This story originally appeared in the Dutch literary magazine Maatstaf in 1983, and was included in my first first book De nieuwe Stad (The New City). The photo was made in San Salvador in 1982.
After the Fiesta of the Holy Salvador Teresa stayed in the city. Just like that, really, not with a plan, and after a week she ran out of money.
'I'd rather stay here,' she said. 'There is no work back home in Gotera, and it is so boring there because of the war.'
She was sitting on the edge of Antonieta's bed.
'Well, stay then,' Antonieta said from the bathroom. She was washing her feet in the sink. 'What time is it? That late already? The water stopped running.'
'I have no money,' Teresa said. 'Last night Don Berto asked when I was going to pay. He also has bills to worry about, he said.'
Antonieta came out of the bathroom in a dingy nightshirt. 'I wish it rained more. We'd have more water.'
'You could also get up earlier,' said Teresa who had already washed her clothes in the granite tub behind the hotel. Now it was getting hot. It was time to take it easy.
Antonieta dragged a chair from her room to the gallery, which was shaded by the floor above. She was a small, trim woman, quite past thirty. She had two children who were both in California.
'Berto is very serious about his bills,' she said and she laughed. 'And you are too young for him.'
'I am hungry,' Teresa said. 'What about you? Shall I get you cigarettes, too?'
Teresa walked down the stairs and into the lobby. Don Berto had already come in. He was sitting behind the counter and read the paper.
'Good morning, Don Berto,' Teresa said.
'Is Antonieta awake yet?' Don Berto asked.
'Sure,' Teresa said and walked out into the street.
Don Berto put down his reading glasses. He rested his hands flat on the counter, leaned forward, and pushed himself up from his chair. He was a heavy man. He let out a big sigh, pulled his pants up around his belly and slowly climbed the stairs.
'Morning,' said Antonieta.
She walked into her room, pulled her nightshirt up to her waist and stretched face down on the bed. Don Berto closed the door behind him and Antonieta thought about her children in California and how she was hungry and she hoped Teresa would come back soon.
Teresa waited on the couch in the lobby. She held a wrapper with warm pupusas in her lap. A small, short legged man stood at the counter and read Don Berto's newspaper. Teresa knew who he was: a businessman from Quito who couldn't possibly amount to much, otherwise he wouldn't be living in this hotel. The man looked over his shoulder at Teresa and winked. Teresa looked away.
'Your friend is much nicer,' the man said.
Don Berto came down the stairs panting. He nodded to man from Quito. Teresa took the pupusas and a bottle of water from the refrigerator and went up. Antonieta was sitting in the shade of the gallery.
'Did you let that man from Quito into your room?' Teresa asked.
'Sure,' Antonieta said and she laughed. 'He's on his way to Mexico on business, he says, but he is waiting for his wife to join him. They are going together, you see. He's not a bad guy. If you want to make twenty colón - he is eager every day, just like Berto.'
After the pupusas and a cigarette it was getting too hot, even in the shade of the gallery. Teresa went downstairs for another bottle of water. Don Berto was asleep on the couch. The man from Quito had disappeared. Teresa asked Antonieta for another cigarette and went up to her own room. She remembered her laundry, walked down again, and took her clothes from the line over the parking lot behind the hotel. The sun burned on her head and her shoulders. She was panting when she came back to her room. She took off her shirt and her jeans and opened the faucet above the wash basin, but there was no water. She laid down on her bed and felt the sweat rising from her skin.
Early in the evening somebody knocked on her door. Teresa quickly got up and dressed. She tried the faucet, but it was still dry.
'Aren't you hungry?' asked the man from Quito.
'Yes,' Teresa said.
The lobby was empty. Don Berto had already gone home, but there was no sign yet of Santiago, the night clerk. In the street it was still hot, although the sun had already gone down behind the mountains.
'I hope we'll get some rain tonight,' the man from Quito said.
'In August it rains every night,' Teresa said.
It was damp and hot in the Pupusería. The man from Quito ordered double portions with cheese and beans.
'Where are you from?' he asked.
'From the East,' Teresa said. 'From Gotera.'
'But that's where the war is. Is that why you are here?'
'The war is nothing,' said Teresa. 'The army is a bunch of cowards. They always stay in town. They are scared to show themselves in the countryside.'
'And you are not scared?'
'Why would I be? The muchachos are my friends.'
'And Antonieta is also your friend, right?'
'Do you know that Antonieta lets Don Berto into her room so she doesn't have to pay?'
'So what?' Teresa said. 'They do something for each other.'
The rain started when they walked back and they were soaked when they got to the hotel. Santiago was sitting behind the counter. He grinned at the man from Quito. Teresa went upstairs to get dry clothes, but the man followed her. He stood in the door opening and looked at her breasts.
'And what about you?' he said. 'Do you want to do something for me?'
'What do you mean?' said Teresa and she turned away.
The man came into the room. He kept one hand deep inside his pocket and the other he put on Teresa's hip.
'Don't you want to earn twenty colón?' he asked.
'No, thanks. I have money,' Teresa said and she stepped aside.
The man from Quito shook his head and walked out of the room. Teresa locked the door, took off her wet clothes and washed herself, for there was water now, after the rain.
The man from Quito went back to the lobby.
'What's up?' Santiago asked.
'You tell me what's up,' the man said. 'The girl from Gotera, she's a putita, right?'
'Of course, man,' Santiago said. 'There are all putitas here.'
Santiago was drunk. He was drunk every evening when he took over from Don Berto. He lived in the lobby and slept on the couch. After hours you had to ring many times before he opened the door, but he was never angry. He no longer had the energy.
Santiago had a brother who lived in East Brunswick, New Jersey. Which is, the brother had written, almost in New York City. The brother had also written that he worked in a service station and had his own car, too, and a wife, and that he was very happy.
The man from Quito took a bottle of water from the refrigerator and went to his room. Santiago waited a few minutes. Then he locked the front door, walked upstairs and knocked on Teresa's door.
'It's me, Santiago,' he said.
Teresa quickly got her clothes. They were still wet.
'What's up?' she asked.
Santiago grinned and sat down on the bed. Teresa stood back holding the door.
'Don Berto is making trouble,' Santiago said, 'because you're not paying for your room.'
'But I'm getting money next week,' Teresa said. 'And besides, there are lots of empty rooms. It's not like he needs this one.'
'Don Berto says he's a businessman.'
'I can work, too,' Teresa said. 'I can do laundry, or cleaning.'
Santiago stared at her breasts and her legs. Teresa shivered. Her clothes were wet and a draft came in through the open door.
'I will talk to Don Berto,' Santiago said, 'but only if you are my friend.'
He got up, lifted his right heel from the floor and shook his balls in the cup of his hand.
Teresa rose early, to be ahead of Don Berto. She first went to the covered banana market to find some breakfast, and then across the river, where the refugees lived in shanties of corrugated iron, cardboard and old lumber. Most of them were women. They baked pupusas on small charcoal fires while their children played soccer in the dust. A muchacho who also came from Gotera treated Teresa to beans and Coca Cola. He wasn't going back, he said. Not ever. In fact, he said, he was leaving for California tomorrow, or the day after, in any case certainly before the end of the week.
In the evening, when it was already dark but just before the rain started, Teresa walked back to the hotel. The man from Quito was standing in the middle of the lobby, with his back o the street and his face towards Santiago behind the counter. His short legs were bent at the knee and he held his hands like a pissing cherub. He jerked his hips forward and back again.
'Man! Antonieta, she is good!' he said. 'Especially from behind.'
Santiago laughed and the man from Quito grinned as Teresa crossed the lobby to the stairs. She had barely gotten to her room when Santiago knocked on the door.
'Don Berto says you have to pay,' he said. 'We don't need cleaning.'
'Oh,' Teresa said.
'But I have another idea,' Santiago said.
'What's that?' Teresa asked.
'I can't tell you. You have to trust me.'
'And be my friend,' Santiago said.
He stepped into the room. Teresa turned around and looked at the wall. Santiago put his hands on her hips and pushed his lower belly against her buttocks.
'Not now,' Teresa said. 'Tomorrow.'
'Why don't you just let him? What do you care?' Antonieta said the next morning.
She was sitting on the stairs, between Teresa's legs. Teresa was sitting one step higher up and picked the lice out of Antonieta's hair.
'He is dirty,' she said. 'And he stinks.'
'Just turn around,' she said. 'Then you don't see him and you won't smell him.'
That night Santiago took the gray notebook in which Don Berto kept the accounts. Next to the number of Teresa's room he wrote: 'paid.' He was a bad drunk and not very smart. Don Berto would spot the fraud immediately. He was a real businessman and paid attention to details. He saved the cardboard tubes inside toilet paper and out of every new roll he created three small ones. This occupied him in the mornings, between Antonieta and siesta. But Don Berto didn't live in the hotel. He didn't come back till the morning. Santiago closed up and climbed the stairs. Teresa's door was locked.
'I'm not feeling well,' she said. 'And I'm tired, too.'
Santiago went back to the lobby. From the drawer under the counter that also held Don Berto's notebook, he took the pass-key. Teresa, however, was smart. She left her key in the door, from the inside, and turned it forty-five degrees.
'If you don't let me in,' Santiago said, 'I will tell Don Berto that you don't have any money and won't get any, either. And he'll go to the police.'
Teresa didn't answer and decided that it would probably be better to go back to Gotera in the morning.
Santiago cursed, but did not insist. Besides, somebody was ringing the bell, so he had to go downstairs. Three short, stocky men with mustaches were at the door. They held large wrist bags at their sides.
'National Police,' they said by way of introduction, but Santiago already knew. They came quite often, because of the war, and carried revolvers in the wrist bags. They were hunting for subversives. One stayed in the lobby and hunted in Don Berto's notebook. The other two went upstairs. Antonieta's papers were in good order, because Don Berto paid attention to details, but the man from Quito and Teresa had to come down.
'I'm on my way to Mexico,' the man from Quito said. 'It's a business trip, but I have to wait here for my wife and I have a permit from the directorate of migration.'
'And you?' one of the policemen asked Teresa. 'Where are you from?'
'From the East, from Gotera,' Teresa said.
Teresa hesitated and then looked straight at Santiago.
'She came here to work,' Santiago said to the policeman. 'Cleaning and laundry and things like that.'
'So where is your permit?'
'Don Berto keeps it,' Teresa said. 'Don Berto is the owner of the hotel. I'll ask him in the morning.'
The policemen were doubtful. Teresa was still young, and pretty, but you never knew what those subversives looked like. That's what made the war so complicated. In the end they decided to go and hunt somewhere else. Santiago locked the front door behind them.
'So,' he said and he stretched his tongue over his upper lip.
Teresa turned around and walked to the stairs, but the man from Quito blocked her way. He was sitting on the bottom step with his legs wide apart and he counted his balls with his fist.
'Fair is fair,' he said and grinned.
Santiago unbuttoned and unzipped and pulled down her jeans and he grabbed her knee with both hands and lifted one foot out of the pants and pushed her towards the couch and she almost tripped over the jeans around her ankle and she sat down, but Santiago pushed her back and she was not afraid, it had happened to her before, back home in Gotera, but she disliked it and Santiago really smelled bad and her left leg got squeezed against the back rest and Santiago cursed, because his left leg was sliding from the couch onto the tiled floor and Teresa said: 'Wait,' and she pushed him away and turned over onto her belly and sideways, forty-five degrees, and lowered her knees to the floor, which was cold, and Santiago fucked her like a dog.
'Olé!' said the man from Quito.
'Olé!' said the man from Quito