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Regeneration

It was a beautiful summer night, few stars in the sky, but a big, bright moon. Juan was on his way home after a tiring day’s work. Home meant apartment C, second floor, in a building that was still grand, though getting old and decrepit. As he approached, he couldn’t resist peering in at the bar on the corner. Through the glow of the main window, which ran the full length of the shop front, he could make out Jovino, Armando, and Miguel, sitting at their usual table. Many people were missing, but the die-hards were there. Sensing danger, wary they might be able to see him just as he could see them, Juan turned away, quickening his step. In vain, for Miguel was already calling to him, there was no chance of escape. Juan really was exhausted, he’d been working late at the newspaper for over a week, but he feared the loneliness of his apartment more than he did the tedium of the bar, and so he turned around, acted surprised, sighed, and went in.

The Lucky II was practically empty. In truth, it had long stopped being the colorful, crowded hive of its heyday. And like the bar, the gatherings had lost the charm and buzz they'd once had. Most of the original members had given up on the group, and the ones who hadn’t always found an excuse to leave early. Some tried to explain it away by saying the bar lacked atmosphere, that it was inconveniently located, that the street was getting more dangerous by the day, that the group’s discussions offered nothing new, that Miguel and Jovino were despots who always imposed their own views and never let anyone else speak.

When they saw him, Armando and Jovino got excited for a moment. Ah, it’s a ghost! they exclaimed, but they soon forgot about him and went back to talking as usual. Juan cast a nostalgic glance at the Matisse hanging over the table where they sat. It reminded him of the bar's good old days. It was a quality print of a painting, of goldfish in a pretty bowl, a present from Miguel to Don Emilio, the previous landlord. The new owner, who was in fact the manager, would really have preferred something more modern, but he’d never dared take the Matisse down out of respect for the old regulars, and for Don Emilio, whom he considered something of a talisman. After a few minutes, Juan felt weary: he hadn’t been in there for months and yet nothing had changed; Armando and Jovino were still obsessed by the same things. Armando, a passionate devotee of North American literature, was talking about a short story by John Cheever, a story so pared-down it had been stripped of all excess: no cheap tricks or effects, no rhetoric, just the great art of precisely constructed prose. Jovino, on the other hand, couldn’t stand North American writers. He pounded the table and said: Bouvard et Pecuchet, L’education sentimental, writing of such rigor and clarity as to lay waste to a whole century, a whole world of illusion and siren song. Books, books, always books, grumbled Miguel. Some people walk around with their heads in the clouds, but with you guys it's books. Well that’s what we are, said Jovino, walking books. Juan suddenly realized it was Thursday, not Wednesday, and he asked them whether they’d changed the day of the gatherings. No, never, absolutely not, they answered. Wednesdays were set in stone, but yesterday had been Sandro's birthday and they’d gone over to his house to celebrate. It was an unforgettable feast, Jovino said. You can only imagine the things we ate: clam chowder, lamb skewers, turkey in chocolate sauce . . . Asparagus quiche, Armando joined in, cake with yellow grapes and orange cream. Then he looked at his watch. Oh! he said, and quickly put his jacket on. You off already? asked Miguel. I’m off already, Armando answered and, turning back to Juan, exclaimed: My God, you can only imagine how delicious it all was!

Juan didn’t have to try very hard to imagine. Sandro was a great host, a gourmet, a culinary scholar, but no matter how great the quality and quantity of the food and drink, Juan never felt comfortable in Sandro's home. Despite the great gastronomic spread, the fine wines and sparkling conversation, in which everyone competed to sound smarter and wittier than everyone else, the guests quickly lost their composure and all of them, without exception, Sandro leading the way, ended up asleep or ranting away like street drunks. Juan had been to Sandro's place a few times. But Juan wasn’t properly part of the group, he was only really friends with Miguel and Jovino, particularly Miguel, whom he’d known since university. Miguel was already considered an intellectual back then, while Juan was the apathetic teenager, yet to find his way. Juan had never got along with Sandro, they'd just never clicked. Besides, Sandro's poetry, depersonalized, something of a cross between the classical and the provincial, no longer appealed to Juan. Its clever mix of high tradition and modern vulgarity, of big cities—New York, London, Paris—and Tinaquillo, Sandro's native landscape, had dazzled Juan at first, but he now found it hollow and fatuous, having come to prefer more authentic poets.

And what about the great Mingus? I haven't seen him in ages, Juan said, recalling the smartest member of the group, or at least Juan considered him the smartest. In case you haven't heard, Miguel replied, Mingus no longer frequents bars. Indeed he's not touched a drop for over a year. Nobody could believe he'd managed it, as if it was some kind of miracle, but in fact it was a beautiful tale of love and regeneration. It's said he now lives with a French-Colombian missionary nun, who was supposed to go to Africa but gave everything up for him: whatever African country it was she was heading for, the vows she'd not long taken, the whole sisterhood. Some people said they met at the rehab clinic where Mingus was, others that the nuns' minibus had broken down near Maracaibo and Mingus had come to rescue them in his old Jeep, others that he was the one who'd broken down and the nuns had come to his aid . . . anyway . . . whatever it was, he was no longer the wild and opinionated Mingus of old, the Mingus who was so difficult to control, so difficult to handle. He was a new man, well-dressed, clean-shaven, hair neat and tidy. He'd taken to studying Chinese poets, would have nothing to do with Western poetry, nor with the Latinos, the Provençales, Vallejo, not even the Surrealists, whom he had once venerated but now, in adult life, found embarrassing. He would have nothing to do with his beloved German poets either, whom he'd studied in great depth in their own language. And nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with his old friends. Someone had heard him say he couldn't imagine what would have become of him if he hadn't discovered the Chinese poets, who thankfully had been so well translated from the Mandarin into English and French by the most knowledgeable Sinologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. That he couldn't imagine what would have become of him without the fine, sensitive Chinese poets and his nun girlfriend. Without art and sanctity, wisdom and pleasure. Miguel seemed to talk and pause for breath in tandem with his thoughts, a consequence of his many years as a conference speaker and university lecturer. Juan had been to some of his talks and could vouch for the fact that there was something hypnotic and seductive in his way of speaking, how he brought to light hidden nuances and connotations, coordinating his voice with a raised finger or hand. Yet now, in a bar, gathered with old friends, these elegant gestures and verbal pretensions struck Juan as being out of place. The headlights of a bus lingered on the window for a few moments. A long and heavy silence fell, the glass darkened, the engine could be heard starting up again. Juan recalled an old Chaplin film in which a train pulled away and the play of light and shadow, that would be endlessly repeated throughout cinema, reflected on a girl's face. It was a film from the twenties, a melodramatic tale of an ill-fated love affair. Chaplin had originally called it Public Opinion, but the producers changed its name to A Woman of Paris. Juan had seen it five years earlier in a dilapidated cinema in Lima, while attending a journalists’ conference. He’d forgotten most of the story, but not the force of the images shot through smoke, glass, and mirrors, or the drama on the young woman’s face as lights flashed across it, her kohl-lined eyes fixed on the edge of the deserted platform. The scene was so evocative that he could hear the pneumatic sound of the doors closing, the pounding of the wheels, the screeching of the rails, the pull of the train as it went on its way, quickly, air and smoke billowing all around it. You could sense her pain through her eyes, glistening with tears. The pain of waiting for someone who hadn't come.

Juan ordered a whisky, the others stuck to beer. The waiter, who was normally quite chatty, seemed annoyed and pursed his lips, giving them a dirty look. By this point all Escalante can think about is getting home, poor guy, he’s got a wife and kids, Miguel said in a low voice, before raising it and saying: We’ll be out of your hair soon, Escalante. We’ll make this the last one.

Juan couldn’t stop thinking about Mingus, about what he’d just been told. But he was skeptical of his friends and knew how much they tended to exaggerate and confuse things, inventing and embellishing stories, promising to one day get round to putting them down on paper, though they rarely ever did. Made up or not, Juan decided he needed more information. Now let’s see, where’s the proof, where are the eyewitness accounts? There’s a lot of people say, I heard, and the story goes . . . but it's all hearsay, all a bit too vague. Have any of you actually met this nun? Has anyone even seen her? Miguel and Jovino said nothing, as if they hadn’t understood. The nun? The nun, sure. Jovino said he’d had the pleasure, very much in passing, just for a few seconds one afternoon, months ago, she was coming out of the market with Mingus, weighed down with shopping. He said she seemed rather small, white-skinned with a tanned complexion, blue eyes . . . expressive . . . brown hair, round face like a schoolgirl, an easy smile on her lips, rather pretty, in an old-fashioned way, and her skin was soft, not rough like nuns’ skin often is. Mingus, he said, was in a rush to get going, he looked very nervous, he was stuttering, barely even said hello, obviously didn’t introduce her; if anything, he tried to hide her, shielding her with his body. Sonia, Armando's sister, had also bumped into them, at the cinema. It seems Mingus was friendlier to her, told her he was living at the beach, in a house surrounded by palm trees, that in the coming months he'd be going to Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. The nun, who stuck to Mingus as if afraid of losing him, looked small but strong, slender and toned, not ugly, just plain, simple, and besides she was dressed like a secular nun, without a hint of style: plain blouse, pleated or flared skirt, the classic pair of basic sandals. But, he added, Sonia had always been a little in love with Mingus and she was the jealous sort, didn't like rivals. The bit about going to Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai must be a joke, said Miguel. Perhaps not, I'd imagine his father, who deals in precious stones don't forget, would stop at nothing to have his son recover, even pay for him to travel halfway round the world. Jovino went on looking at them thoughtfully, then made a dismissive gesture with his hand. Baudelaire said that modern poets have to fall into the mire of the macadam to write good verse. Mingus has spent enough time in the mire of the macadam, enough time amongst Circes and witches, it's time for him to cure his infinite thirst in a chaste and virginal bed, to visit the lands of Li Po, Tu Fu, Su Chung, Wang Wei, I'd say the exotic lands, but plenty of tourists go there these days, he concluded.

People had started to leave. Only one other table was still occupied, by two middle-aged couples, the women softly singing boleros, the men watching them through drooping eyelids, and in another corner of the bar, talking to the barman, a fat man with a short ponytail and a Panama hat, a cigarette hanging from his lip. After a few minutes, Escalante brought the bill. The barman called out over the fat man’s shoulder, saying he was sorry but it was time to close. Jovino checked the bill. This one’s on me he said. They started to switch the lights off. All right, we're going, a little patience wouldn't kill you, he said, you do want us to pay up, don't you? The man in the Panama hat was the last to leave.

Suppose she's his sister, said Juan once they were out in the street. Mingus doesn't have any sisters that age, he's the youngest, Miguel replied. A niece . . . a friend, a colleague, he never lacked for women . . . Sure, women. But this one, Juan, Jovino cut in, taking the car keys from his pocket and making them dance through the air, is a nun. I can assure you. A nun is a nun. There's no two ways about it. I know what I saw. So he’s sleeping with a nun, Juan said. If he’s not sleeping with her, he’s sleeping snuggled up with her, snuggled up with a beautiful, young, affectionate woman, replied Jovino, walking toward his car, parked half a block further down the hill. You don't go looking for something like that, something like that just happens. Wait for me, Miguel called, these streets get pretty hairy at night. Some guys are just lucky, Juan, that’s all, he added, as he rushed off to catch up with Jovino.

Very, very lucky, Juan muttered at the entrance to his building. They’d gone without really saying good-bye. He looked at himself in the lift mirror and shrugged. What did it mean anyway, being lucky? 

Once in the apartment, he went straight over to the fridge. He was hungry. He nibbled on some leftover chicken and a slice of ham. He breathed in, conjuring up the smell of the roast turkey with chocolate sauce, the wine, and the spices from Sandro’s dinner. Lucky, lucky! he thought to himself again. He remembered the plants on his balcony, filled the jug from the tap and went out to water them, something he'd not done in a long time. The balcony felt like a garden, it was overflowing with plants, ferns, orchids. It was the most attractive part of the whole house. A nun! he said out loud, going back to refill the jug. He imagined her as the actress from the Chaplin film, with the same sad features. Out of nowhere he remembered her name: Edna Purviance. Her film career had been short-lived. One day he would sit down and write a short story about Mingus and the nun, a simple, straightforward tale, a clear account, no layers or complex structures, just Mingus and the nun, just the two of them, a man and a woman brought together by luck, chance, fate. He started to undress, took off his shoes, unbuttoned his shirt. A fresh breeze blew across the balcony and he felt a slight shiver. A few leaves rustled. He imagined how happy Mingus and the nun must be in the throes of their forbidden, transgressive passion. They held each other and kissed just like any other couple, but it wasn’t like any other couple, it was different, the intensity, the platonic, carnal madness of it all, the intimacy, the trust between two creatures from different worlds. There was a noise from down below, a motorbike, a whistle, the screech of brakes. Peering over the balcony ledge, Juan saw the fat man in the Panama hat leaning against the hood of a car. He held the hat in his hand, the hat he used to hide his utterly bald crown, and he was looking up, his eyes focused not on the sky but on a window. Another story of waiting, of unrequited love. Back in the living room, Juan carefully folded his trousers and hung them over the back of a chair. The table was covered in piles of paper, old newspapers, and books. He picked up an old notebook and several things fell out, a postcard of Saint George slaying the dragon, a photograph of his son aged seven. He picked them up and put them back in the notebook, then walked down the dark corridor and into his room. Lying on the bed, he started making notes: Mingus, 1953, Puerto Cabello, precocious talent for poetry, author of several poetry books . . . The Hunter, The Right Thing . . . lover of truth and beauty, Faustian temperament. Juan dozed off with the notebook open. The pencil rolled down under the sheets, until he swiped it away and it fell on the floor. The bar! What a waste of time! Juan said to himself and fell asleep. 

"Regeneración," © Ana Teresa Torres. Translation © 2014 by Ruth Clarke and Jethro Soutar. All rights reserved.