Two Old Friends

New England Review - - Translations - Es­ther Tus­quets

For a long time now, she can­not tell pre­cisely how long but for quite a while, sad­ness, that pe­cu­liar, sly, fear­ful emo­tion that is un­like any other, has clung to her like a sec­ond skin. “It has been,” the woman thinks with a sad smile, “like meet­ing years later an old friend—or an en­emy—from child­hood.” One that was al­most for­got­ten, or al­most un­known by now, be­cause she had spent many years with­out fall­ing into it. In fact, all those of her ma­tu­rity and prime. And now her smile be­comes more pro­nounced, be­cause she knows, and she is not even sure of re­gret­ting it, that strictly speak­ing she has never ma­tured. Few peo­ple ma­ture: men tend to re­main in child­hood, tied or not to their mama's apron strings, whereas women, no doubt su­pe­rior—and now the sad smile has an ironic touch—tend to spring grace­fully into ado­les­cence, and then re­main there, the two to­gether form­ing a charm­ing world rid­dled with spoiled boys com­pet­ing in their small or large, al­most al­ways dirty, bat­tles, and un­happy frus­trated women, be­cause life, love, chil­dren, were not like what they had been told (ex­cept for those of the third world, of course, who were too busy strug­gling to have some of their chil­dren sur­vive the hunger, the epi­demics and other calami­ties to have time to feel frus­trated, and be­sides, the re­al­ity that has fallen to their lot does in­deed re­sem­ble what they had ex­pected with res­ig­na­tion ever since they reached the age of rea­son).

In the life of the woman—not in vain has she re­peated, with an em­pha­sis that now seems to her ridicu­lous, that she pre­ferred in­ten­sity to hap­pi­ness— there have been mo­ments of bound­less joy, when she felt that she could touch the sky with her hands, and pa­thetic, des­per­ate, sor­did mo­ments—these last she could tol­er­ate the least—; she has fallen in love a heap of times and fallen out of love just as many; she has had chil­dren who have formed the cen­ter of her uni­verse and have then grown al­most for­eign to her; she has achieved spec­tac­u­lar suc­cesses in her work, which have never seemed to her, be­cause they have cer­tainly not been, suf­fi­cient; she has at times dis­posed of a con­sid­er­able for­tune, and has squan­dered it gaily, con­fi­dent of be­ing able to re­make it, be­cause life—who said that it is short, who in­vented that non­sense that it flies by in an in­stant?—if it is not in­ter­rupted by an ac­ci­dent or an ill­ness, is in­ter­minable, and has time for all the fool­ish­ness and all the bad deeds that one can con­jure up, which in turn are not so many.

The woman—whose name is Elisa, who has just turned seventy and ac­knowl­edges that on the whole she has been for­tu­nate—has the sen­sa­tion that now, when less time ac­tu­ally re­mains to her, the amount of time that is

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left seems over­whelm­ing, be­cause she is not go­ing to know how to use it, be­cause she, cham­pion of noise, tu­mult, in­ten­sity, has suc­cumbed to a lethal bore­dom—another en­emy from her child­hood that she had al­most de­feated and for­got­ten, and that has now treach­er­ously caught her un­armed—and only as­pires to empti­ness and si­lence. And the empti­ness and si­lence are surely go­ing to last a long time, if some­one does not give them a shove, be­cause the women in her fam­ily tend to go on for­ever, and what's more, there seems to be an al­most uni­ver­sal con­spir­acy to suc­ceed in hav­ing hu­mans reach un­dreamed of longevity. “What for?” Elisa won­ders. She looks around, at the old peo­ple who sur­round her—sick, ail­ing, un­happy, a bur­den to oth­ers, to those who are clos­est to them, to their chil­dren, who don't in the least hope they reach an un­dreamed of longevity, but some­times that they kick the bucket as soon as pos­si­ble—and she won­ders why the devil they per­sist, come hell or high wa­ter, in pro­long­ing such a piece of non­sense. The Greeks were right when they de­clared that those hu­mans who die young are loved by the gods. And when in toasts peo­ple fer­vently wish each other “Good health,” Elisa con­fines her­self to adding “and hap­pi­ness,” be­cause if she wished them “and a short life,” they would think that she was crazy, or they would take it as a joke. They all praise her sense of hu­mor, and Elisa is per­plexed—although she never cor­rects their er­ror—when she sees them sud­denly split their sides laugh­ing, as though she had made a bril­liant joke, when she has spo­ken not only in com­plete earnest, but be­liev­ing she was say­ing some­thing that was gen­er­ally known and ac­cepted. It is strange that re­al­ity does not need ad­just­ments or ac­ces­sories to be hi­lar­i­ous. But that's fine; she is pleased that they laugh. How long has it been since she has re­ally laughed, laughed her head off, un­til she lost her breath? And how she misses it!

With Irene—that old friend whose brief and un­set­tling e-mail, “Come as soon as you can; I need you,” has made her take the first flight to Venice—she had laughed so much, had had so much fun, not car­ing what any­one thought and be­liev­ing them­selves en­ti­tled to do what­ever they pleased! Be­cause they were smart, they were pretty (Irene was an au­then­tic south­ern beauty—now she was in Venice and she had lived in many places be­fore, but she had been born in Si­cily—dark, tall, slen­der, with pro­nounced fa­cial fea­tures and big bones, with in­cred­i­ble eyes, “the eyes of a sor­cer­ess, the eyes of a ter­ri­fy­ing Me­dusa,” Elisa would tell her, who was not nearly as spec­tac­u­lar, and she laugh­ingly claimed for her­self “the dis­creet charm of a lit­tle bour­geoise from Barcelona”), they had a sense of hu­mor, they danced up a storm, and they were too com­pe­tent in their work, de­spite some fits of fri­vol­ity and nerve, not to be taken se­ri­ously.

Ac­tu­ally, Elisa re­flects, they had not been the usual kind of fe­male friends, with that easy af­fec­tion and that love of telling se­crets; rather there had ex­isted be­tween them the ca­ma­raderie that leads men to dis­cuss ev­ery­thing un­der the sun, to share dis­cov­er­ies, to con­trast fu­ture projects, or sim­ply to go out on the town. At least at first, they had been more bud­dies than friends—it had taken a while for them to grow re­ally fond of each other—but when they did, it was for life.

They have not got­ten to­gether now for a long time, in fact they have not even writ­ten, and Elisa knows that, be­fore ask­ing her friend what she in­tends to ask—be­cause the call has come from Irene, but she too was plan­ning to travel to Venice to see her and ask her some­thing—she will have to ex­plain to her, and it will not be easy, be­cause in this re­spect they are very dif­fer­ent, that she is bored—irene can­not un­der­stand how a per­son can get bored, she has never been bored in her life, con­vinced that there are al­ways more things to do than time to com­plete them, and be­fore meet­ing Elisa, she felt to­ward peo­ple who were ca­pa­ble of be­ing bored that deep scorn that she feels, with­out be­ing able to avoid it, for those things she says she does not un­der­stand and that she re­ally morally dis­ap­proves of—she will have to ex­plain that along with the bore­dom she has re­dis­cov­ered the sad­ness. The bore­dom and sad­ness of Sun­day af­ter­noons of her child­hood, of the in­ter­minable sum­mer va­ca­tions of her child­hood. And also of the in­ter­minable nights of her ado­les­cence, when ev­ery­one at home was asleep and she did not have the slight­est pos­si­bil­ity of es­cap­ing to the street, as she would later, from the age of eigh­teen, no mat­ter what the pun­ish­ment if they found her, be­cause Elisa be­longs to the night: she spends her morn­ings in bed, sunk in de­spair, she arises shak­ily at noon and for a few hours drags her­self from sofa to sofa, sip­ping fruit juice, read­ing from start to fin­ish and with­out the least in­ter­est the news, a book (if any­one had told her even a few years ago that read­ing would stop giv­ing her plea­sure, she would not have be­lieved it), talk­ing on the phone, and grad­u­ally comes to life at night­fall, so that at three or four or five in the morn­ing—be­fore, this was be­fore—she would be as fresh as a rose and ready to start her day, propos­ing, in other times, be­fore the well-known but unimag­in­able ar­rival of old age, to take out the cars, to drive to San Se­bastián, to watch the sunrise at La Con­cha, to se­cretly take a bath naked in the frigid wa­ter and have a suc­cu­lent break­fast at the Ho­tel de Lon­dres e Inglaterra, or to start a marathon poker game, first care­fully draw­ing the blinds so they are not dis­turbed by the light of dawn.

But on this oc­ca­sion Elisa has over­come her lazi­ness and her fa­tigue, daunt­lessly chose the ear­li­est morn­ing flight, and is now wan­der­ing dazed and som­nam­bu­lis­tic through the Venice air­port. Although per­haps, she thinks with another of those re­cently learned or per­fected sad smiles, which have formed on her lips for quite a while with the same fre­quency as her eyes have filled with tears, she is not wan­der­ing around dazed and som­nam­bu­lis­tic, but rather just like a seventy-year-old woman, who takes ev­ery step with care (the at­ten­tion that ba­bies take when they are learn­ing to walk, since there are many ac­tiv­i­ties that for a heap of years a hu­man does with­out notic­ing them, in a purely au­to­matic way, that then re­quire, or will soon re­quire, the same con­cen­tra­tion that they did dur­ing the learn­ing process, ex­cept that this is re­ally a learn­ing process in re­verse, where one con­stantly has less mas­tery of the ma­te­rial: ev­ery­thing in old age is a re­gres­sion, a grow­ing and un­stop­pable de­cline), who looks where she will place her foot, who is grate­ful to while hat­ing the boy in the va­poretto who holds her firmly, who al­most lifts and puts her in the boat and warns her to be care­ful with

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the steps that lead to the cabin. “That fear of fall­ing,” some­one said, the woman seems to re­call it was Pla, re­fer­ring to old age. And that con­scious ef­fort to get off a ve­hi­cle grace­fully and not too clum­sily, the pre­cau­tion of sit­ting in the front rows of the movie theater to be sure to be able to read the sub­ti­tles, and the ob­ses­sive overuse of per­fumes and de­odor­ants so as not to smell like an old per­son, and the need to cross off one name af­ter another from the ad­dress book and the guest lists . . . “Old age is an af­front, a catas­tro­phe, an in­dig­nity that we should not have to en­dure,” the woman thinks.

But de­spite the fact that the author­i­ties have been try­ing for a long time to avoid boat traf­fic through the most vul­ner­a­ble parts of the city, the va­poretto has en­tered the Grand Canal, and Elisa is daz­zled in the same way that she was the first time her par­ents took her to Venice as an ado­les­cent. So she still re­tains, she dis­cov­ers, the ca­pac­ity to be moved, things that have made it worth­while, and per­haps still make it worth­while, to be alive. Like this mag­i­cal city. A city to which she has re­turned a thou­sand times. With al­most all her lovers, with her chil­dren, with her grand­chil­dren, rel­ish­ing the plea­sure of re­dis­cov­er­ing it while re­veal­ing it to oth­ers. Now the lovers have van­ished, the chil­dren are old, the grand­chil­dren keep the myth­i­cal mem­ory of a marvelous grand­mother, whom they nonethe­less no longer make a big ef­fort to see, but the Grand Canal is still there.

She has also re­turned to Venice nu­mer­ous times to spend a few days with Irene, who, when film stu­dios were com­pet­ing to get her be­cause she was the best cin­e­matog­ra­pher in Italy, ended up mov­ing into a noble man­sion in the Jewish quar­ter, sur­rounded with a vast gar­den. Where she must now be await­ing her, be­cause she had warned her—with apolo­gies—that she could not come as usual to pick her up at the air­port. If Elisa had known this be­fore buy­ing the ticket, she might not have taken the trou­ble to get up at the crack of dawn and would have trav­eled at more civ­i­lized hours.

It was in Venice where the old friends had met a mil­lion years be­fore (to be ex­act, forty-two years). Irene had been given the prize for best pho­tog­ra­phy for a North Amer­i­can film that had won a lot of awards, and in the doc­u­men­tary sec­tion a Span­ish film had been nom­i­nated, of which Elisa was the screen­writer and co-di­rec­tor. It was her first work and just the fact that it had been nom­i­nated con­sti­tuted a suc­cess, but it had also been one of the most praised and dis­cussed doc­u­men­taries by the press. The two young women had re­garded each other at first with some sus­pi­cion. Elisa found Irene too dog­matic and cat­e­gor­i­cal, too de­ter­mined to tinge ev­ery­thing with ide­ol­ogy, whereas Irene saw in Elisa a daugh­ter of the up­per mid­dle class who in Fran­coist Spain frivolously flirted with the left. But this was be­fore they screened their works. From that mo­ment on they had learned to re­spect each other, and later, when they met at cock­tail par­ties and din­ners and hav­ing drinks at Harry's Bar un­til dawn, and they had the chance to talk alone, they found that, de­spite the dif­fer­ences in tem­per­a­ment—which were not re­ally so great, be­cause be­neath the Si­cil­ian's stiff­ness flowed much ten­der­ness and ca­pac­ity for en­joy­ment, and on the other

hand the de­lib­er­ately feigned fri­vol­ity of the af­flu­ent girl from Barcelona might not have been sin­cere—they con­curred in most of their ideas, shared the same tastes, and above all, had a very good time to­gether, go­ing to the movies and theater and con­certs, vis­it­ing ex­hibits and mu­se­ums, strolling through the streets of cities they both loved, or sim­ply talk­ing, if they were alone, and main­tain­ing a con­spir­a­to­rial irony, of­ten mock­ing, if they were with other peo­ple, es­pe­cially if the oth­ers were men.

They had never lived in the same place, de­spite hav­ing planned to do so sev­eral times, but they had al­ways stayed in touch. They met at one or the other's home, they trav­eled to­gether, they wrote each other in­ter­minable letters, and had had, un­til e-mail be­came the gen­eral form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, in­ter­minable phone con­ver­sa­tions. They had both lived with more than one man, they had had chil­dren and later grand­chil­dren, they had both tri­umphed in the pro­fes­sional sphere, and both, thinks Elisa, like al­most all women of their kind (if some­one asked her what kind of woman she means, she would per­haps re­main silent, but she knows per­fectly well that she is re­fer­ring to women who are to­tally in­ca­pable of sub­mis­sive­ness), have ended up liv­ing alone, grow­ing old alone, ac­quir­ing the vices and ma­nia of sin­gle women to a de­gree that it would be al­most im­pos­si­ble, es­pe­cially for Irene, to live with some­one. “And yet,” Elisa ac­knowl­edges for the first time, as she crosses the gar­den, tended to the point of ob­ses­sion (soli­tary old women be­come ob­ses­sive), but which looks nat­u­ral—a frag­ment of na­ture un­touched by man's hand—“nei­ther of us likes to live alone.” For an in­stant the idea crosses her mind, im­me­di­ately dis­carded, that Irene has called her to sug­gest that she move to Venice and they share the house, which is mag­nif­i­cent, and so vast that the two women could live in it and spend days with­out see­ing each other.

Irene is wait­ing for her at the door. Stand­ing erect, thin­ner and bonier than be­fore, dressed as usual in im­pec­ca­ble gray pants and an also gray turtle­neck sweater of ex­tremely soft wool, her face with­out makeup which would mask the pro­fu­sion of wrin­kles, and with those be­witch­ing eyes, fiery and beau­ti­ful, which still in­spire a spark of fear. “She is still a beau­ti­ful woman,” Elisa thinks with plea­sure, “although she does not know it, or she does in­deed know but it does not mat­ter to her.” And, “I would love to paint or pho­to­graph her.”

They em­brace there in si­lence, at the door, in a long and tight em­brace. Then, still with­out say­ing a word, they en­ter the house hand in hand, and tra­verse enor­mous rooms, al­most empty—irene likes vast naked spa­ces, painted in white, open to the out­side; while Elisa likes padded in­te­ri­ors, closed in with cur­tains, the walls cov­ered with books, the sur­faces of the fur­ni­ture crammed with beau­ti­ful pre­cious ob­jects, which her friend de­tests—that are ob­vi­ously not used for any­thing, or just for this, to be tra­versed in si­lence hand in hand with some­one one loves.

Un­til they ar­rive at a rel­a­tively small room, with two so­fas, and rugs and cush­ions—with a thought to Elisa—ev­ery­where. A fire is lit in the fire­place, although it is just the start of win­ter and it is not yet cold, and soft mu­sic is

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play­ing. Irene sits down on the sofa, and Elisa on the floor—she still sits on the floor, although nowa­days it takes a slight ef­fort later to get up—by a small ta­ble where are wait­ing glasses and a bot­tle of wine. Irene fills the glasses, of­fers her one, and smiles at her. And they talk, and it is as though they were pick­ing up the thread of a con­ver­sa­tion from the day be­fore, as though no time had passed. It is al­ways this way with them. Irene tells her that her only child now lives very far away, that her daugh­ter-in-law can­not stand her, or that she can­not stand her daugh­ter-in-law (“you have not been able to stand any of your daugh­tersin-law,” Elisa is bold enough to say, and the other gets mad, strikes her with her Me­dusa gaze—which com­pels Elisa to move a lit­tle to make sure she has not been petrified—but then she shrugs her shoul­ders and ad­mits that it might be true), that she never sees her grand­chil­dren, that her clos­est friends have died, that no­body thinks of her any­more when they are com­mis­sion­ing some work, and that she can­not live with­out work­ing, that she has to take three Val­i­ums ev­ery morn­ing to as­sem­ble the forces nec­es­sary to start the new day . . . And Elisa tells her a sim­i­lar story, and the two agree that old age is an in­tol­er­a­ble af­front.

And then Elisa fi­nally asks her friend the rea­son for her e-mail, what grave thing is the mat­ter, be­cause it must be very se­ri­ous for the “iron Si­cil­ian” (which she calls her at times, purely as a joke, be­cause she knows that her friend is made of any­thing but iron) to launch an SOS, she asks what she can do for her, and then con­fesses that she too has shown up with the self­ish mo­tive of re­quest­ing some­thing in turn. Irene says with­out hes­i­ta­tion, “Well, I have al­ways felt that we have the right to lower the cur­tain when the show stops in­ter­est­ing us, and as I know that you were in the un­der­ground and in those days you had arms, I would like to ask you, for when the time comes, for a pis­tol.” Elisa says, “I thought that your son, who is a doc­tor, could get me, for when the time comes, suit­able pills,” and she adds, “I do not have a pis­tol, nor would I be ca­pa­ble of us­ing one . . .” And Irene, “My son as­sures me that pills do not work.” There is a long si­lence, they look into each other's eyes, and Elisa says in a low voice and as if speak­ing to her­self, “So both of us were plan­ning to ask the other . . .” And all at once the sit­u­a­tion seems to her ex­tremely funny—re­al­ity does not need dress­ing up to be hi­lar­i­ous—and she starts roar­ing with laugh­ter, as she has not laughed for a long time, un­til she's out of breath, and she falls on the rug and makes Irene—first as­ton­ished and then laugh­ing too—fall off the sofa, and they laugh a long while there on the floor, be­fore the lit fire­place, hug­ging and kiss­ing each other, un­til night has fallen be­hind the win­dow­panes and only ashes of the fire re­main.

And then Elisa gets up, she stretches, she gives Irene a fi­nal kiss on the tip of the nose, sighs and says, “Since it seems that the time has not yet come . . . Why don't you call a taxi and we'll go have some drinks at Harry's Bar and stroll be­neath the full moon on the Riva Schi­avoni?”

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