|It all happened very quickly because that’s the way things go when the sky is in a hurry. Something broke in the air, the clouds unloaded their violence, and in a few seconds I was soaked in the middle of the avenue. I was trotting at such a clip in search of a place to shelter myself that I thought of trying to make it to the El Condor bookstore, the only Latin American bookstore in Zurich, certain that I would be received warmly there by Maria Moretti, who would hurry to get me out of my raincoat and offer me a mug of coffee while she dried my head with a towel. The storm worsened, though, and I had no choice but to assume the behavior of a desperate chicken that seems to characterize all pedestrians caught by surprise in a storm.
Then, through the curtain of water I saw the sign stuck to a glass door:
PHOTOGRAPHY EXHIBITION BY C.G. HUDSON
FAÇADES OF HOUSES
I went in, ushered only by the downpour and, as I pushed open the narrow door, I thought about the number of times I had gone down this street without ever noticing this gallery was here, but it didn’t disturb me terribly; art galleries open and close all the time in Zurich, just like the rest of the world.
The photos were hanging in a white room, the lighting was excellent, and I was the only visitor.
On a table, plainly printed catalogues detailed the brief life of the photographer:
C.G. Hudson. London, 1947–1985. Solo exhibitions in Dublin, New York, Paris, Toronto, Barcelona, Hamburg, Buenos Aires . . .
At first glance, the photos seemed very good to me, although this appreciation might not mean a thing. We all know that the pleasure or well-being derived from a work of art emanates from different states of mind converging by chance.
The first photo showed the portico of a Venetian house on the Campo della Maddalena. The colors were vibrant, tempting one to feel the texture of the stone and the roughness of the wood. Next came the entrance to a posh mansion on the Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna. Following this one was a rusted railing that half obscured the façade of a Roman villa, then the unreal white silhouette of a house in Crete (Aggios Nikolaos), and the proud, lovely stonework of a country house in Catalonia (Palau de Santa Eulalie). Unexpectedly, between the country house and a narrow building on watchmakers’ row in Basel, the battered green door with the bronze hand clutching a globe.
I drew closer, feeling sadness mold a hateful mask on my face. My steps were not taking me toward the photograph of a familiar place or object but to a door whose inner secrets were waiting for me, wrapped in the harshness of years past, in the mockery of time.
It was the house. I recognized the number twenty scripted in the blue brass oval. At the bottom of the photo was the inscription that dispelled all possible doubt: “House in Santiago. Calle Ricantén.”
A strange chill made my legs shiver, and an even icier sweat ran down my spine. I wanted to sit down and, after finding nowhere to do so, I decided to take off my soaked overcoat and leave it on the floor next to the table with the catalogues.
C.G. Hudson. London, 1947–1985 . . .
It had only been a few years since the photographer had died and I felt the desperate need to talk to someone—an employee, the gallery director—anyone who might give me some information about him and, above all, who might help me figure out when he took that photograph.
I saw a door that I assumed went to the office of the person in charge. I called out and, receiving no reply, turned the handle and pushed softly. On the other side, in a room full of posters and cleaning supplies, a woman hid her coffee thermos, embarrassed.
“Excuse me, I didn’t mean to startle you. Could you tell me what time the person in charge of the exhibit will be in? I’m a journalist and I have a few questions . . .”
She replied that the gallery owner usually came in the afternoon, a half hour before closing, and that she just was in charge of cleaning and was only waiting for the downpour to let up.
I left the woman and went back to the photo. Since there was no one else in the room, I felt bold enough to light a cigarette. The tobacco managed to calm me down. I was no longer trembling, but the imminent closing of a circle that I had happily thought to be forgotten left me feeling joyless.
It was the house. And between it and myself, time and something else.
The faded yellow color of the wall, the aggressive military green of the door, and the rigid bronze fist clutching a globe were shameful stains on the aesthetics of the other photographed porticos, but that intentional ugliness transported me to the scent of scrubbed paving stones that now barely inhabited my memory, because the alchemy of happiness depends on the proper mixture of the forgotten.
It was a summer afternoon when I crossed the threshold of that house. That is the only certainty that I have left. I remember it. Tino and Beto were with me. We were an inseparable trio, the devourers of steak sandwiches and the dawn; the novice drinkers of love and harsh, dry red wine from the worst taverns; naive gentlemen of the dance and the night.
It was a question of honor for us every weekend: to be invited to a dance, a party, a get together and, if possible, to also have a trio of new girls to while away long hours of music and words whispered into ears.
The best events were almost always suggested by Beto. His job as a meter reader for the electric company allowed him to meet a lot a people, and in doing so he secured us invitations to baptisms, birthdays, silver anniversaries, and other family parties.
Beto . . . “and, tell me, do you mind if I come with a couple of friends? They’re two very respectable guys from good families, and we’re like brothers, you know? Like the Three Musketeers, one for all and all for having a good time. They’re really good guys.”
It was a summer Saturday. Santiago smelled like acacia blossoms, like freshly watered gardens, like hosed-down paving stones evoking the fresh twilight of that city surrounded by symbols of winter, and we smelled like pomade, the splashes of English lavender that we used to scent our handkerchiefs, because, as Tino pointed out, women are always asking for handkerchiefs.
Tino . . . “But listen, guys. Be courteous at all times. Kind, too, but without being sappy. Fools just let themselves get roped in. If you don’t believe me, look at Mañungo. Before, he used to come with us to everything, until he was roped in, the asshole, and now he walks around like a cat looking for a butcher shop . . .”
No. We were not falling in love. That was a dangerous curve that we avoided with all of our will, because if one of us did it then the unity of the group was broken. And women, there are many, but friends . . .
One Saturday, one summer, Beto and Tino.
“Betofen, where is this thing?”
“On Calle Ricantén, and it looks promising.”
“I saw two that were fit to eat.”
“Will you knot my tie, Betofen?”
“War bugle. Hey, Tino, you reek of benzene! Are they still cleaning your pants with clear benzene? Sure, because they’re cashmere. That’s all old-fashioned, gramps. You have to wear clothes made of polyester. You can wash polyester and it’s always impeccable, like it was freshly ironed.”
“Right, Betofen. Polyester. Let’s go?”
We stocked up on cigarettes along the way. Packs of Liberty for ourselves and Frescos for the girls, who in those days preferred mentholated. We also bought the customary bottle of Pisco for the house, a show of class that excluded us from the list of freeloaders.
Ricantén, number twenty. The door was barracks green, framed by a peeling yellow wall. On the upper part, there was a bronze hand clutching a globe.
Beto made the usual introductions, we let ourselves be pampered with a few small glasses of punch, kissing the hand of the lady of the house, examining the personnel, and within a few minutes we were the kings of the dance. Luis Dimas, Palito Ortega, The Ramblers, Leo Dan. And we applauded the old folks when they let loose with a paso doble or a tango.
At midnight the pairing of couples was already decided: Beto with Amalia, whom he did not let go of, even for a second, and Tino with Sarita, a girl with glasses who was translating the English song lyrics for him in a low voice. I envied them, bored from dancing with daring bobby soxers or the lady of the house, and I had already resigned myself to being the loser in this mission.
According to group rules, the loser was sentenced to treat for a round of steak sandwiches and beer at the Fuente Alemana. I was counting the money I had with me when Isabel suddenly appeared, excusing herself for arriving late.
Just seeing her left me breathless. Never—and I don’t know if I have any reason to congratulate myself for this—have I ever seen eyes like hers again. More than just look, they seemed to attract, drawing the light from everything they crossed, feeding her pupils with a moist, mysterious gleam.
“Shall we dance?” I asked her.
“Not yet. Why don’t we sit for a little while?”
I couldn’t take my eyes off her on the sofa. She seemed to study and gauge my reactions before accepting an increased closeness. I was feeling like an idiot. Even the classic “do you work or study?” escaped my mind, and finally, at the height of originality, I asked her if she even knew how to dance.
The gleam in her eyes surged. Without saying a word, she stood up, went to the turntable, interrupted Buddy Richard and his ballad of sadness, put on a new record with Central American rhythms and, to the surprise of everyone, placed a pitcher of punch atop her head and began to dance with a prodigious shimmying of hips and shoulders, without spilling a drop.
After removing the pitcher and acknowledging the applause, she returned to my side.
“So? Does it seem like I know how to dance?”
The hours that followed slipped by unnoticed. We danced, and I discovered an unknown dimension of body language. I felt that she was truly letting herself be driven, that there was no pure formality in it, that she wanted me to take her along paths of sudden embraces and temporary separations. She let herself be drawn in without resistance to the point of being pressed against my body. In a turn of the dance, she opened my jacket to press her small, firm breasts against my shirt. I squeezed her more then, and in the turns prolonged by the swaying of her feline hips, I pushed a leg between hers until I felt that volcanic contact made between her legs. She was letting herself go, being taken, drawn in, her satisfaction made known with subtle moans and fingers driven into my back.
When, as she drew near, she felt the erection bulging in my pants and fused her belly against my body, I felt a thought climb to my head like a spider: “I’ve got you heated up, you little fox, you hot little fox, I’ve got you all heated up” but something even higher made me feel ashamed. Then I scratched my head, the spider-thought fell and, in a turn of the dance, I squashed it under my shoe.
The hours moved along stubbornly, and I just wanted to keep Isabel in my arms, not speaking, dancing to the blues while Ray Charles asked who was on the other side of the wall of his blindness, but no one answered him because the union of our bodies and our breath made us forget all words, all languages.
We were dancing with our eyes closed when the older guests began to discretely abandon the party, and it wasn’t long before the owners of the house dared to interrupt Summertime by Janis Joplin to let us know that it was really late now, they were tired, thanks for coming, and, with that brutal diplomacy employed by those living in Santiago, they declared that it was closing time, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
It wasn’t easy to detach ourselves.
“We’ll see each other tomorrow?” I heard myself implore.
“I can’t. Next Saturday.”
“What do you have to do? The day after tomorrow then.”
“Don’t ask questions. I don’t like it. Saturday.”
“Okay. To the movies, then?”
“I’d love to. Come and get me at seven.”
We went out to the street to finish the good-bye ritual.
A few yards away, Tino and Sarita and Beto and Amalia let themselves become enveloped in the nocturnal breeze. Seeing them kissing, pressed close like lovers, I thought it convenient to move a few steps further away. I wanted to kiss her, but she stopped me.
“No. We’re different. Let’s go back to the house and I’ll give you something better than a kiss.”
We went inside again. The room was almost completely dark. It smelled like cigarette smoke, Pisco, punch remains, spent music. Isabel closed the door.
“Turn around and don’t turn back until I tell you to.”
With my face to the darkness, the certainty of fear hit me suddenly. An inexplicable fear. A fear whose territory began at the tips of my shoes and extended to the edge of an abyss that my youthful logic fought to deny.
“Now, turn around.”
As I did, I felt a million ants crawling up my skin. Isabel was stretched out on the sofa, and the ants were heavy and fat. She had pulled her dress over her shoulders, covering her face, and the ants had taken my neck. She was naked, and the goddamn ants were choking me.
In the half-light I could distinguish the brilliance of her skin, her small breasts violently erect, crowned by dark buttons. Between her legs, I was presented a triangle of thin moss upon which fell, like dew, a stream of light that slipped in from the street. I held my breath so that the ants would leave me alone.
“Come here,” she whispered, fluttering her hips.
On my knees, I let the firm determination of her hands holding my head defeat my desire to rush. I let myself be piloted like an airplane. Isabel held my head up, allowing me to almost touch her skin with my lips, and in this way she took me from her shoulders to her breasts, and from her belly to the definitive hemispheres of her thighs. I was a happy Argonaut awaiting the order to descend at the proper place.
Her hands maneuvered with precision. Not even a breeze slipped through during my descent along the valley of undulating vegetation that culminated at the path to her open legs, so that my lips would find a comfortable harmony before testing the unknown tastes of her vertical and secret mouth. And I wanted to be inside her. The desire filled every one of my pores and determined the rhythm of my heart and lungs so that nothing would hinder my exploring tongue making its way toward a sea of pleasure into which I wanted to submerge myself, to then swim upward, because I suspected that the pleasure was to be found on the other side of this depth moistened by her movements and my caresses. I wanted to go inside of her, to go in at any cost. It was perhaps at that moment that I began to understand that love is a naive attempt at birth anew.
“Do you like it?” She asked suddenly.
“I love you,” I answered, making use of the verb for the first time.
“Then come on Saturday and you’ll love me even more,” she assured me, getting up with an energetic jump.
The dress fell over her body in a cascading movement that destroyed the last of the ants.
I walked out of the house floating on light air. My thoughts were a mixture of flavors, lights, colors, scents, melodies. Charles Aznavour was repeating Isabel, Isabel, Isabel, Isabel because I ordered him to, and the certainty of knowing that the Dead Sea is so salty that bodies cannot manage to sink added to my happiness. I felt cold, heat, fear, joy—all together at the same time.
Tino and Beto were waiting for me at the corner and I noticed that they looked happy, too. They couldn’t stop dancing around and patting each other on the back.
“How about we down a couple of pilsners?” proposed Beto.
“Does a bear shit in the woods?” answered Tino.
“I’m in. My treat,” I added.
As I walked between the two, they took me by the arms and made me run in the middle.
“So? Out with it. How did Izzy bid you farewell?” both voices were asking.
“Don’t be assholes,” I answered, running ahead.
We walked on in silence. Me, offended by them, and them by me. Luckily, we suddenly found an open bar and the round of beers smoothed things over.
Santiago. How many years have gone by? Santiago. Fair city, are you still there, between the hills and the sea, surrounded by symbols of winter?
Having a good time and making conquests were not in themselves as important as being able to talk about it with your friends. Tino and Beto were talking about their recent pick-ups.
“Did you guys see it? Walked in, looked into her eyes, and it was in the bag.”
“It must have been the polyester, Betofen.”
“Seriously. I’ve got my style. Marlon Brando’s an old boot compared to me.”
“Well, if we’re talking about style, mine isn’t third-rate, either. During the first dance I realized that Sarita’s little mountains of ice were melting for this chest.”
I listened to them in silence. I couldn’t and didn’t want to talk to them about Isabel. I was discovering the value of silence for the first time. The word intimacy was punching me in the mouth, and I was willingly accepting the punishment.
They were making plans for the following day. They had agreed to meet up with the girls for the same old thing: a movie, hot dogs at Bahamondes, drinks at Chez Henry, and then a stroll under the knowing shadows of the Santa Lucia range, so guilty at night, so innocent by day.
Sunday was unbearable. I spent the whole day in my underwear and withdrew into a silence that astonished my folks. In the afternoon, when I saw my friends on the way to their dates, I was consumed by envy and shut myself in to read an Old West novel by Marcial Lafuente Estefania, knowing full well that his cowboys wouldn’t be able to take my mind off of Isabel.
Sunday, Monday, Tuesday . . . The week went by in the midst of an exasperating silence. The hours of class were prolonged to unbearable extremes and the afternoons spent smoking cigarettes on the corner lost their charm.
The corner. Our corner. The steps in front of the butcher shop, our little grand amphitheater made of worn-down cobble stones where many times we witnessed, unwittingly, the spectacle of dreams broken by daily life, or went over our repertoire of recent memories for an audience of friendly dogs or pestering kids who wanted to be like us. The corner was illuminated by the lamp from a streetlight that projected our fleeting reptilian shadows, making them fall down the same drain that carried the cigarette butts toward a dark, underground world, and not any less ours because of that. The corner. That place marked a thousand and one times by our young tough-guy presence. The corner. Command center, operating table, roulette, confessional for that trinity of birds who couldn’t manage to foresee the pending catastrophe that follows the first flights, it was of no help in alleviating the growing anxiousness for skin and the encounter, until finally the morning of that eagerly awaited Saturday arrived.
The first thing I did was to go and visit the barber.
GENTLEMAN’S STYLIST. HAIRCUT AND SHAVE.
“Rounded American and well-defined sideburns, please.”
To the barber Cáceres, Diploma of Honor. First International Haircutting Competition. Mendoza, Argentina.
“And the pompadour? How do you want the pompadour? Like Elvis?”
To the barber Cáceres, with love, Nino Lardy, the Chilean voice of tango.
“I don’t wear a pompadour. I comb it with pomade, slicked back, you know?”
GUARANTEED HAIR MASSAGE THERE IS NO SCALP THAT CAN RESIST ME
I shined my shoes until the leather chirped like a canary. I dressed myself carefully. I borrowed the best tie owned by my old man, who watched me from his spiritual retreat into horse racing form analysis, and, bathed in the aroma of English lavender, I set out to meet Isabel.
I walked along nervously. On the bus, I noticed that some women were turning around as I walked by and whispering remarks. Sure, I thought to myself, I overdid the lavender, but it wears off in the air. And if it occurs to one of you to call me a queer-smelling fag, I’ll break your face. I will.
I bought cigarettes at the same shop that we did on the previous Saturday and, just before reaching Calle Ricantén, I took advantage of a mirrored shop window to check my hair and the knot in my tie. It was impeccable, and so I went off in search of number twenty.
Fourteen, sixteen, eighteen, twenty . . . twenty?
Under the number twenty I found a grey house with walls cracked from the last earthquake. A house with an English-style partition and steel bars protecting the windows.
I thought I must have had the wrong street. It was possible since I wasn’t in my neighborhood, and I went back to the corner to look at the metal sign.
Calle Ricantén. What the hell was going on?
Then it occurred to me that maybe, in my anxiousness, I had gotten the number wrong: it was one-twenty, that is, one block further up, and I walked quickly without worrying about the sweat threatening to ruin my hairstyle and shirt collar.
The yellow house with the military-green door and the bronze hand clutching the globe wasn’t at number one-twenty. Nor was it at two-twenty, and beyond that the street ended.
I couldn’t understand it at all. I wanted to curse, shout, cry, kick the traffic light, scream that something or someone was hustling me, and so I loosened my tie, unbuttoned my shirt collar, and went and planted myself in front of the house at number twenty.
I rang and an old woman in an obviously bad mood opened the door, leaving barely enough space for her to stick her head out.
“Pardon me, but does a young lady by the name of Isabel live here?”
The old woman shook her head dryly and closed the door. I hit myself on the head in an effort to recover the lost reality. The reality was that the house wasn’t there. And now the neighbors were taking out wicker chairs and tables to argue over card games under the acacia trees. The reality was the absence of those yellow walls, that barracks-green door, and the bronze hand clutching a globe—all those details that were pointlessly waiting somewhere in the world for my call.
I can’t say how many times I went up and down the street, peeking into windows, trying to make out the room from the party, the lamps, the sofa where Isabel offered the careless promise of my happiness, chain smoking until the knot in my throat and the empty packet crinkling in my hand let me know that the most sensible thing was to accept defeat and go home.
And that was what I did, but so my parents wouldn’t notice my failure, I went into the first movie theater I found along the way.
I returned home very late. I came in without turning on the lights and locked myself in my room. I couldn’t sleep. I needed to retrace my steps over and over, to see if I could find an answer.
Around two in the morning I heard the notes of our code whistle. It was Tino and Beto who were on their way home from a party with new conquests for the following day. They summoned me to come out and share in their triumphs and to tell them about mine, even though they had considered the date with Isabel to be a minor betrayal of the interests of the group.
I let the call sound two more times before coming out.
“The big man’s tired? Little Izzy drain you?” Beto asked.
“Let’s go to the corner. I don’t want to wake my folks up.”
“That Monday morning face on you . . . don’t tell me she stood you up,” Tino inquired.
“Impossible. The date was at her house,” Beto added.
“I’ll tell you if you promise not to break my balls. I’m not in the mood to be the butt of a joke.”
On the corner, we sat down on the steps of the butcher shop. Beto offered a round of cigarettes.
“Alright. Out with it. What happened?” asked Tino.
“Nothing. Nothing happened at all. Nothing.”
“What do you mean, nothing?” both voices asked.
For the first time, I felt like I didn’t love them, like I didn’t need them, and that my defeat was personal, intimate. The great failure by the forward who missed the decisive penalty shot in the ninetieth minute.
“Nothing. Well . . . fuck . . . nothing. I couldn’t find the house. I got lost. I had the wrong address. How do I know?”
All three of us remained silent. There was no sound aside from the puffing of cigarettes and I cursed myself for having told them the truth.
“Listen, it was really easy. Ricantén, number twenty,” Beto pointed out.
“You’re sure? That was the street?”
“Yeah I’m sure, man. We showed up together there last week. We looked for it together and we found it together. Look, let’s reconstruct the scene of the crime: we got off the bus at Portugal and Diez de Julio. At the corner we bought cigarettes and the customary bottle, then we walked a couple of blocks, and there we were. On top of that, Ricantén is a very short street,” Beto finished pointing out.
“I did the same exact thing and I couldn’t find the house. There was another one at number twenty.”
“Wait a minute. Those of us who have suffered from meningitis and haven’t completely recovered request an informative break. Do you remember what the house was like?” Tino asked.
“Which house? The one there now?”
“No, shit. The house from the party.”
“Piss yellow, with a green door and a brass doorknocker.”
“And what the hell did you find today?”
“A mouse-grey house with a screen door.”
Beto offered another round of cigarettes, while Tino, choking back his laughter, began to hum a children’s song, substituting some of the words in the lyrics. “Balls, balls, balls of the foxes, sixty for the donkey’s and sixty for the ox’s . . .”
I began to stand up, but Beto held me by the arm and ordered Tino to shut up.
“Take it easy, man. Did you have a drink before you went out?”
“Don’t ask me stupid questions!”
Another silence, interrupted only by the puffing of cigarettes or a passing car on the nearby avenue. Tino collected ashes on the point of his shoe.
“Well, sometimes you can get confused, make a mistake, go the other way instead of . . .”
“But I didn’t make a mistake! I was on Ricantén. I read the street sign with the name fifty times. I went all the way up and down both blocks and didn’t find the house anywhere.”
“Easy, now. You were wrong. You went down another street, maybe with a similar name. It’s happened to me in neighborhoods I don’t know. Don’t make it out to be more than it is,” Beto advised.
“I’m telling you, I wasn’t wrong. Or do you think I’m losing it?”
“A house doesn’t disappear from one week to the next. And if it had been demolished, the lot would at least still be there. We can rule out earthquakes since, as far as I know, we haven’t had any in the last week,” Tino noted with sarcasm.
“Go to hell.”
“You’re getting difficult, little camper. Better that we leave it alone for now and sleep on it,” Beto added, ending the conversation.
They left me alone, sitting on the butcher shop steps. I stayed there, holding my head in my hands until the presence of cats smelling my pants let me know that dawn was near. I gave them a couple of kicks that were on the mark. The cats looked at me with contempt and I decided it was best to go home.
I slept until after midday, until Tino’s whistles woke me up, but I refused to come out, saying I was sick. In bed, I ate the hateful and classic chicken soup that my mother made as an irreplaceable complement to the fact that I was sick, and during the afternoon I managed to distance the spiral of tormenting thoughts thanks to the rectangular assistance of the weekly crossword that came in the Mercurio.
On Monday, I declared myself well and went to class. On the days that followed I made a few attempts to make it to the lost house, but I always stopped myself before reaching Calle Ricantén. I was afraid. It was a confused fear of proving that the house existed and that somehow I had gotten lost on Saturday in the mysterious winding paths of the city. But I was much more afraid of becoming certain of the nonexistence of that house and that everything that had happened—the dance, Isabel, the taste of her body, the ants, the desire—were part of an incomprehensible plot.
A dream intensified my fear.
I think it was Wednesday night when I dreamt that I came home for lunch and saw that my mother was only setting the table for three.
“Dad’s not coming to lunch?”
“Dad. I asked if he was coming to lunch.”
“You’re mistaken. It’s always been three of us in this house. Your brother, you, and me.”
“That’s not true. Dad was with us last night for dinner. That’s his place, next to the radio.”
“Nonsense. There have always been three of us in this house.”
I trembled at the idea that the missing house was the beginning of a series of disappearances, and upon seeing Lalo, the nut, the neighborhood crazy, the burly child of imprecise age, walking with his mouth open and a lost gaze, not even paying attention to the flies that fought over his drool or the insults and stones thrown at him by children, I asked myself if perhaps his madness might have also begun with a paradise lost that the poor idiot kept on chasing.
Then on Friday I saw my friends again, or, I should say, they came to see me.
“We are bearers of good news. Betofen bumped into a certain little someone. Interested?” said Tino as a greeting.
“A correct answer by the contestant! You’ve won a beating!” they yelled and showered my back with punches.
“Fair enough, punishment accepted. Out with it.”
“Hey, now. That’s it? Without anesthesia? Do you see that, Tino? He thinks he’s Speedy Gonzalez. We’ll give you the news under three conditions. Number one: is there anything drinkable in the house?”
As always, my father’s liquor cabinet paid the price. I left the room and returned with a bottle of Pisco and some glasses.
“I’m sorry to report that we’re out of lemons so we’ll have to drink it the hard way. So, what’s next with this blackmail?”
“Exportation. Your poor father, what punishment!” Tino was praising the Pisco, clicking his tongue.
“Second, like the Chalchaleros say, you must nobly admit that you are an even bigger moron than the guy who the turtles ran away from, because on the other hand we would have to accept the fact that houses disappear, they get lost, carried off by little green men, and finally, it’s over, poof, and they fade away.”
They were laughing in such a way that it ended up making me laugh, too.
“Understood. I was wrong. I’m an idiot and a half. At the very least, I need glasses or a compass.”
“A compass? For the purpose of a pompous rumpus?” Tino squealed. “I think I’ve infected you with the after-effects of meningitis.”
We were sweating after all the laughter, and I felt like I loved them, like I needed them. They were my friends, my brothers.
“Alright, out with it, you fucking jackasses.”
“Let’s keep it clean here, we are among gentlemen. The third condition is that you don’t make any more dates on Saturdays, unless you propose to violate the rules of the Tobi club.”
“Done. Saturdays are for the club.”
“What suffering for these demands! Dwell on it for a moment, have a slug of Pisco! Go on, Betofen, tell him how, where and when you saw her. Can’t you see that tormented face?”
“Easy, now. I don’t want to be responsible for a heart attack. Listen closely: I bumped into her at the Portal Fernandez Concha building, precisely when I was heading to Ravera with the intention of enjoying a pizza, you know, that culinary contribution by the wops, made of dough, cheese and tomato.”
“And oregano,” Tino pointed out.
“You don’t say? They put oregano on it, too?”
“Sure, for the aroma.”
“See how you always learn something new?”
“Shove the pizza up your ass.”
“Patience. With patience and a little spit, the elephant fucked an ant. Shall I go on? She didn’t even give me a chance to say hello and she was already asking about you and, listen, shit; she doesn’t even know that you missed the date, well, at least not for the reason that we know. She couldn’t wait at home for you because they made her visit a sick relative. Those ball-breaking relatives should be killed. She asked if you might be mad and naturally I answered yes, that you hate people who don’t follow through, people who leave their fellow man on a corner with a bouquet of flowers and a face like a dead fish. What can I tell you, man? The apologies were pouring out. Even let a few big tears fall, and she asked me to tell you that she would be waiting this Saturday at the same time. And what did I say to her? ‘Sorry, Izzy, but it appears that he has an inescapable commitment for Saturday.’ She went pale, the little pony, but she kept at it, proposing Sunday. So I thrust my chest out and spoke to her in a most religious tone: ‘Izzy, Sunday is a day that we hold sacred for . . . sports. You must have noticed that we are very healthy, right? Very athletic, but anyway, who knows? Maybe he could make a little time to come and see you.’ Fucking lucky you! What did you do to that one? And now, hold on to your pants because here comes the most dramatic part: she listened to me attentively, took my hands, and with those eyes awash in tears, begged me, begged me, man, with so much sadness that I felt half ashamed of the glances I was getting from the passersby. Some of them must have been thinking that I was doing something bad to the little thing. She begged me: ‘Please tell him to come.’ Eh? Did I behave properly?”
I snatched the bottle from Tino and filled the glasses.
“Damn, you were hard on her, Betofen! You nailed it, man! Cheers, guys!”
“But this time, make good note of the address. Ricantén, number twenty, you dumbass!” they said in unison and then set off.
When we are young we trust in logical chains of events, and at this moment I felt that every link of mine had just come back together. I spent the rest of the time counting the hours that separated me from Isabel. Again and again I mentally went over the path that would take me to her, until the very moment that would prove I wasn’t an imbecile. I would make it. This time I would make it.
Let’s see . . . I take the bus to the corner of Vivaceta and Rivera, at the stop where you get off to go downtown. First important detail. With me on it, the bus goes on until it reaches Calle Pinto, then it takes a left and follows a straight line for four blocks passing along pharmacies, soda fountains, liquor stores, ice cream shops, and the apothecary owned by Don Pepe, the Spaniard who gets angry anytime anyone comes into his shop. Don Pepe, a half a liter of bleach. Fuck, this is not the time to come in for half a liter of bleach. Don Pepe, a bar of Copito soap. Fuck, they can’t just leave me in peace to listen to the goddamn Thursday operetta? Don Pepe. Another important detail. After the apothecary I’ll reach Avenida Independencia and I can get off there if I want, but it’s better to stay on for a few more blocks and get off in front of the Carmelite church. I get off. Important detail. I walk toward the hills, crossing the botanical gardens, walking quickly but containing my perspiration so as not to infect my darling with aromas of death. Upon reaching Avenida Recoleta, I stop in front of the firehouse. I wait and get on a bus running from Portugal to El Salto that heads south. Important detail. With me on it, the bus will cross through the center of the city along Calle Mac Iver. Upon reaching the boulevard, in front of the National Library, I’ll turn left and I’ll be able to see the gardens of the Santa Lucia range and Pedro de Valdivia’s stone cart. All of this will be left behind when the bus veers left toward the south along Calle Portugal. At the high seven hundreds I hit the stop signal, that curious mechanism made from a bicycle bell and a cord that extends from the vehicle’s nose to its tail. I get off at the corner of Diez de Julio. Important detail. I double back a block to the north and then I walk two more toward the west. Now I’ll make it for sure. Under the number twenty on Calle Ricantén I’ll find the yellow house, the green door, and the bronze hand clutching a globe. I’ll knock three times and it will be Isabel who opens it. Isabel. Later on I’ll tell her what happened. Later on, when we leave the Gran Palace cinema. They’re showing Lawrence of Arabia, I think. The Gran Palace, that theater so lovely and fresh, its walls adorned with sputniks that seem to float in the cosmos during the light show before the feature. Or maybe I won’t tell her ever. It would be stupid. She wouldn’t believe me. Or maybe I’ll tell her when we’re married. Married? Take it easy, man. Would I marry Isabel? Easy, man. Easy. I’ve got to finish school first, sure. How would Tino and Beto take it? I’m getting married, guys, the time has come for me, the time when the valiant die, and we want you to be the best men. Isabel. What a couple we would make. Easy, man. Married? Maybe what Tino says about fools letting themselves get roped in is true. Am I a fool? What do I care?
On Sunday I was surprised to be awake long before sunrise and, at breakfast time, I couldn’t stop talking, much to the surprise of my parents.
“Calm down. You could take off a finger with that knife,” my father warned me while we were opening the weekly clams.
I was devouring one after the other without stopping to comment on how fresh and tasty they were. The clams were writhing as the drops of lemon hit them.
“It’s from pain,” my mother added, an enemy of raw seafood.
“Come on. They like it. Look how they dance,” I insisted.
My parents were looking at me, making comments about the fevers that come at age eighteen, and my little brother was grumbling about having a moron in the family.
I woke up from my siesta around five in the afternoon. The heat had eased up a bit, my folks and brother were devouring a watermelon under the trellis while I was laying out the outfit of a gallant gentleman on my bed—that is to say, the uniform of a Chilean.
The charcoal grey pants impeccably ironed; the white shirt with the whale bones stuck in the tips of the collar; the navy blue jacket; the Oxford tie, a recent gift from my uncle Aurelio, which, according to him, made me look more elegant than a race horse. It was topped off with shiny shoes and the three mandatory handkerchiefs: the white one, perfumed, in the upper jacket pocket, folded in a way that it showed three stylish corners and was always at the disposal of women; the one in the left pants pocket, which was personal, for snots; and finally, the one in the back pocket, which served as a replacement, for wiping dust off of seats or to go over the shine on my shoes.
“Sunday dates are serious,” said my father, sticking a bill in my pocket.
“Don’t come home late. You have class tomorrow,” added my mother, ever the realist.
The journey played out just as I imagined it, block after block, detail after detail, until I got off the bus on Portugal at Diez de Julio. Then I saw the foreigner.
He was a guy with long blonde hair and a very pale complexion who, with his worn jeans and his jacket, looked terribly badly dressed to me. A photographer’s bag hung from one shoulder.
On the corner, waiting for a streetlight to authorize crossing, I situated myself behind him and saw him dry his sweat with a wrinkled handkerchief. We crossed the street and I saw him enter the same shop where I was thinking of buying cigarettes. I followed him anyway. In a Spanish made choppy by doubt, he asked for unfiltered cigarettes.
“What brand?” asked the shopkeep.
“I don’t know. The strongest,” he added.
“Blonde or black tobacco?” the shopkeep inquired. “Give him a pack of Liberty, they’re the best,” I intruded.
The foreigner thanked me with a nod, took the cigarettes, and put his hands in his pockets. After a few seconds, he apologized for not finding the money, and then put the bag on top of the counter. He opened it. There were two cameras inside of it. He took out a small folder that had papers and photos inside, and searched until he found a few bills. He paid, and when he stuck the folder back in the bag, a photograph fell to the floor. I bent down to pick it up.
It was Isabel, or part of her. I recognized the dress, her legs, her arms, and the sofa on which she sat: it was the same one where she made the sweetest of promises to me. It was Isabel, although I couldn’t see her face, obscured by a blotch of light. I returned the photo and we left the shop together.
In the street, I saw that his hands were shaking and that he was incapable of lighting a cigarette. I gave him a match and accepted one of his smokes. We began to walk almost shoulder to shoulder.
“You—how do you say—do you know around here?”
“Not really. Not really at all. What street are you looking for?”
“What street? Eh . . . Ricantén . . . that’s what it’s called.”
“Ricantén. I’m also going that way.”
“You . . . you . . . do you know her?”
Did I know her? I was carrying her scent, her most secret flavor deep inside me, the curves of her body, her voice, her enticement to happiness—but, did I know her?
“Her name is Isabel.”
“Look . . . we have to talk . . . you and I have to talk, you understand?” he said, drying the sweat from his brow.
“You’re going to tell me that you’re looking for a yellow house with a green door.”
“Yes! You know the house? Tell me you know the house!”
“With a bronze hand clutching a globe.”
Then the foreigner brought both of his hands to his face. When he lowered them there was something imploring in his expression.
“Look . . . let’s go together . . . it’s ridiculous but . . .”
“You’re afraid you won’t find the house.”
The foreigner tried to take me by the lapels of my jacket but I was faster and fled. I ran with all that my legs could give. And in the end, exhausted, I sat on a shoeshine bench. I had clean shoes, but I let the man polish them, praying that his work would last for hours.
Something had broken. Delicately, something had broken. An invisible hand was working on my face, molding the definitive mask that would be found in all mirrors.
The shoeshine tapped the soles, indicating that he had finished. I paid and casually set off toward Calle Ricantén.
The grey house, the English-style partition, the bell and its Bakelite nipple did not surprise me. I passed in front of the door only once and then I walked aimlessly until I found a theater.
Mutiny on the Bounty. While Marlon Brando was winning the love of Tarita, I was in a seat in one of the back rows to ensure my solitude, and there I cried my first tears as a man, with the premonition that I was opening a pathway plagued with doubts, failures, fleeting happiness, the makings of a catastrophe that, nevertheless, make possible the hateful fragility of being. I cried softly, almost with a method, with a weeping that showed me, in retrospect, the eighteen-year long path running from surprise to surprise and to which I would never return. I cried with a weeping that mixed the first pain of what could not be with the persistent joy from something beautiful that could have been on the white, perfumed surface of my handkerchief.
I didn’t see my friends again. The code whistle, the call from Tino or Beto, went on for several nights, but I refused to come out. In the mornings, I left the house very early and came home as late as possible. The whistle became more and more faint, weak, listless, until it disappeared, replaced by the air of autumn, the fog of winter, the noise of cars, the voices of children who were growing up and had taken ownership of the street and the corner.
On certain occasions I saw them going out together to some bar, but I avoided them, heading the other way.
With the dizzying succession of the calendar pages, new friends came around, new ways of enjoying the nights and suffering the tedium. At times, when going by the corner, our corner, seeing the butcher shop steps hurt like a recent death. But I was forgetting about it quickly. Very quickly. Disillusioned horses don’t look to the side of the path.
Yes. It was the house.
Looking at the photograph, I was thinking about the pathetic brevity of C. G. Hudson’s biography.
Did Hudson take that photograph the first time he saw the house? Or did he do it after our ephemeral encounter? Tino and Beto, did they meet up again, at some point, with the girls from the party? And the owners of the house? And Isabel? Was it all a game by bored gods? Did Hudson take the photo before entering that house for the second time, feeling that he should leave some evidence? Was Isabel the most beautiful denial of my dreams?
The cleaning woman rescued me from my autistic well by telling me that the person in charge of the gallery did not live far and that, if it was important to me, she could take me there.
I thanked her, letting her know it was unnecessary, that I had gotten enough information from the catalogue.
My overcoat was still soaked. I put it over my shoulders and went out into the street. It was no longer raining. The Zurich sky was clear and transparent. It had the same sharpness as Hudson’s photograph—Hudson, who, after so many years, had delivered an apology to me, I don’t know, nor did I want to know, if out of happiness or disgrace, for having sent me an invitation perhaps too pressured, or maybe to a mistaken destination.