Two Old Friends
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
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
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
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?”