(translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales)
"IT'S ADVISABLE that you prepare for the worst.”
Like that, in the preoccupied and friendly intonation of Octavio, not only a doctor but above all a former friend from high school, the helpful phrase, almost without pausing in Mariano’s ear, had reverberated in his stomach, where the pain had persisted for the past four weeks. At that moment Mariano had pretended not to hear, smiled bitterly, and had even said: “Don’t worry, I’ve been prepared for a long time.” Not true, he wasn’t, he had never been. When he had insistently asked Octavio––in light of their old friendship (“I swear that I would do the same for you”)––to tell him the true diagnosis, Mariano had done so with the secret hope that his old comrade would tell him the truth, yes, but that that truth would be his salvation and not his condemnation. But Octavio had taken Mariano’s appeal for their old affection that united them literally. He had devoted an hour and a half of his harried time to examine and reexamine him, and then, with his eyes inevitably teary behind thick glasses, had begun to make the news easy to swallow: “Right now it’s impossible to tell you what’s wrong. We’ll have to run some tests, and take X-rays and a complete medical history. And that’s going to take some time. The only thing I can tell you is that the first exam didn’t show good results. You neglected yourself quite a bit. You should have came to see me at the first sign of discomfort.” And then the announcement of the first direct blow: “Since you’re asking me, on behalf of our friendship, to be strictly honest with you, I would tell you that, just in case....” And then he stopped, removed his glasses, and wiped them with the edge of his lab coat. A scarcely protective gesture, Mariano concluded in the middle of his heart-rending expectation. “Just in case what?” he asked, trying to sound restrained, almost indifferent. And that’s when the sky fell: “It’s advisable that you prepare for the worst.”
Mariano prepared himself for nine days. Afterwards came the battery of tests, X-rays, etc. He had tolerated the pricks and typical undressings with a sense of fortitude that he didn’t think he was capable of. On one occasion, when he returned home and found himself alone (Águeda had gone out with the children, and his father was in the interior), he realized he had lost all self-control, and while standing there, in front of the wide open window, in his study inundated with the most resplendent autumn sun, had cried like a baby, without even bothering to wipe away his tears. Hope, hopes, there is hope, there are hopes, sometimes they’re singular and other times they’re plural; Octavio had repeated this to him a hundred different ways, with smiles, with jokes, with pity, with friendly pats, with semi-embraces, with high school memories, with greetings to Águeda, with a skeptical frown, with half-closed eyes, with nervous tics, with questions about the children. Surely, Octavio was repentant about having been brutally sincere and somehow wanted to cushion the effects of the blow. Of course. But, what if there were hopes? Or just one. One simple hope would be enough, one minute hope in the minimum singular. And what if the tests, X-rays, and other nuisances were to say, in their esoteric language and coded prophecy, that his life would be allowed a few more years? Mariano wasn’t asking for much: five years, ten would be better. Now that he was crossing Plaza Independencia to meet Octavio and his final diagnosis (condemnation or remission or absolution), he felt that those singular and plural hopes had, despite everything, germinated in him. Perhaps that was because his pain had diminished considerably, even though he was aware that perhaps this was due to the pills Octavio had prescribed and which he had punctually ingested. But, in the meantime, while approaching his destination, his expectation was becoming almost unbearable. At a given moment, his legs weakened; he told himself that he couldn’t arrive at the doctor’s office in that condition and decided to sit on a bench in the plaza. With the shake of his head he rejected an offer for a shoeshine (he didn’t feel strong enough to enter into the time-honored dialogue about the weather and inflation), and waited to calm down. Águeda and Susana. Susana and Águeda. Which should be the preferred order? Wasn’t he capable of deciding, even at this moment? Águeda was comprehension and incomprehension now stratified; the frontier now without litigation; the present repeated (but there was also an irreplaceable warmth in the repetition); the years and years of mutual prognostication, of knowing each other by heart; the two children, the two children. Susana was clandestinity, surprise (but surprise was also developing into habit), the zones of unfamiliar life, unshared, in shadow; the quarrel and the emotional reconciliations; the conservative jealousies and the revolutionary jealousies; the undecided frontier, the new caress (which was insensitively starting to look like a repetitive gesture), the not prognostication but prophesying, the not knowing each other by heart but rather by intuition. Águeda and Susana. Susana and Águeda. He couldn’t decide. And he couldn’t (he had just realized it at the precise moment in which he should wave a greeting to an old friend from work), simply because he thought of them as his own objects, as sectors of Mariano Ojeda and not as independent lives, as beings who lived at their own responsibility and risk. Águeda and Susana, Susana and Águeda, were part of his organism at this moment, as much as those abject, vexing entrails that were threatening him. Furthermore, there was Coco and especially Selvita, of course, but he didn’t want to, no, he didn’t want to, no, he didn’t want to think about the children now, even though he realized that at some moment he was going to have to face it. He didn’t want to think about them because then he would really fall apart and wouldn’t even have the strength to reach the doctor’s office. However, one had to be honest and recognize beforehand that while there he was going to be less egotistical and much more incredibly noble, because if he was going to destroy himself by thinking (and surely he was going to destroy himself), it wasn’t going to be by thinking about himself, but about them, or at least more about them than about himself, more about the new sadness that was awaiting him, than in the expected and old notion of ending up without them. Without them, bah, without anyone, without anything. Without his children, without his wife, without his lover. But also without the sun, this sun; without those thin clouds, emaciated, in accord with the country; without the rest of those poor, ashamed, legitimate Pensioners; without the routine (blessed, loved, sweet, aphrodisiac, sheltered, perfect) of Cashier Desk No. 3 and its audits and long-term searches but always found discrepancies; without his thorough reading of the newspaper in the café, next to the large window facing the Andes; without his exchange of jokes with the waiter; without the episodes of pleasant giddiness which suddenly occur when looking at the sea and especially when looking at the sky; without these hurried people, happy because they don’t know anything about themselves, who hasten to lie to themselves, to secure their armchair in eternity or to talk about the captivating heroism of the others; without the repose like a balm; without the books as intoxication; without the alcohol as an expedient; without sleep as death; without life as a vigil; simply without life.
That is where Mariano’s desperation hit bottom, and, paradoxically, it’s also what allowed him to pull himself together. He stood up, checked that his legs were responsive, and finished crossing the plaza. He entered the café, asked for a demitasse with a dash of milk, and drank it slowly, without any inward or outside disturbance, and with his mind practically blank. He saw how the sun was going down, how its remaining streaks were disappearing. Before the street lights turned on, he paid for his demitasse and left his usual tip. He then walked four blocks, turned on Río Negro on the right, and stopped half way up the block. He went up to the fifth floor and pressed the doorbell button next to the little bronze metal plate: Octavio Massa, M.D.
* * *
“That which I feared.”
That which I feared was, in these circumstances, synonymous with the worst. Octavio had spoken calmly, at length, doubtlessly resorting to his finest repertory regarding consolation and comforting, but Mariano had listened to him in silence, including a steadfast smile that wasn’t intended to disorient his friend, but which certainly had. “But I’m fine,” he said solely, when Octavio questioned him, worried. “Furthermore,” the doctor said, with the tone of someone who extracts a hidden card from their sleeve, “we’re going to do everything that’s necessary, and I’m sure, you understand, sure, that an operation would be a success. On the other hand, there’s no great urgency. We have at least two weeks to strengthen you; calmly, patiently, and strictly. I’m not telling you that you should be happy, Mariano, nor that you shouldn’t worry, but you also shouldn’t overreact. These days we’re much better prepared to fight against....” And so on and so forth. Suddenly, Mariano felt an implacable urge to leave the doctor’s office, but not exactly so he could go back to feeling desperate. The certainty of the diagnosis had provoked—it was incredible—a sense of relief, but also the need to be alone, something like an anxious curiosity to enjoy the new certitude. So while Octavio continued saying: “...and furthermore, it just so happens that I’m very friendly with the doctor from your bank, so there won’t be any problem with you taking all the time that’s necessary and....,” Mariano was smiling, and his wasn’t a bitter, resentful smile, but (for the first time in many days) in some way a satisfied, agreeable smile. Since stepping out of the elevator and seeing the street again, Mariano encountered a state of mind which seemed like a revelation to him. It was nighttime, of course, but why were the lights so far away? Why didn’t he understand, nor want to understand, the blinking inscription of the illuminated sign that was in front of him? The street was a large avenue, yes, but why were those figures, which were passing about two feet away from his hand, nevertheless detached images, as if viewed in a colorized film but which on the other hand, were benefiting (because in reality, it was an improvement) from an unadjustable sound track, in which every noise reached him as if by way of infinite intermediaries, until only leaving a muffled echo of other muffled echoes in his ears? The street was an avenue that was becoming increasingly wider, agreed, but why were the houses in front of him becoming smaller, until they disappear and leave him cloistered in stupefaction? An avenue, nothing less than an avenue, but why were the rapidly approaching car headlights becoming smaller and smaller, until they look like pocket flashlights? He had the sensation that the floor tile he was standing on was suddenly turning into an island, a leprous floor tile that was hygienically discriminated against by the healthy floor tiles. He had the sensation that the objects were moving away, crazily separating themselves from him but without revealing that they were separating themselves. It was a hypocritical escape, precisely. Why didn’t he notice earlier? In any case, that dizzy fleeing of objects and beings, of the floor and the sky, was giving him a kind of power. “And could this be death, and nothing more?” Mariano thought with unexpected enthusiasm. Nevertheless, he was alive. Not Águeda, nor Susana, nor Coco, nor Selvita, nor Octavio, nor his father in the interior, nor Cashier Desk No. 3. Only that spotlight, enormous; that is to say, enormous in the beginning, that came from who knows where, not so enormous afterwards; it was worth leaving the floor tile island, much smaller then; it was worth confronting all of it in the middle of the street, small, much smaller, yes, insignificant, right here; it doesn’t matter that the rest flee, if the spotlight, the little spotlight, approaches moving away, right here, right here, the little pocket flashlight, the firefly, increasingly farther away and closer, ten kilometers and also ten centimeters away from a pair of eyes that will never shine again.