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Beyond this Darkness and this Silence

 

The world has become aware of its invisible
citizen. But no one knows you are here.
—H. G. Wells
 

I warned her in one of our first conversations, though she didn’t take me seriously: “I’m invisible.” Not that I reproached her for her skepticism. To be honest, I don’t usually talk about it; people aren’t prepared to face the extraordinary. Which, if you are a part of what is considered “extraordinary,” can be wearisome.

I knew almost everything about Gala. I knew about the desires she had never confessed to anyone, and about her boring years of marriage. I had a precise notion of how insupportable the last years had been, since she had expressed her wish to have a child and had met with her husband’s flat, nonnegotiable refusal.

“It’s as if he wanted to freeze time. As if he were happy, permanently installed in this unbearable present,” she said.

That night, Gala referred to her marital troubles with more sadness than on other occasions. She talked about sudden gulfs opening up between two people, chasms that can never be bridged. She spoke of weariness, resignation, silence:

“We’ve got nothing to say to each other any more. And it’s the same, day after day.”

I remembered that, as soon as I met her in the online chat room, she told me she was married, and asked if that was a problem. Of course, it wasn’t. Among other reasons, because she was a stranger then, someone who didn’t matter to me. I remembered those words at that precise moment, while I was feeling intense anger. I couldn’t understand what Gala was doing with a man incapable of understanding her true worth. I couldn’t bear the idea of her sleeping with another man, night after night, while I was longing for her. I had fallen in love.

Perhaps it was my rage that prompted me to speak. Or perhaps it was the four whiskies I’d drunk.

“Now we’ve got down to confidences,” I wrote in the chat bar, “I want to confess something too.”

That was when I told her about my invisibility.

She responded with a puzzled silence. Normally, it took her only a few seconds to type a reply. On that occasion, I guessed that she was sifting through words without finding the ones she wanted. I thought it best to expand on my pronouncement:

“I’m not talking figuratively. I really am invisible. It’s a rare genetic mutation that runs in the male line of my family. An awkward, incurable defect.”

As I had imagined, she was impressed. She wanted to know the technical details; she asked me how I’d managed to study, find a job, how I got dressed and had sex. I told her that getting dressed was never a problem, now that there are special fabrics for people like me. The same went for education. My medical diagnosis meant distance learning was the best option, and I had, in fact, a brilliant academic record. I admit that I was trying to impress her when I said I had been an outstanding student, top of my class from primary school to my PhD, which I’d obtained without the least difficulty. It was quite natural for me to go into research, as it was that I should become one of the most respected physicists in my field.

I explained that I’d never had to worry about finding a job or overcome the difficulties people in my condition usually experience, since no one seemed willing to employ a person when they couldn’t be absolutely certain where they were. Although there are signs. A keen observer will notice, for example, a slight surface indentation in the place where I’m sitting (barely visible in harder materials, but in the softer ones it can be quite startling for anyone unaccustomed to the phenomenon). It would be more difficult not to notice that in my workspace, the telephones move (“on their own” the uninitiated say, falling short of the truth), the pens practice their calligraphy on the paper and the keys on the computer keyboard go up and down at a brisk pace while, on the screen, the typographical symbols advance as if under the influence of a supernatural force.

Gala must have been very surprised. If I hadn’t had reason to think otherwise, I would have believed that she was on the phone or had simply left the chat room for some urgent need. It’s difficult to tell the difference between stupefaction and absence in an on-screen conversation.

“So there haven’t been many stumbling blocks in my professional life,” I said, before adding, “but I can’t say the same for love and sex. The endings always leave me devastated. Right now, I am, quite frankly, shattered.”

I had also thought that that phrase would act as bait. Gala was immediately interested. She wanted to know what kinds of difficulties I had encountered. I played hard to get, claiming that I didn’t like to talk about it (which is strictly true), but gave in when she persisted.

“The majority of women can’t bear the idea of sleeping with someone they can’t see,” I typed at my usual speed.

I was surprised by how quickly she responded.

“Not me.”

“Perhaps you’re just saying that because you haven’t met me in person.”

“No, I’m not. I’m saying it because I’ve wanted to meet you for a long time and because I’m not frightened by new things.”

In my experience, you can’t do better than to submit to a woman’s desires. 

***

I booked room 603 in the Ritz Hotel. The choice of number was not random: we met in the online chat room on June third, four months before our first date. Four months of several hours a day of conversation. I opted for the Ritz not only because I wanted to impress her, but also because a cousin of mine, my accomplice, worked there. I went to the room a good while before the hour of our date to arrange all the details. I asked my cousin to give the other room key to the woman who called herself Mrs. Wells—Wells was my chat room alias. While waiting for her arrival, I created the appropriate atmosphere: absolute absence of light, soft music, French Champagne freshly delivered by room service, and the bed not turned back. I didn’t want to appear impatient or give her a bad impression.

She arrived punctually, opened the door with her key, and stopped in the middle of the diminutive hallway.

“Hello?” she said.

I asked her to close her eyes and she immediately obeyed. I realized that she was smiling and was prettier than I had imagined.

I moved my lips close to her shoulder and slipped off her purse. I kissed her bare arms. The back of her hand. Her fingers; one by one. I sampled the taste of her skin, ran my lips along her forearm, stopped at the elbow. In a daring change of direction, I advanced toward her breasts. My strategy made her tremble. I thought the moment had come for my mouth to find hers. The kiss outlasted her confusion. Her fingers found my cheeks and touched me. Slowly, like a blind person, she ran her open hands over me. She combed her fingers through my hair, softly caressed my shoulders, kneaded my back, lingered on the nape of my neck and my eyebrows.

“Your blindness makes me visible,” I said.

“Your voice . . .” she replied.

I waited for her to continue, but she didn’t. I guided her slowly to the bed and she allowed herself to be led. We didn’t take the bedspread off.

I believe she did not talk again for two hours, when she said:

“I don’t want to open my eyes ever again.” 

***

For weeks, we met every Tuesday. Same day, same room, the same menu, the same ritual of caresses and blindness. I would wait for her inside the room, in the shadows, and she would find me, looking so lovely and excited. The second time, she surprised me by bringing a mask with her, the sort used for sleeping. She had it in her purse and, as soon as she had crossed the threshold, she put it over her eyes, let her purse drop to the floor, and announced:

“I’m ready.”

When the sex gave us an appetite, we called room service, and I would feed her with my own hands. She didn’t take off the mask even to eat. I would place the food in her mouth, and she licked my fingers to experience its taste to the full. She talked about her problems at work, about the conjugal life she felt to be her worst ever mistake, the interests she scarcely had time for. Sometimes, her words caused me a pang of sadness. Like when she said:

“When I’m with my husband, I feel like you.”

“Lucky?” I asked.

“No. Invisible.”

During one of those delectable conversations, I realized she had something to tell me. It was the way she frowned, her nervous movements, her hesitation in speaking, and also because, that day, she hardly mentioned her work or her husband. She spent the whole time talking about the old attic in her house. After many years, she had ventured up there and discovered a treasure trove of old junk. She confessed that, as a child, she used to spend hours up there, playing her solitary childish games without friends. She said she hadn’t set foot in the place since her marriage, in part through fear of what she would find, and also because she was frightened of confronting that child she had stopped being so long before. But she was pleased to have gone up there. The room, I noticed, seemed to interest her much more than its contents. She was thinking of doing it up. Cleaning it, throwing out the old things and converting it into a study, something she had longed for all her life. A space where she could cut herself off from the world, sleep from time to time—gazing at the stars through skylight, a space to dream in, live another life.

I was wondering why she was telling me all this when she suddenly said:

“Come and live there. It’s the perfect place for us.”

I was confused.

“I’ll do it up for you. We can be together. We won’t have to go on with these clandestine meetings once a week.”

It was crazy. I see it now as I did then. Absolute lunacy. But how many acts of madness have humans committed for love? Isn’t love, of all the possible reasons for letting oneself be dragged toward delirium, the best, the most irresistible? And wasn’t that a golden opportunity to hide myself, get away from that place in which, in a few short hours, it would be better for me not to be found?

She knew nothing about me. In fact, everything I was doing with her was dishonest: tricking her, seducing her, accepting her offer, seeing her proposal as my only hope.

Suddenly, I saw it all clearly: disappearance like that would give me the alibi I had been seeking for so long. If someone like me ever needed an alibi when it came to finding a dénouement. 

***

It didn’t happen straight off. I told her that I had some things to sort out before moving in. That a man couldn’t disappear just like that. I put my affairs in order, acted with professional speed, pretended I was traveling to distant parts, and vanished. Those who believe that an invisible person can’t vanish might be surprised by that turn of phrase. They are wrong: in this world in which it is our lot to live, no one is completely invisible. Not even me.

Five weeks after Gala’s proposition, I moved into the attic, newly converted into a study. The smell of varnish was still fresh, and everything had that air of newness so laden with hope. The best thing was that I never at any moment felt strange. The noises of the world scarcely reached up there. From time to time the peace was disturbed by some horn blast that seemed to come from another dimension. Otherwise, the only thing to be heard clearly was the sound of the birds which nested in the roof.

My hostess had included a large sofa for me, on which I spent the nights reading and the early hours making love with that woman who never came in without the mask placed squarely over her eyes. She seemed happy as a child. Her color improved, she always had a wide smile on her face, and her voice had a singsong quality that reminded me of those birds living up there at the top of the house with me.

“My husband doesn’t suspect a thing. He’s not even interested in seeing the improvements I’ve made here.”

I didn’t want to disillusion her by saying that he had been there. Luckily, the last stretch of the stairs creaked so much that it gave you the time to prepare yourself if someone was coming up. On the first occasion that happened, I stood still in the middle of the room, hoping he wasn’t one of those highly sensitive people who perceive everything happening around them, even if not confirmed by their senses. He wasn’t. He came in, scanned the room, closed the window I’d opened, seemed to approve of the changes his wife had made, and turned back to the door. Just before leaving, he retraced his steps. He had noticed the book I was reading—by José Manuel Caballero Bonald—and had left on the sofa. He inspected it, opened it at one of the central pages, as if gauging some specific aspect, and decided to take it with him.

I had no idea he was even interested in poetry.

When they were at home, the murmur of their domestic life reached me as if from another world: the clatter of plates, the muffled hum of electric motors, steps hurrying along passages, snatches of conversation and the slightly childish glee of the television, permanently switched on, as if neither of them were capable of tolerating the silence that threatened their lives when all the apparatuses were quiet. At night, the husband went to bed early and she would come up to the attic to read, she said.

It was stimulating to make love in absolute silence, making sure nothing disturbed the cuckold husband sleeping just one floor below. She used to bring me up a meal and stayed until nearly daybreak, chatting in whispers.

Five minutes before the alarm clock in her bedroom went off, she would go downstairs. Sometimes I could hear her excuses:

“Silly me, I fell asleep in the attic.”

Her husband would grumble, but immediately forget his reproaches in his haste to get ready. 

***

I only occasionally got the urge to leave my hiding place. When neither of them was at home, I liked to wander through the rooms, observe the lack of order, snack on something from the fridge, deadhead the flowers in the garden. I did that quite often during the first days, when I felt the need to watch the television news (nothing offers a closer notion of the importance of an event than seeing it recounted in a television news broadcast). Later, I became interested in the outside world. I knew where the keys were, and took them at will—with Gala’s permission. I would take a walk around the neighborhood, go in and out of various establishments and return before it got late. During one of those strolls I saw Miriam. It was completely unpremeditated, surprising. She looked in my direction and squinted, there was a strange glow in her eyes, and my heart began to beat more strongly than ever before.

As my strolls became more frequent, I found it increasingly difficult to sustain my passion for Gala. It wasn’t her fault but mine. She still gave herself completely to me. When her husband was away on business trips, we would hole up in the attic and forget the world. But it wasn’t as intense as formerly, a few weeks before, when her insistence found its twin between my arms. In that period of doubt, I did atrocious things: reacting to the creaking of the stairs which announced her visit with a newfound annoyance; holding my breath, squeezing up against the wall without moving a muscle and pretending I wasn’t there, observing her unhappiness and her supposed solitude.

I particularly remember one of those mornings when she came in blindfolded, a lovely smile on her face and her arms extended, searching in the darkness for me. When she saw that I didn’t respond to her call with the usual passion, she stopped, took off her mask and observed the apparently empty space. She made a slight sound, and stood there thoughtfully for a couple of seconds, watching the specks of dust falling slowly, golden in the sunlight. Then she went back downstairs.

I heard her making a phone call, arranging to meet a woman friend in a café. She came back up to the attic to make certain I wasn’t there. I held my breath, hoping again that she wouldn’t sense me, would believe I’d gone out. I noticed that she felt around the floor, the chairs, the curtains, in search of some, any, trace of my presence. She also suspected something. She was also beginning to realize that the deception could be something more than an intruder between us.

By that time, I no longer felt anything for Gala, apart from profound gratitude. Despite the fact that the attic was still the best possible hiding place, I began to miss my apartment, my street, my neighborhood full of men who are not willing to remain invisible and aspire to notoriety. A bit like me, but in a different way. They wanted money, status, power. I only aspired to doing something really important. Something great, that would be reported on the news. I know it’s not an ideal way to live, but it’s mine, and I wasn’t then ready to renounce it, nor am I now.

 

***

I give a lot of thought to the endings of things. Finishing, well or badly, is sometimes very tiring. I try to give it all the thought it deserves so my conscience doesn’t trouble me later, during sleepless nights. I wouldn’t have forgiven myself for giving Gala an ending that was unworthy of the intensity of our story. And for that reason I attempted to make our last night unforgettable. Time, among other things, had taught me that a beautiful memory is of no solace to a woman in the early days, but is later the only possible comfort: the comfort of believing she has had the chance to experience something unique. Thinking of Gala’s future memories, I made every attempt to love  her better than ever. I feigned a passion I didn’t feel, murmured even more clichéd and jaded phrases in her ear; I made love to her several times before nightfall, gently covering her mouth when she showed signs of crying out, so that her husband wouldn’t hear us. When dawn broke, she turned her head to me and said:

“Everything that happens beyond this darkness and this silence has ceased to interest me.”

I felt a stab of fear, but kept on with my plan. As I watched her leave, five minutes before the alarm clock made its shrill demands, I knew there wouldn’t be another time. 

***

I went back to my home. During my absence, no one had suspected anything. The doorman hadn’t mentioned me to the police while they were in the area. They had taken off the seal from the dead woman’s apartment, and there were only plumbers and painters left there. Adapt or perish, that’s the motto of our course toward oblivion.

I must confess that for a few seconds, that last time, I toyed with the idea of killing Gala, too. The final possession, the definitive moment. She would have thanked me, I’m sure. A sharp knife and a bare, white neck: the perfect combination. Then the blood. It needs care; fingerprints can give me away, as happened with my neighbor. Although I’m a master of my trade and should only have to preoccupy myself with endings, I also have to give thought to the details, so that nothing like that happens again.

I didn’t kill Gala. I thought it was better to leave her with her pain, her figurative death, and the later grandeur of her rising from the ashes. At the last moment, I confess, I wasn’t only thinking of her. I imagined her husband’s unhappiness, alone, burdened with suspicion for the rest of his life. He didn’t deserve that fate. Heck, I quite liked the poor guy.

Perhaps I also thought of myself. Of the sleepless nights after watching Gala die. Every choice is, essentially, an act of egoism.

If I never told Gala about Miriam, it was to spare her pain she would have been incapable of tolerating. She would have wanted to know what Miriam had that she couldn’t offer me. In fact, in terms of what really mattered, they weren’t so different. They were both passionate, pretty, and discreet. Neither of them asked questions. Miriam, however, has a very rare, strange form of color blindness, which allows her to see things others can’t.

Me, for instance.

Though none of this matters now. The only important thing is the ending. The ending of my neighbor, who was also passionate, but not discreet. The ending of my story with Gala; Miriam’s ending—about which I’m starting to think—in the time every good story needs.

It’s beautiful, or so it seems to me, to know that at the end of everything there is always invisibility. 

© Care Santos. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2012 by Christina MacSweeney. All rights reserved.