If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
For Graciela Tabak
The woman entered the apartment trying not to make a sound. The telephone rang just as she was putting down her shop- ping bags, and she ran to answer with the urgency of someone who expects something from a telephone call.
“Hello,” she said in a low voice.
“Sure enough. I thought you’d be there.”
The shrill voice felt like a stiletto piercing the back of her neck.
“I suppose you did, otherwise you wouldn’t have called.”
“What a nasty trick,” said the voice, paying no attention to her. “And on such a beautiful Sunday. Really, Leonardo could have been here for the weekend.”
“I already told you that the symposium was very important to him. And San Juan isn’t around the corner, in case you hadn’t noticed. He can’t go back and forth at your whim.”
“As far as I’m concerned … ” There was a pause. “What bothers me is that you have to be shut in there on such a beautiful Sunday.”
“I’m not shut in, why should it bother you? And I couldn’t care less if it’s a beautiful day or not,” the woman took a breath. “And if I felt like going out, I’d go out. Is that clear?”
“As clear as can be.”
The woman noticed a note of either offense or pain in the other voice, but she didn’t feel the slightest desire to say something friendly. Or, for that matter, to say anything at all.
“And how is our baby?” the voice rose up once more. “I thought she seemed a little sad the other day.”
“You thought so? I haven’t had a chance to think of her at all. In fact, I haven’t even seen her in the last few days.”
“What do you mean you haven’t seen her? Where is she? Bea, is something wrong with the child?”
She’s sick with fear, thought the woman named Bea. As if the world she knew could just burst into pieces. With a brusque movement, she brushed the hair off her forehead. She can take care of her own life, she thought: I’ve got a handful with my own.
“I have no idea if there’s something wrong with the child. I suppose ruining my life must seem extremely interesting to her. What’s more, it appears to be the main purpose in her life.”
“I asked you where she is.” The hardness of the voice erased any vestige of pity Bea might have felt.
“What do you mean in bed? You told me that you hadn’t seen her for days … ”
Bea closed her eyes for an instant.
“Okay, okay. I didn’t mean that I haven’t seen her at all. I meant that it’s just as well if I did or not. She’s never here, and when she is, she stays in her room, or wanders around the house slamming every single door.”
“That’s only because of her age,” said the voice, “you have no idea how hard it is to be that age.”
“No, I have no idea?” murmured Bea.
“What was that?”
She closed her eyes to stop the tears. She was overwhelmed with resentment.
“Seriously, could you say that again? I didn’t get it,” the voice said.
Bea was shocked. She felt she had been on the verge of a discovery. She unwillingly resumed the conversation.
“I said it’s a real wonder that it’s only taken you thirty years to realize that.”
“Realize what? Bea, listen to me. Go out. You’re really very nervous.”
“I’m not nervous!” Bea shouted. She thought she shouldn’t have shouted. She turned around and stared anxiously at a closed door down the hall.
“You know I’m right. You’re a mess,” said the voice. “And naturally, if you stay locked up on a day like this just because Leonardo … And our baby? Why is she sleeping on such a beautiful day? Was she at a party?”
There was a tight silence, as if the two women were waiting for an explosion.
“I don’t know,” Bea finally said. “She must have gone somewhere, because at 9:00 she grabbed that guitar of hers and left.”
“You didn’t ask her where she was going,” the voice said sadly.
“No, I didn’t ask. Do you know why? Because the day before yesterday, at dawn, I had the bad idea of asking her. And she threw a tantrum. Do you think it’s too much to want to know where my 14-year-old daughter is going at 5:00 in the morning?”
“She left the house at 5:00 in the morning?”
Again, there was that small fear.
“She went out at 5:30, if that means anything to you. It seems she just had to see the sunrise from the river. The sunrise! As if she’d never seen a sunrise. No, this time it was different, she said. These terrific people would be there at the river to see the sunrise from the very beginning. I told her it was absurd, that she’d seen the sun come up thousands of times. At the river, at the beach, and at the top of Mount Shit.”
“Did you really say at the top of Mount Shit?” asked the voice.
“Who cares about that?” shouted Bea. “Why do you always have to ask such stupid questions?” She waited, but no sign came from the other end of the line. Finally, she managed to speak in a normal tone: “I told her it was ridiculous, is that okay with you? Ridiculous and dangerous on top of that, and then, do you know what she did? She started crying. She cried and while she cried she said that I always ruined everything, that I—can you believe this—I ruin the best things in her life. She was going to go anyway, because she’d made a date with those terrific people, but now it wasn’t the same. Because now—she doubted; she said it—now she wouldn’t be happy anymore.”
A small wound was just about to reopen somewhere, but she didn’t allow it to happen.
“And so that night, even though she walked right by me three times with that guitar of hers … Three times, can you imagine that? Three times right under your nose as if to make you ask where she’s going. With this look on her face that means either that she is dying to tell you something that matters a lot to her or that she’s only waiting for her next chance to tell you that she cannot be happy because of you. So I simply didn’t ask. Do you think I was wrong?”
“I don t know anymore what’s right and what’s wrong. Was she suffering?”
Bea raised her eyebrows, disconcerted.
“I was,” she took her hand to her chest. “I was suffering.”
On the other end of the line there was an audible sigh.
“My God, how hard it is to be a mother,” said the voice.
“And a daughter; let’s not even get into it.” She said it in a whisper. No sooner did she say it than she seemed to hear a small sound. Now she paid close attention.
“What did you say?” said the voice.
Bea didn’t listen to her. She was focused on the closed door down the hall.
“I’ve got to go, Mom,” she said.
“Where? Where do you have to go?” asked the voice.
Bea covered the speaker with her hand and did something unexpected: she howled.
“I’m busy,” she said, a bit calmer.
“Busy, what are you doing?” said the voice.
“For God’s sake,” she tried to moderate her tone as much as possible, “will you ever stop asking stupid questions?”
“What is it? Now you sound like a wounded dog,” said the imperturbable voice.
Bea shouted, “Once and for all, let me be!”
“I’m getting old, she thought she heard as she took the phone away from her ear. She didn’t try to find out. Before she’d finished giving form to an idea that, with some discomfort, installed itself in her head—could it be that the woman speaking to her was so afraid of being left alone that being humiliated didn’t matter as long as she could go on listening to her voice?—before that thought took form, her hand, automatically, hung up the phone. Once again, she was concerned only with what might be happening behind the closed door.
She waited a few seconds. Then, on tiptoe, she walked toward that door. She stopped a few steps from it and listened carefully: she didn’t hear a sound. She came closer and bent to put her ear to the door. But she immediately thought better of it. She took a step back, breathed deeply, and asked:
“Are you awake yet?”
She waited, but there was no answer.
“Are you awake yet?” she asked again.
This time the silence wounded her like an insult.
“I’m completely fed up with you!” she shouted. Then she entered the room.
There it was: the unmade bed, the night table cluttered with useless things, clothes thrown everywhere, the guitar, without its case, abandoned on the floor. And the window, uselessly exhibiting its sun and its joy.
She searched the apartment and called out several times, but it was obvious no one else was there.
She went back to the room and looked around. She needed a clue, even if she had no idea of what kind of clue. She saw a notebook on the night table, picked it up and looked quizzically at the drawings and names written on the cover. There was the faint noise of a door being closed, but she paid no attention to it. She leafed through the pages of the notebook as if she had lost something. “Hostile faces,” she read by chance; she felt wounded and went back. “She came from a fantastic world and brought a rose with her. She brought it to her house but only saw hostile faces there. Among those sitting around the table, there was no one who would receive her gift.”
You phony! she thought, with a violence that took her by surprise. When did you ever bring a rose home?
“What are you doing with my notebook?” she heard behind her back.
She did not immediately turn around. As if postponing the movement could strip away the reality of the scene that was unfolding.
But her daughter was right there, very real, and observing her disdainfully through her hair.
“So along with everything else you’re spying on me too,” she said. “Now that’s really gross.”
Bea was grief stricken. She felt sorry for herself.
“And what about you?” she shouted. “I leave the house for five minutes and you sneak away like a thief? Do you know what you are? You phony!”
Was it the repetition of the phony? Or the excessive scorn on the face of the teenager standing there looking at her? Or the feeling of overacting? The truth is she fleetingly recognized this: melodrama—like other excesses—can be our thirst for life gone astray. So for the second time that morning, she was on the verge of understanding something. Perhaps her daughter’s excessive hatred of her was not very different from her own need to howl. Or from her uncontrollable desire to be happy on a sunny day.
Then the telephone rang.
She ran to answer it with her heart wrecked by hope.
“Has our baby awakened yet?” asked the voice.
Something inside her collapsed.
“But you and I just got off the phone!” she shouted.
“Don’t shout at me,” said the voice. “I have feelings too!”
“I don’t care about your feelings!” shouted Bea. “Not yours or anyone else’s in the world!”
She heard the door of the apartment. It opened and slammed shut. Talk to me, talk to me, she heard before she hung up. It sounded like the voice of the only human being left on the world’s last night.
Translated from the Spanish by Alfred Mac Adam.
Alfred Mac Adam teaches Latin-American literature at Barnard College and Columbia University. He edits Review: Latin American Literature and Art, a publication of the Americas Society, and has translated the work of Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Alfredo Bryce Echenique.
Liliana Heker, born in Buenos Aires in 1943, is the author of the short story collections Los bordes de lo real and La crueldad de la vida, among others; the novels Zona de clivaje and El fin de la historia; and the essay collection Las hermanas de Shakespeare. The Stolen Party and Other Stories, translated by Alberto Manguel, was published by Coach House Press in 1994.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.