Her name was Claudia. She was six years old and had straight, copper hair. This story could be true. It could be, if my memory was good enough. But I don’t trust it. Not the story, or my memory. Her face was a round apple and in the middle she had a little olive of flesh, a newborn date. Her name was Claudia, she was six, she laughed like the little girl she was and behaved as seriously as the old woman she’d already become. Sometimes it wasn’t an act. Sometimes, in her round black eyes, you would glimpse the depths that bring darkness into the world. This story could be true, if I could remember it.
We moved to that neighborhood on the outskirts of the city because we found a place that was very cheap and fairly big, on the seventh floor of a ramshackle apartment tower planted next to other identical ramshackle apartment towers in an area without any other tall buildings: on one side, a development of symmetrical luxury townhouses, on the other, a shantytown. That was the last time I paid rent I could actually afford. The windows and the balcony doors, thin glass mounted in even thinner metal, practically rusted out, the wind when it blew shaking us, the sky unfolding in a wide expanse – white, grey, brilliant blue – immense there beyond the city, seagulls soaring to reach the river. We painted the whole place, each room in a different color, because those were early, happy years; the kind of happy that doesn’t tolerate cracks, that gives and receives and exists in unbearable abundance.
I was studying – or pretending to study – at university and he had some truly criminal jobs – selling insurance, selling retirement plans, an adorable vulture in a too-big suit. We didn’t do anything in the apartment the first day after we moved in, but on the second we went out and bought cleaning supplies to spruce things up and remove the flecks of paint from the doors and the floor. There was a little playground on the treeless halo of dirt between the buildings. Swings, teeter-totters, slide, climbing structure. We saw a mother playing with her daughter as we crossed the park and headed toward the entrance to our building. The girl’s hair was copper and the mother’s was dark brown, long, tied back in a thick ponytail, and she wore old, tight jeans. They came in through the door after us and then we all waited for the elevator. We were hauling shopping bags with bleach, detergent, degreaser, glass cleaner. Did you just move in? The mother’s smile, and the daughter’s, too, lit up the elevator cabin. Welcome! We live on the ninth floor. Why don’t you come up for a drink? Irredeemable practitioners of procrastination, we dropped the bags at home and went up.
You could smell the apartment from outside in the hall before they even answered the door. When they opened, the smell swept over us like an embrace. Claudia was happy to have visitors. That apartment was a parallel universe. Not in the sense that it was all totally foreign to us, but because it was the most intense exaggeration of a kind of reality we’d only begun to intuit: the smell, merciless, the walls covered in drawings, the disorder, the anarchy, but the purest kind of anarchy, absolutely rational. At the end of the hall was the living room, identical to ours yet completely different, two floors up, winged, the territory of a cloistered king, his hideout. Claudia’s father was very tall, very thin, with large, expressive features and skin with a patina of having lived through the 1980s. He holed up in there and rarely left the apartment. He read Kant, thought about the world in an aggressive, lunar way, and smoked marijuana out of a bong; artisanal bongs made out of 2 liter bottles of Coke, bubbling water and heat. They really wanted to chat and be good hosts. When they offered me a pillow to sit on the floor, I got over my initial qualms and decided to rise above the circumstances, given that the circumstances were already way above me. We turned down the bong but took them up on a joint of the best hash we had smoked in a long time. She had brought it back from Morocco. When you want some, we have it, they said. And I imagine we were happy about that.
They told us everything. Either they trusted in the morbid naïveté of a couple of kids in love, or they really were outside of it all already: immune, exhibitionists without an audience, seasoned crusaders, another world is possible, and how. There was profound theory beneath all that laxness, a theory we didn’t care to upend, as easy as that would have been. Claudia didn’t go to school because school was a prison, straight up Fascist training, forced labor, but she knew how to read and write. They declared war on all legal drugs and all manner of legal traps used to control the people. They seemed to love each other, from some terrible place beneath all that tyranny of the revolution. He had clearly been the forerunner. She had followed him, breaking the chains of ordinary life, leaving behind her family tree, baby Claudia in her arms, a surprise with coppery hair and the skin of a fallen angel. Now Claudia was six years old and smart as a whip, cloudy as Galician wine, beautiful. At one point in the evening, the father put on a song: “Fields of Gold,” the Eva Cassidy version, and Claudia sang it from start to finish, in frosty, correct English, the perfect, melancholy melody, her little voice, holding a spoon like it was a microphone, and I couldn’t help myself after that. They were using the bathtub for hydroponic cultivation, the mother told us with her bright smile, wanting to make friends, but something-or-other was broken anyway and Claudia hadn’t had a bath in two or three days. I didn’t look for my boyfriend’s approval: I’ll bring her down and give her a bath at our place, if you want. And that is what Claudia wanted. We’ll be right back up, I said.
I was crazy about kids. I could put myself on their level and look right at them, head on, and I think that’s why they tended to trust me. But Claudia wasn’t easy. She had the same self-confidence as the rest of her family, that ease of someone conscious of the ephemeral, and though she wasn’t shy, she didn’t open up with childhood’s blind abandon either. Claudia was a wild little animal that I could never really know. I had no hold over her; she simply enjoyed the warm water in my big tub, the new bath gel. Lavender shampoo made a foam party of her straw-colored hair and we played at making shapes on her head. Her mother had done a drawing on her stomach with different colored markers. A landscape: a beach, sailboat on the water, a sun. When I tried to scrub her belly with the sponge, Claudia got angry: no, don’t wash my picture off. I suppose that’s when I got the real difference between her and I.
From then on, sometimes my doorbell would ring and it would be Claudia. She came at all hours of the day, but especially in the morning when my boyfriend was working and I was often alone. I quickly learned she wasn’t there to distract me, I didn’t even have to look after her, just put on cartoons and make pasta with tomato and tuna if it was lunchtime. She didn’t like corn and lost her temper if instead of making pasta we ordered Chinese food and they forgot the sweet and sour sauce. I found colored pencils and gave her paper. She drew at the round table in the living room, her apple face resting on her arm, hair covering one cheek. We talked. I told her things and she asked questions. She told me things, too. Sometimes she lay down on the couch to watch TV and I covered her with a wool blanket. I don’t know if she had any fun, or if she was just bored with being upstairs all day. I found that version of “Fields of Gold” and played it once in a while so she could sing. I think I even recorded her on tape once. She was sublime. I liked spending time with Claudia, sure. Being with her wasn’t like being with her parents, although they were rather alike, deep down. But every time the doorbell rang I got a sinking feeling, because—deep down—I was a coward. The little copper orange head in my living room, the cool, big black eyes, the image of that unusual girl-child coloring. After she left one day, I found that she had vandalized my pack of cigarettes. With uneven letters and a blue pen she had written: LEGAL SHIT.
If I could remember, if it had actually happened, then it would have been a winter Saturday, one of those slow Saturdays when you don’t do anything and the sky is heavy and the rain doesn’t stop. He said: should we go upstairs and get some and then watch a couple movies? OK, I said, sure. They were happy to see us, like always. They invited us into the living room, where there were other people. They had company and there was a kind of comradely commotion in the apartment, but right away they told us Claudia had burned herself on the oven while they were cooking pizza, just minutes before. One of her little six year-old hands was wrapped in a loose white cloth and she was proud of her bravery. She showed it to me and even pulled back the bandage a little so I could see the burn. You’re very brave, Claudia. But I cried a lot, she told me, her lashes sticking together still, cheeks red. I would have cried, too, I said. They insisted we sit down and my boyfriend took a seat on one of the big cushions and smoked and joined the conversation. They all talked and laughed and the mother fussed over Claudia. If that scene had been real, I wouldn’t remember now how it happened, how it could have come out so naturally: we gave Claudia a dose of opium because the burn really hurt, they said, she drank it in orange juice. The air was heavy and sweet, you could touch it. Oh, you have opium? It was the only possible question, unquestionable, because I wasn’t questioning. Do you want some?
After a little while, Claudia asked to go down to our place to color. I held her by the good hand and walked on the warm, solid weight of my own feet down the hall and out the door and down two flights of stairs and into my apartment, together.
A dim light hung above the round table in the living room. Outside was the darkness, and in the background, city lights on the ridge. The two of us sheltered in the high tower, protected from the cold by the big, curtain-less windows of my balcony. I took out blank paper, colored pencils, and scissors and we made up a game, our heads bent over the table, across from one another, evening companions. The small light bulb shining on our foreheads, our hands moving over the table, fingers dancing freely of their own accord, a tender fellowship. Nothing could happen to us there, inside, alone together. There was no noise save the sound of paper tearing. When we spoke, our words were an echo. Nothing would pass through us, nothing could get in. There were real whispers and real laughter, of course, padded by our bubble of air. We made up a game. I drew some squares on a piece of paper and Claudia drew a real person in each one: her mother, her father, herself, my boyfriend, me. We wrote the names above our heads and cut out the squares. A deck of seven cards, us inside. I don’t know why, but we were absorbed in that for a long time, yielding to the peace between us, which was untouchable. At some point, our stomachs turned hollow, the gnawing pang of a big bite, like a concert instrument whose solo has arrived and immediately demands all the attention. I know the feeling was pleasant, and that it was for Claudia, too: I’ll get us something to eat, something fresh, I said. I found bananas in the kitchen. I devoured mine and peeled Claudia’s and gave it to her. I had only peeled it part way and the skin fell over her small fingers like belled petals of a flower. She ate it in little bites. Suddenly, everything was that color; there was no other color in the world. It was all gold: the straight hair grazing her round cheeks, her nose, the banana she nibbled, the light from the bulb over the table. Our own black gold, that Saturday night in winter. I got my camera and I took her photograph. Still, solemn, eating the banana, black circles under her eyes of a child. They had appeared that night, the circles: an ever-widening valley, sweet darkness.
We decided to return to her apartment at some point. I don’t remember the walk back but I suppose we would have taken the stairs, which is how she always went up. I left her at home, we said goodbye, and my boyfriend and I went downstairs. I’m sure we put on music and fucked for a long time, maybe even the whole rest of the night, because fucking high on opium is one of the best things that can happen in this life. I’m sure it was a good trip. I laughed hysterically and had the obliterating awareness that absolutely everything was fine, inside and out, near and far, everything was absolutely fine. If this story were true, I could also attest that just before I poured into sleep, in the flash of brilliant lucidity before spilling over, I knew that my real trip hadn’t been with him, but with her, many hours earlier, Claudia and I wrapped up in our game, the golden fruit, the scratch of scissors on paper and quiet laughter. It wasn’t the first time I ate opium, but it was the first time I ate it with a kid. And the last.