Hold Me

He wheeled the car around past the tight corner on which the tables and chairs stood and stepped on the gas, moving quickly past the café and into the thick traffic, copying the rapid feints and slides of the other automobiles. He brought the car to a sudden stop at the octagonal corner, and waited impatiently for the light to change. A large herd of pedestrians crossed the street at a blind gallop, their faces strangely concentrated. A fat man in suspenders barreled through the crowd, determined to get to the other side. He did. Then the light turned green, and the car was off once more.

One minute there was Venice, floating idly on the canals, then a backpacking trip they had taken when they were both only students, then a view of them both in New York City, astride the mammoth horror that was the World Trade Center, the cold wind whipping at their ears, his wife’s hair tangled around her face as she stood alone near the protective wiring, her back to him in anger over something he’d just said. One after the others the images came and went in an unstoppable rush. His head whirred. He found he couldn’t breathe and automatically rolled the window half-way down, despite the fact that the air conditioning was on. Methodically, and doing his best to gain a foothold, he began to list the pictures, assemble them for use in some hypothetical long run. He took a deep breath and then another, while rolling down the window fully to hear the roar from the traffic outside. The car shifted smoothly into another gear.

Somewhere around the airport he pulled off at an exit to fill up with gas, but stopped well before the red and yellow ESSO sign up ahead. Calmly, he turned the car into an abandoned lot that was just up the road, brought the vehicle to a stop and cut the ignition. There was a mound above the empty lot and a crag, looking filthy and undramatic. He opened the door, undid his seat belt and got out. The ground on which he stepped as he moved out the door was full of cans and oil, splotched here and there with black and brown marks like the coat of a sick animal.

He sat smoking undisturbed on the hood of the car for a few minutes and watched the traffic speed by manically out of the city. Inside the cars he caught glimpses of nondescript faces: somber truckers, harried businessmen, haggard secretaries, all staring straight ahead and intent on making the last push of the day-following the route to the coast, the road to the mountains, the bypass to the airport where he was to pick up his wife Lucia from her latest trip to New York City.

Their life together had been anything but ideal up to that point, he told himself, but he could scarcely expect what happened. There had been an affair, his wife had told him over the phone, then silence. Weeks later, the panic had set in. Their friend Paco, a Manhattan psychiatrist, had described the symptoms to him in detail. Emotional turmoil, exhaustion, followed by a breakdown brought on by palpitations and hysteria. The symptoms fit her physical, sociological, and age type: the childless wife of an unsuccessful writer, a delicate frame, in her late thirties. She had got to get some rest, Paco repeated, much to his irritation. He had no idea how they would manage it financially. They had trouble enough paying the rent and staying months behind on the bills. He wondered, too, what Paco would have to say about his own state of mind. It was likely, he thought reproachfully, that he was the one in need of a vacation after all.

Once his cigarette was out, he lit another one, holding it steady in his hand. When he finished a second, he lit a third, and sat puffing until his mind was clear and undisturbed. Then, he looked at his watch, made a quick calculation and climbed in, steering the car directly into the bright Spanish sun.

At El Prat airport, he parked the car among the anarchic jumble of other cars and walked a mile to the Iberia terminal with the sun beating down on his thining pate. Once inside the big, clean and narrow nave, among the traveler-filled benches, money-changing counters, food-courts and T-shirt shops, he spotted her, a small middle-aged woman standing alone among the see-sawing crowd. She looked straight ahead, like a lost baby being led to find her mother. Meanwhile, the PA system called out flight numbers in several languages. He was tempted to blind side her and pop up at her elbow to shock her, but suppressed the impulse. Instead he walked directly towards her with a normal and dignified air.

“How was your flight,” he said once he was in front of her and had the three large pieces of luggage with orange and crimson tags in his grasp.

He was late. He had timed it that way to appear above all unconcerned, as if nothing important had happened. It took her a few seconds for her to meet his eyes, but when she did her gaze was surprisingly calm and steady, as if his appearance after three months’ absence did not surprise her in the least. She didn’t really, he thought, look ill at all.

“Hello Ricardo,” she answered dutifully, and they traded a stiff, requisite, and rather lifeless kiss.

They stood away from each other for a moment-he slightly awkward but not quite looking it, she immutable in an attitude of deep freeze he was quickly beginning to connect with the effects of tranquilizers.

“Well?” he said, throwing up his arms and waiting for her to say something incriminating.

“Shouldn’t we go?” she answered, and then stared off at the brown and dying palms some horribly expensive architect had set down uselessly inside the horrible steel and glass tunnel.

He slumped a bit under the heavy bags and she followed blindly on the way to the car. Driving back to the city, they were silent, uselessly listening to the sound of the bumpy road grinding beneath the wheels and the intermittent horns of the other machines that raced aimlessly beside them. Ricardo turned on the radio, flipped the station several times, and then, annoyed, turned it off again. He tried to clear and control his head, imagining only the mess of accusations Lucia had stored up against him.

“How’s Paco?” Ricardo said, apropos of a deadly need to talk where he personally thought they were better off saying nothing at all.

“Fine…,” she said. “Busy, he’s a busy man…”

“Yes indeed,” he said and kept himself there, a tiny measure away from going any further. That road not taken, he imagined with a touch of melodrama, led somewhere dark and patently dangerous; a place where he was assured of exercising very little influence over various outcomes.

He turned the radio on one more time and tuned it away from the rock and roll and whining static to a station that was playing Liszt. The music came out tinny but steady, a medicinal salve to soothe loose energies. On both sides of the car, the industrial cordons ran on unchanged. They were dull, expressionless, reined in. This was a landscape of concrete and metal where before there had been rustic towns and expanses of endless green forest. A supreme and concentrated effort had made the landscape that way, had taken from it life and replaced it with a sort of order. States, companies, and individuals had conspired to do it, he thought deliberately. In the end, it turned out, everyone concerned had their way.

“Are you alright now?” he asked callously after a moment in which he had gained some advantageous calm. He timed his question with a slick maneuver in which he cut off a car that had been trying to get into his lane.

She began to say, but held herself in check, waiting for the words to reach her mind clearly. Once caught up, her answer was ready.

“I’m fine, I think,” she said with some sleep in her voice. “Paco’s got a colleague here in Barcelona. I’m supposed to see him in a week. In the meantime, I have this new prescription.”

She held up her black leather purse with her right arm, as if he might be able to see through it to the piece of paper inside which she had folded over and over into the smallest possible square.

“I’m fine, really,” she repeated, and then turned her face towards the window opposite.

“Good,” Ricardo said with some relief. “Very good. I was afraid it had been something serious.”

‘Serious,’ he thought. The vision of another man astride his tiny wife made his head reel traitorously beyond its usual clock-work movements. Then he imagined, not without a bit of satisfaction, her as Lady MacBeth losing her senses, then snapped out of it as he shot a brief glance towards the face which was now looking dead ahead. The hair, blonde and lusterless, hid part of her delicate face and the green eyes he knew were set drooping inside their sockets. They had found each other attractive long ago, he thought with no wistfulness at all. Now he could simply not imagine what had possessed her.

The car behind them, a red Fiat Spider, pulled up even with theirs. The slick, tanned and dark-haired man behind the wheel gestured to Ricardo to let him pass, but Ricardo, busy thinking of other things, ignored him and moved on. The young man caught up with them and gestured again, but this time with one arm tucked into the crook of the other. Then he sped ahead, trapping them behind several lanes of slow moving traffic.

“I don’t love him Ricardo if that’s what you really want to know,” she got out from some deep reserve of will and decisiveness, in a tone in which she could have counted sheep.

She was not yet entirely sure why she’d said it. But there were certain demands, she’d always thought, that required immediate satisfaction.

“Good,” he said, and then mulled the matter over for a bit.

“Good,” he repeated, she thought rather pedantically.

“I was afraid, Lucia,” he began, “that you’d done something you would really be sorry for later.”

They approached a stoplight as he spoke, and Ricardo put the car behind the red Spider, edging closer and closer to move ahead once the light turned.

He thought of nothing else then. He was there, she was there, it did not seem worthwhile. He was deeply afraid to look at her and instead placed all his concentration on the stupid game he was playing.

“Maybe we’ll go away,” he said looking sideways at the Spider, ready to jump. “To Cadaques, or the Vall d’Aran. We could go for a week or so, get away. You could rest awhile.”

He felt her hand touching his arm, pulling it closer. He turned with a great deal of surprise, as the cars sped by him and a chorus of honking took up behind them.

“Hold me,” she answered looking into his frightened eyes.

‘Fuck you,’ she thought while she plumbed them.

Contributor

Christian Viveros-Faune

Viveros-Faune is an art critic, curator, art fair director, and former art dealer.

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