The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2012

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APR 2012 Issue

The Diary of Martín Santomé: A Novel

A New Translation of La Tregua
by Mario Benedetti

Translated from the Spanish
by Harry Morales

This is the second English translation of the novel, La Tregua by Mario Benedetti that was first published by Editorial Nueva Imagen, S.A. in 1960. Originally translated by Benjamin Graham and published in 1969 by Harper & Row as The Truce, the novel is long out of print in English. The Rail will be serializing this Benedetti masterpiece over the winter and into the spring of 2012.

Mi mano derecha es una golondrina
Mi mano izquierda es un ciprés
Mi cabeza por delante es un señor vivo
Y por detrás es un señor muerto.

—Vicente Huidobro

Sunday, June 2nd

Time flies. Sometimes I think I should live hurriedly instead of trying to get the most out of these remaining years. These days, after having scrutinized my wrinkles, anyone can say to me: “But you’re still a young man.” Still. But how many years are left in “still.” I think about it and start to hurry, and have the agonizing sensation that life is slipping away from me, as if my veins had opened and I couldn’t stop the bleeding. Because life is many things (work, money, luck, friendship, health, complications) and no one is going to deny that when we think about the word Life, when we say for example: “we grapple with life,” we are likening it to a more specific, attractive and surely more important word: Pleasure. I think about pleasure (any kind of pleasure) and I’m sure it’s life. From then on it’s the hurrying, the tragic hurrying of these fifty years which are fast on my heels. I hope I have a few years of friendship, passable health, routine desires, and hope for good luck still remaining. But, how many years of pleasure are left? I was twenty years old and I was young; I was thirty and I was young; I was forty and I was young. Now I’m fifty years old and I’m “still young.” “Still” means that it ends.

And that’s the absurd part of our agreement: we say we’re going to take it easy, let time pass, and then afterwards, we’ll review the situation. But time passes, whether we allow it to or not, and each day makes her more desirable, mature, feminine, and buxom, while on the other hand, each day it threatens me with becoming more ill, worn-out, less courageous, and less indispensable. We have to hurry towards the encounter, because in our case the future is an inevitable non-encounter. All of her pluses correspond to my minuses and all of her minuses correspond to my pluses. I understand that for a young woman it can be an inducement to know that one is someone who has lived, exchanged his innocence for experience a long time ago, and thinks with a good head on his shoulders. It’s possible that this would be an inducement, but how brief. Because experience is good when it comes from a strong hand; afterwards, when the strength is gone, one becomes a decorous museum piece, whose only value is being a reminder of what was lost. Experience and strength are contemporaries for a very short time. I’m now at that stage. But it’s not an enviable situation.

Tuesday, June 4th

Great. The Valverde woman had a fist fight with Suárez and the entire office is in an upheaval. Martínez had a spiritual look on his face because for him the upheaval was indicative, plainly and simply, of the assistant management. Suárez didn’t come to work this morning, but showed up in the afternoon with a bruise on his forehead and a sad look on his face. The manager called him over and yelled at him loudly. That means it’s not a question of a simple rumor, but in fact about an official and authorized version of events.

Friday, June 7th

Until now, we had gone to the movies together twice, but afterwards she would go home alone. Today, instead of going home by herself, I accompanied her for a change. She had acted very warm and friendly. Halfway through the film, as Alida Valli put up with the idiotic Farley Granger, I suddenly felt her hand resting on my arm. I think it was a reflex, but the fact is that afterwards she didn’t remove her hand. Inside me there is a gentleman who doesn’t want to force any developments to occur, but there is also another gentleman who obsessively thinks about hurrying.

We got off the bus at 8th of Octubre and walked three blocks. It was dark, but it was the bright darkness of the night and nothing more. The UTE, the old and dependable public utility company was giving me a blackout as a present. We were walking side by side, about three feet apart. But as I approached a corner (a corner with a department store that had a pool table illuminated by candle light on display), someone slowly appeared out of the shadow of a tree. Then, the three feet that separated us disappeared, and before I realized it she was giving me her arm. The owner of the shadow was a drunk, a harmless and defenseless drunk who was mumbling: “Long live the poor wretched and the National Party!” Meanwhile, I felt she was stifling a little laugh and loosening the tension of her fingers on my arm. Her house is number 368 and is on a street with a name like Ramón P. Gutiérrez or Eduardo Z. Domínguez, I don’t remember. The house has an entrance hall and several balconies. The main door was closed, but she told me there is an inner windproof storm door with a certain quality that is reminiscent of stained glass windows. “They say the owner wanted to imitate the stained glass windows of Notre Dame, but I assure you there’s a St. Sebastian who looks like Gardel.”

She didn’t open the door right away. As she leaned gently against the door, I thought about how the bronze railing must be digging into her spinal column. But she wasn’t complaining. Then she said: “You’re very good. I mean to say, that you’re well-behaved.” And I, who knows myself, lied like a saint and said: “Sure I’m very good, but I’m not sure that I’m behaving myself.” “Don’t be gullible,” she said. “When you were young, weren’t you taught that when one behaves oneself, one doesn’t have to acknowledge it?” The moment had arrived and she was awaiting my reply: “When I was young I was taught that every time one behaves, one receives a prize. Perhaps I don’t deserve one?” There was a moment of silence. I couldn’t see her face because the foliage of a damn city pine tree was blocking the light of the moon. “Yes, you deserve it,” I heard her reply. Then her two arms emerged from the dark and rested on my shoulders. She must have seen this move in some Argentine film. But I’m sure she didn’t see the kiss that followed in any film. I like her lips, I mean to say, their taste, the way they submerge themselves, open halfway, and slip away. Naturally, it’s not the first time she’s kissed someone. So what? After all, it’s a relief to kiss on the mouth again, with trust and affection. I don’t know how, or what strange path we must have taken, but the truth is, all of a sudden, I felt the bronze hand railing sinking into my spinal column. I was at the door of number 368 for a half an hour. Lord, what progress. Neither of us said anything, but after this episode one thing was clear. Tomorrow I’ll think about it. Now I’m tired, or I could also say: happy. But I’m too alert to feel completely happy. Alert about myself, good luck, and that sole tangible future called tomorrow. Alert, that is to say: distrustful.

Sunday, June 9th

Perhaps I’m very fussy about the middle ground. Whenever I’m presented with a problem, I never feel attracted to extreme solutions. It’s possible this is the root of my frustration. One thing is obvious: if, on the one hand, extremist attitudes provoke enthusiasm, drag the others down, and are signs of strength, then on the other hand, poised attitudes are generally annoying, sometimes disagreeable and almost never seem heroic. In general, one needs plenty of bravery (a very special kind of bravery) to maintain one’s poise, but it can’t be denied it will look like a show of cowardice to others. Besides, poise is boring. And nowadays, boredom is a great drawback that people generally don’t forgive.

But what does all of this mean? Oh, yes. The middle ground I now search for has to do with (is there anything in my life just now that doesn’t have to do with her?) Avellaneda. I don’t want to hurt her, nor hurt myself (first middle ground); I don’t want our bond to drag along the absurd situation of a betrothal headed toward matrimony, nor that it obtain the nuance of a common and wild “love affair” (second middle distance); I don’t want the future to condemn me to be an old man despised by a woman who has full use of all her senses, nor that because I’m afraid of that future, I remain on the margin of this particular present time, so attractive and unexchangeable (third middle ground); I don’t want us to go roaming from motel to motel, nor do I want us to create a home, with a capital H (fourth and final middle ground).

Solutions? First: rent a little apartment, but without abandoning my house, of course. Well, first and last. There are no other solutions.

Monday, June 10th

Cold and windy. How foul. To think that when I was fifteen years old I liked the winter. Now I start to sneeze and lose count. I often have the feeling that instead of a nose, I have a ripe tomato, with that ripeness tomatoes have ten seconds before they begin to rot. As I sneeze for the thirty-fifth time, I can’t avoid feeling inferior to the rest of mankind. I admire the noses of saints, for example, those thin and unencumbered noses of Greek saints. I admire the noses of saints because they (it’s evident) have never been cold or decimated by a string of these sneezes. Never. If they had sneezed in sequences of twenty or thirty consecutive outbursts, they wouldn’t have been able to avoid completely surrendering to cursing out loud or to themselves. And whoever curses – even during their most simplified terrible thinking – is closing off their path to Glory.

Tuesday, June 11th

I didn’t tell her anything, but I delved into the search for an apartment. I’ve got one in mind that’s ideal. Unfortunately, there are no bargains available on ideals, they’re always expensive.

Friday, June 14th

It must be about a month since I last had more than a five minute conversation with Jaime or Esteban. They come home grumbling, lock themselves in their rooms, eat in silence while reading the newspaper, go to bed cursing, and then return early the next morning. Blanca, on the other hand, is kind, talkative, and happy. I don’t see Diego very often, but I recognize his presence in Blanca’s face. Indeed, I’m not mistaken: he’s a good man. I know that Esteban has a second job working at the club. Someone found it for him. I have the impression, nevertheless, that he’s starting to regret letting himself become completely ensnared. Someday he’ll lose his temper, I can see it already, and he’ll tell everyone to go to hell. I hope soon. I don’t like to see him involved in an enterprise that apparently contradicts his old convictions. I don’t like it that he become cynical, one of those fake cynics who, when the time for reproaching arrives, excuses himself, saying: “It’s the only way to make progress, to do something.” Jaime, on the other hand, does work, and is good at his job. Also, they love him there. But Jaime’s problem is something else, and what’s worse is I don’t know what it is. He’s always nervous and unsatisfied. Apparently, he has character, but sometimes I’m not too sure whether it’s character or a passing fancy. And I don’t like his friends, either. There’s something dashing and fashionable about them. They’re from the upper class Pocitos area and perhaps deep down in their hearts they look down him. They take advantage of Jaime because he’s clever, clever with his hands, and he’s always doing something they’ve entrusted him to do. And gratis, too, as it should be. None of them work, they’re all papa’s boys. Sometimes I hear them complaining: “Say, what a lousy job you have. We can’t count on you.” They say “job” like someone who is performing a heroic deed, like a salvationist who approaches a drunken beggar and, transfixed with disgust and pity, touches him with the tip of his shoe. They say “job” as if after having said it, they would have to disinfect themselves.

Saturday, June 15th

I found an apartment. It’s very close to what I had in mind and incredibly cheap. Still, I’ll have to tighten my budget and hope I can afford it. It’s five blocks away from 18th and Andes, near the Plaza Independencia, and has the advantage of me being able to furnish it for forty cents. But that’s just a figure of speech. Actually, I won’t have any other choice but to use my savings, $2,465.79, which I have in the Mortgage Bank of Uruguay.

Tonight I’ll go out with her. But I’m not planning to tell her anything.

Sunday, June 16th

Nevertheless, I told her. We walked the three blocks from 8th of Octubre to her house, but this time without a blackout occurring. I think I was stuttering as I reminded her about our plan of absolute freedom, about getting to know each other and seeing what happens, of letting time pass, and then reviewing the situation. I’m sure I had stuttered. It was a month ago she appeared at 25th and Misiones to claim that cup of coffee I offered her on a prior occasion but that she had turned down. “I want to offer you a proposition,” I said. I’ve been on intimate terms with her since Friday the 7th, but she hasn’t been. I thought she was going to reply: “I already know,” which would have been a great relief. But no. She let me carry the entire weight of my proposition. This time she didn’t guess or didn’t want to guess. I’ve never been an expert at prefaces, so I opted for what was necessary: “I rented an apartment for us.” It was a pity there hadn’t been a blackout just then because in that case I wouldn’t have seen the look on her face. Perhaps it was a sad look, what do I know. I was never too sure about what women mean when they look at me. Sometimes I think they question me and after a while I realize they had actually been responding to me. For a moment, stationed between us, there was a word, like a cloud, like a cloud that began to move. We both thought of the word matrimony, and both understood that the cloud was moving away and that tomorrow the sky would be clear. “Without consulting me?” she asked. I nodded yes. The truth was I had a lump in my throat. “It’s all right,” she said, trying to smile. “This is how I have to be treated, through prepared scenarios.” We were standing in the entrance hall. The door was open because it was much earlier than the other day. There were lights here and there. There was no room for mystery, only that other thing called silence. I began to realize my proposition wasn’t a complete success. But at age fifty, one can no longer aspire to complete successes. And what if she would have said no? I was paying a price for that lack of negativity, and that price was the uncomfortable situation; the unpleasant, almost painful moment when I see her sitting silently in front of me, appearing a bit stocky in her dark jacket, with an expression on her face of having said good-bye to various things. She didn’t kiss me, nor did I take the initiative. Her face was tense, hard. All of a sudden, without prior warning, it looked as if all of her reflexes were responding as if she had relinquished an unbearable mask, and like that, looking upwards, with her head leaning against the door, she began to cry. And they weren’t the so-called famous tears of happiness. It was that weeping which occurs unexpectedly when one feels opaquely miserable. But when someone feels brilliantly miserable, then yes it’s worth crying, trembling, and shaking, especially in the company of an audience. But when, in addition to feeling miserable, one feels gloomy, when there is no more room for rebellion, sacrifice, or heroism, then one has to cry silently, because no one can help and because one is aware such things happen and that in the end, one retains one’s balance and normalcy. That’s what her crying was like. No one can fool me when it comes to this topic. “Can I help you?” I asked, even so, “can I remedy this somehow?” Foolish questions. Still, I asked another one, from the very bottom of my misgivings: “What’s wrong? Do you want us to get married?” But the cloud was now far away. “No,” she replied. “I’m crying because it’s a pity.” And it’s so true. It’s a pity there hadn’t been a blackout, that I’m fifty years old, that she’s a good woman, my three children, her old boyfriend, the apartment...I took out my handkerchief and dried her eyes. “Is it all over now?” I asked. “Yes, it’s all over now,” she replied. It was a lie, but we both understood we were both doing good by lying. With a still convalescing look, she added: “Don’t think I’m always so foolish.” Don’t think, she said; I’m sure she said don’t think. She had been intimate with me just then.

Thursday, June 20th

I haven’t written anything in four days. I began the process of renting the apartment; the security agreement, the withdrawal of $2,465.79, the purchasing of some furniture, and through it all I’ve been tremendously agitated. I can move in tomorrow and my furniture will be delivered on Saturday.

Friday, June 21st

Suárez was fired, it’s unbelievable, but he was fired. In fact, he was happy to have personally started the rumor that the Valverde woman had urged that he be fired. But what’s most surprising is that he couldn’t have been fired for a lesser reason. The Shipping Department sent two packages to the wrong address. Suárez didn’t even know about those two packages, which were surely shipped by one of those inexperienced and absent-minded fellows who are in charge of making packages. In the not-too-distant past, Suárez had made any number of terrible mistakes and no one had said anything to him. Apparently, during the last three or four days, the manager has had the responsibility of discharging this lover in disgrace; but Suárez, who sensed he was going to be fired, had been behaving like an exemplary child. He would arrive on time and there were even days when he would work an extra hour or so. He was also kind, humble, and disciplined. But it still didn’t do him any good because even if that shipping error hadn’t occurred, I’m sure he still would have been fired; either for smoking too much or for not having his shoes shined. On the other hand, there is some refined individual who maintains the packages were sent to the wrong address under the confidential and expressed orders of management. Nothing would surprise me.

It was a pity to watch Suárez after he received the news. He went to the Payroll Department, collected his severance pay, and then returned to his desk and started to empty the drawers. He did this in silence, without anyone approaching him to ask what was wrong, give him advice, or offer to help. In just a half hour he had become an undesirable. I haven’t spoken to him in years (since the day I realized he would lift confidential data from Accounting, pass it on to one of the Directors, and then turn him against the others) but I swear that today I felt like approaching him to offer words of sympathy, comfort. But I didn’t, because he’s a filthy pig and doesn’t deserve it. I couldn’t help feeling a little disgusted regarding that sudden and complete change of attitude (in which everyone from the Chairman of the Board to the servants in the kitchen participated) based purely and exclusively on the suspension of relations between Suárez and Valverde’s daughter. It might look strange, but the ambiance of this company depends, to a great extent, on a private orgasm.

Saturday, June 22nd

I didn’t go to the office. I took advantage of yesterday’s joyful chaos and asked the manager for the proper authorization to take the morning off. It was granted with a smile and even with a pleasant and stimulating comment about how they didn’t know how they would manage without the key man of the office. Is it that they want to force Valverde’s daughter on me? Bah.

I accepted delivery of the furniture in the apartment and worked like a slave. The furniture looks good. Nothing vehemently modern. I don’t like those functional type chairs with ridiculously unstable legs that collapse when you merely look at them angrily, nor those chair backs that always illuminate those things which one has no interest in seeing or displaying, for example: spider webs, cockroaches, and fuses.

I think that it’s the first time I’ve decorated an apartment to my liking. When I got married, my family gave us the bedroom furniture, and Isabel’s family contributed the dining room set. Both families would constantly be fighting with each other, but that doesn’t matter. Later, my mother-in-law would arrive and express her opinion: “You two need a painting for the living room.” No need to say it twice. The next morning the painting looked like a still life with sausages, hard cheese, a melon, homemade bread, and bottles of beer; in short, a sight that could take away my appetite for six months. At other times, usually on the occasion of some anniversary, a certain uncle of mine would either send us sea gulls to hang up on the bedroom wall, or two pieces of Italian pottery decorated with little queer valets that were practically repugnant. After Isabel died, and as time, hobbies, and the servants were disposing of the paintings, sea gulls and pottery, Jaime was filling the house with those grotesque ornaments that need a periodic explanation. I see them sometimes, Jaime and his friends, reveling in ecstasy in front of a jar with wings, newspaper clippings, a door with testicles, and I hear them say: “What a great reproduction!” I don’t understand, nor do I want to, because the truth is their admiration seems hypocritical! One day I asked them: “Why don’t you ever bring home a print of Gauguin, Monet, or Renoir? Are they terrible, perhaps?” Then, Danielito Gómez Ferrando, a good-for-nothing who goes to bed every day at five o’clock in the morning because “the evening hours are the most authentic,” a weakling who doesn’t set foot in a restaurant after having seen someone in there use a toothpick, he, and only he, replied: “But sir, we‘re interested in the Abstract.” But he, on the other hand, isn’t abstract at all, with his little face without eyebrows, and his eternal expression of a little pregnant cat.

Sunday, June 23rd

I opened the door and stepped aside so she could pass. She entered with short steps, looking all around with extreme attention, as if she wanted to slowly absorb the light, atmosphere, and smell. She passed her hand over the book case and then over the sofa’s upholstery. She didn’t even look toward the bedroom. She sat down, wanted to smile, and couldn’t. It looked like her legs were shaking as she looked at the reproductions on the wall and said: “Botticelli.” She was mistaken, it was Filippo Lippi. There will be time to correct her later. She started to ask about quality, prices, and furniture stores. “I like it,” she said, three or four times.

It was seven o’clock in the evening, and the sun, almost setting, made the cream colored wall paper look orange. I sat down next to her and she became stiff. She hadn’t even put her purse down. I asked her to hand it to me. “Don’t you remember that you’re not a visitor but the lady of the house?” I remarked. Then, making an effort, she let her hair down a bit, took off her jacket, and nervously stretched her legs. “What’s wrong?” I asked. “Are you scared?” “Do I look like it?” she responded. “Frankly, yes,” I replied. “You could be right,” she said. “But not of you or myself.” “I know, you’re just scared of the Moment,” I said. It looked like she was starting to relax. But one thing was true, she wasn’t enjoying her visit. Her paleness meant she was truly scared. Her attitude wasn’t the same as those female cashiers who accept going to a motel, but who at the very moment the taxi comes to a stop, become punctually hysterical and scream for their mothers. No, there’s nothing theatrical about her. She was confused and I didn’t want to – perhaps it didn’t suit me – inquire too much about the causes of her confusion. “The situation is that I have to get used to the idea,” she said, perhaps to satisfy me. She realized I was a bit discouraged. “One always imagines these things a bit differently than they later turn out to be,” she said. “But there is something I have to recognize and be grateful to you for. What you have prepared isn’t too different from what I had in mind,” she said. “Since when?” I asked. “Since high school when I was in love with my math teacher,” she replied. The table was set, with those plain yellow plates the saleswoman at the department store had picked out for me. (It’s not completely true, I like them too). I served a cold dish of meat and vegetables and carried out the role of host with dignity. She liked everything, but the tension didn’t allow her to enjoy anything. When the moment to uncork the champagne arrived, she was no longer pale. “Until what time can you stay?” I asked. “Until late,” she replied. “And what about your mother?” I asked. “My mother knows about us,” she replied.

Obviously, a low blow. That’s not fair. I felt naked, with that desperate bareness of dreams, when one walks around in one’s underwear along Sarandí and the people celebrate this public display from sidewalk to sidewalk. “And why is that?” I dared to ask. “My mother knows everything about me,” she replied. “And your father?” I asked. “My father lives in another world,” she replied. “He’s an awful tailor. Never ask him to tailor a suit for you. He uses the same mannequin for the size of every suit. In addition, he’s a theosophist and an anarchist. He never asks anything. On Mondays he meets with his theosophist friends and they discuss the founder of the New York Theosophical Society, Madame Elena Blavatsky, until dawn; on Thursdays his anarchist friends come to the house and they argue about the founder of terroristic anarchism, Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Peter Kropotkin of Russia, at the top of their voices. Apart from this, he’s a tender, peaceful man, who sometimes looks at me with such sweet patience and tells me very useful things, the most useful things I have ever heard.” I like it very much when she talks about her family, but I especially liked it today. It looked like a good omen for the inauguration of our brand-new intimacy. “And what does your mother say about me?” I asked. My mental distress stems from Isabel’s mother. “About you? Nothing. She talks about me.” She finished drinking the rest of the champagne in her glass and wiped her mouth with the little paper napkin. There was nothing left of her makeup. “My mother says I’m hysterical, that I don’t have serenity,” she said. “With respect to us or everything in general?” I asked. “Regarding everything,” she replied. “Her theory, the great theory of her life, the one that keeps her invigorated, is that happiness, true happiness, is a condition much less angelic and even much less pleasant than one always tends to dream it is. She says people generally end up feeling miserable, and only because they believed that happiness was a permanent sensation of undefinable well-being, joyful ecstasy, and perpetual festivity. No, she says, happiness is much less (or perhaps much more, but in any case something different) and certainly many of those allegedly miserable people are actually happy, but they don’t realize it or admit it, because they think they’re quite distant from the highest state of well-being. It’s similar to what happens to those people who are disappointed with the Blue Grotto in Capri. The Blue Grotto they imagined was a cave of fairies, and although they didn’t know exactly what it looked like, they were sure it was a cave of fairies. But when they arrive they realize that the entire miracle consists of dipping one’s hands in the water and then seeing them appear slightly blue and luminous.” Apparently, it pleases her to relate her mother’s thoughts. I think she relays them as if they were an unattainable conviction, but also a conviction she would fervently like to possess. “And how do you feel?” I asked. “Is it as if you could see your hands were light blue and luminous?” The interruption brought her down to earth, at the special moment that was this Today. And she replied: “I haven’t placed them in the water yet,” and quickly blushed. Because, naturally, her response could be interpreted as an invitation, or even as a pressing need she had not wanted to express. It wasn’t my fault, but there lay my sudden disadvantage. She stood up, leaned against the wall, and asked in a low tone of voice that she wanted to sound pleasant, but was actually glaringly inhibited: “Can I ask you a favor for the first time?” “You may,” I replied, and now I was worried. “Would you let me leave, without a fuss?” she asked. “Today, only today. I promise everything will be fine tomorrow.” I felt disappointed, stupid, and understanding. “Of course I’ll let you leave. And that settles it,” I replied. But that doesn’t settle it. How could it?

Monday, June 24th

Esteban is ill. The doctor says it could be serious. We hope not. It’s pleurisy or some other pulmonary disease. He doesn’t know. When will the doctors know what’s wrong? After I had lunch, I went to his room to check on him. He was reading, with the radio on at a high volume. When he saw me enter, he folded the upper corner of the page he was reading, and closed the book. He turned off the radio, as if to say: “Well, my private life is over.” I pretended not to notice. I didn’t know what to talk about. I never know what to talk about with Esteban. Regardless of whatever subject we inevitably end up arguing. He asked how my retirement plans were progressing. I think it’s going well. Actually, it can’t be terribly complicated. It’s been a while since I arranged my schedule, made the contributions I had pledged, and organized my office record card. “According to your friend, the matter shouldn’t take long,” I said. The subject, My Retirement, is one of the subjects Esteban and I discuss the most. There’s a kind of silent agreement between us about having it at our disposal. Even so, today I made an effort: “Well, tell me a bit about your affairs. We never talk.” “It’s true,” he replied. “It must be that we’re both always so busy.” “Must be,” I said. “But do you really have so much work to do at your office?” A stupid, thoughtless question. His response was predictable, but I hadn’t foreseen it: “What are you trying to say? That all city employees are lazy? Is that what you’re trying to say? Sure, only you, the noteworthy business employees, have the privilege of being efficient and hardworking.” I felt doubly furious, because it was my own fault and said: “Look, don’t be an idiot. That’s not what I meant to say nor did I even think it. You’re as touchy as an old maid. Or you have a guilty conscience as big as a house.” Surprisingly, he didn’t say anything offensive in reply. The fever must have weakened him. Furthermore, he eventually apologized: “You could be right. I’m always in a bad mood. What do I know? It’s as if I feel uncomfortable with myself.” As a secret, and coming from Esteban, it was almost an exaggeration. But as self-criticism, I think it’s very close to the truth. For a while I’ve had the impression that Esteban doesn’t follow the path of his conscience. “What would you say if I left my city job?” he asked. “Now?” I replied. “Well, not now,” he said. “When I recover, if I recover. The doctor said it would probably be a few months.” “And where does this sudden inspiration come from?” I asked. “Don’t ask me too much,” he replied. “Isn’t it gratifying for you to see that I want to change?” “Yes,” I replied. “You’ve made me very happy. The only thing I’m worried about is if you need a leave of absence due to illness, it’s much easier to secure it from your present job.” “And when you had typhus,” he said, “did they fire you? They didn’t, correct? And you were out for six months.” Actually, I was contradicting him for the pure pleasure of hearing him assert himself. “The main thing now is that you recover,” I said. “We’ll see afterwards.” Then he launched into a long description of himself, his limitations, and his hopes. It was so long I didn’t get to the office until three-fifteen, and had to apologize to the manager. I was impatient, but I didn’t feel I had the right to interrupt him. It was the first time Esteban had confided in me and I couldn’t disappoint him. I spoke afterwards. I gave him some advice, but very comprehensive and without limitations. I didn’t want to scare him and I don’t think I did. As I was leaving the room, I squeezed his knee which was protruding underneath the blanket and he smiled at me in return. My God, it looked like the face of a stranger. Could it be possible? On the other hand, it’s a stranger’s face filled with affection. And it’s my son. How wonderful.

I had to stay late at the office and, consequently, had to postpone the beginning of my “honeymoon.”

Tuesday, June 25th

A tremendously big assignment. It will have to be done tomorrow.

Wednesday, June 26th

I had to work until ten o’clock at night. I’m literally exhausted.

Thursday, June 27th

I think that today must have been the last hectic day at the office. I’ve never seen a more complicated and useless request for reports. And the balance sheet is already due.

Esteban progressed without a fever. Thank goodness!

Friday, June 28th

I finally left the office at seven-thirty and went to the apartment. She had arrived earlier, opened with her key, and had settled in. When I arrived, she greeted me happily, without any inhibitions, and once again with a kiss. We ate, talked, laughed, and made love. Everything went so well, it’s not worth writing it down. I’m praying: “May it last,” and to pressure God I’m going to knock on wood, on any wooden object without legs, for good luck.

Saturday, June 29th

It looks like Esteban’s illness isn’t so serious. The X-ray and the tests contradicted the doctors’ poor diagnosis. That particular doctor likes to terrify his patients by announcing the proximity of at least serious complications and unidentified and relentless dangers. Afterwards, if the reality isn’t too dreadful, suddenly there is a great sense of relief, and it’s this relief felt by the family that usually provides the best scenario for paying an abusively high bill, without a fuss, and even with gratitude. When one humbly asks, almost embarrassed, and clearly feeling the shame of bringing up such a trivial and coarse subject in front of someone who sacrifices his life and time for the welfare of fellow human beings: “How much is it, doctor?” he always says, his words accompanied by a generous and understanding gesture of discomfort: “Please, my friend, there will be plenty of time to talk about that. And don’t worry, you’re never going to have a problem with me.” And immediately, in order to redeem the human dignity of this sordid situation, he stops to change the conversation and launches into a lecture about the broth the convalescent will be eating tomorrow. Then, when the time finally comes to talk about the doctor’s fee, the inflated bill arrives, alone, by mail, and one is a little stunned by the amount, perhaps because at that moment, the pleasant, paternal, and Franciscan smile of that austere martyr of science isn’t present.

Sunday, June 30th

From breakfast time on, it was a busy day for us. When I arrived I was anxious to check and verify everything. What happened on Friday was a unique occurrence, but overwhelming nonetheless. Everything happened so quickly, so naturally, so happily, that I couldn’t even make a single mental note. When one is in the very center of life, it is impossible to reflect upon it. And I want to reflect, take the most approximate measure of this strange thing which is happening to me, recognize my own signs, and then compensate for my lack of youth with my excess of conscience. And among the details I want to verify is the tone of her voice, its nuances, from extreme sincerity to ingenuous pretense; her body, which I virtually didn’t see, couldn’t discover, because I preferred to deliberately pay that price provided that there would be less tension this way, and that her nerves would yield space to her feelings. I preferred that the darkness really be impenetrable, light proof against all illuminated apertures, provided that her trembling with embarrassment, fear, what do I know, would gradually change into other more lukewarm, normal, and natural forms of trembling submission. Today she told me: “I’m happy that everything is behind us,” and appeared, by the force of her words and the light of her eyes, to be referring to an exam, childbirth, an attack, or anything of a more major risk and responsibility than the simple, current, and daily act of a man and his woman going to bed, much more simple, current and daily than the act of a man and a woman going to bed. “I would even say I don’t feel guilty, that I’m free of sin,” she remarked. I must have made an impatient gesture because she quickly clarified herself, and said: “I know you can’t understand it, that it’s something which is beyond the extensive comprehension of the masculine mentality. For you men, making love is a kind of normal transaction, a hygienic obligation, and rarely a matter of conscience. It’s enviable how you can separate that detail called sex from everything else that’s important and the other areas of life. It was you men who invented the theory that sex means everything to a woman. You invented the theory and then you distorted it, converting it into a caricature of what it really means. When men say this, they think of women as being a vocational reveler, unrepentant. Sex means everything to a woman, which is to say: the entire life of a woman, including her cosmetics, her art of deception, her smattering of culture, her quick tears, and all her tools of seduction to trap the man and turn him into the furnisher of her sexual life, sexual demands, and sexual rituals.” She was excited and even appeared annoyed with me. She was looking at me with such an assured irony, that she looked like the trustee of all the feminine dignity in this world. “And none of that is true?” I asked, just to provoke her, because she looked so pretty with her aggressive attitude. “Some of that is true, sometimes,” she replied. “I know there are women who are like that and don’t have any other qualities. But there are others, the majority of which aren’t like that, and still others, who even if they are, are also different, complicated human beings, egocentric, and extremely sensible. Perhaps it’s true that the feminine ego is synonymous with sex, but one has to understand that a woman identifies sex with conscience. That’s where the major guilt, the greatest happiness, and the hardest problem might lay. It’s so different for you men. Compare, if you like, the case of an old maid and a confirmed old bachelor, who on the surface might appear to be kindred human beings, like two frustrated parallels. What are the reactions of one and the other?” She took a breath and continued.

“While the old maid becomes irritable, less and less feminine, fussier, and more hysterical and unfulfilled, the old bachelor, on the other hand, turns to his outward appearance, and becomes exciting, loud, and obscene. Both of them suffer from loneliness: for the old bachelor it’s only a problem of domestic help, of a single bed, but for the old maid, the loneliness is a blow with a mallet to the back of the neck.” It was very tactless of me, but at that moment I laughed. She stopped her speech and looked at me curiously. “I find it amusing to hear you defend old maids,” I said. “I like it but it also scares me to see you so preoccupied with forming your theory. You probably inherited it from your mother. She has her theory about happiness, and you have your own; one that could perhaps identify itself ‘through the bond between sex and conscience in the average woman.’ But now tell me, where did you get the idea that men think that way, that it was men who invented the healthy piece of nonsense about sex meaning everything to a woman? She became embarrassed, knowing she was cornered, and said: “What do I know? Someone told me. I’m not a scholar. But if a man didn’t invent it, then he deserves to have invented it.” Now I was really beginning to recognize her again, the emergence of a little girl who is seen laid bare and reverts back to a cycle of apparent openness only to secure her own forgiveness. After all, I don’t care about her feminist outbursts very much. In short, she had said all of this to me in order to explain why she had stopped feeling guilty. Well, that was the important thing, that she not feel guilty, ease her tension, and feel comfortable in my arms. The rest is embellishment, justification; which may or may not be true, it’s all the same to me. If she likes to feel justified, turns all of this into a serious problem of conscience, and wants to make it known, wants me to understand, hear what she has to say, well, then she should go ahead and speak and I’ll listen. She looks very pretty with her cheeks flushed with excitement. Furthermore, it’s not true that this wouldn’t be a matter of conscience for me. I don’t know which day I wrote it, but I’m sure I placed my uncertainties on the record, and what is vacillation if not an evasion of one’s conscience?

But she’s terrific. All of a sudden she became silent, curbed her militant behavior, looked at herself in the mirror, although not in a flirtatious manner, but as if she was making fun of herself, sat on the bed and called out to me saying: “Come, sit here. I’m an idiot who’s wasting time repeating herself over and over again. Look, in short, I know you’re not like the others. I know you understand me, and know why this situation is a real matter of conscience for me.” I had to lie and said: “Of course, I know.” But at that point she was in my arms and there were other things to think about, other old plans to carry out, and other new caresses to attend to. Matters of conscience also have their tender side.


Mario Benedetti

MARIO BENEDETTI was born on September 14, 1920 in Uruguay. He published his first book in 1945. Although a trained accountant, he went on to publish Peripecia y Novela (Literary Criticism) in 1948, and a year later, Esta Mañana, his first book of stories. In 1953, he published his first novel, Quien de Nosotros, but it was with the 1959 publication of Montevideanos: Cuentos (Stories) that the urban concept of his narrative style took shape. With the publication of La Tregua in 1960, Benedetti acquired international preeminence. While in Cuba, he founded the world famous Centro de Investigaciones Literarias at Casa de las Americas, which he directed from 1969 to 1971. Returning to Uruguay in 1971, he opposed increasing government repression through his writing and participation in the leftist coalition known as the Frente Amplio, which he helped organize. Following the coup of June 1973, his work was banned by the Uruguayan military. Between 1973 and the return of the civilian government in 1985, he lived in exile in Argentina, Peru, Cuba, and Spain. Writing for an international audience, he denounced the tragic events occurring in Uruguay at the time. From 1985 on, he lived in Montevideo, where he devoted his full time to writing. He passed away on May 17, 2009. Translator HARRY MORALES is also the author of the novel The Suit and Skirt Farm (Xlibris, 2002). He was born in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico in 1962, and was raised in New York City. He has studied literary translation under Gregory Rabassa and translated stories by the novelist Mario Bendetti from various collections including Montevideanos: Cuentos, La Muerte y Otra Sorpresas: Cuentos, Esta Ma ñana: Cuentos, and Con y Sin Nostalgia: Cuentos among others. He has also translated the work of the late Cuban poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas as well as the works of Eugenio Maria de Hostos, Emir Rodriguez Monegal, Juan Rulfo, Cristina Peri Rossi, Julia de Burgos, Alberto Ruy-Sanchez, and Ilan Stavans, among many other Latin American writers.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2012

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