He left his car in the parking lot of the hospital complex. It had all been under construction for years. Around him were unfinished buildings with display windows still protected by tape beside other old, dusty ones, with air conditioning units hanging off them like enormous ticks. Amid the buildings were pre-fab sheds, cranes, fenced-in areas all around, but he knew his route well. He passed a row of oleanders that had been relegated to no-man’s-land, and he emerged in an open stretch where they usually parked the trucks that supplied the oxygen tanks. Hospital workers went there to smoke, since it was somewhat out of the way. They huddled in groups, all in white lab coats.
Miguel avoided looking at them. He continued on his way, quickening his step slightly, and soon he reached a brick building with large, narrow windows that looked more like vents. Beside the door was a plaque that read: PSYCHIATRY WARD. And beneath that: ADDICTIVE BEHAVIORS UNIT. He pushed the door and entered a wide foyer and found only a security guard sitting at a metal desk, doing a crossword puzzle in the newspaper and making the pen dance between his fingers. He didn’t even look up when Miguel crossed the foyer and rang the bell. A young nurse appeared and led him to a small room. There she weighed him, took his blood pressure and asked him to blow into a machine that Miguel hated. She jotted down the results of it all on an index card.
Soon after, Miguel went into the psychiatrist’s office. He sat in front of her and put the test results down on her desk. The doctor picked up the card by one corner carefully, as if trapping a butterfly by one wing, and glanced at it.
“You’ve been smoking, Miguel,” she said to him. “It’s at five, over the limit.”
“It’s this city that’s over the limit,” he answered. “I haven’t had a cigarette in two months.”
He wasn’t lying. He felt uncomfortable and looked to one side. The walls were covered in white tiles. There was a divan in one corner. The first day he came there he’d thought that, lying on that divan, he’d have to explain to that doctor, who’d just turned fifty, how he had a teenage daughter with a woman he hadn’t seen in a long time, and that they’d sent him to her unit because he’d had a mild heart attack. But she had never had him lie down on the divan.
“You’ve gained three kilos,” he heard her say. “One more and we’ll be at ninety. We are going to have to watch what we eat a little.”
The psychiatrist was scrawny, with somewhat gaunt cheeks. It bugged Miguel that she spoke about his excess weight in the plural, as if she were including herself to make him feel they were in this together. It was clear the woman had never been fat or smoked. He had the impression, as he always did when he went there, that she’d never be able to help him. Not her and not anyone.
“Let’s see, Miguel. How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” he said. And he looked her in the eyes for a second.
“Are you constipated?”
Miguel shook his head.
“Sleeping poorly? Nightmares? Do you wake up anxious?”
Miguel shifted in his chair. The word anxious makes him anxious. And, he never could stand being asked how he was doing, when bumping into someone on the street. It was something that made him suddenly ill at ease.
“I sleep soundly,” he said. “I take the pills you prescribed.”
“And your mood? How do you feel?”
“Sad,” he answered without any hesitation. “But that’s nothing new.”
“What do you mean?”
Miguel looked at the doctor again, but he couldn’t bear the tranquility she was trying to transmit to him. He looked away.
“That doesn’t have anything to do with smoking. I’ve been sad ever since I can remember.”
For a second he thought that, finally, he had earned the divan. But he was wrong. He wasn’t there for psychotherapy, just to treat his nicotine addiction.
“I think you should take an antidepressant,” said the doctor.
That was exactly what Miguel didn’t want to hear. As he understood it, antidepressants couldn’t be mixed with alcohol.
“I can’t,” he answered. “I have high blood pressure. Besides, they haven’t yet come up with a pill that can change the way I am.”
“You’re mistaken about that.” The doctor opened up a folder and pulled out a sheet of paper that she looked at carefully. She brought a finger to her mouth and ran it along her lips as she seemed to vanish inside herself.
It was a little past nine when Miguel left her office. Too early to go to work, but he didn’t have anything better to do. He thought about making some cuttlefish and peas. Miguel had a small restaurant. He cooked and took care of everything, except for waiting on the tables. A Dominican woman came in during serving hours to help him with that. She also took care of the espresso machine. She kept it so clean that it looked like it’d never been used but, every once in a while, it released some steam with a snort, like a locomotive about to depart.
He left the hospital complex, bought a newspaper, and paged through it as he drank an espresso with milk. Then he went back to the parking lot for his car. It was an old car, with one back door dented by a blow from a van. In the past he had used it to travel with his wife, when they still lived together and the girl was small. Now he had the feeling that he and that rusting pile of junk were declining at the same rate. They both smelled the same, a mix of sweat and overheated plastic.
He double-parked in front of the fishmonger’s. He bought four large cuttlefish and put the bag in the trunk. He had just sat down in front of the steering wheel again when his cell phone rang. He struggled to extend his leg so he could get the phone out of his pocket, then brought it to his ear.
“I’m having a problem with Mom.” It was his daughter’s voice, high-pitched and fast like a bird’s trill. “I’m furious.”
“Good morning, Yolanda,” answered Miguel.
“What’s good about it? Tomorrow The Sounds are playing at the Apolo, and Mom won’t buy me a couple of tickets. She says I should ask you for them. Fact is she’s been unbearable lately. If this keeps up I’m coming to live with you.”
“Calm down.” Miguel looked around him, afraid a patrol car would pass and see him talking on the phone in the car. He wondered what his ex-wife spent the child support he sent her on. “I’ll buy them for you.”
“You can get them from a cash machine. But you have to go right now, Daddy. I hear they’re selling out.”
On the way to the restaurant he stopped the car again to buy the tickets. He put them in his shirt pocket and drove on. When he was getting close, he started to look for parking. He was lucky that day. He found a spot almost right in front of his restaurant’s steel shutter. He opened the glove compartment to get the keys.
That was when he saw a girl leaning against a tree. She had long legs and her arms clasped behind her back. Their eyes met for perhaps too long of a second. Miguel didn’t look away fast enough, making the girl think he was interested. She peeled herself off the tree somewhat apathetically and went over to his car. She stopped beside Miguel’s door, a hand resting on the windshield. Miguel lowered the window and the girl crouched down to look it him. She was very young and had black eyes.
“Let me guess what you need,” she said to him. “A little blowjob to start the day off right.”
Miguel thought of the psychiatrist and how she had been so insistent about the antidepressant. He thought how that prostitute, in her own way, also seemed worried about improving his mood. Since he was slow to respond, the girl rested her elbows on the open window.
“I need you to move out of the way,” Miguel said. “I need to go to work and I have to get out of the car.”
The girl brought her shoulders together a bit so that the neckline of her blouse bulged. She had small pointy breasts, thick pink nipples. Miguel couldn’t help looking at them. He felt his heart rate increase.
“Where do you work?” she asked.
“In a restaurant,” answered Miguel, feeling unbearably docile. “Right here.” And he pointed to the lowered shutter of his business.
The girl’s eyes lit up.
“So you could treat me to a sandwich,” she said. “I’m so hungry my stomach is growling.”
Miguel looked at her with surprise. The girl finally moved away from the car door and he was able to get out. Once he was standing on the sidewalk he looked at her again. She was smiling. At first glance she seemed to be his height, but she was wearing very high heels. Even though she was too thin, she had a nice figure. Maybe not even twenty years old.
“What’s your name?” asked Miguel.
The girl bit her lower lip, pensively. Then she smiled again, this time with a slightly adopted sassiness.
“Today I’ll be Russian,” she answered. “I’m Natasha.”
“I’ll make you a ham sandwich.”
He went to the back of his car and pulled the bag of seafood out of the trunk. Then he headed toward the restaurant. Behind him he heard the girl’s high heels against the sidewalk. When he got to the metal shutter he put the bag down on the sidewalk and knelt to open the lock. The girl extended an arm and spread the bag’s handles to see what was inside.
“What is that?” she asked.
Miguel was already raising the shutter. As he did he felt a stabbing pain in his kidneys and stopped halfway.
“Cuttlefish,” he said, bringing a hand to his side. “I stew them with peas and potatoes.”
“Yuck!” she exclaimed. “I wouldn’t eat that for anything in the world.”
They entered the restaurant, bending down so they wouldn’t hit their heads on the shutter, and Miguel flicked on the light switch. The tables were already prepared for lunch. The Dominican woman set them before she went home, while Miguel finished tidying up the kitchen. Then they said good-bye at the door and she headed toward the bus stop. She had been working with him for more than a year, but Miguel didn’t know where she lived. He had never asked. The Dominican woman knew that Miguel had quit smoking. She realized the first day, when she arrived to wait on the lunch tables and saw there was no smoke in the restaurant. She went into the kitchen and congratulated him. She confessed that she’d been worried about his health.
The prostitute moved among the tables, stroking the tablecloths that covered them with a fingertip. Miguel, still at the door, observed her elegant, bony shoulders, the soft curves of her hips, her calves, tensed by the high heels. He hesitated for a moment.
“Natasha,” he said. She turned. “I’m going to have to lower the shutter. I don’t want someone to come in here and see you.”
“Sure,” answered the girl. “Do you have some water?”
The exertion gave Miguel another jab that left him with a feeling of warmth in his midsection. He went to the office, got the espresso machine going, and grabbed a small bottle of water. He put it on the counter, beside a glass. Then he went into the kitchen, placed the bag of cuttlefish in the sink, and prepared a ham sandwich. He rubbed a lot of tomato into the bread, which was a little dry. When he went out to the dining room again he found the girl sitting at a table. She had moved aside a table setting to be able to lift up a corner of the tablecloth. She didn’t want to dirty it.
“The bread is from yesterday,” said Miguel, putting the plate with the sandwich down in front of her. “My delivery doesn’t come until later on.”
“No problem. I really appreciate it.”
The girl began to eat. She took big bites, stopping only to drink water straight from the bottle. Miguel stood stock still, watching her. He didn’t know what to say.
“Did you finish school?” he finally asked. He instantly felt ridiculous for having said it.
The girl made a world-weary expression.
“I dropped out of high school,” she answered. As she spoke a few crumbs flew from her mouth. “Now I’m supposedly studying to be a secretary, but I don’t go to class. My boyfriend drops me off at the school every day, on his motorcycle. I wait until he drives off and I split.”
“Does he know how you spend your days?”
“No, no way.” She was silent for a moment, her brows knitted, as if trying to concentrate or imagine something. And then, in the tone of someone who has found the answer to a complicated question, she added, “He’d go nuts. He’s very jealous.”
She ate the last bite of sandwich. Then she stood up and approached Miguel. She caressed his chest with both hands.
“Now let’s get down to us,” she said, lowering her voice to a purr.
Miguel’s heart rate shot up again. Don’t do it, he said to himself, don’t do it. He wanted to move away from her, but his legs didn’t respond. His jaw started shaking intensely. He looked with fear at the lowered shutter. He hadn’t locked it.
The girl kneeled before him. She brought her hands to his belt buckle. Miguel closed his eyes when his pants began to slide down to his ankles. Then his underwear. He felt a bit dizzy.
“You’ve got a really nice one,” said the girl’s voice. “Honestly, it’s much better-looking than you. I think I’m going to ignore you and just come to an understanding with it.”
Miguel kept his eyes closed. He felt the prostitute’s hands gently drawing back his skin and then her lips, warm and damp.
Then, somewhere down below, in his pants’ pocket, his cell phone rang. They both jumped. The girl started to stand up as Miguel crouched to grab it, and he banged his cheekbone against her head. He still managed to get the phone, but his jaw was shaking so much that he couldn’t say a word when he answered it.
“Daddy? Are you there, Daddy?” said Yolanda’s voice.
“Yes . . . I’m here,” Miguel managed to articulate.
“I wanted to know if you got the tickets. I don’t trust you one bit.”
“Yes, I did. Come by later and get them.”
He looked at the prostitute, who had stood up and was running a hand over her head with a pained expression. He felt his cheekbone burning.
“I want to talk to you about Mom,” continued Yolanda. “Do you know what she said to me last night?”
“I can’t talk right now, sweetie. I’ve got something on the stove and it’s starting to burn.”
“She said that I was a moron. That I was a moron and that she was sick of me.”
“I can’t talk right now,” repeated Miguel. “We’ll discuss it when you come by.”
He hung up the phone. He looked down and saw himself naked, his pants at his ankles. He backed up, dragging his feet until he hit one of the tables. He sat down on it and felt the cold touch of silverware against his butt cheek. He turned off his cell phone and placed it on the table behind him, among the plates. He brought a hand to his cheekbone. When he touched it he felt a shooting pain. The girl had come over to him and was smiling.
“Natasha . . .” Miguel started to say.
But she silenced his lips with a finger and got down on her knees again. If he hadn’t felt so pathetic a second before maybe everything would have been different, but in that moment Miguel felt attacked by his own life. He was thinking that he too had a right to that, that he had the right to a little enjoyment without feeling dirty for doing it. He thought how he had an old car and a moron of a daughter and a wife he never saw anymore, and that Natasha was the only nice thing that had happened to him in years, the only unattainable thing that life had put in his reach in god knows how long: a skinny girl who ran away from secretarial school and her boyfriend to turn tricks. Miguel felt like crying, as always, but he thought that he would finally call the psychiatrist and ask her for the antidepressant.
“You have to relax a little,” he heard the girl saying to him.
Then he decided to do it, and he had the strange sensation that he was giving himself something for the first time. “Maybe it’d be better if you took off your clothes, Natasha,” he said.
The girl stood up immediately. She tilted her head to look at him and her hair covered her cheek, her mouth.
“You’re naughty,” she said. “You know that? If you want to fuck it’s gonna cost you more. Fifty euros.”
Miguel nodded in silence, and the girl took off her clothes as naturally as on the beach. She stood before him with her arms at her sides, so immensely fragile, so slight and so alive that Miguel had to restrain himself from hugging her. He felt a strange mix of desire and tenderness, also infinite pity for himself and for that girl who was putting a condom on him, then turning her back to him and leaning her hands on the edges of the table where she’d eaten the sandwich. Everything about her was long. A long back, cleaved by the small knolls of her vertebrae. Long, thin arms, slightly bent by angular elbows. Long legs, even longer because the girl hadn’t taken off her shoes.
She held her head up, but let it drop when Miguel stood behind her. All it took was a few thrusts. The girl didn’t let out a sound. Miguel emitted a muffled groan, like a whimper from deep in his throat. Then he withdrew with a sudden feeling of horror and took off the condom. He didn’t know what to do with it. Finally he left it on the plate where the sandwich had been.
He pulled up his underwear and his pants and sat in a chair. He felt deeply uneasy and his hands were trembling. He looked at the girl, who had dressed in an instant. She seemed more serious than before, as if she no longer trusted him or as if she felt uncomfortable there.
“Did you like it?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” answered Miguel. “I’m not feeling very well.”
The girl grabbed her purse.
“Don’t start getting cranky now,” she said. And, after a brief pause, she added, “You have to pay me.”
Miguel stood up, went into the office and grabbed five twenty-euro bills, all the ones that were there, from the register. The girl didn’t comment. She folded the bills very carefully and put them in a pink coin purse.
Suddenly, as if something shook him from inside, Miguel felt the need for it not to end like that.
“Do you like music?” he asked.
She gave him a curious look.
“I have two tickets for the Apolo,” said Miguel, pulling them out of his shirt pocket. “You could take your boyfriend.”
The girl accepted them carefully, as if trapping a butterfly by one wing, and after a quick glance also put them away in the coin purse. Then she leaned on the counter to give Miguel a kiss on the cheek, and as she separated from him she waved the fingers on one hand. She headed toward the door and Miguel followed. He didn’t know how to say good-bye to the girl, but he still felt the need to say something, something that was ordinary, that would give him the feeling that their relationship was a normal one.
“You should go to your classes,” he said finally.
The girl had already reached the shutter and now turned toward him. Miguel saw her pupils electrify for an instant.
“Don’t give me advice,” she responded. “Nobody does, and in the end you’re no different, are you? That’s the way things are.”
Miguel knelt down to lift the shutter. He tried to push with his legs to avoid straining his back muscles, but he still felt the pain in his side. The girl proceeded, ducking her head.
“Thanks for the sandwich,” she said as she left.
Miguel lowered the shutter again. Then he discovered, beside him, the cigarette machine. He went into the office and grabbed some coins from the register. He went back to the machine. The coins burned in his hand. He began to introduce one of them into the slot. Don’t do it, he said to himself.
“Don’t do it,” he repeated out loud, and he heard his own voice and it sounded like a plea.
“No lo hagas” © Pedro Zarraluki. By arrangement with the author. Copyright © 2013 by Mara Faya Lethem. All rights reserved.