The Car

From Provisionality

This morning, since I was passing by Verges, I stopped at the cemetery to see my grandparents’ niche. It’s not like me to visit, but I had an extra half hour and I parked and entered the cemetery, for the first time since the burial at least a dozen years earlier.

Returning to the car, I was moved as I thought of the love stories sealed up in those niches, in the large and small amounts of passion and happiness that a person can amass in a lifetime. I can imagine–not in a grisly way at all–the laid‐out remains, the already decomposed clothes, the bones, the dust of those men and women that had passed through the threshold before me. And even though the cemetery was completely serene–it being a weekday and just a small cemetery on the outskirts of the town–and even though I was the only visitor and the early June morning light in the sky of the Ampurdan tempted me with such reasonable arguments for, at least during the walk back to the car, accepting and even appreciating the limited slice of life we are given, inside me I could also feel the bubbling and crackling of seeds splitting open, buried in flesh, and I understood, once again, that I had no choice but to accept death.

When I got into the car and started it, this time with the intention of going straight home, the landscape made me think of a woman from Roses whom I went to college with and hadn’t heard anything from or about in a thousand years. I remembered another morning, a Sunday morning, I can’t swear that it was also June, but I am sure it was one of those mornings with a sun that made you feel glad to be alive, fleshy white clouds in a clear blue sky. We had spent the night together at her house, and I now see perfectly how we grabbed our mugs and some croissants we had just defrosted and went out to breakfast at the garden table, and how from there we saw her car, covered with an inch of dust from the day before. And she says that later she’ll have to take it to the car wash, and I, not wanting to be apart from her, ask if she’d let me wash it.

And it was very satisfying. The cold soapy water, the bubbles sliding over the white hood, the cheery eighties music tapping at the windows from inside and her, in short pants with her feet up on the table and the sun shining on her legs, reading her book and every so often glancing at me and smiling. At twenty‐one years old, I couldn’t know that washing her car was one of those acts we use to unlock spiritual realities. That relationship materialized as an object as unexpected as a car–in metal, glass, and rubber–as her car, a Golf, and my desire to submit transformed into the purifying act of washing it. It is the images of that morning that came to my mind. Croissant crumbs on the plates and the tablecloth, and my skin wet and cool and the tickling of the soap foam in my hair, as I strove to also wash myself of the excessive awareness experienced in the best moments, when events take on their own life and you contemplate them from outside and you are like a god looking on his creation.

I rinsed the soap with buckets of water. The sun entered the car through the clean wet windows, and I hadn’t had enough and I went to the kitchen to look for rags and detergents, and I passed by her again, we kissed and I went into her car and started to energetically clean the inside.

We studied Literature together, that girl from Roses and I. And on Thursday evenings in Girona university students go out to bars, since it’s the last night before they return to their various towns to spend the weekend with family. One Thursday, in a stroke of luck our other classmates retired for the night one by one–or it wasn’t a stroke of luck but rather our persistence and eagerness–and she and I ended up alone, walking along the streets of the old quarter amid closed shops, still occasionally hearing a grate being lowered and the metallic bang against the ground, passing by phantasmagoric students like ourselves who were also on their way to bed, until finally, with a desire that had smoldered for months in the university’s hallways and tedious classes, I was able to take her hand and I felt that her fingers fit nicely with mine, and I didn’t know whether or not to believe a girl was actually pulling me toward her apartment, and the next day we skipped classes and an exam we’d spent weeks studying for. It was a stroke of luck too–or that was how I experienced it–that her parents happened to be traveling that weekend, and, in the evening, half dizzy with desire, we drove in her Golf to Roses, to their house, in a housing development with sea views.

We didn’t sleep a wink the second night. Staying up didn’t make us more sleepy, it made us less sleepy, not sleeping made us lose our desire to sleep, the sleepiness was intercepted by sex and we could happily imagine that we would never sleep again, that we would get used to the surprising and slightly embarrassing feeling of the daytime hours and that forever more, every night, we would turn into animals that scrabble through the forest led and nourished by the instinct to procreate, masters and slaves, grafted, melded into time according to a new agreement where it, time, became our skeleton, and the spine the girl and I shared turned out to be the rotational axis of this planet Earth. We made the sun come up and down according to our whims, and on Saturday, after breakfast, she drove me to visit Cap de Creus, and we spent all day wandering around, going down to the coves along barren paths, and swimming, we went to Cadaqués, we went to Cap Norfeu, we walked on that lava all dressed in black, we went to Llançà. Later, every time I’ve returned, I’ve found myself checking that the rocks hadn’t moved, that each one was in its place in my memory, the same as that Saturday, knowing that all slightly romantic landscapes accumulate stories like ours. She drove the car like a towboat, catching curves and blue skies in its net, and I felt that the engine was suffering from its efforts, that it was struggling, and in the evening, when we arrived at her house and she parked in the already dark yard, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to get out of the car and find that we had, unwittingly, towed the Rodes monastery along with us. I’m from inland, from generations and generations of farmers with their backs to the sea, no matter how close it was, and it has taken me many years to find any meaning in the beach and the sand. What I mean is that the coastal landscape was still a mystery to me. I see myself there as if it were today, so young, still curious, stretched out beside her, fascinated by the oh-so-different body of an animal of the same species, by the excessive beauty of her body, like a new art, intoxicated by the expressive possibilities it allowed, the escape it offered from the need for communication that would later end up defining my entire life, but still too young to be able to go much beyond the skin and the flesh, to couple with her body like a ventriloquist with his dummy. Neither my eyes nor my fingers had any method or intention, nor did I yet know that pulling off one sheet led to another sheet, and another, and another, nor did I have any need to know it, because at twenty-one I was little more than an embryo, and twenty years have had to pass before I truly understood a very sharp comment once made by a literature teacher in secondary school, just offhandedly: I’d like to meet you in twenty years, she told me.

I could search her name now on the Internet and get an idea, through her, of how I’ve changed. Suddenly and without transitions, twenty years, the unit of human measurement. A photo of her now would give me an idea of my own changes.

But this morning at the cemetery I felt more than ever on the side of the living, it’s impossible for me to imagine myself as one of them. Nothing sets me apart more than the fact of breathing and it would be irresponsible indolence, now, to allow myself to imagine the day of my burial, or the black, anxious days that could come after.

I haven’t heard from her again. As much as I’m tempted to touch the letters with the tips of my fingers, in order and one by one, I will not write her name. I don’t want any reader to be able to identify her as the mother of a classmate at their kid’s school, as the single neighbor whose steps can be heard through their ceiling or as that woman with whom they once committed adultery. I haven’t heard from her since and I’ve avoided seeking her out. Her name could be engraved on a niche like the ones I visited this morning and it wouldn’t change a thing.

What relationship must she have, in her head, with my memory? Does she have any trace of these images that today came back to me? Which of us experienced that story more deeply? Which of us got the most out of it? Would it be worth contrasting my memory archives with hers and creating an average, a robot portrait, a scientific reality? What use would a scientific reality serve?

Is it just a coincidence that I don’t have any photograph of that school year, nor the graduation class photograph where we’d surely both appear, not even a letter or the concrete memory of a phone number or an address? Doesn’t that seem a bit inhuman? Instead of stopping at the cemetery, today, couldn’t I have wanted to drive to that housing development, search for the street, the house where we spent that weekend?

How remote and faded these questions are, this lack of knowledge of the other, of the moment when our tone of voice, our words, our sentences and our pauses, our intonation merged. We spoke over each other, interrupting in mid-sentence and saying yes, yes, yes… Later it was all about separating ourselves from that. What’s got me on this jag? Should one live in the past? We shared every minute, we did everything together, drinking and needing to go the bathroom, we functioned with a single stomach. In fact, we didn’t eat. Stretched out in the bed for hours after making love, we didn’t care and had no way of knowing whose intestines had made the long croaking noise, our bellies were too stuck together to know who it had been, and I liked imagining that my sound came out of her tummy, a small consolation for a cannibal desire as frank as it was intense and impossible to realize. We were both hungry and our stomachs griped, but the greediness of our bodies eclipsed that hunger, which could calmly wait–even though after a few days my grandmother, the same one I visited this morning in the cemetery, with her eye sharpened from the lean times after the war, realized perfectly: Toni, aren’t you eating? You’ve lost weight! I’d love to know what I metabolized during those days. Because it wasn’t only that we weren’t eating, but also all the energy we were burning up.

So there we were, in the yard of her house. Barely midday on Sunday. Her parents were arriving in the early hours of the morning to the Barcelona airport and I was washing her car on the inside, sweating and with my skin wet with water and soap, with the music at top volume–it was the moment that music from Girona was exploding with the Sopes and Umpah–Pah, finally our phonetics–beating in my chest as I cleaned the steering wheel, the glove compartment, and the upholstery, with the force and rhythm of the speakers. It was then that I saw, on the floor under the seat, the metallic wrapper of a condom.

A crappy little wrapper, the top ripped open without splitting it in two–using a precise, expert tear, just enough to get the condom out, a delicate operation, without rough edges, without trembling fingers–a wrapper left on the floor between the Golf’s front and back seats, a piece of plastic with the raised relief of a ring still visible. Maybe no one had seen it because she never had passengers in the back seat, or maybe everyone had seen it, because no one who sat in the back seat could have missed it, even if they didn’t dare to mention it. Surely some family member had been forced to hide it, guiltily, so nieces and nephews or grandparents wouldn’t see it, putting their foot over it during an entire trip, or maybe, and this thought upset me more than any other, to the point that I still today remember the emotional charge that accompanied the idea, perhaps the wrapper had so recently been left there that no one had a chance to see it before me, maybe it was just from the previous weekend, maybe even Monday in Girona, maybe Wednesday, maybe Thursday, the afternoon before we ended up in bed together. How it shined, with the light coming through the wet windows! It wasn’t old at all! I ran my eyes frantically over the entire floor mat, terrified I’d now find the tangled, sticky condom itself. How disgusting. My heart banged against my ribs as if I were about to vomit up a squash ball, and a mechanism was triggered that was completely new to me, a furious and frightful web of assumptions, suddenly presenting me with unvarnished reality, the blow of evidence. It made me the butt of some joke, cleaning her car only to end up finding that.

Please. I never thought she was a nun and I’d had my own short sexual history (only the strictly necessary for me and my girlfriend from senior year in high school to lose our virginities. Our relationship had only lasted to the middle of freshman year of college when luckily she had decided to study in another department. We each found a different path and different classmates, and before long we were formalizing our separation), and I was no fool, but AIDS was at its height then. AIDS was the torment of my generation’s sexual initiation, as we suddenly found ourselves besieged by that hell of mortal dangers. Everything got even more complicated. Now the insecurities of the first sexual encounters were no longer enough. If you wanted to get a girl into bed, you had to bring the idea of your own death in there with her. Televisions, newspapers, radios, and movie theaters spread the preventive campaign of “put it on, put it on him” and no one escaped that warning; there was no way to ignore it, as if having to stop in the midst of the emotional tangle of the first few times to put on a condom, as if interrupting and then restarting those torrents of uncontrollable stimuli was easy for the beginners of my generation, or beginners of any other generation. Put it on, put it on him, suit yourself. As if stopping to open the condom was a joke, extracting it nervously from its wrapper–what an admirable work of precision, on the other hand, was the tear on the wrapper I found in her car–and then placing it and unsheathing it while trying to maintain your erection with the castrating loss of sensibility, with the flesh of both partners turned into cork. Nothing compared with the humiliating and uninspiring circus of the condom; the feats of Napoleon, Einstein, and Maradona were nothing compared to the heroic feat the ads sold as “put it on, put it on him.” How many of my friends ended up, because of a moment of weakness or an inability they were unable to surmount, dragging themselves, terrified, exposed to all their fears, to Barcelona–they would have gone to Patagonia if they could, the further from home the better–to get tested for AIDS like someone watching a coin they’d tossed fall from the sky to decide life or death. Was all that psychological terror worth it? Obviously not. You’d hear talk of a friend of a friend who’s dying, you’d find graphs with statistics of infected people in the newspaper, you’d compare the Spanish stats with other countries, rumors spread of porous condoms and condoms that break and we all saw Philadelphia, with Tom Hanks dying of AIDS, and we all had to listen, at some point or another, to that horrible story thought up just to scare kids, about the boy who spends the night with a strange woman and the next morning wakes up alone in bed to find she has written on the mirror in lipstick: I have AIDS, good luck.

Twenty years have had to pass for me to be able to say to myself–and draw conclusions from the circumstances–that I was saintly to bravely assume the risks that in other times a religious person assumed when committing a mortal sin. For the girls it was also awkward to ask the guy to put it on –you, risk of infection; you, Russian roulette; you, who knows who you’ve been with; or: you have to understand, I can’t make exceptions, if I make an exception with you I’d have to do it with everybody, the ones before and the ones after; you understand, I know the risks, the probabilities, I’m an expert in the matter; in other words, one of two things: either: I don’t trust you, maybe you’re infected and you don’t care if you infect me, or: you’d best not bet your life on me–and that was why we had done it like innocent lovers always have, replacing the condom with trust. Frozen with the rag in my hand, my eyes glued to the wrapper, I could still feel a thin crust of dried semen on the skin of my belly, the stiff, clear film, and I could see traces among the hairs on my arms, very similar to the sea salt I’d had on my skin the day before from Cap de Creus. I looked up from the wrapper and looked at her again, through the windshield, her legs shining, her feet on the table… We had fallen asleep embracing just after I had ejaculated again outside of her, and that sort of diluted glue had dried and had stuck our skin together. Like me, she hadn’t showered, and so she must have a gritty belly like mine. The question was so obvious! Why did she use a condom with somebody else, and not with me?

On the outside I was a young man, twenty-one years old, at the start of a relationship, luckily able to spend an entire weekend in bed with her. Inside was the direct line to the cells and the volcanic palpitation, the young animal obsessed with mating. So much energy searched for channels to go through, the question of the condom exacerbated it, it had me about to explode: why use a condom with someone else and not with me?

I visited the cemetery where my grandparents rest. In the end none of my friends were buried before their time because of AIDS. But I know that now, not then, as I looked at that crappy condom wrapper on the floor of the car. I could calm myself, in fact, thinking that she had protected herself, she had protected me, from someone else. But, how did she know that I wasn’t infected? And how could I believe I was the only one she hadn’t asked to put one on? The irrefutable essence of the discovery was that it proved–it made it impossible to hide–that there had been other boys. Maybe it had been him, who had put it on, without even consulting her! The male doesn’t share the decision, he doesn’t ask permission. Out of inexperience and bewilderment, terrified of losing my erection, I had chosen to go without a condom. He, able to tear open the wrapper without his fingers trembling, was more rational, more intelligent, he was above my immaturity, he had chosen to be more cautious. Out of habit? Because she was one of the three hundred and sixty‐five girls that he screwed each year? Was that was she had been reduced to? One in a cast of thousands? How old was he? I was tormented by his age, her experience with a man, with a full-fledged adult before encountering my lack of skill and fears! Had he worn it out of fear of infecting her or fear of being infected? I was drowning in distrust, paralyzed by growing panic. I looked at her again. Who was that stranger that lived in a strange house with strange people, who had brought me to see a landscape as foreign to me, at the time, as Cap de Creus? Who had I gone to bed with? If only I could turn back time! It’s always the same: once it’s been satisfied, desire feels envy of the time when it was all-powerful, and ends up hating itself. Then we turn our gaze to the advantages not giving in to it would have had, because we’ve already burned through every advantage of giving in.

Bios

Toni Sala

Toni Sala (b. 1969, Sant Feliu de Guíxols, Girona) is an author of fiction and nonfiction as well as a secondary school teacher of Catalan literature. His books include the short story collections Entomologia (1997) and Bones notícies (2001); the novels Pere Marín (1998), Goril·la blanc (2002), Rodalies (2004, Sant Joan Prize and the National Prize for Catalan Literature), and Quatre dies a l’Àfrica (2005); and the book-length essay Petita crònica d’un professor a secundària (2001), a controversial bestseller in which the author exposed the frustration prevalent among educators with disarming sincerity and raw candor.

Mara Faye Lethem

Mara Faye Lethem has translated novels by David Trueba, Albert Sánchez Piñol, Javier Calvo, Patricio Pron, Marc Pastor, and Pablo De Santis, among others. Her translations have appeared in The Best American Non-Required Reading 2010, Granta, The Paris Review, and McSweeney's. She is currently working on a novel by Idelfonso Falcones.

Provisionalitat. Copyright (c) Toni Sala, 2012. License given by Grup Editorial 62, S.L.U., Editorial Empúries. English translation copyright (c) Mara Faye Lethem, 2013.