And then the bull gored the matador. It happened so swiftly, so smoothly, almost casually, that at first no one grasped what had occurred. The bull was called Gatito, the little cat, and got him with the smallest gesture of the head, as if merely trying to get his attention with a little nudge. And yet up he went, hurled, airborne, and the entire crowd, over forty thousand people, shouted Toro!
And how well he flew, as though he’d been there before, one hand out for balance, the other poised to break his fall. He even held onto his cape throughout his flight. It rippled like a pennant. As he tumbled through the air his Mickey Mouse ears hat spun from his head. Bald! The matador–who couldn’t have been more than twenty-five–had male pattern baldness! Lisa nearly howled [seems like an odd choice to “shout” laughter] with laughter.
Cass didn’t care about male pattern baldness, for she was already deeply, profoundly, ludicrously lost in her love affair with the matador, imagining how she’d massage aloe on his wounds, how she’d walk into the desert under a full moon in a dress of white lace and boots of red leather and pick the healing cactus herself. She’d slit it with his dagger of Toledo steel and squeeze the soothing sap onto his injuries.
“Good,” said Lisa. “I hope he’s dead.” She took another gulp of her beer then held the cool plastic cup to her sweating forehead.
Cass and Lisa had flown into Puerta Vallarta on a two-week package. They got so horribly sunburned the first day that they hired a taxi to take them the entire nine hundred kilometres to Mexico City. It was that or hide from the sun in their room and watch Mexican TV, with Lisa going on about the skin cancer that was sure to bloom like malignant mushrooms all over their backs. Cass couldn’t cope with that. As it was, Lisa got carsick on the mountain roads and vomited out the window. Cass fell in love with Mexico city; she said it was like being in Paris, even though she’d never been to Paris.
Lisa had. She’d spent a year as an au pair for a family named Piche. They had a huge apartment, room opening onto room, with vast dark paintings in vast gold frames. She let Mr. Piche–please, call me Claude–put his hand down her pants and finger her a bit. She’d have had an affair with him but he never pursued her after that, in fact he suddenly got all formal–Monsieur Piche, if you don’t mind. She’d considered poisoning him, not killing him, just giving him a really bad gut ache and diarrheoa to freak him out. It would’ve been easy since she did all the cooking. The thing is she hadn’t even wanted to go to Paris and be an old pear, she’d only gone so as to outdo Cass, who’d run off to Montreal with a guy named Guy. Cass had fallen in love with Guy’s roll-your-own-cigarettes, his Silent Revolution, his accent, even his bad teeth. That lasted one Montreal winter. At the start of the second, the Halloween decorations scarcely up in the store windows and the bathroom pipes already frozen, she’d bussed all the way home, the smell of Guy’s Drum tobacco still in her hair, to blissfully wet, grey, mild, Vancouver.
It had been Cass’s idea to go to the bullfight. Lisa had wanted to go to Trotsky’s house, the site of the famous ice-pick murder.
Lisa was on her third Corona when a bugle had sounded, a gate opened, and the first bull charged in trampling the red and white carnations decorating the ring. Cass read it like an opera, a ballet, all style and symbol and rite.
“That gate, where the bull came in, that’s called The Gate of Fear.”
Disappointingly, the first bull had seemed stupid even by bull standards. It ran around and around the arena like a ball bearing in a wheel rim. Each time it passed, detonations of dust exploding under its feet, Cass heard it snort and felt the vibration of its hooves right up through the concrete bleachers into her pelvis.
“They’re not as big as I thought they’d be,” said Lisa, waving for two more beers.
“They’re fighting bulls,” said Cass. “This one weighs a thousand and fifty-five pounds. Over half a ton. They’re bred for speed and spirit.”
Lisa had been referring to the beers. She was already feeling drunk because she’d had the runs yesterday and was drinking on an empty stomach. That and the heat was making her lightheaded.
On came the picador on his padded and blindfolded horse. He drove two lances into the bull’s neck. The shafts bobbed and swayed as the bull, stupider than ever, resumed a stumbling run around the edge of the ring. One lance scraped the wall as the bull went round. Lisa averted her face, appalled; Cass smelled the blood, rich and metallic and sensual.
It seemed pointless when the matador finally emerged and stabbed the half-dead beast.
“They actually get paid for doing this?”
Cass said nothing, merely frowned and sat taller as though turned to something infinitely more subtle.
A tractor rumbled out and dragged the carcass away.
Chin on her fist, Lisa burped beer and wondered if they ate the bull. “What do you think?”
Cass declined to speculate. Over the years she’d learned to ignore much of what Lisa said.
“They should have a barbecue. Like for poor people.” Failing to get a rise, Lisa looked at Cass: nose too small and chin too big, no boobs and big arse. But she never lacked for men. In fact, she got more men than Lisa who was way more attractive, perfectly proportioned, with wavy black hair, clear complexion, large dark eyes, and lips so red they never needed colour. So what the fuck? Was it some quirk in men–did men have quirks, weren’t they supposed to be straightforward? Maybe Cass oozed some pheromone? Or did her very plainness make them confident whereas Lisa’s beauty threatened them? Either way, it pissed her off. She noticed that farther along the bench a Mexican guy was checking them out. Lisa’s stomach twisted with excitement. She sat taller. The guy grinned displaying even white teeth. Unaffected by the heat,his clothes were perfect, not a sweat stain anywhere. His white dress shirt was rolled at the cuffs, his jeans were ironed, and his oxblood boots gleamed.
“You are enjoy the corrida?”
“Muy interesante,” said Lisa.
“You no think is cruel? Many gringas think is cruel.”
Lisa wasn’t sure exactly what she thought. Cruel, sure, but so what? Would she stand a better chance with this guy if she said she liked it cruel?
“The bulls have a good life and a noble death,” the guy said.
“If the matador is good,” Cass corrected him. She was seated between him and Lisa.
“Yes, if the matador is good. Antonio.” He held out his hand and first Cass then Lisa shook it. It was dry and strong.
The trumpet sounded for the next bull and Gatito plunged into the ring. The picador put in a lance opening a wound that caused Gatito’s back to shine as brightly as Antonio’s boots. Next the banderillero stepped out and, with quick cruel grace, thrust in two darts with gold streamers attached. How festive Gatito suddenly looked with those ribbons trailing out as he trundled around the ring.
When the matador entered the crowd rose in his honour.
“Picador, banderillero, matador,” said Lisa. “How many guys does it take?”
In an instant Gatito made a run, as if this was the guy he was waiting for and everything else had been a warm-up. The crowd shouted, Cass included. Wielding his cape like a dancer, the matador combined the virtuoso grace of the ballet and the tragic dignity of the tango. Again and again the crowd chanted Ole! as the bull ran at the taunting red cloth, churning up the dirt like gold dust.
Antonio explained that the matador’s sweeps with the cape were called veronicas. “For the woman who held out a cloth to Christ on his way to the crucifixion.”
Cass was entranced. Lisa wondered why Antonio couldn’t be sitting over here, beside her.
Soon matador and bull were almost leaning on each other. At one point the matador even turned his back and walked away from the bull and stood admiring the sun about to dip below the topmost tier of the stadium.
“Veronica,” repeated Cass to herself, imagining herself performing such a sublime gesture for a condemned man.
Veronica and Archie, thought Lisa.
The crowd shouted Ole and Cass, rising to her feet, shouted it loudest of all. The matador held up a thin-bladed sword and Cass thought how grimly gorgeous it all was. How proud the matador’s mother must be; how ecstatic his woman surely is.
And that’s when the bull gored the guy.
The clowns diverted Gatito, but not before he gored the body a few more times. In seconds the stretcher-bearers had the crumpled man out. The electrified crowd drank more beer and ate more fried pigskin with hot sauce.
Cass saw herself walking beside the stretcher holding her lover’s hand, telling the medics—No, no, not the hospital, take him to my room…
A rejuvenated Gatito jogged around the perimeter of the ring, the streamers on the darts in his neck fluttering in victory.
Cass sat strong and stalwart awaiting her lover’s return. She would go on waiting even after everyone else had gone away, for years if necessary, like Penelope awaiting Odysseus.
And sure enough, in about ten minutes, the matador re-entered the ring wearing a grey cloth tied around his waist where his suit of lights had been shredded. The crowd surged to its feet. Square-shouldered, the limping matador carried his cape draped over his sword. He went straight up to the bull and placed his palm on the animal’s brow, as if to congratulate it, as if to bestow a blessing. Cass thought of women touching the feet of Christ. The stadium watched in silence. Cass sobbed. Lisa was not sure whether to be impressed or embarrassed. She looked past Cass and noted the conquistador expression on Antonio’s face, proud and enduring, as if he himself was in the ring. She looked around the stadium and supposed that every male there, young and old, sober and drunk, was feeling the same way. Despite her habitual scorn, she was stirred. She imagined herself and Antonio as lovers, imagined meeting his family, his aunts and uncles, tias y tios, who’d tell her charming anecdotes about little Tonito as a boy, the small suit of lights his mother had sewn him, his wooden sword, his delightful defiance, a conquistador; or would it be conquistadito?
Finally the matador shook out his cape. With a dip of the head, Gatito bore down. The matador remained motionless until it looked as if the thousand-pound bull would trample him. Cass kept her eyes wide, as if obeying an ancient code of honour not to look away, never to look away. At the last moment the matador leapt and plunged the sword into the gap between the bull’s shoulder blades. He did it so swiftly, with such grace and confidence, like some sort of beaked bird bred to the act, that for a moment neither Cass nor Lisa was sure what had happened.
But the crowd knew and the sky rained roses. The bull lay in the dirt. Above the Gate of Fear, ladies in saffron dresses with white frills threw more flowers, a few of which landed on the carcass as it was dragged out. Cass knelt before her man and unbuttoned his suit of lights. She dipped a sponge into a basin of rose water and washed him. She wrapped each injury with gauze as lovingly as if wrapping a gift.
Lisa watched Antonio, who narrowed his eyes and elevated his chin as he looked out over the ring where the dirt was already being raked for the next fight. His nostrils opened like wings and he drew in a long breath as if feeling exalted by the scent of death and nothing but scorn for anything that allowed itself to be defeated.
Cass too was looking at Antonio. She had that childlike expression on her face that Lisa knew meant only one thing. If Cass went off and slept with Antonio–leaving her alone in a room in Mexico City–Lisa swore she’d follow them and do a Trotsky: ice pick him in the back, right between the shoulder blades, drive that single steel prong deep. As Antonio lay bloody in the bed, Lisa would offer Cass her hand as though helping her from the drug-induced fog that had so dangerously deluded her, and Cass would smile in relief and gratitude. Then they’d depart. They’d walk in silence to the zocalo with its leaning cathedral and antique stones, and find a cab to take them back to Puerta Vallarta for their flight home. As they descended the winding roads Lisa would roll down the window and lean her head out and vomit under the stars while Cass rubbed her neck. But the night wind would refresh her face and dry her tears and eventually, maybe weeks, maybe months down the road, they would smile about their little secret and be closer than ever. »
From: subTerrain #64, Spring 2013.