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Jordi Nopca | from:Catalan

Engagement Ring

Translated by : Mara Faye Lethem

How quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.

CAVAFY, “Candles”

(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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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