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.