By Andrea Scrima
I only realized in hindsight how close she’d come to killing me. One day, how many years later was that, I suddenly had to think—and how long had it been since either of them had crossed my mind—of course, of course, she was pondering it all the while, imagining sending me sailing straight off the cliff with one good, hard push, wasn’t she, and no one would have ever been able to prove that it hadn’t been an accident, she and I walking along a narrow path cut into the side of the steep bluff, and I losing my footing and stumbling before she’d had a chance to grab hold of my arm and prevent me from plummeting to my death. She’d be in tears, or in shock, a slender woman in a light summer dress and sandals, and who would have expected it of her, given the sheer difference in size and strength, expected her to save the life of this gangly young man, and the policemen would have been more concerned with consoling the traumatized witness to a tragic accident than worrying about me, because I would have been dead as a doornail by then, wouldn’t I.
I actually felt it at the time, the heat of her intent beaming onto the back of my neck, yet the gap can be immense between sensing something and allowing it to enter the mind as a thought; as something to be acted upon. We were walking along a narrow stretch of trail leading to the top of the bluffs; the underbrush was thick about us, and each time I thrust aside a tangle of branches I had to glance back to make sure they didn’t snap into her face, easing the tension of the taut branches into her outstretched arm and waiting for her hand to find a secure grip before gently letting go. I wasn’t avoiding her gaze, really; we were both immersed in our own private thoughts, progressing at a steady pace in a consonant rhythm of arms and branches and breathing. Our silence mirrored the silence around us and seemed natural. It was hot and humid, June had arrived in a sudden, flagrant flare, and I felt the sweat beading above my upper lip itch; I’m going to get a rash, I thought, and it’s going to be a bitch shaving there, it’s going to bleed and Ignacio will be poking fun at me again. “You’re just like a woman,” he’d giggle. “Always fretting over some little thing.”
Much later, on an impulse, I called his office in Madrid. His assistant answered, and then laid the receiver down with a hollow clack. I closed my eyes and waited. Drifting in through an open window was the sound of a barking dog, a faraway car horn; listening to the silence, I began to see the sunlight fall across Ignacio’s desk and the dark mahogany bookshelves behind it, existing there, this very moment, connected by one thin thread, a tiny microphone in a telephone receiver transmitting to a distant city, a distant time zone. A door slammed somewhere down a hallway, followed by the remote sound of steps, and before I could tell if they were approaching or departing, they abruptly ceased, around a corner perhaps. Six hours’ difference, I thought; he’ll be leaving work by now. I waited, but heard nothing more. Some time later, carried in on a light breeze, the cry of a child followed by the mute static of the overseas connection. A quarter of an hour must have passed before it occurred to me that the assistant had probably forgotten all about the call and gone home. I laid the receiver gently back on the hook and wondered if he would only remember the next morning, reminded by the sight of the disconnected telephone lying on the cluttered desk. That was my last contact with Ignacio.
“You will come and be my guest,” he’d said. It had sounded less like an invitation than a command. And wasn’t it already there the moment we were being introduced, the moment I felt myself flinch under this small man’s exacting gaze: the impulse was there from the very beginning, a spontaneous urge to flee, to go back to my room and be alone, to mull over my thoughts in silence. He had an aura of absolute authority; I avoided his eyes and sank into a polite stoop to compensate for our difference in height, an unconscious expression of respect, I suppose, or perhaps it was an atavistic urge to genuflect. In any case, I suddenly felt I was cowering and straightened my posture; embarrassed, I shook his hand and saw one of his eyebrows arch in response. “It’s an honor to have you here,” I stammered by way of correction. He drew back to observe me, and then he smiled knowingly, as though I were communicating something to him in code.
Ignacio settled into work over the days that followed; the Institute had invited him for a semester-long academic fellowship. We crossed each other’s paths on campus several times until I suddenly found myself turning around and watching his figure diminish into the distance. Before I knew what I was doing, I ran the length of the broad green lawn to catch up. “I just wanted to let you know that I’d be more than happy to assist you,” I blurted out somewhat breathlessly. “If you need anything, that is.” And then he stared at me, his dark, inquisitive eyes shrunken to the size of dots by a thick pair of eyeglasses, and smiled that benign smile of his. “Thank you for your kind offer,” he stated simply and continued on his way, and there I stood, and I didn’t really know what to do but watch him vanish once more. A day passed, and then another, and before I knew it I was falling behind in my work, because it had become harder and harder to concentrate, with my eyes tracing the same sentence again and again until I threw my book down in a fit of frustration and left the room, slamming the door behind me.
I waited several days, hoping Ignacio would seek me out for a favor of some kind, and then, one afternoon on my way back from the library, I discovered myself knocking impatiently at his door. When he appeared, his expression revealed nothing of the surprise I’d anticipated. “I’m sorry to disturb you,” I said, following his outstretched arm into the small room. I took a seat on the edge of a chair and glanced around. Books were piled high on his desk; lining the wall, carefully arranged in pairs, stood a row of meticulously polished shoes. Ignacio was observing me questioningly, and I didn’t know where to begin; sitting face-to-face with him like that made me forget everything I’d intended to say. Here was a leader in my field, and his esteemed presence was like a beacon exposing my darkest fears—that I didn’t have what it takes to play anything more than a minor role, for instance, and that I should think about changing course before it became too late. He listened attentively as I recounted an entire landscape of self-doubt, and then he glanced at his watch and said that he had an appointment in half an hour.
I left, feeling foolish. Yet the next time I met Ignacio, he invited me to visit him again in his room. Soon after I arrived, a bottle of whiskey materialized on a small table. I can still see him sitting opposite me in the dim light, scrutinizing an ice cube in his glass. “There’s something I’d like to tell you,” he finally said, “something I’ve never told anyone before.” He had a kind of recurrent notion, he began, and then he corrected himself: it was more of a feeling, an almost physical feeling of possessing a phantom body part. He’d gotten into the habit of imagining it to be a little box attached to the side of his head, one that no one else could see, he said. He didn’t know when the idea first occurred to him, but it soon seemed to contain things he hadn’t thought about in a long time: hopes he’d lost and dreams he’d mislaid and illusions he only dimly remembered, all of them mixed up together in a messy tangle. Sometimes he forgot all about the box; sometimes it moved of its own accord, migrating around his head and inching down the back of his neck, where he could no longer see it. And sometimes he felt the urge to open the box and peek inside, and all at once he would be confronted with an unintelligible cacophony of voices—all of them his, all of them immersed in some defunct hope he’d once had—and he soon developed a distaste for opening it altogether, but once in a while, he said, once in a while he needed to know where things were, for the sake of order. It had become easier to live as though the box didn’t exist, but sometimes the latch itched to be unfastened, “to let in a little air,” he said. And then he’d have to contend with the total sum of the box’s contents, and it had become less a matter of enjoying an old dream he’d succeeded in extracting from the tangle and increasingly a matter of contending with the full force of his lost illusions, and it was tiring indeed to be confronted by them in such number and concentration, at the very moment he had the least use for them. “The problem is,” Ignacio said quietly, the tip of his little finger stroking his fastidiously trimmed moustache, “how to dream without opening the box at all.”
One day a woman came to visit; I watched them walking arm in arm on campus, and after some deliberation I presumed she was his wife. Ignacio was obliged again and again to stop and converse with various students and faculty, and his companion often had to wait, nodding cordially and extending her hand in a gesture that began to grow limp. I couldn’t help but wonder if she hadn’t imagined the trip somewhat differently: a change of pace from their routine in a life and an intimacy I couldn’t begin to imagine. Perhaps Ignacio found it difficult to function without her; I pictured him pacing the room and debating a complicated problem as she listened patiently, deftly interjecting a comment here and there. Once I noticed her turn around and stare at a young student with a mane of wavy black hair; Ignacio raised his chin in what looked like disapproval, or indignation, and the woman’s gaze fluttered back and forth between them like a startled bird. I wondered if our guest had been subjected to an impertinence of some kind and grew angry. I’ll have to make a note of it; somebody should inform the dean that the freshmen don’t know how to behave toward our guests from abroad.
Soon afterwards, I learned that the woman’s name was Terezia. When I encountered them outside the Institute building one morning, I introduced myself and suggested the three of us go on a weekend picnic together. Ignacio was reserved, but accepted the invitation; Terezia seemed pleased and smiled. I prepared a few sandwiches and a thermos of iced tea; they brought along a deck of cards and a basket of fruit. It was unseasonably hot, and although a bead of sweat was trickling down the side of Terezia’s face and I had resorted to a pair of cut-offs, Ignacio seemed imperturbable in his long-sleeved shirt and jacket. We settled ourselves on the grass and made conversation; Terezia’s laugh came easily, and I could feel myself striving to please her, quietly reveling in her occasional teasing nudge. At some point she puckered her lips and blew disdainfully at Ignacio; then her eyes widened, blinking innocently above a sweetish smile. I gazed down at my strong, well-formed legs, the dark hairs curling over the hem of my sleeveless shirt; when I caught Ignacio’s eye, he countered my gaze calmly and looked away. Terezia was humming softly; then she tossed her hair to one side and lazily began shuffling the deck of cards. Shall we play rummy, she asked. It sounded like a challenge, and Ignacio responded with a snicker; I shrugged and hazarded a wry smile. Terezia began dealing, and each card snapped with a resolute click as she laid it face down on the blanket: one for me, one for Ignacio, one for her, around and around in threes, accruing in fan-shaped piles before us.
There is a way the body begins to respond autonomously in relation to another body, registering even the slightest movement; an invisible organ amasses an array of data recording smell, sound, and temperature; monitors how each body occupies space, measuring their precise proximity in the tiniest, most infinitesimal of increments. I propped myself on an elbow; Terezia drew a card, cast me an oblique glance, and then she stretched out her legs, delicately arranging her dress around her. Ignacio ignored her, sternly scrutinizing his own hand and waiting silently for his turn. I regarded the absurd contrast between Ignacio’s slight figure and his insuperable masculinity, wondering what it was that commanded such respect. Then he raised his eyebrows as a caustic smile gathered about his lips. “We used to believe in something like romantic love, do you remember, Terezia?” Terezia flashed Ignacio an angry look, yet he continued, amused. “Do you remember? But then we discovered that it was all about seduction, didn’t we? Conquering the object; the allure of what we are not.”
All at once, I was dismayed at the way my body attracted attention; a moment before it had felt comfortable in its easy grace, its smug beauty, but now my limbs seemed unnaturally elongated to me, like errors in proportion indicating some deeper-lying defect. We played game after game that afternoon; I found myself struggling to concentrate as Terezia’s temper grew worse with each hand she lost. At some point I noticed that my leg was asleep; I attempted to shake it, but was immediately seized with a cramp that precluded any further movement. Frantically, I began to massage it, trying all the while to suppress a feeling stirring inside me, scuttling through a chain of reactions like a mouse inside a maze, a feeling that seemed old and oppressive and so agonizingly near that it was impossible to apprehend it in its entirety. I stole a look at Ignacio; he drew a card, issued a quick snort, and shot a sideways glance at Terezia. He was teasing her, yet her anger was real; it had become important for her to win, and she no longer seemed to take any notice of me. My leg was all pins and needles now, I would have liked to stand up and move around or to leave altogether, but escape was out of the question—the very thought of fabricating an excuse, of drawing Ignacio’s and Terezia’s attention to myself filled me with trepidation. Suddenly, making no effort to conceal his pleasure, Ignacio presented his hand in a triumphant flourish, and there they were, as plain as day: the nine, ten, Jack, Queen, and King of Spades. Terezia threw down her cards in a fury.
“You can’t keep up with a simple game—how do you expect to contend with the reality surrounding you?” Ignacio glared at Terezia, daring her to answer; I wrapped my arms around me, hiding my hands as though I’d been caught at some childish crime. What was that, and why did it feel so familiar: that stab of jealousy; the shame? I hastened to quell the surge of panic rising up within me, seizing the opportunity to stomp my foot and get the blood circulating again. “But it’s only a silly deck of cards,” I ventured in a voice that sounded small and muffled, as though it were being transmitted from inside a tiny room. I gathered up the cards to shuffle them; on a whim, I picked out the Jack and King and laid them next to one another—face to face, united at last, and alone. And then I felt my cheeks flush as I saw Terezia staring down at them in disbelief. Ignacio clucked his tongue. “You could have guessed that the Queen wouldn’t approve of that.”
Terezia stood up and smoothed her skirt; I could barely look in her direction as she gathered her things and walked away with an almost casual dignity. I felt one part of me running after her, imploring her to stay, while the other part remained fixed to the spot, watching the catastrophe unfold. All at once I imagined a sorcerer sprinkling me with a magic potion and my feet taking wing, and I saw myself flying to her, crying out words endowed with a secret charm meant for her and her alone, and then she would turn around and a smile would gather about her lips as I rushed toward her, longing for the bright light of her love to envelope me forever. And then, all at once, I stumbled and fell to the ground. Jimmy Giraffe! Always tripping over his own two feet! The way the words stung, followed by the laughter, raining down on me like so many blows. Sticks and stones and Mother’s soothing voice, yet her eyes were turned to him, weren’t they, she always deferred to him, didn’t she; how I hated her for that.
Later that night, Ignacio came to my room and knocked, and while we avoided each other during the day, we were together again the next night, and the night after that. Ignacio always waited for me to fall asleep before he left, and I often imagined him turning off the light and pausing for a moment before he gently closed the door. I settled into work in the weeks that followed, leaving my room only when it was absolutely necessary; although it lingered in the air with the viscosity of an unarticulated question, we did not speak of Terezia again. When Ignacio announced one day that I should come and live with him, he stated it as though it were a cold, impersonal fact. I nodded, and then, all at once, I had to shiver; I pictured myself leaving my life behind me like an abandoned shoe. Somehow, I sensed that I meant nothing to this man, yet I felt certain I would obey; I would read his eyes to learn what he wanted from me, and perhaps one day I would earn his approval. “Do not trouble yourself about Terezia,” Ignacio said, picking a hair off his sleeve with a mild frown as he broke our silence for the first time. “She is hurt, but in her heart, she understands.” She was a friend, he said, an old and very dear friend; she would help me attend to things, and I was to rely on her kindness, he said. There was an oddly practiced sound to his words, and I wondered if I was merely part of a routine that Terezia had long since grown accustomed to, just another wobbling planet whose center of gravity had succumbed to his superior magnetic pull. Ignacio was gazing remotely into space; one hand was scratching the side of his head, and then it crept around to the back of his neck as though in pursuit of some persistent itch. Once there had been something between them, he continued; soon, however, they came to accept that desire was something in constant commotion, like a hurricane—requiring a continuous stream of heat to keep it alive and consuming everything in its path. “Friendship is for life,” Ignacio pronounced with a smile, “but desire makes me think of death, of the vacuum at the core of each moment.”
Mulling over Ignacio’s words the next morning, I happened upon Terezia sitting on one of the benches flanking the wide lawn. I was startled; I thought she’d flown back to Madrid weeks ago. She seemed lost in thought, with one hand resting tentatively on the page of an open book. She flinched a little when I greeted her; on an impulse, I offered to show her some of the countryside. Not far from campus was a view from the heights, I explained, over the river and all the way to the hills in the distance—wouldn’t she like to come and see? Terezia stood up and silently complied; her summer dress swung loosely over her body as we followed the path leading to the bluffs. Increasingly, it seemed, I was turning into a person who never quite knew what he might do next; I often found myself recalling events with considerable delay, as though my mind needed time to absorb a thing before setting about distilling any sense from it. I wondered what I wasn’t comprehending; whether I’d come to symbolize something for them, perhaps, some ineluctable fact that had eclipsed a more innocent time. Or quite possibly they regarded me with a degree of derision, incredulous at my ingenuousness, at my torpidity. Suddenly, I noticed that the label of Terezia’s dress was showing; I pulled her gently by the arm and tucked the little rectangle of fabric back into place beneath the zipper. “Idiot,” she hissed, and then she hastened to conceal her anger behind an imperious smile. I looked at the fragile line of her spine disappearing beneath the dress, at her firm, round buttocks beneath the light fabric, her nut-brown hair falling loosely over her shoulders, and then I wondered about Ignacio, about myself—why this wasn’t enough, why this beauty, these feminine attributes weren’t enough to make a man happy and content.
Have you ever wanted to kill someone? The first time it occurs to you, you wonder about yourself, that you’re able to think such a thought, and you rationalize it away as best as you can. You tell yourself it was an anomaly brought on by excess strain; you quickly brush it aside. The next time it crosses your mind, you become agitated; you think of how deep the rift must be, how distant the social structure must seem to those who have transgressed it so thoroughly. A quiet chill mingles with a sense of gratitude that life hasn’t led you on this path, yet you catch yourself pondering it more and more frequently. First fearfully, then less so, you imagine ways to kill without getting caught; you wonder what it would feel like to live with such a secret. Would you be consumed with regret? Would you go mad? Or would you eventually forget?
Later that afternoon, I was alarmed by the sound of someone beating at my door; I proceeded quietly toward the source of the disturbance and hesitated, my hand lingering on the knob. Finally I turned it and Ignacio stormed inside. “Terezia is gone. I have looked everywhere, but she’s disappeared—without the slightest trace.” He was in a state of great agitation; we combed the campus until there was no place left to search, and then I led him into the cafeteria and urged him to sit down. “Typical woman,” Ignacio cried out in a burst of rage. “You’d think she’d have grown accustomed to it by now.” His hands were trembling; he set down his cup of coffee with difficulty and held them out before his eyes. Suddenly, he laughed. “Do you know what I think,” he whispered, motioning for me to come closer, then holding a finger aloft in admonition. “She is hiding inside my box, that’s where she is; she thinks I can’t find her there, but she’ll see that she’s wrong! I’ll find her, and I’ll fish her out, stupid woman—she has no business in there, and I’ll see to it if I have to empty the whole thing out!” And then I could see Terezia, diminishing in size inside the box, growing smaller and smaller until all that was left was a tiny dot, and Ignacio chasing after her, and the more I considered it, the more it seemed to me that you’d eventually grow accustomed to the thought; you’d find yourself able to think it even with the person sitting and speaking before you; you’d pretend to be interested, smiling and nodding and all the while thinking: had I poisoned that coffee, I would be waiting calmly for the hand to transport it to a waiting mouth, silently counting the last seconds of a life in which it would still be possible to intervene, to cry out Stop!—but instead you watch as the cup tilts and the liquid swells to meet the parted lips; you smile, and you will continue to smile as the person before you begins to sputter and choke, and your unflinching gaze will meet a pair of desperate eyes widening with the sudden, awful certainty that it was you who brought this about, by means of a sly and unwavering intention.