It was seven o’clock when, driven more by the hope that as evening fell the stifling heat would let up than by having noticed any trace of a breeze or a breath of fresh air, Andrea, Chiqui and Martín decided to go on land.
Martín leaped onto the pier and then stepped back in order to give his hand to Andrea in an almost mechanical gesture, sure that she was following him and that, holding on to the stern rail with one hand, she would stretch out the other in order to take his, trembling with dizziness but at the same time calmed by her own submission and by the help he was offering her.
Chiqui, on the other hand, walked self-assuredly and almost indifferently over the gangway, not in the least avoiding looking at the dark and smelly water into which, she was sure, she was not going to fall nor wanted to dive, just as Andrea had told about herself on the first day. The three then walked along the pier and the little square, slowly, so as not to stir up the inert heat of the evening.
As they passed by the old market hall, an atrium held up by chipped marble columns with the fish counters still maintaining their circular order and the side tables pushed against the walls, they stopped and went inside. The place smelled of dried fish and grime. Their voices resounded in the empty vault and their words, detached from their echoes, lingered on the marble surface of the old counters. A swallow broke the silence and hid in its nest on the topmost beam.
When they had gotten used to the darkness they found, in a corner, a man seated on the ground, his back leaning against a column and his head folded on his chest. He was motionless, wrapped in a rag, with his bare feet showing underneath. Next to him, spread out on the slabs, a dark-colored cloth displayed a collection of varied objects. Andrea and Chiqui moved in closer in order to browse: a small box filled with yellowing postcards of the island in the times of its old splendors, hand-cut pieces of cardboard with earrings, rings, colored beads, necklaces, matchboxes and a cardboard box full of elastic bands of all colors.
“What are these bands?” asked Chiqui and lifted her head, surprised by the nearness of the echo of her own words.
“What are these bands?” she asked again more softly.
The man stretched himself and, showing no intention of standing up, raised his somewhat tilted head and looked at them with one eye. The other, much larger, was fixed and immobile; it was white and he kept it open without any bashfulness. He then picked up one of the bands with his hand and by means of gestures showed them that it was meant to hold up eyeglasses.
“So short?” asked Chiqui, who had seen only the long laces that Leonardus and Andrea used.
“These are for sailing, they keep your glasses on even with a storm blowing on you. They’re the ones sailors use,” said Andrea, and turned toward Martín with a smile.
“I don’t have this model,” she added. “It must be the only one I don’t have.” She smiled again and, looking at him as though referring to a secret that they shared, she chose a blue one and, while he was trying to decipher the purchase price in dollars that the man was demanding, she took her dark glasses from her basket and began to insert the temples into the loops at the ends of the band.
He had never managed to figure out to what extent she actually needed her glasses, because she could be without them for hours and then suddenly be incapable of continuing what she was doing if she didn’t find them. And though she would always ask if anyone had seen them, surely she never expected an answer. Perhaps this was why he thought he understood from the beginning that they were a mere pretext for ending a conversation that was beginning to bore her, or to change groups when she wanted to be somewhere else, at times precisely wherever he was. But as the years passed it became ever clearer that she really did need them, especially at night, though she would still fail to wear them and would lose them and look for them again, but, contrary to appearances, not in order to hide her myopia but because she had never fully convinced herself just how much she needed them.
Ever since she had left him alone on the terrace that first day, dissolving the languid figure to whom he would have wanted to tell his story, he could not remember the number of times that the scene had repeated itself. And when, that very summer – on the Friday of the following week, to be precise – he returned to the beach house with Federico, who had again been summoned by Sebastián, he brought her a blue band, with two washers to hold the temples of her glasses, that she could wear around her neck.
He had placed it in his pants pocket and had his hand ready to give it to her as soon as they were alone together on the terrace as they had the previous week. He had imagined that meeting from the moment in which she had come to the door in the late afternoon to bid them a hurried good-bye because Federico had to be in the city by evening; and although all that week, in his sudden loneliness, he had pricked up his ears in order to decipher the words that she had pronounced when she shook his hand and that he had missed, or to confirm the ones he was incapable of believing that he had heard, he was not sure that what she had whispered was “come back soon, please.” Perhaps she really had said “come back soon” and what he had missed was “please,” which made him suppose that, one way or another, she would be waiting for him, though even this conviction was not enough to calm him but just the opposite: his hand was trembling in his pocket and his voice failed each time he tried to speak. But he had thought so much about how it would happen, perhaps so that he wouldn’t be betrayed by his shyness and nervousness, that he was sure that as soon as they arrived at the house Federico and Sebastián would get caught up in their papers, and then he would go out on the terrace and from the shadow of the awning, in a position – halfway between indolent and absent-minded – of which he had foreseen even the detail of how he would lean his hand on the railing, he would throw his hair back just as he had seen her do, and, as if stepping out of the depths of his self-absorption, he would raise his hand with a certain surprise but with complete naturalness as soon she would stop swimming and call him, shouting through her hands:
“Hey, Martín, hey!” he heard her.
But things almost never happen the way we have imagined them, because the situations on which we base our forecasts correspond to elaborate fictions built only on imagination, and we never take account of the longing and desire that change the meaning of things and hide or mask the essential and the obvious at their convenience. And we envision a chimeric progression starting from premises that are coincidental, partial and always inaccurate, and we then blame fate or providence for the failure or our predictions.
She did not make an appearance all day and he, constantly pressing the band in his pocket – when he thought that his impatience had reached its limit and that he couldn’t take another minute without knowing where he stood, even though not the slightest splashing was to be heard and it was already night – pointed at an invisible point in the sea and asked, in the most natural tone that his voice, ruined by the cigarettes that he had not stopped smoking all day, allowed: “Isn’t that Andrea coming over there?”
“No,” replied Sebastián, raising his head in surprise toward the terrace. “Andrea went to the mountains to pick up the kids, who spent a few days with Carlos’ parents. They’ll be back tomorrow,” he said, “and Carlos with them, I suppose. Carlos is her husband, you know him...” and he turned to Federico to tell him something about Carlos that Martín could no longer hear.
In the chimeras and dreams of the week, in his reminiscences and conjectures, in the building of utopian futures and biographies that had kept him busy for so long, in the schemes that he was going to carry out and the obstacles that he had to overcome, in the imagined, sweetened, perfected scenes, almost real from having lived them and relived them at all hours, the only thing he had not foreseen was a husband and kids.
He kept staring at the darkness of the sea and applied himself to going over, one by one, the bumper lights on the anchored boats so as to calm his confusion and get out of his bewilderment, in the same way that an irritable person, aware of the fit of rage that is about to materialize, counts to ten before speaking so as to give himself enough time to recover his composure and to see the situation in its true dimensions.
The blue band remained in his pocket, but, as though his knowledge of this new circumstance had disarmed him and calmed him all at once, he stopped pressing it and almost forgot about it. And the next morning, when, lying alone on the beach, he wondered, with a certain melancholy, what had been the point of the intensive swimming class that he had enrolled in and that he had attended, terrified, every day of the week so that he could learn to swim before she would realize that he hardly knew how, he also forgot that she could arrive just at that moment. And so it happened. Through the door that had seen her disappear the previous Saturday, two naked little boys rushed onto the beach, so blond and so alike that he became engrossed in looking at their mimicking gestures, the same straw color of their hair, the same way of walking while tripping on the stones, the same stare they gave him at the beginning, followed by the same gesture of indifference, the same movement of the shoulders before they both turned around in order to splash in the almost imperceptible breaking of the waves. And he had not even had enough time to reappraise the situation and assign them the part of Andrea’s children when she appeared, in the same bathing suit as on the first day, and, as if it were the most natural thing in the world that he would be lying on the beach because it was the place that her occult schemes had assigned him, with a look of urgency but at the same time showing, in the corner of her mouth or in the tenderness of her half-closed eyes, an expression of mockery towards herself or maybe towards him, he thought, unable to adapt to the timing and designs of this surprising woman, she ruffled his hair with her hand in passing and, when she had already almost reached the water where the boys were, asked him:
“You haven’t by chance seen my glasses in the living room, have you, sweetheart?”
At that moment he remembered the band and went to the railing where he had left his clothes, and though nothing was as he had imagined, he was seized by a wild urgency to give it to her, perhaps so he could thereby eliminate the consternation produced by that unexpected word, whose precise nature he did not wish to elucidate at that moment, nor to know whether it was due to the flippancy with which she had dropped it or the presumption of taking for consummated more stages of this plot than he, in his impatience, had been ready to accept. He returned toward her, as she was crouching on the stones next to the boys, and without sweeping the hair that fell over his forehead with his hand, he stretched it out to her and said:
“It’s for you.”
He had not foreseen, either, her surprised look now as she now lifted her head, nor the quick kiss on the lips as she seized him by the ears, nor that she would leave him alone with those little kids who were entering the water, plunging under and getting farther away; nor that she would later lie down beside him as she was placing the band on the glasses that she had found and that she would let them fall on her chest, craning her neck in order to see the effect produced by this new and unexpected necklace. And yet everything happened so naturally that this time he forgot about the husband’s existence.
He saw him later, almost at lunch time, when Andrea had already come back into the house.
“Keep an eye on the kids, would you?” she had said as she was leaving.
“Don’t worry, they know how to swim, and they never go too far.” And she left.
Then, rounding the cape that closed off the little beach on the north, he appeared, alone at the helm of the Manuela, which was moving so slowly that when he let the engine idle the slowing-down was barely noticeable. He moored the anchor astern and stepped forward with a couple of leaps when the boat was less than a fathom short of the pier, and then he leaped across, rope in hand, and turned around quickly in order to stop the boat before it bumped into the seawall. He pulled on the stem rope, tied it on a ring, leaped back on deck and ran to pull in the anchor chain so as to leave the Manuela tied up. He had never seen him before but recognized him immediately. By his parsimonious self-assurance or by the way he waved his hand and smiled at him as if the introductions had already been made, or, more likely, because his hair was of the same straw color as that of the twins, named Adrián and Eloy, as Andrea had told him. He spent more than half an hour undoing the awning, winding the ropes, washing down the deck, with no hurry or precipitation, absorbed in what he was doing. When he finished he pulled the two boys up by their hands over the gunwale, then sat down on a deck bench, lit a cigarette, put one leg over the other and fixed his gaze on some point of the coast to port without moving his eyes while he smoked calmly and with a certain enjoyment. He was not tall but he was well-built; his body was solid and his skin was tanned.
“I’m just a kid,” Martín thought.
And he truly was no more than a child, an adolescent with a still unfinished body, who had grown up too fast and who was still too lazy to get his hair cut, just as he had been back in Ures, when his mother dragged him every other week to the barbershop, from which he would emerge with his nape shaved clean and smelling of camphor cologne. His hair was light-colored and it now covered his forehead and shirt collar, but its color had not yet become defined, just as his skin had not yet become weather-beaten and only the barest wisp of a beard had appeared on his face. “You have the smooth skin of an Asian, you must have an Asian or an African ancestor,” Andrea was to repeat to him that same summer so many times that he had become aware of his own singularity, and he clung to her so that he could prevail, unconcerned, over all those privileged people around him, who were older than he, whose ways were more self-assured and torsos more robust, and who, unlike him with his two dress shirts whose sleeves he rolled up to the elbow to give them the summer look that he couldn’t achieve in any other way, always wore the right clothing: the white sweater thrown carelessly over the shoulders in the evening, shorts in the morning, and old pants, discolored by wear and saltpeter, when they went out fishing.
He saw him later at lunch time and, somewhere, in the afternoon. He was a silent but not a harsh man, and in fact the only thing he didn’t like about him was just that he was who he was. Or, perhaps, that underhanded attention he was paying Andrea, a certain detachment in dealing with her without missing any detail of what she did or needed, just as parents can follow a child’s movements while holding a complicated discussion and intervene only at the precise moment when the thing the child had grabbed is about to fall or when the bathtub faucet needs to be turned off or the child must be moved away from an outlet. And his sheltering way of putting his hand on her shoulder while placing his pipe in his mouth with the other, with the air of an English-literature professor who might be seeing off some friends at the door with his wife. He moved around the house and the beach so naturally, giving orders and serving drinks, that, when on his return from New York he found out that the house belonged to him and not to Sebastián, he began to see the truth of his relationship with his father-in-law, though even now, after living with Andrea for so many years, he still could not understand what the link that had joined him to his wife was made of.
But even so, and contrary to the unfavorable forebodings that the man’s unexpected appearance had given him that afternoon at the beach, by the end of August he had learned to swim ably enough so that, under cover of night, he could get to the Manuela where Andrea would have arranged to meet him when they stayed back on the streets while the waiters in the bars had begun to put the chairs on the tables, the music was stopping and the town was becoming enveloped in silence. He would take it calmly and leave the guest house where he stayed the remaining weekends of the summer well ahead of time, he thought because of his impatience, but in reality he was carried away by caution and, aware of his inexperience, wanted to take his time in plunging into the water, getting to the Manuela, which was anchored a bare fifty meters from the pier, and leaping on deck without witnesses, because he was never sure that he wouldn’t fall when, grabbing the figurehead, he would place his foot on the stem eyebolt as she had taught him to do and pull himself up so as to jump onto the moist and slippery deck. But almost every time she was already waiting for him.
That summer had been one of great heat waves. There was not a single day that the north wind came in, the wind whose unyielding tenacity had over the centuries left the slate terraces that disappeared into the sea free of vegetation, barren and bald. At noon, when the shopkeepers closed up in order to take time for the afternoon nap in the shady depths of their backrooms, nothing could be heard but the shouts of children on the beach, their echoes rumbling in the mist hanging over the sea, and the shutters were not rolled up again until the swifts, chirping excitedly, left the canopy of the great catalpa trees on the boardwalk and scraped the sky announcing the dusk. By night the water, heated by the day’s unrelenting sun, was lukewarm and thick, and as he was swimming the breaststroke so as to make no noise and to keep his head up, he marveled at the phosphorescence that his own movements created on the sea.
The first time, however, he had not gone there swimming; Andrea picked him up on the beach. It happened on the third weekend. On Wednesday he had as yet no idea of how to get to the town, nor did he even know, contrary to what he had determined the first time, if he really could go, because Federico was away on a trip and on Saturday night there was a rush job on the Barceloneta beach. But Andrea, whom he believed to be sailing under the sun on her August vacation, had called him that morning from the city to invite him to dinner that same night with a couple of actors whom she later had to interview. He spent the rest of the day concocting plots and making plans, adapting them to the course of events, which always seemed to happen so as to belie his presuppositions. She showed up in the company of her mother’s friend who had lunched with them the first day that he was at the beach house. He was wearing a white vest and a wide tie with big, loud flowers, even more spectacular against the immaculate linen suit, the dark skin and the mustache that filled his face.
“It’s Leonardus, remember?”
From the table of the restaurant to which he had come too early he saw them enter laughing and talking loudly. Andrea’s glasses were hanging on the band, and neither her extremely short skirt nor her very high heels kept her from moving as nimbly as when she danced barefoot on the stony beach. Then came the two actors, a married couple getting along in years who were celebrating their professional golden anniversary that very week, so talkative that throughout the dinner he was silent, dissemblingly scrutinizing the direction of her gaze.
“How old are you?” she asked him in an aside.
She gave him a fleeting, somewhat indulgent smile, conscious of his unsureness and timidity. “What difference does it make!” she finally said, responding to a question that he, for his part, had not asked.
And that was all that they said to each other during that interminable dinner, which she and Leonardus, however, seemed to enjoy. Later, when they dropped him off at home and he was already going into the doorway, she had asked from the car window at what time he would come that Friday, with that same chatty naturalness with which she had wanted to know if he had seen her glasses in the living room, sweetheart, and he didn’t know what to answer. It was she who, with the tone of someone who knows that her commands, by their consistency and the tone in which they had been uttered, admitted no appeal, arranged for him to ride with Leonardus, who had also intended to go to Cadaqués Friday evening.
“I’ll go tomorrow,” she added as though giving an unimportant detail but certain that he would hear her, “after I drop Carlos, who’s going to Argentina, at the airport.”
On Friday Leonardus was already at the door at the agreed-upon time when he went downstairs. He came in a big black car with a chauffeur and a quiet, buxom girl whose thigh he kept slapping throughout the trip in order to accentuate what he was saying. Halfway they stopped to eat dinner and he bombarded him with questions about his work and his free time, how he had gotten started and why he was working with Federico, and at each question he shut his eyes, wrinkling his eyelids, as if wishing to concentrate his look more. The girl hardly spoke the entire evening.
“How old is Andrea?” Martín suddenly asked with the brusqueness and bad timing of the shy.
Leonardus laughed and slapped the girl’s thigh again, while she remained motionless.
“How old would you say?” he asked him in return.
“Maybe twenty-five, twenty-seven,” an age that he calculated by how old he supposed the twins to be, because in fact he had not thought about the matter until the evening of the dinner.
“If that’s how old you think she is then that’s how old she is. I know how old I am, I’m fifty-two. I’m an old man next to you.”
On saying good-night, when he dropped him off at the beach bar, he said to him absent-mindedly:
“I’ll call you one of these days, and maybe we’ll do something together.”
Martín ordered a coffee and set himself to wait with the conviction that in some way Andrea knew that he had arrived. But at two in the morning she had not yet shown up. He then walked up the slope towards the church, where the waiter at the bar had told him that his father had a guest house, and was about to enter it when a group of ten or twelve people came out of a nearby bar. Martín did not see her then but she saw him, left the others and without his realizing it hung on to his arm.
“I was waiting for you,” she said to him.
“Where?” he asked. “I don’t see you being as impatient as you told me on the sea.”
Andrea, perhaps under the influence of drink or because the sudden meeting had not given her time to adjust to the situation, began laughing so loudly that in the balcony of the house across the street appeared the head of a woman screeching and ordering them to shut up.
“Come,” she then said in a whisper, and cuddled up to him as if the silence suddenly had made her feel cold. “Come,” she repeated.
“Wait,” he said, carefully moving her aside. He entered the guest house, asked for a room, left his bag and came out again.
Andrea was leaning on the wall and seemed to have lost all initiative. She was wearing a very short jacket with long, wide sleeves and sandals with a barely visible strap, her glasses hung from the blue band over her cleavage, and the humidity had curled her hair so much that when Martín took her head to bring it closer to his, for a moment the contact with that spongy mass wiped out every other sensation. She then kissed one of his eyelids, then the other, and said to him very softly in his ear: “Let’s go.”
The calm sea, reflecting the shoreline lights, showed its seaweed-covered bottom. The lighted buoys and the white hulls of the first row of anchored boats shone like spots in the darkness, and behind them it was perhaps the intensity of the darker zones that made one imagine others and yet others, like fuzzy superimposed backdrops. Andrea took off her jacket and sandals and left it all on the ground with her glasses, hardly caring about them – just as her mother had put a cigarette in her mouth with the certainty that someone would light it for her – and whispered to him “wait a moment, I’m coming right back with the Manuela,” and she plunged into the water, still lukewarm from the sun. The wake of her receding body widened until it covered all of the little bay and its vertex disappeared in the darkness, leaving in the air only a trace of rhythmic splashing that after a little while was no longer heard.
He sat down on the ground. The sky was black, the dark water seemed to have the petroleum-like thickness that it sometimes acquires during nights of sultry weather. He would have liked to know which one was the Manuela, but for landlubbers, he thought, all boats look alike, just as the features of one race look alike to those of another. During the weekends that followed, when he was already part of the heterogeneous group that met every afternoon on the beach terrace, and when, not knowing very well what to say to them because he was reserved, quiet and shy and did not feel like making any effort to hide the fact, he passively attended their endless conversations and arguments, he would try to discover the precise details that according to Andrea characterized each and every one of the boats that crossed the bay. “You see that one with its raked bow and escutcheon stern? That’s how the boats from Tarragona are.” But Martín never found out what a boat’s escutcheon or a backward stern was, nor did he manage to learn about that difference in height or raking of the bows that seemed to constitute an unequivocal way of knowing boats by their origin. And by the end of the summer he was still incapable of distinguishing them by anything but the color they were painted, the way the rope ladders were attached, or, at most, by the height of the hatchway. Never could he, as she could, recognize them by the way they sailed and the way the bow met the swelling sea with the facing sun that darkened the contour of the faraway silhouettes, or when at dusk the sea blended with the sky and they were barely a spot that was moving half-hidden by the swell.
Behind the horizon could be seen the pale gleam of the moon which was soon to appear. After a while the gentle faraway humming of an engine broke the silence and a few minutes later the Manuela appeared in front of him, approaching slowly until her keel scraped the sand. From the ground the bow rose against the sky and hid Andrea, who soon showed her head and said to him quietly:
“Come on up.”
Martín took of his shoes and gave them to her with the jacket, the sandals and the glasses, grabbed the outrigger with one hand and jumped on deck.
The Manuela backed away from the beach. Andrea handled the tiller and made the boat snake among other boats and buoys until she had enough room to maneuver, changed the direction of the tiller, the propeller under water made a little whirling noise, and the Manuela, making an almost full turn, set off straight for the darkness.
From his seat, his back leaning against the hatchway, Martín had the town lights in his face and could barely see Andrea’s naked silhouette, her body hazy like a dream and her chin uplifted in order to decipher the darkness that spread from the bow to the horizon. When, upon rounding the cape that enclosed the bay, they reached the open sea, the moon appeared, and the phantasmagoric vision of the woman gradually took shape until it became once again a tangible being that he had within the reach of his hands.
Dawn surprised them in a cove near the Cape of Creus, where they had anchored a little more than a couple of hours before. They would have given their lives for a glass of water, and in the brutal first light, which had not yet given them back the sense of orientation and of time, their faces looked contorted, their eyes surrounded by shadows, and their skin trembling. “You have the smooth skin of Asians and Africans,” she said to him as she traced his chin with her fingers, and he: “how long are you going to love me?” referring to words she had spoken that night, “how long?” in order to wring a promise from her, a commitment, in order to extend the incipient present of this magical night into the future. “How long are you going to love me?” She made an evasive gesture with her hand and cast him a glance that turned the question back at him, as if to say, that depends on you, or it’s up to you, or, as he came to think at times, for as long as you can take it.
Martín returned to the city in the noon jitney after they’d had coffee on the terrace of the beach bar, blinded by the sunlight which on that morning had been even more overwhelming, more mortifying, more intense, and Andrea, contrary to what had been planned, followed him by car on the evening of the following day and called him as soon as she arrived in a voice that was still surprised, pressured and pleading, as he had not heard her use except in the darkness of the Manuela’s hatchway, which was their post-midnight meeting point the rest of the summer. The aroma of saltpeter was to remain forever in his memory joined to the first step of that unexpected, messy relationship on which they embarked with no goal, almost with no route, free but aimless like errant voices adrift, and which was to be interrupted a year later when she initiated a breakup for which she, perhaps to palliate that unjustified separation, perhaps to assure its definitive conclusion, had planned all the details.
But, by one of those unforeseeable tricks of time, those beginning months – like a golden age that could be recovered or at least repeated – took up much more space in his memory that the years that followed them, marked by the intermingling and confusion of the idle hours, the half-abandoned projects and the quarrels and the reconciliations and their complicated course, replaced day after day by others that wiped out the previous ones, leaving hardly any trace other than the steady march toward routine and resentment, not even understanding how they were getting there, just as parents can’t recall a child’s face as it’s replaced at each moment by the new one, so that if a photograph had not immobilized the image of a certain expression in the memory or if they could not rely on the fossilized recollection of the tale retold ad nauseam, they could not remember either the face or the manner of the child they had observed for so long.
That first year, on the other hand, had remained so petrified in his memory that nobody or nothing could have supplanted it or effaced it or disfigured it. He could recall with the minutest details every one of the times they had seen each other during the summer, the brightness of one morning was not to be confused with that of any other of the many when he sat waiting for her at the beach bar – the town still empty, the boats motionless on the silvery sea that was awakening under the pale sun barely broken off from the horizon, a woman sweeping in front of the door and then watering, sprinkling the ground by hand, the lost shine of an opening window crossing the bay like lightning. He would recognize her from afar by the way she walked as she rounded a bend of the pier, her hips thrown slightly forward, always wearing the same kind of white shirt, and with that overdone hair, curled like long metal shavings, while he inhaled the aroma of the first coffees of the morning and the espresso machine’s jet of air imitated a toy locomotive. And that unquenchable desire to see her again soon after she had left, so intense and so well known to him and so expected that sometimes it would show up even before she was gone – her back as expressive as her face, if not more so – driven by some obligations to which she nonetheless seemed to attach no importance, perhaps to calm him, who was living frightened by the existence and the possible unexpected arrival of a husband whom he had not seen again, and would emerge so forcefully that he ended up confusing presence with yearning, both fused in an artifice that could barely be banished by contact or voice or the certain knowledge that she was right there.
There is no greater complicity than that of a mother with her child in the first months or that of lovers during that period in which one can’t tell where the one’s skin – or heat – begins and the other’s ends, and where the characters merge and take on by turns each other’s parts, and sometimes both the same part, intermingled while missing the one they left behind, neglected and uncostumed. Everything else is transactions, thought Martín.
And perhaps because he was living immersed in that inexplicable connection, it did not occur to him until much later that the ease with which she had seduced him and with which she was managing this new situation necessarily had to imply a tumultuous past which made him a mere link in a chain that he would rather not think about. Because, how could he be sure that she, protected by an armor of wealth and security, was aiming for the same things as he?
At dinner, that first Sunday when they were alone in the city, there was no room for questions. Wrapped up as they were in the same aureola of tenderness and fatigue, they could not take their eyes off each other nor abandon the contact of hands on the table and knees under the tablecloth, as if there still were some point of the body that had not come into contact with that of the other body. Where is the separation? Martín asked himself, overwhelmed, not noticing the bowl of shrimp that after an hour the waiter, heeding a gesture from Andrea, took away intact. It was not until much later, during the long hours of waiting that would define the rainy winter that followed, that he would have to try to uncover the mystery behind that woman, so joyous and carefree but also cautious and reserved, capable of creating such deep intimacy but at the same time so little given to trust, making her behavior incomprehensible. Nonetheless on a few occasions he ventured to ask, not only because he feared that she would straight-out impose on him the barrier that she had tacitly lifted from the first day, but because something told him that these were other uses and customs, different from the ones he knew, in which there was no delimitation whatsoever among partying, pleasure, work, fidelity and social life. He had fallen into a place where there seemed to be no differences between one thing and another and where illicit love was not necessarily shameful and did not have to be infidelity. It was hard for him to understand it because he had been brought up and had lived otherwise, and nothing was further from the closed, almost scowling household that he had known, nor did the tangle of relationships in which she moved have anything to do with the rare visitors who approached the house in the mill, and even less so the one in Sigüenza, where they hardly knew anyone. And in the few months that he had lived in the city he had been witness to behaviors so free and careless that, had they not been accompanied by smiles and indifference, he would have thought that they presaged real catastrophes.
But during the first weeks of that long summer there was no room for doubt because nothing was more evident or truer than the excitement, the consternation and the tenderness of the stolen hours, the fun and the laughter and also the glimmer of some tears on her eyelids that the momentary glow of the sea and its reflections would occasionally reveal in the shadow of the hatchway, tears that he would excitedly suck up just as he had learned that same morning to suck at the sea urchins taken from the rocks, but whose meaning he neither understood nor dared to find out.
When he would set about thinking of that first year, which had passed without clouding over or wavering, he still refused to admit that even intense passions, just like fearful and indecisive ones, are destined to become spent, though they may at times leave terrible aftereffects, the worst of which is undoubtedly the denial of that general and immutable law, because then the memory of what it had meant – mixed with the conviction that because it was so powerful it had to last forever – drives, conditions and encourages the biographies and all the acts that define it in a vain attempt to make the passion, already spent and disintegrated, prevail over nothingness and thus show, against all evidence, its nonexistent vitality.
But long before this had happened, Andrea had already received the second of the endless collection of eyeglass bands that she would have accumulated over the years if she had not lost them all just as she lost that first one barely a couple of weeks later and as, Martín was convinced, she would also lose the blue elastic one that the one-eyed man in the market had just sold them.
She had already put her glasses back on with the band when in the shaded space there resounded, piercing like a lament, uncertain like a curse, a roar of laughter from the man who, soon exhausted by his own convulsions, lay down again on the slabs, covered himself with the same dark cloth and suddenly fell silent. They went out into the light and, frightened, began to walk along the slope leading to the seaweed-strewn beach. The air was still and the heat had become petrified on the asphalt. None of them spoke as they wandered through the little streets that were vaguely marked by the ruins and occasionally by a rebuilt house, even with flowers in the windows but silent and closed like any ruin. They had taken a path and were climbing up some stone steps skirting the edge of the cliff, but when they got to the top they realized that it was a dead end.
“Let’s go back, we can’t go on this way,” said Martín.
“Yes we can, there’s the sea again,” said Chiqui, who was in the lead and pointed at the mosque square, now deserted.
Halfway down the hill Martín had stopped.
“Come on, Martín,” said Andrea then. “What are you looking at?”
From the corner of an alley a house could be seen with a grapevine over the door. Two men and a woman, seated at a marble table, were drinking wine and at that moment the woman rose, took the empty bottle with her and entered the house. They could barely see anything more then her long ponytail when the door shut behind her. Martín turned his head forward. Andrea was looking at him.
“What were you looking at?” she insisted.
Not answering, Martín grabbed Andrea’s hand and went up the trail again, made a decisive right turn, then left, and began to wander along the labyrinthine, silent and ruined streets.
“Where are we going?” “Why aren’t we going back?”
“Let’s go on this way,” said Martín, pulling Andrea’s hand.
“I don’t want to go on,” she said, and went to join Chiqui, who had stopped and was sitting on a stone bench. “It’s too hot.”
“Go on if you want to,” and he let go of her hand.
She looked at him suspiciously.
“What are you saying?” and she sat down in turn.
“That you two go back to the boat. I’ll go later.”
“But where are you going to go?”
“For a walk.”
“I’ll go with you,” she then said. There was determination in her voice and she was about to get up, but she let the resentment that comes from feeling excluded go by and she didn’t move.
“So come,” he said without looking at her.
But he said it just for the sake of saying it, because the only thing he wanted at that moment was that they leave him alone so that he could retrace his steps and go looking for the girl in the hat that he had seen from the Albatross. Though at that time she had vanished in the sun-blinded distance and he had not been able to adapt her to the hidden image in his memory, she might well have been the same one as in the patio with the grapevines. It wasn’t the ponytail but something more enduring, the air, the gestures, her way of leaning only with her shoulders, with the rest of her body separate from the wall, that had immersed him once more in that story that he had left unfinished. Perhaps there are no unfinished stories, he told himself, one way or another they would have to conclude without our realizing it. But now, across the time of silence and oblivion, a time that exists only in reminiscence, she was rising, precise and certain as then, leaving the other time – real time, which had accompanied him up to now – faded and remote, as if he were no longer allowed to hold on to it, nor to listen to the songs that were calling to him from there, as if he no longer recognized Andrea’s voice and what she was saying meant nothing.
Then the old woman appeared. She must have been following them for a stretch and when they stopped she passed them and began to climb the hill. The heat didn’t seem to matter to her. She walked haltingly on the stones but her haggard body maintained a precarious stability to the rhythm of her disjointed leaps, which she nonetheless executed deftly and fearlessly, and she accompanied herself with a monotonous singsong, as though she were reciting a list of errands that she didn’t want to forget, coupled to its own, mangled beat.
“I don’t want to go on, I’m going,” said Chiqui as she rose and started down the hill.
“Let’s follow the woman,” said Martín, “let’s see where she’s going.”
“Who cares where she’s going, I’m going back, I’m exhausted,” said Chiqui.
Andrea rose too and caught up with her, and Martín, who in spite of everything had decided to follow them, when he heard the underhandedly threatening tone of her voice that he knew so well and in which he had already noticed the tinge of scorn – “leave him, he’ll come” – said in a louder voice so that he would hear it, turned around and started on the path that went up the promontory, and, matching his pace to the woman’s, followed her at a distance so as not to be discovered.