The house was falling down around us, but once you reach a certain age you just let it happen. The dirty plates were piled up in the kitchen, there was no one to make my bed, and the closet was beginning to run low on shirts. I think we were saved from the ants only because we lived on an upper floor. Eight days in, Mom asked me to go with her to see if something had happened. She was worried. I’d see her cross the hall or stop in the middle of her bedroom in her nightdress, like she’d forgotten where her slippers were and this was something terrifying. She hadn’t done anything about it up to now, not because she didn’t care, it was more like a case of wait and see.
“How is it possible that you don’t have her phone number?”
“I never needed it.”
That’s how Mom is. She takes everything for granted. Elda had never missed work without letting us know at least a day in advance. In the twenty-two years she’d worked in our house she’d never failed to call.
“All right, let’s go,” I said. I didn’t want her to go alone.
This was my lot for being the last one to move out. First we went to the service room and looked through her things. It seemed like everything was there: the pink uniform that Mom had told her to stop using, a notebook with notes and figures, a few bottles of perfume—and possibly the last black-and-white television set on earth. When I got out of the shower, the car keys were on my bed. I couldn’t figure out if she was rushing me or she was afraid I’d back out. As we went down in the elevator I ran through all the memories I had of Elda. I was surprised that there were so few. I couldn’t picture her on the day I graduated, for example, but I knew she’d set the table and cooked for my friends who showed up that night to celebrate. And afterward, when everyone had left and we went to bed, she’d silently cleaned and straightened the house. Or when I had meningitis while Mom and Dad were on vacation (another of their attempts to fix the unfixable). That memory is nothing more than a succession of days and nights of fever, of the television turned on nonstop, of hands that warm me and feed me but without any distinguishable face.
Mom had a piece of paper with the address on it. It was crumpled, and some of the letters and numbers were almost rubbed out. The only thing we knew for sure was the name of her neighborhood.
“Don’t worry. We’ll ask, and someone will tell us how to get there.”
Ever since Dad had left, I’d learned the litany of encouraging phrases I needed to recite. Mom looked at me out of the corner of her eye, smiling, and I thought that if I held her gaze a second longer she’d be able to see all my secrets, one after the other. Although it was her car, I was the only one who ever drove it except for maybe one of my siblings. But the two of us had a tacit agreement that I had to ask every time I wanted to use it.
“You paid her, didn’t you?”
We turned onto the avenue. She didn’t look at me.
“Why wouldn’t I have paid her?”
“I don’t know. Maybe you forgot. I could happen…” But she didn’t respond. “Could she have been offended by something? Something you said?”
Mom and Elda could spend an entire day together without speaking, but they always knew what the other was thinking. Elda served tea or dinner at the time Mom felt was the appropriate hour. She went into the bedrooms to straighten up and clean when she was sure she wouldn’t be bothering anyone. They divided up the house into shifts.
“What do you know about Elda?”
“What do you mean, what do I know about Elda?”
“I mean, what do you know about her life?”
We drove through an industrial area near the river. The columns of smoke from the chimneys twisted southward. We heard the foghorn of a ship, but we couldn’t tell whether it was coming or going.
“Not much,” she said. She was silent for several kilometers. The sun was beside us, and shadows stretched across her face. “I know she was born in Paraguay, in a little town on the river… the name means High Sun or something like that, but I don’t know how they say it in Guaraní,” she paused and looked at me enthusiastically before continuing. “I know she has four kids and several grandkids. Nine, I think. She’s been divorced for many years. He was a carpenter or a plumber, I don’t really remember. Her birthday is in February,” she counted on her fingers. “Fifty-eight?”
She didn’t seem sure. From around a bend, before exiting the highway, we saw a building lot under construction. In the center, they’d dug a gigantic hole that looked more like a crater left by a bomb. I estimated that the future building would have at least fifteen, twenty floors.
“Apparently he hit her.”
When we got off the highway, we were only halfway there. And the next stretch was the part we were unsure about. As we moved farther from the city, signage was increasingly sporadic and the roads unpaved. We stopped at a bakery to buy some pastries.
“We can’t show up empty-handed.”
I agreed. “Get some with dulce de leche.”
“Do you think something’s happened to her?” she asked me.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
But then I had the image of a terrible accident; two cars crashing and bouncing off each other from the violence of the impact. They came to a stop at the side of the road, fender to fender. No one moved inside either vehicle. Then smoke began to pour from within, slowly. And a few minutes later, fire. None of the other cars driving by stopped.
“If she comes back, I’m going to pay more attention to her.”
We passed a neighborhood where the houses all looked the same, with water tanks on the roofs imitating chimneys. Some appeared to have people living in them even though they didn’t look completed. We reached a very narrow street, and the cars coming the other way forced us to pull over. From their seats, with the windshields between us and their hands gripping the steering wheels, the drivers looked at us. It was clear that we didn’t know where we were. Every two or three blocks Mom got out of the car to try to see the street numbers because we couldn’t read the signs from the car or the houses weren’t numbered in order. I pulled over at a corner and asked a boy on a bike if he knew where Elda Rubatto’s house was. It couldn’t be too far. He came over to the window, looked back at the houses behind him, and took all the time in the world before answering.
“It’s that one.”
The girl who opened the door was probably around twenty, no older. Her hair was black, straight, and it reached down to her elbows. I’d never seen her before in my life, but she’d just said my name. She called my mom “ma’am” and made excessive gestures with her hands, inviting us inside. She closed the door behind us, and the room, which was already dark, became even darker. Elda appeared from the kitchen, wiping her hands with a dishtowel. She didn’t seem surprised to see us, and I had the impression she’d been expecting our visit.
“How’s it going, ma’am?”
“Elda… what happened to you?” Mom said with exaggerated worry. “It’s been over a week—”
But Elda didn’t let her finish. She quickly kissed us hello and introduced us to Romina, her daughter, the girl who had let us in. Then she called in her grandkids one by one. They appeared immediately, out of breath like they’d come running from an impossible distance. Their names went in one ear and out the other, but they all resembled their grandmother in some way. They stood there, impatient, until she gave them permission to leave.
Once we were alone, Elda said that she wanted to show us the house. She seemed so excited by the idea of hosting us that it was impossible to say no. She led the way through several rooms. We’d go into a room. Mom would make a comment—how pretty or look how spacious—or she’d simply nod her head in approval at everything she saw. Then we’d leave the room. We’d go into another. The ceilings were of varying heights and the floors were covered with diverse materials, as if the house had been built in stages over a long period of time.
Mom, as ever, realized it before me. In her expression, her way of moving her hands, I knew there was something wrong. I took another look at the room we were in, seeing it as if for the first time, trying to see what she was seeing. That’s when I began to notice things I’d seen before, at home. Decorations, small objects. At first, a few here and there. Nothing valuable or important. But when I started to look closer, as we moved through the house, I saw a lot more, everywhere. They lit up in my mind; they organized themselves as if on a map, with dates and references. A glass ashtray. A pair of wooden boxes Mom had brought home from a trip. A horrible painting of a lake landscape that some aunt or uncle of mine—I can’t remember which one—had painted. A chair I could’ve sworn I’d seen in the closet just a few days before. I tried to estimate how many of these things Mom might’ve gotten rid of voluntarily and how many had just disappeared over the years without our noticing. At this point, I closed my eyes. Why keep counting? But I had the feeling that the tour wasn’t over. When I opened my eyes again we were in another room. I’d walked there blindly. And then I understood the other thing that Mom had already figured out: the entire house was an exact replica of our apartment. That’s why it had all seemed so natural, and I’d been able to walk through automatically as if it were my own house. It was impressive how in spaces so small they’d been able to arrange the furniture in the same position or how a mirror was placed on the same wall, facing the same direction, in two different houses.
I wanted to move faster, to get ahead of them, because I thought I knew what was coming. We walked through a few more doors and out onto a patio. At the far end of the yard, under the afternoon sun, several men were working on the construction of a new house. They were bathed in sweat. They looked exhausted, but their arms didn’t stop, as if they were determined to finish the job before night sprung up on them.
“My sons,” said Elda.
We waved with one hand as we used the other to block the sun. At that hour the rays were hitting us head on. They stopped for barely a second to return the wave and then got back to work.
We retraced the route through the house in silence.
“Romina, we’re going to have tea, please.” She talked to her daughter the way Mom had talked to her. Always with respect and even affection but also with authority. The rest of the afternoon we made small talk. At one point I asked where the bathroom was, just to be polite, because I already knew where it was.
On some shelves I saw photos of my family among the pictures of her children. I saw myself at my first communion. When I graduated the seventh grade. My brother skiing with friends. The five of us at a prehistoric Christmas dinner before my dad left. Some of the photos were so close to others that they gave the impression we all knew each other, that we were part of the same big family.
When I came out of the bathroom, Romina appeared in a doorway and grabbed me by the hand. We walked down a hallway to what looked like a porch leading to a patio that was smaller than the one we’d seen before. We hadn’t been in this part of the house. Three clotheslines crossed over our heads, draped with laundry. I recognized a sweater I’d worn many years ago.
“You don’t remember me,” she said.
I made an effort. I searched for her face among all the faces I’d ever met.
“Yes,” I told her. “How could I forget?”
“Liar… When you were a little boy, this tall, my mom took me to your house. She didn’t have anyone to leave me with and Mrs. gave her permission. I remember we played in your room the whole afternoon. You let me use your toys, but only if I stayed close by; you never let me take one out of your sight.”
What could I say? There was a silence, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The wind whipped through the hanging sheets for several seconds, and then everything went still. I could have given her a kiss. She wasn’t ugly. It would have been the perfect scene in a soap opera, I thought with a cynicism I haven’t felt again since. But I didn’t do it, and we went back inside without looking at each other.
Mom was standing, waiting for me. By her face I could tell that they’d run out of topics of conversation or that it didn’t make sense to stay there any longer. Romina kept walking and, without saying goodbye, gathered the teacups, and then I heard the water in the kitchen.
“Ready to go?”
We were about to leave, and I was surprised by our ability to play along, our family talent for sustaining a charade. Before we left, Elda stopped under the cone of light thrown by a bulb.
“You know, ma’am, I’ve always wanted to invite you over. To have a meal together. Back there, in the yard, there’s room for…”
We turned our heads simultaneously toward the window, looking for signs of the scene Elda had imagined, but there was no longer anyone outside, and the glass just reflected us. We smiled and nodded.
It was nighttime. With large swaths thrown into darkness, the neighborhood didn’t seem so ugly now. There was a smell of oranges or tangerines—some kind of citrus, for sure. Someone was having a barbeque a few houses over. Elda walked with us down the path to the sidewalk. Some of her grandkids had climbed in the window and were looking out at us. I turned around to wave to them. Their eyes shone like eyes shine before a photo is taken. I saw two heads I hadn’t seen before, and I remembered the little house at the end of the yard. I had the feeling that all the houses in the neighborhood were connected, that the doors and hallways never ended. Drawing the route with a finger, Elda indicated the best way home, down safe, well-lit streets. But we weren’t afraid. We said goodbye, exchanged hugs and promises to see each other again.
“Thanks, thanks for everything,” she said.
When we got in the car we saw an ambulance pass by with its siren off. At the corner, it slammed on its brakes and backed up a hundred meters, retracing its route.
We didn’t speak the whole way home. I thought about turning on the radio at one point, but I decided not to. I didn’t want to listen to music. As we moved closer to the city, the landscape through the windows became more developed. The houses and buildings grew taller. Gardens and businesses sprung up around us. Not until we’d pulled into our garage did it seem like Mom wanted to say something. I noticed it in the twitching of her lips. Our parking bay was in the third underground level, and that night, as we moved down the spiral of ramps, the air seemed to become darker and denser. The tires squealed around every curve until we parked in the spot allocated to our apartment.
“We’re here,” I said.
I turned off the engine and put the stereo in the glove box.
“You’re big now,” she said unexpectedly. “It won’t be long before you go. I know. And the house doesn’t get that dirty. I think that… I think that for now I can handle it on my own… For a while. At least until we find someone.”
I looked her in the eyes so that she’d know I was listening, but I didn’t say anything. I just stretched out my arms to lock the two rear doors.