Authors: Carlos Castán
It struck me that my dead friend’s apartment had made me look afresh at my own home. As if I had already begun leaving everything at the sole mercy of absence. The door firmly locked, the electricity cut off at the mains, the dust spreading out at its own pace, so like that of eternity, over all the silence of lifeless objects.
One day the investigators will come. They will search the apartment, suddenly emptying out the contents of upturned drawers on a table. They will unfold papers, poring over every photograph, every letter, newspaper clippings and bank statements and receipts for my most recent purchases. They will hold in their hands the objects that were first ours, back when you still dusted them down from time to time with a feather duster (your headscarf, your song . . .), and then belonged to me and me alone, so mournfully, while all of a sudden becoming smaller and a little older, and that will from here on in belong to no one, fodder destined for the trash can or trinkets sold by the pound in the best case scenario—the multicolored dragon souvenir we bought in the Park Güell, the teapot from Fez, the half-rusted box of quince jelly from Puente Genil in which you kept the postcards we still received from time to time in those days, the sailboat with cracked masts, the miniature Chicago taxi cab. In their notebooks, they will jot down the words they deem important, almost everything, in fact, just in case; things turn up when you least expect it—what I thought on one day only, what I wrote without realizing, the date scribbled on the back of some theater program or movie ticket, the clues to a life, the half-erased traces of footsteps heading straight for an abyss without anyone yet being able to understand why.
One day the investigators will come. They will rush through the letters I took such time to write, the unfinished stories, the poems still full of crossings-out and minced words, cringe-worthy verses, coy observations. Their eyes will flit at great speed over the adjectives I pondered with care, their clumsy, latex-gloved fingers will in the end cause the ink to smudge, small blue clouds with traces of fingerprints slowly forming in the middle of the sheet of paper. One day the investigators will come, and they will discover what I never knew, the hidden reasons for my fears, the source of the storms, the night’s motives, they will know why I did what I did when I did it and will train their microscopes on the ice that at other times brought me to a standstill; they will barge their way into the forests I had no wish to roam and upturn the sacred, the delicate, the half-broken, everything that held itself upright as if by miracle. One day the investigators will come, and they will know who I loved.
In a cardboard box, I come across a black-and-white snapshot of myself cutting through some pigeons in a square, probably the Plaza del Pilar in Zaragoza, though it’s such a close-up image it might well be the Plaza Cataluña, in Barcelona. Whatever. I must be around four or five; I’ve never been much good at gauging children’s ages. It’s winter, judging from the coat I’m wearing buttoned up to the neck, though my legs, as was customary at that time, in my family, at least, were exposed to the elements no matter how cold it got. Either way, I can clearly recall that coat, which was in fact red, with its Eskimo hood, while the argyle socks and the badly buckled shoes also strike me as oddly familiar. Yet I cannot fully get my head around the fact that that boy is me. The word
blurs in and out of focus, I’m not sure I understand it. The sight of that boy arouses in me a tenderness I find hard to sustain. I look at that boy and my heart goes out to him.
Child, forgive me for all the harm I’ve inflicted on you, for what I have ended up making of your life. Forgive me for not having listened to you more, little Rocamadour of my own novel, little cardboard horse, for not having spent more time with you. I look at this photo, and for the first time in my life, I feel I can truly see you. You are not only me, by which I mean, you are me, but you depart from within me, you slip free of the filthy jail cell of my limited identity and become a child, pure and simple, out there, deserving of every tenderness, lots of love, even this love of mine that is now poor and a little drab and has a way of sometimes tainting things whether I like it or not. If I could see you entirely from the outside, I would want to protect you, to kiss you; no harm could come to you while I was nearby. I’m not sure why good sense tells me I cannot harbor such feelings simply because you are me when I was small, I cannot fathom today this strange shyness I ought to feel when loving you and all of a sudden no longer feel, perhaps because I am already sliding down a ramp that leads who knows where, to the middle of some stormy sea or dreadful silence. I look at you and I know I could learn to love you like no other. For no other living soul could I have done as much as I could have for you, living as I have lived within your skin, my hand on the tiller, on paper at least, guiding the steps you take in those patent-leather shoes with a buckle on one side that now seem somewhat comical. I could have watched over you like a Guardian Angel, defending your laughter and your innocence and the four corners of every bed you ever had; and yet I have ruined the life of no other creature as I have yours. You look a lot like one of my sons when he was your age. You are all but identical. I would have laid down my life for him and still would, yet to you I have left barely a thing: these black lungs, if anything, wretched loves and nights of terror, a liver on its last legs, a few friends, but always the same noose slung hovering so closely over your throat and all this weight with which I saddled you. I look at my knees today, my hands, and it takes some effort to believe they are the same as the ones in the photo, the same eyes, the same legs that once held you upright. I can barely believe I’m still alive. In other words, I know that I’m still alive but don’t understand it.
I feel the need today to tell you that I loved you in my own way, even without knowing how to. That I like the fact that you’re my past, and that I’m proud of your high school diplomas and the things you sketched with a few strokes of a pen on any old scrap of paper, some of which I still keep in an old folder at the back of a closet, monsters and mountains with clouds up on high, ice-cream vans, racing cars of every color, soccer players poised to strike, revolvers, and princes on horseback.
I don’t know the point at which I let you die. In truth, I’m not even sure you’re really dead, altogether dead, I mean, but even so, allow me to say how truly sorry I am if that’s how it was, if I was unable to hold you tight enough when you left, when you slipped away from me to who knows where. Your skin was so smooth, your dreams so crystal clear. Now that I can no longer hear you, now that it’s been quite some time since I last felt your heart beating within me, in the darkness in me, I want you to know that the place in my insides where you once slept clutching tightly to your plastic truck, with your toy elephant, your hand-me-down pajamas, your longing to get to know me just as you thought I’d turn out to be and in the end did not know how to be, aches from the sheer cold.
If you had had your way, I was going to have coal-black, lustrous hair and would almost always be sporting a crisply ironed white shirt, that much I do remember, though I’d also have another one of the type worn by explorers, perhaps bearing the odd badge of honor of the sort kings bestow on men of action. And a pair of thigh-high boots. And sunglasses. I was going to have a big, bright-red convertible and would forever be heading home, very tanned, from journeys to islands and jungles no one had ever heard of. There are a ton of postcards that in the end you and I never sent anyone from anywhere. I sometimes think of those postcards, of their astonishing skies. As things turned out, no one back in Spain ever fought to collect the exotic stamps they would bear with hard-to-remember names of countries, with
s in them, and each one a different color and size. I guess nothing ever came of all that envy we hoped to arouse in the world, taking photos of ourselves grinning and sporting all manner of hats by West Indian ports and atop the peaks of Asia, of all the native languages we were going to learn to speak, the arts of fishing and war, of the mysterious ebony masks that were going to adorn the walls of our apartment, filled also with treasure chests found in temples buried beneath blankets of ivy, and amulets to ward off bad luck, and jewels, and daggers we would sometimes show to visitors, taking great care so as not to break them. I’m afraid that the white shirt was about as far as we got.
I can’t even ask you not to forget me, for, thankfully, a child cannot remember what will become of him. Which is why they—children—laugh and play, why they do not leap from the cliff tops. But I do ask that you take me at my word on a few things: it was not my wish to distance myself from you, I remember you on many days, almost every one; I would have liked for us to spend more time together.
The first weekend after Jacobo’s death, it was my turn to be with my children. And it was by no means easy, first and foremost as I did not want them to notice the state I was in, and time and again I found myself with no choice but to head outdoors so as to be able to cry out of eyeshot. I’m taking out the trash, I’d tell them, or I’m off to buy a loaf of bread, I’m going for a stroll around the block to get a little air. Only to break down in sobs at the first corner I could find where I figured no one could see me. I looked for doorways left ajar, entrances to garages in which to weep. If I drifted too far from home, I’d have to race back, as, for no reason whatsoever, I’d get it into my head that something dreadful might have occurred in my absence, no matter how brief it had been—a cracked skull, a gas leak, another map of blood on the wall or the tiled floor. I’d picture one of my sons, his head resting on the chest of my other son’s dead body, weeping and calling out my name. Weeping of the sort I’d only ever seen in the movies, his mouth open, his entire face drenched with tears. Then they’d swap roles. If at first it was my eldest lying motionless on the floor, the figures then flipped around, just like in those old schoolyard scuffles in which, locked in an embrace, we would literally roll on top of one another across the earth, and this time the corpse was that of my younger son. My hands were shaking so much it was all I could do to fit the key inside the lock, and when at last I managed to get the door open, I would see before me the most domestic and peaceful of scenes. I’d sink into the couch to catch my breath, but my beating heart took hundreds of minutes to settle. Not that the infernal racket of the PlayStation did much to help, with its endless battles between Martians or zombies, its shrill music, and its planets in flames. I had to tell them I was sick to see if they might take a little pity on me and also so that they wouldn’t be altogether taken aback when I set a place only for them at mealtimes, while I sat at the other side of the room, without touching a morsel, or paced from one end of the apartment to the other like a caged beast.
Something had rotted away inside my head, thoughts that broke off from their course and began to fester on the shore. I couldn’t stop myself from penning letters in my head. The words flowed, sometimes out loud. I’d forget the beginning and start afresh. Dear Jacobo, for example, dear Jacobo, now you are dead, it’s all over, the books you left lying half-read on the bedside table and on the bookshelves and here, there, and everywhere, the romantic trysts you had set in motion or harbored in the filthy bedroom of your imagination, and also the unease on those nights when you could not bring yourself to be alone. You will never hold a grandchild in your arms, you will not return to Proust in that future, ideal winter you had in mind, with snow and vintage cognac and a lit fire next to the enormous window you sometimes sketched. Nor will you ever make good on that fantasy of yours of sending out, on some birthday or other, for a handful of whores of the most expensive sort, as you liked to put it, of the type that dress up as Parisian ladies at the drop of a hat and speak several languages and have a certain poise (and, indeed,
) wherever they might find themselves and who wear on their person the most authentic silk, brought from China or wherever, and who feign desire as only they know how and part their lips in that way they have and then it’s game over, for they have been trained to act as if they would drop dead there and then should anyone prize them away from your flesh. Dear Jacobo, now you are dead, and I am sitting in your apartment, in near darkness, while a few blocks from here, at my place, no one is waiting up for me. Dear Jacobo, now you are dead, I ought to be thinking about who killed you, and yet I think only about who might kill me. And that makes me feel like scum. That and the fact that I was unable to cry when they told me the news, not even the following day at the cemetery. Only now, somewhat too late in the day and perhaps thinking more of what the loss means to me than the end, in and of itself, of your being. It occurs to me to call you up and ask to borrow those axes, and also so that this time it might be you who comes to keep me company at my place at night, for I can feel how the fear is growing within me, and I don’t know which way to turn when the past returns, where to hide, because I turn off the lights and shut the doors but the blood will not rest or sleep or be silent. Then it dawns on me that you truly have gone, and it’s as if it were happening all over again, small aftershocks of your death in my head. I thought of you as the maddest of the mad when I discovered that primitive, makeshift arsenal half-hidden in the entrance to your apartment, I thought that you had already veered over the edge and were a prime candidate for the psychiatric ward, at which I’d have to visit you on Sunday afternoons bearing chocolates and cartons of cigarettes. And yet you have been proven, in the worst possible way, to have had good reason to stay up all night long, on guard and armed. It turns out that the threat was perfectly real and not the fantasy of a sick man with sweaty dreams of bloodstained blades, much as he might just as well have filled his thoughts with other, no less dreadful things, like the horror of the planets floating in the darkness of infinity and filling everything with a vertigo and a solitude too vast even for the universe to hold, or the possibility of dying at short notice without knowing any love other than that which has already come and gone, that recollection as sweet as it is hazy and that barely lives on in the memory as something that was ultimately tossed away with the trash, that was used up unwittingly in a time long since passed that was one of plenty, or at least appeared to be, when we would return from the supermarket laden with diapers and economy-sized packs of condoms and provisions too plentiful to fit inside the fridge and everything was as it should be and life was like the heavenward journey on a freshly painted swing in a garden dotted with olive trees. Before the light began to fade and the blood drained from everyone’s lips.
Dear Jacobo, you’ve been murdered and I’m thinking about my life. And this hurts, for it has not escaped my attention that it is selfish, when all is said and done, much like when you would try to get things off your chest and I’d simply bide my time, waiting for the chance to butt in and get things off mine. The thing is, even seeing it so clearly, I cannot stop myself so easily. You went mad, and with your soundness of mind, hand in hand, mine, too, evaporated. You are dead, and what I feel, at every turn, as clear as daylight, under my skin and in all of the air that surrounds me, is my own death. I am powerless to stop it; if my thoughts were not so free, so elusive to my own will, I would no doubt have been a different person, I’d have been happy. And it so happens that these days I’ve also been thinking back to the words Robert Antelme wrote his friend Mascolo in a letter: “Dionys, I should like to say to you that I don’t think of friendship as a positive thing, I mean as a value; much more than this, I think of it as a state, an identification, therefore as a multiplication of death, a multiplication of questioning.” I remember that you made me read
and all that we spoke of back then. And though, out of modesty, we were unable to meet one another’s gaze when uttering certain words, I believe we were well aware of the space that anguish occupies in every love. Now you have gone and in some way you’re dragging me behind you, you take with you on your departure the meaning of things, as a lure so that I might race behind you, so that, sniffing after that bait in tireless pursuit, I might end up lying by your side on the same drab beach on which one breathes one’s last, seagulls shriek, and songs fade out. Yet there is nothing to reproach or even lament—with due conviction I shoulder the weight of a single cross that is mine to bear.
Allow me also to say one more thing. Some years ago, your death would have been a thousand times better, when you still lived with a woman who loved you. There was a time when you’d have said your goodbyes to the world with the sense of taking your leave filled with love. I’ve seen it elsewhere, in relatives or friends accompanied to the very end by wives who fight with the doctors, who move heaven and earth to get one more test, a painkiller, or a bed next to a window overlooking the pine forest, ones who stay in the hospital all night long, night after night, without so much as opening a book, simply saying goodbye to you with their eyes, making you feel that the journey that is coming to an end was a thing of wonder and that, somehow, it was all worth it. Setting metaphysical or biological considerations to one side, death is something that has to do with absence, an absence that must be noticed by someone. Those of us who live as alone as lepers cannot die in this sense, for we have in a way already been dead for some time. To truly die, you must leave a gap behind, the place at the table where you sat down to have breakfast with the others and where no one now pulls up a chair. Death is that bit of the table on which a cup of coffee is missing. You must leave behind an empty chair if you wish to die a proper death or for anyone to remember you some day; and, Jacobo, the empty chairs you leave behind you go unseen, they stand in a lonely, locked apartment. Which is perhaps why I feel that your death belongs to me, that you died only for me, much as I, had things happened the other way around, would have died for you alone. And if any light is to be shed by your end, if any lesson might be drawn from all this, there can be no pupil other than myself in the empty classroom at whose lectern you all of a sudden fall silent as I watch you for the last time from the only desk.
I return from searching your apartment in the early hours of morning and then continue with the search of mine without pausing, throwing myself yet further into the task, as if among my things, as outlandish at it might seem, some of the answers to all of this might be found. And I forget about you. And I search my own bookshelves, the backs of my own drawers. I open dusty folders filled with old papers, with one corner folded down, that I can no longer identify. My military service ID and high school diploma even appeared from somewhere or other. I take another long hard look, one by one, at the photos I have for so long been reluctant to face, in search this time of some clue, retracing the steps of a life I have for some time now been unable to understand. Or that I have perhaps never truly understood but that now, for some reason that has to do with a padded coffin, absurdly upholstered in tulles and velvet, in which you lie, stitched up from head to toe like a rag doll, I need to understand in one way or another. It may not always be the case, but sometimes death (and I believe its imminence, proximity, or even a simple hint of it may suffice) illuminates everything. And it is precisely beneath that light when it becomes clear that there is nothing to see.
Cotton buds were placed in your nostrils and earholes, and some elderly women, aunts of yours if I understood correctly, drifted away from the window in which you were on display, commenting to one another that you were more handsome now than the last time they dropped by your apartment some months back to make sure you were coping. Less bloated, they say, what a difference, and as if more at peace, as different as night and day, without those wrinkled bags under the eyes that could make one shudder. Look, Jacobo, I don’t know much about detectives or police investigations. That’s never been my strong point. Even as a reader of fiction, as you well know, I’ve always had more of a French, melancholic bent, just as you liked to tease me about; I’ve always preferred an interior monologue over convoluted stories that unfold amid revolvers, bona fide clues and red herrings, enigmas and alibis. I almost always lose my bearings. I never fully understood
The Big Sleep
, whether in book or movie form, to cite just a couple of examples of the ones we’ve discussed a thousand times. But one thing I will say despite it all, right now, here, in the midst of the silence spreading out from your casket and now strangling my throat: I am going to use every last living drop of what little remains hidden among the debris of my intelligence, no matter how ill it may seem, no matter how feeble, to make sure that it simply doesn’t end like this.