Most Dreaded Hell
From the collection A Dream Come True, out next month from Archipelago Books
The first letter, the first photograph, was delivered to him at the newspaper between midnight and closing. He was banging on the typewriter, a little hungry, a little sick from coffee and tobacco, dedicated with familiar pleasure to the march of the sentence and the compliant appearance of words. He was writing, “It is worth noting that the commissioners noticed nothing suspicious or even out of the ordinary in Play Boy’s crowning triumph, when he took full advantage of the wintry track and shot ahead like an arrow at the decisive moment,” when he saw the red hand stained with ink from Politics between his face and the typewriter, holding out the envelope.
“This is for you. They always mix up the mail. Not a single damn notice from the clubs, and then they come crying before the elections and complain about there never being enough space for them. It’s already midnight, and I’ve got nothing to fill the column with?”
The envelope had his name, “Horse Racing,” and El Liberal written on it. The only odd thing was a couple of green stamps and the Bahia postmark. He finished the article just when they came up from typesetting to ask for it. He felt weak and satisfied, almost alone in the unduly large newsroom, mulling over the last sentence: “We once again assert, with the same objectivity that informs all our assertions, that our duty is to the fans.” Someone in the back was looking through envelopes in the files, and the older woman from Society was slowly taking off her gloves in her glass-walled cubicle, when Risso casually opened the envelope.
It contained a photograph, postcard size, poorly lit, where hatred and squalor gathered around the dark edges forming thick, wavering swaths, like embossing, like bands of sweat around an anguished face. He saw it with surprise, he didn’t fully understand, he knew that he would give anything to forget what he had seen.
He stuffed the picture into his pocket and had started putting on his overcoat when Society came out of her glass lair smoking and with a fan of papers in her hand.
“Hi,” she said. “Here I am, at this time of night, the soiree just now over.”
Risso looked at her from above. Her fair, dyed hair, the wrinkles on her neck, the double chin that hung, round and sharp like a small belly, the tiny and undue gaieties that decorated her garments. She, too, is a woman. I am now looking at the red scarf around her neck, her periwinkle nails on her old, tobacco-stained fingers, her rings and bracelets, her dress given to her on credit by a dressmaker not a lover, her endless and possibly crooked high heels, the sad curve of her mouth, the almost frenetic eagerness she instills in her smiles. All of it will be easier if I convince myself that she, too, is a woman.
“Seems like you do it for the fun of it, deliberately. When I come, you leave, as if you were always taking shots at me. The temperature’s glacial out there. They give me material, as promised, but not a single name, not a single quote. Take a guess, get it wrong, publish some nonsensical fantasy. I have no names other than the betrothed, thank god for that. Affluence and poor taste, that’s all there was. They feted their friends with a spectacular reception at the home of the bride’s parents. Nobody who’s anybody gets married on Saturday anymore. Button up, a glacial wind is blowing up from the promenade.”
When Risso married Gracia César, we all joined together in silence and kept our pessimistic prophecies under wraps. In those days she was staring at the inhabitants of Santa María from the billboards of El Sótano Theatre Cooperative, from the walls made more dilapidated by the end of autumn. Sometimes intact, sometimes with a pencil mustache or lacerated by spiteful fingernails, other times by first rains, her head was turned slightly to look at the street, alert, a little defiant, a little deluded with the hope of convincing and being understood. Betrayed by the sparkle over her tear ducts added on to Orloff Studio’s blowup, her face also contained the farce of lifelong love, cloaking the determined and exclusive search for joy.
All of which was fine, he must have thought, it was desirable and necessary, it coincided with the results of multiplying the number of months of Risso’s widowerhood by the total number of countless identical Saturdays at dawn, which he had repeated with aptly polite demonstrations of patience and familiarity in the brothel on the coast. A sparkle, the one in the eyes on the poster, was linked to the frustrated skill he employed to retie the knot of the always smart and sad mourning tie in front of the portable oval mirror in the bedroom at the brothel.
They got married, and Risso thought that it was enough to keep living as he always had, but devoting to her, without thinking about it, almost without thinking about her, the passion of his body, the deranged need for absolutes that possessed him on those long, drawn-out nights.
She imagined in Risso a bridge, an exit, a beginning. She had emerged from two courtships—one director, one actor—a virgin, perhaps because for her the theater was a calling as well as a game, and she thought that love should be born and remain apart, not contaminated by what one does to earn money and oblivion. With one then the other she was condemned to feel, during their trysts in the plazas, along the promenade or in the café, the fatigue of rehearsals, the effort of being adequate, maintaining vigilance over her voice and her hands. She always anticipated her own face one second before it took on an expression, as if she could look at it or touch it. She acted excited and incredulous, irrevocably measured her farce and that of the other, the sweat and dust of the theater that covered them, inseparable, signs of age.
When the second photograph arrived, from Asunción and with a visibly different man, Risso feared above all that he would be incapable of tolerating an unknown feeling that was neither hatred nor pain, that would die with him unnamed, that was linked to injustice and doom, to the first fear of the first man on earth, to nihilism and the beginning of faith.
The second photograph was given to him by Police/Crime one Wednesday night. Thursdays were days he could spend with his daughter from ten in the morning till ten at night. He decided to tear up the envelope without opening it, so he put it away and only on Thursday morning, while his daughter was waiting for him in the living room of his boarding house, did he allow himself to take a quick look at the envelope before ripping it apart over the toilet: here, too, the man was shown from the back.
But he had looked at the photo from Brazil many times. He kept it for an entire day and at dawn he was imagining a joke, a mistake, a fleeting absurdity. It had already happened to him, he had woken many times from a nightmare, smiling obsequiously and gratefully at the flowers on the walls of his bedroom.
He was lying on the bed when he pulled the envelope out of his jacket and the photo out of the envelope.
“Alright,” he said out loud, “it’s fine, it’s true, and that’s the way it is. It doesn’t matter at all, even if I didn’t see it I’d know what was going on.”
(When she took the photograph with a self-timer, under the red and encouraging light of the lamp, she probably foresaw Risso’s reaction, this challenge, this refusal to set himself free through rage. She had also foreseen, or simply desired, with little and mostly unfamiliar hope, that he would dig out of the obvious insult, the stunning indignity, a message of love.)
Once again he protected himself before looking: I am alone and freezing to death in a boarding house on Calle Piedras in Santa María, at the dawn of any day whatsoever, alone and regretting my solitude as if I’d sought it out, proud as if I’d deserved it.
In the photograph, the headless woman conspicuously digging her heels into the edge of the divan, awaiting the impatience of the dark man, enlarged by the inevitable foreground, would have been certain that showing her face was not necessary for her to be recognized. On the back, her calm handwriting said: “Mementos from Bahia.”
On the night that corresponded to the second photograph, he thought that he could understand the totality of ignominy and even accept it. But he knew that the deliberation, persistence, and organized frenzy required to carry out revenge was beyond his reach. He measured the disparity, he felt unworthy of so much hatred, so much love, so much willingness to cause suffering.
When Gracia met Risso, she was able to assume many current and future things. She guessed his solitude from his stubble and a button on his vest; she guessed that he was bitter but not defeated, and that he needed to settle a score and didn’t want to admit it. Many Sundays she watched him in the plaza, before the show, making careful calculations, his ardent and dour face, his greasy hat forgotten on his head, his large indolent body that had begun to get fat. She thought about love the first time they were alone together, or about desire, or about the desire to soothe the sadness of the man’s cheekbone and cheek with her hand. She also thought about the city, about how the only wisdom possible was to become resigned in time. She was twenty and Risso was forty. She started to believe in him, she discovered intensities of curiosity, she told herself that you are only truly alive when every day brings a surprise.
For the first few weeks she locked herself up to laugh by herself, she forced herself into fetishistic worship, she learned to determine moods based on smells. She was guiding herself in the discovery of what lay behind the voice, the silences, the preferences, and the attitudes of the man’s body. She loved Risso’s daughter and reconfigured the girl’s face, extolling the resemblance to her father. She didn’t leave the theater because the Municipality had just started giving it a subsidy, and she began to receive a steady salary at El Sótano, a world apart from her house, her bedroom, her frenzied and indestructible man. She didn’t want to extricate herself from debauchery; she wanted to rest and forget it, allow debauchery to rest and forget. She made plans and carried them out, she was confident in the infinitude of the universe of love, confident that every night they would be offered a different and recently invented wonder.
“Everything,” Risso insisted, “absolutely everything can happen to us, and we are going to always be happy and in love. Everything; whether God invents it or we do.”
The truth is he’d never held onto a woman before, and he believed he was fabricating what was now being imposed upon him. But it wasn’t she who was imposing it on him, Gracia César, Risso’s handiwork, separated from him in order to render him whole, like air for the lungs, like winter for wheat.
The third photo arrived three weeks later. It also came from Paraguay and didn’t arrive at the newspaper but rather the boarding house, and the housemaid brought it to him late one afternoon when he was waking up from a dream in which he’d been advised to defend himself against terror and dementia by keeping all future photographs in his wallet and rendering them anecdotal, inoffensive, through hundreds of daily distracted glances.
The maid knocked on the door, and he saw her place the envelope on the slats of the blinds, began to perceive how its damaging nature, its quivering threat, filtered through the darkness, the dirty air. He stared at it from bed as at an insect, as at a poisonous creature that is crushed at a moment of carelessness, of propitious error.
In the third photograph, she was alone—pushing against the shadows of a poorly lit room with her whiteness, her head thrown painfully back, toward the camera, her loose black hair partially covering her shoulders, robust and quadrupedal. As unmistakable now as if she’d had her picture taken in a studio and had posed with her most tender, meaningful, and oblique smile.
He, Risso, now had only irremediable pity for her, for himself, for all lovers in the world who had ever loved, for truth and the error of his beliefs, for the simple absurdity of love, and for the complex absurdity of the love that is created by men.
But he also tore up that picture, and he knew that it would be impossible for him to look at another one and go on living. But on the magical level where they had begun to understand each other and engage in a dialogue, Gracia had an obligation to know that he was going to tear up the pictures as soon as they arrived, each time with less curiosity, less remorse.
On the magical level, all vulgar or timid men with a sense of urgency were nothing but obstacles, indispensable postponements of the ritual act of choosing, in the street, in a restaurant, or in a café, the most credulous and inexperienced man, the man who could lend himself, without arousing suspicion and with comic pride, to be exposed in front of the camera or timed shutter, the least unpleasant among those who believed the memorized pitch of the traveling salesman.
“It’s just that I’ve never had a man like you, so unique, so different. And I never know, involved as I am in the life of the theater, where I will be tomorrow or if I will ever see you again. At least I want to look at you in a photograph when we will be far apart and I’ll miss you.”
And after the almost always easy persuasion, thinking about Risso or putting off those thoughts till tomorrow, fulfilling the duty she had imposed on herself, she set up the lights, the camera, and aroused the man. If she thought about Risso, she evoked an ancient event, again reproached him for not having struck her, for having pushed her away forever with a lackluster insult, an intelligent smile, a comment that confounded her with all other women. And without understanding; proving despite the nights and the sentences spoken that he had never understood.
Without a surplus of hope, she bustled and sweated in the always hot and seedy hotel room, measuring lights and distances, correcting the position of the man’s stiff body. Forcing—through any means, decoy, dissolute lie—the man of the hour to turn his cynical and mistrustful face toward her. She tried to smile and goad, mimicking the affectionate clucks made to newborns, counting the seconds, at the same time calculating the intensity with which the picture would allude to her love with Risso.
But since she could never know this, since she didn’t even know if the photographs found their way to Risso, she began to intensify the evidence in the pictures, converting them into documents that had very little to do with them, with Risso and Gracia.
She ended up allowing and demanding that the faces, thinned by desire, stupefied by the ancient masculine dream of possession, would face the hole in the camera with a tough smile, with shameful impudence. She considered it necessary to slide backwards and insert herself in the photograph, make her head, her short nose, her large undaunted eyes descend from the nothingness beyond the borders of the photo in order to include the filth of the world, the awkward, erroneous photographic vision, the satires of love that she had sworn to send regularly to Santa María. But her real mistake was to change the addresses on the envelopes.
The first separation, six months after the wedding, was welcome and excessively anguished. El Sótano—now Teatro Municipal de Santa María—traveled to Rosario. There, she repeated the same old hallucinatory game of being an actress among actors, of believing in what was happening on stage. The audience grew excited, applauded, or resisted the pull. Programs and reviews were printed promptly; and people accepted the game and prolonged it till the end of the night, talking about what they had seen and heard, and had paid to see and hear, conversing with a kind of desperation, a kind of goaded enthusiasm about performances, stage decorations, speeches, and plotlines.
Hence the game, the cure, alternatively melancholic and intoxicating, which she began as she slowly approached the window overlooking the fjord; shuddering and whispering for the entire theater to hear: “Perhaps . . . but I also carry within me a life of memories that remains unknown to others,” was also accepted in Rosario. Playing cards were always dropped in response to the one she discarded, the game became formalized, and it was no longer possible to drift off and look at it from the outside.
The first separation lasted exactly fifty-two days, and Risso tried to copy in each of them the life he had led with Gracia César for their six months of married life. To go at the same time to the same café, the same restaurant, see the same friends, repeat silences and solitudes along the promenade, walk back to the boarding house stubbornly suffering the anticipation of the encounter, stirring up in front of him or in his mouth exaggerated images that were born out of perfected memories or unattainable ambitions.
It was ten or twelve blocks, now alone and more slowly, through nights disrupted by warm and freezing winds along the unsettled line that sepa- rated spring from winter. He used them to measure his need and his distress, to learn that the madness they shared had, at least, the grandiosity to lack a future, to not be a means to anything.
As for her, she had thought that Risso was giving their shared love a motto when he whispered, lying down, with fresh astonishment, overwhelmed:
“Everything can happen and we are always going to be happy and in love.”
Already the sentence was not a judgment, not an opinion, did not express a wish. It was dictated to them or imposed, it was a confirmation, an old truth. Nothing they might do or think could weaken the madness, the love with no exit or modification. All human possibilities could be used and everything was condemned to serve as nourishment.
She believed that beyond them, outside the room, there stretched a wall devoid of meaning, inhabited by beings who didn’t matter at all, teeming with worthless facts.
So she thought only of Risso, of them, when the man began to wait for her at the door of the theater, when he invited her and guided her, when she herself began to undress.
It was the last week in Rosario, and she thought it was useless to mention it in her letters to Risso; because the incident was not separate from them and at the same time had nothing to do with them; because she had behaved like a strange and lucid animal, with some pity for the man, with some scorn for the shabbiness of what she was adding to her love for Risso. And when she returned to Santa María, she preferred to wait for a Wednesday evening—because Risso didn’t go to the newspaper on Thursdays—for a night without time, for a dawn identical to the twenty-five they had already lived.
She began to tell it before undressing, with the pride and tenderness of having invented, as simple as that, a new caress. Leaning on the table, in his shirtsleeves, he closed his eyes and smiled. Then he undressed her and asked her to repeat the story, now from standing, moving barefoot on the rug and almost without changing position, facing him and in profile, turning her back, her body swaying as she shifted her weight from one leg to the other. At moments she saw Risso’s long, sweaty face, his heavy body leaning on the table, protecting the glass of wine with his shoulders, and sometimes she only imagined them, distracted by her thirst for fidelity in the story, by the joy of reliving that peculiar intensity of love that she had felt for Risso in Rosario, next to a man with a forgotten face, next to nobody, next to Risso.
“Good. Now you get dressed,” he said, in the same hoarse and astonished voice that had repeated that everything was possible, that everything would be for them.
She scrutinized his smile and put on her clothes. For a while the two of them looked at the patterns on the tablecloth, the stains, the ashtray with the bird with a broken beak. Then he got fully dressed and left, spent his Thursday, his day off, talking with Guiñazú, convincing him of the urgency of a divorce, mocking in advance any attempts at reconciliation.
There was then a long and unwholesome period in which Risso wanted her back and simultaneously hated the pity and disgust of any imaginable encounter. Then he decided that he needed Gracia, and now a little more than before. That a reconciliation was necessary and that he was willing to pay any price as long as his volition played no part, as long as it would be possible to have her at night again without saying yes, not even with his silence.
Once again he started spending his Thursdays with his daughter and listening to the list of the predictions that had come to pass, which the grandmother ticked off after meals. He received cautious and vague news from Gracia, and he began to imagine her as an unknown woman whose gestures and reactions had to be guessed or deduced; as a preserved and lonely woman among people and places, who was preordained for him and whom he would have to love, perhaps at first sight.
Almost one month after the beginning of the separation, Gracia passed out contradictory addresses and left Santa María.
“Don’t worry,” Guiñazú said. “I know women well, and I was expecting something like this. This confirms desertion and simplifies the case, which cannot be adversely affected by the obvious delay tactics exhibited by the defendant’s unreasonableness.
That was at the humid beginning of spring, and many nights Risso returned on foot from the newspaper, the café, giving names to the rain, stoking his suffering as though blowing on an ember, pushing it away from himself in order to see it as better and unbelievable, imagining acts of love never lived, only to then remember them with desperate lust.
Risso had destroyed the last three messages without looking at them. Now, and forever, he felt, whether at the newspaper or the boarding house, like vermin in its lair, like a beast listening to the echoes of the hunters’ gunshots at the entrance to its cave. He could save himself from death and the idea of death only by pushing himself into quietude and ignorance. Curled up, he rubbed his whiskers and his snout, his paws; he could do nothing but wait for the other’s rage to be spent. Without allowing himself either words or thoughts, he found himself forced to begin to understand; to confound the Gracia who sought and chose men and positions for the photos with the girl who had arranged, many months earlier, dresses, conversations, makeup, caresses for his daughter in order to win over a widower devoted to grief, that man who earned a meager salary and who could offer women only an astonished, loyal lack of comprehension.
He had started to believe that the girl who had written him long and hyperbolic letters during the brief summer separations of their courtship was the same one who pursued his despair and annihilation by sending him the photographs. And he came to think that any lover who has managed to inhale in the comfortless tenacity of a bed the dismal scent of death is condemned to pursue—for him and for her—destruction, the final peace of nothingness.
He thought about the girl who walked arm in arm with two girlfriends in the afternoon along the promenade dressed in the full-skirted appliqué dresses of starched fabric that memory invented and imposed, and who walked through the overture to The Barber of Seville that topped the bill of the Sunday band concert to look at him for a second. He thought about that bolt of lightning when she turned her enraged expression full of offer and challenge, when she showed him directly the almost masculine beauty of her capable and thoughtful face, in which she chose him, besotted by widowhood. And, little by little, he came to admit that this was the same naked woman, a little bit heavier, with a certain air of composure and having settled down, who sent him photographs from Lima, Santiago, Buenos Aires.
Why not, he came to think, why not accept that the photographs, their laborious preparation, their prompt dispatch, originated in the same love, in the same capacity for nostalgia, in the same congenital loyalty.
The next photograph came to him from Montevideo; not to the newspaper and not to his boarding house. And he never saw it. He was leaving El Liberal one night when he heard Old Man Lanza’s limp pursuing him down the stairs, the tremulous cough behind him, the innocent and duplicitous introductory sentence. They went to eat at the Baviera, and afterwards Risso could have sworn that he was aware that the unkempt, bearded sick man who sat at the table, moving a damp cigarette in and out of his sunken mouth, who avoided looking him in the eyes, who made trite comments about the latest wires from UP that had arrived at the newspaper, was impregnated with Gracia, or with the frenzied absurd aroma that love exudes.
“From one man to another,” Lanza said with resignation. “Or from one old man who has no joy left in life other than the disputable one of being alive. From one old man to you; and I don’t know, because one never knows, who you are. I know a few facts and I’ve heard people talk. But I no longer have any interest in wasting my time believing or doubting. It doesn’t make any difference. Every morning I verify that I’m alive, without bitterness and without gratitude. I drag a lame leg and arteriosclerosis through Santa María and the newsroom; I remember Spain, I correct galleys, I write, and sometimes I talk too much. Like tonight. I received a dirty photograph and there’s no doubt who sent it. There’s also no way to guess why they chose me. On the back it says: “To be donated to the Risso Collection,” or something of the sort. It arrived on Saturday, and I spent two days thinking about whether or not to give it to you. I reached the conclusion that I should tell you because sending it to me is abject madness, and maybe it would be good for you to know that she’s mad. Now you know; I only ask your permission to tear it up without showing it to you.”
Risso said yes, and that night, looking at the light of the streetlamp on the ceiling of his room till morning, he understood that the second misfortune, revenge, was in essence less serious than the first, betrayal, but also much harder to bear. He felt his long body exposed like a nerve to the pain of the air, unprotected, unable to conjure up any relief.
The fourth photograph not sent to him was thrown on the table by his daughter’s grandmother the following Thursday. The girl had gone to bed, and again the picture was inside the envelope. It fell between the soda bottle and the candy bowl, exposed, pierced and tinted by the reflection of the bottle, sporting eager letters of blue ink.
“You understand that after this . . .” the grandmother stuttered. She stirred her coffee and looked Risso in the face, peering at his profile in search of the secret of universal corruption, the cause of her daughter’s death, the explanation for so many things that she had suspected without the courage to believe them. “You understand,” she repeated with rage, in her aged and comical voice.
But she didn’t know what needed to be understood, and Risso didn’t understand, either, even though he made an effort, looking at the envelope that had been placed in front of him, one corner resting on the edge of the plate.
Outside, the night was heavy, and the city’s open windows mingled the milky mystery of the sky with the mysteries of the lives of men, their efforts and their habits. Flipped over on his bed, Risso believed he was starting to understand that, like an illness, like well-being, understanding was taking place inside him, freed from will or intellect. It was taking place, simply, from the contact between his feet and his shoes to the tears that ran onto his cheeks and his collar. Understanding was taking place inside him, and he wasn’t interested in knowing what it was that he understood, as he remembered or was seeing his tears and his calm, the extended passivity of his body on the bed, the camber of clouds through the window, ancient and future scenarios. He saw death and friendship with death, the hubris of disdain for the rules that all men had agreed to obey, the authentic awe of freedom. He tore up the photograph over his chest, without moving his eyes from the whiteness of the window, slowly and skillfully, afraid of making noise or being interrupted. He then felt the movement of a new breeze, perhaps one he’d breathed as a child, which began to fill the room and spread with inexpert idleness through the streets and the unwary buildings, to await him and offer him protection tomorrow and in the days that followed.
Until dawn he was getting to know, like cities that had once seemed out of reach, indifference, unfounded joy, acceptance of solitude. And when he awoke at noon, when he loosened his tie and his belt and his wristwatch as he made his way to the putrid scent of storm at the window, he was overtaken for the first time by paternal affection for men and for what men had done and built. He had decided to find out where Gracia lived, call her or go live with her.
That night at the newspaper he was a slow and happy man, behaving with the awkwardness of a newborn, and he fulfilled his quota with the distractions and mistakes that are commonly forgiven in a stranger. The big news was that Ribereña wouldn’t be running in San Isidro, because we are now able to report that the offspring of El Gorrión, the famous stud, woke up today showing signs of pain in one of his front legs, indicating in ammation of the tendon, which speaks clearly to the magnitude of the pain he is suffering.
“Recalling that he covered the races,” Lanza said, “one tries to explain the bewilderment of comparing him to the man who bet his wages on a tip he was given and that was then confirmed by the caretaker, the jockey, the owner, and the horse itself. For although he had, as we will find out, the best reasons to suffer and swallow all the bottles of sleeping pills from all the pharmacies in Santa María, what he showed me half an hour before doing that was nothing more than the reasoning and the attitude of a man who’d been cheated. A man who’d been safe and sound, and was no longer, and can’t explain how that could be, what error in calculation produced his collapse. For at no moment did he call the filly who was passing out filthy pictures around the city a bitch, and he didn’t even agree to walk across the bridge I held out to him, insinuating, without believing it, the possibility that the filly (naked and raised in the way she liked to expose herself, imitating on stage the ovarian problems of other fillies made famous in universal dramas), the possibility that she was stark raving mad. Nothing.
He had made a mistake, not by marrying her but at a different moment he didn’t want to name. It was his fault, and our conversation was incredible and horrific. Because he’d already told me that he was going to kill himself, and he’d already convinced me that it was useless and also grotesque and again useless to argue to try to save him. And he spoke to me coldly, not accepting my pleas for him to get drunk. He’d made a mistake, he insisted; he and not that miserable wretch who sent the photograph to the little one, to her Catholic school. Maybe thinking that the Mother Superior would open the envelope, maybe hoping that the envelope would come into Risso’s daughter’s hands intact, certain then to have hit on what Risso had that was truly vulnerable.”