting in one of the plastic chairs at the kiosk where they served sandwiches and empanadas at night. She was wearing frayed jean shorts and a white shirt, and her backpack was under the table. Florencia kissed her on the cheek and sat down, and as she did she couldn't help glancing at her friend's legs, their golden down that in the afternoon light looked like spilled wax. They ordered a two-liter Coke, and Florencia told Rocío to spill everything.
For years, Rocío's father had worked at the Inn as a tour guide: he brought the guests to the archaeological park, to the dam, and to the Salamanca cave, where he told them ghost stories about meetings between witches and devils, or about stinking, red-eyed goats; furred snakes; and a basilisk with blazing eyes. He was the star employee and was treated accordingly: he used Elena's 4×4 when his truck broke down, he ate free at the restaurant whenever he wanted, he used the pool and the foosball table without paying, and around town people said he was Elena's lover. Rocío denied it, saying her father wouldn't get mixed up with his boss, not that snooty woman. Florencia had gone on all the tours with Rocío and her father. He was an incredible guide, caring and kind: he was so fun that you didn't get tired even though you were climbing hills under a terrible sun.
“I can't believe Elena fired your dad. What happened?”
Rocío wiped the Coca-Cola from her upper lip, a maroon mustache.
Things were going pretty badly, she said, because Elena was having money problems and she was hysterical, but everything went to hell when her father had told some tourists from Buenos Aires about the Inn's past, about how it had been a police academy thirty years ago, before it was turned into a hotel.
“But your dad always says that on the tours when he talks about the town's history,” said Florencia.
“Well, yes, but Elena didn't know that. Then these tourists got really interested. They wanted to know more about it, and they asked Elena directly—about disappearances, torture, whatever. That's how she found out that my dad told the guests about the police academy. They fought, and she fired him.”
“But why did she get so mad?”
“She doesn't want the tourists to get a bad impression, my dad says, because it was a police academy during the dictatorship. You remember that stuff we studied in school?”
“What, did they kill people there?”
“My dad says no, Elena is being paranoid. It was just a police academy and nothing more.”
Rocío said the thing about the police academy during the dictatorship was an excuse of Elena's, that she didn't really care at all about the story, since she'd only bought the Inn ten years ago. She was just pissed at Rocío's father and wanted to fire him, and she latched onto that as an excuse. Elena had taken away Rocío's father's key to the Inn's front door; she'd asked him for money to fix things on the 4×4 that he hadn't broken, that were just from regular wear and tear; and she'd forbidden him to give tours on his own under threat of suing him. And all without paying him for the last month of work.
“But he can still give tours, she can't stop him.”
“He's not going to, he doesn't want to make trouble. Plus, he told me he's fed up with the people in Sanagasta, he wants to leave.”
Rocío finished her glass of Coke and whistled to the kiosk's dog, who came right over and seemed disappointed when she petted him instead of giving him food.
“I got so mad at him…it would suck to move away. I want to go to school in La Roja, with you and the girls.”
The dog had come over to try its luck with Florencia, and now she leaned down to pet its ears so she could hide her face a little. She didn't want Rocío to see that she was about to start crying; if Rocío left Sanagasta, Florencia would run away with her, she didn't care. But then she heard the best possible news, the best she'd heard in her life.
“So I told him that, I asked him if we could stay. And guess what? He told me we were leaving Sanagasta but only to move to La Rioja. He's already talked to the secretary of tourism about a job. Isn't it great?”
Florencia pressed her lips together and then said it was awesome. She finished her Coca-Cola to swallow her emotion. “Let's go to the rose plaza,” said Rocío. “The buds opened, you can't imagine how pretty the flowers are.”
The dog went with them, and so did what was left of the Coca-Cola. Night had almost fallen. All the streets in the center of Sangasta were paved and lit. Through the windows of some houses they could see people gathered, many of them women, to pray the rosary. Florencia was a little afraid of those meetings, especially when there were candles lit and the flickering glow illuminated all the faces and their closed eyes. It looked like a funeral. No one prayed in her family. In that, they were very strange.