A Drama of Our Time
Translated from the Spanish by Michele Aynesworth
It happened when youth and optimism were my boon companions.
The breezes of spring came wafting down Matienzo street in Las Caņitas around 11:00 o'clock on a Thursday, the only day of the week that my teaching schedule left me free. I taught Language and Literature in more than one high school, I was twenty-seven and full of enthusiasm for books and imagination.
I was sitting on the balcony drinking maté and rereading, after a lapse of fifteen years, the enchanting adventures of King Solomon's Mines. (I noted sadly that when I was a boy I had enjoyed them much more.)
Suddenly I felt someone watching me.
I looked up. On one of the balconies of the building facing mine, at the same height as my own apartment, I spied a young woman. I raised a hand and waved. She waved back and left the balcony.
Curious to know where this might lead, I tried to get a glimpse inside her apartment, with no result.
"This will go nowhere," I said to myself, and returned to my reading. I hadn't read ten lines before she was back on her balcony, this time with dark glasses, and she sat down on a deckchair.
I began feverishly making signs and gestures. The young woman was reading — or pretending to read — a magazine. "It's a ruse," I thought; "it's not possible that she doesn't see me, and now she's posing so I can enjoy the show." I couldn't quite make out her features, but I could tell she was tall and slender and her hair, dark and straight, came down to her shoulders. Overall, she seemed to be a beautiful girl, maybe twenty-four or twenty-five years old.
I left the balcony, went to my bedroom, and peered through the shutters. She was looking in my direction. So I ran out and caught her in flagrante delicto.
I sent her a big, pompous wave which demanded a response. Indeed, she waved back. After such greetings, the usual thing is to strike up a conversation. But of course we were not going to shout across to each other. So I raised my right-hand index finger to my ear and made the rotational movement that, as everyone knows, meant I wanted to call her on the telephone. Sinking her head into her shoulders and opening her hands, the young woman indicated, again and again, that she didn't understand. Bitch! How could she not understand?
I went back inside, unplugged the telephone, and took it out to the balcony with me. I brandished it like an athletic trophy, raising it overhead with both hands. "So, little airhead, do you or do you not get it?" Yes, she got it: a toothy smile lit her face like a flash of lightning, and she nodded affirmatively.
Fine. I now had permission to call her. Only I didn't know her number. I would have to find out using body language.
I went back to making complicated signs and gestures. Formulating the question wasn't easy, but she knew perfectly well what I needed to know. Naturally, as women will, she wanted to have a little fun with me.
She stretched the game out as long as possible. And, at last, she pretended to understand what had doubtless been clear from the beginning.
Using her forefinger, she drew hieroglyphs in the air. I realized she was drawing the numbers as she would read them, and that I would have to "decode" what I saw as if seeing them in a mirror. Thus I obtained the seven numbers that would put me in touch with my good-looking neighbor from across the way.
I was pleased as punch. I plugged in the phone and dialed. At the first ring, someone answered:
"Helloooowww!!" a deep male voice thundered in my ear.
Surprised, I hesitated.
"Who's there?" added the booming voice, with a touch of anger and impatience.
"Uh . . . " I mumbled, intimidated. "Is this 771 . . . ?
"Stronger, seņor!" he interrupted, unbearably. "I can't hear nothing, seņor! Who d'you want to talk to, seņor?"
He said "stronger" instead of "louder," he said "I can't hear nothing" instead of "I can't hear anything" ; he said seņor in the tone you use to call someone an idiot. Terrified, I stammered:
"Uh . . . With the girl . . ."
"What girl, seņor? What girl are you talking about, seņor?" The thundrous voice now carried a note of menace.
How do you explain something to someone who doesn't want to understand?
"Uh . . . With the girl on the balcony." My voice was a tiny sliver of glass.
But this didn't move him. On the contrary, he became more enraged:
"Don't bother us, seņor, please! We're working folks, seņor!"
An irate click ended the conversation. For a minute there I was speechless. I looked at the telephone and began cursing it between clenched teeth.
Then I spoke harshly of that stupid girl who hadn't taken the trouble to answer the phone herself. Suddenly I decided it was my fault for calling too soon. The man with the booming voice had answered so quickly, the telephone must be within reach, maybe even on his desk. That's why he'd said, "We're working folks."
And what about me? Everybody worked, that wasn't so special. I tried to picture him, giving him awful features: he was fat, florid, perspiring, and potbellied.
This stentorian-voiced fellow had served me an unconditional defeat by telephone. I felt a bit depressed and wanting vengeance.
Afterward I returned to the balcony, resolved to ask the young woman what her name was. She wasn't there. "Of course," I deduced optimistically, "she's standing by the phone waiting anxiously for me to call.
With my spirits somewhat renewed, but also with trepidation, I dialed the seven numbers. I heard a ring; I heard:
Terrified, I hung up.
I thought: "This troglodyte can tyrannize me just because I'm lacking one thing: the name of the person with whom I want to speak. I must obtain it."
Then I reasoned: "In the Green Guide there's a section where it's possible to use the telephone number to find out someone's name. I don't have a Green Guide. Large companies have the guide. Banks are large companies. Therefore banks have the guide. My friend Balbón works in a bank. Banks open at noon."
I waited until 12:30 and called Balbón.
"Oh, dear Fernando," he answered, "I'm overjoyed and comforted to hear your voice . . ."
"Thanks, Balbón. But listen . . ."
" . . . that voice of a young man with no cares or obligations, duties or responsibilities. Lucky you, dear Fernando, drifting along on the happy tide of life, not allowing external events to disturb your peace. Lucky you . . ."
I can't prove it, but I beg to be believed: I swear Balbón exists and that, indeed, he talks like that and says that kind of thing.
After having endowed me with such imaginary charms, he proceeded to portray himself — without giving me a chance to talk — as a sort of victim:
"In contrast, I, the humble and negligible Balbón, carry on today, as I did yesterday and will tomorrow, and for centuries of centuries, dragging a heavy cartload of miseries and heartaches across this treacherous planet . . ."
I had heard this story a thousand times.
My mind wandered as I waited for the litany of complaints to reach an end. Then suddenly I heard:
"It's been nice talking to you. Take care, now."
And he hung up.
Indignant, I called him back.
"Che, Balbón!" I reproached him, "Why did you hang up?"
"Ah," he said, "you wanted to tell me something?"
"I want you to look in the Green Guide, see whose name corresponds to this telephone number . . ."
"Hang on. I'm looking for my fountain pen, I hate to write with pencils or ballpoints."
I was eaten up with impatience.
Finally, after several minutes, he said, "That number belongs to one CASTELLUCCI, IRMA G. DE. Castellucci with double ell and double cee. But, why do you want to know?"
"Thanks a lot, Balbón. I'll explain some other time. Bye now."
Now at last: I had in my possession a powerful weapon. I dialed the girl's number.
"Helloooowww!!" thundered the caveman.
With no hesitation, but with sonorous and well-modulated voice, and even a certain peremptory note, I enunciated:
"I'd like to speak to Seņorita Castellucci, please."
"Who's calling, seņor?"
This habit of asking who's calling gets my goat. To unnerve him I said, "This is Tiberíades Heliogábalo Asoarfasayafi."
"But, seņor!" he sputtered, "The Castelluccis haven't lived here for at least four years, seņor! I get so many calls for the damned Castelluccis, seņor!"
"And if they don't live there any more, how come you asked me who's . . .?"
I was cut off by a furious click. He hadn't even allowed this minimal protest against his despotic behavior. Well, I wasn't going to let him get away with it!
Quick as a flash I dialed again.
Enunciating slowly as if I were mentally deficient, I asked:
"May I pwease tawk to da Castewussi famiwee?"
"No you can't, seņor! The Castellucis haven't lived here for at least five years, seņor!"
"Oh, gweat! Dat's you, seņor Castewussi . . . How you dooing, seņor Castewussi?"
"No, no, seņor! Listen to me, seņor!" He was about to blow a fuse. "The Castellucis haven't lived here for at least seven years, seņor!"
"You dooing OK, seņor Castewussi?" I cordially insisted. "And da wife? And your widdle ones? Don't you wemember me, seņor Castewussi?"
"But who are you, seņor?" In addition to being terrible, the monster was curious.
"Dis is Bawwie, seņor Castewussi."
"Barrie?" he repeated, disgustedly. "Barrie who?"
"Bawwie, seņor Castewussi, da qwerk in da wibwawy."
"What?! The library?!" He hadn't understood me very well: it was all I could do to keep from laughing.
"Bawwie, seņor Castewussi, Bawwie Wudder."
"Barrie Rudder? What Barrie Rudder?"
"Bawwie Wudder, da one dat got one eye cwossed and can't see wit dee udder, seņor Castewussi."
He exploded like an atom bomb: "Do me a favor and get lost, you idiot! Why don't you just shoot yourself, clown!?"
"I can't, seņor Castewussi. My aim is cwuddy, seņor Castewussi. Da wast time I wanted to shoot myself in da head I accidentawwy killed a penguin dat was in da Antawktic, seņor Castewussi."
There was a moment of silence, as if, having gone raving mad, he was breathing in all the oxygen in the atmosphere so as not to die of apoplexy.
Patiently, I waited.
Then, at the peak of fury and strangling on his own rage, the fiend launched his heavy artillery at me, screaming, hurling the words so fast they were tripping over each other:
"Go to hell, you siphilitic, blennorrhagic piece of Siberian shit, you mental misfit, you crusty pie-faced wanker, you parasite, you useless imbecilic son of a whore-faced loon!!!!"
"I am so gwateful for dose compwements, seņor Castewussi, muchas gwacias, seņor Castewussi."
He slammed the phone down with a violent bang. A pity, for I was enjoying his insults. It was delicious to imagine my enemy: red in the face, perspiring, tearing his hair and biting his knuckles . . . maybe even the telephone had been damaged by being banged so hard.