***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***
Copyright © 2016 Milena Busquets
For some strange reason, I never considered what it would be like to be forty. When I was twenty, I could imagine myself at thirty, living with the love of my life and a bunch of kids. Or at sixty, baking apple pies with my grandchildren – me who can’t boil an egg to save my soul, but I would learn. Even at eighty, as an old bag drinking whisky with my girlfriends. But I never imagined myself at forty, not at fifty either. And yet here I am. It’s my mother’s funeral, and if that’s not bad enough, I’m forty. I have no idea how I got here, how I got to this town that suddenly makes me want to puke. I swear I’ve never dressed so badly in my entire life. When I get home I’m going to burn every last piece of clothing I have on today – they’re all drenched in exhaustion and sadness, there’s nothing worth saving. All my friends are here today, and a few of hers, and some others who don’t seem to be friends of anybody. A huge crowd of people, and yet some of the important ones are missing. Illness evicted her from her throne so cruelly in the end, it completely destroyed her kingdom, and pretty much screwed us all up one way or another. And you pay for those things when the funeral comes round. First there’s you, Mum, the dead person, who fucked them over, and then me, the daughter, whom they were never fond of anyway. It’s all your fault, Mama, you know that? Little by little, unawares, the weight of your dwindling happiness found its place on my shoulders. And it weighed so heavily, so heavily, even when I was far away, even when I began to understand and accepted what was happening, even when I separated myself from you for a while, because I realised that if I didn’t, you wouldn’t be the only casualty left in the wreckage. But I do think you loved me, not a lot, not a little, you just loved me, full stop. I have always thought that people who say ‘I love you so much’, actually love you very little, or maybe they add the ‘so much’, which in this case really means ‘so little’, out of awkwardness, or fear at the sheer command of an ‘I love you’, which is the only real way of saying ‘I love you’. The ‘so much’ turns it into something for the general public, when it’s never meant to be. ‘I love you’, the magic words that can turn you into a dog, or a god, a lunatic, a shadow. Anyway, most of your friends were ‘progressive’, though I don’t think that’s what they call them now, or maybe they don’t even exist as a collective any more. They didn’t believe in God, or life after death. I remember when it was so fashionable not to believe in God. Nowadays, people gawp at you in embarrassment if you say you don’t believe in God, or in Vishnu, or Mother Earth, or reincarnation, or the spirit of something or other, or in anything at all, and they say: ‘Oh, so you’re not illuminated.’ The people who didn’t show up must have calculated the situation and decided: ‘Better to stay home, on the couch, with a bottle of wine, and pay respects in my own way, which will be more meaningful than going to the mountains with her idiot offspring. After all, funerals are just another social convention.’ Or something like that. Because I imagine they forgave you, if there was anything to forgive, and that they loved you. As a young girl, I used to watch you all laugh together, playing cards until the sun came up, roving and skinny-dipping and going out for dinner, and I think you had fun, you were happy. The problem with families of choice is that they disappear more easily than the blood ones. The adults I grew up with are either dead or living who knows where. They’re certainly not here, under the blazing sun that’s melting my skin and cracking the earth. I know this narrow, winding trail through the olive grove by heart. Despite only spending a few months a year in the town, it is, or was, the way home, leading to all the things we liked. I don’t know where it leads now. I should have grabbed a hat to wear, although it’d just be another thing to throw away. I feel dizzy. I think I’m going to sit down next to this dreadful angel with swords for wings and never get up again. And here’s Carolina, always so aware of everything; she takes me by the arm and leads me over to the wall where nobody can see us. From here I can catch sight of the sea, now close by, just beyond a hill of exhausted olive trees. Mum, you promised that when you died my life would be on track and structured, that the pain would be bearable. You never said I would feel like ripping my guts out and eating them. And you told me these things before you started lying. There was a moment when you, a person who never told a fib, started lying and I don’t know what sparked it. The friends who have gone out of their way to be here weren’t around you much towards the end, they remember the glorious person you were ten or ten thousand years ago. And here are my friends, Carolina, Mercè, Elisa and Sofía. Mum, in the end we decided not to bury Patum with you. This isn’t Pharaoh’s Egypt, you know. I appreciate how convinced you were that her life would have no meaning without you, but if you stop to think about it, she’s a big dog and she would never have fitted in the niche – I can just imagine the two undertakers pushing her in the bum to squish her in, like we used to do so many times at sea, to get her up the steps and onto the boat after a swim – and, anyway, I’m pretty sure the whole idea of being buried with a dog, well, it’s illegal. Even if she were dead, like you. Because you are dead, Mum. I’ve been saying that over and over for two days now, asking my friends over and over in case it’s just some big mistake or maybe a misunderstanding, but they’ve assured me every time that the unthinkable has happened. Aside from the fathers of my children, there is only one interesting man here, and he’s a stranger. I know, here I am on the verge of collapsing from the horror and the heat, and despite everything, my radar can still hone right in on the presence of an attractive man. It must be the survival instinct kicking in. I ask myself what are the protocols of hooking up with someone in a cemetery. I ask myself whether he’ll come up to me to pay his respects. I don’t think so. Coward. A handsome coward though – but what is a coward doing at my mother’s funeral, the least cowardly person I’ve ever known in my entire life? Maybe that girl by your side, holding your hand and staring at me so adamantly and with such curiosity, is your girlfriend. Isn’t she a little short for you? OK, midget girlfriend of the mysterious coward, today is my mother’s funeral, I have the right to do and say whatever I want. As if it was my birthday. Can’t hold it against me.
The funeral is almost over. Twenty minutes in all, the silence nearly complete, no speeches, no poems – you promised you’d rise from the dead and haunt us for eternity if we let any of your poet friends recite – no prayers, no flowers, no music. It would’ve been even shorter if the geriatric undertakers who were charged with hoisting the coffin into the niche hadn’t been so clumsy. I get that the beautiful man is not going to approach me and change my life, though I can’t think of a better and more suitable time than this; however, he could have had the decency to help the pair of fossils when the coffin almost fell to the ground. One of them shouted, ‘Bloody hell!’ These are the only words pronounced at the funeral. They seem very appropriate ones, very precise. I guess all funerals I attend from now on will be yours. We take off slowly down the hill. Carolina grabs my hand. It’s over. My mother is dead. I think I’ll head over to the municipal register in Cadaqués. Now that you live here, it’s the best place for me, too.
To the best of my knowledge, the only thing that momentarily alleviates the sting of death – and life – without leaving a hangover is sex. It only lasts a few seconds, though; maybe a little longer if you fall asleep afterwards. But then the furniture, the clothes, the memories, the lamps, the panic, the grief, everything that had been whooshed up into the The Wizard of Oz tornado comes right back down and falls into its place in the room, in the head, in the belly. I open my eyes not to see garlands of flowers and singing dwarfs around me, no; I’m lying in bed next to my ex. The house is quiet except for the cries of children playing in the swimming pool outside, drifting in through the open window. The clear blue light brings the promise of yet another day of sun and heat, and I watch the tops of the sycamore trees sway serenely from my bed, remarkably indifferent to misfortune. Apparently, there was no event of spontaneous combustion in the deep of the night, the branches haven’t turned into murderous, flying swords, no blood is dripping from them – nothing like that has occurred. I look at Oscar out of the corner of my eye without daring to move, aware that my slightest gesture could awaken him; it’s been a while since we slept together. I take in his long, firm body and slightly concave chest, his narrow hips and cyclist’s legs, his large, unequivocally masculine features, somewhat animal-like in their expressiveness and robustness. ‘I like that he has a man’s face,’ my mother told me after running in to him for the first time in the lift of our building and realising, without needing an introduction, that this bullheaded boy with his shy teenage body, always hunched forward just a little, was on his way to my apartment. And she said flirtingly: ‘It’s so hot that I can have a shower fully dressed, sit down to write with my clothes soaking wet, and within half an hour they’re already dry!’ By the time he got to my apartment he was roaring with laughter. ‘I think I just met your mother,’ he said as I quivered with impatience. Oscar’s body was my only home for a while, my only place in the world. Then we had a son. And finally we got to know each other. One tries to behave as a forest creature, guided by instinct, by one’s skin, the cycles of the moon, responding promptly and gratefully and with a little relief, to the calling of all that doesn’t require thought, that’s already been measured and decided for you by your body or the stars. Yet there always comes the day when it’s time to stand up and start talking. What theoretically has happened just once in our collective history, when humans went from scuttling around on four legs to standing straight and using reason, is what happens to me every time I fall out of love. And every time, it’s a crash-landing. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve tried to get back together. Something always gets in the way, usually to do with his strong character, or mine. He has a girlfriend now, but that hasn’t stopped us from sharing a bed today, or from his being by my side over these six dark months of hospitals and doctors and battles that were lost before they’d even begun. Mum, what got into you? How did you ever think you could win this battle, the last one, the one nobody ever wins? Not the smartest, nor the strongest, not the bravest or the most generous, not even the ones who deserve it most. I could have reconciled with a peaceful death. We had discussed death so many times, but we never thought the bitch would take your head before taking the rest, that she would leave you with a few little crumbs of intermittent lucidity, just enough to make you suffer a little bit more.
Oscar is a firm believer in the healing power of sex, the sort of man whose natural pluck and robust condition lead him to the idea that there is nothing whatsoever, no disgrace, no disturbance, no disappointment, that a little sex can’t fix. Feeling sad? Fuck. Have a headache? Fuck. Computer crashed? Fuck. You’re broke? Fuck. Your mother died? Fuck. Sometimes it works. I slink out of bed. Oscar is also of the mind that making love is the best way to start the day off. I prefer to be invisible in the morning, and don’t reach my full mind–body union until around lunchtime. The sink is brimming with dirty plates, and the fridge offers a meagre pair of expired yogurts, a wrinkly apple and a couple of beers. I open one, since there’s no coffee or tea left. The trees waggle their leaves outside the living-room window to bid me good morning, and I see that the blinds are down at the elderly woman’s place opposite ours, so she must already be on holiday, or maybe she died, it’s hard to say. It feels as though I’ve been living in some other place for months. I’m still covered in last night’s sweat, mixed with a little of the bull man’s, too. I sniff below the collar of my shirt and distinguish a foreign smell, the invisible traces left by the blissful invasion of my body by another one, of my skin – so compliant and permeable – by someone else’s skin, of my sweat by someone else’s sweat. Sometimes not even a shower can erase the hint of it, which I notice for days, like a lewd but flattering dress that grows ever fainter, until it disappears altogether. I touch my temple with the bottle of beer and close my eyes. This is supposedly my favourite time of the year, but now I have no plans. Your decline has been the only plan on my calendar for months, maybe years. I hear Oscar tinkering around in the bedroom. He calls out to me.
— Come here, quick, I have something important to tell you.
It’s one of his sexual ploys and I pretend not to hear him. If I pay attention, we won’t get back out of bed until lunch, and I don’t have time for that; death carries with it a thousand administrative details. He continues griping and calling out to me for ten solid minutes. He says he can’t find his pants, I must have hidden them – sure, I have nothing better to do right now than play hide-and-seek with your underwear. He finally comes out of my bedroom, doesn’t say a word, just walks up behind me and starts kissing my neck, pressing me up against the table. I continue organising my papers as if nothing’s going on. He nips hard at my ear. I cry out. I don’t know whether to smack him or not. By the time I make up my mind and raise my hand, it’s already too late. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he takes off your knickers and flicks them aside. And the animal in me – perhaps the only thing that hasn’t been reduced to ashes over the past few months – arches her back, grabs the table for support and tenses her entire body. Just as I’m about to haul off and give him that smack, my other heart begins to throb, the one just invaded by his cock, and once that happens, nothing else matters.
— You shouldn’t drink beer in the morning, Blanquita. Or smoke, he adds, watching me light a cigarette.
He looks at me with the same mixture of pity and concern as everyone else over the past few days, and I’m not sure whether these expressions are a reflection of what’s on my face, or vice versa. I haven’t really looked in the mirror for a long time, or have glanced without really seeing myself, just to straighten up a little. This specular relationship has never been under so much strain. My mirror, mon semblable, mon frère, wishes to remind me that the party is over. But there’s tenderness in the way Oscar’s looking at me too, which is a feeling akin to love, it’s not just pity and concern. I’m not accustomed to being the object of people’s sympathy and it makes my stomach heave. Would you please just go back to looking at me the way you did five minutes ago? Just turn me back into an object, a toy? Something to possess and that gives you pleasure, not full of despair, not somebody who just lost the person she loved the most in life and who sped through the streets of Barcelona on a motorcycle, but still didn’t get there in time?
— I think you should take off for a few days, get some fresh air. There’s nothing for you to do here and the city’s completely deserted.
— Yeah, you’re right.
— I don’t want you to be by yourself.
— No. I don’t mention how I’ve been feeling alone for months now.
— The worst is over.
I burst out laughing.
— The worst and the best. Everything is over.
— There are a lot of people who care about you.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this over the past few days. The silent, chatty army of people who care about me has risen up at the precise moment when all I want is to go to bed and be left alone. With my mother by my side, holding my hand and brushing my forehead with hers.
— Yeah, yeah, I know. Much obliged. I don’t tell him that I don’t believe in other people’s love – even my mother stopped loving me for a while – because love is the most unreliable thing in the world.
— Why don’t you spend a few days in Cadaqués? It’s your house now.
How can you say that, you stupid, foolish, disrespectful brute? I think in a snap as I look him right in those big, caring, concerned eyes. It’s my mother’s house. And it always will be.
— I don’t know, I respond.
— The boat’s already in the water. It’ll do you good to be there.
Maybe you’re right, I tell myself. The town witches have always protected me. Cadaqués is a remote place, isolated by mountains and only accessible by way of a hellish road, where savage winds drive anyone who doesn’t strictly deserve the beauty of its skies, the pinkish light of its summer sunsets, completely mad. I’ve seen the witches there since I was a little girl, scrambling over the bell tower, cackling or scowling, expelling or embracing the newly arrived, instigating arguments between lovesick couples, instructing the jellyfish as to which legs or bellies to sting, placing sea urchins strategically just below the right feet. I’ve seen how they’d paint breathtaking sunrises to alleviate the most apalling hangovers, turn each of the town’s streets and hidden corners into welcoming bedrooms, blanket you in velvety waves that wash the cares and troubles of the world away. And, well, there’s a new witch now.
— Yeah, maybe you’re right. Cadaqués. I’m going to Cadaqués. And I add: — Tara! Home. The red earth of Tara, I’ll go home to Tara … After all, tomorrow is another day.
I take a long pull of my beer.
— What film is that from? I ask him.
I think you’re mixing Gone with the Wind and E.T., he says chuckling.
— Oh, yeah, you’re right. The beer on an empty stomach is making me say really idiotic things. — How many times did I force you to watch Gone with the Wind?
— Many times.
— And how many times did you fall asleep?
— Nearly every one.
— Yeah, you’ve always had crappy taste in films. You’re such a snob.
For once he doesn’t talk back, he just looks at me with a smile on his face, eyes full of wishful thinking. Oscar is one of the few adult men I know whose face can express the eagerness of hope, as if he were expecting the Three Kings to come with gifts of frankincense and myrrh. I’ve never told him this; I’d prefer he didn’t know. Hope is the hardest facial expression to fake and the ability to express it diminishes with every broken dream; the only thing that can substitute their loss is ordinary desire.
— It’ll be OK, Blanca, you’ll see.
— I know, I lie.
He has to go to Paris for a few days for work, he says, but as soon as he gets back he’ll come up to Cadaqués. He sighs and adds: — I’m not sure what to do with my girlfriend. Men always, always, always have to screw it up. My face takes on the air of deep concern, another expression that’s tough to fake, though not as much as hope, and slam the door.
Don’t know what I’m going to do without my mum.
Nicolas thinks you’re up in heaven playing poker with Snowflake (Barcelona Zoo’s late albino gorilla). Despite only being five years old, he’s so staunchly convinced about it that sometimes he makes me wonder. From the height of my forty years, I may have known you infinitely more closely, but in the latter days I think the children were the only ones able to work the miracle of accessing you, seeing through the haze of illness to face the person you had been. They alone were truly caring and clever enough to resuscitate you. They are the lucky ones, they never hated you for a minute – I can’t imagine a better place for you. Now he draws you in his pictures flying over our heads, a blend of teasing witch and awkward fairy godmother, not very different from the way you were in real life.
They just got back from spending a few days with Guillem, the father of my elder son. They’re suntanned, a little taller and salad-laden, with tomatoes and cucumbers fresh from Guillem’s garden. I always accept these offerings of fruits and vegetables with a show of enthusiasm and end up throwing them all in the bin with the first insect that rears its ugly head when I’m cleaning them, especially given my scant interest in all things agrarian.
— Guillem, the only apples for me are the kind Snow White eats. I don’t like eco apples because every time I go to take a bite, I feel like I’m about to decapitate a worm. It makes me queasy. Get it?
— Sure, so you prefer poisoned apples, huh? Well, never fear, we’ll bring a few next time – they might just do the trick.
He acts out the gesture of cutting his throat, with his eyes closed and tongue lolling, sending the children into a fit of giggles. They adore his mixture of silliness and common sense, how he can bring the events of the French Revolution to life, and then run out to the garden and plant tomatoes.
Guillem is an archaeologist, a drinker, he’s cultivated, caring and intelligent, a Catalan through and through, considerate, a cheat, strong, cagey, generous, a lot of fun and very stubborn. His motto is ‘I’m not in the mood for kicking up shit’ and except for the years when we were together, when his mood seemed perfect for kicking up a lot of shit, he pretty much adheres to it. We have a love–hate relationship. I love him and he pretends to hate me all the time. But his hatred brings more good things than the love of most of the people I’ve known. He kept Patum, my mother’s dog, since she’d been ours for a few years before we separated. We left her in my mother’s care once to go on a trip, and when I went to pick her up, she told me she was keeping her, that Patum would be better with her mother and sister. So you kept our dog, Mum. You made her yours, like you did with everything you loved, with everyone, you took their lives away from them, and gave each one another life back, much larger and more carefree and fun than anything they’d known before or after. But it came with a price, it meant living under your relentless scrutiny, like prisoners of a love that as you yourself described would never, ever, in a million years, be blind. Except for the dogs, maybe, but only them. Patum outlived her mother and her sister. I knew the end was approaching the day you let us take her back and there was no argument about how she couldn’t stay with you any more. If you were willing to let your dog go, you were willing to let everything go. We’d been in a free fall for two years, and the bottom of the precipice was nigh. That afternoon, with your hand still within my reach, I initiated the process to have you buried at the cemetery in Port Lligat. Patum came to your funeral, the only dog there. Guillem dressed her collar with a black ribbon – the kind of idea that would occur to him – and she behaved like a perfect lady. She didn’t sprawl with her legs out everywhere like she usually does, but sat up solemnly and primly in the shade sporting her black ribbon. Guillem wore his old jeans and a shirt, ironed especially for the occasion, that pulled just a little bit at the belly. I think you would have liked the image of it, you would have sat down next to them – not much in the mood for kicking up shit either – your hand patting your dog’s head, observing the silent funeral. Who knows, you might have been there.
— Well, Blanquita, as you can see the children have been fed well. Right, guys?
They both agree, well instructed.
— No frozen pizzas, none of those nasty toxic noodles your mum likes to feed you?
They both say no.
— Yeah, Mum, we ate really well, Nicolas, the younger one, says.
— I’m so glad to hear that.
— By the way, you know they’ve banned those pre-cooked noodles you’re so fond of, don’t you? Guillem says. Now you’ll have to buy them on the black market.
He laughs. I glare at him with hatred in my eyes until a giggle escapes.
— And they’ve been to the swimming pool every day. Every day. When was the last time you took them to the pool?
— Never, the two boys exclaim in unison.
Guillem smiles triumphantly.
— Mama, they sell cheese puffs at the pool Guillem takes us to. And they make him special gin and tonics.
Guillem signals with his hand for them to keep quiet.
— Gin and tonics, huh? Who wouldn’t want to go to a pool like that?! And cheese puffs. They’re grown ecologically too?
— All righty then … No, seriously, it’s good for the children to spend time outdoors, in the fresh air, and there’s nothing for them to do here. This city is unbearable in the summer. Actually, it’s unbearable all year round. Why don’t you go up to Cadaqués for a few days? You’ll enjoy it there. The boat’s in the water, isn’t it?
Yes, Tururut is in the water. My mother took care of everything.
You know, Mum, how crazy was that? Did you really think you’d be able to go boating? I wonder if the sea is there now, without you. Is it the same sea? Or will it have turned in on itself and become a tiny thing, like a neatly folded napkin that you carried off with you in your pocket?
— That’s settles it then – I’m sure she would have wanted us to take advantage of it.
I accompany Guillem to the door; he pats me on the shoulder a few times.
— Come on, cheer up. We’ll hang out in Cadaqués next week, OK? You’ll see – it’ll be great. Peaceful.