Incredible the animal that first dreamed of another animal. Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.
—Carlos Fuentes, Terra Nostra
Rosana arrived on a Sunday around noon. Mauricio was waiting anxiously, already anticipating the sexual encounter that fate had delivered up to him like a gift. He had always been very meticulous in his personal hygiene, but that morning he submitted himself to the full treatment: he trimmed his hair, his nails, his pubes; he shaved, plucked his unibrow, and applied a face mask. He’d spent the previous two weeks on a diet and going to the gym, and when he’d had to drink with his co-workers he’d limited himself to two or three light beers. He also dedicated his entire Saturday to cleaning the house and organizing his collection of CDs and DVDs. He had to impress her.
His cousin Marijó had sent him a message from the capital to ask if he could host one of her dancer friends who would be staying a few days in the city. Mauricio accepted immediately. He thought all dancers were hot.
When the doorbell rang he put on a CD by Alejandro Fernández, smoothed a wrinkle in his polo shirt, and headed to the door. Before opening it he wanted to look at her through the peephole. She wasn’t what he’d expected, her hippie-like appearance struck him as slightly unpleasant, but this small disappointment was made up for by the beauty of her face and the fullness of her breasts, emphasized by the straps of her backpack. Thinking no one was looking, Rosana stuck her hand down her shirt and rearranged her bra. Mauricio opened the door excited by this small act of voyeurism.
They introduced themselves, greeted each other with a kiss on the cheek, and went inside. Rosana dropped her luggage in the middle of the living room and wandered around touching every object she encountered. Sometimes she seemed to sniff the room, like some wild animal on the hunt or looking for a mate. Mauricio moved her backpack out of the way.
“Do you live with your parents?” she asked sticking a finger into an oil painting that hung on the wall. Mauricio didn’t have the nerve to tell her that you shouldn’t touch paintings. It would’ve been impolite.
“No, I live alone.”
“It looks like my grandma’s house. Why do you have so many plants?”
“I don’t know. I like the way they look. According to Feng Shui they balance the room.”
“Feng Shui, what a drag . . .”
Rosana fell onto the sofa, kicked off her huaraches, and put her feet up on the coffee table. Mauricio discreetly studied her toned calves, but the allure was offset by the repulsion he felt toward the soles of her feet, black with dirt and grime.
“Can we put on some different music?” she said lighting an unfiltered cigarette.
Mauricio rushed to open the window and placed an ashtray in front of Rosana.
“You don’t like Alejandro!”
“He makes me want to barf.”
“What do you want to listen to?”
“My iPod’s in my backpack. The side pocket.”
He searched until he found it. He was annoyed by Rosana’s overly familiar manners, but at the same time he supposed it was a sign of someone with liberal ideas, and that made him believe his aims would be easier to achieve.
He connected her iPod to his stereo.
“Put it on shuffle,” she ordered.
The riff of an electric guitar sounded, reminiscent of the nineties.
“Who is this? It sounds familiar . . .” Mauricio had a distant memory of that sound, as distant as his high school years.
Rosana tapped the rhythm with her feet. After a deep puff on her cigarette she ashed in the nearest flowerpot.
“There’s an ashtray right there,” he said with the utmost politeness.
“You like Spanish rock?”
“I prefer English. I mean I can listen to a song or two, but then I get tired of it.”
She didn’t bother to answer him. She continued smoking as if she were alone, completely ignoring Mauricio’s presence.
“I thought dancers weren’t supposed to smoke.”
“Says who? Do you know any?”
“No . . . Well, you.”
“There you go: all the dancers you know smoke.”
She ashed in the flowerpot again.
“Use the ashtray, the dirt’s going to smell later. What are you here for exactly? Marijó didn’t say.”
“I have a show in a week. I’ll be rehearsing till then and after that I’m staying for a seminar with a teacher from Finland.”
“Well you better make time to go out for a beer with me.”
“I’ll let you know . . . What do you do?”
“I studied Communication Sciences. You know it’s a really great career because . . .”
“Peaches!” Rosana interrupted, staring at the fruit bowl on top of the dining table. Without waiting for an answer she lunged at a large, ripe peach.
“They haven’t been washed,” said Mauricio with some annoyance.
She didn’t react to the warning. She took a big bite of the fruit, and almost before she’d finished chewing the first she took a second and a third. The juice ran down her forearm, pooling in the crook of her elbow until finally dripping onto the table. After the fourth bite Rosana began to make use of her other hand, which still held the lit cigarette. The pit rotated agilely between her fingers as her teeth gnawed until they’d extracted every last trace of pulp. It was all over in under a minute.
“It’s my favorite fruit.”
She set the pit in the fruit bowl and wiped her mouth with her sleeve. As she did this her nose passed very close to her armpit. Rosana took a long sniff.
“Shiiiiit, I stink! I really need a bath. Do you have a little bit of milk you could give me?”
Mauricio couldn’t believe what he was witnessing.
Milk, according to Rosana, had a rejuvenating effect on the skin. For this reason she poured almost an entire liter into the full bathtub. So full that, even as skinny as she was, Mauricio thought it would overflow when she got in. He didn’t say anything though, just made a few jokes. He didn’t want to seem pedantic or domineering before he’d reached his goal; afterward he’d find a way to put things in order.
Rosana connected her iPod to the bathroom radio, touched the water to test the temperature, and, unfazed by Mauricio’s presence, removed her shirt. He took her lack of modesty as a provocation, but since it was too soon to give up the game he quickly left the bathroom, not without first throwing an ardent glance at Rosana’s breasts, resting snugly inside her bra.
He sat down at the computer in his bedroom and pretended to work. He couldn’t stand the music blaring at top volume from the bathroom, nor the waste of perfectly good milk, nor Rosana’s barbaric manners, but the promise of sex compensated for all these inconveniences. “She can be filthy,” he thought, “as long as she’s that way in bed too.”
Forty minutes later the music stopped and Rosana walked by Mauricio’s door wrapped in a towel.
The bathroom was a total mess: the floor was soaking wet, there were panties crumpled in a corner, the tub hadn’t been drained and the shampoo dripped from its bottle. Mauricio knew that during the seduction phase there was always a price to be paid, but this was too much: if he didn’t set some limits now, the situation might get out of control.
He picked up her thong and walked directly to Rosana’s room. The door was half open so he assumed she’d finished getting dressed and he went in without knocking.
“Hey, I have to ask you to please . . .”
He couldn’t continue. Rosana was lying on the bed, on her back, wearing only a sweater and a pair of socks. She was reading a magazine that blocked her view of the door and she had headphones on. She didn’t seem to notice the intrusion. Mauricio stared for a few seconds at her densely populated pubis, wild, black as the back of a chimpanzee, and his boldness was replaced by intense lust. He left the room without saying anything else. It wouldn’t do for Rosana to catch him spying on her.
The days passed and Mauricio hadn’t made any progress. Rosana was hardly ever at home and she rejected his invitations to go out at night with the excuse that she had to get up early in the morning. Only sometimes, in the evenings, they had dinner together, something light like a sandwich or a salad and in those few shared moments Mauricio took the opportunity to make his move. She didn’t seem to notice and didn’t respond to his advances.
Her behavior bothered Mauricio more and more. He spent all his time cleaning up her mess in the bathroom, the living room, and especially in the kitchen, where after making breakfast Rosana left everything open, outside the refrigerator, her dirty plates on the table, and to top it off she never bought her own food, not even the milk for her baths (which, fortunately, she didn’t take every day). Also, she never turned off the lights, and more than once she left the faucet running.
He finally gave up. He determined that he’d never get anywhere with her and resigned to put up with her unpleasant presence for the sake of his promise to Marijó. But next time he’d think twice before agreeing to do her any favors.
Things went on like this until finally the day of Rosana’s show arrived. It was a Friday. Mauricio found a ticket on the dining table. It started at seven that evening. Of course he couldn’t think of going, it would be like rewarding her for all her rudeness, but as the day went on he began to change his mind, he wanted to see Rosana’s dancing skills, or rather to confirm her clumsiness. He pictured her dressed as a cavewoman, dancing with her tribe around their fire god. To see her looking ridiculous in some cheap show might somehow make up for all the hassle. And if he still wanted to punish her, he could just say he hadn’t had time to go.
The lights were off when he entered the theatre. He sat in the first empty seat he found, at the back. Even though it was a small venue he’d brought his binoculars so that he wouldn’t miss a single detail.
Rosana was the last dancer in the show. Four companies from different parts of the country went on before her. Mauricio didn’t understand modern dance, so after the second group, yawning, his mind began to wander to the transparent costumes or the probable homosexuality of the male performers. Eventually it was Rosana’s turn. In all the other choreographies there had been at least two dancers, but the program indicated that she would be alone on stage for fifteen minutes.
Somber music began to play, lacking rhythm to Mauricio’s untrained ear, suggestive, he thought, of jungle sounds. Rosana came onto the stage slowly and pausing frequently, crawling, lit up by a single spotlight. Mauricio saw her as a dinosaur. When she got to the center of the stage, Rosana fell to the floor and like a worm agonizing under the sun she dragged herself to the other corner of the stage where she adopted a new way of moving. It was a slow dance, refined, the movements made him think more of a feminine sensuality than an animal brutality. Mauricio started to doubt whether she was a woman imitating beasts or a beast dancing like a woman.
He left the theatre in awe.
That night he had trouble sleeping. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana’s body sheathed in black Lycra as tight as a second nudity. He obsessively replayed the image of her shoulder blades marking the rhythm of her march across the prairie, of her neck outstretched to greet the sun or stars, the serpent’s waist, the breasts of the mythical she-wolf. Rosana was all those animals, and she was also all woman.
From his bed he heard her come home, wash up, enter her bedroom. Two hours later, tormented by the need to caress the body that he imagined covered in feathers or scales, he got up, left his cave, and penetrated Rosana’s lair. He slowly touched her under the sheet, lying behind her in the same position, on his side, breathing on her neck. He slid his hand up her hip, waist, belly, to the base of her bosom. Rosana turned in her bed. The intrusive hand continued its ascent, pausing at her nipples, which rose up, dreaming that they were two hard oaks.
Rosana’s breathing was noticeably agitated. Mauricio, his hand, retraced its path back down to her belly button, where it descended into her dense pubic jungle. Two thighs blocked the entrance like impenetrable walls. There was only one way to overcome the obstacle: their mistress must order them to open. Then they would obediently make way for the visitor, spreading wide before him in a sign of welcome.
Maurico kissed the back of Rosana’s neck, her ear, her cheek, the corner of her mouth.
“You’re so hot,” he whispered.
Rosana began to wake up. The excitation that she’d felt in her dream became a strange heavy bulge squirming against her back.
“Who is it . . .?” she asked with a scratchy voice. She instantly comprehended the situation. “Nooooo, I don’t want to!”
She jumped up, wrapped in the sheets, and turned on the light.
“Turn it off, it hurts my eyes,” said Mauricio covering his face with his forearm.
“No, get out of here! Let me sleep!”
“I liked the way you danced.”
“That’s nice, but leave, please.”
“I want to stay here.”
“Then I’ll go sleep in your room . . . Seriously, I’m really tired, I’m not mad but get out of here now!”
Mauricio reluctantly obeyed.
“Sorry,” he said from the hall. He wasn’t sorry, but he felt like he should say it.
Rosana locked the door.
He awoke with his hand in his underwear. He was embarrassed by what had happened the night before, not for having gotten into Rosana’s bed without her permission, but for having been rejected. The fact that she hadn’t reacted violently, however, told him that her refusal wasn’t definitive. Her will could be broken, if it wasn’t already, and the rejection had been a provocation, the declaration of a challenge. “I should try again,” he thought.
He got up and knocked on her door, half naked. He wanted to make her feel that some trust, some intimacy had been established between them, as a result of their cohabitation. After all, she’d been the first one to be immodest, and she was probably waiting for him to express a similar attitude before taking the next step.
There was no answer from inside her room. For a moment Mauricio was afraid Rosana had left for good, but when he opened the door he saw her things scattered across the floor like always, without rhyme or reason. This time the mess didn’t bother him. Just the opposite, he took it as a manifestation of her wild spirit. Something in him had changed, he felt somehow uncomfortable with his own rigidity, with his need for cleanliness and symmetry, and he had the impression that her messy room was the picture of freedom. He picked up a red thong. It smelled like sweat, urine, enticement.
Rosana didn’t come home all day. After midnight, tired of waiting for her, Mauricio lay down to try to sleep. An hour later she got home. Someone was with her, a male voice spoke in whispers. They went directly into her room.
In the morning Mauricio woke up as Rosana was saying goodbye to the visitor.
“Rosana!” he called from his bed when he heard her passing footsteps.
She opened the door and stuck her head in.
“Who was that?” Mauricio was lying on his back, his left arm tucked under his head.
“A friend. I met him yesterday. He’s a dancer too.”
“Hmmm, what a coincidence . . . And what about me?”
“What about you?”
“Me and you, what’s going to happen with us?”
“Nothing? Why should anything happen?”
In one abrupt movement Mauricio pulled aside the sheets covering him. He was naked, his right hand caressing the base of his fully erect penis.
“Look what you do to me. Come here, get naked, you owe it to me.”
He felt Rosana’s gaze on his sex.
“Cover yourself up, you’re a pig! You know what? I think I’d better leave, thank you for your hospitality,” she said turning around and rushing to lock herself in the bathroom. She wanted to leave as quickly as possible but she felt the urgent need to wash up, there was dried semen all over her body. Also, the bath was already filled with warm, milky water. If she hurried, she could be out of the house in an hour.
She’d just submerged herself in the water when she heard Mauricio’s voice on the other side of the door.
“Open up, you left me there talking to myself.”
“Are you dressed yet?”
“No, open up.”
Rosana blasted the music at full volume. It was a song by Los Aterciopelados.
“Open up, goddammit! I just want to talk!” he said giving the door a hard smack.
“I can’t hear you!”
Mauricio felt all his repressed fury from the night before take control of his body. A few violent shoves and the door gave way. Rosana was in the tub, paralyzed with fear.
“You’re a goddam slut!”
“You’re grandma’s a slut, jackass!”
“You stay at my house as long as you want, you make a huge mess, you eat my food, and then, instead of fucking me, you fuck the first moron who crosses your path! Don’t you think that’s the behavior of a true whore!”
“I’d be a whore if I slept with you for letting me stay a few days in your prissy little house. A whore and an idiot!” Rosana was about to stand up, but then she remembered she was naked under the water.
“Well then get the hell out of my goddamn prissy little house right now!”
Mauricio grabbed her by the hair to pull her out of the tub. She leaned forward to ease the pain and as her torso emerged from the water she clawed Mauricio’s forearm with all her ire.
“Son of a bitch!” he shouted as he let her go, pushing her head back at the same time. The base of Rosana’s neck hit the faucet. About to lose her consciousness she reached for something to grab hold of, but the only thing her hands could find was the radio’s power cord.
It took Mauricio a few seconds to notice the accident. He was inspecting the deep gashes that Rosana’s nails had left in his flesh.
He thought of reporting the incident to the police, tell them she’d just had an accident. But of course they’d suspect him, they wouldn’t believe him, and would end up finding the hairs he’d pulled out, the scratches on his arms, his skin under Rosana’s nails. And above all, he didn’t have an alibi . . . That last word echoed a long while in his mind: he realized he was thinking like a criminal.
He didn’t know what to do with the body, he’d never thought he’d find himself in this situation. For the moment it seemed too risky to try to get rid of it. He needed to plan everything very carefully. In the meantime, he couldn’t just leave it floating in his tub.
He let out the water, a pinkish mixture of blood and milk, unplugged the radio, rinsed it off in the sink, and covered the lifeless body with dirt from all his flowerpots, which he carried one by one into the bathroom. Then he replanted all his plants in the tub.
The weight he felt in his soul was heavy. He was sick with fear over the consequences, but sicker still over having taken Rosana’s life. She would never again dance, eat a peach, or incite a man’s lust, and this pained him. It was as if he’d killed the last specimen of an extinct species.
He watered his new garden. As he finished he remembered Rosana’s pubic hair, and by some strange association of ideas he remembered that he’d forgotten to close her eyes.
He wanted to take a bath, all the gardening had left him sweaty and covered in dirt. Given that the tub was occupied, he used the metal washtub he’d bought to keep his beer on ice. He sat there contemplating his plants until the water got cold.
As the effect of the adrenaline wore off, his regret grew deeper. He couldn’t stop thinking about Rosana. He drank a beer. He ate tuna directly from the can and spent the rest of that Sunday lying on the couch, stoking his guilt. At night he searched for Rosana’s cigarettes. For the first time ever he enjoyed the taste of tobacco. That night he slept fitfully.
In the morning he opened his eyes feeling strange, the world seemed sluggish, unreal, as if he’d awoken inside a dream. His body rejected movement. He would’ve loved to remain in bed, but it was Monday and he couldn’t miss work.
The next two days were strange. Although his mind was elsewhere and he avoided all unnecessary social interaction, Mauricio was nicer to his co-workers, friendlier and more helpful, and he remembered that serial killers were known for being good neighbors, as if their killer’s instinct inspired kindness toward the rest of the human species, to compensate for ridding it of one, or several, of its individuals.
Back at home, when he had to use the bathroom, he tried not to look at the garden. He thought that this would help his memory of the incident fade away. If he maintained an indifference to the past, sooner or later it would cease to exist.
But on the third day, standing over the toilet in his first urination of the morning, he couldn’t help but look at it in the mirror. Try as he might, it was impossible to ignore. How long would the body take to decompose? Would the dirt be able to mask the smell? He was asking himself questions such as these when he saw it.
In the center of the tub a beautiful sunflower had sprouted, still young but with its petals fully open. The bright yellow spot stood out with breathtaking beauty against the green and white background of the plants and shower tiles. It was a proud flower, full of zest, sitting firmly atop its stem like a young person ready to conquer the world.
Mauricio spent the rest of the day analyzing the phenomenon. At first it seemed unreal, but then it occurred to him that in such an incredible situation it wasn’t odd for extraordinary things to happen. Suddenly, in the middle of the afternoon, he had a revelation.
That night, when he got home, he watered the sunflower with a little bit of milk.
Several weeks full of happiness went by. Mauricio christened his flower, calling her Rosana when he greeted her in the mornings and when, after work, he chatted to her about his day. He’d lost all interest in passing lovers: no one could fulfill him as much as her, this reincarnated woman, animal, and raw nature, so vital that from her death sprouted new life.
His care was as meticulous as an enamored lover’s. He pulled weeds, pruned the other plants so that they wouldn’t invade her space, aerated the dirt every three days and fertilized his flower with nutrients rich in iron and nitrogen. When he wasn’t at home he left rock music playing on the new radio he’d bought especially for her, and once a day he made her fresh-squeezed peach juice, smashing the pulp between his fingers so that Rosana would get the taste of his skin mixed with her favorite fruit.
He no longer worried about interrogations and police statements. How could anyone think that Rosana had died? Her existence transcended the world of the flesh, a direct manifestation of her soul without the encumbrance of a human body. The universe had been altered, its center had shifted to the black center of the sunflower.
Also, there were no signs of police, nothing to indicate that an investigation was underway. Mauricio could not imagine a more happy and peaceful life.
One night he had an upsetting dream. Asleep in his bed, he was awoken by sounds from the bathroom; he got up and without turning on the light, in total darkness, he crept to the bathroom where he could just make out a silhouette standing over the sink. It looked like a woman. He got up the nerve to turn on the light. It was Rosana, naked. A delicate vine grew up her body, giving her the look of a magical forest fairy. From her belly grew the sunflower, yellower and more beautiful than ever.
“You scared me,” he said to her, sighing with relief. “I thought you were someone else.”
Mauricio moved to hug her, but stopped when she threatened him with a straight razor which he hadn’t noticed she was holding in her hand.
“What’s wrong?” he asked her, surprised. “You shouldn’t hurt me, I’m the person who takes care of you and feeds you.”
“But I’m the one who gives you life,” she answered, and with a hard swipe she cut off the flower, leaving just a centimeter of stem sticking out of her skin. Drops of sap began to fall, blood red, staining the white tiles between her bare feet.
Mauricio awoke frightened. He sat up. His heart still pounding, he went to the bathroom to urinate and to tell his flower about his dream. As he walked down the dark hall he almost thought he was once again in his nightmare, that’s how vivid and real it had felt, and he opened the bathroom door certain he’d find Rosana standing over the sink. But no. What he found when he turned on the light was even more terrifying.
The sunflower was dying, its stem bent so far that it almost touched the edge of the tub with its petals, previously luscious and glowing, now shriveled like aged skin. Mauricio began to panic, he had to do something, Rosana’s life was in his hands. He couldn’t understand what had happened, he’d watered her, fertilized her, weeded her. Had some parasite gotten her? He straightened the flower, as languid as if she’d gone weeks without water, and when he didn’t see any bugs on her petals or leaves he carefully placed her back into her original curved position, afraid she might break at any minute.
“Please don’t die, you can’t leave me alone,” he repeated over and over, hoping that by some miracle the flower would perk back up, healthy and sweet-smelling.
Suddenly he understood. He’d seen it in his dream, and it was so obvious that he felt stupid.
He took scissors from the cabinet and without flinching he made a long cut on the palm of his left hand. Blood immediately flowed into the wound. Full of hope, Mauricio let it drip onto the dirt around the stem, certain that he was giving Rosana the food she needed.
A pain in his wrist made him turn up his bloody palm, and he saw with horror that the cut on his hand had disappeared, but another, much deeper, spanned the width of his wrist. How was it possible? Was his confused mind showing him hallucinations? And if so, which was reality, the first cut or the second? He didn’t have time to continue contemplating: his wrist began to hemorrhage, and his sudden dizziness made him realize that this was no trick of his mind.
His first instinct was to stick his hand into a plastic bag he found in the trash and tie it around his forearm with dental floss. He thought it would do the trick: once the blood flow had stopped it was just a matter of waiting for the cut in the veins to coagulate, something his body would do naturally.
“Don’t worry, I won’t leave you,” he said to Rosana, sitting on the floor in front of her. “You have to be strong. You have to live.”
He gently caressed her petals, barely touching them. However, in their fragile state, even this gentle contact was too intense and one by one they began to fall off, until the center of the flower was left naked like a black and burnt out sun.
The last thing Mauricio saw before losing consciousness were his fingertips grazing the inside walls of an enormous red balloon with his hand swimming inside.
Seven days later the police arrived at his home to question him about Rosana’s disappearance. The circumstances made him the main suspect.
From outside they smelled the nauseating scent of decomposing flesh, and when there was no answer at the door, the officers forced the lock. The floor was covered in trash, cigarette butts, empty cans, and boxes of food; rats and cockroaches feasted on the waste.
When they discovered Mauricio bled dry leaning over the bathtub garden they immediately deduced the sequence of events: he’d killed, and possibly raped, the girl, after which he proceeded to bury her body in the tub; but panicked that sooner or later the authorities would discover him, he’d taken his own life. A specialized team removed the dirt. In the bottom of the tub, however, they didn’t find anything.
Rosana’s case was never solved. Her belongings were found inside the suspect’s home, but given that she’d stayed there of her own free will, it was not enough evidence to incriminate him.
With respect to Mauricio, his parents were notified and they took care of the funeral arrangements. After the burial, and up till their own deaths, they visited their son’s grave every week, and every week they bent down to uproot the horrible weed that obstinately insisted on growing up on his grave, time and again.
In the early nineties, The Beach of The Dead was little more than a greyish strip at one end of Boca del Rio, Veracruz’ twin city. Its burning sands were covered in spiny scrubs festooned with dead branches and bottles of chlorine that washed up during storms. It wasn’t a very popular or beautiful beach (not that any in Veracruz really fit that description): sometimes – during peak tides or heavy storms – the beach disappeared completely and the waves washed right over the breakwaters and onto the road between the two cities. Local people tended to avoid it: every year dozens of foolhardy souls, from Mexico City mostly, met their deaths in its treacherous waters. Signs hung only a few feet away from the water’s edge forbidding people from swimming while another less literate one read: ‘Danger: poolz’ underneath a lurid drawing of a skull. The powerful current that pushed the river up towards Antón Lizardo Point – home of the Heroica Escuela Naval Militar – burrowed into the breakwaters of The Beach of The Dead, leaving deep rock pools in which a grown man could easily drown.
I was nine when I saw the lights, which glowed like fireflies against the dark sea. The other witness was my brother Julio, who was six and a half. We were digging up the home of a celeste crab with a stick when we noticed a glow in the sky: five bright shining lights hovering over our heads. Then they flew inland, towards the estuary.
“Did you see that?” Julio asked, pointing towards the horizon.
“Of course, I’m not blind.”
“What was it?”
“A spaceship,” I told him.
But when we ran back to the campfire, none of the adults would hear us out. Not even our parents. They refused to listen and shooed us away from the fire and the group sitting around it.
On that Thursday, the eleventh of July, no one was thinking about the Gulf War, or the fall of the Berlin Wall… the fire and brimstone that was shattering Eastern Europe into pieces seemed a very long way away. Another raid by the Sendero Luminoso? People in the south dying of typhoid and dengue fever? No one cared about any of that: Mexico’s eyes were fixed on the skies, waiting for the miracle that would turn the sun into a ring of fire and reduce the moon to a large black circle. The TV showed nothing but shots of the sky and the crowds waiting for the total eclipse in squares, being careful not to look directly at the sun, just as the news had warned them.
In Mexico City, south of the ring road, Guillermo Arreguín was filming the sky from his balcony. He wasn’t interested so much in the eclipse’s climax as the planets and stars that he’d read would shine far more brightly in the untimely gloom. At the critical moment, Arreguín panned to the right. That was when he filmed the ‘shining object’.
That night, the video was being shown on the 24 Hour News channel. By Saturday the thirteenth, an article in La Prensa was describing it as a ‘solid metal object’ surrounded by ‘silver rings’; but the term ‘extra-terrestrial’ wouldn’t make its triumphant appearance until Friday the nineteenth on the programme ‘So… What do you think?’ whose subject that week was the supposed presence of aliens on Earth (the live debate lasted a record eleven hours and ten minutes). On it, a ufologist (as he insisted on describing himself) called Maussán claimed to have collected fifteen additional recordings made by different people during the eclipse. He stated that the videos had been subjected to tests that proved that the ‘object’ recorded in them was indeed a spaceship.
Thus began the UFO craze in Mexico. That summer I learned everything I needed to know on the subject: abductions, conspiracies, the building of the Great Pyramid, crop circles in the UK… All this fascinating information reached me via two sources: the television (or rather Mr Maussán’s videos of Lights in the Sky) and the tons of comic books I consumed each week. When it came to comics I was sickeningly sentimental: I liked Archie, Little Lulu, Scrooge McDuck and Condorito and that was it. But the rag I most hankered after at the newspaper kiosk was Semanario de lo Insólito (Amazing Stories Weekly), an anthology of human morbidity, a cult to horror, an uncritical encyclopaedia of doctored photography. Even now, I can recall some of its more eye-catching stories: the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands; the primary school teacher with a third eye at the base of her skull that she used to spy on her pupils; the silhouette of a hanged Judas in the eyes of an ayate basket Virgin Mary; and of course the autopsy of the alien body in the small gringo town of Roswell.
Thanks to all this edifying research I learned at the tender age of nine that the strange light I’d seen on The Beach of The Dead could be nothing else but an interplanetary spaceship crewed by small grey super-intelligent creatures who had managed to circumvent the laws of physics. And that they could well be coming to warn us about a cataclysm that was about to destroy the earth now that the end of the millennium was approaching and people were killing each other and getting involved in stupid wars and spilling oil over poor defenceless pelicans. Maybe they were looking for someone who could understand them, someone to whom they could bequeath their science and secrets. Maybe they were lonely, wandering the cosmos in their plasma and silicon ships on an unending quest to find a welcoming planet, new worlds, new homes and new friends in distant galaxies.
After what we saw on the beach, Julio and I decided that we needed to keep an eye on the sky. Maybe we’d be taken more seriously if we recorded some evidence. The problem was that dad refused to lend us his camera.
“How can you be stupid enough to believe in that rubbish? At your age?” he’d say when he saw us glued to the TV screen trying to decipher the mysterious symbols being left by flying saucers in British wheat fields.
Dad hated Maussán. He couldn’t stand the sight of him, let alone having to hear him repeat his stories over and over again. He threatened to take away the VCR.
“Can’t you see he’s a stoner?”
Poor dad, he just didn’t understand. We felt sorry for him. Mum was different; she and a friend of hers took us back to The Beach of The Dead one night so we could look for the UFO.
There was a full moon and the water reflected the silvery light like a giant mirror. But everything had changed since the last time we were there: the beach was full of people and cars. Dozens of teenage bodies were draped over the breakwaters and piled up around campfires made from the dry scrubs. Their cars packed the sandy parking lot, so close to the shore that the salt water splashed their tires. The murmur of the wind was drowned out by their burping, honking, and Soda Stereo cassettes. Lovers lay on the hoods of their cars, shielding their faces from camera flashes. I saw men from the television setting up steel tripods to film the sky. I saw fat women plowing through the dunes. Whiny little kids with sticky popsicle fingers pointed at the sky asking: “Mummy, when is the UFO coming?”
“This sucks,” Julio exclaimed in disappointment.
Then, without another word, he ran off to play a game of night tag with some other boys. I regarded this as a cowardly betrayal.
A few hours later, I was falling asleep. I went back to my mother and curled up on her lap. Her breath smelled of wine and her fingers of cigarettes. She was talking to her friend about the UFO: apparently lights – red and white ones – could be seen in the distance but I couldn’t keep my eyes open a second longer.
“All this fuss for a narco plane,” said mum.
“But it’s a good excuse for a party,” her friend replied cheerfully.
The first reports of strange aerial activity over the municipalities of Sotavento (Veracruz, Boca del Rio, Alvarado and Tlalixcoyan, among others) date back to 1989. The inhabitants of these rural territories, farmers and ranchers, often saw lights at night. The oldest among them called them witches, everyone else called them light aircraft. They even knew the name of the strip where the planes landed, a stretch of barren scrubland and villainy that was kept under constant surveillance by the army: La Víbora.
It was a plain surrounded by marshes, a natural landing strip. The residents of Tlalixcoyan were used to seeing soldiers on their land: the strip was used by the army for special manoeuvres. So no one was surprised at the end of October, 1991, when gangs of men arrived to clear the scrubland with machetes.
A week later, on the morning of the seventh of November that year, the Army, the Federal Police and a Cessna from Colombia were involved in a bloody skirmish that only just made it past the government censors: members of the 13th Infantry Battalion opened fire on seven federal agents getting out of a King Air in pursuit of a Cessna that had been detected off the Nicaraguan Coast by the US Customs Service. The propeller plane, which was assumed to belong to smugglers, landed on the La Víbora strip at 6:50 in the morning, followed by the federal aircraft. The smugglers, a man and a woman, abandoned it and its cargo of three hundred and fifty-five kilos of cocaine and fled into the undergrowth while two columns of soldiers neutralized the federal agents with a withering burst of fire.
I remember two photos of the incident that appeared in the local newspaper, the Nottiver: in one of them seven men were lying in a row face down on the grass. They were the agents that had been gunned down that Thursday, the seventh of December by elements of the army. Five of them were dressed in dark clothing; the other two were dressed as peasants, although they wore black jackets now dirtied with mud and grass. None of them was wearing shoes.
The second photograph showed someone sitting on the ground with a rifle barrel very close to his face. The man, who was wearing a vest with the Federal Police logo on it, was staring straight into the lens. His tongue was swollen, his lips frozen mid-spasm. He was the only survivor of the massacre.
It was December, or maybe January or February, when I saw those photos in the old newspaper I’d spread out on the floor of the patio to wrap up the dry leaves I’d swept up. It must have been around then – when the north wind blows the leaves from the almond trees – because I had the (daily) chore of clearing the damn things from the patio. I remember seeing the images and reading some of the columns in the crime section spread out on the ground (I also remember asking my mother what ‘rape’ meant that night) but it would be more than a decade before I was able to put the photographs together with the UFO I saw on the beach, a vessel transporting cocaine, not aliens.
The municipal government forbade people from visiting the area during the months following the massacre so I didn’t get back to The Beach of The Dead until late 1992. By then it had lost all its charm. New breakwaters had claimed back more land from the sea and it was swarming with hawkers and tourists: they’d even got rid of the sign with the skull. Years later they renamed it: Beach of The Rings.
I don’t think I ever believed in anything as fervently as I had believed in UFOs. Not the Tooth Fairy or the Headless Horseman (my father told me that he appeared every night at Horn Beach searching for his errant skull, which had been blown off by a cannon) or the Giant Flying Man-eating Manta Ray of the Fiji Islands and especially not Father Christmas or God. It was all your parents, it was all made up by grown-ups.
People who live in the area say that on moonless nights, strange colored lights cross the sky on their way to the plains. But I have no further interest in aliens. That chubby little intergalactic vigilante is no more, just like The Beach of The Dead, and the foolhardy idiots who drowned there.
That night we were having guests for dinner, and Ines had been in a frenzy all week. She hunted down innovative recipes on the internet and buried my desk in sheets of paper as she printed them out. I’m a psychiatrist, so I like order, and I can’t stand it if my space is invaded for no good reason. However, I was reasonable and tried to get Ines to see things from my patients’ perspective. How would you feel if you arrived at a session and found piles of paper all over the office? I knew my persuasive tactics lost their effectiveness the day she stopped being my patient and became my wife, but in the end I managed to get her to pick it all up before the session with my Friday patient, a workaholic beyond repair.
In recent years we’d stopped inviting our friends over as much, so our friends, in turn, had stopped extending invitations or accepting our evermore sporadic ones. Since the twins were born there had been so little time for social interaction. But recently, after the girls turned seven magical years old, we decided it was time to get back in touch with the friends we’d neglected as we focused on the little ones. We started going out more regularly. But we were responsible parents, you could say.
That night we’d invited a couple over; they were a little older than us, but the age difference was hardly noticeable. They didn’t have kids. We’d known them forever. In fact, Ines was some sort of cousin to Eduardo, who’d met his wife Adela at our wedding. Adela had been a classmate of mine at university, and there’d been one episode after a night of partying that we never spoke of again.
Two weeks prior, Adela had called me from the hospital to invite me to dinner with them at their new town house. When I told her, Ines went crazy and thought of nothing other than returning the invitation. I remember that night at Adela and Eduardo’s house, she wouldn’t stop praising the food and the décor. She did it in an exaggerated and awkward way, insisting repeatedly that the colonial-style furniture our friends had picked out looked exactly like the authentic pieces she and I had seen on our honeymoon in Thailand.
During dinner at their house we jumped from topic to topic. At some points Eduardo and I conversed on our own; at another I asked Adela about her cases, and she wanted to know about mine. We liked to exchange funny stories in which our patients came out looking terrible. Then we ended up arguing over what Adela called the feudal privileges of private psychiatry over public. Adela had a sharp and sparkling way of speaking that still strongly attracted me despite all the time that had passed. At points, Eduardo was clearly bored. He looked at the clock on the wall, and you could tell that deep down he wanted us to finish our wine. Ines took the opportunity to get up and go into the kitchen alone, carrying away the dirty plates as if it were her own home. Adela let her do it; she wasn’t even paying attention. Ines seemed more like the maid than my wife.
We didn’t leave until late. Eduardo had perked up, he was excited about showing me his collection of fountain pens. He explained that the new house finally gave him enough space to display them in their custom-built case. His collections didn’t interest me in the slightest. Collecting is something I’d classify as obsessive behavior. I looked at the floor as he showed off a mother-of-pearl inlay, and I noticed one of his shoelaces had come untied, but I didn’t tell him.
At the door, the women kissed goodbye loudly and Eduardo and I exchanged a firm handshake that turned into a half-hearted hug. I thought it had been the final goodbye; however, at the last minute Ines noticed some geraniums, the color of which could barely be made out in the darkness, and I had to turn around and walk back. Adela insisted that Ines should take a cutting, and Ines insisted even more fervently that she shouldn’t trouble herself, but she ended up accepting a branch after making something of a song and dance out of the whole matter. As this was going on I feared that Eduardo would start back up with the pens, but his gaze held only a desire to put his pajamas on and get into his big colonial-style bed.
Ever since that night, Ines has thought of nothing other than Adela and Eduardo’s visit to our house. When we got into the car and started the engine, thinking about the best route home, I saw her sitting there beside me, how she smiled with her eyes wide open but without seeing anything. She looked like a martyr facing the firing squad. With her right hand tightly gripping the geranium. I noticed she’d caught her skirt in the car door without realizing it. We didn’t say a word the whole way home. Ines was in a daze, even though she hadn’t drunk much wine, and I was just driving, trying to think about my patients, whom I’d been increasingly neglecting.
When I parked in front of our house, Ines rested her face on my shoulder, burst into tears, and thanked me several times. At first I was frightened, mentally running through the kinds of psychiatric disorders that could cause such behavior. Then she calmed down, stopped crying, and asked me for permission to invite Eduardo and Adela over for dinner. I agreed, more because I wanted to end the scene than because I liked the idea. She looked at me with her red and excited eyes for a minute then fixed her gaze on the night sky, as before. I sat looking at her profile. I’d forgotten how her curls fell over her forehead. I didn’t want to get out of the car or go anywhere.
The days that followed were smooth as silk. My patients seemed willing to give sanity another try and stopped moaning about their tragedies. Maybe it was because the nights were shorter and they had less time to contemplate suicide. I thought about what would happen if they all got well. I wouldn’t make any money, and I’d be forced to look for new, even more degenerate patients. Or maybe my fame would grow to an international level, and I’d have to start studying English to treat Hollywood celebrities with their delusions of grandeur and depression. As I imagined these things, my appointments flew by.
At the same time, the twins were less annoying because summer was coming and they were playing outside more. Ines assured me that she’d take care of all the dinner preparations, that I wouldn’t have to lift a finger. For my part, I hadn’t asked any questions or offered to do anything, but she wouldn’t stop insisting all the same. When the office was empty, Ines spent hours with her elbows on the desk, studying websites about serving protocol or how to fold napkins to look like birds. Later she tried to put this into practice with the table linen we kept in the living-room cabinets, but the napkins wouldn’t stand up. Some nights I’d turn off my bedside light, and she’d still be sitting on the other side of the bed typing terms into Google, ten tabs open at the same time. I started to worry she might be going into chat rooms and talking to strangers who were anxious to give her their phone numbers and ask what color panties she had on. She reminded me of a patient who, two years after she thought she’d gotten over her addiction to chat rooms, still believed that the man of her dreams was in there, waiting for her inside her laptop.
The day of the dinner party started off badly. The geranium cutting that Adela had given Ines fell twisted and dead from the vase. When she saw it, Ines had an attack of hysterics, and I had to make her lie down for a few minutes on the couch my patients used. The armrests were worn out. It seemed sad and undignified for a practice of my standing. Ines was convinced that the flower’s death was a bad omen, and I repeated that it wasn’t, but I still couldn’t get her out of there. She insisted on getting a geranium to give to Adela at all costs. I found geraniums absolutely repulsive. Somehow I ended up offering to help, to lend a hand with the cooking as if it were a joint effort, and she started to calm down. I would have preferred to just give her a tranquilizer, but I took the risk and opened Pandora’s box.
My idea of helping was to go downtown, leave the car double parked with the hazards on, and buy something in a deli, but Ines had knives, cutting boards, and gadgets in the kitchen that I knew nothing about, let alone how to use, and she slipped an apron over my head like someone putting a collar on a dog. My suggestion of ready-made food was a disgusting abomination and an insult to our friends. It all embarrassed me a little, the apron and my dirty hands. It reminded me of one of those cooking shows where a housewife with misplaced maternal instincts tries unsuccessfully to teach a bachelor how to peel a potato. Luckily, with all those stupendous gadgets, I didn’t have to do much, and Ines took care of the more difficult or sticky tasks.
In the middle of the ordeal the twins came into the kitchen and asked for a snack. They looked at me and laughed. Their laughter was loud. It sounded like dry leaves that crackle when you step on them. I don’t know if they were laughing at me in the apron or if they were just happy because they were going to spend the night at their aunt’s house.
Ines made some sandwiches, and the girls ate as I lectured them about the importance of getting along. It’s crucial that the girls begin to become aware of their moods and emotions, and I talk to them a lot about it in the hope that it will help them later on. Also, I was tired of making melon balls. The twins listened politely then bit into their sandwiches, looked at each other and laughed, and it sounded like crackling. Ines wasn’t paying any attention to me. She was too busy. She was scrubbing things that immediately got dirty again.
Even though they hadn’t finished their snack, Ines was in a hurry to drop them off at my sister’s house. I took off the apron and went to get dressed. I had to do their hair myself. One of their ponytails leaned to the left, the other one’s ponytail leaned to the right, and since they looked so much alike, my lack of skill was all the more evident. I looked at them in the mirror and patted their ponytails. They ran off. I looked at myself in the mirror and then closed my eyes. I imagined myself somewhere else, somewhere far away, but when I opened my eyes again I was still there. I pulled down the medicine chest and counted to check there wasn’t too much of anything missing. Then I left the house.
I wrangled the twins into the car. At the last minute they’d decided they weren’t going to go, that they wanted to stay with Mom and Dad and that they didn’t want the old people (Eduardo and Adela, they meant) to come over. I thought it was funny, and I felt proud to have shaped such strong personalities with such an ability to assert themselves. I thought of going back in and telling Ines, with a straight face, that, given how the girls were behaving, the best thing to do would be to cancel the dinner. Then I worried she might react too violently and murder her own children. I smiled mischievously.
I drove fast down the highway. The girls didn’t talk. They stared symmetrically at the cars that we passed or that passed us. When we got there, my sister was surprised; she was expecting us an hour later based on what Ines had told her on the phone. She seemed annoyed.
“It’s fine,” she said finally.
She invited me to come in.
“It’s been a long time since we talked,” said my sister. “And I have a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen.”
I wondered if she wanted to talk to her brother or to a psychiatrist. I could recommend a few good ones.
“I have to go,” I said. “Ines is waiting for me, and there’s a lot left to do.”
I didn’t apologize. We didn’t agree on a time to pick the twins up the next day either. I wanted to say goodbye to the girls, but before I knew it they’d disappeared, and I supposed they were in some other room antagonizing the cat.
On my way home I took some streets I didn’t know. In fact, I didn’t remember my sister’s neighborhood very well at all, and it was starting to get dark. I thought I was going to get lost and that if I got lost I’d be late for dinner and that if I was late for dinner Ines might cry in front of the guests. Still in motion, I grabbed the steering wheel with my left hand and opened the glove box with my right. The GPS wasn’t there. Just packs of Kleenex that no one ever used and several CDs of kids’ music. As I closed the glove box I lost balance and gave the wheel a sharp jerk. It was a miracle I didn’t go up onto the central reservation.
There was no one on the street I could ask for directions. I turned the corner and saw a bar, so I parked and got out of the car. I went in with every intention of asking someone how to get out of the neighborhood, but instead I ordered a glass of wine and sat on a stool at the bar. I looked at my watch and confirmed that I had plenty of time for another glass.
The waiter served me the first of the two glasses I planned on having. His face looked familiar. As I drank, I realized he reminded me of the top student in my class at school, a boy named Ignacio Alcalde, very intelligent and hardworking but marred by an unfortunate tic. With that uncontrollable movement of his mouth, no one could see a future for him in this profession where patients never take their eyes off you and you’re obliged to worry about your appearance. I hadn’t thought about Ignacio for many years, until I arrived, not really knowing how, at that bar and came across that waiter. It could easily be him, the best doctor in the class of ’78, lost and forgotten.
I left my wine half drunk and asked for directions. It scared me to think that Ignacio had ended up there, and I wanted to leave immediately. I asked for the check like I was in a restaurant, and the waiter gave me a strange look, unsure whether I wanted to know how much or if I also wanted a receipt. I paid, and the waiter—or Ignacio—gave me the directions I needed. His voice was deep and gravelly, completely different from the voice I remembered, and I felt relieved. Then I thought about how cigarettes, among other factors, could change the tone of a person’s voice.
I started the car and quickly found my way. I tried to picture the name of the bar in case I ever drove by again in the light of day. I’d sat for a few seconds looking at the lit sign before I went in, but now I was unable to remember it. A gust of wind blew a spiky leaf onto the windshield, and it gleamed with a bluish reflection. My cell phone rang. I moved into fifth and then felt around for my phone in the pocket of my blazer. The spiky leaf disappeared like a butterfly scared off by a puppy. It was a message from Ines. It said where are you, hurry up or we’re going to start without you.
As if unconsciously, I lifted my foot off the accelerator and stopped trying to pass the car in front of me.
A moral romance
The restaurant, which offered simple but excellent fare, was lit by a large artificial moon augmented by some weak recessed lighting in the walls. The owner oversaw proceedings from the till. At one table, oblivious to the comings and goings of the waiters and the other customers, a man and a woman were trying to downplay their excitement at the conversation they were having by occasionally looking out of the window. Down below, the river was dancing, the lights from the homes that lined the shore glinting playfully off the water.
They’d finished their meal and were drinking aropi liquor in little sips. Flugo, a well-built redhead, wore his ugliness well. Otami was tall and stunning: perfectly proportioned blue eyes, short hair the colour of dates, a ravishing nose, beautifully angled upper incisors and a lower lip that wobbled slightly, like a tic, a subconscious effort to right a slight unevenness. A moment before she’d missed the rim of her glass, and some of the liquid had splashed onto her chin. She wiped it away then lowered her eyes and took off her jacket. Flugo tried hard to keep his saliva in check. She stretched out her arms to show off the special features underneath her bracelets. Flugo’s hairy arms only had functional enhancements. He showed them to her. Both were fidgety and irritable, as though something with no discernible odour were cooking between the two of them. The bill was brought to the table, and Otami declared that as she’d invited him out she’d pay. Suddenly they heard an inhuman roar. Flugo’s hair grew redder, and Otami’s back glowed.
A flame emerged from the entrance to the kitchen, right next to the counter where the owner stood at his post. It was already racing up the hiluven screen. With the rapidly spreading flames snapping at their heels, the chef and his assistants ran out as fast as they could while the robotios backed away, ineffectually spitting out their water reserves. New tongues of flame slithered along the floor like fiery snakes. While the owner stepped back, slapping at his cuffs, his customers ran for the exit. Seeing that Flugo was about to use his wrist extinguisher, the man asked him not to come any closer. Flugo looked down at the remains of their meal and the clipboard with the bill. He took out his money pouch and fingered the notes while the bar went up in flames. Otami made a grab for him and tried to pull him away, but her sweaty hands slipped and she went on alone. The owner hesitated like the captain of a ship before heading out the back. Caught between the fire and the night, Otami turned around and called to Flugo until, eventually, he agreed to come out with her. On the esplanade, about fifty metres away, they watched as the fire consumed most of the restaurant and the windows began to crack. Eventually the firefly units arrived. Calmed by this reassuring sight the crowd dispersed, and they were left alone under the stars. Flugo was torn between melancholy and Otami’s gleaming shoulders. They’ve all gone, she said. And none of them paid, Flugo replied. Still clutching the money, he made as if to go back inside. She pressed herself against him. It’s cold, she said. Aroused by her whisper, he realized that now was the time to put an arm around her. They went down to the seafront to look for a taxi before driving to a tall residential icosahedron. In her studio, which, like her, was beautiful and uneven, they rutted like fugitives from the law. All the positions, all the orifices, all the juices. While Otami made an effort to be industrious, Flugo strove to be liberated. He was disoriented, as though he hadn’t yet come to terms with the new horizons opened up by their unexpected escape. He looked down at his uncommonly firm trombon as she begged him to plunge it into her and wondered what to make of the two fingers she’d shoved in his arse. She clung to him tight, making a strange sound, a kind of purr begging for succour or a timid mantra to ward off oblivion. They slept well but not blissfully. In the morning she stroked him but didn’t cling to him like she had the night before; she was distracted. He, however, was trying to concentrate. In this minor difference, Flugo found the room to mill his incredulity into anxiety.
It was a tragedy, he said. What happened to that man was a tragedy, and people… like us… such a good meal… We need to pay for it.
She reminded him that all the covers put together wouldn’t come to anything like what he’d be getting from his insurance. Also, it had been her treat. He said that it wasn’t about the money so much as paying what one should, acting responsibly. Basic human decency. The resulting silence suggested that for him this was no trivial matter. Flugo stifled a yawn. He’d never thought about how important such things were before. He didn’t say that neither had he ever slept with a woman like her before, but it was obvious that he was somewhat flustered by their exertions. She stretched, rubbing against him. The fact that she was able to do two things at once piqued Flugo’s trombon, and they went at it again. By the time they’d finished he was braying while she was pleading, as though she had begun to founder. But then she recovered immediately: she was ephemeral as a dolphin. She kissed him, slapped his arse and sat down on an elegant-but-dirty sofa with a quarnaklo draped over her legs. The night before she’d told him that she didn’t deal very well with confrontation and that she designed persuasive images for neural links. She plugged in to the Panconscious. Flugo was left staring at the only painting in the house, a landscape of very different places: a reed bed, a lake on a high mountain, a hall in a cheap hotel and more. Then he left for work. He was a quality-control officer at a factory that made fluid injectors.
Several days passed before he went back to the restaurant. A pair of cyborgs was guarding some furniture that hadn’t been burned too badly, and a pile of brickling, woodpaste and metal had been placed alongside the two surviving walls. He noticed a fluttering tablecloth; it wasn’t the table that he had sat at with Otami, but the clipboard with the unpaid bill was still there. Flugo blinked, and the board disappeared. However, the boy piling up the objects that were still serviceable was certainly real. Flugo told him that he’d come to pay the bill for that night. The boy told him not to worry, Don Mayome had other things on his mind. Flugo left reluctantly without asking any more questions.
He couldn’t forgive himself for the delay. And yet he could, because to his surprise Otami called him, and they went out together not once but twice, and on both occasions they screwed like lost souls, once on an empty boat. Three fucks usually constitute a relationship, but this time that wasn’t entirely the case. They were tied together but not bonded. They grabbed, bit and stroked each other violently, mixing their breath, saliva, semen and juices, their eyes brimming over. They squeezed at each other greedily, until it hurt, but it was all for naught; neither could actually steal anything from the other’s body, they couldn’t physically merge, which is what they really wanted. When it seemed that they’d squeezed out all the pleasure they could and were finally sated, it only took a moment of contact to, unlike the fire at the restaurant, revive their flames and fury again. Otami was as crazy about Flugo’s trombon and mouth as she was for her own holes and emissions, as he was for every part of her, even her toenails. She revered Flugo’s bulk. She nuzzled her forehead into his chest and stroked his head, mumbling, You give me everything, moaning that if he let her go she’d fly away or drown, and so he would thrust, push, suck and try to reassure her, even though she never seemed to need consolation after the climax. Sex isn’t the only bond; it was more like when they were copulating a bond appeared that couldn’t seem to raise its head otherwise.
Flugo stammered that one must own up to the consequences of their actions. She gave a half-smile and massaged his shins without bothering to say that all they did was go to dinner, but it was probably what she was thinking.
But who will atone for the thoughtlessness, the selfishness of the people who left? he asked.
She glanced at him without irony, pity or the slightest irritation, without even reminding him, once again, that she was the one who was supposed to have paid the bill.
When Flugo went back up the hill the next day, the boy told him that Don Mayome had died. He was his stepson. Flugo bit his lip.
Of course, after a calamity like that, he murmured.
No, sir, he died of something he already had.
What about you…?
I helped him to die, and he left me this. I don’t know if I’ll be able to sell it.
Flugo said that he didn’t think it would be hard. The stepson said that he didn’t understand; it wasn’t that he didn’t know if he could sell it, he simply couldn’t sell it.
Of course, Flugo said, there are unpaid debts.
Telling the boy again that he hadn’t been able to pay that night, he took out his pouch.
The stepson stopped him there: Don’t insult me.
No, no, it’s what I owe.
Sir, you don’t get this business at all.
Flugo considered arguing further but just nodded. He walked down the hill, clutching his side, as though he had a stitch, as though he were trying to climb up a cliff but couldn’t make any headway. One morning, after a sleepy but indulgent encounter, he asked Otami why they never did it at his house. It took her a while to answer: I feel better here. He looked at the only painting on the wall. Today it seemed as though the images had changed: palfreys galloping across the tundra, a morgue, a village in the mist, but it might have been an optical illusion. As usual, for breakfast they had tea, bread and oil and bunaston strips. They ate, and Flugo stopped himself from asking how she knew she felt better there if she’d never been to his house. Otami sat in her work chair looking so languorous, glossy and long legged that it was almost intimidating. Suddenly, he got up and exultantly slapped himself on the forehead. The noise distracted Otami from the Panconscious. She told him to take care, he was liable hurt himself; one needs to know how to handle an excess of endorphins.
At the former restaurant the owner’s stepson had cleared away the rubble. He was saying goodbye to a professional-looking lady, who then got into her autopod and drove away. When he saw Flugo, he sighed, not quite exasperated but certainly weary. He asked Flugo to try to understand that he had things to rebuild. Flugo smiled with a cunning expression he hadn’t seemed capable of. He looked at the three cyborgs struggling with a shipment of various different materials. He told the boy that he was very good at organizing construction teams, partly because he worked alongside them, too. He seemed so enthused that the stepson reluctantly agreed to let him help out. And so, help he did.
Three afternoons a week Flugo parked his patacycle at the dock and went up the hill to work with Mayome’s stepson. He checked budgets, talked to suppliers, negotiated with paralaws, set the ratio for the adobaster mix, struggled in vain to hurry the insurers up and made improvements to plans for a facility that would have to wait. He lifted loads of brickling and helped the boy to manage the money that the prescient Mayome had set aside – two years’ rent – before the boy helped him to die. Flugo asked him what that help had consisted of.
It was just something I used to do, the boy said.
On the mornings following his afternoon at the construction site, Flugo had coffeto and biscuits with cream and jam for breakfast. The other afternoons he patalated home before heading out for consummation with Otami, sometimes after a quiet walk, a quick dinner and a prologue of dirtilthian words. Even with what little we know about Flugo, we can tell that he found this routine unsettling.
Late one night, looking at the painting of different landscapes, he said quietly: I have to do some research.
What, hunny? she asked.
What kind of a job is helping people to die?
Otami was asleep, but he didn’t notice. His monologue went on to reveal that trying to make up for the debts of so many people was wearing him down, except when he was cavorting with Otami. But he wondered whether what was wearing him down was his obsession with whether or not everyone should have paid, or whether his malaise was caused by exhaustion and he’d invented an excuse to avoid the bigger issue. One might say that the work he put in avoiding the issue was beginning to bore him, and it was the fact that he was bored that saddened him. He woke up with Otami licking his ear, and from the oblivion of sleep slipped into the oblivion she had to offer. Like an island rent asunder by an earthquake, Flugo was torn between sadness and satisfaction. Looking away, she put on a T-shirt and gave him a compliment: Hunny, I have so much fun with you. I’ve never had so much fun with anyone. Flugo blinked, his eyes shone.
I had so hoped it would be like this.
She got up and spent almost half a minute hesitating between going to the bathroom and the kitchen, as though she didn’t know what to do first or wasn’t completely in control of herself. Eventually, she decided to sit on the sofa, and the decision pleased her. He lingered in the soft embrace of the duvet. A couple of minutes later he heard Otami’s voice from the kitchen, like a neural advertisement whose soundtrack was the bubbling of the coffeto pot. You shouldn’t tire yourself out like that. What if you end up wearing us out, too?
Like a paradoxical pill, Flugo found the phrase reinvigorating. Three afternoons a week, once he’d finished work at the plant, he committed himself to paying off society’s debt to the restaurant. The remaining nights he recharged his batteries with Otami’s eagerness. Sweaty and chaotic, she squeezed, twisted and pushed him, telling him in a hoarse, cracked voice never to let her go, to seal the deal, to be there with her, but after the climax she was always the first to extricate herself. Outside of the bedroom she never asked him for anything. Neither did she seem to expect any answers. Caught between the dock and the buoy, it seemed that poor confused Flugo was only able to anchor himself when he was putting his back into the work for the stepson. It was his way of overcoming his doubt and bewilderment. This would appear to be a therapeutic story about the different lives a man can lead.
But Flugo never congratulated himself for having discovered such a satisfactory balance between duty and pleasure. One afternoon, when it was time to go home, Mayome’s stepson was cleaning a sink they’d just put in. He said to Flugo: Flugo, you work like a convict.
Flugo wasn’t surprised by the comment. In fact, he replied, I see myself as a researcher.
What are you researching?
We-ell, I’d like to find out how to take ownership of myself.
The boy turned off the tap and dried his hands.
Why? he asked eventually.
Flugo’s face flickered into a smile before returning to its usual earnest state. I don’t know; so I can have a relationship.
The boy also began to look earnest. What kind of relationship?
A relationship like the kind where your breath is interchangeable, said Flugo. The words took him by surprise. The boy, too.
Like a romance? he asked in a quiet voice.
Maybe, said Flugo. One hand washes the other and both wash the face.
That night he was watching the screenatron, trying to consolidate his feelings into a single emotion, when the psyphone rang. It was Otami. With no help from him, her face appeared, looking surprisingly easy to read. Her smoky voice conveyed nothing more than the words themselves: Tomorrow night. Can I come to your house tomorrow night?
Of course, said Flugo.
Grandz, she said. Then we’re doing something new.
Flugo hung up and quickly gave his flat a once-over, but there wasn’t much to do. Everything was neat and tidy. It was a nice flat. The last we heard of Flugo he was in the supermarket buying bunaston strips.
On the silt and pebble-covered floor of the lagoon lay the body of a man. His open eyes seemed to be looking at the sun of a lower, liquid sky. A small black and yellow fish swam along the ridge of his leg, another nibbled at his ear. He had been down there for some time, and his unmoving body had become a part of the watery landscape. His face seemed peaceful, but now and then it was as though his lips curled in an expression of disgust. The seaweed moved with his hair in the gentle current. As long as the mud adhered to it, his body changed slowly; the eyes, which originally had been hollow, pushed out of the swollen face. They had lost their color; they would have seen only blackness. The belly grew to be enormous, and one night the body rose up out of the black mud, the muck covered all trace of where it had lain, and the flesh came into the open as it was propelled by the waves to the shore.
The police commissioner of Flores leaned over the body, his handkerchief pressed to his nose. There were few things which displeased him as much as an unexplained death; his bloodshot eyes slowly searched for some sign of violence. He only found the marks left by the hands of the fishermen who had discovered the corpse and pulled it out of the water, and the fish-bitten face and clenched hands. The commissioner had someone force the fists open: one was empty and the other held a bit of earth and a stone. From its size he judged the body to be that of a foreigner. He raised his head and folded his handkerchief.
Richard Ward, an American, had come to the Petén nine months earlier, and had purchased a piece of land facing the lagoon of ltza, where he built a small cottage. He intended to retire there with his wife Lucy, who was waiting in Wisconsin for news of him. Two weeks before the body was found, Richard Ward had been seen in a shop in Flores, and then he had disappeared. His servant Rafael Colina was taken to the police station, where he was questioned. No result came of this, nor of the search made of his hut, on Ward’s land. They kept him for a few hours, and after administering the customary beating, let him go.
Lucy Ward arrived in Flores one wet Sunday in September. She was stout, with graceful arms and legs. At the police station they gave her the little box containing the ashes: 37, she read on the cover, Sr. R. Ward. A police car took her to the property, where Rafael was expecting her.
She wandered around the terrain, examining the landscape with the questioning expression of someone looking at an abstract painting he fails to understand; then she realized with some surprise that it pleased her. She went into the cottage, looked around, and decided to spend the night there. Later, on her way to sleep, she thought of her husband, and was grateful to him for having found this place. She decided to try living there for a while.
From the outset it was as though the absence of human companionship, an absence which she had dreaded, was compensated for by the feverish life of the plants, the activity of the insects, and the tenuous presence of Rafael. Little by little she became aware of the forest’s tiny miracles, and she learned how to resign herself to the inconveniences: the ever-present ants, the constant sweating, the mosquitoes at twilight and at dawn.
After supper she would go out and sit in the rocking chair and stay listening to the voices of the earth, metallic and hypnotic. During the day she liked to walk among the trees along a narrow path cleared by her husband. She would walk until she was tired, and relax among the vines to breathe in the scent of branches and dead leaves. From time to time she caught a strange butterfly, or gathered flowers whose names she did not know.
One night when rain fell unceasingly, the sound of it on the palm-thatched roof kept her from sleeping and for the first time she was troubled by her husband’s death. Like the rain that was starting to drip into the room, fear began to seep into her consciousness. A heavy drop landed next to her pillow; she got up and pushed the bed into the middle of the room. There were flashes of lightning. As she was finally on her way to falling asleep, by a bolt of lightning she saw Rafael in the doorway, watching her. She blinked her eyes, and considered stretching her arm out to light a match; then she realized with relief that she had been wrong. The face was a stain in the wood. She breathed deeply and sank into sleep.
ln the morning when the sun was high, she opened her eyes and heard Rafael working in the kitchen. The air was sweet with the smell of corn. Needles of sunlight pushed between the slits in the ceiling, a fly buzzed. She made her bed and dressed to go out.
Morning, said Rafael, showing his yellow teeth.
She went to sit on the porch. Rafael put the tray on the small table beside her chair. As he was pouring her coffee, she turned and looked into the distance, saying in a hushed voice:· I’ve been thinking of Don Ricardo.
He stared at her an instant, surprised; then he looked away and lifted his head. Don Ricardo, he said. The light moved on the surface of the lagoon. Lucy raised her cup, and he turned and went into the kitchen.
That morning, instead of taking her walk in the forest, Lucy went to the end of the dock and spread out a towel to sunbathe. She thought of the past; it was empty and vague. Memory dissolved in the heat.
The sun burned her face. She heard Rafael push his rowboat into the water. Sitting up, she saw him row past the dock. I’m going to see if there’s any fish, he told her, continuing to row toward the other bank.
She lay face down, looking at the white flowers under the water; then she shut her eyes in order not to think.
The heat became intense. She plunged into the water and swam back and forth at the end of the dock. Then she came out and let the sun dry her. On her way to the house, she noticed that the door to the hut under the banana plants was open. She glanced behind her — only the still water — and walked rapidly to the door, peering into the dark interior.
There was a large earthenware pot in the corner, resting on some stones that kept it from touching the floor; underneath it were ashes and dead embers. She stopped, astounded, in the middle of the room. In the air, near her face, an enormous toad was staring at her. It opened its mouth, and she saw the glass jar and the cord that suspended it from above. The toad moved, pushing its four toes against the glass. Her fear was transformed into pity. She touched the jar with a fingernail, and the toad raised and lowered its eyelids. The cover had been pierced with a nail. In the bottom of the jar were some blades of grass and a fly. She turned it around and held it close to her face so she could examine the toad’s skin.
From some distance away came a hollow wooden sound. From the doorway she saw the boat in the middle of the lagoon. Rafael was rowing in a standing position, a stroke on the left, then on the right, never taking his eyes off the shore. She felt a trickle down her spine, and she realized that her hair was dripping wet. She went out of the hut, leaving drops of water on the floor where she had stood.
That noon Rafael served her a fish stew. She tasted it without pleasure, and left it almost intact. He asked her if anything was the matter with the food. No, the food was good, but the sun had taken away her appetite. After he had disappeared into his hut to take his siesta, she went to the kitchen and prepared herself a dish of fruit.
She must speak to Rafael. His treatment of the toad was cruel. She thought of the wrinkled skin, the unhappy eyes behind the glass. Sitting on the porch, she looked out over the lagoon and thought of her husband’s ashes.
She rose from the rocking chair and went silently – the afternoon was very still – to the open door of the hut. Rafael, crouching with his back to her, was playing with the toad, which he had taken out of the jar and was poking with a stick. The cornered toad puffed itself out threateningly; above its eyes had appeared pointed black ridges, like horns.
She took a few steps back, and called out loudly: Rafael! He jumped up and stuck his head outside the door.
I’m sorry, she said. I need some lemons. Do you think you could go and buy some?
When Rafael had gone, taking the road to the village, Lucy drew back the bolt and pushed open the door to the hut. The toad was once again in the jar. She unscrewed the top, put the jar on the floor, and urged the toad out of the room with her foot. She bolted the door again and went back to the porch. The sun was getting close to the horizon.
Rafael returned at dusk. There were no lemons, he said as he walked past her, on his way to the hut. Lucy watched him as she rocked in the chair. She saw him open the door and go in. Then suddenly he rushed out again, as if he had been pushed. He looked here and there on the ground, behind the bushes that surrounded the hut, under the banana plants, in the ditch beside the path, and between the stalks of the canebrake. He returned to the hut and searched once more, and after that he stood in the doorway looking out.
What is it? Lucy called. She saw him coming toward her, his head lowered.
Is something wrong?
Somebody went into my house.
The mosquitoes were biting her. Somebody? When?
Rafael glanced behind him. You didn’t see anybody?
There was a full moon, and the air was still. Before supper, Lucy went out and stood on the shore looking at the sky. She knew that her lie had offended Rafael. For a moment she felt like admitting her wrongdoing, but then silence seemed the better course.
The food was on the table. Listlessly she finished all the fish; this was to please him. (Now she felt sorry for him.) In a low voice she begged his pardon. Rafael served himself and said good night. When the candle in his hut no longer burned, she went into her room.
In the night she awoke to feel a weight on her abdomen. She felt it move upward across her chest. It was something cold, it was crawling now on her neck, and it stopped at her mouth.
She could not move: her limbs were heavy. Then she saw the toad, its body swelling …
She threw back the sheet and jumped out of bed. There was a bitter taste in her mouth. She seized a flashlight, ran into the bathroom, and tried to be sick. Letting the water run, she put her head under the tap. Then she sat down on the bathmat and found that she was unable to get up again. In the mirror she saw the flashlight shining.
*This story is taken from: Dust on Her Tongue © Rodrigo Rey Rosa, 1989, 1992; English translation by Paul Bowles, 1989.
You walk, you walk and you forget: that’s what she always says. Well, not in those exact words. It’s usually a more specific complaint: you didn’t call Pacheco, you didn’t check the Supercable contract, you didn’t take the car to the shop, it’s past dinnertime, you forgot our wedding anniversary and to buy the shampoo I asked you to. She doesn’t expect answers, and Benjamin knows it would be useless to reply. He also knows that beyond that litany of small complaints the true reproach rises up like a weathered plateau, existential, unforgivable. That he didn’t remember. There’s an enormous difference between forgetting and not remembering.
A reproach that, of course, has never been stated outright. The damning weight of everything Benjamin doesn’t remember—or pretends not to remember—could trigger a massive earthquake in all the geological layers that have built up patiently over the years to form a stable foundation. Benjamin doesn’t remember the future that was left behind in the past, that glorious future, bright as the sun, its contours mysteriously fading the closer he got to it. Their thirty-five years together has proved it.
The worst part is that you didn’t remember, she says without saying it, as she talks about the mechanic and the shampoo. You forget everything, she says. The life you promised me (she doesn’t say that). You just walk, and walking doesn’t solve anything, she says, and lately that’s all you do.
As if she didn’t know that Benjamin had started walking under doctor’s orders. The cure for everything at his age, high cholesterol, fatty liver, clogged arteries, and a heart as slow as the owner of these broken-down organs. So he got used to walking. Now his wife suspects that he likes doing it and that’s not something she can allow; it’s not fair, while she lives with the burden of having to remember that dazzling shared future that has simply vanished into the present.
“Enough with the walking, Benjamin. Open the door please! Mauricio is coming for dinner tonight with your grandkids. He never knows what to do with them when it’s his turn to take care of them. They’ve become unbearable since the divorce, clearly their mother’s doing (don’t get me started on her), and Sandrita is sleeping, so you’ll have to run by the bakery. And you could set the table, too, don’t you think? I have to do everything myself. And you, walking and walking!”
The gravel crunches under his feet and the spring air bursts with the trill of invisible birds. Benjamin turns up the volume; from far away comes the neighing of a horse. A delicious sound.
He’s surrounded by a green world of vegetation, just like in the beginning, when he went to the places with public walking trails: La Autopista, Los Caobos, El Parque del Este. He bought himself a Walkman and for a while sucked in his stomach and raised his head, the way one should as a member of the healthy athletic community, where the successful businessmen democratically wear the same shorts as the losers; kingdom of long muscular legs training for marathons, tight leggings, impeccable rear ends, bodies glimmering with sunscreen and sweat. Until the inevitable day when he realized that the others ran or jogged, and even the ones that walked like him passed him easily, time and again. Pounding the cement of the shady trails they seemed to be rushing to some important destination unknown to him. Benjamin, on the other hand, just strolled. He was left behind, as ever. And that reminded him in a way of his wife’s silent reproach, unavoidable as a mountain range. So he put his Walkman in a drawer (you always buy things and then you don’t use them) and opted to give up the car and walk to work, there and back.
“Did you hear me, Benjamin, enough already!” she says. “Open this door! The bakery is going to close.”
Benjamin picks up his pace. He still has a way to go.
His office is in the same old building in which he’d set it up when it was new, long before the city had passed it by and left it forgotten at the end of a pedestrian-only street now crowded with peddlers. Walking there meant getting lost among the stalls and tables, among the chaos of plastic jewelry, perfumes from Taiwan, knockoff blue jeans and Lycra panties with lace. Benjamin wandered, skimming secondhand books and pawing at the pornographic magazines displayed on the sidewalk; sometimes he bought dulce de leche or a badly weighed kilo of tangerines from a young mestiza whose baby the color of raw chocolate slept surrounded by her wares. She spoke in a friendly manner, said that the tangerines were sweet, she called him “my love,” and the magazine seller, a German with white hair and a Colombian accent, shared with him profound reflections on the current state of the nation that Benjamin couldn’t disagree with.
Here there was no past or future at all, much less a now-past future. It was easy to wander with no destination or luggage through that immediate present, ephemeral and eternal at the same time, brought down by shouts and the folding of blankets as soon as the uniformed officers peered around a corner leaving the street suddenly empty, with peeling facades, trash cans crammed with rubbish, and asphalt patches on the cobbled street; but none of it was tragic or permanent: minutes later the vibrant hustle and bustle would return.
Very soon the walk to and from work became the most pleasurable part of each day. Benjamin kept it a secret, of course. He knew very well that he didn’t have the right, while Mauricio was being cleaned out by that harpy of an ex, and Sandrita was putting that powder up her nose that made her incoherent and shrill. And her, poor thing, in the house, alone and remembering.
In the end they found him out. It was inevitable. He was late getting to work, and he had to lie to his elderly secretary. To top it all, his brother-in-law was mugged nearby at the entrance to the Notaría. They ripped open his coat, took out his wallet, and apparently got very angry, since they hit him again and again. So his wife and the doctor forbade him to walk on the street: in any number of ways it was hazardous to the health.
It was an indisputable fact that his cholesterol had increased considerably and his heartrate wasn’t terribly improved by the aimless wanderings of those walks. It doesn’t do anything, they told him, to walk at such a slow pace. Now they’re worried: it seems he walks too fast. At your age it’s dangerous; it could give you a heart attack.
Benjamin, open the door! come the voices of Sandra and his wife. But he plays the madman, he walks, walks, walks, faster and faster. His legs have become strong and his belly has decreased in volume; however, he’s sweaty and panting, his heart pounds in his chest. It doesn’t matter, someday he’ll reach the end of the route. For once in his life he’s doing the right thing: setting objectives and achieving them.
In fact, they’re all responsible, too. They suggested this solution and were even pleased when The Walker was delivered to the house, although they were a bit surprised by the uncharacteristic initiative he’d shown by buying it without consulting anyone. It had been years since Benjamin had bought so much as a shirt by himself. He didn’t even seem to know how he’d discovered the machine in a department store, or how he managed to be immediately persuaded by the salesman, who—strangest thing—didn’t even realize the value of his own merchandise. Almost without meaning to, Benjamin became the owner of a walking machine, the best on the market, latest model. Thankfully they’ll never know how much the extravagance cost.
Immediately thereafter he converted the guest room (totally useless, by the way) into a kind of private gym. There, reading the instruction manual with painstaking care, he set up The Walker with its battery of speakers and projectors.
He began to walk at the lowest speed, and from the start felt a great affinity for this form of exercise that seemed to have been designed especially for him. There’s a melancholically familiar abandon in the act of walking and walking and never reaching your destination. He’d been doing something like that his entire life.
With the exception that he now has something more: the video that came in the package. From the first moment he turned on the projector he knew that something new and important had come into his life. The white wall in front of him was filled with green landscapes as he paraded from tree to tree between crystalline fountains and flowerbeds, the speakers perfectly reproducing the chirping of birds and the crunch of the gravel under his steps. He was alone, marvelously alone, undisputed king of all that beauty. He had a deadbolt installed on the door of his improvised gym. He jealously guarded the key, even sleeping with it in the pocket of his pajamas; your father has gone crazy, she says, who’s going to clean in there?
He patiently clarified that he’d finally found the ideal form of exercise, and he needed to concentrate in order to improve. He was so animated that his wife furrowed her eyebrows, suspicious, but she abstained from commenting. In the end it was a healthy activity, boring, and something recommended by the doctor. She didn’t recognize the signs of danger.
Benjamin, on the other hand, sensed that his life had acquired a new dimension, although it was only after two or three weeks that he began to notice slight alterations in the landscape of the video. First came the inexplicable sounds, suggesting a barely perceptible animal presence. It started with a cicada whose stubbornly unpleasant buzzing followed him for a long stretch of the path. Convinced that the creature had crawled in through the window, Benjamin interrupted the session, determined to get rid of the intruder, and realized with surprise that the buzzing ceased at the very instant he stopped the video. It was either a strange coincidence or a particularly intelligent insect; it began its flight again as soon as he restarted the projection. It never returned. And Benjamin soon forgot it as he concentrated on his walking—becoming ever faster—until one day he stopped, pensive, at the edge of the third pond. He could’ve sworn that every time he’d passed it a clear and powerful stream erupted from its center; nevertheless, today the fountain was turned off, the water took on deep-green tones, and a small wild duck played on the bank. Perplexed, Benjamin let the tape rewind, then started it from the beginning and retraced his steps. This time the stream of water gushed forth, there was no doubt about it, but the little duck remained in place. It was strange that he’d never noticed it before.
For the first time he realized that he’d never made it past that pond, and he was curious. He extended the duration of his walks, then he made an effort to increase his speed. The video rewarded his efforts: indeed, further on the landscape changed. The trees of the park began to morph, on both sides of the path elaborate iron gates now appeared allowing glimpses of opulent mansions two or three stories high and surrounded by gardens. On the third day, panting from exhaustion, he reached a particularly beautiful house, made of wood and covered in rampant ivy. It seemed vaguely familiar to him. He wanted to know who lived there, to ring the bell and go inside, but the rules of The Walker wouldn’t allow it. He could only stay on the path, walking slowly without taking his eyes from the cheerful yellow curtains that hid the mystery within, and he strained his ears to pick up the faint laughter of children playing somewhere in the garden. Suddenly the memory surged forth: her, young and radiant, cutting out pictures from a magazine, the home she’d dreamed of for their shared future. Deep down he knew that it couldn’t be merely a coincidence, a chance image in the video. That house was there for him, some kind of divine trick. Benjamin was struck by it. He stopped exercising and the image disappeared, leaving him sweaty and huffing in front of the blank white wall of the former guest room.
That night he couldn’t get to sleep. Her irregular snores and the sounds of partying that filtered in from Sandra’s room heightened his state of feverish excitement. So anxious was he to return to the house that by five in the morning he was already decked out in his gray sweat-suit.
“Did you fall out of bed or something?” On a sudden impulse he wanted to bring her along—come with me, I want to show you something. She turned her back to him, unwilling to indulge such foolishness. “At this hour? You’re crazy.” So Benjamin briefly caressed the soft foam rollers on his wife’s head and gave up the idea of sharing his discovery with her.
It was for the best: she would’ve called him crazy. From the third pond the clear fountain sprouted up and a family of ducks now swam on the water, but there was no sign of the ivy-covered house. He searched in vain as he walked furiously. He left behind the iron gates and mansions and the path was replaced by a two-lane highway through an uninteresting rural landscape. Soft bluish hills rippled on the horizon. Atop one of them was a city, like a drawing of something far away. After a few days he stopped looking for the house and concentrated all his efforts on reaching the city.
“What’s wrong with you?” she asked. “You’re more distracted than ever. You have the same glazed look as Sandra when she was in that institution. And you forgot to call the bank about my credit card … You’re worse than ever. You forget everything. Everything!”
This time it was true: he forgot everything. But he felt better than ever. With a secret sense of anticipation Benjamin caressed the key in his pocket and couldn’t wait for his next exercise session. Now he walked several times a day, locking himself away with The Walker for longer and longer stretches. Unfortunately, the video was designed to encourage a progressive increase in effort: there was no way to restart it at any given point on the route, it always rewound itself to the beginning. If he wanted to get to the end, where the faraway city rose up on the hill or, who knew, further still, he had to return each time to the starting point, cross the park, run around the ponds, the path, the mansions … the highway that followed seemed endless.
“You’ve gone crazy,” she said. “Look at yourself when you leave that room. Pale. You can hardly breathe from exhaustion. The doctor said it’s dangerous; you can’t do it. It’s worse than a physical. No one should do a physical without medical supervision.”
It was true. In some hidden part of Benjamin’s consciousness he knew he had to slow his pace. His legs had become stronger, but his heart had not reacted well. Last night he’d had a pain in his chest again; he had to stop the machine and lie down, panting beside the path, without taking his eyes off the distant hills until they vanished into the whiteness of the horizon. The wall came down on him as he tried to sit up on the carpet, his ears filled with the inexorable whir of the video as it rewound again to the beginning of the route.
They were pounding on the door now. He heard voices, Sandra’s stupid giggling, the shouts of Mauricio’s kids, Come out, Dad. Come out, Grandpa. We want to eat!
“Benjamin, enough already! Forget about the table. I already set it myself. Just come out. Ridiculous old man. I’m going to sell that damned machine. It’s bad for you.”
Benjamin has just reached the foot of the first hill and begins the long-dreamed-of ascent. The pain returns, sharp, this time in his left arm, and his vision blurs a little, but the city isn’t so far away now. His last chance to escape. There, he’ll find another street where the peddlers display their frivolous wonders just for him along the sidewalk. Maybe another office. Maybe another house. Maybe a car will pass and give him a ride, because his time is precious.
“Benjamin,” she begs, now in an anxious voice. “Open the door, Benjamin.”
Mauricio says something about the locksmith who’s on his way. Benjamin longs for the shelter of that unknown city. What a shock they’ll get when they finally break down the door.
He knows that if he gets there soon enough they won’t be able to take away The Walker. Or anything else. Getting to the end is vitally important … A goal, finally. If he trains enough, he’ll get there. It’s simply a question of practice.
With his eyes fixed on his goal, Benjamin picks up the pace.
Six olives contain as many calories as a small steak. Could that be right? She’d read it out of the corner of her eye in a magazine belonging to a woman in a faded ski sweater sitting next to her on the metro. It came from an article about common dietary myths featuring surprising graphics: a large cup of cocoa is as fattening as a mid-sized ice-cream, fifty grams of peanuts or half a litre of beer; six olives were the same as a small steak, etc. Could that be right? She’d never really understood how calories work; it had never been an issue for her. Maybe they were just making it up. According to her Chinese doctor, calories weren’t what mattered; they were part of it but mostly it depended on your body and the type of food in question.
She walked hurriedly down the platform of Chacarita station. Now that she was about to see Espina, she began to ask herself why she had insisted on meeting in person and whether it was a good idea. What would the doctor think about what she was doing? What was she doing? Nothing. She was meeting up with Javier Espina so he could give her a copy of his next film and then maybe they’d go for a coffee. Espina had written to her out of the blue to ask whether she could translate some subtitles for him. She hadn’t heard from him for months. He could just have emailed her the script or a link to the film, but something made her say that she’d love to, why didn’t they meet up? She’d hesitated over signing off with a kiss, a hug or just ‘best’. The latter seemed too formal and the former implied some form of inappropriate physical contact. She ended it with a simple ‘thanks’. Espina answered four days later. A curt note saying that he could make her a copy. She said great, if it’s not too much trouble, and again got stuck over the sign-off: she could ask him to leave it at somebody’s house or with the secretary at school. But that would be too cold and distant. Then again, suggesting they meet for a drink would be too much. In the end, she said they could meet up one afternoon in the week; she got out of school at three and passed by Chacarita station on her way home. He liked that idea, but when he asked when, her mental schedule cluttered up instantly. This week was difficult, but next week was fine. Ten days of silence, no word from Espina. She was the one to get back in touch, apologizing: she’d been so busy, this week would be difficult, too, but next week for sure. A few days later Espina sent her a blank email without a subject line or anything, and she answered it with the suggestion that they meet at four at Chacarita station, if that was OK with him. On the Tuesday Espina wrote to confirm and gave her his new number, just in case. That Thursday, at lunchtime, she sent him a message saying that something had come up, sorry, they’d have to do it another time. In fact, nothing had come up apart from an inexplicable argument with Adrian that morning and an overbearing anxiety as the hour of their encounter approached. By putting ‘time’ instead of ‘day’ she hoped to clear away a mist that had grown stifling. Espina was patient and understanding. Or maybe he just didn’t care; maybe this was all in her head. After several more back and forths, they ended up arranging to meet at the same place, at the same time, on the same day of the week. A Thursday; this Thursday. A month and a half, twenty emails and fourteen text messages later, here she was.
It had been silly to suggest they meet in person, she realized that now. But not that silly. The silly part was the thirty-four messages. She’d calculated on arriving a little late, ten or fifteen minutes… but now she’d left it too long, and when she didn’t see him standing under the main arch of the station she regretted her tardiness. What if he’d got impatient and left? She scanned the faces of the passers-by with the same manic, flickering intensity as she looked at the newspapers and magazines in the kiosk in the main hall. She couldn’t help scrutinizing typos, lapses in grammar or bodily flaws: a woman who was so short and fat that she looked wider than she was tall; a guy who was missing an arm and had the empty sleeve tied around his neck; another with a pock-marked face, as though he’d suffered from a virulent form of chicken pox or had been spattered with a pan of boiling oil when he was a boy. Although she kept repeating to herself that there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, there was nothing wrong with what she was doing, what she was doing had been a little wrong ever since she’d started to feel guilty about writing to Espina and insisting they meet. She was stepping back into a minefield she’d thought long since buried many metres below ground. In a nuclear bunker. And now she’d insulted him by arriving so late. Guilt began to bubble up from some hidden deposit in her body.
How far could one flee on a train from Chacarita station? General Lemos. Someone tapped her on the shoulder. She was sure it was him, the sudden rush of blood left her in no doubt. Espina’s expression looked like that of a man who wasn’t very happy to have been kept waiting. Instead of apologizing, she asked him how he was with a shamelessness that surprised her, because somehow it seemed aimed at sabotage, ensuring that their meeting would be over in the blink of an eye having collapsed under its own weight. Espina stepped back to a respectable distance. Fine, he replied, barely opening his mouth. It sounded warm and welcoming, he wasn’t upset. There was something about his half-open mouth and the gleam in his eyes, the disproportionately large nose that somehow suited him. There was definitely something about him. After he’d been so prominent in her thoughts for the past few weeks, and having gone so many months without seeing him, she had to readjust the image she had of him in her head to fit the one standing right in front of her. She imagined that he must be doing something similar and tried to fix her features into the position that she thought suited her best. They’d last seen each other in the summer and had ended up so close to one another that all she’d been able to see were his cheekbones, eyes and some of his hair as he kissed her so passionately that there was no way she could have resisted, not that she had wanted to.
Espina wrongfooted her by asking whether she had time to come with him, he had to go somewhere close by. A short walk. She said she did, she was free until seven. They crossed the avenue to the entrance to the municipal cemetery. Then, as always, every day of the week, people were coming and going, wandering around the city of the dead with its neighbourhoods for the rich and poor. The idea of going for a walk around there came as a relief. It was an innocent setting, a neutral balm upon a potentially explosive encounter. There was nothing wrong with going for a walk with a man she’d kissed six months ago, a man she thought about every now and then, a man she wanted to see again even if she was ready to stop him short if he tried something. She wasn’t going to sleep with him, just for a walk. Not even a drink. But if there was nothing wrong with it, why was she feeling this combination of excitement and guilt?
She asked if they were going to the cemetery. Espina said they were going to a cemetery but not the municipal one. A small British cemetery next door. He had to take a photo of a particular grave to send to another film director, a friend of his. It was a slightly irritating job he’d been putting off for weeks because Chacarita was out of his way. They passed by the flower stalls and large portico and went on along the deserted pavement that ran around the cemetery wall. Espina was wearing a checked shirt, a heavy coat and dark trousers that had seen better days. She had made sure to wear everyday clothes: the black trousers that were a little tight on her, the green jacket, the shoes that Adrian had brought her back from his last trip and her favourite coat that winter, a black waterproof one with a hood. These were definitely her ordinary work clothes, but maybe she’d put a little more thought into the combination. Or maybe it was just the unusual touch of eyeliner and wearing her hair loose with a shaggy, side-swept fringe. There was definitely something. She’d noticed it this morning at school, the eager way in which a couple of colleagues and many of the fourth- and fifth-year students had looked at her.
The scant sunlight that filtered through the thick foliage of the huge trees lining Avenida Elcano was insufficient to burn off the perennial dampness. Across from the road curving around the cemetery was a railway line heading west from the station. On the other side of the rails and chain-link fences she saw the squat houses of a neighbourhood that looked completely inaccessible from where they were, although an iron footbridge appeared further on. They talked to the beat their footsteps on the pavement. Conversation flowed, hopping from topic to topic: they tried to decide whether it was cold or not, whether the temperature could still be described as mild, which of the books by a friend they had in common was their favourite, how exhausting it was to go back to work at the school after the winter holidays. A trip to a festival in South Korea that Espina had had to turn down.
Espina said that she looked different. So he remembered her face. Different in a good or bad way, she asked. Good, of course. His lips formed his characteristic half-smile, revealing just a couple of teeth. His eyebrows arched, and his eyes settled on hers as he waved his hands to lend emphasis to what he was saying. He had grown unexpectedly eloquent. Or at least they didn’t stop talking for the entirety of their walk. Ten minutes along the wall of the municipal cemetery, passing the occasional side entrance, the odd locked gate, not much else. At one point she started to worry. Where was he taking her? It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Espina – although if she thought about it, what did she really know about him? – but if something happened to them, if they were accosted by a stranger, for instance, they’d have to shout pretty loud for someone to hear. We’ll be there in a second, Espina said calmly with an adventurer’s aplomb. It was as though he were getting ready to grab her arm, drag her to the next station along the line and jump onto the first train that came along to take her far away from there. Far, far away. Not that they could go very far on that line. The suburbs, or maybe a little further.
Wasn’t it strange, he was saying now, that Chacarita Cemetery had been built on what had then been the outskirts of the city and now it was right at the centre? Why had she told him that she was free until seven if they were just going on a brief detour, with maybe a quick coffee at the station afterwards? Who was asking these questions? Were they coming from her, or was this Adrian’s voice echoing inside of her? The guilt started to well up inside her again, and this time it must have reached the surface because her neck and face had grown warm. She was blushing as if she’d been caught with her hand in the till. Now she didn’t know what to think or what to do. She checked the time on her phone and started to write something endearing to Adrian. Then she thought again and put the phone back in her coat pocket with the message only half written.
The avenue curved in such a way that the German Cemetery almost snuck up on them. Espina told her that it was just a few metres more, and before they got to the end, or the beginning, of Avenida Elcano, on the western side of the gigantic expanse that was Chacarita Cemetery, opposite the first stop on the Lemos line, they arrived at the British Cemetery. They went in through a gate in the iron railings. It looked completely deserted. They walked up to a chapel. It was like a small park, a veritable secret garden of peace and quiet with paths wending around carefully tended lots, austere monuments and a silence broken by the remote sound of cars and buses heading down the avenue, the occasional train stopping at the station and intermittent birdsong. It was the meadow on the other side of the rainbow, an oasis in a bustling city. Espina seemed to know where he was going, and she let him take the lead. He had to take a photo of a grave he and a British friend of his had visited ten years ago. The grave belonged to the friend’s grandfather. He remembered that it was to the left and next to the wall but not much more. He knew the name and surname: they could go and look it up in the administrator’s office, but that wouldn’t be so much fun, he said.
They wandered around, peering at gravestones, reading names and inscriptions. No one else was to be seen, although there was ample evidence of the caretakers’ work: a rake and a shovel leaning against a tree, a neatly coiled-up hose, a tap with an erratic drip, recently mown grass and a wheelbarrow that was empty save for a metal watering can. Most of the trees were pines and limes, but there were others she didn’t know the names of. Was Espina the kind of man who knew the names of plants and trees? From the night that he’d kissed her on the film producer’s patio she remembered the warmth of his lips and how her body had throbbed and her left leg had juddered. Plus the sweet smell of summer flowers. It must have been jasmine.
The main asphalt path was criss-crossed with narrower gravel ones that were in turn crossed by even narrower trails only wide enough for one person. As they walked along them, they brushed against each other, or Espina stopped to let her pass and she could feel his eyes on her – they were rather less discreet than his half-smiles – on her back, the back of her head, neck and hands. They stopped in front of an ivy-draped grave. It belonged to the Hermosilla family. Her eye was caught by an inscription: Nemesia C de Hermosilla. 19th December, 1865–4th May, 1958 next to one for Sara Hermosilla. 16/11/1896–10/5/1958. One was much older than the other, but they’d died only six days apart. As though after the death of her mother, the daughter had died of sadness at the age of sixty-three, she said. Or maybe they were in a traffic accident and the mother died immediately but the daughter lingered on for a week, said Espina, who was immediately distracted by a stone that read: Peter Doherty, died 20th November, 1938. And then by one for Alejandro Rendina, who died in February 1968, two days after he was born. Espina said that he found the death of a baby devastating but also perfectly pure.
Espina pointed to a wooden bench sitting in a pool of winter sunlight. How long had it been since she’d slept with someone who wasn’t Adrian? Was that a good thing? Was that what it meant to be in love or was she just doing her duty as a girlfriend? Would five years with Adrian be the equivalent of three or four months with a guy like Espina, like with the olives and the steak? An extended, three-month weekend before he left you for the star of his next film. But what did that have to do with anything? They cut across a section of plots without tombstones or inscriptions. The earth was disturbed as though someone had recently been buried or old remains had been dug up. The soil had a different consistency under their feet. It was still loose and their shoes sunk in deeper than elsewhere.
It was originally called the Non-Conformist Cemetery, and its first location was on the corner of Juncal and Esmerelda. The first occupant had been one John Adams, a thirty-year-old carpenter. Before that, non-Catholics had been buried by the side of the river. As well as the British, it was also occupied by Germans, Americans, French and Jews. It quickly filled up, and they opened a second one, Victoria, which was shared by the British, Americans and Germans. Victoria Cemetery was at what’s now known as Pasco and Alsina. She knew where that was; her grandmother lived a couple of blocks away. You know where the plaza is now? Well, a hundred years ago it was a cemetery, but the city grew and the local residents campaigned to have it moved. So land was set aside behind Chacarita Cemetery: one section for the British and other Anglo-Saxons and another for the Germans. Meanwhile, Victoria Cemetery was abandoned. The decades passed, and it became a wasteland. A little while ago they turned it into a plaza. The graves weren’t moved, at least not the ones belonging to families that couldn’t afford to pay for the transfer. Any that were at least a metre and a half below ground were left intact. A few years ago they were doing renovation work in the plaza, and when they dug up the sandpit they found a marble tombstone for the grave of ten-month-old German girl along with bones, necklaces and bottles.
She rummaged in her bag for cigarettes. It was her first of the day. She couldn’t stop herself from telling him that the Chinese doctor she went to, whose name was Alejandra but she was fully Chinese, had told her not to smoke more than one or two a day. She had enough fire in her lungs already. But that wasn’t a bad thing at all, she hurriedly explained. Every time she went to see the doctor she got her talking. She valued everything she had to say about health and life in general; the doctor had a special kind of wisdom. Ever since he’d managed to get control of his vices, Espina had discovered that tobacco was the most pernicious but also the most inoffensive. To smoke a cigarette, he said longingly.
Espina asked her how her classes were going. Suddenly, talking to him about her work at school or the fact that he was showing interest in her everyday routine made things seem different, more vivid. She was glad that he was close by. It made her feel calm, bigger, inspired, and she didn’t think it ridiculous to assume that he was feeling the same way. He asked her if she was translating anything, and she made something up about a book of essays that were turning out to be pretty difficult, it was taking her longer than she’d expected. Maybe being close to Espina would mean that she lived life more intensely and stopped putting off what was really important. Then he asked after her students, how it felt to teach a class of teenagers, and she started to say that it was fine, it could be unbearable at times, but she liked it. He was a disaster at secondary school, but if he’d had a teacher like her, he said, he’d have learned English just to please her. He broke into another of his half-smiles.
Right behind the bench where they were sitting was a tombstone commemorating the Byrding family. Over the years it had been split in two by a tree trunk, very gradually, millimetre by millimetre. She could count the number of times they’d met on one hand, but each encounter had revealed a new facet of Espina. She was gradually beginning to sense that behind the womanizing dandy was something genuine and fragile, brilliant, if a little petulant. Her posture was defensive, as though she were anticipating some kind of move. The time he kissed her, an impartial observer, someone from the outside, a linesman or arbitrator of seduction, would not have ruled that she tried to push him away. But neither did she fully go along with the kiss. Rather, she allowed herself to be kissed until Espina pulled back a little to breathe and broke the spell. Then she’d said that she had to go, that this was wrong, very wrong. She had a boyfriend, please understand. She said sorry several times and then please as he walked her to the door.
Some time ago, when he’d just started out in the world of films, he’d worked for a film festival in the city. It was his job to accompany the foreign guests on their visit, day and night. One year he was tasked with accompanying Keith Reitzal, a kind of cult director. He was fun and jolly in spite of his years and asked very little of him. Except for one morning, the second to last, when Reitzal asked him to go with him somewhere: it was a ‘matter of life and death’. We got on the metro at Abasto and got off at Lacroze. I thought that he wanted a slice of pizza from one of the famous places around there, or maybe he wanted to visit Chacarita Cemetery to see the tombs of Gardel or Gatica. But we passed by the gates of the municipal cemetery and went on down the same pavement we came down today. I was surprised to see him walking so confidently through a little-known part of the city, somewhere I’d never been before. I suggested we take a taxi, it might be dangerous around here, but Reitzal said no. He was determined, he had to walk just like he’d done the last time. So you’ve been here before? Years ago the same festival had organized a retrospective in his honour. This isn’t my first visit to the city, but I fear that it might be my last, he said. He walked faster than I did. I had to make an effort to keep up. I started to worry about him, he looked as though he might collapse at any moment. When we finally got to the British Cemetery we went in and he led me straight to a grave at the back, to the left, next to the path that runs along the wall. There, we found a tombstone for someone with whom he shared a name: Keith Reitzal. His paternal grandfather. A British engineer sent to the Argentinian affiliate of a shipping company. He’d come with his wife and three children. My father was the youngest, he was just two at the time. Shortly after his arrival my grandfather was in a fatal accident at the port. At first, Keith’s grandmother decided to stay in the country: the company gave her a very generous pension and the house where they lived was a small mansion. But she couldn’t manage, she didn’t know the language and she had to raise three children on her own, so they went back. There were attempts to repatriate the remains, but then the war came and after that… Reitzal said, waving his hands in the same gesture he used to illustrate matters of ‘life and death’, it came to seem less important. His father always talked about his own father’s far-off grave in Argentina with a pain that was only alleviated by the knowledge that he had been moved to the British Cemetery, as though it were a foreign embassy of death, a small, neutral outpost of posthumous diplomacy.
Ever since his father’s death Reitzal had wanted to come to the country, but he’d never had a chance. He wasn’t going to go all that way just to visit a grave. Then he was invited to attend the festival. Back then he was still young and had walked on his own. But this time, he told me, as strange as it might seem, he’d agreed to come to talk about one of his films, something that he didn’t really do any more, just so he could stand in front of his grandfather’s grave. So what happened? she asked. Reitzal stood quietly for a few minutes, said Espina. The old man’s expression grew solemn but peaceful. I held out for as long as I could, but eventually I asked him if he’d rather be alone. That’s the last thing I want, he said. I don’t want to be alone. Like the sun, one should never look death in the face for too long. Take me away from here. Before they left the cemetery, Reitzal looked up at a Latin inscription. I asked him what it meant, and he told me in English that it was something like: ‘He who believes in me, shall live in death’. We hailed a taxi, and he asked me to take him for a drink. He had a craving for a herb-based German liqueur, but the closest thing we could find was Fernet, which he drank on its own with ice. Then he had another, and then we took a taxi so he would arrive in time to answer questions from the audience at the theatre where they were showing his film. That was at least ten years ago. He’d seen Keith at several other festivals across the world, but he’d never come back to Buenos Aires. A little while ago Keith had asked him to do him the favour of taking a photograph of his grandfather’s grave. He needed it for the cover of a book he was writing, an autobiography of a seventy-eight-year-old man, he said. Espina couldn’t decide whether he thought it was a great idea or just macabre.
As the afternoon went on, she felt them growing closer and closer. Their bodies, however, didn’t move at all. Espina sat upright and moved his arms as he spoke, his eyes shining. Every now and again he rubbed his nose and energetically scratched his head. There was something in his gestures, in his posture, in the way he was, a grace that could overwhelm any form of resistance. At one point he stretched out his hand to swipe at a mosquito, and she leaned back instinctively. Easy, he said. Espina was handsome. When he gave her an envelope containing the DVD with the copy of the film, he moved a little closer. A couple of nights later, watching the film alone in bed, she couldn’t help remembering his warm lips, the crazy beating of her heart, the mental effort it took to keep her leg still and the sweet smell of jasmine. But there was also the afternoon in the empty cemetery, hidden in a corner of the city, whiling away the afternoon with their chatter, as though they’d been teleported to the north of Europe for an hour and a half.
Throughout the afternoon she’d been worried that Espina would try to kiss her before they said goodbye and had mentally prepared a number of different ploys to evade him. Please, please. Actually she just had one: she’d been with a man for years. It had been right there, on the tip of her tongue, so much so that even though Espina never made a move, she said it anyway. He’d asked whether they lived together and she’d said, We have moved in together. It was an odd, stupid choice of words by which she’d meant that they had lived together in the past but it hadn’t worked out. But, of course, he’d interpreted it differently. He’d thought she’d just moved in with him and was living with him now, a misunderstanding that took a long time to clear up.
They would see each other again, many times, but they didn’t know that then. She asked him about the German Cemetery. It was similar to this one but neater, better looked after. Why don’t we take a peek? It’s just about to close; maybe they could do this again some time, he said. She thought that now the silent walk back to Chacarita would be awkward. Maybe it was better to say she was in a hurry and take a taxi. Had he meant to say that he wanted to see her again? She’d have agreed in a second, she’d have signed up right there and then, although she didn’t like to lie to Adrian. Telling him that she was going on walks around secret corners of the city with Espina was out of the question. Was it? She’d have to do something about this.
As if he knew that a kiss in these circumstances was out of the question, Espina had been cautious and carefree. He hadn’t made a move, or if he had it was imperceptible, millimetre by millimetre. She felt a mixture of relief and disappointment. What if he wasn’t attracted to her any more? She stood up and, rubbing her arms, said that the cold had got into her bones, they’d better go back. It was getting late.
Alicia’s entire honeymoon gave her hot and cold shivers. A blonde, angelic, and timid young girl, the childish fancies she had dreamed about being a bride had been chilled by her husband’s rough character. She loved him very much, nonetheless, although sometimes she gave a light shudder when, as they returned home through the streets together at night, she cast a furtive glance at the impressive stature of her Jordan, who had been silent for an hour. He, for his part, loved her profoundly but never let it be seen.
For three months—they had been married in April—they lived in a special kind of bliss.
Doubtless she would have wished less severity in the rigorous sky of love, more expansive and less cautious tenderness, but her husband’s impassive manner always restrained her.
The house in which they lived influenced her chills and shuddering to no small degree. The whiteness of the silent patio—friezes, columns, and marble statues—produced the wintry impression of an enchanted palace. Inside the glacial brilliance of stucco, the completely bare walls, affirmed the sensation of unpleasant coldness. As one crossed from one room to another, the echo of his steps reverberated throughout the house, as if long abandonment had sensitized its resonance.
Alicia passed the autumn in this strange love nest. She had determined, however, to cast a veil over her former dreams and live like a sleeping beauty in the hostile house, trying not to think about anything until her husband arrived each evening.
It is not strange that she grew thin. She had a light attack of influenza that dragged on insidiously for days and days: after that Alicia’s health never returned. Finally one afternoon she was able to go into the garden, supported on her husband’s arm. She looked around listlessly.
Suddenly Jordan, with deep tenderness, ran his hand very slowly over her head, and Alicia instantly burst into sobs, throwing her arms around his neck. For a long time she cried out all the fears she had kept silent, redoubling her weeping at Jordan’s slightest caress. Then her sobs subsided, and she stood a long while, her face hidden in the hollow of his neck, not moving or speaking a word.
This was the last day Alicia was well enough to be up. On the following day she awakened feeling faint. Jordan’s doctor examined her with minute attention, prescribing calm and absolute rest.
‘I don’t know,’ he said to Jordan at the street door. ‘She has a great weakness that I am unable to explain. And with no vomiting, nothing…if she wakes tomorrow as she did today, call me at once.
When she awakened the following day, Alicia was worse. There was a consultation. It was agreed there was an anaemia of incredible progression, completely inexplicable. Alicia had no more fainting spells, but she was visibly moving toward death. The lights were lighted all day long in her bedroom, and there was complete silence. Hours went by without the slightest sound.
Alicia dozed. Jordan virtually lived in the drawing room, which was also always lighted. With tireless persistence he paced ceaselessly from one end of the room to the other. The carpet swallowed his steps. At times he entered the bedroom and continued his silent pacing back and forth alongside the bed, stopping for an instant at each end to regard his wife.
Suddenly Alicia began to have hallucinations, vague images, at first seeming to float in the air, then descending to floor level. Her eyes excessively wide, she stared continuously at the carpet on either side of the head of her bed. One night she suddenly focused on one spot. Then she opened her mouth to scream, and pearls of sweat suddenly beaded her nose and lips.
‘Jordan! Jordan!’ she clamoured, rigid with fright, still staring at the carpet.
Jordan ran to the bedroom, and, when she saw him appear, Alicia screamed with terror.
‘It’s I, Alicia, it’s I!’
Alicia looked at him confusedly; she looked at the carpet; she looked at him once again; and after a long moment of stupefied confrontation, she regained her senses. She smiled and took her husband’s hand in hers, caressing it, trembling, for half an hour.
Among her most persistent hallucinations was that of an anthropoid poised on his fingertips on the carpet, staring at her.
The doctors returned, but to no avail. They saw before them a diminishing life, a life bleeding away day by day, hour by hour, absolutely without their knowing why. During their last consultation Alicia lay in a stupor while they took her pulse, passing her inert wrist from one to another. They observed her a long time in silence and then moved into the dining room.
‘Phew…’ The discouraged chief physician shrugged his shoulders. ‘It is an inexplicable case.
There is little we can do…’
‘That’s my last hope!’ Jordan groaned. And he staggered blindly against the table.
Alicia’s life was fading away in the subdelirium of anaemia, a delirium which grew worse through the evening hours but which let up somewhat after dawn. The illness never worsened during the daytime, but each morning she awakened pale as death, almost in a swoon. It seemed only at night that her life drained out of her in new waves of blood. Always when she awakened she had the sensation of lying collapsed in the bed with a million-pound weight on top of her.
Following the third day of this relapse she never left her bed again. She could scarcely move her head. She did not want her bed to be touched, not even to have her bedcovers arranged. Her crepuscular terrors advanced now in the form of monsters that dragged themselves toward the bed and laboriously climbed upon the bedspread.
Then she lost consciousness. The final two days she raved ceaselessly in a weak voice. The lights funereally illuminated the bedroom and drawing room. In the deathly silence of the house the only sound was the monotonous delirium from the bedroom and the dull echoes of Jordan’s eternal pacing.
Finally, Alicia died. The servant, when she came in afterward to strip the now empty bed, stared wonderingly for a moment at the pillow.
‘Sir!’ she called Jordan in a low voice. ‘There are stains on the pillow that look like blood.’
Jordan approached rapidly and bent over the pillow. Truly, on the case, on both sides of the hollow left by Alicia’s head, were two small dark spots.
‘They look like punctures,’ the servant murmured after a moment of motionless observation.
‘Hold it up to the light,’ Jordan told her.
The servant raised the pillow but immediately dropped it and stood staring at it, livid and trembling. Without knowing why, Jordan felt the hair rise on the back of his neck.
‘What is it?’ he murmured in a hoarse voice.
‘It’s very heavy,’ the servant whispered, still trembling.
Jordan picked it up; it was extraordinarily heavy. He carried it out of the room, and on the dining room table he ripped open the case and the ticking with a slash. The top feathers floated away, and the servant, her mouth opened wide, gave a scream of horror and covered her face with her clenched fists: in the bottom of the pillowcase, among the feathers, slowly moving its hairy legs, was a monstrous animal, a living, viscous ball. It was so swollen one could scarcely make out its mouth.
Night after night, since Alicia had taken to her bed, this abomination had stealthily applied its mouth—its proboscis one might better say—to the girl’s temples, sucking her blood. The puncture was scarcely perceptible. The daily plumping of the pillow had doubtlessly at first impeded its progress, but as soon as the girl could no longer move, the suction became vertiginous. In five days, in five nights, the monster had drained Alicia’s life away.
These parasites of feathered creatures, diminutive in their habitual environment, reach enormous proportions under certain conditions. Human blood seems particularly favourable to them, and it is not rare to encounter them in feather pillows.
The autumn felt more like summer than the summer had. I was wearing my blue silk dress, and I had the little Pekinese they’d given me for my birthday when I arrived at my boyfriend’s house. I remember that day clearly.
“Jealousy rules the world,” said Mrs. Yapura, thinking I didn’t want to marry Romirio out of jealousy. “My son sleeps only with the cat.”
I didn’t want to marry Romirio, or hadn’t decided whether I wanted to marry him, for other reasons. Sometimes the words people say are changed by the intonation of the voice with which they say them. It seems like I’m getting off topic, but there’s an explanation. The voice of Romirio, my boyfriend, was repulsive to me. Every word he uttered, even if said with the utmost respect for me, although he hadn’t touched so much as a toe of my foot, sounded obscene. I couldn’t love him. I felt bad about this, not so much for him as for his mother, who was generous and kind. The only negative trait she was known for was jealousy, but she was old now and had even lost that. And should we believe the rumors? People said that she had got married very young to a man who soon betrayed her with another woman. Once she began to suspect, she spent a month without sleep trying to uncover the adultery. When she did, it was like a knife wound to the heart. She didn’t say anything, but that very night, as her husband slept beside her, she threw herself at his throat and tried to strangle him. The mother of the victim came to save him; if it hadn’t been for her he would have died.
My courtship with Romirio had gone on too long. “What’s a voice,” I thought. “It’s not an insolent, groping hand, it’s not a repulsive mouth trying to kiss me, it’s not that obscene and protuberant sex I so fear, it’s nothing physical like buttocks or hot like a belly.” Nevertheless, Romirio’s voice was much more disagreeable to me than any of those things. How could I bear living alongside a man who broadcasted that voice to whoever would listen? That visceral, lewd, scatological voice. But who would dare say to their boyfriend, “Your voice displeases me, it repulses me, it scandalizes me. It’s like the word lust in the catechism of my childhood”?
Our wedding was put off indefinitely without any obvious reason.
Romirio visited me every afternoon. Rarely did I go to his dark house, because his mother, who was sick, went to bed early. But I very much liked their little garden, full of shadows, and Lamberti, Romirio’s reddish-gray cat. There was not a more timid couple in the neighborhood. We might have kissed at most once during the summer of that year. Did we hold hands? Not a chance. Embrace? Slow dancing was out of fashion. This unusual behavior sparked a suspicion that we’d never marry.
That day I took the Pekinese they’d given me to Romirio’s house. Romirio picked him up to pet him. Poor Romirio, he loved animals so much. We were sitting in the living-room as usual, when Lamberti’s fur stood on end, and with a spitting sound he ran away knocking over a flowerpot. Mrs. Yapura called me the next day crying. That night, as always, Romirio had slept with Lamberti in his bed, but in the middle of the night the cat went into a frenzy and clawed Romirio’s throat. The mother went running in when she heard his screams. She managed to pull the cat from her son’s throat and she strangled it with a belt. They say nothing is more terrible than a frenzied cat. It isn’t hard to believe. I hate them. The incident left Romirio without a voice, and the doctors that looked after him said he wouldn’t ever recover it.
“You won’t marry Romirio,” his mother said crying. “I had good reason for telling my son not to sleep with that cat!”
“I will marry him,” I responded.
From that day forward I loved Romirio.
When I was a little girl my mother had a fungus on one of her toenails. On her left pinkie toe to be exact. From the moment she discovered it she tried everything to get rid of it. Every morning she’d step out of the shower and with the help of a tiny brush pour over her toe a capful of iodine whose smell and sepia, almost reddish tone I remember well. She saw to no avail several dermatologists, including the most prestigious and expensive in the city, who repeated the same diagnoses and suggested the same futile treatments, from traditional clotrimazole ointments to apple cider vinegar. The most radical among them even prescribed her a moderate dose of cortisone, which only inflamed my mother’s yellowed toe. Despite her efforts to banish it, the fungus remained there for years until a Chinese doctor to whom nobody—not even my mother— gives credit, was able to drive it away in a few days. It happened so unexpectedly that I could not help wondering if the parasite itself hadn’t decided to move on to another place.
Until that moment fungi had always been—at least for me—curious mushrooms that appeared in children’s book illustrations and that I associated with the forest and elves. In any case, nothing to do with that rugosity that gave my mother’s toenail the texture of an oyster shell. However, more than the dubious and shifting appearance, more than its tenacity and attachment to the invaded toe, what I remember best about the whole affair was the disgust and repulsion the parasite inspired in my mother. I have seen other people over the years with mycosis on different parts of their body. All kinds of mycoses, from those that cause the bottom of the foot to dry out and peel to the circular red fungi you often see on chefs’ hands. Most people bear them with resignation, some with stoicism, others with genuine disregard. My mother on the other hand suffered the presence of her fungus as if it were a mortifying affliction. Terrified by the thought that it might spread to the rest of her foot, or worse, her entire body, she separated the affected toenail with a thick piece of cotton to keep it from rubbing against the adjacent toe. She never wore sandals and avoided taking off her socks in front of anyone she wasn’t very close to. If for some reason she had to use a public shower she always wore plastic slippers, and to swim in a pool she’d take off her shoes right at the edge just before diving in, so that nobody would see her feet. And so much the better; if anyone had found out about that toe and all the treatments it had been through, they would have thought that instead of a simple fungus, what my mother had was the beginning of leprosy.
Children, unlike adults, adapt to everything. So little by little, despite my mother’s disgust, I began to see that fungus as an everyday presence in my family life. It didn’t inspire the same aversion in me as it did my mother; just the opposite. I felt a protective sympathy for that iodine-painted toenail, which seemed vulnerable to me, similar to what I would have felt for a crippled pet that had trouble moving around. Time went on and my mother stopped making such a fuss over her affliction. For my part, I grew up and completely forgot about it and never again thought about fungi until I met Philippe Laval.
At that time I had just turned thirty-five. I was married to a patient and generous man who was ten years my senior and the director of the National School of Music, where I had completed the first part of my training as a violinist. We didn’t have children. We had tried for a while, but rather than agonizing over it, I felt fortunate to be able to focus on my career. I had completed my training at Juilliard and had garnered certain international prestige, enough to be invited to Europe and the United States to give concerts two or three times a year. I’d just recorded a CD in Denmark and was about to return to Copenhagen to teach a six-week course in a palace that every summer hosted the best students in the world.
I remember one Friday afternoon shortly before I was to leave I received a list with the biographical information of all the professors who would be at the residency that year. Laval’s was among them. It wasn’t the first time I read his name. He was a violinist and conductor of great renown, and on more than one occasion I’d heard from the mouths of friends words of praise about his live performances and how naturally he led the orchestra with his violin. From the list I learned that he was French and lived in Brussels, but often went to Vancouver where he taught at the School of Art. That weekend my husband, Mauricio, had gone out of town to attend a conference. I didn’t have plans that night so I searched the Internet to find which of his concerts was available to purchase online. After browsing for a while I ended up buying one of Beethoven, filmed live at Carnegie Hall years earlier. I remember the sense of wonderment I felt listening to it. The night was hot. I had the balcony doors open to let fresh air in and still, emotion restricted my breathing. Every violinist knows that arrangement—many by heart—but hearing his interpretation was an absolute revelation. As if I could at last understand it in all its depth. I felt a mix of reverence, envy, and gratitude. I listened to it three times at least and each time produced the same shiver. I then searched for pieces interpreted by other musicians invited to Copenhagen, and while the level was undoubtedly very high, not one of them surprised me as much as Laval did. Afterward I closed the file and though I thought of him more than once, I didn’t listen to the concert again in the following two weeks.
It wasn’t the first time I’d be separated from Mauricio for a few months, but being accustomed to it didn’t lessen the sadness of leaving him. As I did for every long trip, I asked him to come with me. The residency allowed it and despite his insisting otherwise I’m sure his work did as well. He could at least have spent two of the six weeks of the course there, or visited me once at the beginning and again at the end of my stay. Had he accepted, things between us would have gone down a different path. However, it didn’t make sense to him. He said that the time would go by quickly for us both and the best thing for me would be to concentrate on my work. It would be, according to him, an incredible opportunity, one I couldn’t miss or cut short, to plumb my depths and collaborate with other musicians. And it was that, just not in the way we’d imagined.
The castle where the summer school was held was located in Christiania, a neighborhood just outside the city. It was late July and at night the temperature was very pleasant. I wasted almost no time in making friends with Laval. At the beginning his schedule was more or less the same as mine: he was unquestionably nocturnal; I was still on North American time. After classes we’d work the same hours in soundproof rooms so as not to wake the others, and now and again we’d run into each other in the kitchen or at the tea stand. We were the first—and only—ones to make it to the early breakfast, when the cafeteria began serving. From friendly and excessively polite our conversations became increasingly personal. An intimacy quickly grew between us, and a sense of closeness different from what I felt toward the other teachers.
A summer school is a place beyond reality that allows us to surrender to that which we usually deny ourselves. You can take all kinds of liberties; to visit the heart of the host city, attend dinners and events, socialize with the locals or other residents, give in to laziness, to bulimia, to some addicting habit. Laval and I fell into the temptation of falling in love. A classic, it would seem, in such a place. During the six weeks of the program we passed through Copenhagen’s parks on buses and bikes, went to bars and museums, attended operas and several concerts. But mostly we were intent on getting to know each other as much as possible in that limited amount of time. When you know a relationship is fated to end on a given day it is easy to let fall the walls you put up to protect yourself. We are more benign, more indulgent with someone who will soon cease to be there than with those who take shape as long-term partners. No fault, no defect deters us, as we won’t have to stand it in the future. When a relationship has an expiration date as clear as ours had, there’s no wasting time on judging the other person. The only thing you focus on is enjoying their best qualities, fully, urgently, voraciously, as time is not on your side. At least that is what happened to Philippe and me during that residency. His infinite quirks when it came to work, to sleep, and to organizing his room amused me. His phobia of sickness and every type of contagion, his chronic insomnia, melted me and made me want to protect him. The same happened to him with my obsessions, my fears, my own insomnia, and my constant frustration with my music. Still, I should say that it was also a time of great creativity. If I had noticed in my CD recorded months earlier in Copenhagen a certain stiffness, a certain horological precision, then now my music had more flow and greater presence. Not the strict vigilance of someone who fears making a mistake, but rather the abandon and spontaneity of someone who thoroughly enjoys what she is doing. There is, luckily, some evidence of that favored moment in my career. In addition to the recordings required by our host institution, I did three radio programs that I hold as proof of my greatest personal achievements. Laval conducted two concerts at the Royal Danish Theatre, both awe-inspiring. The audience gave him a standing ovation that lasted several minutes and, after the event, the musicians professed it had been an honor to share the stage with him. Having followed closely his development since then, I can attest that the month and a half he spent in that city marked one of the best—if not the very best— moments in his entire career. Yes, he established himself later on, but it is enough to listen to the recordings from those weeks to realize that within them there is an extraordinary emotional transparency.
Like me, Laval was married. Waiting for him in a chalet outside of Brussels were his wife and daughters, three blond, round-faced girls whose treasured photographs he kept in his phone. We preferred not to speak too much about our respective relationships. Despite what one might think, in that state of exceptional bliss there was no space for guilt or fear of what would happen later, when we returned to our worlds. There was no time but the present. It was like living in a parallel dimension. Whoever has not been through something similar will think I am coming up with these failed metaphors to justify myself. Those who have will know exactly what I’m talking about.
The residency ended in late September and we returned to our respective countries. At first it felt good to be home and to get back to our daily lives. But, speaking for myself, I did not return to the same place I had left. To begin with, Mauricio was out of town. A work trip had taken him to Laredo. His absence couldn’t have been better for me; it gave me enough time to refamiliarize myself with the apartment and my normal life. It’s true that, for example, in my study things were intact; the books and CDs in their places, my music stand and sheet music covered by a layer of dust barely thicker than when I’d left. But the way I was in my home, in every space and even in my own body, had changed, and even though I wasn’t aware of it then there was no going back. During the first days I still carried on me the scent and taste of Philippe. More often than I would have liked they rushed over me like crushing waves. Despite my efforts to maintain composure, none of it left me unaffected. Once I’d given in to those feelings described, they were followed by those of being lost, of longing, and then by guilt for reacting that way. I wanted my life to go on as it always had, not because it was my only option, but because I liked it. I chose it every morning when I woke up in my bedroom, in the bed I had shared with my husband for over ten years. That is what I chose, not the sensorial tsunamis and not the memories that, had I been able to, I would have eradicated forever. But my will was an inadequate antidote to the pull of Philippe.
Mauricio came home on a Saturday at noon, before I’d been able to sort my feelings out. He brought me relief, like the boat you find in the middle of a storm that will save you from the shipwreck. We spent the weekend together. We went to the movies and the supermarket. On Sunday we had breakfast at one of our favorite restaurants. We told each other the details of our trips and the annoyances of our respective flights. In these days of reacquainting I wondered more than once if I should explain to him what had happened with Laval. It troubled me to hide things from him, especially things so serious. I had never done it before. I realized that I needed his absolution and, if it were possible, his advice. But I preferred not to say anything for the time being. Greater than my need to be honest was my fear of hurting him, of something between us rupturing. On Monday we both returned to work. The memories continued their attack on me but I managed, rather adeptly, to keep them at bay until Laval reappeared two weeks later.
One afternoon I got a long-distance phone call from a blocked number. My heart started beating faster before I picked up. I lifted the receiver and, after a brief silence, I recognized Laval’s Amati on the other end of the line. Hearing him play from thousands of miles away, being in my own home, it tore open what I had tried so hard to heal. That call, seemingly harmless, brought Philippe into a place where he didn’t belong. What did he want, calling like that? Probably to reestablish contact, to show me that he still thought of me, that his feelings for me still burned. Nothing explicit, and yet, so much more than my emotional stability could take. There was a second call, this time with his own voice, made, he said, from a phone booth two blocks from his house. He told me what his music already had: he still thought about us and was having trouble breaking free. He talked and talked for several minutes, until he’d used up all the credit he’d put in the phone. I barely had enough time to make two important things clear to him: first, everything he was feeling was mutual; and second, I didn’t want him calling my house again. Laval exchanged phone calls for e-mails and text messages. He wrote in the morning and at night, telling me all kinds of things, from how he was feeling to what he’d had for lunch and dinner. He gave me reports on his outings and work events, on what his daughters were doing and when they got sick, but most of all—and this was the hardest part—he gave me in-depth descriptions of his desire. So it was as if the parallel dimension, which I believed to be suspended indefinitely, not only opened up again, but began to become everyday, stealing space from the tangible reality of my life, from which I became increasingly absent. Bit by bit I learned his routines, when he took his daughters to school, the days he stayed home and those when he went into town. The exchange of messages gave me access to his world and, by asking questions, Laval was able to open up a similar space in my own existence. I’d always been a person who often daydreamed but because of him this tendency increased dramatically. If before I had lived 70 percent of the time in reality and 30 in my imagination, that ratio did a complete reversal. It got to the point that everyone who came into contact with me began to worry, including Mauricio, who I suspect already harbored some notion of what was going on.
I was becoming addicted to my correspondence with Laval, to this interminable conversation, and to thinking of it as the most intense and essential part of my daily life. When for some reason it took longer than usual for him to write or it wasn’t possible for him to immediately respond to my messages, my body exhibited obvious signs of anxiety: clenched jaw, sweaty palms, leg twitches. If before, especially in Copenhagen, we almost never spoke about our respective spouses, that restriction ceased to be enforced in a long-distance dialogue. Our marriages became objects of daily voyeurism. At first we only told each other about our partners’ suspicions and worries; then about our arguments with and judgments of them; but so too about the gestures of affection they showed us to justify, to the other and to us, their determination to remain married. Unlike me, who lived in a calm and taciturn marriage, Laval was not happy with his wife. At least that’s what he told me. Their relationship, which had already gone on for over eighteen years, had been for the vast majority of that time a living hell. Catherine, his wife, did nothing but demand his attention and intensive care and would unleash upon him her uncontrollable violence. It was unbearably sad to think of Laval living in such a situation. It was unbearably sad to imagine him, for example, stuck in the house on a Sunday, enduring the screaming and the accusations as the interminable Brussels rain fell outside. But Laval wouldn’t think of leaving his family. He had resigned himself to living that way to the end of his days and I should say that that resignation, though incomprehensible, suited me. I didn’t want to leave Mauricio either.
After three months of messages and occasional phone calls, we finally settled into a routine I felt more or less comfortable with. Even though my attention, or what remained of it, was on Laval’s virtual presence, my daily life began to be tolerable, even enjoyable, until the possibility of seeing each other again arose. As I mentioned, every three months Laval traveled to Vancouver and on his next trip, post-Copenhagen, it occurred to him we could meet there. It would be easy enough for him to secure an official invitation from the school for me to lead a very well-paid workshop during the same days he’d have to be there that winter.
The idea, if extremely dangerous, could not have been more tempting and it was impossible to say no, even knowing that it threatened the precarious balance we had found.
So we saw each other in Canada. It was an incredible three-day trip surrounded once again by lakes and forests. The same thing we had felt during the residency again took root between us, only this time it was more urgent, more concentrated. We declined social obligations as far as it was possible. Whenever we were not working we were alone in his room, rediscovering in every way imaginable the other’s body, the other’s reactions and moods, as if returning to a familiar land you never want to leave again. We also spoke a lot about what was happening between us, about the joy and novelty this encounter had added to our lives. We came to the conclusion that happiness can be found beyond conventionality, in the narrow space that our familial situations as much as geographical distance had condemned us to.
After Vancouver we saw each other in the Hamptons; months later at the Berlin Festival of Chamber Music; then at the festival held in Ambronay for ancient music. Philippe had orchestrated every one of these encounters. And still, all the time we spent together was never enough for us. Each return was, at least for me, more difficult than the last. My distractedness was worse and much more obvious than when I came home from Denmark; I it became impossible for me to live with my husband. Reality, which I was no longer interested in holding up, began to crumble like an abandoned building. I might never have noticed were it not for a call from my mother-in-law that drew me out of my lethargy. She had spoken to Mauricio and was very worried.
“If you’re in love with another man, it’s slipping through your fingers,” she said to me with the bluntness she was known for. “You do whatever you have to to get it under control.”
Her comment fell on absent but not deaf ears.
One afternoon Mauricio came home from work early to the sound of a Chopin piece for piano and violin that Laval had performed ten years before. A CD I’d never played in his presence. I don’t know if it was the look of surprise on my face to see him home or if he had decided beforehand, but that day he interrogated me about my feelings. I wanted to give his questions honest answers. I wanted to tell him of my conflicts and my fears. I wanted most of all to tell him what I had been suffering. However, all I could do was lie. Why? Maybe because it pained me to betray someone whom I continued to love deeply, but in a different way; maybe I was scared of how he would react, or because I clung to the hope that, sooner or later, things would go back to the way they were. Mauricio’s mother was right: I was losing my grip on the affair.
After turning it over in my mind, I decided to call off the next trip and put all my energy into distancing myself from Laval. I wrote to him explaining the state of things and I asked his help in recovering the life that was dissolving before my eyes. My decision upset him but he understood.
Two weeks went by without any kind of contact between Laval and me. However, when two people think constantly of each other there grows between them a bond that transcends orthodox means of communication. Even though I was determined to forget him, or at least to not think of him with the same intensity, my body rebelled against that plan and started manifesting its own volition through feelings, physical and, of course, uncontrollable.
I first felt a soft itch in my crotch. But when I inspected the area several times I didn’t see anything and gave up. After a few weeks the itch, faint at first, barely noticeable, became intolerable. No matter the time of day, no matter where I was, I felt my sex, and feeling it inevitably meant also thinking of Philippe. I received his first message about it around that time. An e-mail, concise and alarmed, in which he swore that he’d contracted something serious, probably herpes, syphilis, or some other venereal disease, and he wanted to warn me so that I could take the necessary precautions. That was Philippe, tout craché, as they say in his language, and that was the classic reaction of someone given to hypochondria. The message changed my perspective: if we both had the symptoms, then most likely the same thing afflicted us both. Not a serious illness as he thought but maybe a fungus. Fungi itch; if they are deeply rooted, they can even hurt. They make us always aware of the body part where they have grown and that was exactly what was happening to us. I tried to assure him with affectionate messages. Before resuming our silence, we agreed to see doctors in our respective cities.
The diagnosis I got was just what I’d suspected. According to my gynecologist, a change in my mucus acidity had fostered the appearance of the microorganisms and simply applying a cream for five days would eradicate them. Knowing this did not calm me. Far from it. To think that some living thing had grown on our bodies precisely where the absence of the other was most evident astonished and rattled me. The fungus bound me to Philippe even more. Though at first I applied the prescribed medicine punctually and diligently, I soon stopped the treatment; I’d developed a fondness for the shared fungus and a sense of ownership. To go on poisoning it was to mutilate an important part of myself. The itch became, if not pleasurable, at least as soothing as the next best thing. It allowed me to feel Philippe on my own body and imagine with such accuracy what was happening to his. That’s why I decided not only to preserve the fungus, but also to take care of it, the way that some people cultivate a small garden. After some time, as it grew stronger, the fungus started to become visible. The first thing I noticed was white dots that, upon maturing, turned into small bumps, smooth in texture and perfectly round. I came to have dozens of those little heads on my body. I spent hours naked, pleased to see that they had grown over the surface of my labia in their path toward my groin. All the while I imagined Philippe doing all he could, to no end, to get rid of his own strand. I discovered I was wrong when one day I received an e-mail in my inbox: “My fungus wants one thing only: to see you again.”
The time I had before dedicated to communicating with Laval I now devoted to thinking about the fungus. I remembered my mother’s, which I’d all but erased from my memory, and I began to read about those strange beings, akin in appearance to the vegetable kingdom but clinging to life and to a host, and cannot but be near us. I found out for example that organisms with very diverse life dynamics can be classified as fungi. There exist around a million and a half species, of which a hundred thousand have been studied. I realized that something similar happens with emotions: very different kinds of feelings—often symbiotic—are identified by the word love. Loves are often born unforeseen, of spontaneous conception. One evening we suspect their existence because of some barely noticeable itch, and by the next day we realize they have already settled into us in such a way that if it is not permanent, it at least seems to be. Eradicating a fungus can be as complicated as ending an unwanted relationship. My mother knew all about it. Her fungus loved her body and needed it in the same way that the organism that had sprouted between Laval and me was reclaiming the missing territory.
I was wrong to think that when I stopped writing to him, I would detach myself from Laval. I was also wrong to believe that that sacrifice would be enough to get my husband back. Our relationship never came back to life. Mauricio left discreetly, no fuss of any kind. He started by not coming home one night out of three and then extended his periods of desertion. Such was my absence from our common space that, although I could not help noticing it, neither could I do anything to stop him. I still wonder today if, had I tried harder, it would have been possible to reestablish the ties that had dissolved between us. I am certain that Mauricio discussed the circumstances of our divorce with very few of our friends. However, those people spoke to others and the information reached our relatives and closest friends. There were even people who felt authorized to express to me their support or disapproval, which angered me to no end. Some told me, as consolation, that “things happen for a reason”; that they had seen it coming and that the separation was necessary, as much for my own growth as for Mauricio’s. Others claimed that for several years my husband had maintained a relationship with a young musician and that I should not feel guilty. This latter part had never been proven. Far from calming me, the comments did nothing but increase my feeling of abandonment and isolation. My life had not only ceased to be mine, it had become fodder for others’ discussions. For that reason I couldn’t stand to see anybody. But neither did I like being alone. If I’d had children it probably would have been different. A child would have been a very strong anchor in the tangible and quotidian world. I would have been attentive to the child and its needs. A child would have brought joy to my life with that unconditional affection I was so badly in need of. But besides my mother, who was always so busy with her work, in my life there was only the violin and the violin was Laval. When I finally decided to seek him out, Philippe not only resumed contact as enthusiastic as ever, he was even more supportive than before. He called and wrote several times a day, listened to my doubts, gave me encouragement and advice. Nobody was as involved in my psychological recovery as he was in those first months. His calls and our virtual conversations became my only enjoyable contact with another human being.
Unlike my mother during my childhood, I decided to remain with the fungus forever. To live with a parasite is to accept the occupation. Any parasite, as harmless as it may be, has the uncontainable need to spread. It is important to limit it, or else it will invade us entirely. I, for example, have not allowed mine to reach my groin, nor any other part beyond my crotch. Philippe has adopted an attitude toward me similar to mine toward the fungus. He never allows me beyond my territory. He calls my home whenever he needs to but I cannot, under any circumstance, call his. It is he who decides when and where we meet and who always cancels our trips if his wife or daughters mess up our plans. In his life, I am an infallible ghost he can summon. In mine, he is a free spirit that sometimes appears. Parasites—I understand this now—we are unsatisfied beings by nature. Neither the nourishment nor the attention we receive will ever be enough. The secrecy that ensures our survival often frustrates us. We live in a state of constant sadness. They say that to the brain, the smell of dampness and the smell of depression are very similar. I do not doubt it’s true. Whenever the anguish builds in my chest, I take refuge in Laval, like turning to a psychologist or a sedative. And though not always immediately, he almost never refuses me. Nevertheless, as to be expected, Philippe cannot stand my neediness. Nobody likes to be invaded. He already has too much pressure at home to tolerate this scared and pained woman he has turned me into, so different from the one he met in Copenhagen. We have seen each other again a few times, but the trysts are not like before. He’s scared too. His responsibility in my new life is weighing him down and he reads, even in my most innocent remarks, the plea for him to leave his wife. I realize this. That is why I have lessened, at the cost of my health, my imploring. But my need remains bottomless.
It’s been more than two years since I assumed the nature of an invisible being, which barely has a life of its own, that feeds on memories, on fleeting encounters in whatever part of the world, or on what I am able to steal from another organism that I yearn for to be mine and in no way is. I still play music but everything I play seems like Laval, sounds like him, like a distorted copy nobody cares about. I don’t know how long it’s possible to live like this. But I do know that some people do for years and that in this dimension they are able to build families, entire colonies of fungi spread far and wide that live in secrecy and then one day, just when the infested being dies, raise their head during the funeral and make themselves known. That will not be me. My body is infertile. Laval will have no descendants with me. Sometimes I think I catch, in his face or the tone of his voice, a certain annoyance similar to the repulsion my mother felt for her yellowed toe. So despite my enormous need for attention I do everything I can to come off inconspicuous, so that he thinks of my presence only when he desires or needs it. I can’t complain. My life is tenuous but I do not want for nourishment, even though it comes one drop at a time. The rest of the time I live locked up and motionless in my apartment where I have barely raised the blinds in the past few months. I like the dimness and the dampness of the walls. I spend a lot of time touching the cavity of my genitalia—that crippled pet I glimpsed as a child— where my fingers awaken the notes Laval has left there. I’ll stay like this as long as he lets me, forever confined to one piece of his life or until I find the medicine that, at last, once and for all, frees us both.
*Copyright © 2013 by Guadalupe Nettel, c/o Guillermo Schavelzon & Asoc., Agencia Literaria, www.schavelzon.com.
*English translation copyright © 2014 by J. T. Lichtenstein.