A new literary fantasy from Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Signal To Noise is a very good novel, and is a story about love (young and not), music and sorcery. Due to be published by Solaris Books in February 2015, the publisher has allowed me to share this excerpt. I’ll post my review later this week. First, here’s the synopsis:
Mexico City, 1988: Long before iTunes or MP3s, you said “I love you” with a mixtape. Meche, awkward and fifteen, has two equally unhip friends — Sebastian and Daniela — and a whole lot of vinyl records to keep her company. When she discovers how to cast spells using music, the future looks brighter for the trio. The three friends will piece together their broken families, change their status as non-entities, and maybe even find love…
Mexico City, 2009: Two decades after abandoning the metropolis, Meche returns for her estranged father’s funeral. It’s hard enough to cope with her family, but then she runs into Sebastian, reviving memories from her childhood she thought she buried a long time ago. What really happened back then? What precipitated the bitter falling out with her father? Is there any magic left?
Mexico City, 2009
Meche folded the magazine and finally decided to look out the window. The Federal District lay below, a great beast with no beginning and no end, towers and buildings rising and dotting the valley. The roads were twisted snakes criss-crossing its surface, the cars tiny ants racing to their anthill. Twenty million people all gathered together—smashed against each other in the subway, crammed into the buses — with the Angel of Independence saluting them from above its pedestal.
It was eighteen years since she’d seen the city. Twenty since she’d last seen her father.
Now he was dead.
He had been pickling his liver for three decades and smoking since he turned twelve, but she’d thought him immortal.
Meche rubbed the bridge of her nose.
She didn’t even have a black dress. She knew her dad would have said to wear whatever the hell she wanted: dead is dead. But her mother would expect black. The whole nine days of mourning. The food they’d feed the guests. The nightly prayers.
If it had been up to Meche she would have cremated him and tossed his ashes in the Gulf of California, like he wanted. But her mother had insisted on the casket, the funeral, the prayers to follow.
She collected her bags and pulled the luggage, trying to find the familiar face among the sea of strangers.
Her cousin Jimena stepped forward, giving her a big hug and a kiss on each cheek. Jimena’s hair was dyed a fake-looking red. She wore a lot more makeup than Meche remembered. Jimena’s lipstick was so dark it looked purple and Meche could feel the greasy traces of it on her face.
“Girl, how was your trip?”
“Alright,” Meche said, rubbing off the smudges of lipstick with her hand. “I thought my mom was picking me up.”
“She’s too busy. Your dad didn’t make any arrangements.”
That sounded like him. Inconsiderate until the end. He was probably chuckling from beyond the grave thinking of how, even in death, he could screw everyone over. Because that was her father.
Jimena’s car was very small and there were plush toys sitting on the back seat of it. A Garfield was stuck on a window, grinning. It had been there since the 80s.
Jimena turned the key and the car sputtered into life. Meche could not see a CD player. Just the old cassette deck.
“I heard you’re working with computers now,” Jimena said. “Do you build them?”
Her cousin switched on the radio and ear-cringing pop music filled the car. Clearly Jimena’s taste had not improved with time.
“I do software programming.”
“Well, you sure had the brains for it. We were all drinking beer on the weekends and you were doing your math homework. You were such a nerd.”
“Do you make much money? You must if you can fly your mom over to Oslo for Christmas every year.”
“The benefits of being a nerd,” Meche said with a shrug.
“Do you remember what you used to wear? Oh, my God. I remember that dress you had on at Tita’s party.”
“I remember you were hot,” Meche shot back.
Jimena did not seem to catch the pointed use of the past tense and smiled, very proud of herself. “Yes. Absolutely. Hey, do you remember…”
Meche looked at the little kid juggling balls while the traffic light glowed red. The yellow and red balls flew up and down in the air. He took a bow, then walked by the cars, cap in hand. Meche rolled down the window and gave him a bill.
“You shouldn’t do that,” Jimena told her.
“Give money to the street kids.”
She shouldn’t be in Mexico City either, breathing the sticky, grey air of the city and filling her lungs with pollution, but she was.
Jimena took out a pack of cigarettes, pulled one out and lit it.
Meche disliked smoke and smokers. They reminded her of her father. It had never mattered that he made his living through his voice and that cigarettes could — would — one day ruin it. He never quit. He chain-smoked and he even did it inside the radio studio, even though it was forbidden.
“Do you want one?”
“No,” Meche said sternly. She rolled the window down.
It wasn’t any better with the window rolled down, but it was a symbolic gesture. She pulled out her music player and picked a playlist, pressing the earbuds into place.
“I’m going to close my eyes,” she told Jimena.
She did and pumped the volume up, listening to Nina Simone.
Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood. The Animals covered it and Santa Esmeralda made it famous, but Nina sang it like it was nobody’s business. Powerful blues and a voice that just punched you in the gut.
She let Nina sing to her, watching the city fly by. The old neighbourhood began revealing itself. Buildings had come down. The pharmacy had been replaced by condos. The bakery was gone, in its place a bank. The park seemed intact, still shitty and desolate, with its concrete benches and its sad trees. The teenagers used to make out there, by the bushes, but not Meche.
The cantina remained and she turned her head to stare at the men standing by the entrance, almost expecting her father to be there, waving back to her after drinking a dozen reposados.
Jimena touched her shoulder and Meche took out the earbuds.
“I said you’ll never believe who I saw the other day.”
Meche did not know and frankly did not care, but she understood she should bite her tongue and try to be congenial.
“Who?” she asked.
“Okay. Tall. Dark hair. He used to play with you when you were a kid.”
“I have no idea.”
“You’re not even trying!”
Meche was not in the mood for trying. The drawers of her memory were shut tight, and with good reason. She had hated the neighbourhood and everyone living in it. If she’d had a can of gasoline when she was about fifteen, she would have organized the biggest bonfire and laughed like Nero while it burned.
She had promised herself nothing would drag her back to that ugly web of streets and peeling paint, stray dogs and factory workers leaning against the walls of the corner store, back to the circle of hell from which she had escaped.
“I’ll give you another clue,” Jimena said. “He used to draw on his shoes with markers.”
Meche had grown to become a person of a certain composure.
Things took place inside her head and heart, but she did not let people take a peek, preferring to show them only the smallest ripples of herself. Jimena’s words, however, had the capacity to make her forget about her cool exterior and she turned her head whip-quick, staring at Jimena with wide eyes.
“That’s the one,” Jimena said chuckling.
“I figured he moved.”
God, she didn’t want to see him again. If he was living with his mother she would probably run into him.
“He did. But his mom’s been sick and he’s come back; been looking over her.”
“She still lives in the area?”
Three blocks from Meche. Past the tortilleria. Fourth floor. Blue curtains with sunflowers. Knock three times. That was the code.
“He has a fancy car. He got hot,” Jimena said.
“No, really. He was such a dweeb. Who would have thought?”
He had never been ugly, but Jimena wouldn’t have noticed back then. His skin had been too dark, his hair too black, for Jimena to fancy him. Like all the girls in the neighbourhood, Meche included, Jimena would have gone for the blond, hazel-eyed Constantino.
“I was the dweeb,” Meche muttered. “He was the freak.”
“I always figured you two would end up together,” Jimena said.
“In a parallel universe where I didn’t want to rip out his asshole, maybe.”
“I never got that. You guys were sewn together at the hip and one day you just stopped talking.”
“Childhood friendships don’t last.”
Jimena laughed loudly, her painted mouth open wide.
“He used to have that stupid motorcycle and you guys used to ride it all around the block. Oh, my God, it was so old! It used to make so much noise! It was falling apart and you’d jump on it together and think you were so cool!”
They had been cool. Sebastian had been gangly and greasy-haired, Meche as developed as an eleven-year old boy with pimples dotting her face. They’d both dressed in atrocious clothes and the company they kept — sickly, chubby little Daniela, with the stash of Twinkies and Chocotorros under her bed — didn’t help.
But they had been cool. For a little while. When magic was real.
And she had cared the world for him.
And he’d said, once, “Let’s run away.” On the old motorcycle, of all things. Like it would even make it to the outskirts of the city, never mind to the highway. “Let’s just run away from this fucking place, this fucking city, this fucking everything.”
And Meche, staring at the maps on his wall.
The map of France and the map of Spain. The Arctic circle.
Because they were going to take over the world.
Fucking Sebastian. Fucking, fucking Sebastian.
No, childhood friendships will never last. No friendship will ever last.
“You know, I don’t remember that,” Meche said, lying with a flat voice. “I don’t remember any of that.”
“I remember you looked like a marshmallow in your quinceañera dress.”
“Oh, well. It was a while back.”
Meche put her earbuds back in and pressed play, hoping that was the last bit of chatter she would have to endure. She tried to stare ahead and focus on Nina’s voice, but despite her attempt not to look, she craned her head and glanced at Sebastian’s building as they drove past it.
She wanted to know if the curtains were blue.
They were green.
This made her feel relieved. Like the building was saying, “Hey Meche, it’s not 1988. You are here. In the present. Relax”
There was movement by the curtain and, for a moment, Meche thought Sebastian was about to pop up, in the window, and she’d be looking straight at him. The prospect of seeing him there, framed by the old window, caused her to panic, as though it wasn’t just some guy she’d known as a teenager, but the damn shark from Jaws.
Nobody looked out the window and Meche let out her breath slowly.
Three blocks later Jimena parked the car. Meche pulled her luggage from the trunk while Jimena looked for the keys to the building, which were sitting somewhere in the abysmal depths of her huge purse. After a small eternity, Jimena pulled out her key chain and pushed the heavy front door open.
Meche dragged her bags into the hallway, stopping to glance at the statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe sitting on its niche with the plastic flowers and the bare light bulb.
The long, dark hallway led towards a wide staircase. Meche rested a hand on the bannister. This building looked the same. The changes that had dotted the neighbourhood had not reached inside. Stepping up would mean stepping into a replica of her past. She was afraid of bumping into the ghost of her dad and slipping into bitter memories.
But hadn’t she done that already?
Jimena went past her, up the steps and turned to look at her.
“Nothing,” Meche said, hauling her suitcase.
What the hell. She was here.
Mexico City, 1988
Meche did not do sports. She resented the uniform they had to wear each Tuesday and Thursday: short white shorts and white shirt. As though they were trapped in the 1950s. Had no one heard of pants and sweatshirts in the intervening decades? Besides, she had no desire to chase after a ball, like an eager puppy.
As a result, Meche tried to spend as much time as she could evading gym class. When she was forced to participate in some group activity, she stood at the back, listened to her Walkman. Her classmates knew not to pass her the ball. A tacit understanding — Meche was invisible — took place.
When the students gathered in the central patio of the school and put up the nets Meche grabbed a cassette and began listening to Serú Girán singing Canción de Alicia en el País, about the dictatorship in Argentina. She had reached the part where the walruses have vanished when a ball hit her smack in the face.
Meche pressed her hands against her nose and heard the unmistakable, loud laughter of Teofilo spreading across the play yard.
Squinting, feeling her face tingling with pain, Meche stared at the boy.
Meche had a lot of little hates nestled in her heart, but she reserved the biggest for Teofilo, the bully of the class. He was tall, fat and liked to slap the asses of all the girls in his class. When he tried to slap Meche’s ass, she told him to go to hell and he had made it his mission that fall to get back at her.
One day she found her Math book had been defaced with a big red marker. The pages had been marked with UGLY WHORE. Someone stole her sweater and dumped it in a puddle. She earned herself a new nickname: Unibrow. Meche had no proof this was the work of Teofilo, but she knew. The evidence was in his smug grin.
She knew perfectly well that Teofilo had done this on purpose and she knew perfectly well there was nothing she could do to get back at him.
“Are you alright?” Daniela asked.
Meche nodded. “Yeah.”
Meche wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She tasted copper and rage.
Meche slammed the door to her room and fell back on the bed, the cool compress pressed against her face. She tried for serenity because there was no benefit in reliving the whole episode. But her stomach was an ugly black pit which had to be filled with something.
She filled it with music.
Meche put her dad’s copy of The Doors’ debut album on the portable record player. The cymbals clanged and Break on Through bounced against the walls as she stared at the ceiling thinking about Teofilo. Thinking how much she hated him. Thinking how much she wished she could hurt him.
But really, what could she do?
Meche could not appeal to a higher power. She could not seek assistance from the teachers or her parents or the other kids.
Meche didn’t have anything except the record sleeves strewn around her bed as she pictured that big bully.
Teofilo had to be stopped.
In a corner of her room, the thumb-tacked poster of Jim Morrison agreed.
So she played the record and she tried to believe. Tried to hold on to that slim thread of hope that something was going to happen soon. Something good. Because, damn it, something had to happen.
Jim Morrison yelled “break on through” and she pictured Teofilo breaking, shattering like a piece of glass. She imagined her foot slamming on his arm and the arm crumbling like a sugar cookie.
When the song finished playing she got up, moved the tone-arm and began playing it again. She turned the volume up and the room vibrated. She felt very tired all of a sudden, as though this great weight had descended upon her, crushing her chest. Meche closed her eyes.
Monday. Homework done. Heavy textbooks stuffed inside the backpack. White socks — which looked yellow — on. Meche kissed her grandma goodbye—her mother had already left for the pharmacy, her dad was sleeping after a late night of drinking—and headed to school.
She took a short cut instead of her usual route because she did not feel like talking to Sebastian. She did not feel like talking to anyone. There was still a bitterness in her stomach and she felt like nursing her wounds alone, to the tune of her cassettes. She was tired and irritated, dark circles around her eyes a quiet testimony to her unpleasant weekend.
So she walked to school by herself, feet shuffling slowly towards their destination.
Around eleven, she encountered Teofilo on the school’s main staircase. She was coming down and he was going up.
He didn’t see her. He was busy chatting with his friends. Meche felt like slamming his head against the wall and beating him senseless. She gripped her Walkman and flipped the cassette.
And then, just then, Teofilo slipped. There was no reason why he should slip: no obstacle, nothing at all. But his feet stumbled, as if hitting an invisible barrier. It was just as she had been picturing it all weekend: he simply tumbled down the stairs. Bam! Slipped, fell at a weird angle and suddenly he was splayed on the floor, whining like a baby. A big asshole like that, just bawling his eyes out.
She watched him, crumpled at the bottom of the stairs, his notebooks lying all around him on the floor, and realized he had broken his arm.
His friends tried to help him up.
Meche stomped over one of the open notebooks, leaving her footprint upon Teofilo’s homework.
She chuckled. A few minutes later as she was walking to Arts and Crafts, she realized it had not been a coincidence. It couldn’t be a coincidence.
It was the record’s fault.
Signal to Noise is published by Solaris Books on February 12th, 2015.