Ruth was making mountains with a foot. She dug with her big toe in the warm sand, made little mounds, tidied them up, carefully smoothed them with the sole of her foot, contemplated them a little. Then she destroyed them. And started all over again. Her feet were red and stung like solar stones. Her nails were painted from the night before.
Jorge was digging up the beach umbrella, or trying to do so. “I have to buy a new one,” he muttered as he struggled with it. Ruth pretended she hadn’t heard him, though she couldn’t help feeling irritated. It was a tiny detail like any other, of course. Jorge tsked and brusquely pulled his hand away from the umbrella: he had pinched his finger on one of its clips. A detail, thought Ruth, but the thing is, he didn’t say, “We need to buy a new umbrella,” rather, “I have to.” With a tug, Jorge managed to fold the top of the umbrella and stood there studying it with his hands on his hips, as if waiting for the last reaction of a beaten creature. Accidentally or not, there you have it, he said “I” rather than “we,” thought Ruth.
Jorge held up the umbrella. Tongues of rust were creeping up the tip, which was covered in moist sand. He noticed Ruth’s little mounds. He then found her feet with sores from her sandals, moved up her legs to her belly, paused at the folds accumulating around her navel. His gaze continued up her torso, passed between her breasts as if over a bridge, skipped up to the salty thicket of hair, and finally slid down to her eyes. Jorge realized that, lying back in her beach chair, shading her eyes with one hand, she had also been observing him for a while. He felt slightly embarrassed without really knowing why, and smiled, wrinkling up his nose. The expression struck Ruth as contrived, since he was actually side-on to the purple sun. Jorge raised the umbrella like an inopportune trophy. “So, are you going to help?” he asked in a tone that sounded ironic even to him, less benevolent than he’d intended. He wrinkled his nose again and glanced back at the sea. That was when he heard Ruth’s surprising reply:
Ruth was holding a wooden racket. The edge of the racket was resting on her thighs.
“Do you want the ball?” asked Jorge.
“I want you to stay still,” she said.
Ruth lifted up the racket, got up and reached out to slowly trace a line in the sand. It wasn’t a very straight line, about a meter long, that separated Ruth from her husband. When she’d finished drawing it, she put down the racket, settled back into her beach chair and crossed her legs.
“Very pretty,” said Jorge, half-curious and half-annoyed.
“Like it?” asked Ruth. “Then don’t cross it.”
A moist breeze had started blowing across the beach, or Jorge had only just noticed it. He couldn’t be bothered putting down the umbrella and the stuff he was carrying. But above all he really couldn’t be bothered playing games. He was tired. He hadn’t slept much. His skin felt sweaty, sandy. He urgently wanted to shower and go out for a bite to eat.
“I don’t understand,” said Jorge.
“I can imagine,” said Ruth.
“Hey, are we going or not?”
“Do whatever you want. But don’t cross the line.”
“What do you mean don’t cross it?”
“I see you already understand!”
Jorge dropped the things he was holding; he thought it odd that they made so much noise when they hit the sand. Ruth gave a little start, but didn’t move from her beach chair. Jorge studied the line from left to right, as if there was something written on it. He took a step toward Ruth. He saw how she shrank back and gripped the arms of the chair.
“This is a joke, isn’t it?”
“It’s very serious.”
“Look, honey,” he said, stopping before the line. “What’s going on? What’s up? People are leaving, can’t you see? It’s late. We have to go. Why are you unreasonable?”
“I’m unreasonable because I don’t go when everyone else does?”
“You’re unreasonable because I don’t know what’s going on with you.”
“Ah! How interesting!”
“Ruth . . .” sighed Jorge, making a gesture as if to touch her. “Do you want to stay a little longer?”
“The only thing I want,” she said, “is for you to stay on that side.”
“What side, damn it?”
“On that side of the line.”
Ruth recognized a contraction of anger in Jorge’s skeptical smile. It was just a fleeting tremor in his cheek, a hint of indignation that he knew how to control by feigning condescension; but it was there. He had it. It suddenly seemed it was now or never.
“Jorge. This line is mine, OK?”
“That’s absurd,” he said.
“For sure. That’s why.”
“Come on, give me your things. Let’s go for a walk.”
“Forget the line and let’s go!”
“You’re being childish, Ruth. I’m tired . . .”
“Tired of what? C’mon, say it: of what?”
Jorge folded his arms and arched his back, as if he’d been shoved by the wind. The double meaning dawned on him and he decided to be direct.
“That’s not fair. You’re taking what I say literally. No, worse: you take it figuratively when it hurts you, and literally when it suits you.”
“Really? Is that what you think, Jorge?”
“Just now, for example, I told you I was tired and you play the victim. You act as if I’d said I’m tired of you and . . .”
“And wasn’t that what you really wanted to say, deep down? Think about it. It might actually be a good thing. Go on, say it. I have things to say to you too. What is it that tires you so much?”
“I can’t, like this, Ruth.”
“What can’t you do like this? Talk? Be sincere?”
“I can’t talk like this,” answered Jorge, slowly picking things up again.
“I see,” she said, turning to stare at the waves.
Suddenly Jorge dropped everything and tried to grab Ruth’s chair. She reacted by raising her arm in a gesture of defense. He realized she really was serious and stopped abruptly, just before the line. There it was. He was already touching it with the tips of his toes. He thought about taking another step. Stomping in the sand. Rubbing his feet in the sand and putting an end to it once and for all. Jorge felt stupid for being so hesitant. His shoulders were tense, raised. But he didn’t move.
“Do you want to let it go?” he said.
He immediately regretted having formulated the question like that.
“Let what go?” asked Ruth, with a smile at once pained and pleased.
“I mean this interrogation! The interrogation and this ridiculous line.”
“If our chat bothers you so much, we can let it go now. And if you want to head home, go ahead, enjoy your dinner. But regarding the line, there’s nothing to say. It isn’t ridiculous and don’t cross it. Don’t go there. I’m warning you.”
“You’re impossible, do you know that?”
“Unfortunately, yes,” said Ruth.
Disconcerted, Jorge noted the frankness of her answer. He squatted down and started packing up again, muttering under his breath. He energetically removed the contents of the beach basket, organized and reorganized the bottles of tanning lotion, furiously restacked the magazines, refolded the towels. For a moment, Ruth thought she saw tears in his eyes. But she watched him gradually regain his composure until he asked her, staring her in the eye:
“Are you testing me, Ruth?”
Ruth noticed how the almost brutal naïveté of the question gave him back an echo of nobility: as if Jorge could be wrong, but he couldn’t lie to her; as if he were capable of any kind of disloyalty, except malice. She saw him squatting at her feet, disorientated, with his peeling shoulders, less hair on his head than a few years earlier, familiar, yet unknown. She felt like attacking him and protecting him at the same time.
“You go bossing other people around,” she said, “but you’re always afraid people are going to judge you. I think that’s a bit sad.”
“You don’t say? How profound. And what about you?”
“Me? When do I contradict myself? When do I realize I’m wrong? All the time. Believe you me. To begin with, I’m stupid. And cowardly. And compliant. And I pretend I can live in a way that I can’t. Come to think of it, I don’t know what’s worse: not realizing certain things, or realizing them but not doing anything about them. That’s why I drew the line, you see? Yes. It’s childish. It’s ugly and small. And it’s the most important thing I’ve done all summer.”
Jorge’s gaze was lost behind Ruth, as if following in the wake of her words, shaking his head in a tug-of-war between disgust and incredulity. Then his face froze in an ironic expression. He started laughing. His laughter sounded like a cough.
“What, aren’t you going to say anything? Has the wind been knocked out of your sails?” said Ruth.
“You’re being temperamental.”
“Do you think what I’m saying is temperamental?”
“I don’t know,” he said, straightening up. “Maybe not temperamental. But proud.”
“It’s not just a matter of pride, Jorge, but of principles.”
“Well, you know what? You can have lots of principles, you can be as analytical as you want, you can think you’re so bold, but what you’re really doing is hiding behind a line. Hiding! So do me a favor and erase it, get your stuff and let’s discuss this calmly over dinner. I’m crossing it. Sorry. Everything has a limit. My patience included.”
Ruth got up like a released spring, knocking over her beach chair. Jorge hesitated before he’d even taken a step.
“I know everything has a limit!” she shouted. “And of course you’d like me to hide. But don’t kid yourself this time. You don’t want dinner: you want a truce. And you’re not getting it, you hear me? You’re not getting it until you accept once and for all that this line will be erased when I say so, not when you get impatient.”
“I’m surprised you’re acting so authoritarian. Then you go and complain about me. You’re forbidding me to get near you. I don’t do that to you.”
“Jorge. Love. Listen,” said Ruth, lowering her voice, straightening her bangs, setting the chair straight and sitting down again. “I want you to pay attention, OK? It’s not that there’s a line. It’s that there are two, do you understand? There are always two. And I see yours. Or I try to see it, at least. I know it’s there, somewhere. I have a suggestion. If you think it’s unfair that this line can only be erased when I say so, then make one yourself. It’s easy. Here’s your racket. Draw a line!”
Jorge burst out laughing.
“I’m serious, Jorge. Explain your rules to me. Show me your boundaries. Tell me: don’t cross this line. You’ll see how I’ll never try to erase it.”
“How clever! Of course you wouldn’t erase it, because I’d never draw a line like that. It would never even cross my mind.”
“But if you drew it, how far would it go? I need to know.”
“It wouldn’t go anywhere. I don’t like superstitions. I prefer to act naturally. I want to be able to go wherever I want. Fight when there’s really something to fight about.”
“All I want is for you to look outside your own little world a bit. For you to respect certain things,” she said.
“All I want is for you to love me,” he said.
Ruth blinked several times. She rubbed her eyes with both hands, as if trying to wipe away all of the moist wind that had whipped her that afternoon.
“That’s the worst answer you could give me,” said Ruth.
Jorge watched her in sad bewilderment. He thought about going over to comfort her and suspected he shouldn’t. His back smarted. His muscles ached. The sea had swallowed the ball of the sun. Ruth covered her face. Jorge looked down. He looked at the line again: it looked more than a meter long to him.
The translator thanks Aileen El-Kadi Schuster for her assistance.
Translation of “Una raya en la arena,” from Alumbramiento, published by Páginas de Espuma, (Madrid 2006/ Buenos Aires 2007). By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Alison Entrekin. All rights reserved.