The Sweetheartsby Mario Benedetti
translated from the Spanish by Harry Morales
From Montevideanos: Cuentos
At first, I would greet her from my sidewalk and she would respond with a nervous and instantaneous gesture. Afterwards, she would leap away, striking her knuckles against the walls, and, upon arriving at the corner, vanish without looking back. From the beginning, I liked her long face, her disdainful agility, and her striking blue jacket that looked more like a boy’s. María Julia had more freckles on her left cheek than on her right. She was always in motion and seemed fiercely determined to enjoy herself. She also had braids, braids that were the straw color of a broom, which she liked to wear draped in front of her chest.
But, when was that? Dad had already opened the dry goods store and mom was playing the phonograph to copy down the words to Melenita de Oro. Meanwhile, I froze my buttocks on one of the five marble steps that led to the bottom, while Antonia Pereyra, my private tutor on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, drew an insulting red line across my violet-colored fraction, and sometimes grumbled: “Oh, Jesus, twelve years old and you don’t know what a common denominator is!” Twelve years old, which means that it was in 1924.
We lived on Main Street. But the entire 18th of Julio Avenue in an eighty-block town is quite small. I was the only one who didn’t sleep during siesta. Sometimes if I looked through the shutters an embarrassing fifteen minutes would elapse during which no living being would pass by in the street. Not even Mr. Comisario’s dog, who, according to what the negress Eusebia said and repeated, was much less a dog than Mr. Comisario.
Usually, I didn’t waste time on that contemplative inertia; after lunch I would go to the attic, and instead of studying common denominators, I would read Jules Verne as if possessed. I read sitting on the floor, bent forwards uncomfortably, with the foreseen consequence of a few sharp cramps in my calves or muscle pressure in my stomach. Well, what did it matter? After all, it was a pleasure to close the door that connected me to the world and mom, not because I was a solitary professional, nor even because of shame or resentment. It was simply a joy to have two hours to myself, create an intimacy for myself between those ridged white walls, and settle into a comfortable position on the outer edge of the sun, securing, of course, that Verne remain in the shade.
The sweet drowsiness, the compact silence of those afternoons, was alleviated by very distant voices, screams that were almost whispers, indecipherable noises, and also a few nasal-sounding loudspeakers, the likes of which I’ve never heard again. The sky before me is calm, cloudless, like another wall. Sometimes that celestial monotony made my eyelids feel heavy and my head ended up leaning to one side, at least until it bumped against the wall and the lime dust filled my ear.
I’m not excessively nostalgic about my childhood. On the other hand, I have a sad memory of that empty attic without furniture or shelves, with its coarse walls, its incandescent sky, and its dull, beet-colored floor tiles.
Solitude is a precarious substitute for friendship. I didn’t have many friends. The Aramburu twins, the son of Vieytes the pharmacist, Tito Lagomarsino, and my cousins, Alberto and Washington Cardona, came to the house often because our mothers maintained an old relationship filled with habits held in common, the exchange of gossip, and shared fellowship. Just like today, we talk about professionals from the same graduating class, in 1924 the women from a main province felt they were friends since their first meeting on only one historical level: their first communion. To say, for example, “Elvira, Teresa, and I received our first communion together,” signified, plainly and simply, that the three of them were united by an almost indestructible bond, and if on occasion, because of an unforeseen hazard, which could take the form of a sudden trip or a subduing passion, a friend from first communion were to separate from the group, her rude attitude would be immediately added to the list of the most incredible betrayals.
The fact that our mothers were friends and lavished kisses on each other every time they saw each other in the plaza, in Club Uruguay, in the Gutiérrez Department Stores, and in the plush semi-darkness of their days spent entertaining visitors, wasn’t enough to decree pleasant coexistence among the most illustrious of their offspring. Any of us who accompanied their mother during one of their weekly visits would automatically be allowed to go downstairs to play with the children of the lady of the house after uttering a respectful: “I’m fine, and you, Doña Encarnación?” Most of the time, playing meant pelting each other with stones from tree to tree, or, on better occasions, we ended up punching each other and rolling around on the ground tearing our pockets and ultimately fraying our lapels. If I didn’t fight with more frequency, it was because I was afraid María Julia would find out. In spite of her freckles, María Julia contemplated the world with a smile of smug understanding, and the strange thing was, that understanding also included the trappings of adults.
She was a year younger than me; nevertheless, before I spoke to her, I had to overcome that same mouthful of shyness that complicated my relationship with my parents, Antonia Pereyra, and respectable people in general.
She lived on Thirty-Third Street, four blocks from the plaza, but passed by the front of the dry goods store quite frequently (at least three times during the afternoon). She was an orphan and had been taken in by a spinster aunt. At least that’s what I heard mom and Eusebia say, even though the death of her parents was a forbidden topic. Tito Lagomarsino told me the version that circulated in the kitchen of his house: that the father, an old employee of a local branch of Republican Bank, had forged four signatures and had committed suicide before anyone had discovered the moderate swindle of twenty-five thousand pesos. According to the same source of rumors, a short time later, “the mother had died of grief.”
There existed, therefore, two very diverse kinds of feelings, almost contradictory, in the town’s relationship with María Julia: pity and contempt. She was the daughter of a swindler and therefore dishonored. The result being that she wasn’t especially desirable company, nor even an acceptable playmate for the forgotten daughters in that small, provincial market town. Nevertheless, she was an innocent, and this theory had been conveniently disseminated by Father Agustín, a paunchy Galician priest who would take advantage of his pompous requests for pity to over-exaggerate about the suicide: “An infidel who had never set foot on the threshold of the house of God.” The result of that duality was that the good families were always ready to smile at María Julia when they met her in the street, and even pass a hand through her untidy hair, and afterwards whisper: “Poor little thing, it’s not her fault.” With that, the quota of Christian pity was completed, while at the same time, they were conserving energy for when the hour arrived to close all the doors of all their houses, to separate her from all the childish associations, and make her feel that she was somewhat tainted.
If I had only depended on my mother, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have been able to see María Julia often. My mother had a normal capacity for pity and understanding; it didn’t constitute what Eusebia called a petrified heart, but she was nevertheless a slave of the conventions and the rites of those proud, elite warehouse-owners, pharmacists, grocers, bank workers, and public employees. But the situation also revolved around my father, who although he could be bad-tempered, timid, and neurotic, he did not tolerate those semi-despicable variants of injustice. Of course, in his passion for what is right, there was also a shimmer of obstinacy; one couldn’t be too sure about that imprecise boundary in which he stopped being exclusively dignified, to be, furthermore, simply stubborn.
It sufficed, therefore, that during the course of a dinner, Mom would inform us of the apprehension with which the town’s aristocracy viewed the existence of the swindler’s daughter, so that Dad would automatically side with the young girl.
And that’s when my solitude ended. Not the bitter and distressed solitude which later would become a negative aspect of my life for thirty years, but the pleasant and desired solitude, the exclusive solitude that awaited me every afternoon in the attic, that retreat until the calm steadiness of the town’s siesta, of complete siesta, arrived. One day, María Julia’s blue jacket, and María Julia, of course, gained access to the loyalty of my first, deep intimacy. But it was her blue jacket that most impressed me; her entire outline was projecting off the lime of the walls and even appeared to be engraved in a heavenly halo of wavering limits.
With my father’s permission, she arrived one afternoon to play with me, and the exciting novelty of having her there, assigned to the task of changing my timid behavior, didn’t allow me to understand, at first, the surrender that her presence signified. Because María penetrated conquered territory and settled there. It was as if her rights to the attic were equivalent to mine, when in reality, she was a newcomer. I, on the other hand, had taken a year and a half to imagine that kind of impregnable refuge and all its features; that every stain on that wall had a shape that represented something to me: the face of an old smuggler, the profile of a dog without ears, the bow of a ship with two masts. Strictly speaking, María Julia’s invasion only had an effect on the real walls, the real sky, the real window. Like those temporarily conquered countries, that, under the boots of its invader, maintain an underground experience of its traditions, I, too, in a secret vigil, preserved all that which I had imagined regarding the attic, my attic. María Julia could look at the walls but couldn’t see what each stain represented; perhaps she could hear the sky but didn’t know how to recognize the distant beckoning of the loudspeakers and the muffled fragments of the screams in that silence. Sometimes, for no other reason than to confirm the continuation of my private space, I asked her what this or that stain might represent. She looked at the walls with her eyes very wide open, and then, in the voice of someone who cites the law—assured, concise, and certain—said: “It’s the head of a horse,” and although I knew that it was actually the head of a dog without ears, that was no reason for me to allow my mouth to form a single smile of presumption or contempt.
But not all of that period was filled with her domineering airs or my strategy of being dominated. Sometimes, María Julia would unexpectedly reveal some confidence. I think that at the core of her nervous pride, she recognized my status and right as her first and only secret. “I know that everyone in town sees me as a peculiar individual. And do you know why? Because Dad committed mini-fraud at the bank and afterwards committed suicide.” That’s what she called his swindle: not fraud, but mini-fraud. She would say it with a carefully manufactured naturalness, as if instead of crimes and deaths, she was talking about toys or Christmastime. “My aunt always says that people don’t reproach Dad for his mini-fraud, but for his suicide.”
This subject left me quite confused. The habit of calling things by their name didn’t exist at home. Mom’s preferred weapon was evasion; dad, on the other hand, used and abused deranged silence. That’s why, or who knows why, I wasn’t in the habit of being straightforward, and so I couldn’t respond immediately when María Julia pressured me with questions like: “What do you think? Is suicide cowardice?” Eleven years old. She was eleven years old and asked that. Naturally, she was forcing me to question myself. Sometimes, when she left and I remained alone, I would begin to think intensely, laboriously, and half an hour later I hadn’t managed to solve any metaphysical childhood problem. On the other hand, I had succeeded in getting a strictly adult headache.
Ultimately, I couldn’t imagine the suicide, nor plain and simple death. But at least death was something that would arrive one day, not something sought out. Suicide, on the other hand, was feeling pleasure for that barren, repugnant nothingness, and that was horrible, almost madness. The fact that this madness also could be boldness, or simply cowardice, signified only a secondary problem to me.
In any case, María Julia shouldn’t think we’re abnormal children; those little monster types who in any era and in any family suddenly rise up to change the system and rites of childhood; strange youths, who instead of playing with dolls or tops, mentally extract square roots or discuss reason. No. Only now do I realize that those solemn topics acquire an importance they didn’t have before; only my prior contacts with mystery or death confer a halo of death or mystery to our conversations at that time. When I was twelve years old and she was eleven, the suicide, the nothingness, and other no less surprising topics only represented a brief interruption in my reading or in games.
The elucidating image arrived one Saturday afternoon, not in my attic, but in the plaza. My mother and I were coming from the Gutiérrez Department Store as María Julia and her aunt were heading towards it. In front of the bust of Artigas, her aunt and my mother greeted each other and we all stopped and lingered. It was a new experience: seeing and talking to each other in public. Actually, just seeing each other. While the women talked, she and I remained still, like two appliances. I didn’t completely understand at the time. I was shy, that was clear, but what about her? All of a sudden, her aunt looked at us and said to my mother: “Do you see, Doña Amelia? They’re inseparable.” Damn the pleasure it brought my mother. “Yes, they’re good friends,” my mother anxiously agreed. But the aunt couldn’t be so easily sidetracked: “Much more than good friends, they’re really inseparable.” And then with a wink of cloying complicity, said: “Who knows, huh, Doña Amelia, what will happen in the future?” The entire area of María Julia’s neck above the edge of her blue jacket became covered in large red blotches. My ears felt unexpectedly hot. But at that point, the harsh, but nevertheless bold voice could be heard again: “Look, Doña Amelia, how they’re blushing.” Then, Mom grabbed my arm firmly and said: “Let’s go.” We all said goodbye, but I was staring at the bust of Artigas. Only afterwards, when Mom and I entered the Brignole Pharmacy to buy menthol powder, did I realize that I felt a certainty.
So what happened in the attic two days later merely confirmed it. I was reading Bertoldo and Bertoldino and Cacaseno; I was amused by them, but I wouldn’t laugh. I could never laugh when I read in a low voice. Suddenly, I looked up and found María Julia looking at me. I noticed that she was biting her upper lip. She smiled at me, nervous. “You can’t read, right?” Of course I could read. But I don’t know what came over me to lie and I shook my head. “And do you know why?” I remained still, waiting. “Because we’re sweethearts.” I closed the book and left it on the side. Then, I sighed.
"An upstanding man,” said Amílcar Arredondo, motioning towards the coffin. I would have liked to lift my head and look at him, for no other reason than to see what he looked like, to look at the impassive face of the man who had sickened and destroyed my father.
“The transfer didn’t suit him. He was one of those people who are accustomed to their town. They removed him from there and as you can see, he died.” Now I did look at him. At that moment he was lighting a cigarette for my godfather, Don Plácido, and the look on his face was almost as remorseful as it was proud. “Damn, how disgusting,” I muttered, and Arredondo, who at least caught a glimpse of the look I gave him, approached and placed his hand on the back of my neck and said: “One has to resign oneself, Rodolfo, and learn from your poor father’s anger.” The things one has to hear! “My poor father’s anger.”
After all, what did Arredondo matter? He was a little swine, like so many others, from here or from the interior. He immediately saw my father’s weak spot. Or perhaps not. Perhaps from the beginning my father was aware that this crafty person was going to destroy him. A little swine like so many others. Not all of the victims die. My father, on the other hand (quietly, as always), did.
There was some truth to his failure to adapt to his transfer. In Montevideo, my father would become bored. There were no longer any pieces of fabric to display on the worn counter, nor old clients to look through the sample book of ornamental edgings, or old maids who would buy silkaline. For thirty years, he had yearned for rest with modest fervor. Once he had obtained it, he remained stationary, with his eyes distant and increasingly more encrusted in himself.
I could understand him, but not Mom. After fifteen days of describing her memories of village life in complete detail and constantly repeating that the city suffocated her, she made friends: dynamic ladies with irrelevant and horizontal busts, who were fervently dedicated to gossip and charity organizations, and at ease because their children attended Sacred Family School and their husbands were members of the Bochas Club. Ladies who were always more apt to forgive the feces of their little female dogs than the protests of their servants; good housewives who waited for each other from doorway to doorway and with terrifying lip and eyebrow movements commented on the very effective swaying motion of the three or four vivacious women of the neighborhood.
Mom couldn’t understand him, because she was always pathologically sociable, but yes, I could understand my father. And that was without having to force myself, only through the easy recourse of ludicrously exaggerating my initial reaction to my own inconvenience in light of the transfer.
After Don Silberberg bought the dry goods store, there was a period that seemed to be festive-like. Mom talked constantly during meals, making plans, arranging imaginary furniture, designing future rugs. Dad would smile. But it was a smile without happiness: the friendly, lifeless grin of a man who retires from a job without hating it, simply because the time came for him to rest. There, in the village, he was still sustained by the prompt selling of his last inventory, the farewells of his friends, the start of his successor. Then, in Montevideo, when we rented the apartment on Cerro Largo Street, Dad fell apart; I think that he must have thought that his life had been pointless and without substance.
Sometimes, I would approach and try to talk to him. I wanted to take him to a soccer game, to the movies, or simply for a walk. He would only accept the third offer, once every ten times, and we would go to Prado in a noisy trolley car of La Comercial. He was so quiet during our trips that an optimist would have thought he was merely absorbed in the spectacle of the people, the traffic, the streets with dense groves. But in reality, he wasn’t looking at anything. He simply allowed himself to be carried away. And only because of his affection for me, so that I would think he was amusing himself, so that I would feel really influential, confident, professionally empowered.
One afternoon, after walking among the trees for a while, he would sit down on a bench and ask me a question that he wanted to be personal and, since it never was, my feelings were hurt. “And well, now that you’re twenty years old, now that you vote and you’re a man, what’s worrying you?” My response didn’t matter. Nor was he very attentive either. By posing the question, he had fulfilled his obligation, and it wasn’t a case of striking two blows upon the same conscience.
When Arredondo appeared, with the plan of advantageously investing the few thousands of dollars obtained from the sale of the dry goods store, plus a few thousand that Dad had in bonds, an insurance policy in my name that would expire during those months, and all the forged letters in his hand, everything was set to meet with him. Dad allowed himself to be persuaded while displaying a look of disbelief that for anyone else would have been annoyance. That night, after dinner, while Mom was in the kitchen, I asked her: “Doesn’t Arredondo have the face of an imbecile, a parasite?” “Possibly,” she replied, and that was the end of it. There was no further commentary. Four days later, Arredondo’s plan was simply accepted. Arredondo received the news with a smile from ear to ear and eyes that inadvertently sold off his soul. In reality, he couldn’t believe in so much good fortune.
Naturally, it was a total loss: from Fiecosa’s shares to the secured loans. Mom screamed continuously for four hours, after which she collapsed. As soon as she recovered, she started to blame Dad for that disgraceful investment from morning until night. Perhaps he hadn’t counted on that same old tune. Perhaps he felt confident that he had destroyed her intuition once and for all. The truth was that the fiasco ravaged him, wore him down, literally finished him. When Mom realized that the time for assigning blame had passed, the doctor had already said the word: thrombosis. Now, Dad was there, next to Arredondo and next to me. The sadness I felt exceeded my will, a sadness that was also physical. I looked at my hands, and they were also tainted with sadness. Until that moment, I had heard the word “sad” and my heart had become filled with a romantic surge, a pleasant melancholy. But this was something else. I felt sad and sluggish, sad and empty. Sadness, now that I could feel it, was something rather suffocating, contagious, something cold that one couldn’t remove from one’s face, lungs, stomach. Perhaps I would have desired a better life for him. “Better” is not the word either. That his life would have had a vitalizing passion, a stimulating loathing, what do I know? Something that would have placed in his eyes that minimum amount of seemingly indispensable energy that he needed to feel like he possessed a slice of truth.
It’s true, we once had affection for one another. So what? We probably didn’t know anything about one another. An inability to communicate had kept us at a prudent distance, always postponing the frank, liberal exchange, for which, for other reasons, we were well endowed. Now he was there, stiff, not even in peace, nor even definitively dead, and every consideration was now useless, at least as useless as a scintillating summation can seem when the last of the time extensions has inevitably already expired.
I opened my eyes and Arredondo wasn’t there. I breathed a sigh of relief. However, there was a hand resting on my shoulder. A light hand, or, at least, a hand that was trying not to be heavy. I wasn’t prepared to guess or make predictions, so I thought about a name, one name only. After all, it was quite unusual to think about María Julia, but perhaps it was due to exhaustion. I hadn’t seen her since before we had gone to the Capital. Nevertheless, it was her. First, I took her hand, then, I sat her down next to me on the sofa. She wasn’t crying. “A display of polite consideration on her part,” I thought, and felt profoundly ridiculous. A semblance of affection and of a shared childhood began to flourish in the midst of the sadness. María Julia, then. She seemed calmer. And taller, of course. And perhaps less confident. And with less freckles. And without the blue jacket.
She remained silent for quite a while. She didn’t have the normal look of condolence on her face. Evidently, she was studying me thoroughly, but there was also an affectionate wink, of something regained, of a distinct memory.
I felt better from that moment on.
In the house on Dante Street, I would always sit on the same seat, in front of the same allegorical painting (a naked woman, with a pale face and black eyes that were rising intact out of a terrible bonfire, in which there were innumerable flames with the heads of monsters) and drum my fingers on the same spot of the oak table. I would arrive at nine o’clock at night and was usually greeted by María Julia’s aunt, who was always impeccably dressed in black, with a lace breastplate which allowed a glimpse of an area of unavoidably flaccid flesh, furrowed with almost violet-colored little veins and with two symmetrical warts that contributed to the damage of the aesthetic sense of God or at least to that of its substitutes in the act of creating bodies at random.
“Darling, your boyfriend has arrived,” the aunt would tell her, turning her head towards the back and enunciating the letter “f” as only certain first grade teachers can. From her room, María Julia would scream: “I’m coming, Rodolfo,” and then the inevitable fifteen minute monologue outside would begin, during which time her aunt would overwhelm me with questions about my job, politics, meaningless topics.
In reality, she didn’t need my replies. With one single clearing of her throat, she could bring a subject to a close, and like that, almost without her breathing causing a repercussion in that harmless cavity, find something sinful in everything that fell within the orbit of her observation, her knowledge, her imagination, which, certainly wasn’t rich, nor even concentrated, but on the other hand, included a diligent aptitude for analyzing gossip and revitalizing it.
Finally, María Julia would appear. “Doesn’t she look beautiful today?” her aunt would ask, and I would automatically remain submerged in a silence in which all of my compliments dissolved. She was a beautiful twenty-eight-year-old who had begun to lose her childlike expression without even acquiring a substitute. She was full-bodied, had short, loose hair, bare arms, and usually wore a one-toned (generally dark green or brown) plain dress, with a brightly-colored brooch and a wide belt with a golden buckle.
She would shake my hand and quickly pull it away. Afterwards, she would sit on the second chair, the one with the stained upholstery. Then, her aunt would tell me: “Excuse me, Rodolfo.” She would move away with such momentum that it seemed impossible that she could come to a stop before at least reaching the kitchen. In reality though, she would stop in the adjacent room, from where she began her spying, ready to appear during the period of time that elapsed between the second and third kiss.
That measure of precaution was quite unnecessary, since María knew how to defend herself, and did. Not exactly with reproaches or with false virtues, nor even with a mannered indifference. Her defense was more subtle than all of that; it was something that might qualify as bold resistance to emotion, or like an attempt to contemplate all sentimental overtures in which she could be implicated from the outside. For example: she never closed her eyes to kiss. On the other hand, if we were standing up and in an embrace, I was aware that she was looking over my shoulder at herself in the mirror on the wall. Her motto could have been: “No surrender,” provided that those words would have referred to something more than the serene body.
Apart from that, she didn’t put up any resistance. She would offer me her hands (“a pianist’s” her aunt would say) and gently lend herself to my caresses, even revealing a certain pleasure when I would pass my hand through her hair, which was now much darker than broom straw. But worst of all was that attitude was impeding something more important: that I would feel I was part of that setting of episodes that should be a setting of love.
We also talked. She would frequently refer to one of her favorite subjects: the death of my father. Of course, she didn’t linger on his death and even went further back, until arriving at Arredondo and his guileless and foreseeable swindle. She seemed to think that the word “swindle” made us friends, colleagues, comrades, what do I know? Her father had been a swindler; mine had been swindled. With her enthusiasm in discussing this matter, María Julia seemed to want to instill in me the conviction that she and I (since her father as well as my own had had a brush with dishonesty) were like children of the swindle. “When they pulled that mini-fraud on your father,” she would say, referring to Arredondo’s plan and employing the same word she had used seventeen years earlier, in the attic, when she told me the reasons for her father’s suicide.
Tuesday and Thursday nights were for visiting, but on Saturdays we would go to the movies. The three of us. I don’t know why, but her aunt would never sit next to her, she sat next to me instead. Perhaps it was for the purpose of continuing her vigil; her visibility was better from there. At any rate, her proximity wasn’t what you would call pleasant. There was an intermittent breath that always ended in an asthmatic cough, and furthermore, in those cases in which the film appealed to the best sentimental reserves of the audience, her aunt cried with an almost electronic hiccupping which caused an unpleasant trembling in several surrounding seats. Fortunately, María Julia wasn’t affected by those emotions. The most touching scenes could appear on the screen: from a simple-minded grandmother surrounded by indescribable grandchildren, to the specter of tuberculosis foreshadowed by coughs during a wedding night; the kind women in the orchestra blowing their noses when the handsome lieutenant doesn’t return from the war to the loving arms of his pregnant girlfriend. Everything could be extremely moving; nevertheless, when the lights were turned on, it was more than certain that María Julia’s eyes were shiny but dry, and furthermore, that she would make her obligatory comment: “That’s something. I can never forget that they’re not living, but acting.”
I was sure there were barriers I could never cross in my relationship with María Julia, her aunt, and the entire household. I never knew exactly what she wanted from me. Her aunt always promoted her in my presence (her hairstyle, her needlework, her desserts) in the finest style of the mothers-in-law of Centenario Street, but never displayed any urgency or preoccupation regarding marriage. As for María Julia, she wasn’t making any preparations. When the mothers-in-law from Corrales or Uslenghi Street, who would sometimes leave the house on Dante Street at the precise moment of my arrival, would make a joke about “the dowry,” her aunt would only say: “There will be time to think, there will be time.” Sometimes, I had the impression that María Julia and her aunt thought I was a very sure thing, and that only partly bothered me, because at the most infallible core of my being I had to realize it was true, I was a very sure candidate.
I had my doubts, of course. I always had them. Especially doubts about my own feelings. Did I love María Julia? More specifically, did I love her enough to marry her? Perhaps my theory and my version of love were basic, but in any case, one has dreams and in dreams one is never rudimentary. Well, she wasn’t in those dreams. Nevertheless, I needed her, and that need would become evident in many various ways: for example, when I didn’t see her for several days, I would become uneasy, a strange restlessness that would disrupt the successive levels and compartments of my daily life. Now and then, things would occur to me that I knew in advance wouldn’t find another echo or repercussion in María Julia, only a simple comment, as well-educated as it was insincere. Despite everything, I had to talk to her, I had to know that she was judging my actions and reactions, that she was my witness, in short. Tuesday would arrive, Thursday would arrive, and while we were seated face to face at the dining table, I would start to talk about the modest unforeseen changes in my circumstances, and the needy sensation I felt would vanish simply by looking at her eyes.
There was also desire. My desire. She didn’t have those preoccupations. To my hands she was a woman, the woman, perhaps. It’s quite probable that the first woman we touch could manage to become the union of desire for the rest of our days, and especially, our nights. I desired María Julia, but how much, how? I wouldn’t have noticed that she kissed with her eyes open if I in turn hadn’t opened my own eyes.
My mother once told me something that bothered me: “Don’t forget to tell me the day that María Julia makes you happy.” But, of course, my mother never could stand her.
On the day I turned thirty-seven, I bumped into Tito Lagomarsino on Mercedes and Río Branco. He was happy because Marta, Nelída Roldán’s daughter, had passed a very big exam. The truth was that we walked until 18th and Ejido, where Nelída and the young woman were. It had been five years since I had seen Marta. I congratulated her on passing her exam, and then she told me about how she had dropped her lipstick in the middle of the exam, and how she and the presiding examiner of the table had bent down at the same time to pick it up, and how they had looked at each other underneath the table. “I think the poor man only gave me a passing grade so that I wouldn’t tell the other professors how ridiculous he looked down there, with his toupee tilted over his ear.”
Suddenly, I was laughing, and almost scared myself. It seemed like someone else’s laughter, the laughter of some fortunate being, the possessor of a full life, highly satisfactory, almost triumphant, I would say. It isn’t proper to laugh with someone else’s laughter, so I immediately became serious and perturbed. Marta, on the other hand, seemed very sure about herself and her anecdote, and when I looked at her a third time, I realized she was pleasant, pretty, sweet, happy, intelligent, etc. When Tito mentioned some scheduled 3:15 interview they had, and I had to leave and shook Marta’s hand, I solemnly promised myself that I would see her again, but without bothersome witnesses.
Just two months later I was able to keep my promise. I ran into her in a café in front of the university. We spoke for exactly an hour and a half. Again I laughed with that other person’s laughter, but this time, I was less concerned about doing so. In an hour and a half, we learned things about each other, much more than what could have been included in all the exchanged confidences with María Julia during our years of courtship and routine. Everything was so fluid, so spontaneous, so natural, that it didn’t seem at all strange to either one of us that the moment my hand was in hers, we would look into each other’s eyes like two adolescents or two fools. Seemingly less strange could have been that we would sleep together a week later and for the first time my father’s wishes would be fulfilled and I would feel professionally empowered.
One has to realize that Marta was, above all, a body, but as such, just fine. Now then, there was no problem with Marta’s disposition, inasmuch as she would splendidly adapt to my impeccable hugs. To have her in a tight or loose embrace and pass my hands along any portion of her skin was always an invigorating experience, a transfusion of optimism and faith. The first few times, I was present with a kind of innocent amazement at the verification of how insufficient my primitive oneness of desire could be; I quickly learned how to multiply that amount, though.
It was almost marvelous that my hands, my usual coarse and unskilled hands, could suddenly become so effective, so active, so creative. At last, there was flesh that responded: skin with which it was possible to have a dialogue. Marta never asked me about my girlfriend. Sorry. Now I remember that she asked me: “Did you ever sleep with her?” I said no in such a high voice that I even surprised myself. My negative response sounded like a rejection, almost like an exorcism. At first, Marta smiled distractedly, and then she looked at me with compassionate amazement.
Finally, one Thursday I failed to appear on Dante Street. There were no admonitions or reproaches on María Julia’s part. Only her aunt gave me a long warning about the tedium that leads to sin. In essence, I was completely in agreement.
Her aunt handed me the cup. As always, a little sugar. I slowly stirred the coffee with the little imitation Peruvian silver spoon. As always, I burned my fingers.
It had been two years since they had removed the painting of a symbolic bonfire and black-eyed woman. Hung in its place was one of those Swiss calendars that displayed a January 1952 with astonishing and beautiful snowy mountains and exquisite little houses that only needed to be wound up so they could play their Stille Nacht. The chairs had been reupholstered with a striped fabric, green and gray, that didn’t match the Creole variant of English style in which the dining room had been conceived.
Her aunt also hadn’t remained unchanged. No more lace breastplate. A little Dacron and wool scarf was now wrapped around her chicken neck. She had a pale and tearful look. When her right hand brought the cup to her lips, her left hand trembled and caused the little spoon to tinkle harmoniously on the plate. She had been treating me formally for several months now and had also stopped praising her niece’s domestic abilities.
She had not lost the habit of inquiring, but now the structure of her questioning was completely chaotic. A series of questions could include, for example, queries about the next transportation strike, the date of my annual vacation, and a recipe for corn ravioli that my mother guarded like a treasure.
The other Thursday she looked me in the eye with a hint of bitterness. Then, with the resigned indifference of someone who has saved money for a long time and suddenly realizes that it has lost all its value, she blurted out the following revelation: “We were wrong about you, Rodolfo. María Julia thought she could control you forever. But it’s you who has won. Helped by time, of course.”
Her confession had not sounded completely strange. It was as if, without telling me directly, I would have been aware that it had been my best recourse. And it was her aunt who had seen it! And not only had she seen it, but remarked about it. As a mere formality, I asked her what she had meant by what she had said, but she had already returned to her mental anarchy, and only felt compelled to add: “It’s horrible how laundry prices have risen. You can’t survive.”
Now she didn’t say anything. She simply made noise with her mouth when she sipped coffee, and even when she didn’t sip coffee. To me, there was no doubt. María Julia, the daughter of a swindler, had in turn, swindled me, the son of a swindled man. Her swindle had been full of childhood memories, of understanding when my father died, of patience without demands during so many years of courtship, of affectionate passivity in reaction to my array of caresses. Her swindle consisted of surrounding our relationship with sufficient substitutes for love and desire so as to make me believe that she and I had really been sweethearts for twenty years, now deformed in my memory by harmful formality and long-time boredom. The swindle had been, analyzing it better, revenge against that town of eighty blocks of houses that had marked her, despised her, and worst of all, tolerated her. Unintentionally, I had assumed the responsibility of representing that town and had turned into a kind of symbol. Now, only now, could I reconstruct the entire calculation, the entire layout. From the studied declaration in the attic (“And do you know why? Because we’re sweethearts”) to the excessive interest of Arredondo’s utter stupidity, and from the friendly hand on my shoulder during my last day’s work with my father to our twenty years of poor kisses in the living room. It was obvious that my shyness and patience had served as the base of her calculations. Although María Julia had never made any demands and had never reproached me for the prolongation of our relationship, she had always been fanatically determined that I not take the initiative, either to get married or to break up.
This, above all, had been her trump card: my shyness allowed her to take revenge on me for everyone’s injustices, but, furthermore, it allowed her to reduce me to nothing, destroying my life forever. Of course, María Julia hadn’t counted on Marta, perhaps her only error in calculation. Oh, it was only a few months. Marta was now in Paysandú, married to Teófilo Carreras, architect and contractor. But those few months enabled her (God bless her) to complete her work, her admirable work of saving a condemned man, of providing the senses (my senses) with a very worthy appraisal. Because, evidently, when it came to that, María Julia had been excessive: she had appraised me very poorly.
Apparently, everything had continued the same, but her very dry, perplexed virginity had known how to record that my hands weren’t my hands and, also, that her passivity had started to cause me to have feelings of disgust. This was all new. On the one hand, it was already too late for any kind of transformation (now she kissed with her eyes closed), but it wasn’t too late for her to sense that some decision was forthcoming. To me, on the other hand, it still wasn’t too late. Absolutely not.
I returned the cup to her aunt, and she said: “It’s becoming cooler. It always becomes cool at this hour.” Afterwards, she stood up and left me alone. Five minutes later, María Julia appeared; María Julia, my forty-year old girlfriend. She sat down next to me, showed me and demonstrated her extreme fatigue, and blinked quickly four times. Her hand was resting on the corner of the oak table; she had a kind of hives, those dark reddish-brown spots that appeared when she ate fried foods.
She spoke about her friends, the mothers-in-law from Uslenghi Street: “Gladys wants me to go with her to Buenos Aires. What do you think?” I felt that I hated her with almost inexhaustible power. I felt that I didn’t need her, that I would never need her again. I felt that Marta had rescued me from a horrible nightmare, and relieved the loathsome pressure on my defenseless, disassembled conscience.
“What do you think?” she repeated, in a condemned voice. And it was true, she was condemned. Freedom has its advantages, but just now (now that she was sure about my withdrawal, disconcerted by my rejection), revenge was much better than freedom. So I decided to tell her in a natural way, as if I was talking about the weather or work: “No, it’s best that you not go. This way, you can start preparing. I want us to be married in the middle of July.”
I swallowed saliva and, simultaneously, felt happy and miserable. The mini-fraud had been committed.
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.