Nocturne

The ad in the "male seeking male" section said:

I'm so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

and was in among others listing predictable obscenities and a series of oral necessities. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of a man of indeterminate age and sadness who wore a mask that gave him the pathetic air of a terrorist just emerging from the shower; it said so alone just like that, like it was nothing, it said it with the afternoon languor pressing in through the living room window (the one that overlooked the park) almost the way you accept the ritual of Sunday afternoon boredom, with no resentment.

I'm so alone.

If he had accepted Marta's invitation, now he would have an excuse to get dressed, go out; the doorman's little desk would be empty, the street would be empty, the dog would stare up at him, watery eyes, panting tongue, tail wagging to the rhythm of his desire to go for a walk, "Platz. Paw. Sit," repeated, the same as the light, an anonymous conversation beneath his bedroom window (the one that overlooked the patio), traffic.

He bought it last night and the first thing he did was check the ages of the men who'd placed the ads (almost never stated, which was worse because it meant that the majority of them were probably young). The ones who dared to send a photo took the risk of being recognized. He had gone out to buy cigarettes and ended up buying the magazine. When he got home he started to masturbate to one of the personals but ended up using an erotic art catalog he'd bought last month. When he finished he washed his hands, made some soup and fed the dog. There were no movies on TV. Marta called to invite him over for Sunday lunch with Ramón and the kids and he declined, saying he had other plans. But he didn't have other plans. The movies playing at the theater didn't appeal to him enough to make him want to go out, deal with the hassle of the ticket and refreshment lines, and then return home without being able to rave about or even discuss what he'd seen. He hadn't been to an art exhibit in years. He fell asleep thinking tomorrow he would take it easy at home, and it didn't sound like a bad idea. Sometimes he liked to stay in, lose track of time watching TV after lunch, listen to Chopin while lounging on the sofa, leafing through a book. The magazine lay on one of the armchairs like a long-drawn-out, accepted failure. After having used it last night, he thought he'd throw it away, but he'd left it there and when he finished watching the afternoon movie it had sat there, looking up at him saying Madrid Contactos on the cover in red letters and death to hypocrisy in smaller ones, under the headline and above the photo of a woman who looked like his brother-in-law Ramón's sister because, like her, she wore half a ton of mascara on each eye and her thin lips were made up to look fuller, filled in beyond her lip line. He opened it back up to the "male seeking male" section. He lingered over the pictures again and became excited again.

I'm so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

Then it dawned on him that this had been going on for many years. Simply, almost painlessly, he had become resigned to the fact that he himself would never demand the things the personals were asking for, and although on a couple of occasions he had contracted a rent boy and brought him up to his apartment, the fact that he had to pay, the whole act of the wallet, the question, the exchange, turned him off to such a degree that he would then become uncomfortable at how long he took and once or twice ended up asking the guy to leave out of sheer disgust.

The dog barked and he found his shoes to take him down for a walk. He left the light on and put on his coat.

Monday everything looked the same from the bank's office window. A Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the recently hung lights announcing the imminent advent of Christmas. He had heard something about an office party and, although he'd said he would go—declining would have launched a desperate search for excuses—they knew, as he did, that it had been years since he had last liked Alberto's jokes (always the same, whispered to the new secretary or the newest female graduate to be hired), Andrés's toasts and Sandra's conversations about the kids. The fact that he was the oldest employee at the office allowed him to decline those invitations, ignore them without having to worry about subsequent hatreds that were felt but never expressed. He enjoyed that in the same way that he enjoyed his solitude, his collection of consolations and little excesses (Napoleon cognac, fancy cigarettes, a weekly dinner at an expensive restaurant) that he had grown used to and that led him to grant that he was a reasonably happy man. Jokes about his homosexuality told in hushed tones at the office met with his indifference, making him invulnerable, and although his exterior coldness had begun as a survival technique, now he really did feel comfortable in it, like someone who finally finds a warm place to take refuge and decides to make do, without yearning for anything better.

But the ad in that magazine said:

I'm so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

And those few words had begun, since he read them on Saturday night, to unravel everything. When he finished work on Monday he felt anxious and he didn't know why. Or he did, but didn't want to admit it. Accepting that he wanted to call that number would have meant accepting disorder where, for many long years, there had reigned peace, or something that, without actually being peace, was somehow akin to it: his Napoleon cognac, lunch at Marta's house once every two weeks, walking the dog, the nightly TV movie he watched until tiredness overcame him, maybe the occasional rent boy he'd bring home in his car and whose presence he would then try to erase as soon as possible, fluffing up the sofa cushions (not the bed, never the bed), opening the windows, repenting.

That night he took the dog for a walk earlier than usual and then it became undeniable. Something had broken. Something fragile and very fine had broken. He always ate dinner first, smoked a cigarette watching TV and then took the dog out. Why hadn't he done that today? The dog hadn't even wagged his tail when he saw him approach with the leash and, on the way down in the elevator, had looked up at him with an expression of bovine wonderment.

"Paw," he said. "Paw," and the dog gave him his paw, tongue out and eyebrows raised, as if his owner were teaching him the rules of a new game.

When he got back he looked for the magazine. He'd left it on the table, he was sure, and now it wasn't there. He looked in the bathroom, and in the kitchen. He shuffled through his desk drawers. Any other day at this time he would have already had dinner and be smoking his cigarette, getting ready to walk the dog, yet that night not only had he not done it but he was nervous, desperately searching for that magazine that he wouldn't even have been able to masturbate to without the help of the erotic art catalogue he'd bought last month. Finding himself in this situation increased his desperation, but he didn't give up until he found it. It was on the floor beside the sofa. He opened it again and became excited reading the personals again, but there was something a little different. It wasn't the TV, or the cognac, or the dog, but himself, in the midst of all those other things. Reading all of the ads was a game he submitted to, fooling himself and yet all the while knowing precisely what he was looking for. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of the nude man with the mask.

I'm so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.

Finding it was like feigning surprise when an expected visitor arrived, except this time the surprise was real; it was as if the ad had never been there and he had invented it at the bank. He had never met anyone named Roberto, so—though it was a common name—it had hung in the balance on page 43 like a riddle waiting to be solved. It wasn't an ugly name. Roberto. Anxiety made him eat the steaks he was saving for the weekend. Now he'd have to go shopping again because the leftover rice he'd been planning to have tonight would have gone bad by tomorrow. This was no good at all. Not that it was bad to have eaten something he was saving for another time; that was one of the sorts of luxuries that made him reasonably happy. But doing it the way he'd done it, just like that, for no reason. But really, had there been reasons the other times?

Half an hour later he couldn't sleep. He always went to bed early, capitalizing on television's soporific effect, and that night he couldn't sleep. He'd taken the magazine with him to bed and left it on his nightstand. He picked it up and opened it but then felt ridiculous. It was all Roberto's fault. In the open wardrobe door, he could see the dark, faint reflection of his fifty-six year old body in the glow of the television, projecting tiredness and an obesity that, while not obscene, he had never made a serious attempt to combat. He felt pathetic for having entered into the game Roberto was proposing. How—after so many years of reasonable happiness, of peace—could so blatant a ploy have gotten the better of him? Crumpling it up, he took it to the kitchen and threw it in the trash. Then he tied the bag and left it by the door, hoping that the doorman would not have made his rounds yet. Sleep descended upon him that night serene and unburdened. He was proud of himself.

In the morning the trash bag was gone. He could have verified this simply by looking out the peephole but instead he opened the door. At the bank, they asked him if he felt all right when he arrived.

"I have a little bit of a headache," he said.

"It's the flu. People are dropping like flies."

But it wasn't the flu. The Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the Christmas lights. It was Christmastime. How had he not realized? Two years ago he'd felt a slow-burning sadness during the holidays, too, and he hadn't been able to shake it off until they had taken the lights down. But what he felt now wasn't really sadness. He was anxious. He made a mistake keying in the number of a bank account and spent almost half an hour arguing with a customer who claimed his deposits were not being credited correctly. At lunchtime he went to get the first-aid kit to take his temperature. But he had no fever. He took an aspirin. But he didn't have a headache. The ad said:

I'm so alone. Roberto, and then there was a phone number. He couldn't remember the number. He, who had always been so proud of his numeric memory, couldn't recall the number. It started 307. It started 307 and then there was something like 4680. It wasn't 4680 but it was similar to 4680. 5690. 3680.

I'm so alone. Roberto, and then 307 . . .

When he left the bank he didn't go home but instead walked to the kiosk where he'd bought the personals magazine the other day.

"Check over there," the newsagent said.

It wasn't there.

"Don't you have any more?"

"Aren't there any there?"

"I can't see any."

"Then we must be out."

He couldn't find it at the sex shop three blocks down, either, and the clerk hadn't even heard of the magazine. He thought about filing a complaint but that seemed ridiculous. When he got home the dog was restless because he'd been gone so long. He was hungry and wagged his tail. Any other day he'd have felt relaxed arriving home, but this time he didn't know what to do, he didn't know if he should sit down or watch TV. He hadn't eaten dinner yet. He had to walk the dog. Suddenly every act that, for years, he had performed in a ritual of leisurely contentment seemed an unbearable obligation. He put on the dog's leash and went down to take him for a walk but didn't follow his usual route. When he got back, though he had no appetite, he ate dinner and then took two sleeping pills. He dreamed of someone he had loved for three long years a long time ago, but he couldn't see his face; there was only the familiar presence of that body lying beside him, his smell, his saliva.

Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday he went to the bank with a fever. He felt weak but at the same time he wanted to scream. It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years. During his lunch break he went out to his usual café-bar for a sandwich and coffee but he felt excluded from everything around him. Wherever he looked, all he saw were couples, kisses, little signs of affection. The cold condescension with which he had once looked on all that now turned against him, blowing up in his face with envy and anxiety. He had to find that magazine. Now.

I'm so alone, said Roberto. He was alone, too. He wanted to be kissing someone, like all those couples, holding someone's hand, buying presents. Irony was a game he could no longer play.

It was all so easy. He didn't have to walk—as he'd expected—more than a block. He went up to the first newsstand he saw and said "Madrid Contactos" and the newsagent held out a copy of the magazine.

"Three hundred fifty pesetas."

The elation almost made him mock the scandalized look an old woman buying the newspaper gave him. There was the woman who looked like his brother-in-law Ramón's sister, arms crossed to push out her breasts, thin lips made up beyond the lip line like a quick fix for the standard displeasure caused by her body, and there, too, would be, on page 43, at the top, Roberto, above that bisexual named Ángel and beneath the photo of the man with the mask on. He asked for a bag, slipped the magazine in it, and walked toward the bank almost in a good mood, but another fear was born in the hours remaining of his workday. What was he going to do now? Was he really planning to call that number? And if he weren't planning to call, then why had he gone through all that? He took a taxi home. He went up to his apartment without greeting the doorman and as soon as he closed the door he turned to page 43.

(91) 3077670.

How could he have forgotten such an easy number? But that wasn't the predicament.

The dog looked at him with eyes watering at his forgotten walk, and he said, "Paw."

The animal held out a weary paw, like the child asked for the twentieth time to repeat a once-funny spontaneous remark, and he decided he would think the matter over on the walk. But there was nothing to think about. Roberto's phone number began to pound in his head as soon as he got outside; it was now as clear and easy to remember as the jingle from a commercial, (91) 3077670, he'd call just to hear what his voice sounded like, that was all, he'd call and then hang up, he'd have a nice tumbler of cognac, watch a movie, yes, there was a good one on that night, he had seen it listed in the paper, it wouldn't be hard to fall asleep.

He waited until ten-thirty to do it. Ten o'clock seemed too early and he never called anyone after eleven. Ten-thirty was a good time. It rang three times before anyone answered.

"Yes?" Roberto's voice said.

The voice sounded young, younger than he'd imagined after reading the ad. It was easy to imagine a small apartment, maybe roommates, a narrow hallway, clothes strewn over the bed, the TV in the background, a cheap dinner.

"Hello?"

He thought about someone he had loved once, for three long years, a long time ago. He didn't know why, but that voice had something of the shy, impressionable boy he himself had been when someone loved him. Roberto hung up, and he thought, as he listened to the dial tone, about the night when someone had put flowers in his hair, lipstick on his lips, taken a shower with him. He couldn't remember his face, but his presence was there. He remembered his hands, his tongue, the messy apartment, the strange feeling of having possessed each other that filled their conversations with a relaxed tranquility, with jokes, with silence, the world waking up blue and acceptable, the word happiness, the word love, on his lips with a naturalness that had seemed simple and universal.

            It started to rain, as if even the sky were trying to make his perpetration more obvious, and he dialed the number again.

            “Yes?”

            “Hello, I was calling because …, I read your ad.”

            “Did you call a minute ago?”

            “Yes.”

            “Why didn’t you say anything?”

            “I was afraid.”

 

            He woke up that morning and went into the living room. There was the glass that Roberto had drunk from, the butts of the cigarettes he had smoked, the indentation his weight had left on the sofa. He smiled, recalling how enthusiastically Roberto had tasted that fine, old cognac that was reserved for special occasions, his shock at learning how much a bottle of it cost.

            “That’s more than I earn in four days,” he had said, looking through the glass at the ochre liquid, and he sniffed it again, and tasted it again, barely moistening his lips, and smiled again with that mixture of nervousness and strange happiness that shone in his eyes all night.

            While they were on the phone, after the admission of fear, Roberto had asked him how old he was and he had said fifty. He could pass for fifty. People always said he didn’t look his age.

            “I’m twenty-one,” he had answered, almost apologetic.

            The silence that followed almost made him hang up because he assumed Roberto was disappointed by his age, that he was looking for a younger man, that it wouldn’t be long before he found an excuse to reject him. But Roberto didn’t reject him.

            “Do you still want to meet up?”

            “Of course,” he replied. “But…now?”

            “Why not?”

            They met in a plaza that Roberto said was close to his house. He drove there before the appointed time and waited in the car, with the lights out. He saw the boy arrive, light a cigarette, button up the top button of his jacket when it started to rain again, take refuge under one of the plaza’s arcades. His slenderness, the straight hair falling over his ears, held a strange beauty. He wasn’t handsome, but he was definitely attractive and he thought that he would like to dress like that, like Roberto, and to be twenty and to walk up from behind and scare him, walk down the street holding hands with him. The few people who were still out at that time of night had something in common in their coats, their shoes, the color of their eyes. He was the only one who seemed different. By the way he was dressed one might have guessed he was homeless, and yet he thought he looked like the whole world belonged to him: the street, the cars, even the people passing by. He got out of the car and walked toward him. Roberto had been staring at him since he closed the car door.

            “Hi,” he said, with something approaching a smile.

            “Hi….Disappointed?” he asked.

            “No. Are you?”

            “No.”

            On the way back to the apartment Roberto stared at him from the passenger’s seat, grinning the whole way. Their excitement was contagious, and neither of them could sit still. Roberto rolled down the window and he did the same. He felt the fresh air on his face, like a lovely awakening. What would come next? What was it about that street, within it, that gave it a strange, different life, one that went beyond just being there, leading somewhere? The night filled with trees when they held hands after getting out of the car, and when they rode up in the elevator, and when they walked into the apartment.

            “I love your house,” said Roberto.

            “Thank you.”

            Roberto seemed encouraged by his good mood and laughter, which was actually just a nervous reaction. What was he supposed to do now? Kiss him? Offer him a drink? While he was getting the cognac, Roberto told him that he worked in a laundromat during the day and then at a bar until ten. The money wasn’t great, but it was enough to rent his own apartment. He handed him the cognac, sat down beside him on the sofa and stroked his hair. Roberto looked down, picked up his glass, and moistened his lips. He was so seduced by that artless discomfort that he waited patiently for Roberto to look up at him again as he stroked his hair, tucking it back behind his ears. When he did, Roberto’s eyes were riveted and serious, concentrated on not missing a single movement of his pupils. He leaned in toward him slowly. They kissed. Roberto’s lips were thin and tasted vaguely of cognac. He closed his eyes and put a hand on his back, simulating an embrace he didn’t quite dare to carry out. He couldn’t recall ever having kissed anyone so carefully. When he looked at him again, the boy raised his eyes once more, smiling. The hand that had been on his back now reached for the glass, brought it to his lips. Roberto took it out of his hand and set it on the table and kissed him again. His lips were half-parted, his tongue ventured tentatively, and he held him and stroked his hair as he let himself be kissed. He thought the next step was logical: he reached for Roberto’s zipper to undo it and noted, as he did, the boy’s excitement. Roberto stopped him immediately.

            “Not so soon…we just met, remember?”

            He didn’t know what to say.

            “If we do it tonight I’m going to feel very bad about myself in the morning…. You don’t want me to feel bad about myself, do you?”

            The question had a childish, almost virginal, tone.

            “No.”

            “I’m sure you understand.”

            “Of course I do, that’s fine, I’m sorry,” he said, pulling away a little.

            “Once I did it with a guy the first night and he never called me again.”

            Unseen, that twenty-one-year-old boy’s body took on a more powerful intensity, and what had seemed a ridiculous, juvenile modesty less than five minutes ago suddenly squared in his mind with mathematical clarity and precision; the wait was essential, and pleasant, and just.

            “I like the way you touch me, though.”

            Roberto curled up in his arms, tucking his feet beneath him on the sofa, and leaned on his shoulder. His hair was still wet from the rain; his thinness, his little nose, the arm around his waist gave him the appearance of a wet, shivering cat. He felt surprisingly justified in protecting him.

 

            The Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the Christmas lights, but at twelve o’clock that night, when he headed toward his usual bar, the light lent Roberto’s memory the unreal quality typical of all things nocturnal. Nevertheless, when he had gotten up that morning, the glass Roberto had drunk from was still on the table, next to a pack of cigarettes he had left behind and a lighter that said Laundromat; the imprint of his body on the cushions had not been erased yet.

            They saw each other again that night, and the next, and the next. The third time Roberto came over, he gave him a copy of his apartment key. They just sat and talked about anything. He had bought some modern music that he thought Roberto might like and he put it on when the boy arrived, pretending that it was what he listened to all the time.

            “You don’t like this music,” Roberto said, after three songs.

            “How do you know?”

            “It’s written all over your face.”

            “But don’t you like it?”

            “I do, yeah, but there’s no reason you have to like everything I like.”

            Without saying anything, he felt ashamed at some of their recent conversations. The fear of upsetting Roberto had led him to feign enthusiasm for childish things a couple of times and when he did, he had feared that Roberto would be able to tell.

            “Put on the music you listen to when you’re alone,” Roberto proposed.

            “When I’m alone I listen to Chopin.”

            “Then put that on.”

            The nocturnes flowed through the house like an exquisite lie over dinner.

            “Isn’t it beautiful?”

            “Very. I’ve never listened to Chopin. What is this called?”

            “These are the nocturnes.”

            It wasn’t hard to impress Roberto, talking about the bank and the stock market, but he soon stopped doing it because he feared the admiration would turn into some sort of perpetual self-praise. What he most loved about those nights was the way they yielded to silence, the way Roberto would come up and kiss him in the middle of a conversation, his silent, slender, almost domestic character, walking to the bathroom or coming back from the kitchen after going to get another beer. He lacked initiative when it came to love games and yet, he would always win by loving whoever loved him. All of Roberto’s affective sensibilities lay dormant and depended upon his own activity, so when he lightly touched his hand, or chin, or hair, he had the impression that some instinctual jolt forced him to return twice the kisses and cuddles received. It wasn’t a nervous thing, but a visceral need to be appreciated. If a lull came over the conversation, Roberto would come up to him and rest a head on his shoulder and play with his fingers. That wasn’t nerves, either, just an exploratory kind of tenderness, a means of sounding things out, trying to find the right way. His life, like the lives of compassionate, empathetic people, took the joys and pains of others and made them his own; he felt everything.

            “Last night I dreamed you didn’t want to see me anymore, that I came over and your house was full of people and you acted like you didn’t even know me.”

            He realized, on those evenings, that what made Roberto have those nightmares wasn’t very different from what made himself not want to let the boy go home at night. The speed with which it had all come about, the strange way that they had met, left them stripped naked in a space that had to be invented, one whose laws were the fruit not of deliberation—which did not exist—nor of standard norms, but of their simple conduct; stroking Roberto’s hair, holding his hand, kissing him, was not something he did out of convention, or even desire—even if desire was what lent it intensity—it was the anxiousness to create a habitable space, a hermetic language that couldn’t be understood by anyone else that moved him. That feeling, together with Roberto’s habitual silence, tinged those afternoons with a solemn languor.

            The fourth night he came over they hardly talked. Roberto sat down beside him without even taking off his coat, undid the button and zipper of his pants and started to stroke him. He didn’t say anything. Roberto moved slowly, looking into his eyes the whole time. He thought there was something deeply sad in the figure of that boy whom he was growing to love, like a strange and distant part of himself, and he was afraid he would stop loving him, but he was also afraid that he would stop being loved by him. He caressed his cheek and Roberto closed his eyes and kept masturbating him. Behind his eyelids there must have shone the pleasure of someone who has consciously decided to do something just to make someone else happy. When Roberto had finished, he reciprocated, except that the boy became somewhat tense once he got his belt unbuckled.

“Do you want me to?”

“Yes.”

He convulsed a couple of times and his stomach contracted almost imperceptibly and he came quickly, with almost no stimulation. Then the boy buried his face in his shoulder and it suddenly felt wet.

“Are you crying?”

He tilted his head up, placing a finger under his chin so he could look at him straight on.

“Why are you crying?”

“I don’t know,” he answered, clasping onto his neck, still shaking, like a happy child, impenetrable.

 

He liked hearing stories about Roberto’s life and when he could tell he was getting ready to tell one (crossing his legs on the sofa, taking a sip from his glass, fanning out his fingers in an explanatory gesture), he felt the pleasure of someone ready to be seduced by a tale normally no more eventful than falling off a bicycle, or an episode of comic embarrassment, or some family anecdote that was made up, just as all family anecdotes are made up. After a week he realized, in shock, that except for having feigned juvenile enthusiasm a couple of times, he had not told a single lie, and if he hadn’t told any lies it was because the whole thing seemed like a lie; from Roberto’s hands to the way his hair fell, from his pants to his recollections of his mother; a lie that the walls of the apartment, the enclosure, made possible.

“I love your house,” Roberto had said the first time he’d walked in the door.

The keepsakes had accumulated within those four walls like a chorus line on a stage, and what at first had been no more than a shabby, unfurnished house had slowly evolved, since he’d bought it twenty years ago, into something functional, and then comfortable. But now, for the first time, he didn’t just feel comfortable among his things, he felt proud of them, because Roberto had admired them. That’s why part of the game of the first few evenings together had been Roberto asking him about where everything around him had come from. The carefulness with which he approached each object, with which he stroked it when he picked it up and asked “What about this one?” was part of the ritual that, from the start, they had both understood was vital. Roberto was naming the elements of paradise, giving them features and contours, and the boy was happy in his role as Adam, whereas he, whom that twenty-one year old had slowly yet persistently begun to damage, understood that after the euphoria of discovery Roberto would soon realize that their Eden, like all Edens, was a cloistered place, and that what now seemed dazzling would end up stifling him.

Those nights he dreamed repeatedly of lakes and huge expanses of grass where naked boys lay, kissing each other in slow motion. They were silent dreams, leisurely dreams, and all the boys in them did was touch each other and laugh. There was something definitively tender and simple about them, old although they were young, and he recalled himself in the dream taking shelter behind the reeds. It seemed strange to him to note that he, whose erotic imagery in fantasies tended to be violent, woke up content and to recall that in the dream he had not even approached the boys, but had been happy just to watch them.

Whenever Roberto went home, things would take another tack. While it seemed reasonable that someone like him would lose his head over a twenty-one year-old boy, the inverse struck him as perverse. To love an old man like him (though he wasn’t an old man yet, not really), to love an old man the way Roberto loved him, you had to either be lying or wicked. Maybe Roberto was lying, maybe he was just trying to get money out of him (but what money?), maybe it was just morbid curiosity, maybe he was laughing at him right now (why would he do that?), in front of a group of boys his age; that was the most natural explanation, the most reasonable explanation (but what did those words mean? “Natural.” “Reasonable.”). Maybe he was saying, “The old man is all alone, he’s sad; it’s pitiful” (but why would he say that?), maybe he was already over him and that’s why he was so silent, or maybe he was just stupid (but Roberto wasn’t stupid), or he was lying (but someone who lies wouldn’t have written that personal ad) or he was lonely.

The sound of his steps when he arrived, the bell in the elevator, wiping his shoes on the mat—he was waiting on the sofa, that’s why he could always hear him—and then the sound of the key in the door, jangling against other keys for other doors that he didn’t know, that maybe he’d never know, and then his breathless, smiling figure walking in.

“You have no idea how cold it is out there.”

And again, searching the depths of his fear, waiting for the boy to approach when he didn’t want to wait but to run to him and kiss him, like some newlywed shopgirl, and Roberto taking off his coat and tossing it onto the sofa and coming up to him, smiling, “I’m serious, you have no idea how cold it is,” Roberto’s moist lips, his hair, his cheeks slightly flushed from the heating.

“What? You don’t believe me? Feel my hands, they’re freezing.”

That boy whom he would no longer be able to surprise, because in barely a week he’d already gotten over his astonished admiration of the house, the stories about the bank, the cognac.

They decided to watch a video that night. He had rented it that afternoon and Roberto admitted, when he saw the cover, that he’d never even heard of it. He would never remember the title but he remembers that the story was about a fourteen-year-old boy who is traumatized by the death of his father. The boy oscillates between pain and cynicism; the accident that ended his father’s life suddenly had shaken him so badly, taken him to the very limits of what anyone could endure, that it had provoked a different self, one that looked on the suffering of others, and even his own suffering, with a Mephistophelic irony. So at the funeral, when he saw his mother cry and flail her arms around grotesquely, the boy thought with a coldness that distressed even himself, “Good acting, Mother, that would be great on stage.”

He recognized a little of himself in the movie. He, too, had made fun of others’ pain, and of his own, with that sort of coldness, and if he’d done it, it was because most of the time he couldn’t find any compelling reason to love the people who surrounded him. Any show of love he considered an act of voluntary blindness that, when undertaken, was done only out of a physical need for protection, or affection, and always with the expectation that it would be returned, if not immediately, then in the near future. With Roberto it was different. While others were judged and sentenced almost a priori, Roberto walked on water. Others tried to save themselves, to be accepted, to appear pleasant. Roberto was silent, naked, complete. How could he be cynical about him?

When he turned to look at him he saw that he had been hugging his knees since he turned off the television.

“Roberto.”

“What?”

“Did you like the movie?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know…”

“What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking that the world is ugly and people are all unhappy.”

He leaned over to kiss him.

“Even me?”

“No, not you.”

“Do you want to spend the night tonight?”

“Yes.”

They went into the bedroom. Roberto sat down on the bed to take off his shoes and socks.

“Stand up,” he said, and Roberto obeyed quickly, smiling. He unbuttoned his shirt, slowly. He helped him off with his undershirt. Every action produced an immediate and identical reaction in Roberto, and although he liked that, for the first time he thought that the boy’s love could never reach beyond the four walls of his apartment, that everything that was tender there, would be ridiculous, or dirty, or perverted, outside. Soon they were both naked and Roberto jumped under the covers quickly, laughing at having escaped his embrace. He was happy. Radiant. He looked out at him, the covers pulled up to his nose, and his eyes gave away his big, open smile. He gave in to the game of chase eagerly, forgetting his doubts without much trouble.

Holding Roberto’s naked body filled him with a sense of emptiness. He’d had similar experiences years ago, but those had been unpleasant and this filled him with a curious placidness. He had never encountered a body that was as aware of its nakedness as Roberto’s and yet, at the same time, displayed itself so gaily. Nudity was therefore not what it normally was: a presence that was exhausted as it displayed itself, where the mind was able to progress not toward awareness but towards a void that expanded in free fall toward a world in which Roberto was the only teacher, one of pure and simple perception. He must have been exhausted because he fell asleep right away, one arm around the pillow and the other around his waist. He envied the immediacy with which Roberto’s youth allowed him to get what he wanted and recalled the years when he, too, had only to close his eyes in order to fall asleep. He moved Roberto’s hand and turned on the bedside light. He turned around to see if Roberto had woken up, but he’d barely fluttered his eyelids. His pupils appeared and disappeared in the whites of his eyes like a spoon dipping into a glass of milk. In the room’s silence he could hear his breathing, slow and tired. The world howled at the windows in gusts of wind.

 

But the sadness remained. The week and a half of his relationship with Roberto had momentarily hidden, but not resolved, it. The most basic uncertainties surged, in the most basic, most straightforward ways, into the bedroom, the living room, the bathroom whenever he was alone. What could he do now? Thinking about the future was like poking his head into a dark hole from which he could feel the panting breath of some beast. It was as if he was afraid to live, as if he’d forgotten all of the coping mechanisms, the tricks, the lies that made life habitable. How could he possibly show anyone the love he felt for that boy if he himself didn’t believe it entirely? If Roberto called to say he was going to be a little late, he’d start to panic, thinking he didn’t really want to see him, or that he’d met someone else, and that thought, as ridiculous as it might have been, as ridiculous as even he realized that it was, started a downward spiral, made him uneasy and at the same time unable to do anything but picture him somewhere else, with someone else, laughing.

Then Roberto would arrive and he could breathe again, he’d feel himself taking the reins little by little, getting hold of the situation. The simple presence of that silent individual would calm his fears once again.

“Did you think about me today?”

“I thought about you lots.”

“Really?”

“You were everywhere.”

The silence that formed the normal rhythm of those evenings allowed him to take his place in the world and, simultaneously, to watch Roberto. One of those nights it occurred to him that he would never know the boy any better than he did already. All that was left from then on was to learn his likes and dislikes, his reactions, the way he smiled, the way he half-closed his eyes and, although that was the usual way of getting to know someone, in Roberto those were no more than details which gave a little more definition to his initial impression, which was correct, and just. So on those nights, the coquetry he had intuited spontaneously at first materialized in a colored nail polish collection Roberto used to paint his toenails carefully while he looked on in silence, finding a simple solution to life yet again, lacking difficulties beyond those disdained for being all-embracing or infinitesimal. And what was wrong with that? He needed the presence of that twenty-one-year-old, his dark hair falling over his ears, his uncertain smile—part pained, part open—he needed the love and the secrets of that strange creature named Roberto to escape the feeling that life was going to fall apart at every turn.

 

On Christmas Day he went to Marta’s house for dinner in a good mood.  Ramón had made sea bass and the meal was pleasant, though the children made a racket the entire time. Marta said she thought he was looking very well, and Ramón’s sister, who had also come for dinner that night—and who every year, to avoid looking more exhausted or frumpier, wore more make-up— concurred. He was delighted by everything. Even Ramón’s jokes. Something was different, and he didn’t realize what it was until the evening was almost over. He had always sat at that table feeling distant from Marta. She, at least, had Ramón. But the closest things he could remember feeling were that summer in Florence, a well in a cortile in Pisa, beside a fountain, a naked boy who looked at him on a beach in Geneva, the smell of oysters in a restaurant while feeling a hand on his thigh, his face in the mirror wearing lipstick, but these were not memories of a specific person, an individual that he missed; rather, they were like passages from a novel that are remembered at the same time they are recomposed and almost involuntarily embellished and that take on, therefore, the feel of fiction. After that, the identical years at the bank, repeated in his memory as if they were one long day of routines and predetermined movements, and now Roberto. What to do. What to say. And why.

 

It broke the same way as very fragile glass, as a thread holding on a button. He was at home waiting for Roberto to arrive the day after Christmas and the phone rang. It wasn’t Marta, it was José Luis from the bank. He told him he had to go to Barcelona. Three years ago, copying the American-style business plan, the group his bank belonged to had begun the practice of sending an experienced employee to every new city where they opened a branch, to hold meetings and talk about his or her experiences. He had taken those trips frequently, even requested them. He’d always liked leaving Madrid for a few days and living someplace else, with his travel expenses and hotel paid for. But now there was Roberto. He couldn’t leave now.

“I can’t,” he said.

“I’m not asking you if you can; I’m telling you that you will.”

And he felt, on hearing that, that something was breaking. He took leaving Madrid as an imposed abandonment. He would go, and when he returned, nothing would be the same. Roberto would have changed, he wouldn’t love him anymore (but why wouldn’t he?), he’d say he’d met someone else while he was away, or he’d just gotten bored, young people got bored easily, they changed boyfriends all the time.

He was almost afraid to tell Roberto when he arrived, but he loved the idea.

“You’re so lucky,” he said.

“So you don’t mind if I go?”

“Of course not. Why would I mind?”

They talked about their respective Christmas dinners. Roberto’s had been predictable, based on what little he knew about the family he hardly ever spoke of. Both of his sisters had brought their husbands to dinner and one of them announced what her dress had made obvious a month ago: she was pregnant. Roberto said he was excited to be an uncle. But this was not the conversation he wanted to be having.

“Are you sure you want me to go to Barcelona?”

“Of course.”

That’s what Roberto’s replies were always like, enthusiastic and direct, like blows.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

“I want to paint your toenails.”

“Oh no, none of that.”

“Come on, please….”

He gave in quickly and Roberto got out all his little colored bottles. He stroked the boy’s hair while he was lining them up on the table.

“How long will you be there for?”

“Five days.”

“So you’ll be back for New Year’s Eve.”

“Why do you ask?”

“No reason. It’s just there’s a party we could go to.”

“Can’t we stay in, here, that night?”

“What for?”

“To be together. I don’t want to go to a party. We can make dinner here. Have a little Champagne. Take a shower…”

“We can do that any night. I want to go to this party.”

“Oh.”

Suddenly, Roberto was twenty-one. Why wouldn’t a twenty-one year-old boy want to go to a New Year’s Eve party? If he sometimes forgot how old he was, it was because he seemed older, because he half-closed his eyes like an adult, he was quiet like an adult, and he listened. But he was twenty-one. It had become clear, again, and when it became clear he felt as if he was corrupting him, as if the reason he was so afraid to let anyone else know about their relationship was because he himself was embarrased of it. But he wasn’t embarrassed, he was just scared. Afraid he would stop loving him, or stop being loved by him. Roberto was leaning over his feet. His bangs were falling over his eyes and his lips were contorted into the ridiculous expression of someone concentrating so hard on something that they have a ridiculous expression on their face without realizing it. He looked ugly now. Now he was just a kid who worked in a bar and a laundromat, who didn’t understand anything, because Roberto did not understand him, how could a twenty-one year-old boy understand him? He tried to remember what he had been like at that age but all he could muster up was a few fleeting images of Marta, of a boy he had liked at university and who he’d gone out drinking beer with on occasion, of his mother. Roberto had put on the Chopin record. Ever since he’d said that was what he liked, that was what Roberto put on. And now he was getting tired of Chopin, and he was getting tired of Roberto’s expression, his stubbornness over this stupid party, and even the fact that he hadn’t been upset about his trip to Barcelona. Because, really, didn’t his lack of concern about the trip imply some degree of indifference? If he didn’t care about the trip to Barcelona, it meant that deep down the boy was not as interested in him as he’d thought.

“All done. You like it?”

His toenails twinkled up at him, yellow, and blue, and red.

“Now you have to blow on them, like this, so they dry.”

Roberto smiled as he blew and he suddenly felt a little fit of rage. But it wasn’t rage, it was pain. No, it wasn’t pain, either. He raised the boy’s head and kissed him violently. Roberto, though at first he played along, was a little confused by that reaction. He began to undress him, quickly, and after the initial doubt, Roberto seemed happy to join in the game and do it right there on the sofa, for no apparent reason. It was different. There was absolutely no doubt now. He pulled down his pants and went down on him. But not the way he usually did, not slowly, not feeling like he saw himself reflected in the boy the way on other nights he’d thought he saw himself reflected in the boy. He was, simply, sucking Roberto’s dick, and realizing this made him feel comfortable momentarily because he knew all about that. Sex was simple, what tortured him was what was beneath the sex; that was why he felt comfortable. Sucking Roberto’s dick was a simple act with no consequences as long as it stopped there. It was the rest of it that made him suffer, the other things: the same Chopin melody, the life Roberto led that he knew nothing of. He’d leave him, he was sure, sooner or later, he would get bored, he’d turn up one day and invent some absurd excuse to leave him, and he would have to go back to the bank as if it were no big deal, as if nothing had happened, as if nothing had ever happened. That’s why it was better this way, treating him like a blow-up doll.

He was so lost in these thoughts that he didn’t even realize that Roberto had stopped playing along. The boy had stopped touching him some time ago, and when he realized he was slowing down, too, he lifted his head. He was kneeling in front of Roberto, who looked down on him with something like compassion from what seemed an impossible height.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

There was no recriminating tone in his voice, just pity, just something that, like pity was slow and difficult.

“Can’t you see I’m an old man?”

“Come on, you’re not an old man, you’re only fifty.”

“I’m fifty-six.”

There was a long silence, as if those six years, and not the lie, had opened a wound that would never heal, as if fifty-six was, really, the maximum expression of old age.

“In twenty years,” he went on, “when you are a gorgeous forty-year-old man, a healthy, mature man, I’ll need help eating and getting dressed because it will be too hard for me to do on my own anymore. Did you ever think of that?”

“No.”

“Well, it’s true.”

“I’ll help you eat and get dressed,” Roberto replied, after a short silence, and he couldn’t help smiling.

“Don’t do that, don’t smile like that. Don’t make me feel bad.”

“I don’t want you to feel bad, I just want to tell you what will happen in the end.”

“But you love me, right?”

“Of course.”

 

The trip to Barcelona was one long replay of that conversation. Why had he said “of course” when Roberto asked him if he loved him? Why hadn’t he just said “yes” or “I love you”? His unhappiness at having to be away from Roberto was compounded by the tediousness of the meetings. He hardly left the hotel out of fear that he might call and he wouldn’t be able to answer the phone right away. If Roberto didn’t call him in the late afternoon from the bar, then he called him at night. Roberto thought the perfect conversation was one in which he said he loved him and missed him to death, over and over and over. He often asked him what he was wearing. Roberto would kiss the telephone mouthpiece.

“Last night I dreamed that you were here, with me, and we didn’t have to go anywhere and I was painting your nails.”

“They’re still painted.”
            “I know.”

It’s not that he didn’t actually miss him, but he realized that he missed him in a different way. Ever since he’d confessed his real age, ever since Roberto’s surprise, since the “I love you” question, he had felt intermittently that the relationship was going to end imminently, and that seemed logical, almost acceptable, but other times, especially at night, the world once again became a complex machine in which it would be impossible to live without the boy’s help.

The third night, the phone woke him in the middle of the night. It was Roberto. He was calling from a phone booth. His voice was choked and it seemed he was trying not to cry. A group of boys had been waiting for him when he left the bar. He knew one of them by sight. When he walked out they spat at him and called him faggot. He tried not to get tangled up, but the scene had become drawn out for a while, for as long as it had taken him to get to a busy street. The boys had run off when they saw the police car and Roberto stood there, motionless and pathetic like a tree with no leaves. He took off his jacket and wiped the spit from his face and hair. He, who was not violent, told this violent story, rabid, just to survive.

“They didn’t hurt you, did they?”

“No. I would have preferred that. They wanted to humiliate me and they did.”

“No, no they didn’t.”

There was a long silence in which he heard a bus accelerate, and the sound of a car horn.

“Bastards,” said something that sounded like Roberto’s voice.

“I wish I were there so I could hug you.”

“I wish you were here so you could hug me, too.”

“Roberto.”

“What?”

“I love you.”

He’d said it without thinking, it was a logical procession, a necessary one, but as soon as he said it he felt afraid. Roberto didn’t answer and his silence made the solemnity palpable. His eyes passed over the objects in the room: the towels on the sofa, the television, the mini-bar, the night pushing in through the windows.

“Really?”

“Yes.”

Again the towels, the television, again the fear.

“I love you, too.”

The day after that, which was the last day of his trip, they did not repeat those words although they spoke on the phone. Roberto’s silence at the end of the conversation awaited their repetition without too much insistence although it was enough to make his need for them palpable. And he, in turn, felt as if those words, the recollection of those words, had suddenly drilled a hole in the wall that would now be impossible to repair, and if he felt frightened when he landed back in Madrid, it was because he realized that now there was no longer any doubt, he was vulnerable.

Roberto was waiting for him at his apartment. He had asked for the day off so he could surprise him, and he assured him it had not been easy, because it was December 31 and they were having a party at the bar where he worked. When he hugged him he felt Roberto’s body with a sense of novelty, his arms, his hair. He tasted like cigarettes and mint-flavored gum and he looked different, too, more filled out somehow.

“You look gorgeous.”

“Thank you.”

He had brushed his hair and he was wearing a new shirt, ironed, and nice shoes.

“I wanted to look good when you got back.”

Roberto really was splendid in his beauty that afternoon. They talked about everything except the unpleasant incident with the gang of boys and every time he brought up something amusing he felt caught up in the boy’s laugh, felt a part of it, and at the same time contemplated how much of his life had also been lived by Roberto, from afar. The boy remembered every tiny detail of the collection of anecdotes he’d told about his meetings, the names of all the people, the jokes that had been told, as if he had been there.

They made love slowly that night and drank cognac naked on the unmade bed. His body smelled of sweat and cologne. He noticed that Roberto had cleaned the apartment and left a bunch of daisies by the mirror and sunflowers in the bathroom.

“Where did you get the flowers?”

“Well, it’s about time! I thought you were never going to notice!” A smile of contained indignation broke out. “I bought them at the market yesterday. I love daisies and sunflowers…Have you ever seen Van Gogh’s sunflowers? They’re so beautiful.”

Again, the child. He had brought Van Gogh to him, right there on the sheets, was windmilling his arms in the air to imitate the starry night. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Van Gogh, but he felt a sort of indulgent affection for him, like a childish passion, crude and impressionable. And there was Roberto, lost in praise for his strong colors and passionate brushstrokes, of course, drifting away from him again. How could he introduce this child to anyone? What was he thinking? He let the predictable conversation about cut-off ears and hysteria run its course, and when it died down, Roberto became the boy he’d dreamed about for five long days once more. He envied his youth again, his agility when he watched him leap out of bed to run naked to the bathroom. He had been that way once, too.

“Well, we have to get dressed soon,” he said when he came back, pausing in the bedroom doorway.

“Get dressed for what?”

“For the party. Don’t you remember the party I told you about tonight?”

“I don’t want to go to any party, I want to stay here with you.”

“But don’t you remember? We talked about it. And besides, I already bought you a ticket.”

“Well. I can just picture what it will be like, this party.”

He didn’t want to go, so everything Roberto said about the venue, the friends who would be there, the open bar, seemed to confirm his decision not to go rather than entice him. What would he do surrounded by all those boys? Wouldn’t he seem ridiculous? Wouldn’t they laugh at him? He’d always felt an almost visceral disdain for those people who held on to some absurd sense of adolescence when they were too old to do so, who refused to dress their age, who went to young bars, told young jokes, and that disdain, that he had felt since he was at college and that had often impelled him to dress and act older than he was, now made it impossible for him to even contemplate the idea of going with Roberto now.

“So who is going to this party, tell me, who that I know?”

“No one, but they’re really nice boys.”

“Can’t you see? That’s the problem. They’re nice boys.”

“Well, I’m a boy, too,” Roberto said, imitating the disdainful tone he had placed on the word.

“It’s different with you.”

“Oh, yeah? Why?”

He didn’t want to be having that conversation and yet he knew that Roberto was taking him, maybe unintentionally, into the pit of his fear.

“It’s different with you because you’re older, really.”

“I am no older or more mature than any of them, and they’re my friends and I love them.”

“I’m not telling you not to love them, or saying that they’re not nice, I’m sure they are…”

“But…?”

“I don’t know, Roberto.”

“Look, all I know is that you’ve been acting strange ever since you got back from Barcelona. You have no idea what it took for me to get the night off and you don’t seem to appreciate it at all, and I put flowers everywhere and you don’t even notice…”

There was a silence in which Roberto seemed to expect him to agree, and he didn’t. Although he was right, he just looked at him without saying anything, praying silently that he would not go down that road.

“And besides, the tickets cost me eight thousand pesetas each,” he concluded, almost whispering.

“If that’s what you’re worried about, you can take the money from my wallet.”

“Don’t be stupid.”

Roberto started to get dressed, quickly, without looking at him.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m going.”

“Well, then, don’t come back. If you leave, don’t bother coming back.”

“You are a real asshole.”

“Yes, I am.”

Why was he doing that? Why was he sitting there, motionless, watching him get dressed, wearing that stupid, self-sufficient expression on his face, pretending he didn’t care if Roberto left? What was he going to do now? Roberto put on his shoes and left the room. He heard him put on his coat by the door. He slammed the door when he left. He looked at the unmade bed, the glass Roberto had drunk out of, the ashtray full of butts, the flowers.

“Don’t go,” he said.

 

A second went by, and then another, and then another, and with each passing second a void accumulated, making a minute, and then thirty, and then an hour when the sky turned a leaden gray, with no faces but with voices calling to each other on the street, laughing on their way to a party, maybe the one Roberto was going to. Twelve o’clock was just another minute, one when he heard the ruckus of a group of kids who had been taken by surprise under his window as the clock struck. Then the phone rang and he felt his blood run cold. He tripped over a piece of furniture as he ran to the living room to get it. It was Marta. Happy New Year, and did he want to come over, Ramón was there and the kids hadn’t gone to bed yet. No, he didn’t want to. He had a bad headache. Since he’d boarded the plane, ever since he’d boarded the plane his head had hurt terribly. He hung up. He thought about Roberto, but as if he’d never belonged to him, and he was afraid, again, to stop loving him, to stop being loved by him. He dressed quickly, without a clear idea of what he was going to do, and went out. He recalled that Roberto had once told him that he liked to go to the bars in Chueca so that’s where he headed. It was too crowded and everyone was shouting. The annoying presence of happiness rejected him like a foreign body and he felt, suddenly, very old amongst all those drunk teenagers.

“Happy New Year!” a boy next to him cried, looking at him. “And cheer up, man, it’s New Year’s Eve!”

Roberto wasn’t there. Or, rather, he was everywhere. A back, a similar coat, a voice. Every time he thought he saw him his heart would start to race. He’d tell him he was so sorry, that he had acted like an idiot, that he had been right, that he wasn’t embarrassed of him, or of his friends, that it was just that he was scared. Could he understand that? Of course he could, he’d go to the damn party, they’d get drunk together, and then they’d go back home together. He wouldn’t do it again, he swore he wouldn’t do that again.

Roberto didn’t appear. In his place, the night took on a cold, icy chill. The cars were all honking their horns in an infectious jubilation that seemed artificial. A boy vomited in the doorway of a bar. He went back home slowly, burdened by the unbearable weight of love.

 

He called him three times the next morning but got the answering machine each time. On his fourth attempt—it was almost two o’clock—Roberto’s tired voice answered.

“Roberto…”

“Hello.”

“Roberto, I’m so sorry, I acted like a complete idiot last night.”

“Yeah.”

His voice sounded tired, or disappointed, or sad.

“Do you want to come over? I bought champagne, and lamb. We can have lamb.”

“I’m going home for dinner, with my sisters.”

“You could come over afterward.”

“OK.”

“Will you come?”

“Yes.”

“What time?”

“I don’t know, about eight.”

“Eight? Can’t you come any earlier?”

“No.”

“OK, eight. Lots of love.”

“Bye.”

Roberto didn’t come at eight. Or eight thirty. Or nine. At nine fifteen he heard the elevator coming up, but there had already been so many false alarms that he didn’t get excited until he heard it stop on his floor, and when it did, he didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know if he should run to the door or stay on the sofa, as he normally did. Roberto opened the door with his key and he got up. He walked over to him. Roberto’s furrowed brow made him look strangely unattractive, like a child having a tantrum.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“You’re an asshole.”

“I know. Do you forgive me?”

“I guess.”

They kissed. Within two hours Roberto’s reservations seemed to have vanished completely and they were taking off their clothes in the bedroom. Roberto asked him what he’d done last night and he confessed that he’d gone out to look for him. This pleased Roberto and wanted to hear every detail.

“You never would have found me in Chueca because I wasn’t there, I was in Sol.”

“Did you have fun?”

“No, everyone kept asking me what was wrong, why I wasn’t dancing or anything.”

“You didn’t dance?”

“I didn’t have anyone to dance with.”

“I bet there were thousands of guys who were dying to dance with you.”

“There were lots of guys, but I didn’t want to dance with them.”

Roberto was wearing lipstick, and his lips were so full and fleshy that they gave his whole face an almost fictional quality and he felt an almost religious devotion to him, as if he couldn’t quite believe that this boy actually loved him.

He had that day off, and the next, and the following two, as well. Since he’d worked an extra day in Barcelona, they were giving him a day in lieu. The joy of the night they made up turned out to be, in part, fictitious. It wasn’t long before his fear, jealousy, anxiety returned. At times he even thought he would have been better off if he’d never met Roberto. He was tired of living in a constant state of agitation and some part of him missed the peace he’d felt in his years of resignation, when happiness was simple and had no consequence, when it was a tumbler of Napoleon cognac in his after-dinner daze, when it was expensive cigarettes, the odd dinner at an elegant restaurant.

Roberto’s love moved him, and yet, ever since the night of the argument, it seemed as if something had broken; it wasn’t the argument itself (which had been unimportant), but the consequences it had had. In the same way that sometimes a beautiful body stops being beautiful when it is put on display, Roberto’s silence, like all things peaceful, could become intolerably boring. And yet beneath that “no” lay a passion for the “yes” that broke each time he observed Roberto’s unwavering need to be a loving creature. Within his predictable form of loving—nothing could be as predictable as his kindness—youth at times conquered corporeality, the voluptuousness of a look, and that was when he became, once again, indecipherable.

One of those evenings, Roberto called one of his friends who worked at the Laundromat and they spoke for about fifteen minutes. Roberto had apparently decided to make the call, actually, because when he sat down next to him on the sofa, he didn’t pay any attention. He was watching the news and, though it wasn’t very interesting, he felt Roberto’s presence like an intrusion. Feeling himself rejected, Roberto had gone, with no resentment, to make a phone call, and when he did, he couldn’t stop looking at him. Roberto asked for Marcos and he thought he noted from the tone of the conversation that there had been some complicity between the two of them, jokes that he wouldn’t understand and that, nevertheless, made Roberto laugh hysterically, carefree. The discomfort he felt watching Roberto laugh was too complex to be called simply “jealousy”. That was the first time he became aware of the fact that there was a huge part of the twenty-one year-old boy’s life that he would never be a part of, and that he suddenly felt an urgent need to share. When had Roberto ever laughed that way with him? Why hadn’t he? The boy who was on the phone (legs crossed, cigarette in the ashtray), was he Roberto or not? And if that was the real Roberto, then why did he have the impression that he didn’t know him? Within a few seconds he became terrified by the idea that Roberto had gotten tired of him. It all added up, it was a perfect syllogism: Roberto had never loved him, he had, at first, admired him, and later pitied him, so his love would last as long as his admiration or his pity; he would never truly possess that boy who was laughing carefree, with bare feet and painted toenails, because he was not equal to him. What happened then went beyond self-disdain, or the desire to be like someone else, to be someone else; what happened then is that he yearned to be the boy Roberto was talking to, to be twenty, to work at the Laundromat, to have to save up for a night at the theater, and for cigarettes, to make Roberto laugh like that.

“Who’s that Marcos?”

“Oh, just a friend. We work together at the Laundromat. Why?”

“No reason.”

He tried to feign indifference while still staring at the television but Roberto suddenly burst out laughing.

“Are you jealous of Marcos?”

“Me?”

“You’re jealous of Marcos!” Roberto shouted, endlessly amused by the discovery, almost proud of having been able to incite jealousy. He felt stupid for having started the conversation and wanted to end it as quickly as possible, but he also wanted Roberto to squelch his fears, to tell him that Marcos was incredibly unattractive. And that feeling made him uncomfortable because he realized that his worry was almost infantile.

“You’re jealous of Marcos!” Roberto repeated, standing in front of him so he could look into his eyes, still laughing.

“Stop it.”

“You’re jealous of Marcos!” Roberto repeated again, putting his hands on his legs so it was impossible not to look at him. He pushed Roberto off and jumped up suddenly.

“Well, so what? So what if I am jealous, you stupid idiot?”

Roberto stopped laughing immediately and opened his eyes wide. Roberto’s enormous brown eyes, staring at him.

“Hey…” Roberto said.

“You don’t understand anything,” he answered, storming off. But when he’d left the living room he didn’t know what to do, so he headed for the bedroom.

“Hey…” Roberto said, walking in, with a tinge of sadness in his voice. He didn’t turn around to look at him; that would have been too easy, too predictable.

“What.”

He felt Roberto put his arms around him from behind.

“Marcos is just a guy I work with, I’m not interested in him at all and he’s had a girlfriend for the past three years. Don’t get like this.”

“Like what?”

“Please. Sometimes you’re infuriating,” Roberto said, removing his arms and going back to the living room. He heard him turn off the television and put on the Chopin record, which lasted only a few seconds because he took it off almost immediately and put on that modern music that he had once bought for him, and that from the bedroom he took to be the definitive sign of Roberto’s no longer trying to please him. He was young, insultingly young, and always would be. That choice proved it. This was what he had feared ever since he’d started having this relationship with him; he had gotten tired of him, of putting up with him, he was suffocating, and so he was not surprised when Roberto came back into the bedroom and said he needed a break, just a few days, to think.

“Think about what?”

“About us, what do you think?” he said.

 

That night he hadn’t cared that Roberto went home, but the following day he had to stop himself several times from dialing his number. He had asked for four days, for him not to call, and although exhaustion had, at the time, made him believe that it wouldn’t be a difficult feat, in actuality not even one day had gone by and it was already hard as hell.

The anxiety and nerves of the first day were followed by desperation on the second. He had gone to bed the night before repeating to himself, in an attempt to calm down, that Roberto was going to call him the next day and at five o’clock he was so nervous that he hadn’t even been able to have lunch. He went down to walk the dog, who had become more unsociable than usual due to the lack of affection he’d received in the past couple of weeks. Roberto had said he wanted to think “about us.” What a stupid expression. About us. It sounded like something out of a teenage miniseries. “To think about us,” Roberto had said, as if he were on one of those stupid television series that he probably watched every day when he got home, like any other twenty-one year-old boy. He could be his father. That had occurred to him many times before, but at that precise moment the thought crossed the limits of the grotesque. He could be Roberto’s father. He didn’t feel guilty then, he felt deceived; there had never, from the start, been any substantial reason Roberto could complain about the way he’d treated him. He had always treated him to absolutely everything and never skimped on anything: the most expensive wine, the best meat, cigarettes. What did that boy have to complain about? About his not going to that party? Hadn’t that been Roberto’s own fault, really? He had told him, right from the first, that he didn’t want to go and, inverting roles, he didn’t think he would ever have insisted on Roberto doing anything he had expressly and immediately said he really did not want to do. Really, he’d done it to test him.

But there was something in all that that didn’t add up. To believe that would have meant believing that Roberto was shrewd, and wicked, which was something he also could not accept. He returned home at night, after the longest walk with the dog he could ever recall, starving. He fried up a couple of steaks and wolfed them down almost violently, and then he went to bed. He couldn’t sleep. He smoked three cigarettes in a row. He vomited.

The morning of the third day he felt exhausted, but he also couldn’t stand the idea of being at home. Everything reminded him of Roberto. He called Marta and asked if he could come over for lunch.

“Of course…Are you OK?”

“Yes, I’m fine, I just feel like seeing you. Is that so strange?”

“No, of course not.  Come, come on over, whenever you like.”

In the time that passed while he was waiting for three o’clock to arrive, a strange destructive streak grew in him. He recalled years gone by with nostalgia, not because he preferred solitude, nobody in their right mind preferred solitude, but because at least he knew where he stood with solitude. Thinking about his condition filled him with a mixture of displeasure and rage. And his picture of Roberto began to take on an almost dangerous, threatening air. Now he was afraid, not of Roberto falling out of love with him, but of Roberto himself.

Marta was home alone. Ramón was working and the kids wouldn’t be home till six.

“Are you sure you’re OK?”

“Why do you keep asking?” he replied, slightly irritated.

“Well, to be honest, because you never come over for lunch on a weekday, just like that.”

“Well, I’m still on vacation, and since I couldn’t see you over New Year’s…”

Marta, though she looked surprised throughout lunch and kept asking about his health and his job in an attempt to find the real reason for the visit, finally gave in to the idea that her brother had actually just come over because he wanted to chat. Then when they were having coffee, she suddenly smacked her forehead, as if she’d forgotten something unforgivable.

“You remember Uncle Juan?”

“Yes. Is he OK?”

“Is he OK? He’s getting married!”

“How old is he now?”

“Sixty-three. But wait, that’s not the best part. Get this: the lucky bride-to-be is twenty-eight.”

Marta interpreted his silence as a sign of the same incredulity that she must have felt on hearing the news, and this encouraged her.

“That’s the same reaction I had. Dumbfounded.”

“What does he say about it?”

“Who, Uncle Juan? Uncle Juan says they’re in love, and really, maybe he is, but the girl…? Personally I think Uncle Juan, aside from being rich, is horny as hell, that’s what I think.”

“Do you think it’s impossible for two people with a big age difference to fall in love?”

Marta pursed her lips, but since he didn’t say anything she seemed to feel obliged to go into detail.

“Look, the way I see it, if an old man falls in love with a young woman, that’s not necessarily bad, because it happens all the time, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s normal for a woman to fall in love with a young guy, but she doesn’t really fall in love with him, she just gets a crush on him, you know what I mean, but for a young girl to throw herself into the arms of an old man, that’s just ugly, it’s not natural, I don’t know, just think about the girl in ten years time, people will think it’s his granddaughter taking him for a walk.”

Lunch with Marta and especially the story about his uncle gave him a strange sense of peace that confirmed the impossibility of his relationship with Roberto, and then he felt overcome by a coldness that analyzed his relationship not as something disagreeable, but as something almost immoral, dirty, something he had fallen into as a result of having been lonely for so many years.

 

Roberto called the next day and he said that he was waiting for him, and to come over. When he saw him walk in, he observed the same symptoms of worry that he had: his ears, the tired tone of voice, a contained sadness.

“Hello,” Roberto said.

He had lost his charm; now he was just a defeated boy whom he looked at from the stature of his fifty-six years, almost condescendingly.

“Well. Did you think ‘about us’ or not?”

Roberto was so sad that he didn’t even catch the irony in his words.

“Actually, I came for help, for you to tell me what I should do. I’ve been thinking about it so much, but…”

“You want to leave me, that’s what you want to do, but you don’t know how because you feel such pity for me. But you know what? I don’t want anybody’s pity, so you don’t have to worry about it. I don’t get you hot anymore, right? Isn’t that how you say it nowadays? I don’t get you hot. I used to get you hot, I don’t know why, maybe it was morbid curiosity, but now you’re bored, you won’t admit it, of course, but I know. I’m not saying you don’t feel anything at all for me, maybe a little affection, because you’re either a very good liar or you feel something, but that’s not enough for me, and if I say you don’t understand me, it’s because you don’t understand me, how could you understand me, you’d have to have spent twenty years alone to understand me, alone, with nobody, for almost as many years as you’ve been alive, that’s how long I’ve been alone. Have you ever thought about that? Tell me, have you ever thought about that?”

“Yes, of course I have,” he said. “Why are you talking to me like that?”

“Well, if you’ve thought about that,” he continued, trying not to lose his line of reasoning, “then you should have realized that you can’t just turn up, the way you turned up, and ask me to become a twenty-one-year-old, because that can’t happen, Roberto, you can’t ask me to go to some bar and get drunk as if I might want to do that because I don’t. Before you came along I was used to my life, I had compensations, the little things that made me happy, and that was enough, and now it’s going to take me five years to get over you. What about that? Did you ever think about that? You didn’t, did you? And don’t tell me you need another break and then come back a week later and tell me that you’re leaving me. Just walk out the door and disappear if you want, but don’t tell me you need another break. There. Now I’ve done all your work for you; what do you think?”

“I think you’ve said it all, it’s all about you, and you didn’t even really think about me,” Roberto responded, his voice choked.

“Too much. I thought about you. Too much.”

“It seems like you’re asking me to leave you.”

“I’m asking you to leave me because deep down that’s what you really want to do, Roberto.”

“You’re asking me to leave you because I don’t love you, but really, I’m going to leave you because I’m starting to realize that it’s you who doesn’t love me.”

He didn’t answer. Roberto’s reply was like a slap in the face. The whole feeling of discursive, argumentative coherence that he thought he’d maintained throughout his speech was brought down by Roberto’s few words. He took out his set of keys to the apartment and left them on the table by the front door. Then he put on his coat.

“I think you’re a sad man,” Roberto said as he turned around and closed the door slowly, without the slam he’d been expecting.

The dog barked. He could hear the second hand of the living room clock tick as the elevator came to his floor, and the door opened, and Roberto got in. He stuck his head out the window and saw him walk out, stop, catch a bus. Outside, winter’s chill cut to the bone.