It was a while since I’d last opened Julia’s wardrobe.As a girl I wondered what she could possibly keep in a ward- robe so enormous, as if it were a trunk full of mystery objects. I don’t know why I expected anything other than clothes and shoes.
‘Hands off, young lady,’ she always said.
I used to watch her, secretly. Once I saw her open the top drawer and take out a seed germinator – some cotton wool and a few dry, withered beansprouts in the lid of a jar.Who keeps a seed germinator in their wardrobe? Julia, that’s who. Meaning she could have had thousands of other things in there as well, and what’s more I had to behave myself, or else she’d bring out the girl who lived inside the wardrobe and give her all my toys. My toys and my bed. And my food.
‘Be good or I’ll give it to my other little girl,’ she always said.
The girl in the wardrobe could come out at any moment and take everything away from me.
Now I was looking for a nice dress. I hadn’t seen Dad so excited in months, and I wanted the fish tank to be a special moment. I tried on several, though some were too old or too dated. I rummaged around, pulling out the hangers and throwing them on the bed, until I finally found one I liked. It looked slightly ridiculous because my belly made it shorter in front than behind, but it had a pretty embroidered neckline. Julia spent a fortune on clothes, and Dad never said anything. It was her money, after all.
Among the dresses, at the back of the wardrobe, I found a box of newspaper cuttings, letters and photos.
As I looked through them I couldn’t shake the feeling that Julia was waiting outside the door, ready to yell at me for touching her stuff.The feeling was so strong that I had to get up and inspect the whole flat to make sure she wasn’t there. On returning to her room, I locked the door and couldn’t help but laugh at myself. Although I was laughing at Julia as well, because she was never coming back.
The cuttings were so old I could barely read them. They were from before the year when Julia and Dad got married, articles in which Julia was named Miss Springtime and photographed holding a trophy. I examined her closely and thought she looked fat. How could she have been Miss Springtime? I screwed that cutting up and threw it away. Then I put the letters back in the box and didn’t even check who’d written them.
The photos kept me entertained for a while. Some showed a young, smiling Julia hugging people I didn’t know. In others she was with Dad. She’d aged by then; her hips were wider and her tummy stuck out. But her smile hadn’t changed since the newspaper cuttings: a broad grin like in a toothpaste advert, but at the same time cold and forced. Dad had his arm around her and was smiling as well. I looked at his white, perfect teeth and realised I missed that smile.
In the last photos, the ones closest to the back, I began to appear. With my hair in bunches, or wearing my school smock, or dressed as a fairy. There were no pictures of me as a baby. Perhaps Julia had put them somewhere else, out of jealousy, but I doubt it. That made me sad, and I stroked my belly. I was going to take lots of photos of our baby, enough to fill a whole album. I put the photos of me and the photos of Dad on one side of the bed, then piled up the rest, the ones of Julia and of the two of them together, and put them in a bag. I returned the box to where I’d found it and replaced the hangers. Then I set about sticking the photos on the wardrobe. I covered the left-hand door with the ones of Dad and the right-hand door with the ones of me. I arranged them in date order, according to the numbers written on the back, and kept the middle door for when the baby was born.
Early the next morning, Dad was already dressed. He’d put on an old suit that was far too big for him, with the trouser legs rolled up so he didn’t trip. The knot of the tie showed special dedication and he’d wet his hair and combed it back. It took my breath away to see him so handsome and full of life. He touched the lapel of his jacket with his right hand.
‘How do I look?’ he asked.
He licked two fingers and smoothed down his eyebrows. We laughed.
‘Very dashing,’ I said. ‘Are you ready?’
I’d left the fish tank outside and it was fun to keep him in suspense. I felt so happy! Inside me, the baby jiggled up and down.
‘Okay. Since you said you wanted to see the water… Look what I got you!’
I went out and came back dragging the chair. The fish were still swimming around, oblivious, and the orange one was turning pirouettes. Dad didn’t understand right away, and then, like a headless chicken, he carried on laughing for a bit even though his whole body had gone slack.
‘Aren’t they pretty?’ I said. ‘Look at the blue one, it’s got a tail like a fan. We can buy some more as well.’
He was still standing in the same place, his eyes two tiny shrivelled nuts.
‘Don’t you have anything to say? Come closer, look at them.’
‘You lied to me,’ was what he said.
‘What do you mean, Dad?’
‘You’re a liar.’
‘Sit down. Please. Do you honestly think you could go walking along the seafront in the cold with wet hair? You can barely even stand.’
‘Yes I can,’ he said.
He took a few steps back, sat down on the bed and clasped his head, his elbows resting on his knees.
‘No, I can’t,’ he said.
‘See? Don’t you realise it’s for your own good?’
He didn’t look at me; he shook his head to and fro in his hands, messing up the hair that a minute before had been silky and smooth as a slide.
‘Who am I?’ he whispered. ‘Who am I?’ He was talking to himself.
Fernanda Trías is a Uruguayan writer. She was born in Montevideo in 1976. She is the author of three novels and two short story collections. Her most recent novel Mugre Rosa (Pink Slime) has just come out in Uruguay (2020).
Annie McDermott translates fiction and poetry from Spanish and Portuguese. Her work has appeared in publications including Granta, World Literature Today, Two Lines, Asymptote and Alba.