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Like bursting pearls, eight symmetrical rows of bubbles emerge from the walls of the jacuzzi and begin to stir in the warm water. In an instant, all the luxury of this bathroom which was half reflected on the surface – lights and marble finishings, bottles of perfume and little baskets holding dried flowers – reaches boiling point and melts into a tone which is both nacreous and, in Jorge Washington’s eyes – sensual. About to get in, he finishes undressing and impatiently calls Mariela twice. While waiting for her, he sticks his hand into the water, and then automatically takes hold of his penis with his wet hand and weighs it up.
[private]Since he arrived in Barcelona, six months ago, Jorge Washington’s new life has let him in for several surprises. He got off the plane, mentally prepared to cope with the difficulties which were doubtless hiding behind the perfect backdrop visible from the air – a whole bible of dramatic situations read out to him in his own country –, but now that the moment of truth has come, what really unsettle him are the treacherous, day to day traps he keeps falling into. There is that sudden homesickness which appears whenever he talks to his parents and brothers and sisters in Lima, as if all the long-distance phone kiosks in the city were contaminated by the same virus, and which makes him grasp the receiver painfully hard. There are the gently repetitive hours at work, as smooth and sleep-inducing as the walls which he often has to paint alongside his silent boss, but fortunately, there is also the warm contrast of the evenings, both at the home of the family of his second cousin, where is staying temporarily – this cousin is the one who urged him to come over and who found him work –, and also when he is with Mariela, his girlfriend of the last nine weeks.
Sometimes, when they lie in bed in each other’s arms after making love and she has fallen asleep in his embrace (she needs to catch up on her sleep) he takes a look around the narrow room and wonders. He stares at the prints of saints and Virgin Marys stuck to the wall with drawing pins, at his and her clothes lying around on the floor, at the chair placed at an angle against the doorknob – so that Mariela’s flatmates can’t barge in – and asks himself if this couldn’t be a bedroom in Lima, or in La Paz, where Mariela was born. But he is only twenty years old, and, as if there were some kind of hormonal change involved, these reality attacks are soon rapidly overcome by a whole battery of European illusions. For a long while now, he has had the feeling that anything is possible, but that doesn’t prevent him, now that he is sitting in the jacuzzi and calling out to Mariela again, from feeling his heart pumping with a new kind of excitement. Albeit in a furtive way, today he is seeing how the other half lives, from the inside.
Mariela takes off her tight jeans and panties at the same time, accompanying her sinuous movements with a wicked smile. The mirrors – there is more than one – reflect her small, stocky body, that of a real cholita macanuda, from different angles, as she approaches the jacuzzi with short steps. As she has been thinking about this particular situation for a while, and has mentally gone through all the movements, before getting into the water she opens a bottle of bath salts and throws in a pinch. They are both immediately surrounded by an intense but artificial, and overwhelming, smell of lavender, and when she stretches out next to Jorge Washington in the bubbling water and the caresses begin, this overdose has already placed them right in the centre of where they wanted to be. For Mariela, the image of their two warm, wet bodies, playing and making waves that slap violently against the edges of the jacuzzi, make her relive all the poetry of perfume ads and passionate impulses, as if, finally, all those subliminal messages had seen the light of day just for her, which is why she feels the whole experience is a secret which she will tell a carefully chosen girlfriend about. As for Jorge Washington, back in Peru he had spent hours and hours in front of the telly when he was a teenager, and now he associates this scene he is now living out in a rich people’s home, with the mansions in the soap operas he’s seen, and with blonde, pale-skinned women, who, forever covered in foam, answered the telephone from their bathtubs. He can also feel the bubbles of water climbing up his back and gets overexcited by this privilege, in a childish way, like a kid visiting Disneyland.
Mariela had entertained the idea of having a bath in this jacuzzi almost since the first day she cleaned it, ten months ago, but this had been nothing more than an innocent wish until she met Jorge Washington. One evening when she mentioned the jacuzzi in passing, he pointed out to her that the jacuzzi must be, above all, an ideal setting for the erotic fantasies of the master and mistress of the house. Mariela gave a mocking, sceptical laugh: she was certain that those two had never ever taken a bath in it. To make sure, one day, when she was cleaning it, she tried out a trick she remembered from a detective movie. She plucked out a long strand of hair, wetted it with saliva, and arranged it around the stainless steel plughole. A week later the hair was still in the same place. This is how she and Jorge inherited a fantasy which didn’t rightly belong to them.
Now this sensation of doing something forbidden makes them antsy and increases their desire. For almost an hour Mariela and Jorge Washington entertain each other in the water, giving each other five star satisfaction, as if the fever consuming them were one more feature available on the jacuzzi’s control panel. They try new positions, their fingertips wrinkle up from so much exposure to the water, and a more detailed description of events would necessarily have to include watery noises, puffing and panting and steam, wetness, liquid densities and a few involuntarily disturbing images (Mariela’s wet hair lying over her breasts like a handful of dead seaweed, for example). It should also be explained that they mount each other right to the end with a circus-like enthusiasm, as if their lives depended on it, and only a customary impulse of Jorge Washington, that of making a knot in the condom once he has taken it off (the rubber snaps with a faint sound), brings them back to reality: it is midday on Sunday and they are in a house which doesn’t belong to them.
Mariela has the keys of the duplex because the Lisboas are in a luxury hotel on the Côte D’Azur. They left a week ago, with the excuse that there is nothing quite like autumn in Nice, but they probably haven’t gone much beyond the limits of the hotel; Marcia’s face is still all puffy from the plastic surgery of a fortnight ago and, when she looks in the mirror, behind the dark lenses of her glasses she sees, in horror, a boxer blue with bruises after having taken a severe beating. In the bedroom, Silvio applies the creams prescribed by the Hindu surgeon and tries to cheer her up, but at night, as soon as she has dozed off thanks to the sleeping pills and the Manhattans ordered from room service, he always goes down to the bar and eats up all the salt biscuits while he has a whisky and talks about cars and motorbikes with a Spanish waiter.
Just as Marcia has asked her to, Mariela has gone to the duplex every day this week, but instead of spending her time removing non-existent dust, or ploughing the already immaculate carpets with the vacuum cleaner, she has let the hours go by as if she were the mistress of the house. Every day she has arrived a little later and left a little earlier. When he saw her come in, the staircase porter looked at her askance, as if reproving her, because he knows what hours she’s supposed to work, but then she bought his silence by letting him in on all kinds of invented secrets about the fabulous things the Lisboas supposedly got up to behind closed doors. Up there in the duplex, playing the role of Marcia, the hours flew by. She opened the fridge and made sandwiches with ready-sliced bread, which she stuffed with all kinds of delicacies. She tried on dresses. In just one week, she has caught up with all the soap operas, she has seen the video of the wedding of the Lisboa’s eldest daughter (Mariela laughed and cried) and has lost herself umpteen times in the maze of channels provided by the satellite dish. Her salsa CDs have been played on the Lisboa’s hi-fi system and she has found out that the waxed parquet flooring is ideal for dancing, even if she does do so on her own and with a Cinderella-like expression on her face. Finally, today, Sunday, she has decided to invite her boyfriend over: tomorrow afternoon the Lisboas come back from Nice, so this is their last chance.
Now Jorge Washington is walking through the duplex in his underwear while Mariela irons his jeans and T-shirt. Taking advantage of the fact that the master and mistress have a dryer, she and Jorge washed a week’s load of clothes and a little while ago, before having fun in the jacuzzi, they put them in this dryer. Precisely because they are so banal, these chores have given a domestic touch to the afternoon that Mariela and Jorge have enjoyed. In the laundry Mariela folds the clothes and hums romantic songs, as if she wanted to perfect this new-found intimacy. Jorge Washington keeps himself busy by exploring the excessive lifestyle of the rich. He goes to the upstairs floor and enters the gym which the Lisboas have installed in their son’s old bedroom. There are five pieces of cutting edge equipment, polished so that they look brand new, and which – in his eyes – shine with the brightness of a spaceship. He sits on a weightlifting machine and tries to lift a steel bar with twenty-kilo weights at each end. The reflection of his body – skinny but wiry, muscular – in the mirror, which takes up one whole wall, looks like a gay icon. He likes contemplating the taut, agile muscles on his arms, and thinks that the sex session in the jacuzzi must have strengthened them even more. To bolster up the mass of muscle, he lifts the weights in three turns of twenty, working vigorously, but half-way through he realises he has broken out in a sweat and gives up.
He comes out of the gym and goes into the master bedroom. On a boudoir there is a photograph of the Lisboas. It was taken a few years ago, one summer in Corfu, and against the ever-so-blue background of the sea Marcia is smiling at the camera with a very seductive expression. Attractive as she is, with her sandy-coloured skin and her hair the colour of wet straw, Jorge Washington falls for her at once. He observes her for half a minute and then, as if she were directing his every move, he opens one of the drawers of the boudoir. This is the drawer where Marcia’s underwear is kept, a festival of lingerie. Fascinated, Jorge Washington digs his hands into it as if he had discovered a coffer full of jewels and takes out a combination at random. He lays out the bra and panties on the bed as if they were extremely delicate objects and then admires them, adoringly. The creamy rust colour makes him think of some kind of tropical fruit, fleshy and ripe. At the same time he notices that the bed is huge and welcoming and he stretches himself out on it, trying it out. He imagines that Marcia is here, next to him, filling out the underwear. He takes the panties, closes his eyes and gives them a good smell. The smoothness of the scarlet silk bedspread gives him goose pimples and suddenly makes him feel cold. When he gets up, his sweaty back and thighs are imprinted on the silk. He finds this image poetic but couldn’t really say why and Mariela, who is singing downstairs, provides the answer: “The trace of your desire is engraved on my skin/ but it is a feeble memory/ which time will erase.”
Jorge Washington goes downstairs slowly, with a feline sense of balance (which Marcia would admire), and, following the singing, comes to the room in which Mariela is working. He is carrying the panties in the palm of his hand, delicately. He enters the sewing room furtively and, before she knows it, places them in front of her.
“A present,” he says, in a voice that he hopes sounds mischievous. “Try them on.”
Mariela looks at the panties and then stares at him, half disapprovingly but also half playing along with him.
“Where did you get these from?” she says. “Don’t tell me you’ve been poking about upstairs.”
“She’s got so many, she isn’t going to notice, and they all look smashing.”
“Of course she is. They keep an eye on everything. Put them back in their place and don’t worry. One day, when she has an operation on her breasts and buttocks as well, I’m going to get to keep all this lingerie.”
This allusion to Marcia’s breasts and buttocks mentally take him back to the bed upstairs, to the scarlet silk stained with his sweat, and suddenly this image becomes less poetic, more lascivious.
On the Lisboas’ terrace, this Sunday afternoon, Jorge Washington breathes in the moist, cold air of early October. He is wearing Silvio’s white dressing-gown, with the initials S.L. embroidered on the chest, and for the last few minutes he has been peering into the distance – the aeroplanes mark out the horizon, beyond the ‘FC Barcelona’ stadium – and he feels he’s a lucky person. This is not a material feeling to do with the duplex, because the surrounding opulence doesn’t impress him and to a certain extent he is used to it: most of his boss’s customers live uptown. Often he has had to paint the walls of mansions like this one, in which the kitchens look as if they belong in a restaurant and the home helps offer him Diet Cokes, and over time he has become immune to all this cold exhibitionism, as if the smell of the paint had numbed his senses. What has affected him today is above all this feeling he has of being one of the Lisboas, albeit temporarily: of opening their drawers, bathing in their jacuzzi, putting on their clothes.
Since he has had his job as a painter, Jorge Washington has gradually worked out exactly what he would like his ideal woman to look like. He has built up this image accumulatively, by placing different versions of the women he sees every day at the homes where he goes to paint, and the fact is that the closer he gets to his ideal, the more imaginative he gets. Mariela, with that easy way she has of filling even the most difficult evenings with tenderness, has catapulted his army of imaginary women even further out of his reach, to the point where he has idealised them so much they are completely unattainable, esoteric, a simple and cruel amusement with which he entertains and martyrs himself at the same time.
A few weeks ago, when he and his boss were painting a renovated penthouse flat which gave onto Turó Park, he fell madly in love with the lady of the house. She was sophisticated, she lived alone because she had just got divorced and when she left them the key or gave them instructions, she smoked and chewed gum at the same time. Three days into the job, while the boss was in the warehouse getting more pots of paint, the lady appeared unexpectedly to take measurements for a sofa. Spurred on by an oral tradition which links up casual sex with house painters, plumbers and butane deliverymen, Jorge Washington tried to flirt with her openly. Every time he heard her walking behind him, mistreating the new parquet flooring with her sharp heels, he whistled a tune which struck him as being ever so erotic and turned round to mentally undress her, but all he achieved was to get her to come up to him with a maternal air – because in her eyes he was just a child, like one of her nephews – and ask, enunciating her words carefully, if he spoke Spanish. Jorge Washington answered in monosyllables, timidly and making out he was hurt, but that strategy didn’t work either.
After a quarter of an hour of sheer torture, for him, the lady went off, saying goodbye from the door with a “Ciaaaao!” that echoed all round the empty apartment, leaving behind a token whiff of French perfume which he sniffed at there and then, with all the eagerness of a cocaine addict. Then, as if she had asked him for a final touch, a last effort, he took a pot of navy blue paint (meant for the guest bathroom) and drew a heart with an arrow through it on the wall. It was the size of a pumpkin, with his initials at one end and the name of the lady at the other, and he drew it without thinking about it much, like one of those faces we pull in front of the mirror convinced that no one is watching us. Soon the paint began to drip down the wall, giving the drawing a seedy look which didn’t fit in at all with the refined setting. Jorge Washington quickly covered up the heart with a couple of thick coats of white paint, and added another layer the following day, because the drawing was showing through a little. Now, sometimes, when the to and fro of the brush bores him to tears, he seeks refuge in that ever so spectacular divorced lady, and in that navy blue heart, drowned under white paint but still beating with the pure emotion of mystery.
Sunday afternoon has got stuck at that asphalt-like hour, so difficult to cope with, like an irritation in the throat. The sun is shining half-hidden by the clouds, and in the FC Barcelona stadium, they have already switched on the lighting. From the terrace of the duplex, Jorge Washington, impressed, observes that shining which has sprung out of nothing, that swarm of lights which glitter like a mystic crown, and he feels more privileged than ever. The air gets into the folds of his dressing gown and chills his skin. He goes indoors, and to kill time before the match (he’s going to watch it on the giant TV screen) he wanders through the flat like a thief, very carefully, as Mariela has warned him not to break anything or leave fingerprints.
In the guest bathroom, he discovers a little cupboard full of soaps and lotions taken from hotels. A booty captured during dozens and dozens of journeys and which marks the leisurely itinerary of the couple through a whole network of Sheratons and Hiltons: Cairo, Saigon, Manila, Moscow, Caracas, Rio de Janeiro… Jorge Washington smells each of them in turn and plays at finding aromas from each different country – cinnamon, banana, mint – but after a while his nose is saturated: in the end, all of them have the same smell of international cleanness. The same smell, when it comes down to it, to be found in this bathroom.
In Silvio’s office, he sits in the leather-bound armchair and clears his throat, as if he had to dictate a letter to his secretary; then he opens the box of cigars on top of the desk and takes one, but doesn’t light it. He puts it between his lips, and the tobacco makes his tongue itch. He goes out of the office and wanders distractedly along the corridor, tapping the furniture. In the hall, next to the entrance, his attention is caught by a book sitting on a lectern. He picks it up and it strikes him as being a bit effeminate. Its covers are of fuchsia coloured silk (in this place everything is either leather or silk, he thinks), the pages are rough cut and yellowy, and it strikes him as being ridiculous and ugly. He opens it. The first page is torn, as if someone had ripped it out furiously, and on the second there is only a single sentence, a girl’s name and date corresponding to twenty days ago. He reads the sentence – “For the best Mummy in the world, who knows how to cook a brilliant meal even when she’s feeling a bit poorly” – and it reminds him of those tacky exercises from when he learnt handwriting at school. He picks up the pen and is tempted to write something on the same page, but if Mariela found out, she’d kill him; so he opens the book in the middle, at any old page, and, in one corner, in tiny lettering, he writes: “J.W. was here.” He closes the horrible thing, puts it back on the lectern and realises that what he has just written is absurd. He is unexpectedly overcome by a wave of Sunday tedium which vacuum packs his stomach.
In the drawing-room, he sits down on the leather sofa with the unlit cigar between his lips and his feet up on the alabaster coffee table, imitating the posture of an arrogant millionaire. He pretends to drop the ash on the floor, disdainfully, and, as if he were checking off an inventory, he observes the vast fireplace, the extra flat TV screen, the walls covered in paintings of all different sizes. Through some kind of subconscious association, this opulence reminds of the interiors of the homes of Mafia bosses in TV series, and he asks himself behind which picture the safe must be hidden. He notices that on another part of the wall, the one which is mostly in shadow, there are four white, symmetrical blank spaces. At this point, Mariela comes into the drawing-room and smiles when she sees him ensconced in the sofa. She goes up to him, gives him a long kiss and leaves his ironed jeans on top of an armchair.
“Get dressed, lazybones, it’s time already,” Mariela says, pointing to the jeans. Her face is flushed from the heat of the iron and she has tied her hair into a ponytail.
“What are those spaces?” asks Jorge Washington, pointing with the cigar to the wall at the back.
“Russian icons,” Mariela answers, contemptuously, “before there were four Russian icons hanging there, but the lady got bored with them not long ago and had them removed. They must be in a cupboard somewhere.”
She points to the jeans again. Jorge Washington doesn’t have much of an idea of what a Russian icon is, and nor is he particularly interested in finding out, but he likes these moments when Mariela gets impatient for no good reason. He yawns lazily, opening his mouth exaggeratedly wide, and puts on an incredulous expression.
“So, are they nice?”
“Very,” she says, restlessly. She gives him a murderous look, to show him that she can see what he’s playing at. “Come on, take that dressing gown off and put on your jeans,” she insists, and pulls at the dressing-gown, to help him.
As he doesn’t make any effort to take it off, she starts to tickle him and he tickles her back and then they have a mock fight, rolling about on the leather sofa and panting eagerly. They laugh and paw each other. Mariela’s ponytail comes undone and her hair falls over her face. In a pause in the struggle, Jorge Washington gently parts it and then both of them look each other steadily in the eyes, perforating each other’s pupils, as if they had suddenly discovered what was hidden in them. They would like to save this embrace forever, sanctifying it so that they can pray to it later on, whenever things go badly. A few minutes pass like this, increasing the feeling of cosiness that has come over them, and they are suddenly surprised to see that outside it is already dark. Then Jorge Washington gets up, switches on a standing lamp and finally puts on his jeans. From the sofa, Mariela watches him expectantly, but he doesn’t seem to notice anything.
“Search the pockets,” she orders him, once the jeans are on. He brought them over from Peru and they are worn and tight-fitting, and, according to Mariela, they give him a cowboyish look which makes him very attractive.
Then Jorge Washington feels one of the front pockets and finds there is something there, a piece of plastic in the shape of a credit card. Curious, he sticks his hand in and takes out a small blue and scarlet sheath. Inside there is Silvio’s membership card, and if he gets a move on, Mariela tells him, he’ll still be in time to see the football match, there’s an hour to go and the stadium is right over there.
At first he can’t believe it, he has never seen FC Barcelona playing live (although last season, with his cousin, he tried to slip into the stadium for free a couple of times) and now he has the chance to go there in style. Because the seat is on the grandstand, naturally. Jorge Washington bristles with joy, looks at the card again and again – the privileged man goes into ecstasy – and, like a little boy, jumps onto Mariela to hug her and thank her and cover her in kisses. The two of them don’t realise it, but because of this sudden move, an extremely expensive china vase vibrates on its ivory pedestal, as if it too were trembling from emotion, and if it doesn’t fall off it’s because it doesn’t want to spoil the moment. That’s how things work in the homes of the well-off.
Now it is Mariela who has gone out onto the terrace of the duplex. She said goodbye to Jorge Washington a minute ago and they’ve decided that after the match they’ll meet in a bar, near the stadium, so that he can give her back the membership card. Leaning on the bar with an easy-going expression, she keeps a careful watch on the Avenue of Pedralbes, which she can spot from up here. First she hears the iron door downstairs at the entrance, opening and shutting, and twenty seconds later she sees Jorge Washington crossing the illuminated trapeze of the street. She calls out to him quietly, ay Jorge, for her own benefit; and as if he had sensed it, he turns round, looks up and waves at the darkness, where he can just make out the silhouette of Mariela’s figure. Then he disappears down the street, vanishing in the zebra-striped half light.
Under his jean jacket, Jorge Washington is wearing a recently washed, electric white River Plate T-shirt which is too big for him, with the number 9 on the back. He bought it at Buenos Aires airport when changing planes there on his way to Barcelona, and although it cost him a small fortune in dollars he didn’t doubt what he was doing for a moment, because he saw it as a lucky amulet. Now, as he says thank-you to it, he is thinking about his friends in Lima: the River T-shirt, with its red stripe across it, is similar to that of the Peruvian national team. Suddenly he remembers those Saturday afternoons, when they watched the games of the Argentinean and the Spanish leagues, or when they played, later, in the open stretches of wasteland outside Lima, endless matches that went on until it started to get dark and the city, down there, in the twilight, looked like a huge bonfire that had been put out but was still giving off smoke. He remembers the stubbornness with which each player defended his adopted name: Flavio Maestri, Luis Artime, Héctor Takayama…, he was – is – Roberto Farfán, the centre forward of the Alianza team, and, even though he is only twenty years old – or precisely because of that –, a burst of nostalgia gives him a bad conscience: tomorrow first thing, he’ll send an email from a long-distance phone kiosk to his friends in Lima to tell them that at last he has visited the temple of FC Barcelona, “the pitch where Cholo Sotil played, remember him?, Johan Sotil’s Dad.”
Walking down the Avenue of Pedralbes, he leaves behind the arabesques of pale façades and lit windows. A car goes by from time to time and its occupants look at him, puzzled, as if he were an intruder. This evening has an air of belonging to a confidential, small circle, and Jorge Washington is going so fast it looks as if he is running away from something. The membership card is burning in his jeans’ pocket with all the power of a safe-conduct. He reaches Diagonal Avenue and when he crosses it he gets the impression that he is back in the real city once more, that he is on friendly territory. On the far side, close by the hotel Princesa Sofía, he joins the mass of football fans with a feeling of relief. They pass by the morgue and go up the boulevard which is frequented by transvestites every night. His first weekend in Barcelona, with the excuse of going to see the Camp Nou stadium, one night his cousin took him there in the car and they spent half an hour driving around and making fun of this gallery of oddly proportioned people who were numb with cold, who listened to them with indifference as they sought some warmth around fires lit in stinking metal drums. He remembers how uncomfortable they made him feel, and when they were leaving, off down Sants Road, his cousin said to him: “Another day, mate, I’ll take you to see some real women.”
Although he is surrounded by people, Jorge Washington steps up his pace because the sooner he gets into the stadium, the better. As for us, we’ll leave him be. We’ll let him go on, alone, we’ll give him a chance to blend in with the crowd, to become one of them. The mass of people swallows him up and he is grateful for that. We gradually lose sight of him, his nervous stride merges with that of the other spectators and we lose sight of him. Flags and scarves shelter him and give these last few metres of his a ritual solemnity. He will get through two controls without any problem, showing his membership card with a childish ostentatiousness, and in the foyer people will look at his River shirt and smile. When he sits down in the grandstand, the lively green of the pitch will magnetise him with its eruption of chlorophyll.
At half-time we find ourselves in the grandstand foyer. It seems that FC Barcelona is winning, the other team’s a pushover, and most people are making use of the fifteen-minute break to eat a sandwich, have a coffee, or unhurriedly smoke a cigarette. In little groups, they stand and comment on the dullness of the match, glancing at their watches and criticising the players or the referee. If they happen to change the subject and the conversation becomes interesting, when time is up they will go back to their seats looking as if they have indigestion. Jorge Washington, holding a cone of chips with mayonnaise, walks among them, watching them as if they were some kind of special entertainment laid on for a quarter of an hour. They wear overcoats, in case it gets cold. They laugh and gesticulate, proud of their orthodontics; their summer tans haven’t yet lost so much as a spark of brilliance, and are waiting for the ski season.
Wandering from one group to another, without stopping anywhere for very long, Jorge Washington eats his chips and wipes his oily fingers on a paper napkin. When he’s had enough (the mayonnaise is too greasy) he looks for a rubbish bin. Then he moves away from the people and, at one end of the foyer, near the glass wall of the exit, he sees her. She is no one in particular, no one he knows yet, but she could be all of them together. Tall and blonde, dressed up in brand-name elegance, in Jorge Washington’s eyes she has all the virtues and qualities that he has been collecting ever since he saw the first woman, the one who started him off. She looks like the Marcia whose portrait he admired this afternoon, for example, and she is the spitting image of the woman who has the heart-shaped palimpsest in her drawing-room, hidden under three layers of paint, waiting for a damp patch to liberate it.
Jorge Washington goes up to her furtively, stopping five metres away. Leaning on a balustrade which separates her from the glass wall, indifferent and bored, the lady is smoking a cigarette and drinking water out of a plastic bottle. When she blows out the smoke, which emerges from her mouth with a studied, sybaritic slowness, she half closes her eyes and the nostrils of her perfect nose flare slightly. Next to her is an older man who is wearing a beige Burberry raincoat, but they aren’t talking to each other. Suddenly a cellphone rings and the man takes an earphone out of his ear (he was listening to the radio) and answers the call. As he talks he moves around, shouting, and she looks at him with an irritation which Jorge Washington interprets in his favour: she’s sick of this man. As if she expressly wished to underline this disinclination, the lady throws the cigarette to the ground and treads on it gently with her shoe. Her movements belie a suppressed eroticism. Now that he is closer to her, using the glass wall as a mirror, Jorge Washington devours her with his eyes. Her thick, soft lips, her hips – clearly marked by her short skirt – and her breasts, which appear to be permanently rigid (a minor masterpiece by a helpful surgeon), take him back for a moment to the atmosphere of the jacuzzi, this midday, and under the River shirt his skin tingles with further desire. She guesses this, she has experience of such things, and, as she stares at an unspecified point beyond the glass, she essays a posture which seems to be an invitation, say something to me, come on, don’t be shy, come over and say something to me.
Jorge Washington takes a step forward, still undecided, but by then it is too late. Suddenly people are running all over the place, saying goodbye to each other, the second half has just started. In a flash, the man in the raincoat disconnects the cellphone and nods to the lady, shall we go? She takes a last sip of water, balances the bottle on the iron balustrade, and before she goes up the stairs to her seat, she just has time to wound Jorge Washington with a haughty, provocative glance.
Half a minute goes by. Alone there in the foyer, with the background noise of the supporters who are already cheering their teams, he goes up to where she was a moment ago (surrounded by the intense smell of her perfume), picks up the plastic bottle and looks at it as if it were sacred. There is still a bit of water in it and on the opening he finds the Burgundy red trace of her lipstick. Carefully placing his lips on the same spot, Jorge Washington takes a long, ceremonious swig. The tepid water slips down his throat with a nicotine aftertaste.
It is ten o’clock at night and the match is over. In the Galician bar where she’s arranged to meet Jorge Washington, Mariela sits at a Formica table and drinks a Coca-Cola which has lost its fizz in no time at all. She is right by the entrance, at the first table, because in the back there is a TV set and the place is full of people who were watching the match. Now, one by one, everyone goes to the till, pays and heads home in silence. In the street, the amber light of the streetlamps makes their shadows heavier, but today the victory of their team is the ideal antidote to their end-of-Sunday blues. From afar, Mariela can make out some of the images on the TV. A journalist with brilliantined hair has just interviewed a laughing coach, and a wide shot shows the green pitch, now empty of players; then it passes to the spectators, who are leaving the seats and walking out slowly, with the same resigned pantomime as the customers in the bar.
Jorge Washington is among them. He has been one of the last to leave, because he wanted to take in all the details offered by this unique opportunity – the floodlights, the ads on the scoreboards, the hugeness of the tiers of now empty seats, like an abandoned bee-hive –, and once he is outside the stadium, with all the crowds rushing hither and thither, he can’t get his bearings. As he knows that Mariela is waiting for him, he immediately attaches himself to a flow of people, wading into the middle and following it until he is outside the grounds. He reckons that once he’s on the street, everything will be easier. Fifty paces on, when they can make out the exit gate, people begin to disperse, dodging about, heading for the cars in the stadium car park. The Mercedes and Jaguars and family saloons are also eager to leave and move forward in fits and starts, at the same speed as the people. Some of them have their windows open and the voices coming from their radios mix with the conversations of the spectators. When going past Jorge Washington, a car calculates the distance badly and its wing mirror bumps into him from behind. Alarmed – he instinctively touches his trouser pocket to check he can still feel the outline of the membership card – he moves out of the way a bit. Then he notices the car behind him, a black BMW Z3, and discovers that inside are the blonde woman he saw at half-time and the man with the raincoat. His heart begins to beat, spiralling out of control. In that car, so low-slung and luxurious, the couple seem to be dislocated, like lead miniatures, and suddenly he sees the woman as being more attainable, like a toy. He slows up until the car is passing him by on the left and then he walks at the same speed, as if he were a personal bodyguard, checking their route. He would like her to see him, but inside the car the woman, tired, has closed her eyes, and doesn’t notice anything. Jorge Washington, on the other hand, lowers his eyes and through the window has a perfect panoramic view of her long, squeezed-in legs. As he walks, he plays at looking them up and down, as if he was on a roller-coaster. At the height of the thigh, as the woman is relaxed, the skirt has been pushed up and the lace of her stockings and a little flesh is showing. That patch of darker material, contrasted with the white skin, hypnotises Jorge Washington, who, as if he were attached to the vehicle, walks automatically by its side until they reach the street exit. Outside, a municipal policeman signals for the cars to pass through and the Z3 accelerates. Like the wake of those two red lights, Jorge Washington’s impossible dreams flee and vanish, but, in order to feed his future fantasies, he keeps hold of one fleeting image: her eyes, reflected in the wing mirror, which opened at the last minute to reveal a subjectively voluptuous expression.
Meanwhile, in the Galician bar on the other side of the stadium, Mariela watches the TV and plays at imagining that Jorge Washington is one of the spectators leaving the stadium. She even thinks that she spots him for a moment, but then she loses sight of him. It doesn’t matter, she knows his nervous stride only too well, and can picture him perfectly well dodging past slower people and the cars which are stuck in the traffic jam. Jorge Washington is probably smiling and trying to make his satisfaction last, as if chewing compulsively on a piece of gum that is beginning to lose its taste. He negotiates one street after another, quickly, because he is eager to be back with her. Now he is coming up the street the bar is in – he can see the electric sign – and now, in five, four, three, two seconds, he ought to be coming in. All of a sudden, Mariela turns round, expecting that on the other side of the somewhat grimy window, that River shirt will appear, but no. Half a minute more goes by and nothing. Maybe her thoughts are travelling faster than reality. Sometimes she covers her watch and tries to count off sixty seconds, but when she takes her hand off there are always ten or twelve to go. Now, maybe, she has the same problem, she tells herself, but is convinced that Jorge Washington ought to be here by now. She turns to face the TV, as if searching for an explanation, but the waiter has already switched it off because they’re about to close. At another table, in front of her, a man with a slimy look to him is playing with a key-ring and occasionally saying things to her that she doesn’t understand. Making an effort not to appear sad, she gets up, goes over to the bar, and calls the waiter in order to ask him for a glass of tap water.[/private]
Written by Jordi Puntì. Published in Animals Tristos (‘Sad Animals) in 2002, by Empúries Editorial, translated by Matthew Tree.
Catalan writer and journalist Jordi Puntí has published two books of short stories, Armadillo Skin (Quaderns Crema, 1998), winner of the Crítica Serra d’Or Prize and Sad Animals. He has translated, among others, Paul Auster, Daniel Pennac and Amélie Nothomb. In 2004 he received the Octavo Pellissa Prize for literary projects.
Matthew Tree was born in London but has lived in Barcelona since 1984 and writes in both English and Catalan. He has satirised both Catalans and foreigners living in the region on radio and television. His 1999 short story collection Ella ve quan vol won the Andromina Award. He has now published seven books in Catalan, contributes articles to various Catalan newspapers and magazines, and also works as a broadcaster and scriptwriter.