Monday, April 5, 2021

Cortázar / Grafitti


by Julio Cortázar

So many things that begin perhaps end as a game and I suppose it amused you to find a drawing next to yours, you attributed it to chance or a whim, and only the second time did you realize it was intentional, then you looked slowly, you even returned later to look again, taking the usual precautions: the street in its most solitary moment, you approached casually, never looking directly at the graffiti, rather diagonally or from across the street, feigning interest in the window next door, departing almost immediately.

Your own game had begun out of boredom; it was not really a protest against the state of affairs of the city, the curfew, the ban on putting up posters or writing on the walls. It simply amused you to make sketches with colored chalk (you didn't like the term graffiti, so art critic-like) and from time to time you came and looked at them and even, with a little luck, were a spectator to the arrival of the municipal trucks and the useless insults of the workers as they erased the sketches. It mattered little to them that the drawings were not political, the prohibition included anything, and if some boy were bold enough to draw a house or a dog, it too would have been erased between curses and threats. In the city one no longer knew which side to fear; maybe that's why you enjoyed dominating yours and every so often choosing the time and place conducive to drawing a picture.

You had never been in danger since you knew how to choose well, and in the interim until the cleaning trucks arrived something opened for you, a clean space where almost there was hope. Watching your drawing from afar, you could see the people who glanced at it while passing; nobody paused of course but nobody stopped looking either, sometimes a fast abstract composition in two colors, a bird’s profile or two joined figures. Only one time did you write a phrase, with black chalk: I hurt too. It did not last two hours, and this time the police in person made it disappear. Later you continued making only drawings.

When the other appeared next to yours you were almost afraid, unexpectedly the risks had doubled, somebody like you dared amuse themselves on the brink of imprisonment or something worse, and this someone, what’s more, was a woman. You yourself could not prove it; it was something different and better than the most unequivocal truth: an outline, a predilection for warm colored chalk, an aura. Perhaps as you walked by you imagined it by way of compensation; you admired her, you were afraid for her, you hoped it would be the only time, you almost gave yourself away when she drew returned to draw another drawing next to yours, a desire to laugh, to stand there in front of the police as if the they were blind or stupid

A different time began, more secretive, both more beautiful and threatening at the same time. Neglecting your job you left whenever you could with the hope of surprising her, for your drawings you chose those streets you could travel using a single quick route; you returned at dawn, at dusk, at three in the morning. It was a time of unbearable contradiction, the disappointment of finding a new drawing of hers next to one of yours and the street empty, and of not finding anything at all and feeling the street emptier still. One night you only watched your first drawing; done with red and blue chalk on a garage door, taking advantage of the texture of the decayed wood and the heads of nails. It was more her than ever, the strokes, the colors, but in addition you felt that this drawing was worth a fine or an interrogation, a way of calling you. You returned at dawn, after the patrols relegated their voiceless drainage, and in the rest of the garage door you drew a fast landscape with sails and embankments; at first glance one would have said it was a mess of random lines, but she would know. That night you barely escaped a pair of policemen, in your apartment you drank glass after glass of gin and spoke, you talked to her, you told her everything that came to your mouth, like a different sketch made with sound, a different harbor with sails, you imagined her dark haired and quiet, you chose lips and breasts, you loved her a little.

Almost immediately it occurred to you that she would look for an answer, that she would return to your drawing just like you now returned to yours, and even though the danger was greater after each of the attacks in the market, you dared to approach the garage, circle the block, to drink an interminable number of beers in the coffee shop on the corner. It was absurd because she would not have paused after seeing your drawing, any one of the many women who came and went could have been her. At dawn on the second day you chose a gray wall and drew a white triangle surrounded by patches like oak leaves; from the same coffee shop on the corner you could see the wall (a patrol came and went angrily and they had already cleaned the garage door), at dusk you moved away a little but choosing different lines of sights, placing yourself from one spot to another, buying small things in the stores so as not to call too much the attention. It was already dark when you heard the siren and the search lights swept over your eyes. There was a confused crowd next to the wall; you went against everything sensible and only chance helped you see a patrol car turning the corner and you slowed upon seeing its car phone. Its bulk protected you and you saw the struggle, black hair pulled by gloved hands, the kicks and the screams, the cut-off glimpse of blue jeans before they threw her into the car and took her away.

Much later (it was horrible to shake so, it was horrible to think that this had happened because of your drawing on the gray wall) you mixed yourself with other people and glimpsed an outline in blue, traces of the orange that was like her name or mouth in that truncated picture the police had blurred before taking her, enough remained to understand that she wanted to answer your triangle with another figure, a circle maybe or a spiral, a full and beautiful form, something like a yes or an always or a now.

You knew very well, you would be left time to imagine the details of what was happening at the police headquarters, all that dripped slowly through the city, people were aware of the fate of prisoners, and if they sometimes turned to see one another, they would have preferred not to see them since most were lost in the silence that no one dared to break. You knew very well that on this night gin would not stop you from biting your nails, stomping on your colored chalk before getting lost in drunkenness and in sorrow.

Yes, but the days passed and you no longer knew any other way to live. Again you left work to roam around the streets, to fugitively watch the walls and doors where you and she had drawn. All clean, all clear; nothing, not even a flower drawn by the innocence of a schoolboy who steals chalk from class and cannot resist the pleasure to use it. You could not resist either, and a month later you rose to the dawn and returned to the street with the garage door. There were no patrols, the walls were perfectly clean; a cat watched you cautiously from a stoop when you removed the chalk and in the same place, where she had left her drawing there, you filled the boards with a green shout, a red flame of recognition and love, you wrapped your sketch in an oval that was also your mouth and hers and hope. From the steps on the corner you launched on a velvety race, to the refuge of a pile of empty boxes; a staggering drunkard approached humming, tried to kick the cat and fell down, mouth open, at the foot of the drawing. You left slowly, already sure, and with the first sun you slept as you hadn't slept for a long time.

That same morning you watched from afar: they still had not erased it. You returned at noon: almost inconceivably it had stayed there. Agitation in the suburbs (you had listened to the news reports) had moved the patrols away from their routine; at dusk you returned to see it, as had many people throughout the day. You waited until three in the morning to return, the street was black and empty. From a distance you discovered another drawing, only you could have distinguished it, so small, above and to the left of yours. You approached with something that was simultaneously thirst and horror, you saw the orange oval, and the violet marks from which a swollen face seemed to jump, a drooping eye, a mouth crushed by blows. I know, I know, but what else could I have sketched for you? What message would have made any sense now? Somehow I had to say goodbye to you and at the same time ask you to continue. I had to leave you something before returning to my refuge where there was no longer a mirror, only a hole to hide myself until the end in complete darkness, remembering so many things and sometimes, just as I had imagined your life, imagining that you had made other drawings, that you had left for the night to make more drawings.

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