From “No Man’s Land,” a story from her collection Many People Die Like You, which will be published this month by And Other Stories. Translated from the Swedish.
The report is bizarre. It’s not matter-of-fact, and the photographs are out of focus.
“Text,” I’d specified when commissioning the assignment. “I want only text. Is that clear?”
“Yes,” he’d replied.
I meet his gaze. He looks away. There’s no mistaking what underlies the writing of this report. Pity, and also the pleasure of presenting a certain kind of fact.
I go to the liquor cabinet and pour myself a glass. I sit on the couch and take him in. He is tall, corpulent. He could be my type.
He sits down and says: “I usually start off my case presentations with a brief account of the subject’s life. Much of what I’m about to say will already be familiar to you, of course.”
“So, I shadowed your husband, Joan Roca Pujol. He works as an architect at an office in Barcelona. At present, he’s working on a project for the town of Sitges. His brief is to restructure the town center in response to the large influx of homosexual tourists with serious spending power. Is this accurate?”
“Your husband is spending a lot of time in Madrid. Which, taking into account his professional situation, he shouldn’t be. Your suspicion stems from these long stays in the capital. You suspect there’s another reason. A woman.”
“In that case, I can confirm that this is about a woman.” The corner of his mouth twitches. It could be interpreted as a smile. I remember the fish I put in the oven just before he arrived. It should bake for exactly an hour. The table is already set; I set it right after lunch, as always. I am loyal as a dog.
A woman, then. Hair color, teeth, chest size. What else? A city. Every person is a city, Joan says—occupational hazard. In his world, I’m Verona. I’m a balcony he can look up at, hoping some feeling might yet sprout inside him. Some he describes as Detroit, or Bonn. Perfect infrastructure but dull. Others are like Venice. The other woman may well be Venice. As sticky as ice cream and hot. Flaking facades. Decadence that knocks you senseless.
“Would you like to know her name?”
“Well, it’s in the report. They meet every Thursday and Friday. Every other week, he spends the weekend at her place.”
He shuts the report. “May I speak from the heart?”
“Then I’ll begin by saying—and I hope it will be of some comfort—that when they meet, your husband turns off the light as soon as he can. Her face frightens him.”
“Yellow teeth. Smoking and obscene living. Her skin is ruined.”
“She lives in Madrid, on Calle del Calvario—thinks mostly of her debts nowadays. She believes Joan should toss her a few bills from time to time. Not large sums, but he does eat there and sometimes spends days in a row with her. There’s his bad habit of taking long showers after their . . . well, after their lovemaking. He must use upwards of three hundred liters, according to the woman’s own calculations, which are probably incorrect.”
“May I see it?”
He hands me the report. Beads of sweat have formed around his nose. I flip through the pages.
“Is it typical of the detectives’ guild to shoot out-of-focus images?”
“Typical of the guild? Do you have a lot of experience with detectives? Other than me?”
“I hear things.”
“We have to keep a certain distance.”
“She is not a beautiful woman.”
“Which makes everything much worse.”
He gets up. Walks around the room. Stops by the shelf of family photos, and says: “There are solutions.”
“Yes. We know how to get rid of people.”
Joan and I are smiling at each other in our wedding photo. Behind us is a wealth of happy people, and a bouquet of roses flying through a sky of white petals. I look out the window. You can see for miles today. It’s a beautiful night.
“Would you like to eat? Dinner’s ready.”
“No, thank you. But I’d love something to drink.”
“Let’s go back to ‘solutions.’ How would that work exactly? Would I get photographic evidence?”
“Oh yes, we can arrange all of that. And you can choose the murder weapon.”
“What a macabre term.”
“Macabre acts require macabre terminology. It doesn’t take much getting used to, and then it really is enjoyable. I have other examples—”
“That’s not necessary. I’m not interested.”
“Not at all.”
“So why the questions?”
“Female jealousy. Wouldn’t that justify exploring a hypothetical extermination?”
“You’re being glib,” he says. “As if you don’t understand how serious I am. If you want, we can continue. Otherwise we drop it right now. When it comes to revenge, you have to make a choice. You can’t stay in no-man’s-land.”
I go to the kitchen. Take the fish out and light the candles. I hear his voice.
He’s walked into the office and is at the drafting table. “What a fantastic drawing! Is it yours?”
“No, it’s Joan’s.”
“Aha, I’ve watched him work, but you never see the finished product through the window.”
“It’s the best thing that’s been drawn on Sitges’s dime to date.”
There’s something about that picture. It makes everyone who sees it happy, exactly as it’s supposed to. I’m no exception.
“It’s a proposal for a fountain.”
The idea: stiff and straight, water spraying from its tip. A towering urban orgasm, you could say, to take place day and night, thirty meters above people’s heads.
I decide to show him the clay miniature. I have one in iron too, which I cast and threaded a hose through so you can watch it gush.
I’m laughing. But he looks grave.
I hurry to the kitchen. Salt-encrusted fish, lukewarm and still edible, and various salads.
“Are you sure you don’t want a bite?”
“What about him? Are you sure he won’t be coming home?”
“He never comes home on Fridays.” I had to stop myself from adding that he has meetings.
“So who did you cook for today? For me?”
“No, for him.”
“But you said he doesn’t come home on Fridays.”
“You never know.”
“I’m sorry, but this is hilarious. You’re sitting there with dinner cooling on the stove while he’s pleasuring himself with another woman. You’re unbearable. He must hate you.”
“We work together. We have a lot in common.”
He’s getting drunk. “Tell me about you. How you do it.”
“Don’t be coy. Tell me how you fuck.”
“I think it’s time for you to go. I’ll get the checkbook.”
“That can wait.”
“You seem like a simple man. Drab and simple. You should leave.”
“I don’t think so.”
“I’ll call the police.”
We laugh. We’re drunk now. So drunk I knock over the wine bottle. The wine spills across the table and stains his pants.
“You can borrow a pair of my husband’s trousers. I’ll go get them.”
“I’ll come with you. I haven’t seen the view from the bedroom yet.”
I like him. I feel like telling him how I do it, and then asking him to tell me how he and his wife do it. Or he and his whoever. But he’s earnest. He’s suddenly not in the mood anymore.
“I have to show you the fountain in action.”
I open the closet and take out the iron model, get a bottle of cava from the refrigerator, go into the bathroom and uncork the bottle, stick in the hose, and push the button. The cava sprays the entire bathroom. “Look!” I shout. Now he’s laughing, too.
I raise the bottle, put it to his mouth. I drink. I wind the hose around his wrists. His lips look kissable. He says no one has ever put him in bondage before. He doesn’t have a lot of hair, is mostly bald. His breath is sour. He is disgusting.
I tug at him.
“Let’s play a game. Come on. Lie on your belly. Bend your knees. Hands tied behind your back, then a hose around your ankles and your neck. It’s a fun game. Lie still.”
He obeys. He must be quite drunk. He was nice while he was letting me talk about no-man’s-land. But now the niceness has vanished and has been replaced with the quality I didn’t like from the start.
I sit on the toilet, flipping through the report.
“There’s a lot that disturbs me here.”
“Sure, let’s talk about it. But take the rope off.”
“You mean the hose.”
“I thought this was a game.”
“This is a game.”
“Yes, but when does it start?”
“It’s not one of those games. Let’s talk about the report.”
“You have to take the hose off. It’s strangling me every time I relax.”
“Yes. That’s the game.”
“Take it off. I can’t handle it anymore. I have to vomit. I’m drunk.”
“I think the report is bizarre.”
“It’s just a normal report, for Christ’s sake.”
“There are too many pictures. I think it puts my husband and his lover in a bad light.”
Joan’s steps on the stairs wake me. The no-man’s-land is gone, and I feel a lightness. The bathroom door opens and I see his shoes. He’s standing there, silent.
Then he puts his hand on my head, and it is large and hot and caressing.
“Darling,” he says. “Not again.”