Translated from the Spanish by Marguerite Feitlowitz.
I answered the phone, and as soon as I heard the beep of the long-distance satellite, a smell of sulfur hit me like a warning in the face. The voice of the unknown caller didn’t sound particularly cavernous, but it was metallic. I recognized the insidious tone and knew without a doubt that it was the devil himself, hiding behind the innocuous disguise of a literary agent.
A powerful American literary agent. Wanting to do a deal. I listened with great distrust, feeling not so much curious as courageous: It is well known that the devil’s best trick is to make us believe that he doesn’t exist; so I was going to confront his existence, just by listening.
The proposal had a certain charm: He was offering a good and hearty male organ, which I would have for a period of twenty-four hours. In exchange for what? I asked, immediately conscious that an offer of such dark provenance never comes free. In exchange for nothing, answered this demon turned honeyed literary agent. It’s just an inoffensive literary experience, he added.
Shrewd trap, I thought, my hackles up, for I know very well what a literary experience actually means; I know to what extent the body gets involved, and all the rest, for that matter.
On the other side of the line (from what place, inside or under this world, would he be calling me?) he, naturally, heard my thoughts, and rushed to say, “It’s no problem. It’s just an experience, no more than twenty-four hours; you write me a text narrating your sensations, and then we’re done. It can be one line or several pages, and your body won’t bear the slightest trace. Except for the nice memory.”
“The organ on offer”—I had to ask—“does it come with all its tubing, is it good for all its specific uses, would it accomplish all of its functions, or is it just an ornament, a deluxe accessory, useful only if one wishes to pee standing up?”
“It comes complete, with instructions for use, should they be needed. Manuals, diagrams. It isn’t a copy, it’s an original made to measure, just for you.”
The devil sure is practical, and with a sense of humor to boot. That’s what makes him attractive. And dangerous.
The idea was becoming more tempting, but I decided to take my time.
“Look, leave me your number, I’ll think it over, get back to you in a couple of days,” I said.
“Don’t call me, I’ll call you,” the devil flipped back, and hung up without saying goodbye, demonstrating the degree to which devils are similar to men.
The worst was that I was the one left hanging until his next phone call, so there I was mentally reviewing the possibilities, some of which were very nearly convincing. At least temporarily. In those sublime moments when I cast all worry to the wind, when I told myself that all I had to do was write an episodic little snippet of autobiography, and Goodbye Charlie.
I mean, I’d already known that writing is always a pact with the devil. There is always something you have to transgress, and many things you have to renounce, if you’re writing the truth. But not so much, no, never so openly as it would be in this case.
I recalled that line from the Poet: “The world is full of ink streams flowing straight to hell.” I didn’t want to generate even one more word raft. Well, I wanted to want to, but this particular proposal promised something very different: an uproar in my own flesh, a genuine physical change, hormonal, substantial; we could even say ethical. What would I look like as a man? Because it wasn’t just about having a penis. I wasn’t going to be just another woman going under the knife. I was going to be a temporary transsexual, to put it in the language of the demon who called.
But isn’t temporarily changing one’s sex an old collective dream? Wouldn’t the experience feel like a dream? Once I’ve written it, what would I have left? The memory would stay with me, and maybe also the beard and a bit of prostate or something like it that the devil, out of pure carelessness, would be apt to forget in my poor body just as he was returning me to my original form.
I thought all this without stopping to wonder where my own genitals were going to go during the metamorphosis. Surely everything would need to be substituted; there couldn’t be superimpositions; there had to be space left. The sexual organs that shape me now would be relegated to something like the deep memory of a computer program. Plugging in the organs of the opposite sex would be like activating the virtual memory that slumbers in every human being. It didn’t seem so disturbing. All it would take was a click, a double click, deployed from where the demons dwell, and then, to finalize the experience, an undelete , or a last click on no when the infernal supercomputer asks, Do you wish to save your changes in LV.doc? Mr. Phone-Devil can then forget all about me, focusing instead on publishing his inflammatory (flaming?) anthology.
All we want is for you to write something for our anthology, the Malignant One had explained over the phone.
Every literary agent in the world says the same thing. I’m a little tired of writing on commission, on requests, for projects. But this one was different. More solid, in a manner of speaking.
More frighteningly frightening.
The possibilities of the project are infinite. Some I reject out of horror, and others I play with, taking delight in imaginary moments.
And the temptation to try it is a very tempting temptation. Could that be right, could one feel the phallic metaphor in one’s flesh?
If I could solve that enigma just by accepting the proposal . . .
But none of these considerations convince me. The imagination exists, I understand, so we can put ourselves in someone else’s skin without being someone else, without the need for disturbing deals with the devil.
Sensibility triumphs. Laziness, too. Because isn’t it enough to live an experience? Do you have to w-r-i-t-e-a-b-o-u-t it?” What the devil!
What made me think of the devil and not of God when I picked up the phone? I know the answer: It would never occur to God to modify that which he himself created in a determined form. On the contrary, God is actually quite rigid in his decisions. Dogmatic.
I had no intention of submitting to an operation, I told the Offerant, as we shall henceforth call him. But he guffawed as only demons do, letting me know that there would be nothing so banal as a surgical intervention.
Which was worse. Worse even than virtual reality. It would be realist reality, the most threatening of all.
On the other hand: How bad could it be? A nice fleshy dick, filled full of its own enthusiasm. A high-yield dick. A sprightly dick, and determined.
Don’t even dream of it, I told myself again: The devil gives nothing for nothing. And then who knows what the nefarious fate of my short story would be after such an unusual experience? What would the lesson be—the pernicious influence on young souls?
It would be much more harmful—we’re talking about the devil, don’t forget—than any other text that has dripped from my pen. Although who knows: Maybe those widgets between my legs will make me sententious, sanctimonious. That is, if I ever have the time to write about my twenty-four unexpected hours of being a man.
Which I doubt. With a phallus at the ready, I will have more substantial temptations, if, that is, the weight of the testicles doesn’t modify me in a way that immediately modifies my language, the one inseparable from the other, in which case the writing would be a complete challenge. For there will be so much to do in those twenty-four hours. Even going outside to urinate against a tree, marking my territory in the street. Everything would need to be tested.
But no. My scale of values is well defined. I don’t need to go around testing anything.
So when the phone rings I am going to say NO, thank you but NO: I have my principles, I am incorruptible.
Finally said telephone rings and the metallic cavernous voice smelling of sulfur comes on. And I can’t help but ask the one damn million-dollar question:
“It’s for sure that this penis functions to its full capacity?”
“It’s for sure. If not, would the experience even be worth it?
(The devil may have his faults, but lack of logic isn’t one of them.)
And without the slightest pressure from the principles that had constrained me, I say, “Okay, then.” And I accept because I think that in one, five, ten years, or who knows when, the telephone will ring and feminine voices from this very world will remind me of a certain delectable moment, an adventure in love, a brief intense instant shared with each and every one of them (some during the day, others at night). They will tell me: It bore fruit, she has just gotten her first little tooth, or, he’s already in kindergarten, or, in grade school, or, at university. And I will find myself with sons and daughters I didn’t know about until that call, sons and daughters of mine in different stages of their development, and well past menopause my descendants will keep appearing—beautiful, strong, loving, flesh and bone, as much mine as the two born and delivered of my own womb, and much more my children than the books I have written.
And they won’t be able to accuse me of neglect or indifference. Not much will be expected of me. After all, I’ll only be their father.
Marguerite Feitlowitz’s most recent book translation is Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography with Nineteen Erotic Sonnets , by Salvador Novo, Introduction by Carlos Monsivais (University of Texas Press, 2014). She has translated works by Griselda Gambaro, Angélica Gorodischer, and Liliane Atlan, among others. Original fiction appears in the current issue of 91st Meridian . Recent criticism has appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books , and she co-guest edited the Spring 2014 issue of REVIEW: Latin American Literature & Arts , whose theme is “Beyond Violence: Toward Justice,” and which features contributions by Patricio Pron, Juan Gelman, Luisa Valenzuela, Laura Restrepo, Juan Gabriel Vasquez, Yuri Herrera, Andrea Cote Botero, and Claudia Hernandez, among others. She has translated other Valenzuela stories for The Brooklyn Rail and InTranslation . She is a professor of Literature and Literary Translation at Bennington College.