In the evening he mixed a pisco sour, and took it to the east corner of his balcony from where he could glimpse the mountains through the thick smog covering Santiago.
‘And to think I am breathing all this shit, he thought squinting his eyes.
He was just too tired to think, so he simply sipped his drink. The pisco sour tasted good and once it did its work inside him he would feel better.
He looked idly across the street, to the apartment building facing his own. Most of its windows were dark, but one apartment’s living room was dimly lit and he could see in it two women sitting on a long sofa talking waving their hands and, clapping when they laughed. Two men, the women’s husbands or boyfriends, he imagined, were standing, also talking, drinks in hand. A huge flat screen TV was on but no one was paying it any attention. They appeared to be having a good time, going by the laughter and the animated movement of their arms. He wished he could be among those strangers who then wouldn’t be strangers.
He went back inside, sat on the couch and as he sipped peace of mind from his glass, he watched the abstract painting hanging on the opposite wall. He didn’t have a clue what it was supposed to represent, maybe it represented nothing (quite possibly, he chuckled). But why paint something that represents nothing? He shrugged drunkenly.
He had bought the painting from one of those artists in the streets of Rio. He bought it because it was an original, to use it as an adornment, to fill a blank wall with and also impress his friends : “It is an original, very strong thematically, abstract, and verging on self-irony, post-modern…" Some of them nodded when they heard those words, some shrugged their shoulders and didn’t know what to say, or were just indifferent; some knew he was making a bad joke and grimaced. He only made that pseudo intelligent bad joke of a comment when somebody asked or commented about the painting. He didn’t know anything about abstract art, books yes, but not modern art and music and he wouldn’t have known which way to hang the painting hadn’t he asked the painter to sign it, which he did, in a corner, maybe the wrong corner for maybe the guy who signed it wasn’t the guy who painted it. ‘Who cares?’ He thought, maybe I’ll turn it around every six months. The thought amused him; the pisco sour was doing its job.
He dozed for a while and woke up thinking about his girlfriend, who had left him, on the first Saturday in February, yesterday to be precise. They had made love in the afternoon and afterwards as she looked into his eyes and saw there that he suspected nothing, felt a pang of remorse for what she was about to say and do. She knew him well enough to predict that although it would hit him hard he wouldn’t make a scene; which he didn’t. He didn’t even ask her why she was leaving him, but, she told him nevertheless: she sensed lately that he had got bored with her ― what she knew wasn’t true—and felt the relationship was going nowhere, which was true, but not for the reason she had given him.
When she finished telling him what she was about to do and the reason why, he looked up from the bed at her, cocking his head to one side, ‘like a dog straining to understand a command’ she thought, and this made her smile.
He knew then, he just knew it, that she had fallen in love with someone else. It happens all the time, he thought, you fall in love with someone else. Well, it doesn’t happen all the time to the same person, it hadn’t happened to him ever but it had happened to her, at least this once. He considered arguing and defending himself, but what for? it’s over. She is lying, and she knows I know, but it won’t change a thing.
Shaking his head he got up, collected his clothes scattered on the bed and on the floor and went to the bathroom.
She pulled a t-shirt over her head and still barefoot began packing.
Later she told him that she would come back for the rest of her things in a week or so.
“If I am not here ask the concierge, I’ll let him know”, he replied.
The sun was setting when her cell phone rang. “Hi”, she answered, turning her back on him. “I’ll come down in a minute, yes… yes, everything is fine”. After that they avoided each other eyes.
He stood up with the intention of going to the balcony to look down to the entrance of the apartment block, but caught himself in time, and instead asked her for her keys.
“Sorry, I forgot, habit I suppose”
“How long had this been going on?”
She frowned and looked down at her feet.
“Three months, I met him three months ago, but he is not the reason. I told you the reason.”
“Sure” he said and smiled, smirked rather. It annoyed her, but before she could answer him, he pressed a finger to her lips and extended his open palm to her. She dropped on it her keys hanging from the leather key-holder he had brought her once as a souvenir from Mendoza. He looked at it; the leather strap had darkened with the years, and the metal head of the horse on the leather was shiny with use.
He felt about to cry when she picked up her suitcases. But, he drew in his breath hard and held it, clasping the keys in his hand, until she walked out into the corridor. Softly, he closed the door, turned out the lights, went to the balcony and looked down. There was a small Volkswagen parked on the other side of the street. Its interior light was on. Soon ‘someone’ got out, someone she rushed to embrace and kiss. Then, the ‘someone’ crossed the street and grabbed her suitcases. Leaning back on the car she looked up towards the apartment and although it was already too dark to see anything she was sure he was up there watching them. The ‘someone’ came around to her side of the car and kissed her again before they got in the car and drove away.
“Hmm … that’s where I went wrong, not enough kissing” he murmured “Goodbye Cecilia, you did what you had to do, I suppose”
He went back inside, from the fridge he got a can of Coke and mixed it with Bacardi. ‘Salud Cecilia’ he said and raising his glass began to drink.
Afterwards watching TV with the sound muted he felt that everything in his world had come to a stop and he was facing a huge black wall no matter where he looked. Life had moved on and left him behind…
He waited for her return knowing she wouldn’t return. He took to sitting in the balcony in the dark, falling asleep while watching the people in the apartments across the street. The chill of dawn would wake him up and he would stagger shivering back to his bed.
February went by. By mid March the heat of the summer was blown away by the first autumn winds which descending from the Andes made golden leaves twirl in the air. The school year began, and still she didn’t come back for her things or, to him.
On the last day of March, a Sunday, he moved to another apartment closer to the school where he taught. He didn’t leave a forwarding address.
Seating in the restaurant pretending the pale winter sun is warming them, his mother lifts her gaze over the stiff cardboard menu and looks across the table, over her son’s head, towards the Avenida Providencia, past apartment buildings, past the trees on the parks lining both banks of the Mapocho river, and beyond, until her eyes rest on the cordillera, its jagged edges sawing the dark blue sky above it.
After last night’s rain, in the now invisible smog free air, the cordillera appears to be very close, so close she runs a finger over its top.
“What are you looking at?” he asks, turning his head to follow the gaze of her mother.
“The cordillera, snow has already fallen” his mother answers.
“Good, I want to go skiing this winter”, he answers, aware that her mother knows he doesn’t ski.
The face of her mother disappears behind the stiff cardboard menu.
“I am not hungry” he says despondently, resting his hands on his menu.
“If that’s the case then I am leaving” answers her mother slamming the menu on the table.
“Mom, mom” he repeats, surprised at her mother reaction. He signals the waiter and they order lunch.
She takes a sip of wine watching him pensively over the rim of her glass. She has always been of the opinion that trying to understand everything and everybody is a waste of time, therefore, she rarely asks questions. Not even when her husband asked for a divorce she demanded an explanation. What is there to ask? She thought then. ‘Maybe I just don’t care enough to ask’.
She eats waiting for his son to break the silence.
“I must show you my new apartment” he says “It is smaller than the old one, but it is just right for me. Remember that story by Cortazar about the man who vomited bunnies”
“How revolting, we are eating in case you haven’t noticed it”
“I am sorry” he places his hand on hers. “in that story a guy moved into an apartment of a friend of his who had gone to Paris …”
“I read it” her mother interrupts.
“Well, then you must remember that the apartment was perfect, it was an addition, no, it was an extension of her owner, it was … special”
“And yours is it also perfect, special?”
He considers the question. He hasn’t told his mother that Cecilia knocked at his door on the weekend.
“ I came for my things” she said smiling when he opened the door. “Remember, the things I left with you ?”
“Oh” was all he could say, annoyed by her smile. He wanted her to be sad, remorseful. He wanted her to say she was back.
“How did you get my new address?”
“I called the school, I talked to Angela. She didn’t know that you and I had … well, she was helpful”
“I see”. Now everybody in the school would know.
He felt like saying “I miss you”, but bit his lip.
“Wait here” he said instead letting the chain in the door. He came back with a key.
“Your things are in the storage room. Ask the concierge to show you and give him the key when you are done”
“I can bring it back to you”
“No, I am about to go out”
She extended her hand. He looked at it, and she knew that he looked at her hand for too long before dropping the key on it. After he closed the door he didn’t go to the balcony. He left the building, and in the street he saw nobody waiting for her, no Volkswagen, no ‘someone’ in sight.
“Well?” asks her mother “is your apartment also special?”
He slowly shakes his head. “Not anymore” .
He waits for her to ask him why, but she just stirs her coffee in silence. He likes the way she is, the way she probes, but only so far. She seems to know that to ask why, will get her as response a shrug of his shoulders or a lie, or maybe she is not interested in knowing.
After lunch they go for a walk, meandering along narrow streets leading to the banks of the Mapocho river. The apartments and few remaining old houses along the way are quiet, subdued, gray. ‘They are lovely’, he thinks, and his apartment in Los Leones comes to his mind.
They dash through a gap in the fast moving traffic of La Costanera and come to a stop at the low wall running along the bank of the river. Leaning against the wall, they rest their chins on their arms as they watch the river’s murky waters.
“This is not a river anymore” says his mother, “this is a canal; this is not the river Pedro de Valdivia discovered, this is disgusting”. She turns away from the river and looks towards the afternoon traffic coming from the centre of the city center, already increasing in volume and noise.
He sighs and points towards the cordillera. “It’s a pristine river farther upstream. This is what people do to rivers, they tame them, and they become … this”.
After a while, they walk back, in silence, to the Metro station in Los Leones, and maybe one of them wonders about what people do to people.