Samanta Schweblin’s stories have their own logic; the reader teeters on the edge of them. She grew up in Argentina, lives in Berlin, and writes in Spanish. « An Unlucky Man » is a story from Seven Empty Houses, published by Oneworld.
« And the perversion of the reader, of course. » Some questions & answers with Samanta Schweblin
The day I turned eight, my sister — who absolutely always had to be the center of attention — swallowed an entire cup of bleach. Abi was three. First she smiled, maybe in disgust; then her face crumpled in a frightened grimace of pain. When Mom saw the empty cup hanging from Abi’s hand, she turned as white as my sister.
« Abi‐my‐god, » was all Mom said. « Abi‐my‐god, » and it took her a few more seconds before she sprang into action.
She shook Abi by the shoulders, but my sister didn’t respond. She yelled, but Abi still didn’t react. Mom ran to the phone and called Dad, and when she came running back Abi was still standing there, the cup just dangling from her hand. Mom grabbed the cup and threw it into the sink. She opened the fridge, took out the milk, and poured a glass. She stood looking at the glass, then looked at Abi, then back at the glass, and finally dropped the glass into the sink as well. Dad worked very close by and got home quickly, but Mom still had time to do the whole show with the glass of milk again before he pulled up in the car and started honking the horn and yelling.
Mom lit out of the house like lightning, with Abi clutched to her chest. The front door, the gate, and the car doors were all flung open. There was more horn honking, and Mom, who was already sitting in the car, started to cry. Dad had to shout at me twice before I understood that I was the one who was supposed to close up.
We drove the first ten blocks in less time than it had taken me to close the car door and fasten my seat belt. But when we got to the main avenue, the traffic was practically at a standstill. Dad honked the horn and shouted out the window, « We have to get to the hospital! We have to get to the hospital! » The cars around us maneuvered and miraculously let us pass, but a couple cars ahead we had to start the whole operation over again. Dad braked, stopped honking, and began to pound his head against the steering wheel. I had never seen him do such a thing. There was a moment of silence, and then he sat up and looked at me in the rearview mirror. He turned around and said to me:
« Take off your underpants. »
I was wearing my school uniform. All my underwear was white, but I wasn’t exactly thinking about that just then, and I couldn’t understand Dad’s request. I pressed my hands into the seat to support myself better. I looked at Mom and she shouted:
« Take off your damned underpants! »
I took them off. Dad grabbed them out of my hands. He rolled down the window, went back to honking the horn, and started waving my underpants out the window. He raised them high while he yelled and kept honking, and it seemed like everyone on the avenue turned around to look at them. My underpants were small, but they were also very white. An ambulance a block behind us turned on its siren, caught up with us quickly, and started clearing a path. Dad kept waving the underpants until we reached the hospital.
He parked the car by the ambulances and they jumped out. Without waiting, Mom took Abi and ran straight into the hospital. I wasn’t sure whether I should get out or not: I didn’t have any underpants on, and I looked around to see where Dad had left them, but they weren’t on the seat or in his hand, which was already slamming his car door behind him.
« Come on, come on, » said Dad.
He opened my door and helped me out, then locked the car. He gave my shoulder a few pats as we walked into the emergency room. Mom came out of a doorway at the back and signaled to us. I was relieved to see she was talking again, giving explanations to the nurses.
« Stay here, » said Dad, and he pointed to some orange chairs on the other side of the main waiting area.
I sat. Dad went into the consulting room with Mom and I waited for a while. I don’t know how long, but it felt long. I pressed my knees together tightly and thought about everything that had happened so quickly, and about the possibility that any of the kids from school had seen the whole display with my underpants. When I sat up straight, my jumper rode up and my bare bottom touched part of the plastic seat. Sometimes the nurse came in or out of the consulting room and I could hear my parents arguing. At one point I craned my neck and caught a glimpse of Abi squirming restlessly on one of the cots, and I knew that, at least today, she wasn’t going to die. And I still had to wait.
Then a man came and sat down next to me. I don’t know where he came from; I hadn’t noticed him before.
« How’s it going? » he asked.
I thought about saying « Very well, » which is what Mom always said if someone asked her that, even if she’d just told me and Abi that we were driving her insane.
« Okay, » I said.
« Are you waiting for someone? »
I thought about it. I wasn’t really waiting for anyone; at least, it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing right then. So I shook my head, and he said:
« Why are you sitting in the waiting room, then? »
I understood it was a great contradiction. He opened a small bag he had on his lap and rummaged around in it, unhurried. Then he took a pink slip of paper from his wallet.
« Here it is. I knew I had it somewhere. »
The paper was printed with the number 92.
« It’s good for an ice cream cone. My treat, » he said. I told him no. You shouldn’t accept things from strangers.
« But it’s free, I won it. »
« No. » I looked straight ahead and we sat in silence.
« Suit yourself, » he said, without getting angry.
He took a magazine from his bag and started to fill in a crossword puzzle. The door to the consulting room opened again and I heard Dad say, « I will not condone such nonsense. » I remember because that’s Dad’s clincher for ending almost any argument, but the man didn’t seem to hear it.
« It’s my birthday, » I said.
It’s my birthday, I repeated to myself. What should I do?
The man held the pen to mark a box on the puzzle and looked at me in surprise. I nodded without looking at him, aware that I had his attention again.
« But . . . » he said, and he closed the magazine. « Sometimes I just don’t understand women. If it’s your birthday, what are you doing in a hospital waiting room? »
He was an observant man. I straightened up again in my seat and I saw that, even then, I only came up to his shoulders. He smiled and I smoothed my hair. And then I said:
« I’m not wearing any underpants. »
I don’t know why I said it. It’s just that it was my birthday and I wasn’t wearing underpants, and I couldn’t stop thinking about those circumstances. He was still looking at me. Maybe he was startled or offended, and I understood that, though it hadn’t been my intention, there was something vulgar about what I had just said.
« But it’s your birthday, » he said.
« It’s not fair. A person can’t just go around without underpants when it’s their birthday. »
« I know, » I said emphatically, because now I understood just how Abi’s whole display was a personal affront to me.
He sat for a moment without saying anything. Then he glanced toward the big windows that looked out onto the parking lot.
« I know where to get you some underpants, » he said.
« Where? »
« Problem solved. » He stowed his things and stood up.
I hesitated. Precisely because I wasn’t wearing underpants, but also because I didn’t know if he was telling the truth. He looked toward the front desk and waved one hand at the attendants.
« We’ll be right back, » he said, and pointed to me. « It’s her birthday. » And then I thought, Oh please dear Jesus, don’t let him say anything about my underpants, but he didn’t: he opened the door and winked at me, and then I knew I could trust him.
We went out to the parking lot. Standing, I came up to just above his waist. Dad’s car was still next to the ambulances, and a policeman was circling it, annoyed. I kept looking over at the policeman, and he watched us walk away. The breeze wrapped around my legs and rose, making a tent out of my uniform skirt. I had to hold it down while I walked, keeping my legs awkwardly close together.
He turned around to see if I was following him, and he saw me fighting with my jumper.
« We’d better stick close to the wall. »
« I want to know where we’re going. »
« Don’t get persnickety with me now, darling. »
We crossed the avenue and went into a shopping center. It was an uninviting place, and I was pretty sure Mom didn’t go there. We walked to the back where there was a big clothing store, a truly huge one that I don’t think Mom had ever been to, either. Before we went in he said, « Don’t get lost, » and gave me his hand, which was cold and very soft. He waved to the cashiers the same way he’d waved to the desk attendants when we left the hospital, but I didn’t see anyone respond. We walked down the aisles. In addition to dresses, pants, and shirts, there were work clothes: hard hats, yellow overalls like the ones trash collectors wear, smocks for cleaning ladies, plastic boots, and even some tools. I wondered if he bought his clothes there and if he would use any of those things in his job, and then I also wondered what his name was.
« Here we are, » he said.
We were surrounded by tables of underwear for men and women. If I reached out my hand I could touch a large bin full of giant underpants, bigger than any I’d seen before, and they were only three pesos each. With one of those pairs of underpants, they could have made three for someone my size.
« Not those, » he said. « Here. » And he led me a little farther to a section with smaller sizes.
« Just look at all the underpants they have . . . Which pair shall you choose, my lady? »
I looked around. Almost all of them were white or pink. I pointed to a white pair, one of the few that didn’t have a bow on them.
« These, » I said. « But I can’t pay for them. »
He came a bit closer and said into my ear:
« That doesn’t matter. »
« Are you the owner? »
« No. It’s your birthday. »
« But we have to find better ones. We need to be sure. »
« Okay, darling, » I ventured.
« Don’t say ‘darling,’ » he said, « or I’ll get persnickety. » And he imitated me holding down my skirt in the parking lot.
He made me laugh. When he finished clowning around he held out two closed fists in front of me, and he stayed just like that until I understood; I touched the right one. He opened it: empty.
« You can still choose the other one. »
I touched the other one. It took me a moment to realize it was a pair of underpants, because I had never seen black ones before. And they were for girls because they had white hearts on them, so small they looked like dots, and Hello Kitty’s face was on the front, right where there was usually that bow Mom and I don’t like at all.
« You’ll have to try them on, » he said.
I held the underpants to my chest. He gave me his hand again and we went toward the changing rooms, which looked empty. We peered inside. He said he didn’t know if he could go in with me, because they were for women only. He said I would have to go alone. It was logical because, unless it’s someone you know very well, it’s not good for people to see you in your underpants. But I was afraid of going into the dressing room alone. Or something worse: coming out and finding no one there.
« What’s your name? » I asked.
« I can’t tell you that. »
« Why not? »
He knelt down. Then he was almost my height, or maybe I was a couple inches taller.
« Because I’m cursed. »
« Cursed? What’s cursed? »
« A woman who hates me said that the next time I say my name, I’m going to die. »
I thought it might be another joke, but he said it very seriously.
« You could write it down for me. »
« Write it down? »
« If you wrote it you wouldn’t say it, you’d be writing it. And if I know your name, I can call for you and I won’t be so scared to go into the dressing room alone. »
« But we can’t be sure. What if this woman thinks writing my name is the same as saying it? What if for her, saying it means informing someone else, letting my name out into the world in any way? »
« But how would she know? »
« People don’t trust me, and I’m the unluckiest man in the world. »
« I don’t believe you, there’s no way to know that. »
« I know what I’m talking about. »
Together, we looked at the underpants in my hands.
I thought that my parents might be finished by now.
« But it’s my birthday, » I said.
And maybe I did it on purpose. At the time I felt like I did: my eyes filled with tears. Then he hugged me. It was a very fast movement; he crossed his arms behind my back and squeezed me so tight my face pressed into his chest. Then he let me go, took out his magazine and pen, and wrote something on the right edge of the cover. Then he tore it off and folded it three times before handing it to me.
« Don’t read it, » he said, and he stood up and pushed me gently toward the dressing room.
I passed four empty cubicles. Before gathering my courage and entering the fifth, I put the paper into my jumper pocket and turned to look at him, and we smiled at each other.
I tried on the underpants. They were perfect. I lifted up my skirt so I could see just how good they looked. They were so, so very perfect. They fit incredibly well, and because they were black, Dad would never ask me for them so he could wave them out the window behind the ambulance. And even if he did, I wouldn’t be so embarrassed if my classmates saw. « Just look at the underpants that girl has, » they’d all think. « Now, those are some perfect underpants. »
I realized I couldn’t take them off now. And I realized something else: they didn’t have a security tag. They had a little mark where the tag would usually go, but there was no alarm. I stood a moment longer looking at myself in the mirror, and then I couldn’t stand it anymore and I took out the little paper, opened it, and read it.
I came out of the dressing room and he wasn’t where I had left him, but just a little farther away, next to the bathing suits. He looked at me, and when he saw I wasn’t carrying the underpants he winked, and I was the one who took his hand. This time he clasped me tighter and I was fine with that; together, we walked toward the exit.
I trusted that he knew what he was doing, that a cursed man who had the world’s worst luck knew how to do these things. We passed the line of registers at the main entrance. One of the security guards glanced at us and adjusted his belt. He would surely think my nameless man was my dad, and I felt proud.
We passed the sensors at the exit and went into the mall, and we kept walking in silence all the way back to the avenue. That was when I saw Abi, alone, in the middle of the hospital parking lot. And I saw Mom, on our side of the street, looking around frantically. Dad was also coming toward us from the parking lot. He was following fast behind the policeman who’d been looking at our car before, and who was now pointing at us. Everything happened very quickly. Dad saw us, yelled my name, and a few seconds later that policeman and two others who came out of nowhere were already on top of us. The unlucky man let go of me, but my hand hung there reaching out toward him for a few seconds. They surrounded him and shoved him roughly. They asked what he was doing, they asked his name, but he didn’t answer. Mom hugged me and checked me over from head to toe. She had my white underpants dangling from her right hand. Then, patting me all over, she noticed I was wearing a different pair. She lifted my skirt in a single movement: it was such a rude and vulgar thing to do, right there in front of everyone, that I jerked away and had to take a few steps backward to keep from falling down. The unlucky man looked at me and I looked at him. When Mom saw the black underpants she screamed, « Son of a bitch, son of a bitch, » and Dad lunged at him and tried to punch him. The cops moved to separate them.
I fished for the paper in my pocket, put it in my mouth, and as I swallowed it. I repeated his name in silence, several times, so I would never forget it.
Seven Empty Houses is forthcoming by Oneworld.
How and when did this story come to you? Was it there before you started writing or did it completely develop while writing?
I wrote down the first paragraph of this story during a holiday. The story is based on a real memory involving me, my sister, my mum and my dad, and is true to life until the moment we arrived at the hospital. But then I stopped writing, because it was just that, a memory, and there was no need to add anything else.
Almost two years after, I was taking notes about the idea of the « unlucky man » and how I could manage to build ambiguity just with my own perversion, and the perversion of the reader, of course. I made many attempts, and then suddenly I remembered the girl of that first memory: myself as a child. I crossed the two stories and wrote the whole first draft in one sitting.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Flowers of Mold, a delicate, compelling short-story collection by Korean writer Ha Seong-nan. I met her in Seoul last month, and now I’m surprised by how much that small, sweet and humble woman can rock my world story after story.
What would you want to be reading?
Oh, this answer should be a list of about fifty books waiting for me in piles for their turn all around my house!
In fact, I’m in front of one of the piles right now: Our Wives Under the Sea by Julia Armfield; Dogs of Summer by Spanish writer Andrea Abreu; a testimony collection by Argentinian Victoria Ocampo, who was a writer, a publisher and also our most significant patron of the arts between around 1930 and 1970; and some more books by Sandro Veronesi, Sigrid Undset, Witold Gombrowicz and Mark Fisher. There are six more piles, but we probably have enough with these!
What should we all be reading?
Oh! What a big responsibility! Maybe Kafka, all again from the beginning? Ok, I will switch to what I would recommend to myself two years ago, if I were to cherry pick the best books I’ve read over the last two years. So probably the short stories by Deborah Eisenberg, whom I had never read before; Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan; When We Cease to Understand the World by Benjamín Labatut; What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez; and Another Life: On Memory, Language, Love, and the Passage of Time by Theodor Kallifatides.