There was a woman who never did anything without first consulting the I Ching. She imagined a game of roulette in which the bets were paid with the events of the player’s life.
The monk climbs the hill leaning on his cane. The storm approaches. His disciple has refused to follow him.
The enigmatic character of the prophecies allowed her a certain margin for personal decisions. There were several possible futures. She understood that the key to building herself a future was to decipher, not to decide.
She lived in Princeton, New Jersey. Her husband was a biologist who had been hired by a major corporation before finishing his doctorate at MIT. He commuted to New York every day and she stayed behind, alone. She did not know what to do with those empty hours. She was paralyzed by an inability to decide within the microscopic tangle of possibilities. She saw her life as a destroyed anthill, with the insects scattering in all directions.
One evening, at a party, someone talked about the Book of Changes and elaborated a theory about the artificial construction of experience. The next day the woman found a copy of the book at the library. She thought she should not consult the book for major decisions. She was going to concentrate on the insignificant chain of lateral occurrences which could lead to unexpected developments. Every morning a man sat to read the newspaper at the café across the street from the university. Should she talk to him? The book said:
Before the battle the King decides to bathe in the ice of the great lake. The army camps on the shore. The mist rises through the hills.
She had an affair with the man that lasted for three months. When her husband left for New York in the mornings she would consult the book and visit her lover, or her lover would visit her.
One day she received the order to stop seeing him. She behaved with indifference and resisted all his arguments. At first he called her on the telephone and even threatened her, but at the end he gave up. She always saw him reading the newspaper in the café across the street from the university.
She began to undertake small escapades, following the indications of the I Ching. She would take a bus, stop at a random town, enter a bar and have a drink. This secret life filled her with happiness. She never knew what she was going to do next. One time she dressed up like a man and went to one of the porno movie theatres on 42nd Street. Another time she went to a massage house run by women. The book insisted that she was a man. A warrior. She became interested in the world of boxing. She spent hours on end watching fights on TV. One afternoon she went to the gym on Madison Avenue. She met a black boxer, a twenty-year-old featherweight who was 1.60 meters tall and looked like a jockey.
Finally the book told her that she had to leave. She took all the money they had in the bank, rented a car and started driving. The book told her the way.
Sometimes she would consult the I Ching to know whether she should consult the I Ching.
There was a psychiatrist who answered the phone for a suicide prevention line, and who everyone called The Priest because he had been a preacher in an Evangelical church in the South Bronx. He was a false psychiatrist and a false doctor; he used the IDs of his brother, who had died two years earlier in Cincinnati. He set up the service in a rundown apartment on 32nd Street. He taped every conversation and never agreed to meet anyone in person. He received calls at all hours of the day from desperate men and women who would tell him the story of their lives.
But it was not really the story of their lives, in reality they would tell him the one event that, according to them, had provoked their falls and catastrophes.
All the stories revolved around a pivotal point, as if they had lived only one experience in their lives. It was not madness, it was the edge, the border, they could pretend, they paid three dollars for a five-minute phone call. Madness can never be narrated.
They would tell him that they were alone, miserable, that they had lost their wives, alcoholics, recovering alcoholics, impotent men, one woman who had not taken the opportunity to go to Miami when she was twenty years old and now was afraid to go out of her house, they had run out of drugs, they had taken drugs, she was naked, she heard voices giving her contradictory orders, they called him the exterminator, she said she was Friedrich Nietzsche’s legitimate granddaughter, a neighbor was reading her thoughts and directly influencing her life, she had been in a psychiatric clinic with Rocky Graziano, they had cut off one of her arms, she had already died twice.
He listened to the tapes over and over again, the city’s multiple story. He wanted to capture New York’s secret obsession.
There was a convict who had just gotten out of jail. The only world he knew was in prison. The first time he was sent to jail he was sixteen years old. It would be impossible to relate the atmospheric pressure implied in being an inmate condemned to a long sentence in a North American prison. After being locked up for so long the fantasies that one creates about the free world become indistinguishable from what one knows for certain about that world.
He considered himself a prisoner educated by the State; in other words, a prisoner who had been taught by correctional institutions. A complete, systematic education: physical, cerebral, psychical, moral, philosophical, muscular, optical, sexual. They taught new relationships with time, a different relationship with language and obedience. A high-security jail in the United States is a very complex institution. They make the psychopaths and the informants live with the hopeless and the victims. They know that a weak man will become a slave and a slave a terrified automaton. They want to see what happens to the rebellious spirit under conditions of extreme pressure.
In the emptiness of that futureless time the only thing one can do is think. Thoughts can be completely developed in silence, he thought before. A silent thought can extend to infinity. Now he thinks that there are no thoughts without language. He thinks that all thoughts can be utilized for the annihilation of one’s own existence. He thought time and again that he had been dead for a long time already.
Inside there is no connection to the world other than the hissing of the TV turned on at all hours for the entire prison. Outside he felt that the sound wave of reality was incorrectly synchronized. Someone seemed to be trying to tell him something that he did not understand.
Everything took on multiple meanings; the connections between scattered events were excessive. He tried to decipher only the messages which were directed personally to him.
He wants to reach New York but he does not follow a direct route. He lets himself be taken by sudden intuitions, going erratically from one place to another. He travels in rented cars or on Greyhound buses and stays at motels by the side of the road. He gets involved with men and women who he meets at the stations and in the bars.
He never tells them that he has spent more than half his life in jail. His icy gaze and his excessive friendliness elicit a strange and fascinating sensation. He is like a man without a past, without a history, like a man from another planet, as if he were seeing everything for the first time.
He tells a different story every time. Sometimes he says that he has just gotten out of the hospital. Sometimes he says that he has been living in Mexico. He speaks in the present tense, that dead tense that identifies those who have been in prison. He knows that he is being watched, he does not believe in coincidences or in randomness. Every event is interconnected; there is always a cause.
One afternoon he meets a man in a bar and the man proposes that they continue traveling together. The man is heading East because he wants to join the Army. The convict suspects something immediately, he thinks that the man has recognized him and is going to turn him in. When they leave the bar, in a ditch near the tracks, he stabs the man to death. That same night he looks for a casino. He had long ago established a connection between crime and his luck gambling. Back when he was free he would go out and find some unknown person whose death would assure him that he was going to win. That night he won five thousand dollars playing the Punto y Banca.
Every once in a while he calls New York. He makes anonymous phone calls to a nighttime suicide prevention line. He does not say who he is, nor where he is, but he tells the truth. He has just gotten out of jail, he has killed a man, he has won at the casino, he is heading to New York to meet his brother.
There was a recovering alcoholic who would go out at nights to steal from his friends’ houses. He knew their routines and he knew the security systems. He pried open the doors or the windows, or the windows and the doors, and went in when his friends were out. He liked going through the familiar rooms, rummaging through the furniture and the secret drawers. He would take all the money. He kept the stolen objects in the basement of his house. The next day his friends would call to tell him that they had been robbed.
There was a woman who thought she had a daughter who was not hers. The real one had been born dead. She was sure that it was stillborn because at six months into the pregnancy it had stopped moving. Her husband had hit her (“accidentally!”) with the bathroom door, in the abdomen, as he came in. They had had to do a cesarean. They switched the dead one with another girl who was now her daughter. She loved her but she was not hers. Perhaps her husband had had that daughter with another woman. He had had to kill hers, to keep the other one with him. She had found out that her husband had a lover. A woman had called her on the telephone. She did not say anything so that her husband would not take her false daughter away.
There was a woman in Arizona who had spent half the family inheritance out of her own pocket to pay for an open letter to be published in all the newspapers of the country; in it, she expressed her surprise at seeing the homages and shows of appreciation and affection that all manner of people had communicated to her on the occasion of the death of her husband, a scientist who had been on the verge of winning the Nobel Prize on three separate occasions. In the letter the woman said that she was finally freed from the terror she had suffered during nearly thirty years of forced cohabitation with a madman, a mythomaniac, a psychopath. As an example of her husband’s real personality she recounted how the scientist had an archive of photographs of all the scientists who were his rivals, or possible rivals, or future rivals, and that he poked their eyes with very small platinum needles, which he himself built in his lab at night, with the goal of paralyzing their research, wounding them, blinding them and preventing them from surpassing him in his struggle to win the Nobel Prize in physics.
There was a woman who wrote down her name and telephone number in men’s restrooms in bars. She would go there early in the morning to minimize the possibility of getting caught. She received three or four calls per day.
There was a woman who wrote anonymous notes to her husband telling him the truth about her life. The surprising thing is that the husband never told her that he was receiving this confidential information.
From Prisión perpetua (Perpetual Prison) (Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1988). By arrangement with the author.