Excerpts from Ursula

The slam of a door outside the bedroom convinced her that what had been a capricious epilogue to her nap, and the pleasant dream that lasted almost as long, had finally come to an end. The watch she had left on the night stand showed it was already six o’clock. She had spent at least an hour with her eyes half closed, enjoying the silence and semi-darkness. Her balance betrayed her as she rose, but she managed to capture her hair into a bun and then smoothly pull on a cover-up before exiting the room. She remained barefoot.

“The air current coming through the window we opened generated a low-pressure zone,” her husband was explaining when she entered the living room. Next to him, Tana listened with patient eyes. “The difference between this pressure and that of the resting air caused a force, which is what slammed the door shut.”

“Hi,” she said. They looked at her as if she were a stranger, despite the fact she had served them arroz cubano for lunch just a little while ago. “What are you two up to?”

They were settled on the couch, around a glass-topped table. On it was an open packet of saltines, her hairdryer, and a ping-pong ball.

“We’re going to do experiments,” her daughter replied.

Julio carefully moved a chair to clear the wall and plug in the hairdryer. She realized they had been waiting for her to finish her nap. Evidently they were being very considerate of her, though it was hard for Ursula to believe.

“I’ve been experimenting too,” she responded, looking toward the kitchen. She entered and opened the refrigerator, where at noon she had left a plastic container of blended coffee. She removed the lid and swirled the pitcher. Inside, the drink moved too, yet maintained the icy texture on top. Victory. The other days she had attempted it, at this same hour the slush had either converted into a hard, compact block of ice, or was just cold coffee. Ursula had not been able to hit on the precise amount of time the mixture needed in the freezer, the refrigerator, or at room temperature that would allow her to enjoy the perfect beverage following her siesta.

She returned to the living room with the slushy coffee in hand.

“Would you like one?” she offered to Julio, raising the glass to get his attention.

No one heard her. They had just connected the hair dryer. Ursula watched her husband as he aimed the air at the ceiling, and then, taking the ping-pong ball, brought it closer to the flow of hot air.

“OK, Tana-ready, set…”

“Go!” cried the little girl enthusiastically.

Julio moved his hand away and the ball remained suspended in the air, a few centimeters above the appliance. Perplexed, her daughter looked at Ursula, and Ursula also opened her eyes wide in response. She did not share the belief that Tana, at four years old, should have to spend the entire day in physics lessons, but she had no desire to rehash the disagreement with Julio. “You don’t understand,” Julio had declared the last time, offended. “To her it’s just a magic trick.” Magic, he said. Since when does a simple magic trick require tedious explanations about acids and bases?  Her husband was an alchemist who revealed all his secrets. There was no changing him, not even in the summertime. Even on vacation he was thinking about his studies at all hours. When she had suggested spending a few days at the beach, Julio responded with a look of profound confusion. “You want to go on a vacation?” he had asked. “Really?” Perhaps, based on his calculations, he believed the reserve of love that remained for each other would not be sufficient for a trip of that distance. He would gladly have exchanged those vacation days in the south for an air conditioner.

Ursula sipped through a straw. She made an obnoxious noise, but they didn’t hear that either. She walked over to the open window–the source of airflow and pressure. Was it high or low pressure? It didn’t matter. Out in the street the wind whipped the palm trees. They’d had three days of insufferable Levant winds, but Julio and Tana had spent a marvelous time seated in this very spot, observing how the wind would attack those walking by: stealing their newspapers, impeding their advances up the hill, eliciting grimaces as though they were scaling a formidable mountain. Making it even worse, this afternoon the clouds were hanging low. Remembering that August was coming to an end, Ursula was attacked by a bout of listlessness.

Walking toward the kitchen with her empty glass, she nearly collided with Julio, who was crossing the center of the room still holding the hair dryer. The little ball, floating on the air current, obediently followed all his movements. Tana was applauding when Julio suddenly stopped. With a dramatic gesture intended to heighten expectation, he placed his hand over the flow of air emanating from the dryer. The ball dropped and then, as he removed his hand, ascended once again. Julio repeated this action until he found a rhythm that allowed him to pass his hand back and forth through the same spot without the ball changing its position and without him touching it.

“Would you like to play cards?” Ursula asked suddenly. There had been no change in the noise coming from the hair dryer, but she thought its time was about up. Neither Julio nor Tana seemed to agree. They didn’t even notice she had spoken.

Resigned, she returned to the kitchen. She stood there, staring in disgust, not daring to touch them, at the glasses of precipitates left from this morning in which Tana had submerged two carrots. One had tap water and the other, water with salt added. If the phenomenon of osmosis developed as expected, tomorrow morning the carrot soaked in tap water would be bloated, while the other will have shriveled. Earlier, they had conducted the same type of experiment with eggs.  The egg submerged in water sank to the bottom, and the one with salt floated. “Now do you understand why it’s easier for you to float in the sea than in the pool?” Julio had asked their daughter, while looking at Ursula.

Perhaps the vacation was doomed from the start, from the moment they entered the rented apartment. That day, Ursula had worn a red scarf in her hair that matched the ruffles of her skirt. Her family had never seen her dress like that in the city, but she walked nonchalantly, chatting with the realtor while they went up the steps to the small porch.

“That’s odd,” the realtor murmured as she turned the key in the lock. With spaces between her teeth and large, cheap rings on her short fingers, she was not a terribly attractive woman. “I could have sworn I turned the bolt twice when I locked it.”

That did not deter her from ushering them in front of her, so that when Ursula whirled around to ask what kind of joke she was playing on them, the woman had no idea to what she was referring.

Every piece of furniture in the living room appeared to have been moved a few centimeters from their normal positions. The chairs, for instance, were not placed neatly around the table, but pushed slightly away. On top of the table was an ashtray full of cigarette butts.

“Good heavens!” exclaimed the woman. “I supervised the cleaning lady’s work myself after the previous renters left a few days ago.”

“Well,” responded Julio, who had not spoken a word for the last several hours.

Despite the fact that it was untidiness that reigned in the house more than filth, Ursula could not hold back a look of repugnance when she encountered the kitchen sink full of dirty dishes. They moved on to the tiny bedroom that was to be Tana’s, which appeared to be undisturbed. But on the bathroom mirror someone had scribbled Aren’t I a handsome devil? in fat script written in lipstick. The caption was in the form of a semicircle, forming a halo for whoever was looking in the mirror. Ridiculously, the three adults all filed past and Julio was obligated to lift Tana so she, too, could see her reflection.

In the master bedroom the bed was unmade and the partially raised blinds allowed in a breeze that rustled a piece of paper left in the middle of the bed. Both Ursula and the agent discreetly sought to grab it first, but the agent was quicker, which should have obliged her to read the scribbled message aloud. Looking at Tana and then her parents, she declined that privilege, but regretfully passed the note to Ursula after having read it.

“Good heavens,” she repeated. If she had entered the bedroom alone, the message surely would have ended up crumpled at the bottom of her bag.

“Thank you so much for your hospitality,” read Julio and Ursula in the scrawled capital letters.  Tana, meanwhile, had flopped down on the bed, but neither of them noticed and didn’t stop her soon enough. “Nice big TV, but you need some movies. And some food! But the mattress was awesome. Really great springs and amazing screws.”

“There is no way I am spending my vacation here,” declared Ursula when she finished reading, angrily hurling the note onto the floor. “We haven’t unloaded the car yet, so just tell us where we can go.”

With everyone in the bedroom the temperature seemed to have risen several degrees. The agent tried to raise the blinds fully, but was not successful. They were stuck.

“I would never be able to sleep with all that light coming in,” Ursula added, shaking her head.

“I’m afraid we don’t have any other apartments available,” the agent responded. A prisoner of emotions running high, she dared not move, afraid of finding more offensive signs of use. “I understand how you feel, but we’re at the end of the season. Next month would be a different story. Let’s go have coffee across the way while I have someone come and get this place cleaned up again.”

“Then we will go to a hotel,” responded Ursula haughtily, holding out her arms to Tana’s own outstretched hands, ready to carry her out.

“Believe me,” insisted the other woman, who was slowly regaining her composure. “Believe me when I tell you it’s not necessary. This is just a bit of bad luck for all of us, it’s never happened before; we live in a very peaceful area where almost everyone knows one another. We can resolve the situation. Right now, we’ll get rid of all traces of these troublemakers, and later we’ll talk about crediting your account. I’m sure we can agree on some kind of discount that will compensate you for the inconvenience.”

Ursula and her husband looked at each other, and Tana looked at them both. Distracted, her mother had begun to walk away, with Tana in her arms.

“Please,” the agent repeated. “Accept my invitation to coffee. It’s been a long trip.”

Ursula left the room, returning to the hallway. She was surprised by how narrow and angular it was. Honestly, simply a good sweeping would make a difference.

“Fine,” she said after a few minutes, after everyone had followed her back to the living room. She had seen Julio shrug his shoulders. “I think we can come to an agreement. But before they come to clean up, we should call the police, don’t you think? Where is a phone booth?”

Over the next few hours the door to the townhouse remained open. The open doorway was crossed repeatedly by the two local police officers, the owner of the only blinds shop in town and his daughter, and the cleaning girl. At seven o’clock the entrance looked more like a campground than a driveway. Inexplicably energized, Ursula moved easily among the strangers, giving orders and advice while her husband, seated on the steps and reading some photocopied material, watched her out of the corner of his eye. Tana played at his side with her doll, which had also been recovered from the trunk of the car.

The senior police officer had arrived, telling them not to worry, that in the last few months there had been a few other complaints from the neighbors who had noticed that during their absences people had trampled the grass in their yard or even used their private pools. But it was just local boys, innocent kids who had nothing else to do during these days of Levant winds, when the beach was so disagreeable. The money and the jewelry were always left alone, he told Ursula, smiling.

While he and Ursula were talking, the rental agent brought a large jug of blended iced coffee.  Julio excused himself, saying the cold hurt his teeth, but the police officers formed a coffee klatsch around the cooler, happily sipping their drinks as if it were what they had been waiting for all along. The last one went to Desirée, the fifteen-year-old daughter of the blinds repairman.  She leaned against the closet, waiting impatiently for her father to finish his work, sweat dripping down her neck, slowly slipping down to disappear beyond the low neckline of her strappy tank top.

When the house was again impeccable, the cleaning girl lifted a large bag full of trash over Julio’s head, trying to move past him on the steps without disturbing him. When he noticed, he closed his book and began to unload the car, which was parked in the driveway. He moved his load up the steps little by little, making his way between those who were stationed there.

“The floor is still wet!” his wife cried out.

The floor was dry, but Julio did not bother to point that out. Ursula hated interrupting her conversation with the agent, who was telling her how a fifty-year-old housewife was able start her own successful business after her husband left her, but she felt she had no choice. The woman, who had become a consummate professional, understood completely, as did the officers, who helped her get the rest of the luggage into the house before saying goodbye.

“At your service,” they said in unison. Then the senior officer insisted that she let them know if they found any more information regarding the troublemakers.

When the door closed behind them, Ursula was exhausted. She knew a domestic tiff was beyond what she could handle, and luckily Julio did not put her to the test. Ursula listened to the sound of his flip-flops in the hallway as he approached the living room.

“Where are Tana’s sandals? I think we need to go for a walk.”

The three of them went for a walk. They were surrounded by kilometers of coast, but they were content to go to the closest beach, which began in the fishermen’s cove. They followed directions from the locals, and when they arrived the crowds had already begun to leave. The beach was long and expansive, despite the fact that the tide had risen significantly. Ursula entered the water up to the tops of her knees and walked parallel to Julio and Tana, who stayed on the white sand, out of the water. Somewhere she had heard it was good exercise, but Julio did not see it that way.  “You always have to do things the hard way,” he complained on their way back.

Before going home they stopped for supper at a cabaña-style restaurant on the beach. Tana, who normally needed to be coerced to eat, wolfed down an entire sandwich. In contrast, Ursula had no appetite and ordered only a beer.

“Papa, don’t you think Mama will get sick if she doesn’t eat?” her daughter challenged. Normally it was Ursula who resorted to such threats in order to get some food into her daughter.

Julio looked at the little girl lazily and then at the skewer of sardines he had just been served.  Sipping his beer, he responded that in regard to most issues, he thought the same thing that most people did. The ambiguity of his response caused Tana to lose interest in the conversation.  Around her, boys and girls were running about. One little girl fell down.

“A lot of people get knots in their stomachs when they are sad or are having a hard day,” Ursula defended herself.

Julio was chewing and did not answer. Tana asked for more lemonade and he motioned to the waiter.

“You get irritated with me no matter what I say or do,” Ursula observed after a while. Her husband, who was cutting his grilled squid, splattered oil on the table.

“That’s not true.”

“Of course it is. It’s become impossible to spend any time together. Or have you forgotten what happened in London?”

Last spring, Julio had to make a quick trip to England to give a lecture to a group of scientists.  Ursula went with him, although she did not attend the lecture. During the few hours they had free together, she had decided to visit the Victoria and Albert Museum and he went to the Natural History Museum. With her nose glued to the display cases, Ursula, who was a historian, trembled with excitement as she sensed the passage of time through the displays of handwriting and the Renier Collection of Children’s Literature. She guessed that at that same moment her husband, in another place and in front of another type of exhibit, would be contemplating completely different things, such as the future and the advances it would bring. They hardly spoke during the flight home.

“I went to London to work,” Julio replied, annoyed. “If you wanted a vacation you should have waited until August.”

“August!” exclaimed Ursula with a sigh. “What’s the difference between your rude behavior in April and your behavior now?”

Julio did not answer. Lately it was always like this–this zigzagging with each other, their respective trajectories hardly ever coinciding. When Ursula needed to talk, he was silent. He had also stopped shaving every day and no longer acquiesced to her desires, either sarcastically or diplomatically. He definitely had aged.

He wiped Tana’s greasy mouth while she kept watching the girl who had fallen down. They were applying antiseptic to her wound.

“Do you want to know what I think?” Julio inquired, after a bit. “I think that life is too short and that we cannot be so foolish as to make ourselves miserable. Or so selfish as to ruin it for others.”

Perplexed, Ursula glanced up.

“I left you a few bites to try,” Julio changed course, passing her the squid. “It’s delicious.”

Underneath the garlic and parsley Ursula saw a piece of meat that looked tough, whitish, and repulsive. She lifted her fork, but before trying a bite, rested it on the plate. What would it be like, she asked herself, to make love to Julio again after all that we have said to each other? Ursula concluded that it would at least be interesting. She looked at him searchingly, but he had already stood up, saying he wanted to go to the bar to pay: the place was packed with customers and if he stayed here they would have to wait too long. (…)

“You sound so negative and agitated,” Andrea told her on the phone a few days later. “You can’t spend your whole week of vacation like this.”

For Andrea, anything could be fixed by going out to eat or shopping. Ursula had already been trying to convince her friend that there was not a single shopping center in sight, and besides that, she had no desire for new clothes or perfume anyway.

“I suppose you’re right,” Ursula answered. She was enclosed in the phone booth, her knee bent and the sole of her shoe resting on the wall. She was getting tired in that position and switched legs. “But I don’t know how to not be.”

“The first thing is to stop thinking of yourself as the victim of some horrible crime,” Andrea told her resolutely. Her words hurt, because Ursula did not think she had narrated what happened to the apartment in those terms. “Everywhere you look, someone is worse off than you.”

“I suppose you’re right,” she repeated. (…)

“Ursula,” she heard after a few seconds. Ursula didn’t like the intimate tone her friend had adopted, indicating a change of subject. “Julio finally talked to Bernardo about it, and it sounds pretty serious. Have you two decided?”

Ursula didn’t want to answer, because she didn’t know how to without lying or without giving the subject more or less importance than it deserved. “It” was a grant that Julio’s dissertation advisor had insisted on pursuing for him. It would mean a trip to the United States if he got it, and spending a year or two there at a prestigious university that promised plenty of projects and resources. If the subject was so much as hinted at on the horizon of conversation, everything between Ursula and Julio became strained.

“Yes, we’ve talked about it,” she responded, when the silence became awkward. “But what’s the point of forcing the issue now? We still don’t know if Julio will even get the grant.”

“But Ursula!” exclaimed Andrea insistently. “He’s obviously the best candidate!”

Was it possible that Julio had shared news with his friend Bernardo that she didn’t know about?  Yes. All it took was for him to attempt to work it in to dinner conversation for Ursula to escape with the excuse of getting dessert or retrieving the Tana from the bathtub before she caught a chill.

“I’m sorry, Andrea, but I’ve run out of change. We’re going to get cut off any second.”

“What?” her friend worked to sit up on the sofa and raised her voice, upset. “Don’t even think about hanging up on me.”

She and Andrea had gone to high school together, and they were close enough to be able to hang up on the other without serious consequences; so Ursula replaced the receiver, then emerged from the phone booth and took a deep breath. She hated the black-and-white, totalitarian view her friend had formed about love. For Andrea, everything was everything, nothing was nothing; the grays and in-betweens of real life did not exist. Of course, it goes without saying that the love between Bernardo and Andrea was the everything kind. They had met a little less than three years ago and, after a short courtship, decided to get married on a cruise, saying their vows to each other in front of the ship’s captain as they crossed the Mediterranean. Ursula, skeptical, was of the opinion that the secret of that happy couple was their weight. Both Andrea and Bernardo had always been heavy, and that created a capital of shared experiences that was much more definitive than anyone would have thought: the other children’s cruel laughter during recess, the embarrassment in gym class, the shyness when meeting new people or going on a job interview and, of course, the pride of overcoming it all.

(…)

Ursula had fallen asleep early, with the light on and the cheap paperback she had found on the living room bookshelf open on her chest. She awoke a while later; Julio was snoring softly at her side, as if pleased about something. She switched off the TV but was not able to go back to sleep with the noise of the blinds rattling in the wind. “God,” she thought. “I would go crazy in this place.” The next morning, after breakfast, they would be leaving.

She heard the garbage truck emptying the bins and the groups of teenagers saying their goodbyes on the corner as they put an end to their night of partying. She turned from her back, to her side, to her stomach. It was not hot, but she took off her nightgown, hoping it would help. She thought about how little she knew about America, and if she would soon have to know a whole lot more.  Truthfully, she did not want to: just a few months before, Ursula had finished cataloguing a private collection of hand-held fans, and immediately afterward had been offered a job at a prestigious publishing company. Now she was editing texts on a computer and missed the physical contact with artifacts, but supposedly later, when she earned a promotion, she would be able to help create new formats. She hoped that over the years she would gain the experience she needed to earn a position she truly wanted. A flash of lightning penetrated the bedroom and Ursula peered at her watch: almost four o’clock.

As she heard the rain begin, she stopped thinking about her job and was sorry for the stupid way she and Julio had been acting lately, turning defenseless Tana into their own private laboratory where they could each prove their respective skills. Fed up with her husband’s experiments, the other day Ursula had made a plaster mold of her daughter’s right hand in a shoe box. Now that she had filled the dried mold with wax, to take it home she would have to find room in their suitcases, which were already over-full. Why did they have to do everything so badly? Why couldn’t things be easier? Ursula didn’t know, but she was irritated by Julio’s stubborn breathing and self-centered movements on the bed, as he kept trying to conquer territory that was not his.

Dawn was appearing when Ursula climbed out of bed. She felt lucid and energetic, so she ended up grabbing the keys to the car, which was in the driveway, and quietly closed the door behind her. As she adjusted her seatbelt, she saw seagulls emerging from cover after the shower. She had no plan of where to go, so she followed them.

She was not thinking of anything in particular. She was again surprised by how green the countryside was in this part of Spain–especially now that everything was wet–and by the speed and force of the wind turbines. She was also again surprised by the lack of shopping centers or anything resembling a commercial area. Did the locals really purchase everything at the tiny neighborhood shops? If so, it would be even more worth returning to the area for a vacation with Andrea. In order to select a simple day planner, Andrea needed to look at a dozen. As she looked for the day planner, and immediately after purchasing it, Andrea would remember that she needed to buy peas, and then a magazine or a gift. All the stores she was interested in, or might be interested in, had to be in close proximity, forming an attractive continuum of classic and novel, an amalgamation of temptation, so that she could move her overweight body from one store to another without the extra distance in between that might allow her time to recognize her fatuous endeavors for what they were.

The road was only one lane each way and the drive was peaceful; Ursula passed only a few cars going the opposite direction. When she saw a sign indicating the next town, and its beach, she decided to follow it. She turned left and was again headed toward the coast, which she had lost sight of awhile back.

Ignoring the signs directing her to the center of town, she continued to the water. As she got closer, she found unpaved areas with large puddles and rocky sections. Along both sides were buildings painted in lively colors, with tools, motorboats, and plastic slides near the doorways, but none of them looked completely finished. Ursula guessed they were not yet legal to occupy, and that the owners were living there worry-free and happy, even though the winters must be cold and lonely. She and Julio had met while traveling through Portugal in his roommate’s van.  His roommate was the brother of a good friend Ursula had gotten to know toward the end of her university studies. The four of them traveled aimlessly for more than two weeks, improvising the route and sleeping in rooms they rented out from private houses. At first the girls shared a room and the boys another, but halfway through the trip she and Julio had relegated the brother and sister to a room. One morning, before getting out of bed, they were looking out the window at countryside similar to this, and Julio told her that there were daring people in this world–people capable of coming to a place like this and never leaving, and that he was sorry that he was not one of them.

“I’m afraid I’m not either,” Ursula had responded.

She left the buildings behind and parked the car in a deserted lot. She did not see anyone, but Ursula surmised that the vehicles there belonged to the people who were staying in a rooming house being advertised nearby. The sun had not yet broken through, and she was unsettled by the deep darkness of the waves. To the right and left as far as she could see, there was nothing but white sand and scrub brush that extended to the horizon. She did not see any public showers, or trash cans, or anything else indicating that nature had been corrected in order to cater to personal needs: it was as if she had left behind the modern world and all its conveniences. She managed to get the car door open, the whipping wind still blowing wildly, but then shut herself in again: Ursula was also not the kind of woman who would walk along the beach in a see-through nightgown.

She turned on the radio so she would not feel so alone, but had to turn down the volume. The energetic voices of the radio personalities who had just arrived at the studio were annoying as they summarized the vicissitudes of daily life that were so foreign to her: the excuses of a soccer coach, or maybe it was a player; the arrest of some criminal she had never heard of; the sudden death of a sad princess, broken, along with her boyfriend, in a car crash inside a tunnel. She turned the key in the ignition with the intent of turning around and driving home, but instead moved to the closest available parking space. With no chance of blocking anyone’s way, she decided to rest a few moments with her eyes half closed. Soon she felt heavier than before, more unsettled: her night of insomnia began to take its toll and demanded her attention. (…)

She was awakened by the sunshine playing off the windshield, the noise of cars honking at those who were slowing down traffic, and families unloading beach umbrellas and coolers while they argued about who would cart each item down to the beach. Ursula was startled: as she opened her eyes the scene of this stampede was almost unrecognizable as the location where she had fallen asleep. She was still tired; her neck was sore and, as soon as she started the engine, she felt a stab of pain in her temple. She did not dare look at her watch, but just as she started the engine the news update began and let her know just how late it was. The travel plans she and Julio had made would have put them on their way back to Madrid by now. She turned off the radio.

She lurched out of her parking place, almost taking out a couple of teenagers ambling through the lot. She headed back to the lane that took her to the main road, and despite her agitation, was forced to travel even more slowly than before, due to the stream of cars moving in the opposite direction and the narrow sections of road that put everyone in danger of a collision. Ursula noticed the empty spaces surrounding the houses that she had seen earlier were now full of people hanging laundry or sunbathing on lounge chairs, contented smiles on their faces. Taking advantage of the frequent pauses in traffic, half-naked pedestrians darted between cars to cross over. Ursula honked at them until she finally found herself on the highway. With the majority of the traffic heading in the direction of the beach, she had made her escape through a small gap in the line of cars. But with only one lane, the drive immediately became tedious. The asphalt was saturated with vehicles, and they could advance only in short bursts, making frequent stops.  Ursula fully realized her grievous error after waiting almost ten whole minutes before the cars in front of her began to move again. As she moved ahead there did not appear to be any cars stalled on the side of the road as she had suspected. It was just a Sunday, she thought bitterly; the end of vacation, the end of August, and the end of summer.

Everything was heavier now: the traffic, of course, but also the air. It was hotter, and the noises all around were multiplying. The countryside seemed drier, monochrome; the sunlight burned the palm trees. Ursula went over in her head all the ways she could think of to avoid the traffic, but finally accepted the fact there was no way around the delays. It did not seem likely that the police officers she had met a few days ago would show up here, so far away from their station, to clear a path to her apartment; she did not think Julio would have gone to them either, concerned by her absence. Neither was she capable of waving a handkerchief out the window to feign some distress, despite the fact that she felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Ursula was too proper for that.

She waited, studying in the rear-view mirror her first wrinkles, sticking her arm out the window to clean off the side mirror, indignantly commenting on the situation with the other drivers around her, or observing those more daring than she who would get out of their cars to take photos in front of a mountain or a cow. She wondered if they, too, would be working the next day in a spacious, modern office–an office overflowing with pettiness and promise. She wondered if some of them made books, like she did, or if they made bread, designed bridges, or wrote legal briefs. Finally, she admitted how outraged she would be if it had been Julio who had disappeared in a somnolent state early in the morning and not returned until almost noon.

Ursula parked the car outside the house and was careful not to slam the door after getting out.  She was surprised to find she had an appetite, despite her nervousness. She waited outside a few moments before turning the key in the door; in the face of her fatigue, she feared Julio greeting her with yelling and shouts. What time had they finally gone to bed? Had he remembered to give Tana her fruit at mid-morning? Certainly he had more reason to be upset than she did.

When she entered the living room she was relieved not to find either of them. The closed blinds shut out most of the light, but she could see that her husband’s and Tana’s suitcases had been piled in a corner, along with the laptop bag. Dolls were no longer lying around, nor shoes, nor clothes hanging to dry; someone had returned the paperback to the bookshelf next to the TV. She imagined the dirty sheets were already removed and forming a tower atop her daughter’s bed, and the immaculate emptiness calmed her.

She found Tana and Julio seated quietly in the kitchen, staring at a plate, engrossed in the process of change in the raw egg that had been sprinkled with alcohol. From the doorway the yolk seemed hard, fried, despite the fact there was no source of heat present.

“Mama!” From her chair, her daughter gave her a candid smile. She was always happy to see her mother in the morning.

“Where have you been?” Julio asked, looking confused at the sight of her still in her nightgown.

Ursula returned the sincere smile. Observing the latest family experiment she realized that what she felt was not appetite, but true hunger. She went to Tana and gave her a kiss on the cheek, and then turned and gave Julio a long and deep kiss on the mouth.

“I’ve spent most of the morning coming home,” she responded, looking him in the eyes, her hands resting on his shoulders. “And now I’m here. I’m back.”

Bios

Irene Jiménez

Irene Jiménez (Murcia, 1977) has published four books of short stories: La hora de la siesta (2001), El placer de la Y (2003), Lugares communes (2007), and La suma y la resta (2011), from which the featured “Ursula” comes. Her stories have also been included in anthologies gathering important new writers of the Spanish short story, such as Siglo XXI. Los nuevos nombres del cuento español actual and Pequeñas resistencias 5. Antología del nuevo cuento español (2001-2010). She resides in Cádiz.

Catherine Nelson

Catherine Nelson is a literary translator and Associate Professor of Spanish at Nebraska Wesleyan University.

Ursula. Copyright (c) Irene Jiménez and Editorial Páginas de Espuma, 2011. English translation copyright (c) Catherine Nelson, 2012.