She called you two weeks ago. Just like that. Out of the blue. Today is Mother’s Day, and you’re going to see her again. You wanted to make as good a start to the day as possible, but on Saturday night you went to bed late and drunk and she wakes you with another phone call at twenty past eleven the next morning. She’s called to ask if you’re coming to lunch as you agreed. You say that you are. She asks if Fernanda is coming, too. You say that she isn’t; you already told her that. She asks you, please, not to be late, and you hang up. Over the past few days a voice in your head has been telling you that it’s your fault that you haven’t seen her in all this time, and you’ve begun to think about how that might have made her feel. Being with her is a trick you learned when you were a boy, but since you’ve grown up you haven’t been able to do it so well. Also, whenever you make an effort to be nice you lose patience. But for some reason you think things will work themselves out at the lunch. On Friday afternoon you got her a gift. You can’t remember the last time you did that. And you have something to say to her, a few phrases that will make everything right.
It’s midday on the third Sunday of October in a year that doesn’t and will never have a decade. You step into the bath and slip into cloudy, impeccable nothingness, like in an advert for cream or salt. You’re shrouded in silence. You’re swimming in a pool on the roof of a tower of thirty dark floors. No one else is there. You lean your back against the tiles and look up: no light or noise. The water is so clear that you don’t notice when it’s gone. The floor is grass, and you walk like Kwai Chang Caine, like Johnnie Walker in a Scottish meadow; there are white sheep that turn into a white cloud, and you open your eyes, cough and spit out a little cold water. You have no idea what time it is because in the bath it’s always late at night. Then you hear the noise of the traffic and, on the other side of the wall, a neighbour flushing the toilet before washing their hands and closing the door behind them.
Something on that corner of the avenue seems familiar. Almost without thinking you walk the blocks that separate your flat from the area where you lived with your mum and sister a few years ago. Only now, going back, do you realize that you never went very far. You can’t remember what used to be on the avenue. It definitely wasn’t a pair of internet cafés.
To pass by the door, acting on a somewhat morbid urge to see how things have changed, you’d just have to turn the corner and carry on for half a block, but you don’t move. Your phone tells you that it’s ten past two. You hail a taxi, and when it pulls off you search your pockets for money. When you arrive you have to explain to the doorman who you are. He doesn’t believe you’re her son; he’s never seen you before. He makes you ring the bell. Fourteenth floor. He asks you if you were away travelling. You smile and look away. On the desk from which he presides over the lobby is an expensive mobile phone. Finally, a strange man’s voice tells you that you can come up. In the lift you tidy your hair and clothes in the mirror. You stare at your face and think about your sister. Somehow you feel that you abandoned her. For a long time, during those early years in Buenos Aires, you two were the only things that didn’t fall apart. Your mum’s big hair and your skinny dad with his moustache. You were both trapped on their merry-go-round like a fare fought over by a pair of taxi drivers on a slow night.
But all that’s over now. It’s simpler. You just have to share a few meals a year with the two women, plus a guy and his family, in a fourteenth-floor flat with a landing, open door and, behind it, a window that looks out onto a balcony, the nature reserve and the river behind it. You go inside, but no one’s around. You come back out, ring the bell and wait, but nothing happens. You wander around the living-room and bend over to read the spines of books and inspect the smiling faces in the picture frames. Your movements are tense and cautious, as though the decorations might disintegrate at the slightest touch. Or as though you were burgling the house of a family that has gone out to spend the day in the countryside.
Naked except for a towel, a blonde girl who isn’t your sister comes down the hall. Before closing the door to the bedroom she turns to look at you for an interminable second. Then your mother appears by her side and gives you a hug. She hasn’t changed – a little thinner, the hair blonder and in a different style, new, less-crumpled clothes, but the same. She steps back, rests her hands on your shoulders, looks at you and hugs you again. Then she steps back again. She’s crying. She says that she’s crying from joy. You put your hand in your jacket pocket and feel the package inside. You hug and kiss again. You’re about to open your mouth when she steps back again. Her eyes are red. She tells you to follow her. She wants to show you the flat. But all the doors to the bedrooms are locked. She says that they must be getting changed and shows you the bathrooms; one of them is still full of steam, foam, and there is a wet pair of burgundy-coloured panties hanging from the tap. You sneeze once, and again. She says that it must be the carpet. You’d better go into the kitchen. You keep on sneezing; it’s almost as if you were doing it on purpose, as though for some reason you were trying to make a show of being uncomfortable.
As you blow your nose she asks if you can do her a favour. “What?” Everyone’s busy getting ready and she still has to take a shower, but she miscalculated and needs more cream for the sauce and also there’s no wine, and Gustavo doesn’t like to eat without wine. A door opens, and a man’s voice, the same voice you heard distorted through the intercom, asks where something is. Who cares if he doesn’t like to eat without wine? He can get it himself. You’re alone together, and you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. But at the same time you suddenly feel shy, and you agree to go out. She asks you to take Lucky with you. The dog comes out from the laundry room, stretching.
It’s a new neighbourhood built on land reclaimed from the river, a country club of towers. All the buildings are enormous, spaced out as though the ground wouldn’t be able to hold them if they were any closer together. They’re surrounded by well-kept squares with recently planted trees and new benches. In another life your best ideas came when you walked this same dog through run-down plazas, smoking for blocks along streets that you no longer dare to go back to. From the outside the only supermarket in the area looks like a designer boutique. You tie the dog up and walk towards the sliding doors, which open on their own. A guard grabs your arm and tells you that you can’t leave a dog tied up on the pavement. You try to argue, but he just points at a sign that declares it is prohibited and then to the dog’s lead tied up to the lamp-post.
You walk a further six blocks along the avenue to a Korean supermarket. You go straight to the refrigerator with the dairy products. The smell of floor cleaner tickles your nose. You compare several different kinds of wines and pick a couple of the more expensive bottles. At the till the lady in front drops all her things on the belt and walks forward so she’s standing opposite the cashier. The cashier can barely see her over the till. On the black rubber belt are a lettuce, paper napkins, bread, a cut of beef you’ve never eaten and two cartons of wine. She asks the cashier to let her know when the bill comes to twenty pesos. The cashier says that they’re at nineteen pesos forty, and one of the wine cartons stays where it is. She has everything else in two bags. You don’t see what happened to the other wine carton – if she has bought it or not – because as she opens her purse she tells the cashier that food is very expensive. How can food be so expensive? She takes out a wrinkled twenty-peso note, the kind of note you’d see in the hands of a child going shopping for the first time, a note that spent years rolled up in the trunk of a ceramic elephant studded with glass jewels. As she smooths it out before giving it to the cashier, she asks her if she has a mother. Then she asks if she minds working on Mother’s Day. They should change what Mother’s Day is, she says.
She’s wearing dark glasses and shorts that reach down to her white knees, making her look a little out of place. You can sometimes tell what people are about to say from their postures. Her mummy lost her mummy – she says “mummy” twice – when she was very little, and she always felt bad on Mother’s Day.
The cashier is looking blankly at the special offers at the butcher’s counter. By now she must not see words, just exclamation marks and numbers all along the aisle. Numbers and exclamation marks at every imaginable angle on the signs and labels, with bleach-scented light shining down from the ceiling. The woman goes on talking. She says that there was a time when it was called the Day of the Family, and she thinks that’s better. You put the cream on the belt. The wine carton isn’t there. It cost a tenth of the wine you’re going to buy. While you pay you peer outside worriedly to make sure that the dog’s still there. You walk back quickly, almost without moving your arms, as though the cream will go bad if shaken outdoors.
They’re all sitting around the table. You kiss your sister, shake hands with Gustavo, kiss each of their daughters and the youngest son, although you can’t believe that he’s wearing one of your T-shirts. You don’t say anything. She’s the one who mentions it, as if it will somehow bring you closer. He must be sixteen or seventeen. He’s one of those teenagers who’s done his growing already. He’s tall, skinny, wears his hair slightly long, and you don’t know whether he shaves or if his beard hasn’t come out yet. He barely says anything at the table. You wonder whether you have anything else in common; he must be using a lot of your things. You tell her that she should have asked. She glares at you for a second and grabs your hand. Then she gives you an exaggerated, slightly absurd compliment that you find more annoying than embarrassing. You don’t say anything, and she tries to kiss you in front of everyone, but you move so she just brushes you. You snatch your hand away. You can’t help it. It’s as though something physical has got lost along the way.
And she’s living with another man. It’s not that you mind – in fact, you liked Gustavo right from the start, after he said “So you paint?” After a couple of glasses of wine you rediscover the layer of genuine empathy that has always made your interactions with other people easier. You like how he treats her, how he speaks to her and the jokes he makes to cheer her up after what you say. And the story he tells. The week before he went on a trip and got caught up in a road block. But it’s his tone more than anything. By now you’re guaranteed to like him whatever he says about the incident.
It seems that ahead of him was a minibus carrying a band that was supposed to be playing a gig in another city that night. They were late, and some of the musicians and a few others who didn’t look very musical got out to see what was going on. After a while a couple of band members started to play with the protesters’ drums, and everyone sang and chanted. Almost all of them were children, teenagers or women, he says. Of all ages, thirty-something and up. They had turned five bicycles upside down, with the seats resting on the asphalt, and a couple of kilometres of cars and trucks had backed up on either side. Then the musicians took pictures of themselves in front of the protestors’ flag, all of them smiling. Make sure that the organization’s crest is in there, shouted one of the women. And another said, This is all very well, but the roadblock stays.
They were from a town a couple of miles away and were protesting against plans for a refinery to be built in the area. The musicians had to keep going; they weren’t going to get there in time, and the organizer of the gig went over to plead with the protestors. He said that they supported the cause, they supported every cause. In fact, the worn-out green army jacket he was wearing had been given to him by El Perro a couple of weeks ago. Gustavo made a face to emphasize the absurdity of the situation. They supported the cause, the organizer said again, and he offered to read out the protestors’ petition on stage that night. Then he gave them several copies of the band’s first album and a few of their second, too.
His two daughters are there as well. You know that one is called Delfina and the other Belén, but you can’t remember which is which. They told you when you were introduced – you stared at the one who’d been wearing the towel – but you didn’t say their names out loud; you weren’t paying attention. The tablecloth is getting dirtier and dirtier. They’re both blonde. One is twenty-six, the other twenty-three. One of them says something about the musicians, something like all women like musicians but then end up marrying someone with money. It could have been worse; she might have said “painters” or “artists”. Gustavo answers, Only the stupid ones. He says it nicely, as though he’s still trying to teach her things.
The twenty-three-year-old seems like the eldest, your mother told you over the phone in an amused voice. You’re a little annoyed that she’s acting so familiarly, but, then again, if you lived there you’d be meeting her in the middle of the night in the kitchen, in a nightshirt, sitting on the counter, stretching out her pale legs next to you, her burgundy-coloured panties bunched to one side in the light of the open refrigerator and the green numbers of the clock on the microwave reflected in the window. And then they tell you that they’ve changed the dog’s name. Now its name is Eliot because “they like it better”. You have nothing against T.S. Eliot, Eliot Ness, Billy Elliot, Elliott Smith, Elliott Murphy or Missy Elliott, but people can’t go about changing a dog’s name, so you start calling him. “Lakiii…! Lakiii!” you shout, louder and louder.
Then you stop because everyone is staring at you except for your sister. Belén and Delfina make faces, and you see the resemblance even if you can’t tell which is which. For a second you think that family is something you catch. Then you realize that your sister is closer to them than you, and you feel that somehow you weren’t a good older brother. But it’s too late now. For another second you think that your relationship with her is like the plant the previous owners left behind in your flat. The plant you don’t water, not even in summer, but which still survives and sometimes even flowers.
The only moment you get alone with her, you don’t know what it is, but you can’t give her the gift. You feel as though the package were broken or the product faulty when you had it all planned out perfectly in your head. You start to cough and sneeze, and Gustavo sticks his head around the door to see what’s going on. He asks you if you’re all right, and she rubs a cloth in your face, a paper napkin. She tells you that you need to quit smoking. It’s not good for you. That’s it, you want to leave. She says “please”. You think that she’s going to say something more, but she just says “please” again and looks at you. It’s raining hard, and Gustavo offers to give you a lift. If you say no you’ll end up ruining the day, and it really didn’t go all that badly. Much as you try not to you can’t help feeling a kind of twisted regret; every time you leave you feel like you should have stayed, and whenever you stay a little longer you feel as though you should have left.
The only sound inside the car is the muffled noise made by the windscreen wipers. When he stops for a traffic light Gustavo sees the bag in your hand and asks you what it is. You say that it’s a gift from someone that you don’t want. “Thanks for reminding me.” You forgot that you were planning to exchange it. If you don’t go now you never will. He says that on Sundays shops don’t usually accept exchanges or returns, but you just want to get out of the car without offending him. You say that now that the rain is letting up you’ll give it a try. He can just drop you off on the avenue. Before getting out you shake hands and hug briefly.
There’s a queue of cars at the petrol station. People are inflating their tyres and filling up their tanks before getting locked back into their routines on Monday morning. Sunday afternoon still has that fixed sense of melancholy that comes with the knowledge that you’ll have to go to school the next day, especially on an afternoon like this when you have lots to do and no time to think. You’re going to tidy up a little and finish a bottle of wine that’s waiting to be finished, and as you’re thinking about that you see the woman who lives on the sixth floor sitting in the lobby. She’s using the chair the caretaker sits on when he has nothing to do.
You pass by her in silence because ever since you got out of the car you’ve been feeling a little slow. She’s lived in the building with her two children – a boy and a girl, about six or seven, who always shout when they get out of the lift – since before you moved in. She’s from Brazil, but her ex is Argentinian. You once exchanged a few words with him at the door of the building as he was waiting for his children to come down. From her expression it looks as though she’s waiting for him to bring them back. Your dad was always late when he had to come to pick you up – an hour or two. You drop your keys, and she turns to look at you. She looks at you without seeing anything, a little slow herself. You say “Hello” as you push the button to call the lift, but she doesn’t answer, and you say that someone must not have closed the lift doors properly. You peer into the gap between the frame and the door and say, “Someone must be unloading a whole floor full of shopping.” But she still doesn’t answer and continues to stare blankly out into the street. Suddenly she leans towards you and says, as though she were completing a sentence she’d started in her head, or was saying just before you arrived, that fortunately her ex-husband has taken the kids to his house. The boy is getting impossible; he hit her this morning.
There’s something about her annoyance with her son and the exhaustion in her voice and face that make you look her up and down for the first time, noticing the body under the tights and T-shirt. You tell her that your grandmother, your “mum’s mum”, used to say, “There’s nothing worse in the world than hitting your mother.” She laughs. You think that you might be able make yourself attractive to her by adopting an air of gentle empathy and youthful vigour. You’re sure that’s the right approach, but you can’t think what to say, so you start to shake the package. The sound of the metal door opening makes you jump. It’s the elderly couple who live on the fifth floor. They always take a couple of minutes to leave the building.
You get into the lift together, and only when you get to the fourth floor do you say, “So you’re on your own…” You feel strange knowing that another flat in the building in which you live is both identical and different from your own. Maybe you’re a little frightened at the prospect of glancing into the children’s room and seeing their still unmade beds, clothes on the floor and the black arm of an articulated toy figure. “Until tomorrow afternoon, thank goodness, when they come back from school,” she says before opening the door, getting out and looking at you from the hallway. The nightshirt you were going to give your mother would suit her. Maybe it would be a little tight and a little short. You’d like to say something about tonight, about how it’s better to spend Sunday nights with someone, to tell her that you have an almost full bottle of wine that needs finishing, but you don’t say a word, and she says, even though it’s only six in the evening, “Sleep well,” and closes the lift door.
The living-room in your flat is an empty mess, and you left the lights on. On the table are three open books, a full ashtray, a jumble of photographs, the mobile phone and a glass with dregs of wine. On a chair is a crumpled shirt and on another a teabag on which you can still see the impression left by a pair of nervous fingers. There’s no wind outside, no cars, no noise, just a few lights that come on and off in a mysterious pattern. From the seventh floor this part of the city looks like a stage set after the closing night.
On the side of the bath is a bottle of ordinary shampoo, shower gel, a book with a flowery border, toothpaste for sensitive teeth, a cup of coffee and a toothbrush. There’s limescale in between some of the tiles, and the shower curtain is mouldy along the edges. It’s cold, and you can never get the window to shut completely. You’re in the bath, warmed by the steam and a second serving of hot water. Sometimes you spend all day in there, running the hot water tap every now and again with one foot, while the other deals with the plug. It creates an amniotic atmosphere.
You think that it would be nice if it rained. Just then, as if your wish had been granted by a merciful power, you see a flash of lightning and a few drops of water hit the misted glass of the window. You think about the Brazilian woman, about how she’s actually not too daunting at all and that you’ll be better prepared the next time you meet. Maybe you could get her to let you into her flat when the kids aren’t there under the pretext of checking to see whether your bath is leaking. Meanwhile, for the moment, you could invite someone to the movies. But you have no idea what’s on. Not even a title or an actor’s name.