The path climbed abruptly and the pavement was coming apart into bare stones and puddles made dry and hard, like the blacktop of the pier, by the scarcity of rain and the absence of walkers. A dense and sweetish aroma of honeysuckle hung in the air. Not a whiff of a breeze was blowing.
The woman hummed as she walked on, giving no sign of the heat that weighed down like lead. Martín stopped for a moment to catch his breath and keep his distance from the old woman, because he had become disoriented again. At his feet, the bay was enveloped in the penumbra and in the harbor there was hardly any shine other than the short arc of wobbling lanterns in that mist of heat over the asphalt and the sea. The faint light at the top of the mast showed off, against the fuzzy profile of the village, the slight swaying of the slow and still faraway waves from the two fishing boats that were approaching shakily. On the other side of the bay the primitive power plant was uttering its lazy metallic refrain and in some nearby location a dog barked over the singsong of the woman, who was moving farther uphill. Any movement becomes a sign or a signal when change is nearing, he thought, and he stopped looking at the bay and followed her, and it seemed to him that they were getting into the village by way of its highest part, though she descended again over half-ruined streets and paths and then climbed again, the way one walks through a maze that one knows, sometimes making detours or going in a direction that contradicts the preceding one with the same assurance as though she were guided by an objective that only she could recognize, not interrupting her singsong or changing her rhythm or stopping or slowing down or running out of breath. They had reached a path between walls, perhaps the remains of houses, neither ruined nor rebuilt from the ravages of time, survivors of all the catastrophes, which leaned on both sides as though, before collapsing, they had decided to meet somewhere at infinity. It had become dark and the edge of the sky now had a marine hue. The lane became narrower still and the woman rounded a corner and he behind her, not knowing or wondering why he followed her and not able or willing to stop, when behind his steps – he was so close to her that if she had paid attention to anything but her own humming and the impulse that guided her she would have noticed him, if only by his footsteps and by the occasional stone coming loose beneath his feet and rolling down the path with uncontrolled but firm movements, as her own steps echoed in the narrowness of the street, amplified by the incandescence of the walls or perhaps by the silence that was so dense that it was no longer pierced by the snore of the boats or the refrain of the power plant – he was startled by a barking almost at the level of his shoulders. A dog was looking at him ferociously, at him and not at the old woman who passed by him without seeing him before entering a tiny garden through a wire-mesh gate that creaked above the barks. There was no way out on that side and when the dog jumped and blocked his way on the backside, Martín picked up a stone from the ground and threw it at the dog’s nose with such force that the animal tottered and became motionless, but only for the moment that he needed to regain his strength and attack. He shrank back on his hind legs, gathered momentum, and as though catapulted by a crossbow described an arc that was to end in him. He could still see the blood-shot eyes and the open maw, and he just barely managed to cover his face with his arm when, paralyzed by fear and stunned by the animal’s impact, he stumbled and fell on the ground. The dog, giving him no quarter and not stopping his barking, charged again and, though Martín was kicking and defending himself, in a flash closed his jaws on the calf of the man’s leg and shook it with such obstinacy that he could not pull it apart. Then, blinded by pain and panic, he picked another stone from the ground and, with a fury far more intense than the pain, the fear and the position in which he found himself would allow, struck the dog’s head with such ferocious insistence that the dazed animal loosened his jaws, remained motionless for a minute with his flanks trembling and his eyes aflame, ready to go at him again. But before he could begin his charge Martín grabbed a rough, dagger-sharp stone, sat up in order to get closer and with the strength of his terror drove it without looking where at the very moment when the dog was setting at him. Struck in his nose for the second time, the animal staggered and fell to the ground whining. The retreat was free, but instead of running away as he had wished a minute before, he stood up, climbed on a wall between two ruins or uninhabited houses – what did it matter now? – where the dog, even if not wounded, would never have reached him, and, driven by the inertia of the first terror, like someone who has eaten in such a hurry that there was no time for the hunger to dissipate, pulled out the stones that stuck out without noticing that he was hurting his own hands and, unrepentantly and viciously, propelled by a violence that being unknown to him he could not control, threw them at the animal one after another until the dog, lying on the ground, blinded by the blood covering his eyes with no energy left for barking, took the volley of projectiles without defending himself or moving away or even knowing where they came from, and, having perhaps forgotten how it all had begun, laid his head on the ground and stopped whimpering. It was neither his silence nor the certainty that he could no longer attack him, but the trembling of Martín’s arms and entire body, set off by his own heartbeat of exhaustion and excitement, that made him stop. He jumped down from the wall and began to walk, more in order to escape the viscous and humid darkness – as if he could deposit in it that part of him that had just shown itself – than to find a place with a little more light so that he could check the wound on his leg. And when, forced by pain, he stopped at the top of the slope, he turned around yet again to contemplate the dog who was still emitting an occasional faint howl, almost a bleat, in the cloud of dust floating in the penumbra, and making efforts to lift his head in a vain attempt to recover his breath, or perhaps only with the intention of demonstrating ever more blindly that, even as moribund as he was, he had managed to expel the intruder from his territory.
His shirt was soaked through and his hair was stuck to his eyes. He pulled it away with his hand, still full of dirt, and he then saw the old woman as she was leaving the garden, dragging her rags on the ground with he same damaged and indifferent majesty and singing her stubborn tune with the same rhythm. And, as though she had done nothing but enter the garden through one door and leave it through another after a pointless stroll through the garden, she stepped over the bloodied stones and passed by the prostrate dog without looking at him, perhaps without seeing him, or even noticing the presence of the sweaty and contorted man who was looking at her. Nor did she seem to have noticed the dusk, which had left the street in a tenuous, shallow, opaque light in which nothing shone except those agonizing eyes in a final and useless effort at staying open. She climbed up the path, hugging the ruined wall, and, blending more and more with the penumbra, she turned into a shortcut and vanished like another shadow.
When she had disappeared he pressed his temples and closed his eyes. Then he began to walk, looking for light. His wound was hurting and he was limping, but he did not stop until he got to the end of the slope, under a bare, pale street lamp hanging from the eaves of a large house in ruins. All that could be heard was the chirping of crickets in the heat of the night. No one was to be seen, the street was deserted and the pier was still far away. The wound was still bleeding, though it seemed to have partly dried up; he cleaned it with a handkerchief that he took out from his pocket and folded diagonally in order to bandage his leg and stanch the wound. He then unrolled the cuff of his pants leg and, once the bandage was hidden, he cleaned the bloodstains from his hands with some dried grass. With the light of his lighter he set out conscientiously to find other traces; he found only a couple of drops on his pants, which he rubbed with dirt in order to change their color and, as he wiped the soles of his shoes on the stones he raised a cloud of dry dust that made him cough. His anxiety had given way, as had the excitement, and he prepared to hit the road again, pressed by a relentless urge to get away from that place, when at the top of the hill a figure – silhouetted against the sky, vaguely outlined by the darkness surrounding it – burst into a volley of roars of laughter, whose diaphanous echo nonetheless superimposed them on one another, stringing them together and multiplying them until they broke against the walls and vanished, trembling, in the stone-strewn streets. A frightened lizard leaped out, a stone came loose from the noise, and a bird, hidden in an invisible thicket, screeched; and the man, shaken by the violence of his spasmodic laughter, threw his head back. Only then did he recognize him by the blind gleam of his glass eye.
It was not only the echo of those broken and virulent bursts of laughter, but perhaps the fear or the shame that he felt, that made him flee from that accusing image; he ran stumbling down a path that he was sure he had not seen before, guided by the smell of saltpeter, even denser now because of the stifling air that had filled the bay at nightfall. When he came out to the pier the woman’s singsong, the dog’s barking and the man’s laughter were still following one another behind him. He turned around, but he heard only the cadenceless pealing of a lost bell.
Though that part of the pier was dark, in the harbor café, near where the Albatross had been tied up, some lights had been turned on and for an instant he forgot the nightmarish experiences he had just left behind. He kept walking without too much pain, still out of breath though he was noticing that his heart was slowly recovering its normal beat, because in some corner of his conscience the one-eyed man’s laughter kept on echoing. And amid the torment and the tangle of voices and noises whose origin he could not decipher he repeated to himself time and again in order to convince himself: I’ve only killed a dog! All I’ve done is kill a dog! What’s happening to me? The world hasn’t progressed morally since the age of cavemen, who can deny that? Don’t the powerful live calmly, and yet they throw tens of thousands of people to their deaths with impunity, only to sell more units of some useless product? Or those who torture, kill and destroy in the name of freedom or morality? But they don’t feel any anguish; don’t we see them every day, vain and Slf-satisfied, receiving honors and distributing favors, without the least bit of remorse or compassion? Then why should I have to have them? Why me? He started to run, staggering like the old woman – who knows where she might be now? – still pursued by that laughter that was becoming part of the dislocated ringing of the bell which, amplified and fed by itself, deafened the heavenly vault, by now decidedly black and already spangled with stars and constellations whose impassivity and permanence were not enough to camouflage the hidden scene of his foul act. He stopped upon reaching the old market and stooped down to look for the stream of water from the pipe. He washed his hand and face and he drank with gusto until he choked, so much that his air-filled stomach began to churn and rumble. After ten minutes he smoothed his hair with his hand and carefully examined his pants, his shirt and his face in a curtainless glass door. He could hardly see himself but that shadow of himself calmed him. He then sat down on a stone marker and tried to recover his breath and his calm. From where he sat, in the darkness, he could see whatever was happening within a few meters, in the little square, with the certainty that no one would discover him. At one of the tables Leonardus, Andrea and Chiqui were eating boiled potatoes and roasted peppers and drinking beer. They were joined by Giorgios, the owner, with his apron still on, and Pepone, the boatman, who was rolling his cigarette while talking nonstop. Leonardus appeared to have recovered from the heat; he was wearing a clean caftan and must have taken a shower, because his hair was still wet. He smoked ceaselessly and his bursts of laughter rang out in the night. Some lights had been turned on and at the neighboring table four or five fishermen were shouting, perhaps already drunk. On a tinny-sounding jukebox someone had put on a song whose melody sounded cracked and barely recognizable. Leonardus made an impatient gesture to Giorgios and almost simultaneously with it the music – guitar, mandolin, who could tell? – stopped. And in the silence there arose once again the sharp sounds of the bone dominoes and the well-defined voices and chair noises. Chiqui was wearing pants so red and so tight that she was flushed by the heat, or perhaps by the vehemence with which she repeated her assertion: “All men cheat on their wives, all of them.”
“And how would you know?” Leonardus asked, laughing.
“Because they cheat on them with me,” she answered and directed her gesture and her glance to her left.
“All of them?” Andrea asked mockingly.
“Enough of them,” and her voice was more than cheeky, it was defiant.
Martín stopped listening. He didn’t want to see Andrea’s face – he knew her too well – when Chiqui was addressing her speeches to her. “Don’t be philosophical,” Leonardus was saying to her, “you’re not made for thinking,” and he was slapping her thighs in the way that annoyed her so much. Andrea remained silent and somewhat uneasy, and Chiqui looked at her sideways with so much security that it was difficult not to see in her demeanor the indifferent satisfaction of winning. It always happened like this, especially since the scene with the dolphins that had occurred four or five days before: it was around six in the evening when, after an extended stretch of bathing between two islands, they ware sailing at dusk with the engine idling. Tom, who was holding on to the helm, suddenly shouted: “Dolphins! Dolphins!” He and Leonardus came out of the cabin where they had escaped the western sun while waiting for the whisky hour; Chiqui stuck her half-washed face through the bathroom door and once she understood what was happening ran up to the deck, where Andrea was already looking at how the dolphins squirmed and frolicked against the bow only to hide and swim under water at the same speed as the boat, and how they would dive again with leaps, following its rhythm. Occasionally one of them would move away and seem to flee but would come back again to the same place. After a while they all left, perhaps tired of playing, and could still be seen swimming in the distance, attentive to the Albatross. Then Chiqui took up the highest point of the bow, and pressing her tongue against her palate with two fingers of each hand, let out a whistle, first soft and then louder, which she repeated several times. As though he had understood the call, one of the dolphins returned and came alongside the starboard side of the bow. She continued whistling insistently, and then stopped and waited, convinced that the dolphins had understood her and would come back. And in fact they arrived, one after another, rolled around in the waves that the bow made, and left again, responding to the game. Chiqui had bathed for hours in the morning and after lunch, and had done nothing but sun herself once the voyage had begun, and since she had come out of the bathroom hurriedly, she had gathered her hair in a towel in the shape of a giant turban. She was wearing only her bikini bottom, still dripping water from the shower, her eyes were shining; and, standing almost on tiptoe – very tall and with her fingers in her mouth so as to produce that powerful whistle – she looked like a living figurehead, a mythical tamer whom the creatures of the sea obeyed. And she ruled not only over the dolphins but also over the four who, fascinated, watched the spectacle of the innocent and sovereign game that she herself had invented, under the boundless vault of the sky, at that hour of dusk following weeks and weeks of calm weather. Andrea must have seen her as so alive and powerful, so playful in her passion and enthusiasm and so skillful at her game that she couldn’t stand it; she held on to the stays so as not to fall and hurried astern, bumping into turnbuckles, sheets and guylines, went down the steps, entered her cabin and threw herself onto the bed without even shutting the door so as to hide her sobs. Sobs of jealousy, of envy perhaps, or of resentment toward the girl who was – who had been – nonchalantly showing off her triumph and the conviction that the world adored her and the gods had granted her all the gifts on earth.
In the stifling air the various voices had lost their meanings. His head was boiling and his leg was in pain. He tried to wipe his sweat with his still-wet hand. The night was humid and sticky.
It must be at least forty centigrade, he thought.
He leaned his head on the wall and closed his eyes. In that dark and sheltered spot in which he had taken refuge he decided to wait for his perspiration to dry and for the traces of fighting and fatigue to go away so that he could join them, who now appeared to him as unknown, distant and vague characters in a story that, once again, hardly had anything to do with his, but whose call nonetheless had left him no peace since he had arrived on that island. In the sky, still high and invisible, the vultures began their uniform, monotonous screech. I’m going crazy, he thought, vultures don’t fly at night, though on this cursed island everything is possible. Right then the idea of staying there yet another day, of returning to the stronghold of his people, became so unbearable to him that to his anguish was added the distress over the fact that there was no place to go other than the one occupied by them. It was the same feeling of distress, the same overwhelming awareness that the course had already been traced, that he noticed that day when, newly arrived from New York, he stepped for the first time into that splendid house in the city where they were to live, where they had in fact been living ever since, for seven years already, and where according to all indications they would in fact go on living. He saw it so definitive, so different from the series of boarding houses, rooms and furnished flats that he had known since leaving his home in Sigüenza soon after turning seventeen, that the image of his own coffin coming out of the immense, still empty entrance hall appeared before his eyes, still shining from excitement and astonishment at the sight of such magnificence. I’ll leave this house only as a corpse, he said to himself then, amazed by the certainty of a sudden and incontestable premonition. Because he looked ahead and knew exactly what was going to happen. There was nothing to change that course along which he, one way or another, had seen himself being pulled; nothing would derail him from the track that he himself had not been able to avoid. His everyday life, equal to itself, not only in that tiny parcel of his existence but in relation to the great, wide world that he was never to know and to those universes that one reaches by taking different courses. A fleeting but tormenting vision, which vanished with Leonardus’ footsteps and the sound of Andrea’s heels on the parquet floor and their echo in the empty sun-filled rooms, filled with the sunlight of the spring afternoon in the city; and with the loudness of their words, which furnished and rearranged and grew from wall to window until they were lost on the terrace, cluttered with large pots containing dry plants and trees that would green again and grow and provide a shade for years to come to a life that, by a curious combination of facts, would make them contemplate from a distance a city that she had left barely two years before, and to which he had never intended to return. In fact he never found out in return for what Andrea had obtained that apartment, but he did realize that its acceptance meant the conclusion of a family relationship so filled with secrets and tensions that her explanations and her decisions and the consequences that followed had escaped him, perhaps because they harmonized so little with the first version that she had given him the day she arrived in New York to stay with him. She had told him then that not only had she been sincere with the blond and civilized husband who loved her so much, but with the whole family, who had accepted with pain but with understanding a decision dictated by that passion, so peremptory that it did not mind giving up either the children or her privileged standing as an adored and spoiled princess, showered with all kinds of gifts and sinecures. And the prestige she enjoyed in her profession seemed to justify that standing, as veiled as Federico’s sarcasm may have been when he insisted that the freedom that Andrea enjoyed came from the majority stock that her husband held in the weekly where she worked. And that may have been true, because during the first winter she had come and left whenever it pleased her, at mid-morning or in the afternoon, though she always called him with an urgency that she attributed to her limited time. He would then go out to the door of his production company or of his house on Plaza de Tetuán, and a few minutes later she would appear at the wheel of her car.
They came to know all the meublés of the city, day and night hotels, with no lights or signs, whose façades of closed or blind balconies, often dilapidated, hid a honeycomb of rooms and silent hallways and teardrop-shaped lamps that jingled as they passed. They went through them holding hands, Andrea making faces or imitating the walk of the room clerk who went ahead of them looking downward, voices muted, muffled ringing of bells in some corner of the closed house that told the desk that another couple wished to leave. They were ample and comfortable rooms, with a look of faded luxury, of an old ladies’ dwelling, of exquisite and impoverished relics that gave the setting the magic of a secret and forgotten retreat. An institution that left Martín breathless the first time they saw each other in the city after the summer and the long weekends of September, when, after kissing like adolescents behind a door in her office, Andrea took him by the hand, grabbed her bag and dragged him down the stairs to the garage and, with no more explanation than a smile full of connivance, made him get into the car, in which they drove across the city paying no attention to the traffic lights or the loud blasts of the policemen’s whistles directed at the red Morris Mini slipping through the traffic. And when, arriving at the top of a hill, she drove into the dark opening of a building and the car slid down a deep ramp, slowly moved through an almost dark lane and stopped at a door hidden by curtains. Shortly there appeared a desk clerk looking into infinity who couldn’t help showing his surprise upon realizing that he was opening the car door for a man. Andrea left the keys in the ignition without cutting the engine and got out of the car, and, laughing as though doing a prank, attached herself to his arm and entered with him behind the clerk.
That day she did not go back to the magazine office and around eight o’clock jumped out of bed and used the wall telephone to call home and announce that she would be late and not to be waited for with dinner.
When she lay down again by his side Martín took hold of one of her black curls and amused himself twisting it around his finger, and with his gaze focused on what he was doing he asked her:
“And your husband? What are you going to tell your husband?”
Neither one of them had mentioned him overtly the whole summer and she did not seem to attach any infidelity to the prolonged secret nights they had spent aboard the Manuela, trysts that they did not discontinue even when Carlos returned from Argentina in mid-September, though, as if his return had imposed a curfew on the fantasy, from then on she made a point of getting home before dawn. And though by mid-September the nights were growing longer, they no longer had time to go out on deck to contemplate the shine of the moon on the sea, nor to trace the mysterious paths of the stars, nor to see the dawn, nor did they go back to sleep with the first heat of the sun as when they were the owners of time that was theirs at least until nine in the morning. Martín marveled at how little importance Andrea gave to what his mother in Sigüenza would have called human decency and at how little effort she made to cover her steps, to the point that, with summer almost gone, at a moment of doubt and loneliness he came to foresee the possibility that when they returned to land and he would go to his guest house, she would go home and tell her husband about what had happened between them, just as half an hour before she had told him about her plans, her head resting on his knees, with the Manuela adrift and the engine cut – “Don’t ever do this if you ever have a boat,” she said, “if the fishermen saw me I would lose what little reputation I have with them.” On some nights when the sea was choppy Martín, seated in the pool, felt the uncontrolled swaying due to the absence of steering and felt a weight in the pit of his stomach that he would not have admitted for anything in the world and that he tried to alleviate by looking at a fixed point in the distance as he had been taught as a child when he would get car-sick in the jitney going to the mill of Ures. Then, when she would get up in order to start the engine he also hid his undefinable and intense dread that it might not start, as had happened on other occasions, though never at night, without understanding whether what he feared was that their secret would be uncovered or that they might go adrift in that hull at the mercy of the sea and the coming of the north wind or, even worse – they said – of the east wind, that he had heard about so much and not yet experienced. But she, who could read his face, would sit in his lap and tell him in his ear, as if it were an important revelation: “Don’t worry, the sea is calm and the wind won’t come in. And if the engine doesn’t start the current will carry us ashore, or some fisherman will pick us up at dawn. But it’s starting,” and she would get up and push the button, “you see?” And the bursts of the engine would fill the silence and calm his mind and his dizzy stomach. Andrea, triumphant, would take the helm and they would calmly cut through the still-sleeping bay.
Even when – perhaps in order to show that she had nothing to hide from her husband – she invited Martín to spend the last weekend of the summer in that house into which he had not stepped since going there in mid-July with Federico, the same night, upon leaving a party, she broke away from the rest of the people, took him by the hand like the first time and they swam out to the Manuela. Martín interpreted such an audacity as a display of her love of risk and of her need to take things to the limit, the way a tightrope walker feels sure of himself only above the precipice. Perhaps Carlos, who knew her well, had to know that the essential fidelity was the one she committed to him. Perhaps neither one of them went beyond the limits that they had tacitly allowed each other. But where those limits were was something Martín could never know. Because the next day at dinnertime he did not show the least hint of violence or tension, when it was evident that of the three, at least one and to some extent two were the deceived ones. Therefore the following evening, not wanting to prolong a situation in which he didn’t know what part he played, he left early and from his room on the upper floor he saw them together, reading the papers on the terrace overlooking the sea in a scene of perfect harmony that seemed to be written to show – as though in a script – the indissolubility of the union of two accomplice-lovers, and, sure that they in turn had seen him timidly leaning out the window, he bitterly wondered to which of the two she was committing.
Because from the beginning Andrea – just as men do when they conquer a woman, in order to assuage their guilt feelings about their infidelity, as Chiqui had said a few days before on the boat, or in order to make her understand that she could not expect anything more, as Leonardus had added – had given him to understand that she loved her husband after her fashion, perhaps in order to set the tone of their relationship and to make it clear just how far she was willing to go. And she never changed her position. Never, not even at the moments of greatest intimacy, did she let out a confidence that might mention him, a hint that might lead him to understand the nature of that seemingly indestructible union that in any case she did not seem willing to put to the test. But wasn’t being with him putting it to the test? How many times, when the midday sun was coming in through the half-open blinds of the meublé, in place of getting dressed because time was up she would seem to have a sudden inspiration, pick up the telephone and call the paper to tell them that the lunch was running later than expected and that she wouldn’t get to the office until six. And she would come back to bed, happy like a schoolgirl playing hooky, because she had scratched away a couple of hours of work. She was so inventive and imaginative in deceit that at times he would wonder, in his moments of greatest loneliness, if she was not deceiving him as well, in a web of intertwined subterfuges and falsehoods where it wasn’t clear if she herself knew where the truth lay. But when it came to her husband she did not procrastinate. She knew exactly at what time she had to leave and she did not delay by another instant, whatever pretexts he might make up, as if that area of her life were a secret garden that she wanted to preserve and to which only she had access.
At those times Martín felt more alone than ever, with no company and almost no hope. So went all the Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and all the vacation times. And when one day in February, after a weekend that had turned into an unannounced trip of several days’ duration, he finally saw her show up at seven in the evening in the bar of the Hotel Colón, and, convinced that he couldn’t stand another test like the one he had just undergone, he proposed to her, in a fit of sheer thoughtlessness, that they spend together not a weekend but their entire lives, it was the only time that she referred to her husband, getting to the bottom of the issue with a seriousness that ended the conversation: “I can’t. I can’t do that. I don’t love him more than you but I can’t do that.”
“What are you going to tell your husband?” he repeated, seeing that she was not responding, aware that he was getting into forbidden territory but willing to do it, especially now that with the end of the summer they seemed to be entering a new, more permanent and more definitive stage which, because of Andrea’s insistence on speaking only of the present, he nonetheless could not yet figure out where it would take them.
She turned around, came as close as she could until she was joined to him and with her free hand she put her index finger on his mouth and whispered, “Shhhh, shhhh.” She then got up with a leap and began to pick up her clothes, went to the bathroom and while waiting for the hot water put her head out the door and laughing, constantly laughing, said, “Let’s go out for dinner!” And, seeing him sit up, or perhaps guessing the question he was going to ask from his surprised look, she jumped onto the bed, crouched in front of him, once again put her finger on his lips and repeated the same sound ordering him to be silent: “Shhhh, shhhh.”
That night after dinner, when, with both of them overcome by sleepiness and fatigue, Andrea dropped him at the doorway of his house, he went around the car and squatted in front of the driver’s window where her motionless hands were on the steering wheel: “I don’t want to leave you,” he whispered, kissing her nose and eyes, “I don’t just want to make love with you, I want to have breakfast and lunch, take walks, without being afraid, I want to decide what we will do, what will become of us, I want to know what it is that you want...” But she looked at him and smiled, and he didn’t understand if she was asking him for patience or if her mind was on prospects that were forbidden to her too. “Let me at least go to your house with you, I can walk back.”
“No,” replied Andrea, closing her eyes and letting herself be kissed. “It doesn’t make sense. When you have learned to drive, when you have a car, when you are rich and famous...”
“Me famous?” Martín stood up. “What makes you think I want to be rich and famous?”
“We all do,” she replied, and, after a moment she said “Good night” and turned on the motor. And before moving away, recovering – as tired as she was – the self-confidence with which she spoke in public, she added, “I’ll see you tomorrow in the Paseo de Gracia gallery, sweetheart, I’ll be running a little late but don’t leave before I get there.”
Martín remained standing on the newly watered roadway, which the almost summer-like October heat had covered with mist in the flickering light of the street lamps. In his hands he still had the smell of her skin and her hair and, mixed with the uncertain flavor of that absurd word, there entered into his mind the surmise of a disillusion, though in his soul there remained the sadness over the sudden separation, as if all of that had not happened, as if he had simply made up the most beautiful story. And with a shudder of harshness and loneliness he opened the iron-grate-and-glass door, which closed behind him noisily, leaving the night shaky.
The next day Andrea showed up in the gallery with her husband and three friends. She was not overly tall nor particularly beautiful but, they said, she filled a place with her presence. And it was true: when he saw her so self-assured, so radiant, he understood that that grace originated perhaps in her ability to recreate herself and to be attentive in a special matter to the relationship she had with each person, always different from the one she had with everyone else, that way of creating a world so dense and compact that she multiplied pleasure and complicity by herself: her charm and grace came from this certainty.
He spent that winter waiting. He had managed to stay on in Barcelona for another year as second cameraman on a documentary series on the city for Italian television, which Federico wanted to start on as soon as possible, but the permits were being delayed and the crew was wasting time waiting. Martín also waited: he waited for the producer’s word to begin work but most of all he waited for Andrea’s calls. At night, around eleven, he would sit down at a table at the Boccaccio when the place was still empty and waited for her to arrive. Some times he had been forewarned, other times he trusted in chance. She would show up long after midnight, always surrounded by a group of friends, and once she had sat down at her table he could do nothing but keep waiting for her to turn her head in his direction because, unlike what had happened over the summer, now they always saw each other secretly, while in public they feigned a distant and fortuitous relationship.
Other times he would see her enter the place, looking in her handbag for her glasses with the large black rims. He would then know that she had not yet noticed him. Sometimes her husband was with her, other times not. She would then approach him under the guise of greeting him or made him a sign and they would meet on the street, far from the friends.
Martín knew that he would never be part of that crowd because his rhythm was slower than that nighttime vortex of comings and goings, and if he had wanted to follow them he would always lag behind. Gradually he came to know them all, but he was so taciturn and solitary that he did not manage to make a place for himself in a lifestyle that was too foreign to him, though at that time anyone with a couple of new ideas and a modicum of attractiveness could do so. He never knew whether to accept an invitation until he was sure that Andrea would be there. And because he insisted on improvising, by the time he had decided the dinner would be over and the guests would have scattered to so many other parties, as unexpected as the previous one, and he never managed to adapt his pace to the nighttime rhythm of the city.
“It’s very simple,” Andrea would say, “just let yourself go. Go if you feel like it and don’t go if you don’t.”
“And what if I go and you aren’t there?” he would ask.
“What difference does it make? You’ll see me the next day, or else the time will come when you’ll know whether or not I go without my telling you.”
But he didn’t enjoy social life now, nor did he ever enjoy it, even in those days when it always had an air that was less easygoing, less calculating, less based on formal invitations, as in middle Europe; nor would he enjoy it in New York, nor in Barcelona after his return. And if, years later, he had given in and would attend many of the dinners to which he was invited, he would do it as a concession to success, but never with the least bit of pleasure. He was dour and quiet, and in those first months he believed himself to have a critical spirit that was too sharp to endure so many hours of useless conversation. And alcohol, rather than encouraging him to talk, would immerse him in a speechlessness where his desires and his phantoms would take on more life as the dose increased, and by his fifth drink he would be shut up in himself, having built around him an impenetrable fortress of silence amid the din of voices and music in which the waiting became even more unbearable. All he wanted was to see Andrea. Because in those summer months he hardly thought of anything else, which is why he accepted the waiting role that she, who directed everything and on whom everything depended, had assigned to him: waiting for the phone to ring, waiting for a chance meeting, waiting for her to approach, to return from her weekends, to find a pretext that would let them spend a few days together, and waiting for her to decide what would become of their lives. And, as though the time that he did not spend with her or thinking about her had been wiped out from his memory and his life, he could barely remember what he was working on, because it’s well known how little that which isn’t talked about counts, and even less so what isn’t thought about, and over the years his memory, which didn’t record reasons that made him talk or think, gave him a scant and sifted version that had no place, for example, for the lies that he made up in order to grow in her eyes and to forget for himself just how far he was from being the self-assured man that he wanted to be for her, with a destiny marked out for him and a future that he could offer her.
He lied because in no way did he want her to know his precarious work situation, and he sometimes pretended to have other jobs besides his contract with Federico’s production company, and he talked about them with indifference, as if letting her know that they weren’t exactly to his liking but he had accepted them because of the insistence with which they had been offered him or simply as a favor to a friend, and he unwittingly used the same tone and the same duplicity for which he had inwardly reproached the people around when they referred to a dinner or an event to which they claimed to have been summoned with that same insistence, not so much to convince themselves that it was so as to forget the effort and the time they had spent in order not to remain on the margins, knowing, as he did, that those words could only create in their own eyes – and in those of some clueless innocent – the prestige that they didn’t have and that they could never attain otherwise. “Call me tomorrow at ten o’clock sharp,” he would say to her as they were parting, “after that I have some work that will keep me until late. Don’t forget.” And in order to avoid waiting, the endless waiting by the telephone, picking up the receiver a hundred times in order to make sure that the line was working and that it was properly hung up – because he could not understand that having agreed to call him at this time she would not do so – he would start writing so as to prove that he had something to do and that in no way would his inactivity increase her certainty that she had him at her beck and call. But he could not manage to concentrate on a script that he did not in fact finish until a year later, in New York, because he was too aware that he was only making an effort to fool the waiting, and though he might have wanted to get involved to the point of forgetting the telephone – so that when it finally rang it would catch him off guard – he never managed it. The waiting annulled every other project and there, he knew it well, lay a part of his torment. Nonetheless he never told her how much he had suffered nor, of course, how much he was willing to suffer. And it was not out of fear that she wouldn’t call – he was sure that she would unfailingly do so – but because long before the appointed hour the uncertainty filled the scope of his consciousness with a ferment of anxiety that he could feel with hands, monsters and phantoms that followed one another, superimposed themselves on each other, and grew with each minute, taking on precise forms and wounding him with strikes and bites: he felt himself forgotten, abandoned and insulted, and in the end he attributed to her such duplicity or such a studied strategy of balance – or of reprisal for some unknown reason – that he himself would have been willing to put into practice if he had not been prevented by the doubt and the mistrust that clung to his consciousness and remained there, even after the tension had been relieved by the call, prolonging the pain and the bitterness. Andrea, who seemed to know and not to care about the pretext, would call at nine o’clock at night, making vague excuses and sometimes not even that.
Other times, unable to bear the waiting any longer, it was he who would call, and after having tried to make her come down from his fantasies, his wheedling and his dreams he would manage to squeeze a few minutes out of her at the end of the day, which most of the time didn’t go beyond having a drink in the bar of the Hotel Colón, where for some reason or other she always had to pass before dinner in order to interview some celebrity, or the vague promise that perhaps they might meet at the Boccaccio after midnight.
It wasn’t much, but it calmed him. It was like setting a limit to infinite time, like creating a precise object at the end of the day, like framing a landscape or glimpsing the end point of the interminable hours he had before him. He would then call the production company with the certainty that nothing was to happen because Federico was having more and more difficulty getting the permits, and he would go out into the street and walk and along the Gran Vía until he found himself in the Santa Catalina neighborhood, skirting cobbled alleys, avoiding the noise of the Vía Layetana that was always plunged in the penumbra, and through the shaded Santa María del Mar area he would go to the Plaza de Palacio and the Paseo de Colón. The afternoon was getting darker and a lukewarm, filtered sun tried to find an opening among the clouds. The restless winter sky was darkening, sometimes taking on the tone of the dark dampness of the pavement. The sea breeze made the palm trees stretch their limbs, and the patches of light that the wind left on the city confused him. When I’m rich, he thought from the pedestal of his idleness, I will live on the top floor of one of those solid patriarchal houses with big gates and broad staircases, and everyday from behind the blinds of my room I will discover the sea in the distance, beyond the sheds and the masts of the sailboats, and when the sun sets I will contemplate from my house the clean line of the red horizon at dusk. He would look at his watch again to convince himself that there were only two hours left until that end-of-evening drink, because suddenly the light along his route would acquire the hue of a holiday morning that lasted a few moments before the rain came down. Gradually the patches of light became scarcer, the palm trees quieted down, the already dark façades along his route became even darker, and soon the streetlights went on, the headlights of the cars coincided with a cacophony of horns because a gentle rain had begun to fall, without drops or drips, so fine that it almost merged with the dense humidity that had preceded it.
Other times he would go up to Consejo de Ciento, and around the end of March he became enraptured by the light that filtered through the tiny leaves on the plane trees, or he would go down to the Rambla and sit on a wooden chair and amuse himself by weaving and reweaving dreams that redeemed him from the passivity to which he was subjected by an enchantment and a sweetness so deep that they had carried away his desires and immobilized his ambition. Then he would go to the Colón.
He would have liked if some time or other she had waited for him, but he always got there when there were still fifteen minutes left, and though before entering he would count to a hundred and sometimes to a thousand, would go around the block ten times, or would go up and down the Cathedral steps in order to let time go by, the hand of his watch hardly moved. Only one day did he arrive late, he was even forced to take a taxi, a luxury that he could barely afford because his money was running out, but the anxiety that she, in a hurry, might have left was joined to the excitement of seeing her, for once, seated with her gin-and-tonic. Nonetheless, that day she did not show up. He knew it as he stepped on the flowery carpet in the hallway that led to the bar. He knew it without knowing that he knew it, aware that by some mysterious signal he had received the message, and long before getting to the door he saw the sofa where in his dreams she had waited for him so many times, empty, without Andrea or her gin-and-tonic or the porous intensity of her blue gaze.
Now, after all that time, it was hard for him to know if he had gone to the Colón every day or only some evenings. Time had created its own version of that year that he spent in Barcelona, depending on the filming permit that was to arrive any moment and on the telephone, or of that hour stolen from her work that Andrea would grant him one way or another between interviews, meetings and dinners.
When he thought about those walks he was incapable of remembering if they were many or few, and his memory was also amiss, because the clear wintery morning in the city did not match the incipient leaves on Calle de Consejo de Ciento or the drops of dampness that vibrated in the bundle of light of the streetlights at five in the afternoon, and he saw only superimposed images without getting anything more than one full sequence with only one epilogue: the return home once the day was done and the hope was lost for that today which slipped away into dawn and into the loneliness of his colonial bed.
Sometimes a single image in our memory spans a complete period and ends up defining it differently from the way it really was. Sometimes it’s enough to evoke a summer storm with the sky dark, restless and threatening, with traces of lightning that barely broke into thunder and left a distant and muted sound in the air, to erase from that summer the sunny days, the quiet twilights, the night of crickets and cicadas, and ourselves searching in the calm of the August sky for the stars that fell in the darkness.
We say, “It was the time when I sat every day at the Café Doria on the Rambla de Cataluña,” when in fact we accidentally sat there one afternoon, or because we had a date with someone who didn’t show up and we were left looking at the leaves of the plane trees and the paving stones of the street and the cars crashing into one another and the boys and girls from the school on the corner walking in a bunch, with the background of buildings and stores that we have seen not only remaining in place but also varying and transforming with the layers and the fog of our memory, being hardly aware of the changes that happen silently, a balcony becoming a window, a notions store disappearing, or a wooden bench replaced by an unattractive designer bench of metal. And we remain in ecstasy over the pulse of the city at seven in the evening that we almost never have time to contemplate, it begins to get dark and the light takes on a marine tinge and seeps into the air, over the canopies of the trees and in the snapping of the car wheels against the dampness of the paving stones, the disjointed lament of the siren of a boat: a song for those born beside sea that slips among clouds and puffs of smoke and trees and houses and goes up the streets to the hillsides, and returns us to the evenings of our childhood in which another lament like this one opened the way to imagination and adventure, the vague anxiety to discover an unknown path that would stir up the sleepiness of the motionless evening and of the book that one could not go back to and that turned the teacher’s monotonous voice into an empty and meaningless squawk. Then there comes a shudder of nostalgia for that which we are never to experience, and between the puffs of smoke we breathe the saltpeter-dense air of our port, which we have forgotten because we haven’t seen it in years. But that moment – perhaps a friend greets us in passing or the conversation at the next table begins to stand out – manages to combine postponed memories and shows us the essence of our city while our finger runs over the condensed moisture on the glass of the beer mug, delaying in ecstasy the moment of drinking from it. And so intense is the sensation that it is enough by itself to invade the adjacent stages, the spaces and the time that extend before and after it, and this month or this year or this time period, ruled by the moment of urban twilight, will remain, like it, forever marked by the aroma of an undecipherable heartbeat.
“This is the city, this is my city”, she would say on the rare occasions that she walked with him, showing him ancient houses, each one with its history that she would add to those heard and inherited from several generations intertwined with the city’s history.
“This is where my great-grandfather lived with one of his sons, who was mayor during the dictatorship. And when Alfonso XIII came, my great-grandfather, who was a republican, closed the balconies when the king, who was accompanied by his own son, went by. My grandfather, who was the mayor’s brother, told us that they had lunch and dinner at the same table for over a year without exchanging a word.”
Martín knew that Andrea was repeating an anecdote that had been heard a thousand times, but she told it with the unconscious tone of telling her own story, mockingly perhaps, even jokingly, but with the intimate conviction that one way or another she was exhibiting her trophies.
He had to go back, it must have been very late already. He couldn’t know exactly what time, because there was not enough light to see his watch and he was so close that if he lit a match he would be discovered. If he didn’t show up shortly they would go out to look for him.
Martín saw her looking towards the mosque, and though he couldn’t hear what she was saying, nor could he see the movement of her lips, he knew that she was looking for him. She was dressed in white, she was always dressed in white, with those languid full skirts that moved with the least gesture and the slightest whiff of air, white skirts like a plagiarism of the ones of those days, just as she was now a copy of herself, of the woman she was in the days when her mere presence was a show of freedom and independence.
He got out of the shadows and slowly advanced, feigning a tranquility that he did not have. When Andrea saw him she got up, went to meet him and took his hand.
“Where have you been?” she asked anxiously, though her voice held a reproach for the overlong absence, and that touch of insecurity in the reprimand that would sometimes make itself felt by the slightly weaker intonation, or by a pause in the statement or in the question, looking back at him as if seeking his acquiescence or perhaps trying to uncover hidden intentions. A kind of attention that he would have given so much for in the beginning, while now it bothered him and sank him in a constant confusion.
“Come on, sit down and have some dinner, sweetheart.”
And this way of ending her sentences – adding “sweetheart” – that she used in public with a carefree and natural tone, and that after ten years still gave him a vague shudder of discomfort like the creaking of a fork on a dish or the scraping of chalk on a blackboard. No one noticed the slight gesture of impatience, visible only by an attempted grimace in the corner of his upper lip, or by the change from one hand to the other of the object that he might be holding, perhaps because over the years these had become an automatic reaction, a simple means of response already stripped of the displeasure that it provoked. Perhaps only she caught it, perhaps it was that brief and almost exhausted movement of rebellion that made her insist with a tenacity that would yield only when the involuntary tremor of his upper lip would not be visible even to her.
“Sit down to dinner, sweetheart,” she repeated sweetly. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
But before he occupied the chair her tone changed:
“Good god! What’s happened to you!” And, even more inquisitorially, “What have you been doing?”
There was still dust on his arms, and the fountain water had done nothing but change it into drips of mud that the heat had dried up, sketching arabesques on his skin.
“Nothing, it’s nothing, I stumbled and fell, that’s all.” And in order that no one could see his leg he sat down to devour the bell peppers and eggplants that Giorgios had just served him. But first he drank a big glass of retsina to quench his thirst and because he wanted to calm down.
With his wounded leg under the table, the blood stain well hidden, he had just managed to recover his calm when the old woman appeared from an alley in the back of the square. She walked at the same pace as during the climb and descent and for a moment he thought that she was aiming for them. But she passed by without even looking at them. Behind her a group of people was walking cautiously, as though they were afraid of catching up with her, and further back there followed the priest, who now, among the shouts and his own fussing and yelling, had lost the drunken majesty of some hours before, when his walk across the square seemed more like a challenge to the whole universe than a trudge to his task as bell ringer. He was accompanied by the chief of the detachment and a soldier, both with their faces gleaming with sweat, their khaki uniform shirts open and their epaulettes torn through wear and time.
It was Pepone, who had risen from the table in order to approach them, who upon returning told them what was happening: one of the priest’s dogs had disappeared, he said, and now they were all after the old woman because they said she was to blame. Martín drank another glass of wine but did not speak and barely looked at what was going on; as though occupied in removing a hangnail, he kept his gaze fixed on his finger and seemed to listen distractedly to Pepone’s explanations.
“Those dogs, except when they walk with the priest or accompany him to the bell tower, run freely around the village. They know everybody and they bark only at the old woman, who knows what it is about her that bothers them.” He stopped for a moment to savor the attention he was getting. The square was silent again, though far away the shouting behind the woman could still be heard. “Though they seem to be vicious dogs, they are not,” he added, “and I’m sure that the priest keeps them by his side not for protection but to make himself respected and feared, the same way that he puts on vestments for the services, and that’s how he gets the majesty that nature has denied him. The priest is in charge on this island,” he continued, “the priest and his friend, the chief of the detachment, one of the ones who were with him. That’s all the police there is here.”
“And why do they assume that the old woman killed the dog? What could she have done with it?” Andrea asked.
“They say the old woman is a witch,” Pepone explained, snuffing out his cigarette and picking up his cap, ready to leave, “and maybe, being tired of the dog barking at her, she gave him the evil eye or a spell, who knows. What’s known is that the dog has disappeared and she has blood on the hem of her skirt.” He got up and gave them a greeting with his hand. “I’ll be back tomorrow. Good-bye.” And he disappeared through the same alley as the others, lost like them in the silence and in the stifling air of the night.