Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell
It’s not hot out, it’s not cold. A shy, sharp sun overcomes the clouds, and the sky looks, at times, truly clean, like the sky blue of a child’s drawing. Martín is in the last row of the bus, listening to music, bobbing his head like the young folks do. But he’s not young anymore, not by a long shot: he’s forty years old, his hair is fairly long, black, and a little curly, his face is extremely white — Well, there will be time later to describe him. Right now he has just gotten off the bus carrying a backpack and a suitcase, and he is walking a few blocks in search of an address.
The job consists of taking care of the cat, running the vacuum cleaner every once in a while, and watering some indoor plants that seem destined to dry out. I’m not going to go out much, hardly at all, he thinks, with a trace of happiness. Only to buy food for the cat, to buy food for myself. There is also a silver Fiat that he has to drive every so often. (“So it can breathe,” they’ve told him.) For now, he’s spending time with the family: it’s seven in the evening, and they’ll be leaving very early, at five-thirty in the morning. Here is the family, in alphabetical order:
bruno — sparse beard, blondish, tall, smoker of black tobacco, literature professor.
consuelo — Bruno’s partner, not his wife, because they never married, although they act like a married couple, perhaps worse than a married couple.
sofía — the daughter.
She’s just run past, the little girl, chasing after the cat toward the stairs. She doesn’t greet Martín, doesn’t look at him; these days kids don’t say hi, and maybe that’s not such a bad thing, because adults say hi too much. Bruno explains to Martín some of the details of the job while at the same time arguing with Consuelo about how to organize a suitcase. Then Consuelo approaches Martín with a friendliness that unsettles him — he isn’t used to friendliness — and shows him the cat’s bed, the litter box, and a post where the cat can sharpen its claws; though none of them get much use, Consuelo says, because the cat sleeps wherever he feels like it, does his business in the yard, and scratches on all the chairs. Consuelo also shows him how the little door works, the mechanism that allows the cat to go out but not come in, or come in but not go out, or come in and out as he likes. “We always leave it open,” says Consuelo, “so he can be free — it’s like when our parents finally gave us the keys to the house.”
Martín goes out to smoke and sees an empty area in the yard: two and a half square meters of disheveled grass where there should be a few plants and maybe a bush, but there’s nothing. He flicks his ashes onto the grass, puts out the cigarette, and wastes an entire minute thinking about where to throw it. In the end he hides it under a dead plant. He looks at the house from the threshold, thinks that it isn’t so big, that it’s manageable. He finds a large hourglass on an end table and turns it over —
“It lasts twelve minutes,” says the little girl, who then, from the top step where she is trying to hold on to the cat, asks him if he’s Martín.
And if he wants to play chess.
The cat wriggles out of the girl’s grasp. It’s an uneven gray color, with short, dense fur, a thin body, and fangs that protrude slightly. The little girl goes back up the stairs. The cat, Mississippi, seems docile. He goes up to Martín, who wants to pet him but hesitates: he’s not so familiar with cats, has never lived with one before.
Sofía comes back. She’s in her pajamas now, and she walks clumsily in her big Chilote slippers. Consuelo asks her to not bother them and to go to her room, but the girl is carrying a heavy box, or a box that’s heavy for her, and she sets up the chessboard on the living room table. She is seven years old, and she has just learned how to move the pieces, along with the game’s mannerisms and affectations; she looks cute with her brow furrowed, her round face in her hands. She and Martín start to play, but after five minutes it’s clear that they’re getting bored, he more so than she. He proposes to Sofi that they play at losing, and at first she doesn’t understand, but then she explodes in sweet, mocking laughter — the one who loses wins, the goal is to give up first, to leave Don Quixote and Dulcinea unprotected, because it’s a Cervantes chess set, with windmills instead of rooks, and courageous Sancho Panzas as pawns.
How idiotic, thinks Martín, a literary chess set.
The pieces on the board look tarnished, tasteless, and although he’s not one to form quick impressions, the whole house now makes him a little anxious and annoyed, but not because of anything he sees: the placement of each object surely answers to some obscure theory of interior design, but an imbalance persists, a secret anomaly. It’s as if the things don’t want to be where they are, thinks Martín, who is nevertheless grateful for the chance to spend some time in this bright house, so different from the small, shadowy rooms he tends to live in.
Consuelo takes the girl upstairs and sings her to sleep. Though he listens from afar, Martín feels that he shouldn’t be eavesdropping, that he is an intruder. Bruno offers him some ravioli, which they eat in silence, with a phony masculine voracity. Something like, Well, there are no women around — let’s not use napkins. After the coffee, Bruno pours a couple of vodkas on the rocks, but Martín opts to keep downing wine.
“What’s the name of the city where you’re going to live?” Martín asks, to have something to say.
“Where we played?”
“The Chilean soccer team, France, ’98.”
“I don’t know. It’s an industrial city, a little run-down. I’m going to teach classes on Latin America.”
“And where is it?”
“Saint-Étienne or Latin America?”
The joke is so easy, so rote, but it works. Almost without trying, they draw out the after-dinner conversation, as if discovering some belated affinity. Upstairs, the little girl sleeps, and they can also hear what might be Consuelo breathing or snoring slightly. Martín discovers that he’s been thinking about her the whole time he’s been in the house, from the moment he saw her in the doorway.
“You’re going to be here four months,” Bruno tells him. “Make use of that time to have a go with one of the neighbors.”
I’d much rather have a go with your wife, thinks Martín, and he thinks it so forcefully he’s afraid he has said it out loud.
“Enjoy it, cousin,” Bruno goes on affectionately, slightly drunk, but they aren’t cousins. Their fathers were, though: Martín’s has just died, and it was at the wake that they saw each other again for the first time in years. To treat Martín like family now makes sense; it’s perhaps the only way to build a hasty sense of trust. The idea had originally been to rent out the house, but they couldn’t find anyone suitable. Martín was the most reliable person Bruno could find to house-sit. They’ve seen each other very little over the course of their lives, but maybe they were friends at one point, when they were still children and were compelled to play together on some Sunday afternoon.
Bruno lays out for him again what they’ve already talked about over the phone. He gives him the keys, they test the locks, he explains the doors’ quirks. And again he lists the advantages of being there, although now he doesn’t mention any neighbors. Then he asks if Martín likes to read.
“A little,” says Martín, but it’s not true. Then he turns overly honest: “No, I don’t like to read. The last thing I would ever do is read a book.” After a pause he says, “Sorry,” and looks at the overflowing shelves. “It’s like I’ve gone to church and said I don’t believe in God.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Bruno says, as if approving the comment. “A lot of people think the same thing, but they don’t say it.” Then he picks out some novels and puts them on the end table, beside the hourglass. “Still, if you ever feel like reading, here are some things that might interest you.”
“And why would they interest me? Are they for people who don’t read?”
“More or less, ha.” (He says this, “ha,” but without the inflection of laughter.) “Some of them are classics, others are more contemporary, but they’re all entertaining.” (When he says this last word, he doesn’t make the slightest effort to avoid a pedantic tone, almost as if he were making air quotes.) Martín thanks him and says good night.
He doesn’t look at the books, not even at their titles. Lying on the couch, he thinks: Books for people who don’t read. He thinks: Books for people who have just lost their fathers and had already lost their mothers, people who are alone in the world. Books for people who have failed in the university, in work, in love. (He thinks this: Failed in love.) Books for people who have failed so badly that, at forty years old, taking care of someone else’s house in exchange for nothing, or almost nothing, seems like a good opportunity.
Just when sleep is about to overtake him, the alarm clocks go off; it’s five in the morning. Martín gets up to help the family with their suitcases. Sofi comes downstairs sulking, but right away she finds, who knows where, a surge of energy. Mississippi is nowhere to be found, and Sofi wants to say goodbye. She cries for two minutes but then stops, as if she had simply forgotten she was crying. When the taxi arrives she insists she wants to finish her cereal but then leaves the bowl almost untouched.
“Kill all the robbers,” she tells Martín before getting into the car.
“And what should I do with the ghosts?”
“Martín is joking,” says Consuelo immediately, throwing him a nervous look. “There are no ghosts in the house — that’s why we bought it, because we were guaranteed there were no ghosts. And not in France either, in the house where we’re going to live.”
As soon as they are gone, Martín stretches out in the big bed, which is still warm. He searches in the sheets for Consuelo’s perfume or the smell of her body, and he sleeps facedown, breathing deeply into the pillow as if he’s discovered an exclusive and dangerous drug. The noise of the street starts up, the commotion of people going to work, the school buses, the motors revved by drivers anxious to avoid the traffic. He dreams that he’s in the waiting room of a hospital and a stranger asks him if he’s gotten his results yet. Martín is waiting for something or waiting for someone, in the dream he doesn’t remember exactly what or who and he doesn’t dare ask, but he knows that what he’s waiting for isn’t test results. He tries to remember, and then he thinks, It’s a dream, and he tries to wake up, but when he wakes he is still in the dream and the stranger is still waiting for an answer. Then he wakes up for real and feels the immense relief of not having to answer that question, of not having to answer any questions. The cat is yawning at the foot of the bed.
He unpacks his suitcase in the master bedroom, but there’s not much room in the wardrobes. He finds an old Pixies T-shirt with the cover from Surfer Rosa. “You’ll think I’m dead, but I sail away,” he thinks — of course, that’s from a different album, he’s got it wrong. He tries to picture Consuelo in that shirt and he can’t, but it’s a size medium, so it must be hers and not Bruno’s. In any case, he puts it on. He looks funny — it’s too tight on him. Wearing only the T-shirt and a pair of sweatpants, he heads out to the nearest supermarket, where he buys coffee, beer, noodles, and ketchup, plus some cans of horse mackerel for Mississippi, because he’s hatched a plan, thinking the cat will see the situation like this: They’re gone, they left me alone with a stranger, but I sure am eating great. He comes back practically dragging the bags; it’s several blocks away, and he knows he should have taken the car, but he’s terrified of driving. Back in the house, as he’s putting away the groceries in the kitchen, he looks at the cereal and milk the girl left behind. He finishes what’s left in the bowl while thinking that he can count on the fingers of one hand the times he’s eaten cereal. Men from my generation don’t eat cereal, he thinks — unless their children eat it, unless they are fathers. When did they start selling cereal in Chile? The Nineties? Suddenly, this question seems important. He sees an image of himself as a child, drinking a glass of plain milk, like he always did, and then rushing off to school.
Afterward, he inspects the second floor, where Bruno’s study is — a large room, perfectly illuminated by a skylight, with books in strict alphabetical order, countless desk supplies, and degrees on the wall: undergraduate, master’s, doctorate, all hanging in a row. Next he takes a look at the girl’s room, full of drawings, decorations, and, on the bed, some stuffed animals with their names written on tags. She’d taken some of her animals with her, but they’d made her store others in her closet or chest; she left five on her bed and insisted on giving them name tags so that Martín could identify them (one brown bear wearing sports clothes catches his attention — its name is Dog). Then he finds, in the upstairs bathroom, in with a pile of magazines, a pamphlet of sheet music for beginners. He goes downstairs and sits at the electric piano, which doesn’t work; he tries to fix it, with no luck. Still, he reads the music and presses the keys. He has fun imagining that he is an impoverished piano player, one with no money to pay the electricity bill and who has to practice like this, by touch.
The first two weeks pass uneventfully. He lives just as he had planned. At first the days seem eternal, but gradually he fills them with certain routines: he gets up at nine, feeds Mississippi, and, after breakfast (he goes on eating cereal after he discovers a love for Quaker Oatmeal Squares), he goes into the garage, starts the car’s motor, and plays a bit with the accelerator, like a pilot waiting for clearance to take off. Eventually he takes the car out for a spin, for multiple spins, each one longer than the last. When he comes back, he tunes the radio to the news, opens the window in the living room, and turns the hourglass upside down; while the grains, the minutes, fall delicately and decisively, he smokes the day’s first cigarette.
Then he watches TV for a few hours, and the effect is narcotic. He comes to feel affection for the rhetoric of the morning shows, of which he becomes something of a scholar; he compares them, considers them seriously, and he does the same with the celebrity shows. Those take a bit more effort because he doesn’t know the characters — he’s never paid attention to that world — but eventually he comes to recognize them. He eats his lunch of noodles with ketchup in bed, always watching TV.
The rest of the day is uncertain, but it tends to be spent walking. He has a rule not to go to the same café twice, or to buy his cigarettes from the same corner shop, in order to avoid building any sense of familiarity. He has the vague impression that he is going to miss this life, which isn’t the life he’s dreamed of but is a good life nonetheless; it is a beneficial, restorative time. But all of that changes the afternoon he discovers that the cat has disappeared. It’s been at least two days since he’s seen Mississippi, whose bowl of food is untouched. He asks around among the neighbors: no one knows anything.
Martín spends several hours desperate, frozen stiff, not knowing what to do. In the end he decides to make a flyer. He searches Bruno’s computer for a photo of Mississippi, but he finds nothing; before leaving, Bruno cleared all his personal files from the hard drive. Martín ransacks the entire house, taking a certain pleasure in the disarray, the chaos he is sowing. He looks through trunks, bags, boxes, and dozens of books, flipping frantically through the pages or shaking them with something like rage. He finds a little red suitcase hidden in the wardrobe of the study. Instead of money or jewelry it holds hundreds of family photos, some of them framed and others loose, some with dates on the back and even some with short, loving messages. He likes one photo in particular, a large one in which Consuelo poses, blushing, with her mouth open. He takes a diploma Sofi received from a swimming course out of its frame and replaces it with the photo of Consuelo, and then he hangs it on the main wall of the living room. He thinks that he could spend hours stroking that straight, black, shining hair. Since he couldn’t find any photos of Mississippi, he searches online for images of grey cats and chooses one at random. He writes a brief message, prints forty copies, and puts them up on lampposts and trees all along the street.
When he comes back, the house is a disaster. Especially the second floor. He is annoyed at being the author of the mess. He looks at the half-opened boxes, the clothes strewn across the bed, the many dolls, drawings, and bracelets scattered over the floor, the solitary Lego blocks lost in corners. He begins, reluctantly, to straighten up the room, but suddenly he stops, lights a cigarette, and blows some smoke rings like he used to do as a teenager, all while imagining that the little girl has just been playing here with her friends. He imagines that he is the father who opens her door and indignantly demands she clean up her room, and that she nods but goes right on playing. He imagines going into the living room, where a very beautiful woman, a woman who is Consuelo, or who looks like Consuelo, hands him a mug of coffee, raises her eyebrows, and smiles, showing her teeth. Then he goes and makes that cup of coffee for himself, which he drinks in quick sips while he thinks about a life with children, a wife, a stable job. Martín feels a sharp jab in his chest. And then a word that was by now inevitable looms: melancholy.
He contents or distracts himself with the memory that he, too, long ago, had been the father of a seven-year-old girl. For a day, at least. He was nineteen and he lived in Recoleta with his father and his mother, neither of whom had gotten sick yet. One afternoon, he went down to the kitchen and heard Elba, the woman who helped around the house, complaining because she could never go to the parent meetings at her daughter’s school. He offered to go in her place, because he cared about Elba and Cami, but also out of a sense of adventure, which, in those days, was much more pronounced in him. He had longer hair then and he looked very young — in no way did he look like a father — but he went into the school and sat at the back of the room next to a guy who was almost as young as he was, although a little more of a man; more worldly, as they say.
On his right arm the man had a brown tattoo that was barely darker than his skin. It said: jesús.
“What’s your name?” Martín asked. The man responded by pointing to his tattoo. “Jesús seems nice,” Martín thought.
“You look really young,” Jesús told Martín.
“You, too. I was still a kid when I had my kid.” Just then the teacher closed the door and started to talk; some parents came in late, and the door got stuck once, twice. No one said anything until a fat blond woman in the third row got up, and, with an enviably resounding voice, interrupted the teacher: “What would happen if there were an earthquake or a fire? What would become of the children?”
The teacher fell into the silence of someone who knows she should think carefully about what she is going to say. It was precisely the moment when she could have blamed her bosses, the public-education system, Pinochet, the ineffectiveness of the Concertación party, capitalism — it was clearly not the teacher’s fault, but she didn’t think fast enough, she wasn’t brave. The voices accumulated, and she let them build, everyone was complaining, everyone was shouting, and to make matters worse, right then someone else arrived late, and the door jammed again. Jesús was also shouting and even Martín was about to start yelling, but the teacher asked that they show some respect and let her talk: “I’m sorry, this is a poor school, we just don’t have the resources, I understand you are angry, but keep in mind that if there is a fire or an earthquake, I’ll also be trapped in here with the children.” The effect of this grim observation lasted two or three seconds, until Martín got up furiously and pointed his finger at her and said, with a full sense of the drama: “But you, ma’am, are not my daughter!” Everyone supported him, enraged, and he felt so good about himself.
“That was rad,” Jesús said later, on their way to the bus stop. As they said goodbye, Martín asked him if he believed in Jesus. And Jesús responded with a smile: “I believe in Jesús.”
“You, ma’am, are not my daughter,” Martín murmurs now, like a mantra. That night he writes to Bruno saying: All’s well.
One afternoon, as he walks back from the supermarket, he finds that someone has put up posters on top of his. He goes up and down the street and confirms that wherever he’d posted his flyers, there are now signs announcing the disappearance of a Siberian-German mix named Pancho. There is a decent reward of 20,000 pesos. Martín jots down the number and the name Paz, Pancho’s owner.
There is a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the kitchen. Martín only drinks beer or wine, he’s not used to liquor, but on a whim he pours a glass, and, with each sip, he discovers that he likes Jack Daniel’s, that he is spellbound by it. So by the time he decides to call Paz, he’s fairly drunk. “You put your dog over my cat,” is the first thing he says to her, awkwardly, vehemently.
It’s ten-thirty at night. Paz seems caught off guard, but she apologizes. He regrets his heated tone, and the conversation ends with both of them apologizing. Before hanging up, Martín catches a voice in the background, a complaint. A child’s voice.
The following morning Martín watches through the window as a young woman on a bicycle rides up and sets herself to the time-consuming task of moving the posters. He goes out to the street and looks at her from a certain distance — she isn’t beautiful, he thinks, decisively, she’s just young, she must be twenty years old. Martín could be her father (he doesn’t think this last part). Paz pulls down her posters and finds space for them above or below his. She disguises the torn corners by folding them, and, while she’s at it, she adjusts Martín’s posters. She works skillfully, and he wonders if she does this for a living. She must be part of a squad of lost-animal seekers, Martín thinks, like those people who professionally walk dogs. (This is not the case.)
He goes outside and introduces himself. He apologizes again for having called her so late, and then accompanies her the rest of the way down the street. At first she seems wary, but soon the conversation begins to take shape. They talk about Mississippi and about Pancho and also about pets in general, about the responsibility of owning pets, and even about the word “pet,” which she doesn’t like because she finds it derogatory. Martín smokes several cigarettes while they talk, but he doesn’t want to toss the butts. He holds them in his hand as if they were valuable.
“There’s a trash can over there,” Paz tells him, suddenly, and the sentence coincides with the corner where they have to part ways.
That night he calls her and tells her that he’s covered dozens of blocks looking for Mississippi, and he’s also kept an eye out for Pancho. It sounds like a lie, but it’s true. She thanks him for the gesture, but she doesn’t let the conversation flow from there. Martín begins to call her daily, and though the conversations stay short, he feels good about them, as if those few sentences were enough to establish himself as a presence in her life.
A week later he sees a dog that looks like Pancho close to the house. He tries to approach it, but the dog runs away scared. He calls Paz, but he has trouble talking. What he has to say sounds like a lie again, like an excuse to see her. But Paz accepts it. They meet and patrol the inner streets for a while, until it’s time for her to go pick her son up from kindergarten. Martín insists on going with her.
“I can’t believe you have a son,” he says.
“Sometimes I can’t believe it either,” answers Paz.
“Another boyfriend?” the boy asks Paz when he sees Martín. He drags his little backpack expressively behind him without looking Martín in the face, but Paz tells him Martín thinks he’s seen Pancho, and this gets the boy’s hopes up; he insists they keep looking for the dog. They cover many blocks, looking for all the world like a perfect family. They say goodbye when they reach Paz’s house. Martin and Paz know that they will see each other again, and maybe the boy knows it too.
It’s been over a month since Mississippi’s disappearance, and Martín doesn’t hold out any hope of finding him. He even types up a confused email to Bruno, full of apologies, but he doesn’t dare send it. The cat returns, however, one morning, at dawn; he’s covered in wounds and has an enormous ball of pus on his back. The vet is pessimistic, but he does an emergency operation and prescribes some antibiotics that Martín has to give Mississippi daily. He has to feed the cat baby food and clean his wounds every eight hours. The poor cat is so bad off, he doesn’t have the strength to meow or move.
Martín focuses on Mississippi’s health. Now he loves the cat, takes care of him for real. He forgets to call Paz for a few days. She is finally the one to call him one morning, and she’s happy when she hears the good news. Half an hour later they are sitting beside the cat, petting him, commiserating with him.
“You told me you lived alone, but this seems like a family’s house.” She throws the sentence at him while looking at the photo of Consuelo. Martín gets nervous and delays his answer. Finally he tells her, downcast and murmuring, as if it were painful to remember: “We separated some months ago, maybe a year ago. My wife and our daughter went to live in an apartment, and I stayed here with the cat.”
“Your wife is beautiful,” says Paz, looking at the photo on the wall.
“But she’s not my wife anymore,” answers Martín.
“But she’s beautiful,” repeats Paz. “And you never told me you had a daughter.”
“We just met, we can’t say words like ‘never’ and ‘always’ yet,” says Martín. “And I don’t like to talk about her,” he adds. “It makes me sad. I’m still not over the separation. The worst part is that Consuelo doesn’t let me see my daughter. She wants more money,” he says. She looks at him anxiously, her mouth half open. He must be feeling the adrenaline that sustains the liar, but he gets distracted looking at those small, slightly separated teeth, the aquiline nose, those thin but well-formed legs that seem perfect to him.
“You had your daughter very young,” Paz says to him.
“Not really,” he replies, “Or maybe so. Maybe I was too young.” Now he is completely wrapped up in the lie.
“I was a mom at sixteen, and I almost had an abortion,” says Paz, maybe to balance out Martín’s confessions.
“Why didn’t you?” Martín asks. It’s a stupid, offensive question, but she’s unfazed.
“Because abortion is illegal in Chile,” she says very seriously, but then she laughs, and her eyes shine. “That year,” she goes on, “my two best friends got pregnant. I was going to get an abortion at the same place they did, but at the last minute, I changed my mind and decided to have the baby.”
They have sex on the armchair, and at first it seems like a good lay, but he comes quickly, apologizes.
“Don’t worry,” she answers. “You’re better than most boys my age.” Martín thinks about that word, “boys,” which he would never use but, from her, sounds so appropriate, so natural. She has almost no freckles on her face or arms, but the rest of her body is covered in them. Her back looks like it was spattered with red ink. He likes it.
They start seeing each other daily, and they keep looking for Pancho. The possibility of finding him is by now remote, but Paz doesn’t lose hope. Then they go back to the house and tend to Mississippi together. The wounds are healing slowly but favorably, and, on the spot on his back where the doctor shaved his fur, they can already see a finer, lighter fur growing in. The romance also advances, and at an accelerated speed. Sometimes he likes this acceleration, he needs it. But he also wants it all to end: he wants to be forced to tell the truth, and for it all to go to shit. One day, Paz realizes that Martín has taken the photo of Consuelo down. She asks him to hang it up again. He asks her why.
“I don’t want us to get confused,” she says. He doesn’t understand very well, but he hangs the photo again. “If it bothers you to screw in the house where you slept with and screwed your wife,” Paz tells him, “I’d understand.” He shakes his head emphatically and tells her that for some time now — that’s the expression he uses, “for some time now” — he hasn’t thought about his wife.
“Really, sorry to insist,” she says, “but if it bothers you to fuck here, you have to tell me.”
“But we were really almost never having sex anymore,” answers Martín, and they fall silent until she asks him if he had ever had sex with his wife on the table in the living room. He gives her a horny smile and says that they hadn’t. The game continues, vertiginous and fun. She asks if his wife had ever dipped his dick in condensed milk before sucking it, or if perhaps by chance his wife had liked him to stick three fingers in her ass, or if there’d been a time when she’d asked him to come on her face, on her tits, on her ass, in her hair.
One of those mornings, Paz shows up with a rose bush and a bougainvillea. He gets a shovel, and together they construct a minimal garden in the empty plot by the entrance. He digs clumsily, so Paz takes the shovel away from him, and in a matter of minutes the job is done.
“Sorry,” Martín tells her. “I know the guy is supposed to do the hard part.”
“No worries,” she answers, and she adds, cheerfully, “I was born under democracy.” Later, apropos of nothing, maybe as a way of anticipating his confession, Martín launches into a monologue about the past, in which brushstrokes of the truth are mixed with some obligatory lies, as he searches for a way of being honest, or at least less dishonest. He talks about pain, about the difficulty of building long-lasting, simple ties with people. “I’m addicted to the drug of solitude,” he tells her. She listens to him attentively, compassionately, and she nods her head several times in affirmation, but after a pause in which she adjusts her hair, settles into the armchair, and takes off her tennis shoes, she says it again, mischievously: “I was born under democracy.” And at lunch, when she sees him cutting his chicken with a knife and fork, she says she’d rather eat with her hands because she was “born under democracy.” The phrase works for everything, especially in bed: when he wants to do it without a condom, when he asks her not to yell so loud or to be careful about walking around the living room naked, and when she moves so savagely and eagerly on top that Martín can’t hide the pain in his penis — to all of these things, she responds that she was born under democracy, or she simply says, shrugging her shoulders, “Democracy!”
Time goes by with happy indolence. There are hours, maybe entire days, when Martín manages to forget who he really is. He forgets that he is pretending, that he’s lying, that he’s guilty. On two occasions he almost lets the truth slip out. But the truth is long. Telling the truth would require many words. And there are only two weeks left. No! One week.
Now he’s driving, nervously: it’s Friday, and tomorrow he has to go to a wedding as Paz’s date. She asked him if they could take the car, so now he only has one day to practice — he has to seem like a seasoned driver, or at least he has to obey the traffic laws. At first it all goes well. He stalls at a red light, as he tends to do, but he has some courage in reserve, and, for a little bit, he achieves a certain fluidity. Then he gets carried away and decides to go to the mall to buy two plates and three cups to replace the ones that he’s broken, but he’s unable to change lanes at the right time or move ahead of the other cars, and he gets stuck in his lane for ten minutes, until the exits run out. Now he’s headed southward on the highway, and there’s nothing to do but attempt a dangerous U-turn.
He pulls over onto the median, decides to wait until he calms down. He turns off the radio and bides time until he can make the turn, but, when the opening comes, the car stalls again, and he’s left at the mercy of an oncoming truck. The driver swerves to avoid him and leans on the horn.
He gives up and starts driving south again, and every once in a while he thinks about trying another U-turn, or trying to get off the highway, but he’s frozen dead with fear and all he can do is keep going in this straight line. He comes to a tollbooth and slams on the brakes; the toll collector smiles at him, but he’s incapable of smiling back at her. He is forced to keep going, like a slow automaton, until he reaches Rancagua.
I’ve never been to Rancagua, he thinks, ashamed. He gets out of the car, looks at the people, tries to guess the time from the movement in the Plaza de Armas: Twelve — no, eleven. It’s early, but he’s hungry. He buys an empanada. He stays there an entire hour, parked, smoking, thinking about Paz. Such weighty names annoy him; they’re so full, so directly symbolic: Paz, Consuelo — peace and consolation. He thinks that, if he ever has a child, he’s going to come up with a name that doesn’t mean anything. Then he takes twenty-four turns around the plaza — though he doesn’t count them — and some teenage girls playing hooky eye him strangely. He parks again, and his phone rings; he tells Paz he’s at the supermarket. She wants to see him. He replies that he can’t because he has to pick his daughter up from school.
“Finally you can see her?” she asks, overjoyed.
“Yes. We came to an agreement,” he says.
“I’d love to meet her,” says Paz.
“Not yet,” replies Martín. “Down the road.”
Not until four in the afternoon does he start heading back. The trip is calm this time, or less tense. I’ve just learned to really drive, he thinks that night before going to sleep, a little bit proud.
And yet, on Saturday, on the way to the wedding, he stalls the car. He says his eyes feel “caustic” — he’s not sure that’s the right word, but he uses it. Paz takes the wheel — she doesn’t have a license, but it doesn’t matter. He watches her drive, concentrated on the road, the seat belt between her breasts. He drinks a lot at the wedding. A lot. And even so, it all turns out well. People like him, he dances well, he cracks some good jokes. Paz’s friends congratulate her. She takes off her red shoes and dances barefoot, and he thinks it’s absurd that he doubted her beauty at first: She’s beautiful, she’s free, she’s fun, marvelous. He feels the urge to tell her right there, in the middle of the dance floor, that all is lost, irreversible. That the family is returning on Wednesday. He goes back to the table, watches her dance with her friends, with the groom, with the groom’s father. Martín orders another Jack Daniel’s and drinks it in one gulp. He likes the grating pain in his throat. He looks at the chair where Paz’s purse and shoes are. He thinks about keeping those red shoes like some sort of fetishist.
The next day is a hungover one. He wakes up at eleven-thirty and there’s strange music playing, a kind of new-age music that Paz hums along to while she cooks. She’d gotten up early and gone out to buy sea bream and a ton of vegetables, which she’s now frying in the wok, slowly stirring in the soy sauce. After lunch, stretched out naked on the bed, Martín counts the freckles on Paz’s back, on her ass, on her legs: 233. It’s the moment to confess everything, and he even thinks she might understand: she would get mad, she would mock him, she would stop seeing him for weeks, for months, she would feel confused and all that, but she would forgive him. He starts to talk, timidly, searching for the right tone, but she interrupts him and leaves to go pick up her son, who is at her parents’ house.
They come back at five. Up to this point the boy had been quiet around Martín, but this time he loosens up and is more trusting. For the first time, they play together. First they try to cheer up Mississippi, who is still convalescing, but soon they give up. Then the boy puts the tomatoes next to the oranges and tells Martín he wants some orange juice. Martín picks up the tomatoes, and when he’s about to cut the first one the boy cries, “Noooooo!” They repeat the routine twelve, fifteen times. There is a variation: before cutting the tomato, Martín catches on and feigns fury, saying that the grocer sold him tomatoes instead of oranges, pretending that he’s going to storm back and complain, all so the boy will say, intoxicated with happiness, “Noooooo!”
Now they’re playing with the remote control. The boy pushes a button and Martín falls down, bites his own hand, shouts, or goes mute.
And if I really did lose my voice? he thinks afterward, while the child sleeps on his mother’s lap.
May they turn my volume down, thinks Martín.
May they fast-forward me, rewind me.
May they record over me.
May they erase me.
Now Paz, the boy, and Mississippi are asleep, and Martín has been locked in the study for hours doing who knows what, maybe crying.
They like what they see at first, when they get out of the taxi. Consuelo looks at the bougainvillea and the rosebush, and she wants to find Martín right away to thank him for that gesture. Then they are surprised to see the photo of Consuelo on the main wall, and in the confusion she even thinks, for a split second, that the photo has always been there, but no, of course it hasn’t. They go through the house, alarmed, and their confusion grows as they look into each of the bedrooms — it’s clear that Martín moved the boxes and wardrobes around, and every minute brings a new discovery: stains on the curtains, cigarette ash on the carpet. The cat is in the girl’s room, sleeping on top of the stuffed animals. They look over his wounds, which still haven’t scarred over completely, and they are furious at first, but then grateful, after all, that he’s alive. In the kitchen they find some used syringes next to the cat’s medicine.
Martín isn’t there, and he doesn’t answer his cell phone. There is no note to explain the situation at all. They can’t understand what has happened. It’s difficult to understand. At first they think Martín robbed them, and Bruno anxiously looks over the library, but he finds no evidence of theft.
He feels stupid for having trusted Martín. They had corresponded so much by email, and there was no reason to be suspicious. “These things happen,” says Consuelo, for her part, but she says it automatically, without conviction. Every so often Bruno calls Martín again, leaves messages on his voicemail, messages that are sometimes friendly and other times violent.
A few days later, the doorbell rings very early in the morning. Consuelo goes out to answer. “What do you want?” she asks a young woman, who is frozen, recognizing her. “What do you want?” Consuelo repeats. She takes a while to answer. She stares again, intently, at Consuelo, and with a gesture of contempt, or of supreme sadness, she answers: “Nothing.”
“Who was it?” asks Bruno from the bedroom. Consuelo closes the door and hesitates a second before answering: “No one.”