March twenty-second. Friday night. Everything is in place. The soft metallic chimes of the living room clock strike ten with mathematical precision as you begin the second course; the exact same scene is replayed every night, down to a T. Him. You. The same pauses. The same silences. The same calculated movements of his fingers as he lifts one corner of his napkin. Three refined pats of his lips—pat, pat, pat—and then a sip of wine. Silverware clinking intermittently against plates is the only strident sound to break the silence that slowly, unbearably, trickles down over the evening.
Everything is in place and yet you still betray incredulity in the outline of your mouth, idiotically opened to form the questions frozen on your lips, now prisoners of a silence you dare not break. Seated in the same place as always, yet not center stage on tonight’s set, lost in the nether regions of a time that you cannot summon, not today, because what you just discovered has suddenly altered the course of the present and deposited the future before you, like a threat.
The smell of food makes you gag, and you push your plate away. Two wrinkles appear on the tablecloth, and your fork is now misaligned. You don’t notice, you don’t care, you make no attempt to smooth it out with your fingers. You can only focus by tracing the length of your glass with your index finger, following the outline from the base to the rim, and then tracing the rim’s closed circle one, two, three times, like an obsession. You haven’t eaten anything, but from time to time your fingers stop, you bring the glass to your lips and feel the flow of wine, coursing down your throat like a river that sweeps everything to oblivion.
The scalloped tablecloth is embroidered with fruits and flowers. Serafina gave it to you when you turned twenty-one. “I made one for you and one for Roser,” she said. Roser was your age. She was Serafina’s only daughter, born after three tall, strapping sons. Roser, though, had come out slender and blonde, like the angels on first communion cards, though she’d never consented to the little-girl role nature had assigned her. She jettisoned the curls and lace the minute she was allowed to have a say in what she looked like. And when time taught her the deceptive ways of love she decided she would never marry. Serafina had to put Roser’s tablecloth in the chest of drawers with the rest of her trousseau, wrapped up in perfumed crepe paper with some little brown bars of soap that smelled of gardenia. “For when I’m not around anymore,” she’d say. “Maybe one day Roser will change her mind. Shame I won’t live to see it.” The embroidered leaves are hidden beneath your plate now; the green trim, vines, and daisies tangled between the handle of your knife and spoon; and the grapes, crushed beneath a crystal foot, cast their violet hue onto your wineglass.
Suddenly Manel notices your absence.
“What’s the matter? You haven’t touched your food,” he says, to fill the silence, from the other side of the table.
Your cup is empty and your cutlery lies untouched on either side of your plate. You stare at the sauce, which is beginning to congeal, the desiccated peas with their wrinkled skins, and the salmon that is doubtlessly now cold. Tonight you didn’t even have the heart to break up your bread, as you often do, to make it look as if you’ve eaten. Tonight all action is encumbered by an infinite apathy, even little routine gestures yield to your body’s lassitude.
You refill your glass. You’ve drunk too much and begin to feel the night grow heavy and words thicken. You slur a response, slackened with alcohol.
“Nothing’s the matter. I’m just a little tired.”
Unnecessary. As soon as you say it, you realize that it’s unnecessary, that your words have tumbled down someplace irrelevant. Maybe they’re under the table, maybe between the legs of your chair. In a little while, when he gets up from the table, he’ll trip over them. You ignore each other so well, with such familiarity, that even your words are in on it. Words that mean nothing, that say nothing, that are mechanical and spoken independent of thought. Babble.
You get up from the table with long, drawn-out movements, as if your body had elongated and softened and needed hours to become upright. Once you manage to stand, you take the plates to the kitchen and leave them on the marble countertop. He gets up, too, and walks into the living room. You throw out the leftovers and load the dishwasher. You sit, glassy-eyed, and stare at the little green button on it, now illuminated. You listen to the sound of the motor and the jets of water spraying the plates.
You don’t want to think about what you’ll do now, don’t want to calculate the steps you’ll have to take, or foresee the million problems that will arise. You don’t want to think about the future. You’ve never trusted the future; it’s slippery and capricious. Yesterday it was still foreseeable, comfortable; it still fit in the palm of one hand. Today, however, the future has rebelled, and with a double-crossing backhander toppled the things you’d only just barely managed to erect. It makes your skin crawl, the future—time’s altar boy, more intangible than the present and much more relentless than the past, accomplice of age and decadence, time of times, charging on like a flood that threatens to sweep away everything in its path: people, friends, feelings, the eyes with which you now see, the heart with which you feel; time changes calculations and patterns, demolishes homes and villages, and turns everything into an endless passage of hours and lives, as if nothing meant anything. You fear the voraciousness of time, the cockiness of the future; you’d rather not be sure that the exact moment when everything comes to an end is located someplace in its course. You’d rather not know that at that point you will no longer be around.
An icy draft forces you to get up. You’re cold. You slam the kitchen window closed, lock it, and draw the pink checkered curtains.
The future will never pan out the way you’d hoped it would. The facts—the damned evidence—have made sure of that, dealt you a low blow. Suddenly, all the lights have gone out and everything has changed course. And you’re trapped, you’ve lost your way, with no points of reference, no guide book.
That was when you saw her. She suddenly appeared, out of the blue. You watched her rise out of the murky shadows, haughty and merciless, the unyielding lady who makes no concessions, who knows nothing of kind words, of consolation: Truth. She advanced relentlessly, razing everything in her path with such lucidity it was impossible to avoid. She advanced, spurred on by the goal of reaching the end and reducing everything to scraps and sawdust, of removing the props that shored up your characters and exposing the stitching, the girders, the false bottoms.
Today, you felt truth put an end to the deceit and call everything by its name. Today you heard him on the telephone.
You’d gotten ready to go out. Maybe he thought you’d already left, maybe that’s why he got cocky. You’re not sure if it was his carelessness or if some fleeting suspicion made you turn back when you’d already opened to door to go.
He was in the living room, sitting on the sofa with his arm stretched out over the top of it, his back to the door. He was speaking in a voice that was too quiet and too seductive for an ordinary conversation; his intimate, mellifluous tone alerted you. From time to time he’d laugh complacently and purr like a cat. You heard a few random words and a name, “Elena,” and then your suspicions were confirmed: “I love you,” he said quietly.
And he hung up.
You were overcome with exhaustion; you couldn’t move. You just stood there, not reacting, for what seemed an eternity, paralyzed, pressed up against the wall, holding your breath; your head throbbed with his last words: “I love you.” Like confessing to a crime committed long ago. Long before her, even, before “Elena.” A crime that now, finally, had a name.
From En blanc i Negre (Barcelona: Edicions 62, 2004). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation copyright 2007 by Lisa M. Dillman. All rights reserved.