For Juanina Jaguen, my girlfriend now and forever
“Orchids!” she cried. “Orchids! Those are orchids!”
I was not in the mood for orchids. My leg was in agony. Not just one part of it, the whole thing. My left ankle was the focal point, but far from the entirety, of the godawful pain that was shooting up my leg in industrial quantities, ripping through the limb in successive waves. It felt like I was being shocked by some demoniacal toy. The pain dawdled for some sightseeing around the groin before progressing on to the base of my neck, gnawing, nibbling, and chewing as it went, until it resolved itself in repeated, vicious hammer blows to the head.
But still she insisted. Even though my foot was trying to kill me from inside its new plaster housing, I’d picked up the cane in a nonsensical fit of frustration and said that I’d go with her. What the hell. I couldn’t stand the idea of missing out on another walk with her just because four stupid ligaments had been torn from their sockets a couple of weeks ago.
“I’ll go with you,” I said. “It hardly even hurts any more.”
Like hell it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt if I was lying on the sofa with my leg raised on a pile of cushions listening to music with my bottle of water, a pile of comic books and two packets of heavenly cigarettes by my side. No, it didn’t hurt then. But when I looked back and saw that the village was just a speck in the distance and the rocky path stretching on forever in front of me, my swollen ankle started to rebel, clawing at the plaster in a manner rather more literal than metaphorical.
Soon, past the last few fences, once the village had disappeared entirely and the paths began to squirm before my eyes, my ankle realized that the plaster wasn’t its true enemy and began to turn on itself, the very foot that was supposed to protect it.
“Fucking parasitic swelling, you’re getting on my nerves!” I grumbled to myself. But then I took it back. I didn’t want to give the pain any ideas.
By then, she’d checked her compass a dozen times, confirmed her findings by comparing them with the north side of certain trees and stared open-mouthed at several apparently extraordinary birds. Me and my ankle could go to hell for all she cared, it was like we weren’t there at all. And that was precisely what I ended up wishing, quite vehemently. Her fleshy lips went on and on about plants and animals that I couldn’t care less about, her caramel eyes gleamed at the ecological systems behind us: they drove me crazy. She had no idea how much I was suffering. But still, I fixed every contour of her face into my memory so I’d never forget how it looked that day.
She’d ruined the whole beginning; not just the beginning, the middle and end too. Before I met her, I’d been a sucker for women on motorcycles, blondes and language teachers, but ever since I saw her get out of her Volkswagen, releasing her sixteen thousand chestnut curls from their scarf prison, asking me in her lovely Andalucian accent if I was Julia’s cousin, I have been horrified by the mere hint of an engine, even if it’s just the sound of the coffee grinder, I can’t stand my cat’s leonine fur and foreigners unnerve me so much that I cut them off before they can get a word in edgewise. From that day on, my behaviour with her was not dissimilar to how I’d have acted with my imaginary blonde English teacher about to run me over on her Vespa.
Julia had warned me that I was really going to like her fellow student. She was wrong. I didn’t like her, she drove me crazy. Literally crazy.
I’d been such a fool! I’d wasted a week trying to come up with excuses not to go with them on their plant collecting expeditions, horrified at the prospect of spending a month with some know-it-all biology student, not to mention my annoying cousin. Seven days practicing a cough, allergy attacks, a horrible speech impediment, whatever I could think of as Julia excitedly told me about her wonderful friend. All I paid attention to was the fact that she definitely wasn’t blonde. But the moment I saw her, my non-existent fever disappeared, rather finer phrases started to queue up in my head and I began to rack my brain for the names of trees: oaks, chestnuts, corks… I was so nervous, so impatient. I could count the names I knew on one hand, so I stopped counting. But then three more species came to my aid: ilexes, poplars, coconut palms… coconut palms? Really?
I went crazy. Out of my mind.
The most pathetic moment came at the end of the day, when she left for my cousin’s house with nothing but a cold goodbye. I spent all night tossing and turning, trying to think up ways to go back on the excuses I’d idiotically blustered out in the days running up to their visit. After a sleepless night lost in the prospect of her brown curls, overdosing on nicotine and with rashes breaking out all over the place, I’d managed to dig up one or two more offerings: golden orioles, walnuts, I love you, clovers, artichokes, sparrows, I need you, birches, almonds… with which to win her over. What else could I do? I was entirely lacking in motorbikes, golden locks, or even basic English or French.
I’d put so much effort into my sweet-talk and slept so badly the night before, my eyes had been so fixed on her hair and body, that I never noticed that she was paying more attention to my dog than me. She answered whatever I said with a smile that suggested she hadn’t been listening but was embarrassed to say so. She was lost in her world of flowers and birdsong. I was neither of those. So I wasn’t really there at all.
We walked down the slope to the river in silence. She marvelled at all the nature, my dog ran around chasing crickets and butterflies, his tail wagging vigorously, and I got hotter and hotter under the collar thinking about those dangerous curves, that fantastic compulsive walker’s body.
The walk was definitely worth it. Below, the heat was bound to catch up with us and I’d been nourishing a secret hope since we’d left the village. “Why don’t you, Cinnamon and I cool off in the burbling waters of the river? We might discover a new species of frog or newt.” These were the words I’d planned, certain they’d wake her out of the spell she was under, the ecological ecstasy that was keeping her from me.
I was just sharpening the phrase on the tip of my tongue, gathering myself to deploy it, when she shouted:
“Forget me not!”
I was stunned. My long cherished, well-prepared line disappeared from my mind.
“How could I forget you? Impossible,” I replied.
She didn’t even hear me. She was staring in excitement at a little blue flower clinging for all its worth to the side of the gully.
“A forgetmenot!” She exclaimed again, bursting for joy.
It was a flower! She was talking about a flower, damn it.
Then she told me, or herself; I don’t think that in her agitated state I even registered, that she’d only ever seen them in photographs in her huge guide to plants. You rarely found them below an altitude of one thousand five hundred metres. It was a surprise to find it near my village, which was at just a thousand metres.
“I’d love to see it up close,” she said, looking me in the eyes for the first time.
Only then did she seem to realize that I was there; she wasn’t all on her own after all.
And of course she knew very well that a man in love wouldn’t hesitate to crawl down to the edge of the gully and reach out for this remarkable flower, unique specimen that it was. But just as she was certain that I’d get it for her, my dog was sure of other things; his animal instinct was telling him something. He started barking with his tail tucked between his legs just before I lost my balance, the flower and my composure.
I started to come to as we got back to the village. It was odd to see the streets from this new angle. A couple of men had me on their shoulders while hundreds of bells appeared to be ringing all at once. I was being taken back to the village on their shoulders, the way a matador leaves the ring after a notable kill! What had happened? Had I finally been able to seduce her? Was I being congratulated for achieving such a difficult feat? Later I was informed that this wasn’t precisely the case: when I passed out, she’d asked the goatherds Elias and Julian to take me home so she could continue her walk with Cinnamon, my dog, and they’d had to bring all their goats into town. “That’s silly,” I said. “Goats do fine foraging on their own.” But that was precisely it: my beloved had caught the animals chewing on walnut seedlings, stripping them in a flash; not a green leaf to be seen, and had harangued them about the ecological catastrophe of overgrazing, desertification, soil that would be sterile forever, etc. etc.
I then found out that the horrible pain in my foot was caused by a set of definitively, meticulously torn ligaments, the bells I heard as we entered the village were hanging from two hundred goats and that she, my beloved, my presumptive beloved, was too far away at that moment that it was pointless even to think of shouting ‘Forget me not!’ Also, there was the fact that I didn’t want to annoy my family and deep down I knew that my lungs weren’t up to the task anyway.
Almost two weeks with my foot up, total rest, the plaster covered with the autographs of friends who’d come to console me and make fun of my sudden interest in botany. It was a horrible convalescence. What hurt the most, more than my foot, was to imagine her in the countryside, with Cinnamon by her side. Dogs were so lucky! Who wouldn’t want to be a dog?
When I realized that she’d begun to forget me, if she hadn’t already—in the two weeks she’d only come to see me ten or twelve times, the last three or four days sending me little presents or bunches of forgetmenots with my cousin—I decided that I needed a cane. I was going to stretch my legs: I couldn’t spend the whole month dreaming of her eyes and then never see them for real.
Of course, the exercise would be good for me.
The pain inside the cast was having a party, organizing games of football and, especially, darts. My ankle was the board.
Then came the long awaited day when she suggested we go for a walk together. Apparently, she was feeling a little guilty about what had happened.
“We could go on a slow walk up the higher path: it’s flatter, there aren’t so many stones or obstacles.” She had clearly familiarized herself with the area.
Of course, this got my hopes up. I told myself not to stare at her so much (by now, I knew pretty well what she looked like anyway), and to pay more attention to where I was stepping, just in case.
As we went out, she took my arm to help me down the four steps onto the street. God bless steps! She loves me! She loves me! I thought, looking into her honey-caramel eyes from close quarters for the first time.
But as soon as we’d left the village, and headed off into the wilderness, she swapped my arm for a compass and my lambkin eyes for tweeting birds. It was all the same to her.
“I don’t care, I love you!” I said, sure that she wouldn’t hear me.
“What did you say?” she asked me.
I pretended not to hear her. What was going on? I didn’t know where I stood.
She went on ahead, doubled back, came to my side and showed me a flower: “See? A pimpernell.” Or “Look at these: sweetpeas.” She took a fork onto a much rockier path but I decided to keep my foot company. A little while later she came back with more flowers, smiling: “Shepherds Purse”, “Periwinkle”, “Wild Basil”. Cinnamon’s tail whirred like a propeller as he followed her around, rubbing up against her, which is exactly what I’d be doing if it weren’t for my foot, which by now was as spongy and swollen as a roast tomato. Walking was out of the question. So I sat on the rock and waited for her to come back. She reappeared at intervals: “Maidenstears”, “Elderflower”, “Fleawort”, “Quakinggrass.” Then she’d be gone again, without a second glance. You’re going to drive me crazy, I thought. You already have.
Seen from a certain perspective, the cane was one big question mark. What are you doing so far from home with an injured foot? it asked with sanctimonious woodenness. At least you could just turn around. Now it looked straight, silent, Something to Lean On, in capital letters, something to lean on and repress a lot of things: the urge to run after her and eat her all up, for example. Although I was in no state to use it to shake olives from a tree and it wasn’t going to make me seem more interesting, like an ageing dramaturge, its strength and rectitude helped me to walk slowly and submissively into the wilderness, to continue negotiating the craggy path in search of flowers that would then be presented for my inspection: “Forgetmenot again.” “Never,” I almost said in reply. “You crazy little goat, never.”
Five hours is a significant number of hours. Not for her, but certainly for the foot and its game of darts. So, when she cried “Orchids! Those are orchids!” I wasn’t really in the mood for orchids. I could see the village looking small as a pigeon turd a long way below me with its sofa, cushions and all the other comforts of home… We’d have been so happy in my room, listening to music! I had some pots of aspidistras, how’s that for botany? And there’s always a carnation in a vase in my room! And if that’s not enough, there’s me! I was born in May, the month of flowers! Fine, so it’s orchids now, I thought.
Did these thoughts take a long time to ponder? Who knows. The fact is that she had gone, as had Cinnamon, and the orchids were just purple blurs in the distance.
I waited for her.
And I waited.
Then, left to my own devices, it took me four hours to limp back down to the village. The game of darts was still going on. They really liked their darts down there.
When I got to the plaza, I found her having a drink with my cousin in the local bar like nothing had happened.
“Where did you go?” she asked.
“To hell!” I mumbled, and went on home, very slowly, making a show of my limp, which by now had grown quite spectacular. My foot dragged behind me like a rudimentary plough making invisible furrows in the earth.
And I spent a week more like that, nursing the swelling on my foot and my festering resentment, holding up never-ending expeditions in search of indigenous specimens and gramineas with my stumbling hop.
When only three days were left before she was due to leave with a herbarium that by now took up seven different boxes, and the day before my autograph-strewn cast was due to be removed, I had a brilliant idea. I assigned my cousin the role of go-between and sent her on my behalf to send my apologies: I wasn’t well, my foot was having a reaction from all that walking. This was a lie. I took up my post on the corner down the street from my uncle’s house and as soon as I saw her head off towards the river, I ran (well…) in the other direction.
With all the zoo-botanical knowledge I’d acquired over the past few weeks, I was ready to collect all the weeds and bugs I needed to bring my plan to fruition. Three hours later, I was back home with a pair of bags full of incontrovertible reasons to fall in love with me.
I held out another day without seeing her. The go-between told her not to visit me. Apparently I had a contagious disease, she said, improvising, to give me time to get everything ready.
My cousin wouldn’t let her come by until a few hours before they were due to leave. “Maybe you know better than anyone the kind of disease he’s got,” she said, shifting gears.
When she saw me, she was stunned.
I was lying half-naked on the bed, in shorts, showing off my lovely leg in all its splendour but what most caught her eye was the cast. I had spent hours patiently gluing different kinds of hairy lichen, herbs, bunches of rosemary and clover, little piles of stones like tiny cairns with dancing coleoptera and butterflies, dried maple and ash leaves, cherry pips and fruit, a few owl pellets, robin and nightingale feathers, even a little lake dug into the plaster with a pool of water in which swam dozens of larvae. In a strategic position, very close to where the injured ankle had been, I’d placed a bunch of the little blue flowers known as forgetmenots, the precursor to so many weeks of frustrated emotions that were now, finally, about to be released.
The silence didn’t last very long.
Her mouth broke into a wide, beaming smile that soon gave way to a huge, untamed, overwhelmingly contagious laugh. My nameless beloved threw herself upon me without a thought for the ecosystem I’d constructed around my leg. Finally, she offered up her lips for me to eat whole, with all the lust that had accumulated in a month of madness and sweet desperation.
But I wasn’t going to fall for that. No, I wasn’t going to eat them. Not even if I were a cannibal. Because one gets tired of sad endings. I wanted them forever, I whispered into her ear, she could only give them to me in exchange for mine. And she agreed: against all my gloomiest expectations, she agreed. And I’ve had them ever since. With pleasure.
The carnation was in its vase on the table that day. It always is. That’s the advantage of a plastic flower.
*[From El cielo está López (The Sky is López). Editorial Don Quijote, Granada, 1990
included in La vuelta al día (Around the Day). Páginas de Espuma, Madrid, 2016]
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