Thursday, July 6
I’m sitting down to write because I finally have something to tell you. The boy from the newsstand didn’t bring me the paper today. I went to complain. On the way there I had the idea to tell him to bring me a copy of every newspaper. How many are there? He doesn’t even know, so we counted them. Bring me all the newspapers, all of them. Poor boy, you should’ve seen his face.
Saturday, July 15
It’s exhausting. I start at eight in the morning. I stop for lunch and then keep going until around seven at night. I read the newspapers like you’d read a book, in exact order, from the first page till the last. I have to read like this so as not to miss anything. I tried other methods. For example, reading the politics section of each newspaper first, then the sports section, then entertainment, then international news. But no, the way I’m doing it now is much better.
Sunday, August 20
I’m sorry but I had to throw out your clothes. It’s strange, I didn’t even feel that guilty. I know I told you I was going to donate them, but I don’t have time. I just threw them away. There are days that this job with the newspapers takes me twelve hours and leaves me completely worn out, especially on weekends. So I have to leave some to finish on Monday. Usually by Tuesday I’m all caught up and I can take some time to clean. Since I got rid of your clothes, I have room in your wardrobe to keep the papers I’ve already read. Every time she comes to visit, Ana says I have to throw away the newspapers. Why are you saving them, Mom. Now your smell is mixed with the smell of the ink, but it’s not a new smell, it’s a battle of competing smells.
Friday, September 1
I read what no one else does in the newspapers. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m the only person that has read such and such news, in some forgotten corner of the paper. Sometimes I tell myself that I’m the reason they publish these insignificant news items that don’t change anything in the world at all. You should see me. I compare the stories. I copy the strangest ones into a notebook. Sometimes Ana comes over and I ask her to help me move the stacks of old papers into your wardrobe.
Monday, September 11
I don’t trust the stories that are printed in only one paper. I don’t trust the stories that are exactly the same in all the papers. I only trust the stories that are different in all the papers. Yesterday Ana came over, I showed her the notebook and I read her the story of the man who got a second head implanted. It was published in just one paper, so I guess the best stories are the ones I don’t trust. Ana tells me that it’s all lies, that there are papers that make things up. Of course. Then I ask her to stay and I read her my favorite story from the past month. In Holland, a movie director was found guilty of murdering four actors who’d worked for him years prior. The murderer had never been able to accept that his actors continued to appear in other movies made by other directors. When I finished reading it, Ana started laughing; she laughed so hard that she ended up crying and she looked sad. Then I told her that I miss you, that I’d love to be able to read you the things I copy into the notebook. I have other stories that sometimes, at night, I pretend to read to you. Ana got mad and didn’t want to listen anymore.
Sunday, October 29
Ana hasn’t been here in a while. The last time she came over I asked her not to drop by on weekends anymore because those are the days I work the most. It would be very convenient for her to come on Wednesdays after six o’clock in the evening, but I don’t know what’s wrong with her, she won’t listen to reason.
Monday, November 6
Yesterday Ana told me that a new paper started coming out last month. I didn’t know and I got really mad. Honestly, I don’t know if I was angry about what she told me or because yesterday was Sunday and I don’t want anyone bothering me on weekends. Today I went to the newsstand and I gave them a piece of my mind. In the end, they admitted I was right. Yes, ma’am, starting tomorrow we’ll send you the new paper too.
Friday, November 10
You should see how easy it is. I look up the phone number. I call. I find a section name and the name of whatever reporter and I ask for them. It almost never fails. Sometimes they tell me no, that they’re freelance, so I cross their name off the list. But the reporters they call editors are there all day. They’re on call like doctors or police. It’s required of them. I ask them any old dumb questions just so they they’ll have someone to talk to, someone to entertain them. They have to be nice because they know a reader could always complain to their boss. At this point I already know many of their voices. The ones who write about politics are mostly men and they sound like smokers. With entertainment it’s the opposite, all women with voices like secretaries. Lately, when I read the articles by the reporters I talk to regularly, I feel like I’m hearing them.
Thursday, November 16
I don’t know if I should tell you this. I met Sergio yesterday. Ana talked so much about Sergio. Do you remember? Then she stopped talking about him and I didn’t know if I should ask. Then she started talking about him again, I don’t remember if you were still here, but she’d mention him casually like they were friends. Last night Ana brought him over. The boy doesn’t talk much. He seems polite, but I don’t think you’d like him.
Tuesday, November 28
Now there’s another new paper. This makes things more complicated because the other newspapers are thicker and thicker. I was getting behind and that’s why I didn’t write you, but this weekend I didn’t sleep and I finally got caught up.
Wednesday, November 29
I forgot: Ana went on a trip without Sergio. It’s strange because she didn’t go on vacation, she went to pick up a shipment of I don’t know what for his business. I think she went to Brazil. Just in case I’ll read the news from Brazil more carefully tomorrow.
Monday, December 11
Ana already came back and then left again. With the excuse that she has to travel she hardly comes over now, we just talk on the phone. Last week I went to the ophthalmologist because my eyes have been bothering me for a few months. I didn’t say anything before so as not to worry you. The problem isn’t that I read too much, but that my hands get stained with ink and then I rub my eyes. That’s what the eye doctor says and he’s right. Sometimes my fingertips turn black. The day before yesterday I had the idea to start using a wet cloth to wipe my fingers every once in a while and my eyes are much better.
Thursday, December 21
I can’t believe it. Our Ana did something terrible. I read it in the papers. They say that Sergio is free, that he’s innocent and has nothing to do with it. Sergio could’ve at least called to let me know. Maybe he doesn’t have my number. Maybe he’ll stop by the house to explain what happened. Just in case I’m not going to leave, so he’ll be able to find me. Now Ana’s in all the papers. But all the papers say the same thing, so I shouldn’t believe them. I’m going to call and you’ll see, Ana will pick up and tell us that it was all a misunderstanding, that it’s someone else with her same name. But what if Sergio answers? I’ll just hang up.
Saturday, December 23
Ana was in all the papers again today, but this time they don’t all say the same thing. I’m hearing more about her now than I have in recent weeks, since she stopped visiting. Finally, I can catch up on Ana’s life without interrupting my reading.
Thursday, January 4
In a village in China a woman gave birth to a dog. What I don’t understand is how they could put such an important story on a back page. Yesterday I argued with several editors about it. The thing is I waste the whole afternoon talking on the phone and then I have to make up for lost time. But they keep doing things so badly that I have to call more often. This didn’t happen so much before. And the worst part is that they refuse to listen. For example, one of the ones that writes about Ana won’t take my calls anymore. We used to talk regularly. Now they always tell me he’s not there. I shouldn’t have told him who I am. At first he didn’t believe me, you know, and he treated me like a prank caller. Listen to me, I told him. Listen to me carefully. And I told him the story of Ana and Sergio, and I gave him their phone number so he’d believe me. What’s that number, he asked. And he made me repeat it.
Friday, January 12
I’m going to have to ask the boy from the newsstand to help me organize the papers in your wardrobe. I was doing some calculations and in three months from now there isn’t going to be any room left. I might have to throw out some of my own clothes. There are things I don’t wear.
Wednesday, January 24
Today I woke up to Ana’s voice on the phone. What time is it? It’s eleven in the morning, she tells me, were you asleep? I didn’t argue with her because the poor thing’s in a bad state but on my watch, it was ten to seven. It seems Ana is back home now. But she gave me another phone number and told me to forget the old one. What about Sergio? We have to forget about Sergio too. You haven’t been in the papers for a while, I told her. Then Ana started to cry and said I need to see you, I want to tell you what happened. Luckily, I was able to convince her not to come, it’s not necessary, what for if I already know everything from the papers. I hung up on her.
Monday, January 29
Ana keeps calling. Now she says Sergio was guilty, that he sent her on those trips and then later pretended he knew nothing about it. I don’t know what to think. For the past four days I’ve been calling the guy who used to write about Ana to tell him this story, so they’ll tell me the truth. Today, if they say he’s not there again, I’m calling another paper.
Tuesday, February 13
In Hungary, during a concert, someone in the audience shot the violinist. The police arrested the man and discovered he was deaf. Here, the newspapers are getting fatter and my health is getting thinner. I was already a week behind, but the past few days I’ve had pains in my chest and legs, so now I’m two weeks behind. I don’t even turn on the TV or the radio so that I won’t find out about anything I haven’t read yet. You’re going to laugh: yesterday I made my order from the market and I told them not to wrap the eggs in any paper newer than January 20.
Tuesday, February 27
I can tell Ana is better because she hardly calls me anymore and she no longer insists on visiting during weekends. Yesterday she came over for a little while and, surprisingly, she wanted to help me organize the newspapers. I told her that there was no more room left in your wardrobe and it didn’t smell like you anymore. Then I tripped and I almost fell. Poor Ana was scared. Did you get dizzy? No, I told her. I’m used to that happening a lot now.
Monday, March 5
It’s getting worse. I’m still behind. I’m having eye problems again. Yesterday, to top it off, I started reading a newspaper I’d already read. I don’t know how I could’ve mixed them up. And I lost a whole hour because I didn’t realize it right away. When I got to the news about the Siamese quadruplets, all four conjoined at the head like a good-luck clover, that’s when I said I’ve already read this, because the truth is, except for the stories like that, the rest is always pretty much the same. That was yesterday because today my head hurt so bad that I lowered the blinds and sat in the dark, I didn’t read anything. I’m writing you in a rush. Sorry.
Sunday, March 11
Can you believe my bad luck that yesterday I got dizzy right as I was opening my wardrobe, I fell against the door, the whole thing shook, and the last three months of newspapers spilled out all over the floor. Now I don’t know what I’ve read and what I haven’t. I’m afraid I’ll skip a whole day by accident. The thing is I’ve lost count, I don’t know what date I was on, I just know that at this point I’m very behind. If I keep it up I’m going to be reading the papers a year after they come out. I still read the horoscopes and the weather forecast as if it were the right day.
Tuesday, March 20
I must’ve skipped several days because all of a sudden I don’t understand the news. Strange things are happening in Spain. I don’t know where I read about it. When my head hurts a lot I can only read the headlines. I don’t know if I told you about something that’s happened a few times now. I’ll be following a story day after day, like a soap opera, and then one day the story disappears. I tell myself it’ll be back. But the days go by and nothing. What happens to all those people when they’re not news anymore? No one at any of the papers can tell me what happened with the quadruplets. I don’t even have the energy to complain anymore.
Thursday, March 29
A boy was born in India with his hands on backwards, the fingernails on the inside and palms on the outside. For a second I thought it was you in the paper. The photo was blurry but the boy looked so much like you that I got out a magnifying glass to check. The thing I told you about in Spain has gone from bad to worse. Now Ana says she has a plan to solve my backlog. A friend of hers, a nurse, can’t find work, so she suggested I hire her to help me with the papers. The two of us together will be able to make some headway.
Saturday, April 7
I’ve never met anyone more useless than Violeta. If she keeps it up I’ll have to fire her. Ana asked me to be patient with her, because she’s out of work and has a five-year-old son. Since she’s no help at all with the papers, yesterday I sent her to the kitchen to make me something to eat.
Sunday, April 15
You looked better yesterday than you did the other day. What I don’t understand is why they print such tiny pictures of you. I have to spend all day with the magnifying glass so I can see you. I had to fire Violeta. Ana comes by sometimes.
Monday, April 30
They both begged me so I told Violeta okay, that she could come back, but with the condition that she can’t touch the papers. Just in case I lock the wardrobes with a key. I already caught her trying to open yours once. I shouted at her and she took off running. But if I shout too loud I get dizzy.
Thursday, May 17
I’m still dizzy. I even get dizzy sitting down, like I’m on a boat day and night.
Wednesday, June 20
This morning when I woke up I noticed a sour smell coming from the wardrobe. Everything stinks. The old newspapers are rotting. I won’t give up, but I’ve never smelled anything like it. Sometimes at night I start to howl.
Wednesday, July 4
Now the newspapers are coming in strange shapes: circles, rhombuses, ovals. The other day one of the papers had only one story: the same story told a hundred different ways. I’m so backlogged there’s no way I’ll be able to catch up. But I won’t stop trying. If I look very carefully, if I use the magnifying glass, there are very strange things going on behind you in the pictures. Some of the photos make me gag. Yesterday I fainted. Things in Spain are more and more worrying. I’m going to have to spray some perfume.
Monday, August 20
Dear Dad, it’s Ana. I just found this diary yesterday. As you already know, Mom died two Thursdays ago. I imagine she’d like to close out this journal with the clipping I’m pasting below. To think I was about to tell the funeral home not to run an obituary. But then I felt bad about it. I thought that maybe this way some old friend of hers might get the news. As far as I know, it’s the only time Mom has ever been in the paper.
My sister is going out with a guy who got famous for being on a reality show in the United States. She met him at the cafe where she works in L.A., where she’s lived since 2002, when she told me she couldn’t take it here anymore and left. She waited on him the same way she did all her customers, and after the guy left, her coworkers started jumping up and down around her, and one of them said “Didn’t you recognise him? That was Ozzy, from Survivor.” She had never seen the show (me either), except for a few random episodes from the first season, so she didn’t understand at the time what the whole deal with Survivor was about, or why the girls she worked with could be so excited about someone as gross as an ex-reality show contestant.
Ozzy came back the next day, and my sister would have liked to wait on him the same way she waited on all her customers, but that day she couldn’t help but comment on the book about sharks that he was flipping through. It was one she knew very well: I had given her that book on her fifteenth birthday (a bookseller had told me it was a classic, one with hard facts that was suited to aficionados, and it had soon become her favourite and the first of a collection of twenty titles on the subject). My sister told me it had moved her to see that someone else in the world had that book, that one in particular, and that her emotion had nothing to do with the fact that the someone in question was Ozzy from Survivor, because Survivor meant nothing to her. And then I thought of an article I’d read in a magazine: Ricky Martin’s kids only recently realized, now that they’re almost seven years old, who their father “is:” “You’re Ricky Martin?” they asked him in astonishment after watching a show for the first time from the audience and not from the side of the stage.
So, my sister had nothing to say about Ozzy from Survivor, but she did talk a lot about Ozzy the boy who went to the cafe almost every day and whom she found irresistible: cute, with a kind face, simple and very sweet. Little by little, and in spite of both of their shyness, they had sought out coincidences and excuses to see each other when she got off work.
Starting then, everything my sister told me about him made me think they were made for each other, especially because they both held life goals that were quite achievable, which made them prone to happiness.
One day, my sister told me she was in love. Utterly in love, she said. “And him?” I asked worriedly, because love was a state that tended to leave her overly vulnerable. She told me that only when the feeling is reciprocal can one be in love and be serene at the same time. And then I remembered that love can also turn her a little sappy.
I had googled “Ozzy” and “Survivor” the first time she mentioned him to me. I looked at his photos to get an idea of what he looked like, and I read a few articles and the comments on some forums to try to find out what kind of person he was (I knew my sister would never do a thing like that, and it seemed like a waste not to take advantage of the fact that he was very well-known). I got a little worried imagining my sister —the way she is, so candid sometimes— in the life of someone who was almost famous.
Right away I found out that Ozzy wasn’t just any contestant, but was quite a popular character on the show; most of the fans had opinions about him. And the strangest thing: almost all of them had the same impression of him, though some people took certain characteristics as virtues and were for him, and others, for the very same reasons, were against him.
In that quick search I also found out that Ozzy was really named Oscar, that he’d been born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and that he hadn’t been on one season of the show, but three. It seems that after his first time he’d turned into a kind of star contestant, a favourite among the fans, who voted for him every time the producers decided to bring back old “castaways” for a new and special season. So, after his first appearance on Survivor: Cook Islands, he came back for Survivor Micronesia: Fans vs. Favourites, and later he was on Survivor: South Pacific.
The show’s grand prize, which goes to one winner among twenty participants, is a million dollars. Ozzy never won, and only once did he make it to the final round, although in the other seasons he was part of the “jury” (the group of the last seven participants expelled, who vote to choose the winner). Twice, his first and last time, he won the prize of a hundred thousand dollars for “Survivor Favourite:” the only one awarded according to an audience vote. It would seem that Ozzy was the ultimate expression of the survivor, and viewers voted for him because he was a full-on Robinson who could climb trees like a monkey, hold his breath underwater for three minutes, and harpoon fish that weighed over a kilo. Plus, he won all the physical tests the participants had to undergo in order to win “immunity” or “rewards.” That’s how he managed to advance far in the game, but it seemed his lack of malice, his arrogance, and his inability to manipulate the others and head off a betrayal always left him shy of the grand prize. Of course, all this was what, to his fans, made him the game’s true “moral winner.” For his detractors, it was what made him an athletic and brainless wimp. Survivor awakens grand passions in United States audiences, and people for or against Ozzy (or any other more or less striking character), would use these expressions and others even more enthusiastic or cruel.
There had been a couple of times when I’d tried to get my sister to talk to me about Ozzy and his experience on the program, and especially to find out what he thought about his inability to win the million, but she had refused to talk about the Ozzy of Survivor. In fact, over time she began to call him Oscar. She wasn’t interested in anything that had to do with his time on TV. She even seemed to feel a certain aversion to that part of him, though she would never openly admit it.
It was more or less around when she started to call him Oscar that I decided it was time to watch Survivor.
I couldn’t travel—with my salary, I couldn’t even think about buying a ticket to the United States. But the fact that he had spent so many hours on TV being “himself” on a reality show gave me the chance learn about the man my sister was spending more and more time with; to see him in action, as it were. The last few times my sister and I had talked, he had been there. He didn’t say anything or show himself on Skype, but I knew he was there. One time my sister asked him to turn down the TV; another time, laughing, she told him to be still (maybe he was tickling her); and the last time, I saw one of his hands as it passed quickly in front of the camera to grab some papers from the desk.
Anytime I caught a glimpse of what was happening near my sister (not because she told me directly, but from some other clue), I grew more anxious about the distance that separated us. After all, I had never seen or set foot in those places she talked to me from. I’d never been to the café where she worked, or the apartment she rented with her coworkers, or the school where she was studying pastry-making (my sister had always had a great flair for cooking, and she’d decided to turn that natural disposition into a more official, and hopefully more lucrative, activity). I think the Ozzy on Survivor had something to do with my sister signing up at a prestigious cooking school and being so conscientious with her classes; she’d always been reluctant when it came to academic schedules and study goals (it had been a pitched battle to get her to finish high school). I’m sure he was the one who paid her enrollment fee, and even her monthly tuition. My sister denied it all, but she was a terrible liar. She went into detail to make her story more credible—she gave so many details that at some point, one of them would always give her away. Maybe because my primary instinct was to protect her, I never let her know when I’d caught her in a lie. And when she got a scholarship from the cooking school (one they would never have given to an immigrant whose papers weren’t in order), it was no exception. What I did was congratulate her, and start to think that if Ozzy was doing these things for her it was because the relationship was getting very serious. I also thought that a marriage proposal must be near. He would buy her a ring, get down on his knee during some romantic dinner, and very soon they would be fiancées. It was strange how the Yankees had that idea of three steps so engrained: dating, engagement, marriage. And although Ozzy had been born in Mexico, he’d spent his whole life in the U.S., and surely those habits were now part of him as well.
It wasn’t easy to get my hands on a decent-quality copy of the entire season of Ozzy’s debut: Survivor: Cook Islands.
The season starts off with the twenty participants and the show’s host on a ship. The contestants have limited time to jump overboard with the rafts they have to row out to the desert islands where they’ll spend the next thirty-nine days. As they do this, the host explains that this is the first time that the four starting tribes are of different ethnicities. Ozzy is part of the Latino tribe. There is also an African-American tribe, an Asian American one, and a Caucasian one.
That season was filmed between June and August of 2006, and Ozzy eight years younger was a boy with short, curly hair, olive skin, and agile body, who almost never smiled and spoke little, though very soon he was at the head of his tribe. One of his three companions, on watching him climb a palm tree to get coconuts, commented that he felt like he was watching something from The Jungle Book. “I thought it was Mowgli going up a tree.” He was also good at fishing using what they called a Hawaiian harpoon, oversaw the construction of their hut (made of bamboo and palm leaves), and designed a trap to hunt wild chickens. But his companions didn’t trust him completely; they couldn’t explain why, but they didn’t trust him. I think it must have been because Ozzy didn’t seem to have a sense of humor, he took himself and everything he did very seriously. He seemed obsessed by winning every challenge, and he was self-sufficient to the point it was irritating.
I thought it would take me at least a week to watch that season’s fourteen episodes. But my curiosity and the dynamic of the program itself (perfectly designed to generate tension and intrigue) impelled me to spend all day Saturday at home. By two in the morning I’d seen everything, all the way through the post-finale reunion. On top of an excruciating headache, I had a pretty clear idea of what Ozzy’s fans had seen in him.
Some aspirin and a good night’s sleep got me to Sunday recovered and more interested than ever in talking to my sister’s famous boyfriend. I wanted to find out how he’d felt after he lost the grand prize with a vote of only four against five (the winner was Yul, a lawyer of Korean descent who dominated the game from the social point of view). The grand finale (which is when the jury’s votes are counted and the winner is announced) was filmed on a CBS set in New York, where the season’s twenty contestants were all gathered, now recovered from the dirt, hunger and injuries that physically ravage all the participants. They, the public, and the host all had general questions about how or why this or that had happened, but they all had one big question for Ozzy: how was it possible that a city boy, over twenty years old, Mexican and (at the time) working as a waiter, seemed to have been born to live and survive on a desert island? Ozzy, serious as always, listened to the question without changing his expression, and gave the one answer no one expected, one nobody knew what to do with: “I’ve always read a lot,” he said. I clapped. Sitting there, alone in my living room in front of the laptop where young Ozzy was talking about his first love—Robinson Crusoe—and how ever since he was little he’d fantasized about being abandoned on a desert island, I clapped.
At that moment I felt like calling my sister and for the first time just asking her to let me talk to Ozzy. I wanted to congratulate him for that answer, but I also wanted to ask him what other books had been important to him (in the end, I couldn’t help feeling Robinson Crusoe was a little obvious).
I was tired that night, but I decided the next time we talked I would tell my sister it was high time she introduced me to her boyfriend (“I just want to get to know him a little,” I would tell her).
I found the complete season Micronesia: Fans vs. Favorites (Ozzy’s second season) on YouTube.
For two days, when I came back from the school where I was subbing in a third-grade class, I sat down in front of my computer to watch the show. I felt completely trapped. It was the only thing I wanted to do, the only thing I could get myself to focus on. I had an opinion about Ozzy and about each of the participants, about every alliance, every elimination in all the tribal councils. I got excited about the challenges for rewards or immunity. The fans (a tribe of ten people who had never played before) struck me as naïve, inept, out of place. I waited anxiously for the moments when the cameras would return to the favorites tribe (Ozzy and nine other ex-participants), where even the most banal conversations had potential repercussions in how the game unfolded, and where everyone was extremely self-conscious and suspicious.
Friday night, I was finishing the finale, watching and rewinding to see Ozzy’s parts again, commenting on the two finalists before casting his vote for the winner of the million dollars, when the house phone rang. I knew it was my sister. Ever since I broke up with Germán, no one else calls the house at that hour. “Get online,” she said. She practically didn’t say hi, she just said “get online,” and hung up.
Lately we’d been chatting on Gmail, so I opened my inbox and sent her a message to let her know I was there. “On Skype,” she wrote. I didn’t like to use Skype. Sure, it was all much more comfortable and fluid than chatting; the problem came later. Ending a chat just meant typing “xo” or “xoxoxoxoxoxoxo,” or a little phrase like “I miss you” or “Love you” (it all depended on how our conversation had gone). Hanging up on Skype, saying “bye” to my sister who was right there on the screen, moving and raising the palm of her right hand to her lips to blow me the kiss she always said goodbye with—I was afraid of that moment. Cutting off communication and sitting in front of the black screen terrified me. In my head I’d built up the idea that it was like giving the world the chance to swallow her: on her end, the dark monitor turned into a giant mouth that opened up to swallow my sister, taking her away from me forever.
Once we were connected, as soon as my sister’s face appeared onscreen, I could tell she had been crying. I asked if she was all right. She smiled at me, a weak smile, and said: “They invited him back to the show.”
When good things happened to my sister, I was happy—very happy, even. But when the good news for some reason was cut short or turned against her, I was also happy then. And I was very ashamed of that. I knew it was pure envy of the worst kind, and also that it was the result of an idea I would never admit to anyone: I didn’t think there was any reason for things to go better for her than for me. At those moments I also realized that I was still resentful she had cut and run when things in the country were falling apart. I stayed, I thought sometimes, and enduring is more commendable than fleeing to a place where everything is easier.
There was no one in the world I loved more than my sister, and no other person awoke such low feelings of resentment and envy in me. I didn’t understand why that happened; I couldn’t forgive myself for it, and I tried hard to repress those feelings.
However, when I saw how disconsolate she was because CBS had invited Ozzy to be on a new season of Survivor, I felt that in some twisted way it was a rightful turn of events.
“It’s not so bad,” I told her. And she burst out crying the way she used to when we were little. After she’d calmed down, she explained that the season would be called Blood vs. Water and that each of the ex-participants chosen by the viewers had to compete alongside a loved one. Ozzy wanted my sister to go with him. “But you’re not a blood relative. You’re not even married to him,” was the only thing that occurred to me to say, trying to seem like I was in her corner. Apparently, for the producers of Survivor, “blood” and “loved ones” were the same thing. I do not agree.
I didn’t need to ask, I knew my sister had already told Ozzy she didn’t want to take part. The only thing I didn’t know was how he had reacted. “He’s furious,” said my sister, and she started to cry again. “He says it’s his favorite place in the world, that he’s happy there. It’s ridiculous, we’re talking about a TV show.” I tried to explain that surely he wasn’t referring to the program itself, but to the places where it was filmed (for the most part, idyllic Pacific islands), and where Ozzy seemed to really be in his element. “You don’t know him,” said my sister. And I went on insisting that she wasn’t going to know him completely either until she’d seen him climb trees, swim like a dolphin, and crack coconuts with a machete. Only then, I told her, would she realize that when he was doing all of that, he was happy. All those things made him happy, and so did the competition. Because when you were watching Ozzy compete, you weren’t watching a guy who was enjoying some exotic vacation; you saw, rather, an extremely competitive person fighting to win a game he knows he’s good at, but not unbeatable, and he can improve. “The program’s whole concept is his place in the world, understand?” I told her. “And maybe it’s a good idea for you to go with him. You two might even win.” There was silence. My sister stared at me. For a moment I thought the image was frozen—my house had a terrible internet connection. But then she blinked. “I hate you,” she told me. And at that moment she wasn’t looking at my image on her monitor, but right at the webcam, so I would feel her eyes meet mine. “I hate both of you,” she said, and hung up.
Black, silent screen. It took me a while to react. I couldn’t understand what had happened. This time, when I’d seen her crying like that, I’d managed to forget about everything and offer advice that was for her own good; I even felt proud I’d encouraged her to go on the program. After all, if they won it meant losing her completely. A boyfriend and a million dollars was enough to keep her from ever thinking about coming back. And deep down, I was always hoping my sister would want to come back. Then I thought that she wasn’t really understanding the situation, that she was making a serious mistake and I had to help her.
It took me all night, but I found what I needed. I put together a file with a compilation from YouTube that some fan had made with Ozzy’s best moments on the program, another one-minute video where Ozzy (interviewed shortly after being eliminated from Survivor: South Pacific) was saying to the camera how depressed it made him to have to return to his life, to the city, to everything he felt pulled him away from his truest self. There was also a third video in which, during his first season, Ozzy was celebrating having spent so long on the island with a shout of “treinta días, es increíble,” and he said it with a big, unexpected smile and in Spanish (he’d never spoken in Spanish on the program, and I knew he and my sister only spoke in English). The last video was one I’d compiled myself and consisted of several shots of Ozzy swimming, because that was the best of Ozzy. It was beautiful to see him swim. And it wasn’t a matter of admiring his technique, or speed, or stamina, it was simply exciting. It was like letting a slow, lazy housecat into an unknown yard and seeing how it instantly became a savage animal.
I saved the files as an attachment in a blank email and wrote in the subject: “Don’t miss this.” I sent the email and went to sleep. I felt satisfied with myself. I had overcome my lowest instincts and was again the person my sister deserved, someone who advised her for her own good and with a more generous goal: her happiness (and maybe even that of her “Oscar”).
I woke up around noon. It was Sunday. My inbox had an email from my sister. Not a reply to the one I’d sent, but a new one. I opened it and saw that it didn’t have text, either, but a video attached, untitled. I spent a while sitting in front of the computer without daring to open the file. I was afraid my sister hadn’t understood what I’d wanted to tell her with my message, and that now she was even angrier. For very little, she’d already told me “I hate you.” What was there after that?
I lit a cigarette and pressed play. The video opened with a sign that said “Reality Show,” and went on with several edited fragments from very homemade recordings. Ozzy now had very short hair and several kilos more than the boy on TV.
In all the shots, my sister is wearing clothes I’ve never seen. In all of them, one of them is filming the other or someone is filming the two of them in very domestic situations. A breakfast. The preparation of a welcome home sign for someone she never mentioned and who was coming home from somewhere I couldn’t say. A toast for something that was important to my sister about which I’d never heard anything. Ozzy opening his arms and smiling at the camera at the entrance to the cinema. Her with wet clothes acting angry while she threatened the camera with a bucket full of water. The two of them lying in a park on the grass, while a dog belonging to someone unknown went running over them and the two of them double up in laughter and kiss and wave at whoever is filming them. The two of them asleep, sharing the seat on a bus. The two of them very serious and elegant, walking in someone’s wedding party. The two of them in bed, her holding the camera aloft so she can get both their faces in close-up; neither of them speaks but they smile, they smile and breathe a little quickly and finally say something to each other that can’t be heard.
It’s been days since then and I haven’t heard from her again. I still haven’t replied. I’m tired of talking and understanding. What I did was change the photo in all my profiles, impossible she hasn’t seen. Now there’s an image of the big bonfire they make at the end of each episode of Survivor for the tribal council, the one when the participants decide which member of the tribe they will eliminate from the great game.
My sister always said that it was much better to have a niece or nephew than your own child. I suppose that my mother agreed with her. My sister said that with a nephew you got to enjoy the good times, all the fun of having a kid without going through any of the trials and tribulations that came with them. Like pregnancy, or labour. Or nappies. Or being woken up in the middle of the night. And when they grow up you don’t have to scold them, or educate them, my sister went on. You avoid all the enigma and bloodshed of their teenage years. You can just spoil them and be loved in return. For instance, you can get them a pair of trousers if you like but you don’t have to get them all their trousers and then keep tabs on them, watching out for when they’re getting frayed or too small. You can watch the children grow, but at a distance, safe from all the conflagrations and black holes. Not to mention the time that passes you by, the sensation that life is slowly slipping away from you like a rudderless boat on the tide. I couldn’t have disagreed more with what my sister was saying, but I didn’t let it show. A rudderless boat is much better than one that speeds all over the place, then springs a leak and sinks. I wanted all the trials and tribulations that my sister was talking about. I wanted to iron clothes, wipe bottoms, take their temperature and bring them to the doctor for check-ups. To lose sleep and never get that pressure off your chest. But it’s always difficult to contradict your older sister.
Laura was my sister’s daughter and thus my niece. A fragile, dreamy girl, just after she turned four she started to stay at my house once a week after school. She was born in October. At first we thought that it would be best if she came on Thursdays to spend Thursday afternoons with me. I remember the afternoon on which Laura, sitting on the sofa, pointed to the hall with an unmistakeable expression of joy on her face, smiling that radiant smile that only children are capable of. It was the second or third afternoon she’d spent with me, my sister hadn’t got back from her session yet and night was already falling, even though we’d only just had tea. I looked where Laura was pointing but there wasn’t anyone or anything there, just my dark, uninteresting hallway. There were crumbs all over the floor. Then she looked straight at me and excitedly exclaimed ‘Didn’t you see it? A ghost just passed by! It was so scared!’ That was the day that I knew I’d won her trust: she felt comfortable making things up with me. She was ready to lie, play jokes or test me. Until then, she’d barely talked at all.
After Christmas, my sister decided that it was better if her daughter came to my house on Fridays instead of Thursdays. My sister was so exhausted after her sessions that it made more sense to have Laura come and sleep over on Fridays. My flat was a one bedroom but we got a fold-out bed, I can’t remember where it came from, maybe we brought it from La Torre. A small cot with a thin, ten centimetre mattress.
On those first Fridays in winter, Laura always slept straight through, exhausted by the games and excitement of spending the night away from home (it was her first time) and maybe also by the mystery of her mother’s semi-clandestine adult activities. It was a few months before she woke up in the middle of the night for the first time, although her mother had told me that she did so regularly at home. One of the happiest moments of my life was the first time that Laura started to scream at three or four in the morning. I was fast asleep in bed when I was awoken by the sound of a crying child and for a few seconds I thought that it was a baby, my baby, a non-existent son or daughter (obviously, I don’t have any children of my own) and in my bewildered disappointment, before I went to console my niece, I cried a little too, from joy, a sense of foreboding and maybe anger. I immersed myself in Laura’s tears, plunging into them in my desperation for an alternative life. Then I went to her bed in the darkness and saw that she was screaming in her sleep with her eyes closed and her lower lip trembling, her red fingers gripping tight to the edge of the duvet. I stroked her hair and, slowly, she calmed down, as though my fingertips dispensed some kind of drug.
These regular sleepovers lasted two years. I bought a toothbrush, a pink pillow with animal pictures on it, pyjamas, toys and biscuits in different shapes and colours. At home she always slept with a teddy bear that Jaime had given her, so I got her a stuffed toy to cling to when she spent her nights with me. I found a cloth duck that I liked right from the beginning. It had the empty gaze of fake or stuffed animals but it wasn’t scary, because it didn’t look real. It was soft, there was something jelly-like in its movements, and it only cost me ten euros. I kept it in the built-in wardrobe in my bedroom and every Friday morning I carefully placed it under my pillow. The first thing Laura did when she came over was run to my bed to find the toy and say hello. She thought that the duck spent all week there, sleeping with me. She was a little sad that the toy didn’t have any children to play with. I suppose that my life seemed boring and predictable to her. Every time Laura saw the duck, she jumped and shrieked with joy, as though she’d spent all week worrying that the duck, or I, wouldn’t be there. We gave it a name, Feldsduck. ‘How are you, Feldsduck? Have you missed me very much?’ Laura said as she stroked its orange beak or kissed its yellow feet, covering it in drool.
I loved spending my Fridays with my niece. I went to pick her up from school in the car and we spent the afternoon listening to music, painting, in the park or at the cinema. We ran races and hid things. We smelled leaves and paints. We put make-up on each other and danced around an imaginary fire playing invisible instruments. In the evening, we made dinner: she liked to sit on a stool and taste each of the ingredients we added to the pizza or salad. Before going to bed, I read her a story. My collection of children’s books grew little by little, taking up more and more space on my bookshelf. Laura made up verbs from nouns: ‘story-ing’, ‘movie-ing’, ‘happy-ing’. She also said ‘blanket-ing’ when she wrapped herself up in the duvet. When I was with her, the world suddenly took on new meaning, it became a wonderful gamut of possibilities.
I lost Feldsduck. One Friday morning, as soon as I’d woken up, I got a strange feeling, an intuition, as though there were a gap in my chest. I immediately saw, or thought I saw, the duck’s indifferent gaze. I looked first in the wardrobe where I usually kept it and then, automatically, under the pillow. Next I searched the flat, wildly and at random initially and then systematically. In my anxious state I searched places I hadn’t explored in years, out of reach corners, under the bed and sofa, in the utility room, in a gigantic cardboard box where I keep old letters and papers, family photographs and my notes from university. As I looked back over my life I was surprised at the person I had been only a few years before. I felt guilty. I remembered that I had put the duck into the wash the previous Sunday, in with Laura’s sheets, and I remembered hanging it up to dry on the terrace, pinning its right wing to the clothesline with a clothes peg. It looked submissive hanging there, like a puppet waiting for a hand to fill it and bring it to life. But I couldn’t be sure that I’d put it back in its place in the wardrobe. Things one does regularly fade in the mind, they pile up like socks and shirts, two by two or three by three until you can’t tell them apart any more. Fortunately, I had plenty of time so I went to the shop where I’d bought the lost duck. They had a few that were just the same, lined up next to each other on the shelf, their feet hanging down lifelessly. Like children waiting their turn. They were all in the same, tired-looking pose, and had the same empty expression.
Before I went to pick Laura up, I put the new duck under the pillow. It looked identical to the other one, you couldn’t tell them apart. Maybe there was a slight difference, the one that I’d lost might have been a little worn, but a four year old girl wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
I got into the car and went to the school. It was impossible to find a parking place at that time so I always left the car double-parked. The mothers (they were almost all mothers) formed a semi-circle around the door. The pre-schoolers trooped out one by one and ran to freedom. Laura was usually one of the last to come out. She walked over to me with a smile but didn’t hurry, as though she had a keen sense of dignity.
When we got home, she repeated her weekly ritual and ran to my bed. She lifted up the pillow, picked up the soft toy and looked at it. The joy disappeared from her face. She looked at me and then back to the toy. ‘This isn’t Feldsduck,’ she said. ‘Where’s Feldsduck?’
I had to admit what had happened. I apologized again and again. It’s hard to excuse yourself to a four year old girl. They don’t yet know about not hurting people’s feelings and explanations get tangled up, they sound absurd and pointless. But as I spoke I realized that she was more curious than upset. She didn’t cry. In fact, she didn’t say anything to me at all. Instead of looking at me, she looked at the new stuffed animal. ‘You know what?’ she said eventually, ‘We need to give him another name.’ ‘Oh, of course,’ I answered. ‘He needs a new name.’ I suggested a lot: Ducky, Mathew, Andy, Bart, Juan Carlos. None of them seemed right. ‘He doesn’t look like a Bart,’ she’d say, staring into the duck’s blank eyes. We spent the afternoon like that, staring at a cloth duck. Laura took the naming ceremony very seriously. I had to make an effort not to laugh. How did she know that it was a different stuffed animal? That night, after I’d helped her into her pyjamas, she announced that she’d found the right name. ‘Her name will be Duckological.’ I was left speechless. Where had that name come from? ‘It’s not a boy duck, no, not exactly,’ she said. ‘She’s a girl, a girl duck.’ (She said adverbs in a very funny way: instead of ‘exactly’, she said ‘esastly’.) I told her that in that case we should call it ‘Miss Duckological’. She thought for a moment. ‘Her name is Duckological,’ she decided, bringing the conversation to an end.
That Saturday, when my sister came to pick Laura up, mi niece told her all about the adventures of Duckological the duck. ‘Best of all,’ she said, ‘we have no idea what happened to the other duck. Maybe it flew away?’
On Sunday morning, the doorbell rang. My downstairs neighbour had the original duck, Feldsduck, tucked under her arm. It had apparently fallen off the clothesline onto her terrace. She’d come by a couple of times in the week but I had been out. I thanked her. I put the two ducks next to each other and inspected them for differences. I picked up a black marker and drew an F on the label of the duck my neighbour had brought and a D on the one I’d bought a few days ago.
The following Friday I decided to try an experiment. I put the stuffed toy with an F on the label under the pillow. Then I went to pick Laura up from school and when we got home she ran to my bed, took the toy from under the pillow and started to shout like crazy: ‘Feldsduck’s back! Feldsduck’s back! Where were you Feldsduck?’
Laura said that Feldsduck was a sad toy but Duckological was always happy. She had no trouble telling the difference. After that, I started sleeping with both of them. When I told my sister, she said that I’d always been dopey but also that I had a huge imagination. ‘There must be some distinguishing mark, something that a four year old girl can see but you can’t because you never pay attention.’ I took these words as a kind of reproach but I didn’t want an argument.
A couple of years later, when everything came to an end, Laura went to live with her father in Salamanca. I asked her if she wanted to take the ducks with her as a parting gift, but she didn’t want them. ‘They’re used to living with you,’ she told me. ‘They’d both be very sad in Salamanca, they wouldn’t know what to do. They don’t like cities they don’t know. And I know you’ll take good care of them.’ I had to make a big effort to stop myself from crying in front of her.
A few months later, I woke up in the middle of the night feeling as though I was drowning. I turned on the television and tried to watch a movie. I ate a tangerine. It was Friday, so I didn’t have to go into the office the next day. It was dawn when I opened the wardrobe door. I took out the two stuffed toys and ran my hand over their cloth tummies. I looked at the labels and realized that the letters I’d scribbled to distinguish them had faded. The D and the F were identical blotches. I wondered whether Laura would still be able to tell them apart and tell me which was which. I remembered my childhood, my sister, our mother and summers in La Torre, when we swam in a big, insect-ridden pond. You’re Duckological aren’t you? I said to one of the ducks. I put the other one back in the wardrobe. I hope I’m right, I thought, as I got into bed. I hugged the toy tight until I fell asleep. When I woke up, eight hours later, the cloth toy was still there. I went to the bathroom, took out my nail scissors, (I‘d often used them to cut Laura’s nails) and went back to bed. I looked at the stuffed toy, then at the label and held it out between my thumb and index finger, but I couldn’t go through with it. What if I was wrong?
How could I serve myself from such distant
plates, when the home had broken, when not
even mother could be forced from the lips.
How could I dine on nothing.
I was born to words of condolence, “everything will work out,” “you’ll make it through,” “a child is always a blessing,” “everything happens for a reason.” I ask myself: why didn’t you just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why was this asshole kid in a school uniform at the hospital waiting to meet his son? Why did this idiot girl nearly shred her uterus so she could feel more grown up? Wasn’t there a pharmacy nearby? Hadn’t they ever heard the story of the little seed? Couldn’t they take her temperature to check if it was ovulation day? Horny dogs; and me, an unexpected gift that will never go away. I was born standing up, about to suffocate, threatening to rip apart my mother’s insides, requiring an emergency C-section to save both our lives. Later, like three siblings, we shared the same room, even the same bed. Who cried more, you or me? My bawling kept them from sleeping. My dad took the equivalency test over summer vacation. My mom finished her courses the following year. Neither one did well on the college entrance exams.
But you weren’t the average teenage couple, you wanted to start a revolution, so I was a double burden, to your youth and to your politics. I was born listening to the music of the nova trova, seventies rock, cultivating an ear for distorted melodies. The first words I learned were: values, ideology, party, people. Words I imagined my parents pronouncing in all caps.
The following summer Dad went to the south for a meeting of the party youth, we didn’t hear from him for three months. A neighbor started hitting on Mom. He brought books, they wrote pamphlets, they went to secret meetings—which I also attended with my coloring book. One morning he came by with a handkerchief over his mouth, worn so loose that more than a disguise, it looked like a sad attempt at seduction. He stayed the night. Through the wall of the bedroom I heard the moans and laughter of two people enjoying each other. In an obvious ruse, he returned the following day with a gift for me, a racecar track that made a lot of noise. I thought a train would’ve been better, with its intermittent whistle and its sinuous wheels. When Dad got home, there was a big fight that all the neighbors heard, the usual words were thrown around like boomerangs: values, commitment, ideology, party, people, in all caps. I’m not sure of the exact order but those were the words they always used: values, commitment, ideology, party, people. I drew a star with five points and made a mark for each repetition.
Once, a friend of my mother’s I’d become very fond of showed up at the house disguised in a beard, a wig, and an Uruguayan accent. I gave him a sidelong glance. As he planned the commando operation, I pictured him snoring in Mom’s bed. From then on, we became the chromosome 21 family: two mothers, three fathers, five grandparents, ever-multiplying aunts and uncles. I lived in several homes, in boarding houses, in abandoned apartments.
There was nothing I hated more than the word mission; it meant that my father or mother would be gone for a long time. Confronted with my sobs and pleas, they repeated the magic words: “the Party’s orders,” “the party’s orders” I said, in lowercase. Those words were the reason for everything: sudden moves, absences, families separated, partners changing. A while later, among the furniture displaced by another move, I read the news of a failed attack and the names of the people captured. I understood then, that muggy afternoon, that my father was imprisoned in a narrow room with the sun bouncing off the beat-up cars outside. I think I fainted as the other kids sweltered in the mirage created by the 4pm midsummer heat. I never dared to go visit him in prison. Everyone came back after the visits shaking their heads, commenting on how skinny he was. I preferred to maintain my image of the nervous man, smoking cigars while his hand drew an arc on his forehead. I had a photo of my dad under my pillow and I talked to him quietly every night.
When he was set free he came to stay with us. I noticed he was softer in his treatment, his gestures, his tone of voice. “What’s going on with you and Mom?” I asked. They both shrugged their shoulders, spit out trite expressions without saying anything that made sense. I imagine it must be difficult to have a kid look at you with such confusion, demanding a response from two confused parents. She peeked into the hall, made coffee, pointed to a spot on the sofa. She told me that they were trying again. “Trying what?” I said. “Being together, doesn’t that make you happy?” But, as was to be expected, that happiness was very fragile. One day Mom came home to solemnly announce: “I’m going to the Soviet Union for a year. They’re sending your father to Romania, it’s dangerous for him to stay here, they’ll put him back in prison. You’ll stay with Marta, you’ll be safe with her.” I stared at her without understanding what was going on inside me. I waited a few seconds then left, slamming the door behind me.
I spent my fourteenth year collecting rubles with Cyrillic writing, stamps with Lenin’s face, all from my mother’s friend’s home, where I was welcomed. You guys traveled all over the Soviet bloc and sent me postcards. My father met with Josip Broz Tito, Marshall Tito, I got an envelope with a Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija stamp and a twenty dinar bill. I became a desperate collector of bills and stamps. I’d hold my breath waiting to intercept the postman. He didn’t even get the chance to ring the bell; I was already there with my hand out to receive the foreign envelopes with three stamps and two seals of entry and exit. I learned more and more names, cities and countries that I located on the world map that hung on the wall. I’d cut out the stamp, soak it in water until the glue came off and add it to the album made from alternating pages of cardboard and wax paper.
As I chopped the carrots for dinner, I asked Marta what her job was in the party. “To take care of the kids of comrades who are on a mission,” she responded as she hummed a song by Silvio. Marta had a seventeen year old daughter, Lili. I’d stare at her, unable to hide my fascination with her long eyelashes, her strong legs. She’d say to me “I’ll tell you the truth.” I asked her about her dad and she pointed to a photocopied image on the wall: the blurry face of a man with a sentence underneath: “Where are they?” I looked at the flyer but didn’t say anything. Out of revenge, she called me a “curfew baby,” which I didn’t find funny.
My first time was with Lili. I still have the scene recorded on my retina, searching for explosives in the backyard shed only to end up ripping each other’s clothes off. We were brought together by an atypical biography, our childhood innocence colored by our parents’ decision to take up arms. I asked if she had any memory of her father, “none,” she answered bitterly, as she handed me a stake. We made a tent against the wall of the shed, we gathered sticks, odds and ends, and we built our home. That was a sacred space, with its own set of rules. A place where the prying eyes of fathers and mothers couldn’t reach us. Lili took my clothes off and noticed the fuzz under my arms and the strip of brown hair that went down my belly and beyond. Sometimes I had an acrid, adult smell. She gave me a sort of crash course in obscene words. She got me pornographic magazines and books, she demanded that I memorize some poem from the Golden Age and then whisper it in her ear. Lili had a calendar in which she marked a day with a circle and the following five days with an ellipsis. Those days we’d go right up to the edge but she’d push me away when I reached the limit. I always felt like I was another mission for her, one she took on with the dedication of a disciplined militant. My romantic apprenticeship was her responsibility.
We formed an organization, she was the boss, and I was the subordinate. We fought against the bad guys, who were the military, in the name of the good guys, who were our parents. Later, we’d turn to the lessons of desire: how to press a hand against the secret spot, push the button with circular movements as if it were the joystick of an Atari, leave a finger in this position, know how to wait, recognize the appropriate wetness, tongue kiss without brushing teeth, reach that intense spasm with your eyes closed in a meadow.
Marta never asked, I don’t think she even suspected the tenor of our time spent together, she saw me as a little boy and her daughter as a woman. Anyway she was always busy, making visits, typing documents. I can picture her seated on the floor, with the Olivetti typewriter on her lap and her cigarettes nearby, talking to foreigners, diplomats, and intellectuals, in two or three different languages, passing from one to the other with a minute twist of the lips. I must admit that in some way that environment was exciting to me. There was hope in that parade of hands tightly gripping documents and walking out the front door. More than one visitor asked if I was a “son.” Marta nodded, throwing me a solemn glance, I felt a mix of self-pity and pride.
Back from her long Russian trip, which lasted almost four years, Mom returned married to the neighbor. She’d changed her way of dressing, she wore a fur hat and silk scarves. I didn’t know whether to greet her with a cold kiss or to throw myself at this beautiful woman. It was hard to pretend to be a family with a man I’d always disliked. At that point I was an early adolescent and I knew that when I sat down to the table they didn’t see me, but my father. His dominant genes made sure that his paternity was obvious even in his absence. I stabbed the food with a fork and brought it to my mouth, my face buried in the plate to avoid awkward gazes. In this way I protected myself from what I imagined were their inner thoughts: “there’s the guy that got her pregnant, that never sent money, off who knows where.” The young revolutionary had become an orderly functionary of an ecological ONG in the United States and he was constantly out of work between projects or consultations. I’d been living with them for a few months when the attack on Pinochet occurred, it was a Sunday, we were having a snack, and the special bulletin from 60 Minutes shocked us. Aware of my gaze, Mom seemed to measure her reaction, hiding her happiness, her guilty happiness. But she couldn’t suppress a “finally something happens to that motherfucker.” I remained focused on my bread and mortadella. The neighbor paced back and forth making enraged comments: “All those years of training and I bet they used a homemade grenade, the lazy bastards.” Another gray Sunday, several dead bodyguards, the ferret-like eyes of Pinochet’s grandson injured by shards of glass. At night they repeated the words: guerilla, Nicaragua, subversives. I was so anxious, I’m not sure why, but I went to see Lili, who was also upset. We locked ourselves in her room, there was no time to take precautions. There was only an urgency, to be inside her, to distract ourselves from the drama. We didn’t look at the calendar, we needed to protect ourselves from the future.
My father came to my graduation, they’d taken the letter L from his passport and he entered through the International Police, older, with the typical wide fatness of the gringos, wearing clothes that were of high quality but out of fashion. At dinner after all the speeches I finally had my parents together again. I asked them to be silent, no to interrupt.
“It’s my turn, I get to talk now, I’ve listened to you for years.”
I have to tell you, your youth was confused by the revolution. First, the daily urgencies: bombings, men hiding in the shadows, nighttime shootings, martial law, curfew, burned books. But you were late to the revolution, twenty years too late, stubbornly insisting on something that didn’t work, because human nature is imperfect. Has there ever been equality among the citizens of one country? Could all the people possibly have the energy and conviction to work for others?
Looking back, I think it was a cocktail of youthful effervescence and raging hormones. Now I doubt your true courage, I think you took unnecessary risks, blamed personal problems on “the cause.” You believed you were messiahs of the future, bearing arms, wearing camouflage, always talking about the future in the first person plural. You played at war, but with lead soldiers on a checkerboard. It wasn’t such a bad deal for you guys, you learned languages, studied postgraduate degrees thanks to scholarships from international organizations. But I think you were both guilty of arrogance, foolhardiness, false heroism. You should’ve just stepped aside and let the dead file past. What did you think you’d accomplish with your weak efforts? In the end, everyone tells themselves the lies they need to live. No, don’t look at me like that. Yes, I confess that I do feel some admiration, but why didn’t you ever see me as a soldier for your troops?
Things didn’t get any better in the period that followed. My father returned to the United States, my mother had a stroke that left her paralyzed on one side. I’d sit next to her and we’d study the horizon. I talked and talked. I have an idea for a better world. Let’s get out of this kitchen. Let’s get away from the cups, the spoons, the photos of you as a young guerilla on the refrigerator. No, let’s look at the bus tickets, the maps, the rolling suitcases, the pamphlets, the Che Guevara posters… Lili calls with an “I think maybe, come quick.” In less than an hour I’m at her house. She’s waiting with a test she’d bought at the pharmacy. She gives me a dry kiss and goes into the bathroom. Sitting on the bed, I unfold the test instructions, it says that it measures the presence of a hormone in the urine called Human chorionic gonadotropin or Beta-hCG. The five minute wait seems infinite. I think about my childhood, the postcards, about Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija, about the “Where are theys,” about the bread and mortadella, about the stamps of Stalin, about our love tent, about the Olivetti typewriter. Lili comes out waving a strip marked with a red plus sign between two holes; I never liked addition and subtraction. And of course there’s a firestorm of recriminations. Why didn’t I just jerk off next to her? Or pull out? Why am I still such a horny dog? I think about my desperate need to be a son before I become a father. I feel the unstoppable urge to heave and wonder what ideology I can use to mask my lack of desire to be a father.
I came across him the other day when I was looking for the snorkel fins in the storage space. I didn’t even remember that I’d left him there. He was covered in dust and had a thin spider web in his hair. I wiped it away. He was still dressed in his blue pants and the brown jacket with the bear ears on the hood. His eyes were closed, his arms outstretched, wanting a hug maybe or to be picked up, I don’t remember which but he always wanted to be held.
I remember that the only thing I wished was that he have a button to be turned off and on. As I held the pregnancy test in my hands, I imagined that the body forming inside my body had a little button on its chest. Something simple, like a light switch. The same color as his skin, so that the deformity wouldn’t be too noticeable, I didn’t want anyone else to be able to use it. Just me.
Although we’d been trying to have a baby the pregnancy took me by surprise. Happy? Somewhat. I have to admit that the idea of having a kid wasn’t wholly disagreeable to me. Ever since we’d gotten married I knew that was one of our goals: to start a family. The priest said so during the ceremony, our parents repeated it. They’d been asking us to make them grandparents for a while. So after six years we decided to stop taking birth control pills. It sounds funny now to say “we decided,” when really it was me who took them, it was me who bled every month, it was me who was going to give birth to the baby. But we were united, because we were a couple, and it was popular at the time to say: “we’re pregnant.” It sounded as ridiculous as saying: “we have a vaginal infection.” But, anyway, we were pregnant and excited, although surprised by how quickly it had all happened.
The books I read said that a planned pregnancy could take up to a year, even if we were both healthy. So I thought: “Okay, I have a year. Maybe in a year I’ll be able to convince myself I really want to be a mom.”
But I didn’t get a year. I didn’t even get two months. We’d barely fucked, what, three, four times? As I looked at the positive test all I wished, with all my heart, was that he’d have a little button. Because when I saw other moms, most of them tired with dark circles under their eyes, I always thought that would be the solution to everything.
There he was, all dusty, stuck in a box with blankets and his favorite stuffed animal. I didn’t want him to get lonely. How long had he been here in storage?
When I first discovered that I could turn him off I’d put him in his crib, like he was sleeping. I’d do it for an hour or so, two at most. I’d take advantage of the time to take a little nap. Everyone tells you to sleep when the baby is sleeping, because they think that all babies do is eat, poop, and sleep. But he was different. He cried a lot, took naps that only lasted a half hour, and wanted to eat all the time. My energy quickly drained. Two weeks after he was born I was already more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life.
The delivery was the easiest part. I really don’t understand all the fuss over childbirth. Yes, it hurts, of course. But nothing I couldn’t handle. I focused on my breathing. It was fast. I’d been at the hospital just a few hours when the doctor told me I was ten centimeters dilated. They didn’t even get the chance to give me anesthesia. I wanted it, of course, but it was all so quick that the anesthesiologist didn’t get there in time. When he walked into my room the obstetrician said: “too late.” He looked at me, apologized with a quick smile, and left. I felt the urge to push so I pushed. I pushed again and then the doctor told me that the head was already out, that I should resist the urge to push, that she and the baby would take it from there.
He cried. I cried. We cried. My husband was by my side the whole time. They handed the baby over so I could put him to my chest, what they call skin to skin contact. He was little, very wrinkly, and covered in a whitish slime that made him look even more like an alien. It was all so fast. This was my son. This was my son? This was my son, that’s what everyone said. “Look what a pretty baby.” They took him, his dad following behind.
The boy was a month old when I found the button. By accident. I never imagined my wish would come true. I’d never heard of a baby that could be turned off. That’s why I was scared the first time it happened. I’d just taken him out of the tub and I was drying under his arms with a towel when I felt my thumb press down on some kind of a small lump and I heard a click and he sort of froze. It scared me, but immediately I knew that something, someone, had fulfilled my wish. I felt for the little lump under his arm and I pressed it again. He started moving, like always. Making the same little noises with his mouth, moving his tiny hands. I finished dressing him, settled him into the bassinet, put the blanket over him, and found the button. I turned him off and I slept for over two hours. I was happy.
I didn’t want to tell anyone about my discovery. I only used it when I was home alone. The first week I allowed myself two hours a day to sleep. The second week I started turning him off at lunchtime too, so I could make myself something other than a ham and cheese sandwich. The third week I started using the button as soon as my husband left for work, so I could go for a run in the park. I’d go home, turn the baby on, feed and bathe him, then turn him back off so I could take a shower and a nap. Then I’d turn him on, feed him, and put him face up in his baby gym for a while and then face down, on his stomach, so he could exercise his muscles. Then I’d turn him back off for lunch and another nap. Later I’d turn him on to put him in his stroller and take him out for a walk. This routine worked well for the first few months.
I picked up the box, forgetting all about the snorkel fins. I decided to bring him up to the apartment. He looked peaceful, but he was very dirty and seeing him in that state touched something inside me. His cheeks were black with dirt, his hands covered in dust. His clothes smelled damp. But he looked healthy. I got out the Hoover and gave him a good vacuuming. I took him out of the box and shook out the blankets, then I vacuumed the inside of the box and the stuffed dog too. I got a cloth and wet it to clean his face and hands. I stood looking at him for a minute. I’d loved dressing him in jackets that had round bear ears on the hood. He looked adorable in them.
One day my husband came home early from work and he found me sleeping and the baby turned off in his crib. Just a glance at the baby, so still, frozen, and he panicked. He started shaking me and screaming: “There’s something wrong with the baby!” I got frightened. I sat up in bed and looked at the crib. I immediately relaxed. “Calm down, love. He’s turned off. I’ll turn him back on.” His eyes looked like they were about to fall out of his head. I picked up the baby, pressed the button, and he calmly started moving, looking for my breasts. “He’s hungry.” My husband sat on the edge of the bed. He grabbed his head in disbelief. I fed the baby, changed his diaper, and put on his pajamas. My husband hadn’t moved. I waited a while longer. The baby fell asleep. Then he finally turned to me and said: “So the baby can be turned off and on?” He was expecting me to say that what he’d seen wasn’t real, that he’d dreamed it, I don’t know. “Yes, exactly. There’s a button under his arm. I turn him off when I need to sleep or eat. But it doesn’t hurt him. He’s doing great. Look at him, he’s a happy baby.”
I thought he was going to get mad at me, to say I was an irresponsible mother, insane. “Do you think we could turn him off this weekend to go to the movies?” he asked with a shy smile.
The blankets and the stuffed animal were dirty and they smelled bad. Like mildew. I decided to put them in the washing machine. In the back of the cabinet where I keep the cleaning products I found the hypoallergenic laundry detergent I’d used to wash the baby’s clothes. There was still enough for a few loads. The clothes were dirty too, so I carefully took them off and threw them in the wash. Meanwhile, I covered him with the bedspread.
We started turning him off to go out to eat, to go to the movies, to visit friends, go to parties. At first we agreed we’d only do it for special occasions. The rest of the time the baby would stay turned on. Then we talked about it some more and decided that the button should only be used to help us as a couple. To give us back the intimacy we’d lost when he’d arrived, to allow space for the two of us to be together.
The truth is that I continued doing it a few times a day without telling anyone, to make time for basic things like exercise, doing my nails, watching a TV show or two, reading a book, working.
When he turned one year old we got a little more audacious. We left him turned off for three days straight and we went on vacation to the beach. We were happy, as if nothing had changed. When we got home we started to use the button more freely. Sometimes we’d disconnect our son for a few days and let life go back to how it had been before he was born.
The new circumstances caused us to question everything. My husband decided he wanted to see the world. After thinking a lot about his life, on the nights we lay beside each other without sleeping or talking with the little one turned off in the other room, he realized that his deepest wish was to become a professional traveler, without a home or any fixed direction. So one day without warning he informed me that he planned to go off on an adventure around the world for two years. He told me that he loved me, but that he didn’t want me to wait for him, he asked me to start my life over and find my happiness.
I was so devastated that I forgot to turn the baby back on. After a few months I decided to put him in the closet and turn his nursery into a studio. I hung a huge TV on the wall and got a large computer monitor for the desk and I put an elliptical machine next to the window to exercise every morning while I watched something on Netflix. At some point I moved the baby to the box and took it down to the storage space. But I don’t remember how long ago that was. A couple of years?
As soon as the dryer finished its cycle I folded the blankets and put them back in the box. I got the little one dressed. When he was ready, in his blue pants and his jacket, I thought it would be a good time to turn him back on. So I did. I felt for the button. I heard the click. Immediately my son tried to hug me. I wrapped him in my arms. I’d forgotten how nice and warm his body felt against mine. I put his hood on his head, like when we were going out for a walk in the park. He looked so cute in the little bear ears. I loved to dress him like that.
“Mama,” he said. “Mamamamamamamama,” he repeated. I hugged him again. I kissed his pink, chubby cheeks. I felt for the button. I turned him off and settled him back into his box. Along with his stuffed animal, of course, so he doesn’t get lonely.
How quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.
(Tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
“It used to be that wars would thin the herd. Now that there’s peace, disasters help a little by killing some people off. Don’t look at me like that—it’s just the way it is.”
The old woman pointed to the tiny TV screen with a finger twisted by osteoarthritis. Ever since, three months earlier, she’d agreed to move into the home, she’d been torturing her son: she had to have a television in her room; it was urgent and of vital importance, because if she died without knowing how the trial against the philandering bullfighter turned out she’d never forgive him for it. There were days when she swore that if he didn’t come through on that very nearly last wish, when he died she’d go down to hell to find him and sink her dentures into his forearm. “I’ll leave a scar,” she threatened, tapping him with one of the three canes she always kept within reach, hanging from an armchair where, in theory, visitors were supposed to be able to sit in comfort.
It had taken three weeks for her son get around to buying the television, and it had been on night and day ever since, at a deafening volume, since she was hard of hearing. She missed the midday and evening news programs because they coincided with the lunch and supper times for the residents—the old folks, as she called them—in the dining-hall, but she spent the whole afternoon and much of the night catching up with the celebrity gossip. The bullfighter was already in jail. His story, which was no longer of any interest, had been swapped for one about a surgeon who raped anesthetized patients: every day there was new, increasingly gruesome information meted out, so that the audience ratings would inexorably grow.
That afternoon, the old woman was laying out her world-overpopulation theory to Rafel, the only grandkid who ever visited her. He came once a week, when he got off work at the pet-grooming salon, and, after politely taking her perceptive comments about how he reeked of dogs, he would put up with one of her monologues on whatever was being discussed on the television in front of them. Rafel knew more about the jailed bullfighter and the surgeon rapist than about his grandfather, who’d died when he was three: if he’d ever thought about that fact, he would have forced himself to smile, because he always tried to stay upbeat. That afternoon, a newscaster was explaining that a fire at a nightclub in Brazil had left 255 people dead. There were also more than three hundred wounded, a third of whom were in a serious or critical condition.
“They need disasters like that in those countries. If they don’t get rid of a few people every so often, they won’t have enough food for everybody.”
“That’s enough, Grandma. You know I don’t like when you say stuff like that.”
“It’s not that I like that they happen, but they have to. They’re necessary.”
In an attempt to change the subject, her grandson started talking about his routine. At ten on the dot he’d already lifted the shutters of the grooming salon—called Doggie Style—and was ready to solve the first furry challenge of the day.
“I don’t know what you see in dog haircuts. You do wash your hands well before you leave, right?”
“Of course, Grandma, of course.”
“I should hope so.”
Before opening up the salon that morning, Rafel had bought groceries for the week and gone to the park to walk Elvis. Rafel had never mentioned his pet to his grandmother. He had fallen in love with the tiny dog shortly after Nikki left him. Elvis had a shrewd gaze and was jumpy, and he would see him in the window of the neighborhood pet shop on his way to work. After a week, he told himself that if the little dog was still there in three days’ time he would take him home. “A dog that tiny can’t be a big problem,” the shopkeeper told him the afternoon he decided to enter the store, willing to adopt the little animal for a reasonable price. Elvis had come from a long way away. His breed was created in the fifties based on the English toy terrier and was one of the favorite pets of the Russian nobility, who for years had kept them practically in secret: Communism didn’t allow for any sort of luxuries, especially if they had Western origins. The English toy terrier turned into the Russian toy terrier (Русский той) and soon quit hunting mice—the original purpose of the breed—to devote itself to the typical frolicking of a mammal weighing barely two kilos. It was a breed loved with equal enthusiasm by skinny girls, teenagers who had already given in to the temptations of vodka, sad-eyed mothers, and fathers with those bushy mustaches that are an attempted tribute to Stalin but actually seem more like a nod to the useless majesty of sea lions.
Thanks to Elvis, Rafel had gotten over the rough breakup with Nikki. They had been together for five years, and, while there was no denying they’d reached a point of stagnation, he never thought she would up and start from scratch in Klagenfurt, a small city in Austria.
“Give me a little time, Rafel,” she’d said, taking him by the hand as if he were a child. “I need to know that I’m still alive.”
He was convinced that Nikki was going to Klagenfurt with someone else. He was hopeful that her stay wouldn’t be as idyllic as she was expecting and that after a while she’d come back to Barcelona with her tail between her legs. She thought keeping a pet in an apartment was a crime, and he hadn’t said anything about Elvis to her either. They talked on the phone once a week, and often Rafel and the little dog would gaze at each other tenderly as the conversation grew more and more difficult. He had never barked: his ancestors had had to live on the margins of the law, always on the alert for the Communist police, and he and most of his kind had inherited their silent predisposition.
“Getting a dog and losing your girlfriend is an odd combination,” Rafel had said more than once as he walked Elvis and sensed some girl’s eyes fixed on his pet. The instantaneous affection women were capable of feeling for the little Russian dog could easily segue into long dialogues that started with some anecdote about the animal and soon shifted into more personal waters. Rafel had taken down a few cell phone numbers, but he’d never called any of them. He would list them with his dog’s name in front so he wouldn’t forget the link they shared. When he’d accumulated half a dozen, he deleted them, embarrassed: if he ever got back together with Nikki, the list could be problematic.
Up to that point, Elvis had been his constant, unrivaled companion. Rafel had gotten used to sleeping with him, and the last thing he saw before he went to sleep was that pair of bright, solicitous eyes, which gazed at him with devotion until he drifted off and were often already open when he got up.
“Good morning, Elvis,” he would say.
The dog would give him a rough lick on the cheek and start wagging his tail.
If his grandmother had ever gotten over her aversion toward animals, she could have had a wonderful companion in a dog like Elvis, and maybe that would have delayed her move to the home. Rafel imagined a dog running excitedly through the apartment, brightening the morbid grayness of the rooms or eating off a little plate with its name—which would be something unimaginative like Spot or Blackie—or even sitting on her lap, wrapped in a blanket, while she enjoyed one of the not-terribly-demanding TV programs she watched religiously.
“They say the king went elephant hunting in Africa and got hurt. It seems he was with that woman,” she would’ve said to the dog, scratching its head with one of her long, indestructible fingernails. “If I were the queen, I’d put a stop to that fast.”
When Rafel went to the home and spent some time with his grandmother, he couldn’t help inventing less terrible final chapters for her life. Since he’d had Elvis, he imagined a placid old age beside a doting pet. Before, when he was still with Nikki, he had—in his mind—sent his grandmother on a Mediterranean cruise, and there she’d met an old widower like herself, needing company. They had fallen in love on the voyage, and once back in Barcelona they kept seeing each other until the man—a former insurance salesman, hard-working and reliable—suggested they move in together. Grandma left her apartment on the margins of the city and set herself up in his second home in the Maresme, which the man had scarcely visited since his wife’s death.
Rafel found the home depressing, and the stories that grew inside him helped him isolate himself from those surroundings while his grandmother let herself be abducted by the TV. It was true that she was very well looked after—she was fine there, maybe even better than in her apartment—but three or four years back there would have been no way she could have adapted to that place. Her perception had atrophied, and she wasn’t as demanding now. That’s what her grandson told himself. He wouldn’t have lasted long in that common room, surrounded by senile old folks who wiled away the time staring at a fixed-yet-vague point on the wall. He also didn’t have the stomach to play a game of dominoes with someone whose dentures might suddenly fall out on the table, much less sharing a meal with a resident afflicted by some strange mental illness that made him shout out random words every time a nurse brought a spoonful of food to his mouth. “Sunday!” “Tortoise!” “Lily pad!”
On the one hand, visiting his grandmother upset him; on the other, when he left there he had more desire to live than ever. He had to get over Nikki leaving him somehow, and he would either go out to dinner with friends or put in extra time at the dog salon, trying to save up enough money to take a trip to Australia. One Monday, when he’d decided to go to the movies on his own, he ran into a woman he’d gone to high school with, and after the film they went for a beer. Laura had been working at a pharmaceutical lab until recently. The company had just been absorbed by a French multinational that had decided to sell off its Spanish office.
“I could go work near Paris, but I don’t have much faith in them; in a few months’ time they might close the other factory,” she divulged later with a vodka tonic in front of her.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t,” said Rafel. He knew nothing about the pharmaceutical sector, yet he felt obligated to murmur words of reassurance.
“Can you imagine a year from now, when I’m all set up in Paris, they tell me that to keep my job I have to move to the Czech Republic? And then a year after that they send me to Beijing?”
Laura couldn’t imagine herself settling down and raising kids in the Chinese capital. But to have children she’d have to find a partner first. After hearing that last comment, Rafel stared at his whisky and Coke for a few seconds before finally giving her a brief account of what had happened with Nikki. They’d seen each other for the first time at one of the fruit stalls at the market five years back and struck up a conversation not long after that one day while waiting at the pharmacy. Rafel already had the dog salon and didn’t make any secret of his job, despite the expression he’d seen on other girls’ faces when he told them what he did for a living. He and Nikki had hooked up quickly and started living together six months after they’d met. She changed jobs a lot. He sheared dogs, mostly poodles and fox terriers.
“Probably not a very ambitious life, I admit, but we were happy.”
Last summer they’d visited Munich. Nikki fell in love with an engagement ring and let him know, first with a sweet look and later with flattering words, swathed in sincere romantic sentiment. The shop was very close to the hostel they were staying at. Every time they passed it, she would look at the ring, which sparkled with modern elegance amid all the other rings, necklaces, and earrings. Rafel understood that it was time to make a decision, and one evening when Nikki had fallen asleep after an exhausting visit to the castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he tiptoed out of the room, went down to the shop, and bought the ring that, once he’d presented it to her after a fancy meal out, was meant to be the prelude to their wedding.
“It didn’t work out the way I pictured it.”
“What happened?” Laura picked up her vodka tonic and waited for Rafel to answer. Then she put it back down on the table without taking a sip.
“Doesn’t matter. Now she lives in Klagenfurt, Austria. She says she needs some time.”
That night went on till late. They had another cocktail while they exhausted the virtues of the movie they’d seen that evening. Emboldened by the alcohol and the film’s tale of adultery set in a remote house in the jungles of Mozambique, Rafel and Laura ended up sleeping in the same bed together after seven minutes of sex, observed by the accepting eyes of Elvis, who hadn’t barked even during the most ardent moments.
At four in the morning, Rafel was awakened by Laura’s screams.
“I killed somebody once before in another nightmare,” she said when she woke up.
Rafel, who’d just realized he was naked, got dressed while Laura was in the bathroom. He couldn’t find his underpants anywhere, so he grabbed some fresh ones from the drawer and pulled them on quickly before his former high-school classmate came back into the room.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
Still without a stitch of clothes on—she had a more athletic body than Nikki—Laura said yeah and tried to explain the nightmare to him. There was a Jehovah’s Witness, a nosy neighbor, and two cops, who started hassling her first in the entryway of her building and then, without any transition, they were pointing out the large bloodstain covering a good part of the rug in her dining-room.
“I’d hidden the corpse from the last nightmare, but nobody knew where, not even me. I had to wait for the policemen, the Jehovah’s Witness, and the neighbor lady to leave so I could find it, but I couldn’t convince them to go, and one of the cops grabbed me by the hair and said that my trial would be starting the next day.”
Rafel listened in silence to the story, sitting on the bed, illuminated by the whitish light from the night-table. When Laura had finished, she asked if he had any pajamas, and Rafel lent her some. Elvis came into the bedroom and started to wag his tail.
“No, Elvis, not today,” he said when the dog approached the bedside.
“What a cute dog.”
“He usually sleeps with me, but he can’t just now.”
“If you want I can leave,” said Laura, winking.
They put the dog out and got naked again as they kissed with a hint of aggressiveness. The next morning, Rafel went crazy trying to find the underpants he’d lost the night before but had no luck. He even rummaged through his former high-school classmate’s bag, convinced for a few moments that he had a sex maniac in his shower. He didn’t find them there either.
As soon as she’d left he turned the room upside down, to no avail. He only heard tiny Elvis occasionally barking a complaint as he watched him from one corner of the bedroom with his ears alert and his little nose pointing up at the ceiling.
A few weeks later, Nikki called and announced to her ex-boyfriend that she was coming home at the end of the month. The news stopped him in his tracks. That was only ten days away. All of a sudden, Nikki’s time out in Austria seemed short to him. If she was leaving Klagenfurt, that meant she was giving up, that the other life wasn’t possible. And, most importantly, she’d accepted that Rafel was her path. He expressed it in those same words that evening to Laura when they were both naked on the sofa.
“So we’ll have to call it quits, right?” she asked. Then she sighed loudly and buried her face in the cushions.
Rafel was about to apologize, but he stopped himself before he said a word. He tried to swallow the indecipherable silence of the dining-room with his eyes closed. If he opened them he wouldn’t be able to ignore Laura’s tears and Elvis’s expectant gaze.
When she’d left, Rafel looked at the little dog woefully. He’d already made a decision: he would have to get rid of him before Nikki came back.
The man at the pet shop made things simple for him. He found a new owner in three days. That was one of the most complicated weeks in Rafel’s life. He never imagined that separating from Elvis would be so hard for him. He’d almost picked up the phone and called it off half a dozen times, but at the last minute he’d resisted, convinced that if he were capable of making that sacrifice for Nikki (even though she didn’t know the dog existed) they would never have problems again.
The day he said goodbye to his pet, Rafel called the dog salon and told his partner that he was in bed with a fever. He needed to cry all day long. When he went back to work, every dog reminded him of Elvis. He almost lost it when he had to groom Mrs. Roig’s Pekinese. Diminutive and obliging, the little creature licked his hands when he lifted him up onto the table where he would shear him, trembling and holding back tears.
That same night, Rafel dreamed that Elvis was back in the apartment. He was barking to get him out of bed, and he obliged, still half asleep, adjusting his pajamas. After kissing his feet, the dog stuck his nose into the rift between the headboard and the floor and pulled out the underpants he’d lost that first night with Laura.
“Good boy!” shouted Rafel as he grabbed them. After licking one of his fingers, the dog started rifling around in the slit again and pulled out a sock that Rafel didn’t remember having lost. He rescued another one before offering up a crumpled piece of paper covered in drool where Rafel could read the first three or four ingredients on a shopping list.
“You’re finding a lot of stuff down there, huh? Good boy!” he said, rubbing his head while the little dog struggled to yank something else out.
Elvis pulled out a little blue box and placed it at the feet of his master, whose eyes were wide and mouth agape. Inside was the engagement ring that Rafel had lost shortly after returning from Munich, while he was still searching for the right time to have the fancy dinner that would precede its ceremonious presentation and, if everything went well, their engagement. He had spent two weeks hunting frantically behind Nikki’s back. He couldn’t find it. Eventually he’d thrown in the towel, telling himself that he’d take some Monday or Tuesday off and hop on a plane, buy the ring again, and return home with the booty. That extra effort would mean that the wedding would happen for sure, he was convinced. Nikki had left for Klagenfurt before he was able to act out his redemptive gesture.
In the dream, Rafel didn’t open up the little blue box until Elvis nodded, as if giving him permission to continue. When he did, the ring gleamed with Nikki’s modern elegance.
“Will you marry me?” he said.
He woke up repeating the phrase. Rafel hastily flicked on the light and, before raising the blind, before even going to the bathroom, he took the bed apart piece by piece. In a corner obscured by dust were the underpants and the little blue box. The upstairs neighbor didn’t mind the victory cry—sharp and hyperbolic—that came up through the bowels of his apartment.
The first thing Nikki saw the day she came home was the little blue box on top of the dining-room table beside a bouquet of red roses and a piece of paper on which he’d written: “I love you.” She ran out of the apartment when she saw what was inside. Rafel wasn’t expecting such a euphoric reaction. As he groomed a drowsy Afghan at the salon he heard the commotion at the entrance. He didn’t even have time to put the shears down onto the tray. Nikki threw her arms around him, and as she kissed his face—the gesture was slightly canine—she said that she loved him, too, and wanted to marry him.
They had a small celebration after the civil ceremony. Both sets of parents were there, Nikki’s brother, six of her friends and five of his, and their dates—if they had one—plus his partner at the dog salon, Alejandro, and his grandmother, who’d been allowed to leave the home as long as she was with a careworker, who got drunk before the cake was served while the old woman glared at her. During one trip to the bathroom, Rafel saw that he had a new message on his phone. It said: “Congratulations. Laura.” He deleted it as soon as he’d read it and then felt bad because he didn’t have his former high-school classmate’s number saved in his contacts. He would look like a jackass, but there was no going back: the damage was done. He washed his hands and went back to the large dining-hall of the Navarran restaurant where they were throwing the reception.
Since he hadn’t been able to save up enough to go to Australia, Rafel suggested another, less flashy, honeymoon destination. But in the end both sets of parents chipped in generously to make their dream come true. They bought tickets for Adelaide, planning to drive from there to Brisbane. Then from there to Sydney, passing through Canberra and Melbourne before taking a boat to Tasmania. Once they’d seen the island, they’d return to Sydney and fly from there to Jakarta, where they would spend one night before catching a flight to Istanbul then changing planes for Barcelona.
After cutting the cake and making their final photogenic kiss, Rafel’s grandmother gestured for him to come over and asked him not to go on the trip.
“I have a premonition,” she warned him. “I think something bad is going to happen. Some disaster.”
Rafel planted a kiss on her forehead and promised her that in a month he’d be back with a little plastic kangaroo souvenir she could put on top of the TV to watch over her, even when she was sleeping.
“I don’t need anything anymore, dear.”
He took her hand and gave her another kiss on the forehead. The last one ever.
69752. That he had it tattooed there, on his left forearm, so he wouldn’t forget it. That’s what my grandfather told me. And that’s what I grew up believing. In the 1970s, telephone numbers in Guatemala were five digits long.
I called him Oitze, because he called me Oitze, which means something soppy in Yiddish. I liked his Polish accent. I liked dipping my pinkie (the only physical feature I inherited from him: these two curved little fingers, more warped every day) in his glass of whiskey. I liked asking him to draw me pictures, but he only actually knew how to draw one picture, quickly sketched, always identical, of a sinuous and disfigured hat. I liked the beet-red color of the sauce (chrain, in Yiddish) that he poured over his white ball of fish (gefilte fish, in Yiddish). I liked going with him on his walks around the neighborhood, the same neighborhood where one night, in the middle of a big vacant lot, a planeful of cows had crashed. But most of all I liked that number. His number.
It didn’t take me too long, however, to understand his telephone joke, and the psychological importance of that joke, and eventually, although nobody would admit it, the historical origin of that number. Then, when we went for walks together or he started drawing a series of hats, I would stare at those five digits and, strangely happy, play a game of inventing secret scenes of how he might have gotten them. My grandfather faceup on a hospital bed while, straddling him, an enormous German officer (dressed in black leather) shouted out the numbers one at a time to an anemic-looking German nurse (also dressed in black leather), who then handed him, one by one, the hot irons. Or my grandfather sitting on a wooden bench in front of a semicircle of Germans in white coats and white gloves, with white lights fastened around their heads, like miners, when suddenly one of the Germans stammered out a number and a clown rode in on a unicycle and all the lights shone their white light on my grandfather while the clown—with a big green marker, in ink that could never be erased—wrote that number on his forearm, and all the German scientists applauded. Or my grandfather standing at the ticket booth of a cinema, sticking his left arm in through the little round opening in the glass where they pass you the tickets, and on the other side of the window, a fat, hairy German woman setting the five digits on one of those stamps with adjustable dates like they use in banks (the same kind of stamps my dad kept on the desk in his office and that I liked to play with), and then, as if it was an extremely important date, stamping it hard and forever onto my grandfather’s forearm.
That’s how I played with his number. Clandestinely. Hypnotized by those five mysterious green digits that, much more than on his forearm, seemed to me to be tattooed on some part of his soul.
Green and mysterious until not so long ago. In the late afternoon, sitting on his old butter-colored leather sofa, I was drinking whiskey with my grandfather. I noticed that the green wasn’t as green as it used to be, but more of a diluted, pale, grayish color that made me think of something decomposing. The 7 had almost amalgamated with the 5. The 6 and the 9, unrecognizable, were now two swollen blobs, deformed and out of focus. The 2, in full flight, gave the impression of having moved a few millimeters away from the rest of them. I looked at my grandfather’s face and suddenly realized that in my childhood game, in each of my boyish fantasies, I had imagined him already old, already a grandfather. As if he’d been born a grandfather, or as if he’d aged once and for all at the very moment of receiving that number, which I was now examining so meticulously.
It was in Auschwitz.
At first, I wasn’t sure I’d heard him. I looked up. He was covering the number with his right hand. Drizzle purred against the roof tiles. This, he said, rubbing his forearm gently. It was in Auschwitz, he said. It was with the boxer, he said without looking at me and with no emotion whatsoever and speaking in an accent no longer his own.
I would have liked to ask him what it felt like when, after almost sixty years of silence, he finally said something truthful about the origin of that number. Ask him why he had said it to me. Ask him if releasing words so long stored up produced some liberating effect. Ask him if words stored up for so long had the same taste as they rolled roughly off the tongue. But I kept quiet, impatient, listening to the rain, fearing something, perhaps the intense transcendence of the moment, perhaps that he might not tell me anything more, perhaps that the true story behind those five digits might not be as fantastic as all my childhood versions.
Oitze, pour me another drop, eh, he said, handing me his glass.
I did, knowing that if my grandmother came back early from her errands, I’d be in trouble. Since he started having heart problems, my grandfather drank two ounces of whiskey at midday and another two ounces before supper. No more. Except on special occasions, of course, like a party or wedding or soccer match or a television appearance by Isabel Pantoja. But I thought he was building up strength for what he wanted to tell me. Then I thought that, by having more to drink than he should in his current state of health, telling me what he wanted to tell could upset him, possibly too much. He leaned back on the old sofa and savored that first sweet sip, and I remembered one time when, as a kid, I heard him tell my grandmother that she needed to buy more Red Label, the only whiskey he drank, even though I had recently discovered more than thirty bottles stored away in the cellar. Brand new. And I told him so. And my grandfather answered with a smile full of mystery, with wisdom full of some kind of pain I would never understand: In case there’s a war, Oitze.
He was sort of gone. His eyes were glazed over, fixed on the big window, through which we could contemplate the crests of rain falling over almost the whole of the green immensity of the Colonia Elgin ravine. He was chewing on something, a seed or a little bit of grit, perhaps. Then I noticed the top button of his gabardine pants was undone and his fly half-open.
I was at Sachsenhausen concentration camp. Near Berlin. From November of ’39.
And he licked his lips quite a bit, as if what he’d just said was edible. He was still covering the number with his right hand while, with the left, he held the whiskey glass. I picked up the bottle and asked him if he wanted me to pour him a little more, but he didn’t answer or perhaps he didn’t hear.
In Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, he continued, there were two blocks of Jewish prisoners and lots of blocks of German prisoners, maybe fifty blocks of Germans, lots of German prisoners, German thieves and German murderers and Germans who’d married Jewish women. Rassenschande, they called it in German. Racial shame.
He was quiet again, and it seemed to me that his speech was like a calm surge. Maybe because memory is also pendular. Maybe because pain can be tolerated only in measured doses. I wanted to ask him to talk to me about Łódź and his brothers and sisters and parents (he had one family photo, only one, that he’d obtained many years later from an uncle who’d emigrated before the war broke out, and which he kept hanging on the wall by his bed, and which didn’t make me feel anything, as if those pale faces weren’t of real people, but the gray and anonymous faces of characters torn from some history textbook), ask him to talk to me about everything that had happened to him before ’39, before Sachsenhausen.
The rain let up a little and a swollen white cloud began to climb out of the depths of the ravine.
I was the stubendienst of our block. The one in charge of our block. Three hundred men. Two hundred and eighty men. Three hundred and ten men. Every day a few more, every day a few less. You see, Oitze, he said as an affirmation, not a question, and I thought he was making sure of my presence, of my company, as if he didn’t want to be left alone with those words. He said, and put invisible food to his lips: I was in charge of getting them coffee in the mornings and later, in the afternoons, potato soup and a piece of bread. He said, and fanned the air with his hand: I was in charge of cleaning, of sweeping, of changing the cots. He said, and kept fanning the air with his hand: I was in charge of removing the bodies of the men who were dead in the mornings. He said, almost announcing: But I was also in charge of receiving the new Jews when they arrived in my block, when they shouted Juden eintreffen, Juden eintreffen, and I went out to meet them and I realized that almost all the Jews who came into my block had some valuable object hidden on them. A little necklace or a watch, a ring or a diamond. Something. Well hidden. Well tucked away somewhere. Sometimes they’d swallowed these objects, and then a day or two later they would come out in their shit.
He held out his glass and I poured him another shot of whiskey.
It was the first time I’d ever heard my grandfather say shit, and the word, at that moment, in that context, seemed beautiful.
Why you, Oitze? I asked him, taking advantage of a brief silence. He frowned and closed his eyes a little and stared at me as if we suddenly spoke different languages. Why did they put you in charge?
And on his old face, in his old hand, which had now stopped gesturing and gone back to covering up the number, I saw all the implications of that question. I saw the disguised question inside that question: What did you have to do for them to put you in charge? I saw the question that is never asked: What did you have to do to survive?
He smiled, shrugging his shoulders.
One day, our lagerleiter, the camp commander, just told me that I’d be in charge, and that was it.
As if you could speak the unspeakable.
Though a long time before, he went on after a sip, in ’39 when I’d just arrived at Sachsenhausen, near Berlin, our lagerleiter found me one morning hidden under the cot. I didn’t want to go and work, you see, and I thought I could stay all day hidden under the cot. I don’t know how, but the lagerleiter found me hidden under the cot and dragged me outside and started beating me here, at the base of my spine, with a wooden or maybe an iron rod. I don’t know how many times. Until I passed out. I was in bed for ten or twelve days, unable to walk. From then on, the lagerleiter changed the way he treated me. He said good morning and good afternoon to me. He told me he liked how clean I kept my cot. And one day he told me I’d be the stubendienst, the one in charge of cleaning my block. Just like that.
He sat pensively, shaking his head.
I don’t remember his name, or his face, he said, then chewed something a couple of times, turned to one side to spit it out, and as if that absolved him, as if that might be enough, added: He had very elegant hands. I should have known. My grandfather kept his own hands impeccable. Once a week, sitting in front of the increasingly loud television, my grandmother removed his cuticles with little tweezers, cut and filed his nails, and then, while she did the same to the other hand, he soaked them in a tiny dish full of a slimy transparent liquid that smelled like varnish. When both hands were done, she took a blue tin of Nivea and spread and massaged the white cream into each of his fingers, slowly, gently, until both hands had absorbed it completely, and my grandfather would then put the black stone ring back on the little finger of his right hand, where he’d worn it for almost sixty years, as a sign of mourning.
All the Jews gave me those objects they brought in secretly when they entered Sachsenhausen, near Berlin. You see. Since I was in charge. And I took those objects and negotiated in secret with the Polish cooks and obtained something even more valuable for the Jews who were coming in. I exchanged a watch for an extra piece of bread. A gold chain for a bit more coffee. A diamond for the last ladleful of soup in the pot, where the only two or three potatoes had always sunk.
The murmur on the roof tiles started up again and I began to think of those two or three insipid, overcooked potatoes that, in a world demarcated by barbed wire, were so much more valuable than the most splendid diamond.
One day, I decided to give the lagerleiter a twenty-dollar gold coin.
I took out my cigarettes and started toying with one. I could say I didn’t light it out of sorrow, out of respect for my grandfather, out of courtesy for that twenty-dollar gold coin, which I immediately imagined black and rusty. But I’d better not.
I decided to give a twenty-dollar gold coin to the lagerleiter. Maybe I thought I’d earned his trust, or maybe I wanted to get on his good side. One day, there was a Ukrainian among the group of Jews who came in, and he slipped me a twenty-dollar gold coin. The Ukrainian had smuggled it in under his tongue. Days and days with a twenty-dollar gold coin hidden under his tongue, and the Ukrainian handed it over to me, and I waited until everyone had left the block and gone out to the fields to work and then I went to the lagerleiter and gave it to him. The lagerleiter didn’t say a word. He simply put it into the top pocket of his jacket, turned around, and walked away. A few days later, I was awakened by a kick to the gut. They pushed me outside, and the lagerleiter was standing there, wearing a black raincoat and with his hands behind his back, and then I reacted and understood why they kept punching and kicking me. There was snow on the ground. No one spoke. They threw me in the back of a truck and closed the door, and I was half-dozing and shivering the whole way. It was daytime when the truck finally stopped. Through a crack in the wood I could see the big sign over the metal gate. Arbeit Macht Frei, it said. Work shall set you free. I heard laughter. But cynical laughter, you see, dirty laughter, mocking me with that stupid sign. Someone opened the back of the truck. They ordered me to get out. There was snow everywhere. I saw the Black Wall. Then I saw Block Eleven. It was ’42 by then and we’d all heard about Block Eleven at Auschwitz. We knew that people who went into Block Eleven at Auschwitz never came out. They threw me into a cell and left me there, lying on the floor in Block Eleven in Auschwitz.
In a futile but somehow necessary gesture, my grandfather lifted his glass, now empty of whiskey, to his lips.
It was a dark cell. Very damp. With a low ceiling. There was hardly any light at all. Or air. Just damp. And people piled up. Lots of people piled up. Some people crying. Other people murmuring the Kaddish.
I lit my cigarette.
My grandfather used to say that I was the same age as traffic lights, because the first traffic light in Guatemala had been installed at some intersection downtown the very day I was born. Idling in front of a traffic light was also where I asked my mother how babies got into women’s tummies. I was half-kneeling on the backseat of an enormous jade-colored Volvo that, for some reason, vibrated when it stopped at traffic lights. I didn’t mention that a friend (Hasbun) had confidentially told us during recess that a woman got pregnant when a man gave her a kiss on the lips, and another friend (Asturias) had argued, much more audaciously, that a man and a woman had to take off all their clothes together and then shower together and then even sleep together in the same bed, without having to touch each other. I stood in that wonderful space between the backseat and the two front seats and waited for an answer. The Volvo vibrated before a red light on Vista Hermosa Boulevard, the sky entirely blue, the smell of tobacco and aniseed chewing gum, the black and sugary look of a campesino in rough sandals who came over to beg for change, my mother’s embarrassed silence as she tried to find some words, these words: Well, when a woman wants a baby, she goes to the doctor and he gives her a blue pill if she wants a little boy and a pink pill if she wants a little girl, and then she takes the pill and that’s it, she gets pregnant. The light turned green. The Volvo stopped vibrating and I, still standing and holding on to whatever I could so I wouldn’t go flying, imagined myself stuck in a glass jar, all mixed up among blue little boys and pink little girls, my name engraved in bas-relief) just like the name Bayer on the aspirins I had to take sometimes and that tasted so much like plaster), still and silent as I waited for some lady to arrive at the doctor’s clinic) I saw her wide and distorted through the glass, like in one of those undulating mirrors at the circus) and swallow me with a little water (and with the ingenuous perception of a child, of course, I perceived the cruelty of chance, the casual violence that would toss me into the open hand of some woman, any woman, a big, sweaty, fortuitous hand that would then throw me into a mouth just as big, sweaty, and fortuitous) in order, finally, to introduce me into an unknown tummy so that I could be born. I’ve never been able to shake off the feeling of solitude and abandonment I felt stuck in that glass jar. Sometimes I forget it, or perhaps decide to forget it, or perhaps, absurdly, assure myself that I’ve completely forgotten it. Until something, anything, the slightest thing, sticks me back into that glass jar. For example: my first sexual encounter, at the age of fifteen, with a prostitute in a five-peso brothel called El Puente. For example: a mistaken room at the end of a trip to the Balkans. For example: a yellow canary that, in the middle of a square in Tecpán, chose a secret and pink prophecy. For example: the last icy handshake from a stuttering friend. For example: the claustrophobic image of the dark, damp, crowded cell stuffed with whispers where my grandfather was locked up, sixty years ago, in Block Eleven, in Auschwitz.
People crying and people saying Kaddish.
I brought over the ashtray. I felt a little light-headed, but I poured us the rest of the whiskey anyway.
What else have you got left when you know the next day you’re going to be shot, eh? Nothing. You either lie down and cry or you lie down and say Kaddish. I didn’t know the Kaddish. But that night, for the first time in my life, I also said Kaddish. I said Kaddish thinking of my parents and I said Kaddish thinking that the next day I’d be shot kneeling in front of the Black Wall of Auschwitz. It was ’42 by then and we’d all heard of the Black Wall at Auschwitz and I had seen the Black Wall with my own eyes as I got out of the truck and knew perfectly well that was where they shot people. Gnadenschuss, a single shot to the back of the neck. But the Black Wall of Auschwitz didn’t look as big as I’d imagined. It didn’t look as black, either. It was black, with little white pockmarks. It had white pockmarks all over it, said my grandfather while pressing invisible aerial keys with his index finger, and I, smoking, imagined a starry sky. He said: Splashes of white. He said: Made by the very bullets that had gone through the backs of so many necks.
It was very dark in the cell, he went on quickly, as if not to get lost in that same darkness. And a man sitting beside me began to speak to me in Polish. Maybe he heard me saying Kaddish and recognized my accent. He was a Jew from Łódź. We were both Jews from Łódź, but I was from Żeromskiego Street, near the Źielony Rynek market, and he was from the opposite side, near Poniatowskiego Park. He was a boxer from Łódź. A Polish boxer. And we talked all night in Polish. Or rather, he talked to me all night in Polish. He told me in Polish that he had been there for a long time, in Block Eleven, and that the Germans kept him alive because they liked to watch him box. He told me in Polish that the next day they’d put me on trial and he told me in Polish what I should say during that trial and what I shouldn’t say during that trial. And that’s how it went. The next day, two Germans dragged me out of the cell, took me to a young Jewish man, who tattooed this number on my arm, and then they left me in an office, where I was put on trial by a young woman, and I saved myself by telling this young woman everything the Polish boxer had told me to say and not telling the young woman everything the Polish boxer had told me not to say. You see? I used his words and his words saved my life and I never knew the Polish boxer’s name, never saw his face. He was probably shot.
I stubbed out my cigarette in the ashtray and downed the last sip of whiskey. I wanted to ask him something about the number or about that young Jewish man who had tattooed him. But I only asked what the Polish boxer had said. He seemed not to understand my question, and so I repeated it, a bit louder, a bit more anxiously. What did the boxer tell you to say and not say, Oitze, during that trial?
My grandfather laughed, still confused, and leaned back, and I remembered that he refused to speak Polish, that he had spent sixty years refusing to speak a single word in his mother tongue, in the mother tongue of those who, in November of ’39, he always said, had betrayed him.
I never found out if my grandfather didn’t remember the Polish boxer’s words, or if he chose not to tell them to me, or if they simply didn’t matter anymore, if they had now served their purpose as words and so had disappeared forever, along with the Polish boxer who spoke them one dark night.
Once more, I sat looking at my grandfather’s number, 69752, tattooed one winter morning in ’42, by a young Jew in Auschwitz. I tried to imagine the face of the Polish boxer, imagine his fists, imagine the possible white pockmark the bullet had made after going through his neck, imagine his words in Polish that managed to save my grandfather’s life, but all I could imagine was an endless line of individuals, all naked, all pale, all thin, all weeping or saying Kaddish in absolute silence, all devout believers in a religion whose faith is based on numbers, as they waited in line to be numbered themselves.
Someone, probably the ticket inspector, told him that his was the only suitcase. No one else was going to Alquila today. There’s no way it can get lost. But Hernández insisted on taking it with him. I like to keep an eye on my things.
On the platform Hernández ate a few biscuits, bought a bottle of water and nervously smoked his way through two or three cigarettes. Then the door to the bus opened, and he rushed inside even though he was the only one waiting. I need to keep it with me, he explained to the driver as he climbed the narrow steps. I have my medicine in here. The driver nodded without looking around, gripping his steering-wheel more tightly.
A superstitious man, Padilla was afraid that something would happen to his bus if he spoke before starting off, just as he never spoke before getting to the mountains to make sure that nothing happened to his passengers.
By then, Hernández had taken over a row of seats and put his suitcase in the aisle. He was excited to be the only one taking the bus to Alquila that day.
Don’t block the aisle, Padilla said as the bus went around a bend. Surprised, Hernández sat up to look at the driver in the mirror. Smiling, he asked, Are you serious?
It’s dangerous for the other passengers, Padilla answered, looking back at Hernández. Rules are rules, he added without revealing the real reason: if he allowed something to block the aisle they’d have an accident or, at best, be delayed.
Pointing to the seats around him, Hernández was ready to argue the point, but Padilla was an experienced driver, and he quickly looked away from the mirror and turned up the volume on the radio. Shaking his head, Hernández decided to ignore him and lay back down.
A few minutes later, while the driver fumed in his seat, Hernández took a map out from his jacket pocket. He had ordered it by mail. Now, he excitedly but carefully unfolded it and examined it for a long time. He was finally going to see her.
Hernández had met Romina three weeks before at a Faculty of Architecture party that had almost ended up with the two of them in bed. I’d love to see you in Alquila, she’d told him in the foyer of his block of flats. Whenever you like.
Since then it had been all Hernández could think about. At twenty years old he was the only one of his friends who was still a virgin – and Romina was his only viable option for getting rid of a label under which he had suffered for too long.
He was so nervous he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to get any rest on the trip, even though it would last all night. What if I come too soon? Hernández agonized in silence. What if I don’t last a minute? What if I come as soon as I see her naked?
Hernández folded up the map and put it away then reached for his suitcase, took out a bag and checked that he had everything he needed: four packets of condoms (Who knows how many I’ll waste out of nerves?), a box of Viagra (In case I get stage fright) and sleeping pills for the trip, which had been recommended by another customer in the pharmacy.
Although the box said that two would be enough, Hernández, who couldn’t get the image of Romina’s body or his fears about the potential failings of his own body out of his head, decided to take four. There’s plenty of time after all, he murmured before taking a swig from his bottle and lying back down, hoping that the effects would be immediate.
Just then the driver lowered the ten screens that had thus far been hidden, and a stewardess’ voice started to play very loud. You’re really getting on my nerves, Hernández exclaimed, sitting up with a jolt. Then he raised his voice. I don’t want to watch the movie! But Padilla pretended not to hear, and as soon as the advert for the coach company that paid his salary had finished he turned the speakers up as high as they would go. Covering his ears and clenching his jaw, Hernández realized the absurd situation he was in. He got up and walked down the aisle to Padilla. Please, can you turn it off? I assure you that no one is going to watch the movie, he added a few moments later, tugging the corners of his mouth into the most unconvincing smile imaginable.
That’s not possible, Padilla replied after another brief silence. It’s the rules. And although you may not respect them, I follow them to the letter. He turned to look at his passenger. Hernández’s smile faded from his face. Go back to your seat. You can’t stand here. It’s not allowed.
Fighting the urge to swear at him, Hernández bit back his frustration, turned around and started to walk back down the aisle. Then he quietly asked, Can’t you at least lower the volume a little?
Impossible, Padilla said, accelerating in an attempt to throw his passenger to the ground. I can’t touch the volume. Regulations.
Hernández kept his balance and hurried back to his seat, smiling again, this time out of impotence rather than condescension. He shook his head in anger, mumbled a couple of words that not even he understood and went back to his four seats with his tail firmly between his legs. Fortunately, the pills were already beginning to take effect. Now nothing, not the noise and glare from the television screens or Padilla’s jerky driving, would bother Hernández. As soon as he lay down his mind went blank.
Hernández slept so deeply and was so oblivious to the world that he wasn’t aware of anything more until they got to Alquila. Padilla, who had done all he could to make the journey a waking nightmare, shook his arm saying Come on, you bastard, we’re here. Get up. It’s not my job to wake you up. Then he pushed Hernández’s legs with the sole of his shoe. And I don’t have to wait for you either. Get yourself out, or I’ll do it for you, the driver threatened, kicking Hernández again. Feeling his heels on the ground, the passenger woke up. Fine, fine, I heard you. I’m going. After wiping the drool from his chin and rubbing his face with his hands, Hernández stood up, registered that he was still a little dizzy, picked up the suitcase as best he could and followed the driver, who was mumbling, I hope this place treats you the way you deserve.
Out in the street, fighting the dizziness the pills had left behind, Hernández rubbed his face and shook his head again before looking around. The sun was just coming up, and he couldn’t believe that Alquila was even uglier than it had looked in Romina’s photos.
Moments later someone, maybe the driver who would take charge of the bus after Padilla, told him how to get to the plaza – Not that there’s much point. There’s nothing to see here. Paying no attention to the stranger’s last words, Hernández set out and soon covered the six or seven blocks that separated him from his destination. Around him, light was flooding across the ground.
It’s too early to call her, Hernández said to himself, hugging his bag. He sat down on a bench and went on, I’m not going to wake her up just now and definitely not her parents. But he was just making excuses. He was a bundle of nerves. What the hell am I going to say to her when she answers? I’d better not call her. What if she doesn’t want to…? What if she’s changed her mind? he said as the plaza filled with people hurrying to and fro. He looked up and saw the sun appear behind the green church steeple. Then he raised his voice, trying to conquer his fears, What the hell am I thinking? Of course I’m going to call her.
Why would she have changed her mind? He exclaimed even louder, getting up. She would have told me. But I’ll have breakfast first to give her a little more time, he added, setting off across the plaza in search of somewhere to have breakfast, oblivious to the fact that this was just another pretext. Neither did he notice was how unusual it was for people to be hurrying around so urgently at that hour.
Then someone, maybe the man at the newspaper kiosk, told him that the best place for breakfast was the restaurant run by Doña Eumelia, The one on the other side of the plaza, next to the stationer’s. But hurry up, you don’t have much time. I don’t think it’ll be open for much longer. But Hernández was already walking off, so he didn’t hear the warning. As he went into the restaurant, Hernández smiled, thinking to himself that he’d solved a couple of problems in one: he could eat something and pass the time and also buy some paper in which to wrap up Romina’s present. If she has changed her mind, the present might change it back again, he thought as he ordered eggs. Then he sat down, looking at the window display of the stationer’s, examining the different rolls of wrapping paper. Eventually, Hernández opted for a blue roll and went over to the counter to ask the shop girl, Doña Eumelia’s niece and first cousin, who was staring fixedly at the television, Can I have a metre of this one?
No, the shop girl answered, barely looking at Hernández. That paper is for children. Also, I’m watching the news. And you’re not from around here. I don’t like to deal with strangers, the shop girl said rudely without taking her eyes off the television. Just for children. Damn, Hernández said, smiling. Strangers… then give me a metre of that one.
I can’t, I already told you, the shop girl said irritably, looking at Hernández for the first time.
What if I get a child to buy it for me? Hernández asked, turning to the plaza with an incredulous smile as he tried to make sense of the situation.
Who would use it? You or the child? The shop girl asked, coming over to the counter but still staring at the television, where a local news presenter was saying, It’s going to be another difficult day.
It’s for me not the child. I was just making a joke, Hernández explained. I need to wrap a present –
Then stop asking, liar, the shop girl interrupted him. People come from outside and bring their bad manners with them, she added, turning around and going back to her seat. I’m not going to sell you anything. Too incredulous to be upset, Hernández considered trying again, but the shop girl got up from her seat, hurried back to the counter, pushed past him and poked her head into the other side of the premises where the restaurant was. They’re coming back.
Defeated, Hernández walked back to his table, just as Doña Eumelia was serving him his eggs, which would never be eaten.
Now they’re saying, said the shop girl behind Hernández, who watched Doña Eumelia walk to the threshold and look out at the street, that they’re already here. A couple of seconds later the shop girl and Doña Eumelia had lowered the shutters of the premises they shared, turned off the lights, hurried over to Hernández, picked him up and, saying We’re sorry but you can’t stay here, violently dragged him out back and thrown him out onto the street.
Someone, maybe one of the men running across the plaza, said to Hernández, Why are you just standing there? And someone else added, Run, they’re coming… they’re down here already, they’re everywhere.
Utterly confused, Hernández started to run after the men who’d spoken to him. A couple of blocks later, he heard the first explosions and the rattling of machine-gun fire. Gripped by fear, he felt his joints begin to creak and freeze up.
Romina, thought Hernández, still running. I have to call her. He took out his telephone in the middle of the street and hid in a doorway ready to dial, but someone, maybe a woman running along with two children in her arms, said, Don’t stop. They cut off the service. Utterly bewildered, Hernández put away his telephone, took out the map on which Romina had written her address and started to run in a daze, hearing the shots and explosions get closer and closer. A few paces further on, the woman tripped on a crack in the road and fell to the ground, sending her children tumbling.
Hernández helped her back up, picked up one of her children and ran as he’d never run before. He asked the woman if she knew how to get to Arteaga 17. You’re in luck… we’re close by… Just go around the corner and keep going straight on… It’s five, no, it must be four blocks. Or come with me and help my boy… You can hide at my house.
I’m sorry… really, said Hernández, stopping for a second to look at the woman and the child on the ground. He had no way of knowing that the decision he was taking would end up being the most important of his life. But he wanted to get to Romina’s house. The machine-gun fire and explosions continued in the distance. Turning at the corner the woman had pointed out to him, Hernández moved his legs impossibly fast. His chest felt as though it might burst at any moment, but he found strength he never knew he had. And so he arrived at the house he was looking for and started desperately banging on the door, shouting Romina’s name over and over again.
But no one came to answer. He couldn’t hear a thing behind the door, not a murmur. Romina’s family was hiding in the bathroom, and, although they heard the racket Hernández was making, the head of the family warned them, Don’t make a sound. I don’t want to hear a peep out of you. I don’t even want to hear you breathe. We don’t know who’s out there, who’s wandering the streets. Romina’s father stared hard at Romina, who was crying in silence. The more noise Hernández made, the deeper she burrowed her head into her arms. Maybe if we knew who it was, the head of the family whispered, but we don’t know him. We can’t take the risk.
When he had finally accepted the fact that the door he was kicking and thumping wouldn’t be opened, Hernández remembered the woman and the two children he’d abandoned. Lost and scared, he ran back the way he had come, but someone, maybe a woman on the roof, shouted out to him, The other way… run the other way… They’re coming that way.
Before Hernández had absorbed this piece of advice, a man cried out, and the people who were terrorizing the town came around the corner. Turning around, Hernández started to get his legs moving in the other direction, but then he stopped. They were at the other corner, too.
He froze and felt his bladder begin to fail. Hernández waited for the men to come towards him. When they finally arrived, he tried to say something, but someone, maybe the man who smashed in his jaw with the butt of the rifle, pre-empted him.
Before his eyes closed and he lost consciousness, Hernández saw the man who had hit him walk away and then heard the giggling of a pair of small boys, who were also armed.
Clinging on to the world by a thin thread of amazement, Hernández heard a woman’s voice giving orders. Load him up with his things… He must be an outsider.
Hernández felt nothing as they dragged him away, tied up his hands and feet and threw him into the back of a truck.
He came to a couple of hours later when someone, maybe one of the children who had laughed before, poured a bucket of water over his head. But when he finally opened his eyes, no one was there.
All he could see was a mess. They’d emptied out his suitcase in the back yard where he was lying. He looked up at the sun for a moment and felt a prickling across his entire body. He found that his T-shirt had been removed, his shoes taken off and his wrists and ankles throbbed with pain.
A couple of minutes later the woman who had ordered that he be brought with them appeared. Spitting out tangerine seeds, she stepped around the clothes and bent down next to Hernández. In a quiet voice she murmured, You’re not from around here. Then she moved around behind him and cut the ropes with which he had been tied up.
Stand up and follow me, she ordered, and it was then, hearing her voice, that Hernández realized that it reminded him of someone else. He’d heard it before. Maybe it was that woman, he thought. No, it was just like Romina’s voice. Or her mother’s.
Before he could continue with the nonsensical, absurd line of thought to which he clung so as not to have to think about anything else, to get away from where he was, Hernández found himself in a room. He and the woman he was following were met by a dozen adults and three or four children.
Hernández was hit again in the solar plexus and bent over before falling to his knees. Scratching at the earth, he tried to regain his breath, choke back the saliva running out from his mouth and dry his wet eyes. Around him people were laughing.
Someone, maybe the man who appeared to be the boss in that dark room, said, So you’ve come to fuck our wives. Surprised and terrified, Hernández thought, without knowing why or making any attempt to explain it now, that he also knew the voice that was talking to him. He’d heard it before, too.
Maybe it’s the man who hit me in the street, Hernández said to himself, as the laughter around him slowly faded away. No… it’s the driver… the one who brought me… Or, no… it’s Romina’s father, he thought to himself in silence. I heard him on the phone.
I’m talking to you, you son of a bitch! shouted the voice, and this time, instead of hitting Hernández, the man lifted up his head and waved several packets of condoms and a pack of Viagra in his face. You’ve come to fuck our girls, haven’t you?
Before Hernández managed to say anything, the man slapped him a couple of times. Well, as you can see, that’s not going to happen! The rules are different here! he added, hitting him again but this time with his fists. We’re in charge!
And do you know what I’m going to order now? asked the man, finally letting Hernández’s face go and looking around at the others who were there. For someone to be the first to volunteer.
Someone, maybe the one who had tied up Hernández, spoke up before the others.
And the other people there left the room, one by one.
She called you two weeks ago. Just like that. Out of the blue. Today is Mother’s Day, and you’re going to see her again. You wanted to make as good a start to the day as possible, but on Saturday night you went to bed late and drunk and she wakes you with another phone call at twenty past eleven the next morning. She’s called to ask if you’re coming to lunch as you agreed. You say that you are. She asks if Fernanda is coming, too. You say that she isn’t; you already told her that. She asks you, please, not to be late, and you hang up. Over the past few days a voice in your head has been telling you that it’s your fault that you haven’t seen her in all this time, and you’ve begun to think about how that might have made her feel. Being with her is a trick you learned when you were a boy, but since you’ve grown up you haven’t been able to do it so well. Also, whenever you make an effort to be nice you lose patience. But for some reason you think things will work themselves out at the lunch. On Friday afternoon you got her a gift. You can’t remember the last time you did that. And you have something to say to her, a few phrases that will make everything right.
It’s midday on the third Sunday of October in a year that doesn’t and will never have a decade. You step into the bath and slip into cloudy, impeccable nothingness, like in an advert for cream or salt. You’re shrouded in silence. You’re swimming in a pool on the roof of a tower of thirty dark floors. No one else is there. You lean your back against the tiles and look up: no light or noise. The water is so clear that you don’t notice when it’s gone. The floor is grass, and you walk like Kwai Chang Caine, like Johnnie Walker in a Scottish meadow; there are white sheep that turn into a white cloud, and you open your eyes, cough and spit out a little cold water. You have no idea what time it is because in the bath it’s always late at night. Then you hear the noise of the traffic and, on the other side of the wall, a neighbour flushing the toilet before washing their hands and closing the door behind them.
Something on that corner of the avenue seems familiar. Almost without thinking you walk the blocks that separate your flat from the area where you lived with your mum and sister a few years ago. Only now, going back, do you realize that you never went very far. You can’t remember what used to be on the avenue. It definitely wasn’t a pair of internet cafés.
To pass by the door, acting on a somewhat morbid urge to see how things have changed, you’d just have to turn the corner and carry on for half a block, but you don’t move. Your phone tells you that it’s ten past two. You hail a taxi, and when it pulls off you search your pockets for money. When you arrive you have to explain to the doorman who you are. He doesn’t believe you’re her son; he’s never seen you before. He makes you ring the bell. Fourteenth floor. He asks you if you were away travelling. You smile and look away. On the desk from which he presides over the lobby is an expensive mobile phone. Finally, a strange man’s voice tells you that you can come up. In the lift you tidy your hair and clothes in the mirror. You stare at your face and think about your sister. Somehow you feel that you abandoned her. For a long time, during those early years in Buenos Aires, you two were the only things that didn’t fall apart. Your mum’s big hair and your skinny dad with his moustache. You were both trapped on their merry-go-round like a fare fought over by a pair of taxi drivers on a slow night.
But all that’s over now. It’s simpler. You just have to share a few meals a year with the two women, plus a guy and his family, in a fourteenth-floor flat with a landing, open door and, behind it, a window that looks out onto a balcony, the nature reserve and the river behind it. You go inside, but no one’s around. You come back out, ring the bell and wait, but nothing happens. You wander around the living-room and bend over to read the spines of books and inspect the smiling faces in the picture frames. Your movements are tense and cautious, as though the decorations might disintegrate at the slightest touch. Or as though you were burgling the house of a family that has gone out to spend the day in the countryside.
Naked except for a towel, a blonde girl who isn’t your sister comes down the hall. Before closing the door to the bedroom she turns to look at you for an interminable second. Then your mother appears by her side and gives you a hug. She hasn’t changed – a little thinner, the hair blonder and in a different style, new, less-crumpled clothes, but the same. She steps back, rests her hands on your shoulders, looks at you and hugs you again. Then she steps back again. She’s crying. She says that she’s crying from joy. You put your hand in your jacket pocket and feel the package inside. You hug and kiss again. You’re about to open your mouth when she steps back again. Her eyes are red. She tells you to follow her. She wants to show you the flat. But all the doors to the bedrooms are locked. She says that they must be getting changed and shows you the bathrooms; one of them is still full of steam, foam, and there is a wet pair of burgundy-coloured panties hanging from the tap. You sneeze once, and again. She says that it must be the carpet. You’d better go into the kitchen. You keep on sneezing; it’s almost as if you were doing it on purpose, as though for some reason you were trying to make a show of being uncomfortable.
As you blow your nose she asks if you can do her a favour. “What?” Everyone’s busy getting ready and she still has to take a shower, but she miscalculated and needs more cream for the sauce and also there’s no wine, and Gustavo doesn’t like to eat without wine. A door opens, and a man’s voice, the same voice you heard distorted through the intercom, asks where something is. Who cares if he doesn’t like to eat without wine? He can get it himself. You’re alone together, and you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. But at the same time you suddenly feel shy, and you agree to go out. She asks you to take Lucky with you. The dog comes out from the laundry room, stretching.
It’s a new neighbourhood built on land reclaimed from the river, a country club of towers. All the buildings are enormous, spaced out as though the ground wouldn’t be able to hold them if they were any closer together. They’re surrounded by well-kept squares with recently planted trees and new benches. In another life your best ideas came when you walked this same dog through run-down plazas, smoking for blocks along streets that you no longer dare to go back to. From the outside the only supermarket in the area looks like a designer boutique. You tie the dog up and walk towards the sliding doors, which open on their own. A guard grabs your arm and tells you that you can’t leave a dog tied up on the pavement. You try to argue, but he just points at a sign that declares it is prohibited and then to the dog’s lead tied up to the lamp-post.
You walk a further six blocks along the avenue to a Korean supermarket. You go straight to the refrigerator with the dairy products. The smell of floor cleaner tickles your nose. You compare several different kinds of wines and pick a couple of the more expensive bottles. At the till the lady in front drops all her things on the belt and walks forward so she’s standing opposite the cashier. The cashier can barely see her over the till. On the black rubber belt are a lettuce, paper napkins, bread, a cut of beef you’ve never eaten and two cartons of wine. She asks the cashier to let her know when the bill comes to twenty pesos. The cashier says that they’re at nineteen pesos forty, and one of the wine cartons stays where it is. She has everything else in two bags. You don’t see what happened to the other wine carton – if she has bought it or not – because as she opens her purse she tells the cashier that food is very expensive. How can food be so expensive? She takes out a wrinkled twenty-peso note, the kind of note you’d see in the hands of a child going shopping for the first time, a note that spent years rolled up in the trunk of a ceramic elephant studded with glass jewels. As she smooths it out before giving it to the cashier, she asks her if she has a mother. Then she asks if she minds working on Mother’s Day. They should change what Mother’s Day is, she says.
She’s wearing dark glasses and shorts that reach down to her white knees, making her look a little out of place. You can sometimes tell what people are about to say from their postures. Her mummy lost her mummy – she says “mummy” twice – when she was very little, and she always felt bad on Mother’s Day.
The cashier is looking blankly at the special offers at the butcher’s counter. By now she must not see words, just exclamation marks and numbers all along the aisle. Numbers and exclamation marks at every imaginable angle on the signs and labels, with bleach-scented light shining down from the ceiling. The woman goes on talking. She says that there was a time when it was called the Day of the Family, and she thinks that’s better. You put the cream on the belt. The wine carton isn’t there. It cost a tenth of the wine you’re going to buy. While you pay you peer outside worriedly to make sure that the dog’s still there. You walk back quickly, almost without moving your arms, as though the cream will go bad if shaken outdoors.
They’re all sitting around the table. You kiss your sister, shake hands with Gustavo, kiss each of their daughters and the youngest son, although you can’t believe that he’s wearing one of your T-shirts. You don’t say anything. She’s the one who mentions it, as if it will somehow bring you closer. He must be sixteen or seventeen. He’s one of those teenagers who’s done his growing already. He’s tall, skinny, wears his hair slightly long, and you don’t know whether he shaves or if his beard hasn’t come out yet. He barely says anything at the table. You wonder whether you have anything else in common; he must be using a lot of your things. You tell her that she should have asked. She glares at you for a second and grabs your hand. Then she gives you an exaggerated, slightly absurd compliment that you find more annoying than embarrassing. You don’t say anything, and she tries to kiss you in front of everyone, but you move so she just brushes you. You snatch your hand away. You can’t help it. It’s as though something physical has got lost along the way.
And she’s living with another man. It’s not that you mind – in fact, you liked Gustavo right from the start, after he said “So you paint?” After a couple of glasses of wine you rediscover the layer of genuine empathy that has always made your interactions with other people easier. You like how he treats her, how he speaks to her and the jokes he makes to cheer her up after what you say. And the story he tells. The week before he went on a trip and got caught up in a road block. But it’s his tone more than anything. By now you’re guaranteed to like him whatever he says about the incident.
It seems that ahead of him was a minibus carrying a band that was supposed to be playing a gig in another city that night. They were late, and some of the musicians and a few others who didn’t look very musical got out to see what was going on. After a while a couple of band members started to play with the protesters’ drums, and everyone sang and chanted. Almost all of them were children, teenagers or women, he says. Of all ages, thirty-something and up. They had turned five bicycles upside down, with the seats resting on the asphalt, and a couple of kilometres of cars and trucks had backed up on either side. Then the musicians took pictures of themselves in front of the protestors’ flag, all of them smiling. Make sure that the organization’s crest is in there, shouted one of the women. And another said, This is all very well, but the roadblock stays.
They were from a town a couple of miles away and were protesting against plans for a refinery to be built in the area. The musicians had to keep going; they weren’t going to get there in time, and the organizer of the gig went over to plead with the protestors. He said that they supported the cause, they supported every cause. In fact, the worn-out green army jacket he was wearing had been given to him by El Perro a couple of weeks ago. Gustavo made a face to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. They supported the cause, the organizer said again, and he offered to read out the protestors’ petition on stage that night. Then he gave them several copies of the band’s first album and a few of their second, too.
His two daughters are there as well. You know that one is called Delfina and the other Belén, but you can’t remember which is which. They told you when you were introduced – you stared at the one who’d been wearing the towel – but you didn’t say their names out loud; you weren’t paying attention. The tablecloth is getting dirtier and dirtier. They’re both blonde. One is twenty-six, the other twenty-three. One of them says something about the musicians, something like all women like musicians but then end up marrying someone with money. It could have been worse; she might have said “painters” or “artists”. Gustavo answers, Only the stupid ones. He says it nicely, as though he’s still trying to teach her things.
The twenty-three-year-old seems like the eldest, your mother told you over the phone in an amused voice. You’re a little annoyed that she’s acting so familiarly, but, then again, if you lived there you’d be meeting her in the middle of the night in the kitchen, in a nightshirt, sitting on the counter, stretching out her pale legs next to you, her burgundy-coloured panties bunched to one side in the light of the open refrigerator and the green numbers of the clock on the microwave reflected in the window. And then they tell you that they’ve changed the dog’s name. Now its name is Eliot because “they like it better”. You have nothing against T.S. Eliot, Eliot Ness, Billy Elliot, Elliott Smith, Elliott Murphy or Missy Elliott, but people can’t go about changing a dog’s name, so you start calling him. “Lakiii…! Lakiii!” you shout, louder and louder.
Then you stop because everyone is staring at you except for your sister. Belén and Delfina make faces, and you see the resemblance even if you can’t tell which is which. For a second you think that family is something you catch. Then you realize that your sister is closer to them than you, and you feel that somehow you weren’t a good older brother. But it’s too late now. For another second you think that your relationship with her is like the plant the previous owners left behind in your flat. The plant you don’t water, not even in summer, but which still survives and sometimes even flowers.
The only moment you get alone with her, you don’t know what it is, but you can’t give her the gift. You feel as though the package were broken or the product faulty when you had it all planned out perfectly in your head. You start to cough and sneeze, and Gustavo sticks his head around the door to see what’s going on. He asks you if you’re all right, and she rubs a cloth in your face, a paper napkin. She tells you that you need to quit smoking. It’s not good for you. That’s it, you want to leave. She says “please”. You think that she’s going to say something more, but she just says “please” again and looks at you. It’s raining hard, and Gustavo offers to give you a lift. If you say no you’ll end up ruining the day, and it really didn’t go all that badly. Much as you try not to you can’t help feeling a kind of twisted regret; every time you leave you feel like you should have stayed, and whenever you stay a little longer you feel as though you should have left.
The only sound inside the car is the muffled noise made by the windscreen wipers. When he stops for a traffic light Gustavo sees the bag in your hand and asks you what it is. You say that it’s a gift from someone that you don’t want. “Thanks for reminding me.” You forgot that you were planning to exchange it. If you don’t go now you never will. He says that on Sundays shops don’t usually accept exchanges or returns, but you just want to get out of the car without offending him. You say that now that the rain is letting up you’ll give it a try. He can just drop you off on the avenue. Before getting out you shake hands and hug briefly.
There’s a queue of cars at the petrol station. People are inflating their tyres and filling up their tanks before getting locked back into their routines on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon still has that fixed sense of melancholy that comes with the knowledge that you’ll have to go to school the next day, especially on an afternoon like this when you have lots to do and no time to think. You’re going to tidy up a little and finish a bottle of wine that’s waiting to be finished, and as you’re thinking about that you see the woman who lives on the sixth floor sitting in the lobby. She’s using the chair the caretaker sits on when he has nothing to do.
You pass by her in silence because ever since you got out of the car you’ve been feeling a little slow. She’s lived in the building with her two children – a boy and a girl, about six or seven, who always shout when they get out of the lift – since before you moved in. She’s from Brazil, but her ex is Argentinian. You once exchanged a few words with him at the door of the building as he was waiting for his children to come down. From her expression it looks as though she’s waiting for him to bring them back. Your dad was always late when he had to come to pick you up – an hour or two. You drop your keys, and she turns to look at you. She looks at you without seeing anything, a little slow herself. You say “Hello” as you push the button to call the lift, but she doesn’t answer, and you say that someone must not have closed the lift doors properly. You peer into the gap between the frame and the door and say, “Someone must be unloading a whole floor full of shopping.” But she still doesn’t answer and continues to stare blankly out into the street. Suddenly she leans towards you and says, as though she were completing a sentence she’d started in her head, or was saying just before you arrived, that fortunately her ex-husband has taken the kids to his house. The boy is getting impossible; he hit her this morning.
There’s something about her annoyance with her son and the exhaustion in her voice and face that make you look her up and down for the first time, noticing the body under the tights and T-shirt. You tell her that your grandmother, your “mum’s mum”, used to say, “There’s nothing worse in the world than hitting your mother.” She laughs. You think that you might be able make yourself attractive to her by adopting an air of gentle empathy and youthful vigour. You’re sure that’s the right approach, but you can’t think what to say, so you start to shake the package. The sound of the metal door opening makes you jump. It’s the elderly couple who live on the fifth floor. They always take a couple of minutes to leave the building.
You get into the lift together, and only when you get to the fourth floor do you say, “So you’re on your own…” You feel strange knowing that another flat in the building in which you live is both identical and different from your own. Maybe you’re a little frightened at the prospect of glancing into the children’s room and seeing their still unmade beds, clothes on the floor and the black arm of an articulated toy figure. “Until tomorrow afternoon, thank goodness, when they come back from school,” she says before opening the door, getting out and looking at you from the hallway. The nightshirt you were going to give your mother would suit her. Maybe it would be a little tight and a little short. You’d like to say something about tonight, about how it’s better to spend Sunday nights with someone, to tell her that you have an almost full bottle of wine that needs finishing, but you don’t say a word, and she says, even though it’s only six in the evening, “Sleep well,” and closes the lift door.
The living-room in your flat is an empty mess, and you left the lights on. On the table are three open books, a full ashtray, a jumble of photographs, the mobile phone and a glass with dregs of wine. On a chair is a crumpled shirt and on another a teabag on which you can still see the impression left by a pair of nervous fingers. There’s no wind outside, no cars, no noise, just a few lights that come on and off in a mysterious pattern. From the seventh floor this part of the city looks like a stage set after the closing night.
On the side of the bath is a bottle of ordinary shampoo, shower gel, a book with a flowery border, toothpaste for sensitive teeth, a cup of coffee and a toothbrush. There’s limescale in between some of the tiles, and the shower curtain is mouldy along the edges. It’s cold, and you can never get the window to shut completely. You’re in the bath, warmed by the steam and a second serving of hot water. Sometimes you spend all day in there, running the hot water tap every now and again with one foot, while the other deals with the plug. It creates an amniotic atmosphere.
You think that it would be nice if it rained. Just then, as if your wish had been granted by a merciful power, you see a flash of lightning and a few drops of water hit the misted glass of the window. You think about the Brazilian woman, about how she’s actually not too daunting at all and that you’ll be better prepared the next time you meet. Maybe you could get her to let you into her flat when the kids aren’t there under the pretext of checking to see whether your bath is leaking. Meanwhile, for the moment, you could invite someone to the movies. But you have no idea what’s on. Not even a title or an actor’s name.
When I arrived in Brussels, the supposed end of the European dream was all the media could talk about. General levels of uncertainty had increased, as had violence on public transport – for instance, when one passenger asked another to turn down the music on their mp3 player or mobile phone.
One day, as I was coming back from taking a look at a studio flat that was available for rent in the Ixelles neighbourhood, I saw two groups of youths, numbering about thirty each, throwing bottles of Jupiler beer at each other on the steps to the Stock Exchange. The bottles rolled down to a stall selling fries, into a suffocating limbo of mayonnaise, crudités and burgers, soon to be followed by a stream of blood. The owners of the flats I was looking at kept asking personal questions – one old man even quizzed me about my sex life, asking in a whisper whether the girls I took home were “sensible, you know, discreet”. Like so many other people in my situation, for many years I had been beholden to miserly landlords and exorbitant rents. So, my meeting Elin at a dinner was rather fortuitous. She was Swedish. I walked her home. Although the host had placed us next to each other because we were both translators, we’d got on out of a shared and deeply rooted lack of interest in other people. Elin was translating some youthful poetry by a Nobel Prize winner from Egypt, or maybe it was Turkey. I addressed her formally because I wasn’t sure whether she’d yet reached the age of forty. She told me that she was thinking of moving to the Middle East for a while and offered me her flat while she was away. “What happened”, she said the next day as I was looking for my shoes and she was doing up her bathrobe, one breast still visible, “doesn’t change a thing between us. Remember that.” Belgium was a rather chaotic country at that time – it didn’t even have a government.
In exchange, I’d take care of her cat – Elin handed me a list of instructions from the vet – and pay the electricity and water bills. I also agreed to cover the cleaning costs, which meant paying Teresita, a Filipina, to come in twice a week. “She doesn’t have a resident’s visa. I don’t want to deprive her of one of the few jobs she has. She’s very nice and very Catholic,” said Elin, opening her eyes very wide, as if such an idea were inconceivable. “She sends everything she earns to her family in… Manila? Is that the capital of the Philippines? She has a key.”
Absorbed in my translation work, I made sure that I wouldn’t be there when Teresita came to clean. She was there for three or four hours in the afternoon. For some reason it made me feel uncomfortable, like when you give change to a beggar and make sure not to look at their sores. I’d never had any domestic help before; I’d never been able to afford any. I’d leave a few banknotes on the kitchen table and go out for a walk to see what they were showing at the Ancienne Belgique or to a public library where a Dutch gang sold adulterated cocaine behind the foreign-poetry section.
Occasionally I received an email from Elin asking after the cat. The animal was eating well and slept all the time, but it still treated me with indifference. I told her that some letters addressed to her from Brussels City Council had arrived and that I had opened them, as she had authorized me to do. Although we’d signed a contract – I needed a professional address; this also allowed me to determine Elin’s exact age: she was thirty-nine, ten years older than me – the council wanted confirmation that the persons named in the contract were indeed living in the flat.
“Don’t let them in for now,” Elin answered abruptly in the next email.
“You want me to lock myself in? Am I not supposed to leave the flat?” I wrote back.
“The flat is also in my husband’s name,” she explained in the next email (I wasn’t surprised). “In theory, he lives there with us. He’s called Kees. Please, do what I say.”
I didn’t answer. I imagined her husband as one of those men in suits who filled the terraces of the upmarket bars every Friday along with their ministerial cohorts. (Then, on Sunday, Kees would make macaroni encrusted with a thick coat of breadcrumbs. She was still in love with him, wherever he was.)
Of course, I didn’t lock myself in Elin’s flat, but I began to worry every time the doorbell rang. I decided to move my desk away from the living-room windows. At the time I was translating a nineteenth-century Polish author, mainly at night between ten and four in the morning. Before going to bed I would go into the interior patio and watch, heart in mouth, as the cat walked gleefully along the edge of the third-floor balcony. Standing out of reach, five metres above, it looked down at me defiantly.
The problem wouldn’t go away. First, the bell rang at noon. Then, a few days later, in the middle of the afternoon. I never bothered to find out exactly who it was, whether it was the people from the council, an acquaintance of Elin’s or – why not? – the postman. Soon the bell began to ring every morning between eight and nine, while I was still in bed. I sent an angry email to Elin; she promised to get in touch with the council. Meanwhile, I decided to work in the kitchen, at the rear of the flat, the windows of which looked out over a dark interior brick patio.
One day I pushed the computer away and started to make lunch. I was thinking about the Polish author’s strange predilection for having his characters engage in extended, exhausting sessions of lovemaking when suddenly, as I ate lunch, I heard a creak in the entrance hall. I thought it was the council workers trying to force open the door. I gathered myself and coughed a couple of times (to build up my courage?). When I went over to the stairs I saw a pair of small, bare female feet followed by small female body. I’d completely forgotten what day it was. The woman stopped next to the cat’s litter tray and waved with the same hand in which she held a pair of slip-on shoes. Then she started to laugh, covering her mouth with her hand.
“My name is Teresita.” She put the shoes on the floor and held out her hand. She was speaking in English. “Isn’t this funny? My name is Teresita.”
I told her who I was. She calmly went into the kitchen and looked for something in a washing-up bowl I’d never noticed before that was full of cleaning products. She made an unreadable face and looked at a Coca-Cola clock above the microwave. It was a quarter to two. I watched her from the table as I finished my chicken sandwich.
“Fifteen minutes,” she squeaked.
Then she took a napkin, banana and a half-empty water bottle out of her bag. She hopped onto a chair on the other side of the table; her legs must have been dangling free in the air.
“Help yourself to anything in the fridge,” I said. “A drink, beer, yoghurt… there’s also some tea.” I had none of these things.
She laughed, shaking her head. “I’m fine with a banana. I like to eat a banana in the afternoons,” she told me.
I took a fork and knife from a drawer and cut up what was left of my sandwich. “Do you have a lot of work?” I asked.
“A lot of work, no work at all… A lot of work, no work at all,” she answered in a sing-song voice with a smile.
I got up to get an apple and started to peel it. “Elin might be coming back next week,” I said.
“Lovely, oh, Mrs Elin is lovely…” she drank from her water bottle and looked at the cat, who had just come into the kitchen to see what was going on. The animal arched its back and shook its tail frenetically as though it had just received an electric shock in the anus. Then, without warning, it ran up to me and jumped onto my lap. I thought that it was attacking me, but it just stayed there with its chin on the table. Teresita finished her banana and started to clap.
“This is the first time,” I said. “She’s never done this before.”
“Do you like cats?” she asked me, wiping away tears of joy.
“They’re excellent company but also very independent.” That was as much as I knew about cats.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” She lit up and stared at me as a dense cloud of hashish formed around her head.
“Wacky tobacky,” I said, smiling.
“Do you like cats?”
“No, no, no,” she answered with a face. “They’re dirty and pee everywhere.” As she waved her arm to indicate everywhere, she spilled ash from her joint onto the table.
She jumped back off the chair to get a Chouffe beer glass, which she used as an ashtray. She had the smallest feet I’d ever seen.
“Do you always eat on your own?” she asked.
“Alone, or just you and the cat, or just you and him,” she said, pointing to the computer but careful not to touch it, as though it might explode.
She stuck her tongue out at the cat and smiled. “It’s not good for a man to eat on his own. It’s not healthy.”
“I like it,” I replied automatically. “I like peace and quiet.”
“But people who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” she took a long drag and put the joint out in the Chouffe glass. “You need to respect the food.”
“Who says?” I asked.
She went quiet. Then, suddenly, she exclaimed, “Two o clock exactly! Time to get to work.”
She slipped on her shoes and started running around all over the place. She filled a couple of buckets with hot water in the kitchen sink and disappeared into the bathroom and then through the door into the living-room. Through the misted glass Teresita’s movements looked ethereal. I went on working on my translation. I’d got stuck in a description of a House of Dreams from the Polish author’s book. In a border town, where in February the snow falls like a funeral shroud, a Russian lady called Natalia, née Golanova, moves in. She hires several men to clean up a property she has rented. They’re the only unemployed people in the town: cripples, a group of Finns – no one knows where they came from – and several who are dying of lung cancer. The rest of the town spends all day in the mine. One afternoon a pair of drunk miners help to hang a sign on a clean, refurbished wall: NATALIA GOLANOVA’S DREAM HOUSE. Whistles, applause and uncertainty. It is rumoured that Natalia has a hoarse voice, that she is skilled in medicine and can control the weather. These rumours are enough for some of the miners to grab their crotches in anticipation of imminent pleasure. But women are forbidden to enter the rooms of Natalia Golanova’s Dream House (all of which are singles). A sign on the door declares that the beds are the latest thing in ensuring a good night’s sleep, straight from St Petersburg. And it is true. The springy, soothing mattresses provide a very unusual form of good night’s sleep. Less than two months later the men start to meet up every Sunday in Natalia Golanova’s Dream House. On the front porch they share their dreams, most of which are just accounts of coitus in which Natalia’s lithe body helps them to predict the fate of Poland and the Russian Empire in the light of the latest psycho-physiological theories.
I remembered that I’d dreamed of Elin. I couldn’t quite remember how her body looked, and that’s always frustrating.
Then Teresita burst into the kitchen. She had a pink rubber glove on her left hand, making her chubby fingers look like deformed penises. She looked at me like someone supervising a sick child with a gun.
“Do you need anything?” I asked.
“There’s someone at the door,” she said.
My mind went blank for a few seconds. “People who eat alone grow mean and grumpy,” I said to myself.
“We won’t answer,” I’d included her without realizing it.
“Would you like me to answer it?”
“If you do, you and I are going to have a serious problem.”
I told her about the letters, the council and their inspections. She instinctively shrunk back under the boiler and rubbed her thumb over her lips, trying to work out what to do. Now she was barefoot again.
I gave her a glass of water. She drank it looking straight ahead, as though her corneas were dry or she suffered from a hyperactive thyroid. She said, “I don’t like it”, but didn’t say what.
The bell rang a second time.
“Would you please give me one of those cigarettes, Teresita?”
I lit it. After I’d had a couple of puffs she grabbed it off me and inhaled deeply, her elbows stuck out on either side.
“You can stay for as long as you like if that will help.”
“Does Elin say so?” she asked indignantly, stubbing out the recently lit joint. She had suddenly turned against me. “Why are you in this flat?”
I went over to reassure her. I put an arm on her shoulder, trying to convey affection and trust. Trying to be worthy of the flat. How old was Teresita? Thirty-five, fifty-five? Did she have children? I was starting to hate Elin, imagining the subject line of the email in which I refused to go on paying for the cleaning.
“Mr Kees is so lovely,” she pronounced it similarly to kitsch. “Do you know him? Sometimes he calls, and we have long conversations.”
Sick of all this, I took a decision. “Leave it for today; don’t worry about the money,” I took some notes from my wallet. “You can stay here for as long as you like. They won’t bother you here.”
She scurried off and locked herself in the bathroom with her bag. Several minutes passed without a sound. During that time I filled the cat’s bowl with food. Then, scared, I knocked on the bathroom door. She opened up without looking at me, in her street clothes, wearing trainers and a shiny hairband. Her cheeks were rosy, as though she’d just come out of the changing rooms of a famous tennis club. She took the money I’d left on the kitchen table and tucked it somewhere under her shirt.
“Come with me,” she ordered.
I went with her to the front door. She gestured to me to open it. After I did so she told me to go to the corner to check for council staff. I went out and walked down the street to the metro station. Then I came back. In front of the house, in the little square that housed the consulate of a recently formed Asian country, a priest was trying to deal with a black beggar who was spinning round and round on skates. It looked as though there might be a fight until the priest caught sight of Teresita and me.
Teresita asked me if she could ask me a question. She had been sitting on the curb. “Aren’t you ashamed?”
I felt like asking her what she and Kees talked about, but there wasn’t time. As I was getting ready to ask her about the nature of her conversations with Elin’s husband – if she read tarot cards, did his star chart or gave him little religious homilies – she grabbed her knock-off bag, turned her back on the plaza and quickly walked down the street, staying close to the wall. After she was swallowed up by the escalator of the Brussels metro I saw the priest and the beggar coming towards me. As they came closer I saw that, in fact, the priest was another beggar in a tattered cassock, as though he had stepped out of a post-punk parody. They broke into a run, so I hurried back to the flat and nervously locked it behind me. It was only a matter of seconds before they started to ring the bell. I left the intercom off the hook, concentrating on the metallic racket coming from the street. One of them said “Boo!” – as though he were trying to scare a child – and burped. A few seconds later a peal of laughter indicated that they were walking away, like everything else I didn’t care about during my period of mean, grumpy solitude.
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