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The Return

El regreso
by Sergio Pitol
Translated from Spanish by
George Henson
Issue 29 Online Exclusive

para Vicente Rojo

Lo que más le sorprendería después, al recordar aquel día, sería su extraordinaria duración. Si a algo podía compararlo era a las jornadas infantiles, cuando el niño, al deambular por entre la desorganización del mundo, siente y conoce una verdadera plenitud del tiempo, libre aún de la angustia de que éste lo atrape y lo comprima. Ese sábado constituirá en sí un universo. Él, que detesta las anécdotas, se ve de pronto colmado de ellas, prisionero. Tanto en la vida como en la literatura le parece ideal que los hechos puedan ensamblarse, fundirse a tal grado que se neutralicen, que se diluyan en una especie de fluido en que ninguna de las partes pueda valer por sí misma sino por el todo, el cual, a la postre, no debe ser sino un clima, una determinada atmósfera.

En la última semana no ha nevado. La temperatura oscila entre los seis y siete grados, fenómeno extraordinario a comienzos de febrero, y disuelve los cúmulos de nieve de las aceras y tejados. El deshielo convierte las calles en arroyos; a la entrada del hotel se han formado grandes charcos. Las alfombras rezuman humedad. Para colmo en los días anteriores no cesó de caer una menuda llovizna y él tuvo que moverse con su precaria salud, su patológica propensión a los resfriados, de un extremo al otro de Varsovia en busca de un lugar donde vivir. Después de las tres semanas pasadas en la cama, esas salidas se encargaron de destruir el mínimo equilibrio obtenido con tanto esfuerzo. Son casi las dos; la pequeña ventana cuadricular ataja la neblina sombría y opaca que ciñe la ciudad. Le duelen la cabeza, la garganta, terriblemente las articulaciones. El decaimiento es total. No tiene gana alguna de levantarse. Habla por teléfono con Zofia para cancelar la invitación a un almuerzo, le explica cómo se siente. No, no sabe si tiene fiebre, se acaba de poner el termómetro, pero es casi seguro que debe haberle subido; lo advierte por el ardor de los ojos, por el ahogo. De ninguna manera, se lo agradece, pero no es necesario que se moleste, ya la camarera ha ido a ordenarle la comida, es sólo cuestión de esperar un poco, dice dos o tres frases más para tranquilizarla y vuelve a meterse en la cama.

for Vicente Rojo

 

What would most surprise him later, when he remembered that day, was its extraordinary duration. If he could compare it to anything, it would be to childhood, when a child, wandering through a world of disorganization, feels and knows the true fullness of time, still free from the anxiety that time will trap and crush them. That Saturday would constitute a universe. He, who detests anecdotes, is suddenly full of them, a prisoner. He believes it ideal, both in life and in literature, that facts can be assembled, fused to such a degree that they become neutralized, diluted in a sort of fluid in which none of the parts is significant by itself but rather as part of the whole, which, after all is said and done, should be a mere climate, a certain atmosphere.

It hasn’t snowed during the last week. The temperature varies between 40 and 42 degrees Fahrenheit, an extraordinary phenomenon in early February, and the clusters of snow on the sidewalks and roofs are melting. The thaw turns the streets into streams; at the entrance of the hotel large puddles have formed. The carpets ooze moisture. To top it off, during the last few days, a light drizzle continued to fall, and he, in his precarious state of health, his pathological propensity for colds, had to go from one end of Warsaw to the other in search of a place to live. After spending three weeks in bed, these outings are responsible for destroying the minute sense of balance he had attained with painstaking effort. It’s almost two; the small square window contains the cheerless and opaque fog that surrounds the city. His head, his throat, his joints, all hurt terribly. The decline is total. He hasn’t the slightest desire to go out. He calls Zofia on the phone to cancel the invitation to lunch; he explains how he feels. No, he doesn’t know if he has a fever; he just put the thermometer in, but it almost certainly went up; it shows in the burning of his eyes, the choking. Not at all, I appreciate it, but there’s no need to bother, and the maid has gone to order some food, it’s just a matter of waiting a bit, he says two or three more sentences to reassure her and go backs to bed.

The objects themselves look different to him. They’re the same, of course, but suddenly animated by an intention unknown to him. They’re shadows; the depressing lead gray light that filters through the window deforms them, gives them a spectral appearance. He’s drenched in sweat. He turns on the lamp. He looks, as if hypnotized, at the bar of mercury in the thermometer: one hundred and one point six. One shadow, the wardrobe; another, the desk. The usual disorder, accentuated even more by two weeks of confinement and disease, the smell of sweat, vodka. He gazes at objects at length, his clothes strewn about, his ties out-of-place; books, magazines, papers, all in disarray; he looks at everything deliberately as if he were trying to find in the objects the clue that would lead him to the dream from the night before. He had awakened stunned and wounded by the dream’s violence, his forehead awash in sweat, and with an abominable feeling of guilt. It must have been early in the morning. Later, his gaze falls with renewed stupor on the thermometer. His fever continues to be the same as at the beginning of the illness. For two weeks the only thing they’ve managed to do is reduce it with antibiotics. The flu-like symptoms disappeared almost immediately; on the first day his fever had risen to one hundred and three point one; the following day, at night, thanks to the introduction of penicillin, it managed to drop suddenly to ninety-six point eight, and one day later it fell another degree and a half, leaving him so weak and lethargic that walking the few yards that separated him from the bathroom felt like torture. But later the fever returned, and the doctors couldn’t explain the failure of the antibiotics and salicylates to reduce it; the bar of mercury told him that his body was bound to be harboring something intensely harmful, something that was breaking down so quickly that the medicines were unable to stop it. X-rays of the lungs and bronchi: everything perfectly normal; blood and urine tests; some results were still expected.

It occurs to him that perhaps they’ve discovered something incurable, which explains Dr. Adamowski’s secrecy, the compassionate face of the ambassador when he brought him the boxes of food and drinks, the air of mystery that his friends assume, who must be in on the secret; he bundles up; begins to feel chills.

To make matters worse, days before, as he was beginning to feel better, the news that he had to leave the hotel had an ominous effect on him. A rumor had been going around for several months, which he had refused to believe. To be sure, on one occasion, he asked the Ministry, and they answered that it was absurd, that he shouldn’t even waste his time listening to people who were amusing themselves by creating difficult situations; they assured him that if the Bristol no longer wanted to house the fellows,the decision would apply only to those who were to come and not to the few who remained from previous years, who had, as it were, acquired rights. Nevertheless, it turned out that the rumors were true and that he had to leave; they informed him that they had secured rooms in family homes and he could choose among them the one that suited him best. He barely managed a response; he muttered that he was sick, asked for a few days to get back on his feet. He immediately began to call all his friends to intervene on his behalf. The results were fruitless. There could be no exceptions; the other fellows would protest. Three days later, he heard the same voice that urged him to investigate the available rooms.

“You run the risk,” said the voice, “of missing out on the ones that are in the best condition, and, in the end, will end up finding yourself somewhere that’s not entirely suitable.”

That’s why he’d gotten up, had walked every corner of Warsaw, wandering from one horror to another, enduring the whims of one landlady, the foul moods of another, the irritating paternalism of an old man who intended to prey on him as if he were his son and what’s more charge him for it. At last, he agreed to move to a house in the Mokotów neighborhood.

He found it painful to leave the building. The Bristol had been his den for a year and a half, his refuge, his watchtower; a splendid time filled with people, adventures, friends, sorrows, readings, discussions, nights of absolute magic, golden sunrises, disastrous aspirin-laden mornings, furtive encounters, sullen days, intolerable revelations, surprises, summer evenings dedicated entirely to translation while contemplating with envy the freshness of the neighboring garden through the window, the undulation of bodies beneath the sun. The Bristol! The closing of this stage caused him almost physical pain. And under these conditions!

Someone knocks on the door. A waiter from the restaurant comes in with the food. Beside him, Marek. He ran into the maid, he explains, as he entered the restaurant. She told him that he was ill, and he decided to come up to keep him company. They would eat together. The waiter has also brought his order. When he’s sick, he can barely tolerate Marek’s presence. He aggravates his vitality, makes him feel even more diminished. That day he’s coming to say goodbye; he’s to leave that night for Zakopane, where he’ll spend two weeks on holiday. He’s in much less of a good mood than usual; at times, almost somber. He’s in love, he confesses; he says with whom. Another surprise: Marek in love, taciturn and jealous, and during the entire time he’s been dealing with it, he’s been involved in one sexual encounter after another, which means as much to him as a good game of tennis or a morning swim in the pool. Not a single female tourist of interest has managed to escape him. He has fornicated with indiscriminate abandon with Scandinavians, Germans, Hungarians, and Latin Americans. In Zakopane, he’s sure to feel better; he wants to get away for a while from bar life and devote himself for the time being to skiing. Perhaps they invited him to participate in wild boar hunt. The weather was perfect for it.

The piece of meat he brings to his mouth at that moment remains there for a short time, before being laboriously swallowed.

He sees a wild boar running. At that moment he thinks he remembers his dream but isn’t sure; perhaps it’s not the dream but the memory, pure and simple, of a real event that somehow relates to the dream that has left him so troubled. Amid a cloud of smoke, he sees a group of boys between eight and nine years old, armed with stones, clubs, bricks. There are at least five. They’re shouting and making a racket. Their faces are dirty, reddened, and bathed in sweat. The heat that the spot gives off seems only to increase their determination, their excitement. They move along a metal pipe. They close off one of the openings with boards and throw stones into the other. One of them stokes the bonfire; they introduce the burning logs into the pipe. The smoke will make the animal come out and, indeed, a few minutes later, an opossum, confused by the fire, emerges. They scream like wild men, elated; they feel the hunter’s excitement in their throat, their hands; their hours-long efforts have been rewarded. They beat it with bricks, with sticks, even with the burning logs; the opossum staggers, she’s lost, falls, bleeds, emits a repulsive stench. But from her bosom, like small larvae, six, no seven tiny beasts emerge; blind, they stumble, barely making their way; the operation becomes easier, the tiny pissants offer no resistance; a few minutes later they’re burning among the embers. The boys walk away with their arms locked around each other’s necks, as in a round; they sing blithely, they know that the chickens the repulsive animal had been stealing will no longer disappear, they’ve done their good deed for the day. But that night, at home, when his dinner is served, he has to get up in a hurry and run to the bathroom to vomit. And now, many years later, the unexpected memory prevents him from eating the piece of tongue on his plate; he pushes it to the side with his fork and brings some rice to his mouth. He tries to find something of interest in Marek’s conversation; he looks out the window: it’s impossible to make out anything except the fog. The glimpsed scene, in all its detail, causes him to become lost in doubt as to whether opossums are marsupials or not; he doesn’t know whether the female carried her children in a pouch, or if, pregnant, she gave birth as a result of the beating, the smoke, and the burns. He drinks his coffee in gulps, and asks Marek, just for the sake of courtesy, to stay a little longer; they’ll listen to the record of Zarah Leander that he bought recently in Berlin. But Marek excuses himself; he still has to take care of some matters regarding his trip to the mountains.

He’s alone. He lies down on the bed, rests his head on one arm, feels his pulse beating in his ear, caused by the fever. He tries to think about something. He doesn’t want to leave the hotel, but the truth is neither does he want to stay; the only thing he finds appealing at that moment is not to exist; the flow of blood that he intuits in his ear drives him to the edge of nausea, as with any other organic process, with any anatomical confrontation, especially when, as on that day, he’s so aware that his body harbors and conceals rot. He switched positions, but it doesn’t ease the discomfort. A series of unpleasant scenes, all of which tend to suggest the great absurdity of his life, parade through his imagination, collide, become garbled. The senselessness and fatigue of such an endeavor. He doesn’t want to go anywhere; the objects appear to be covered in a gray viscous light; their profiles, surfaces lose their smoothness, defined shape; he turns on the light, furious, and this seems to restore the material’s normalcy. He thinks about calling Mercedes, his beloved countrywoman, so as not to be alone in the moments of prostration that lie ahead; he goes to the telephone, when he’s about to call, the mere idea of ​​having someone else in the room becomes intolerable. He takes a second aspirin and goes back to bed. The conversation with Marek has irritated him, he was left with the feeling that he had been stabbed in betrayal. He remembers that one day, not long ago, in a restaurant in the Old Town, Marek had told him that those people who made an altar out of love were ridiculous, grotesque. They had cited examples, had laughed out loud, and now he’s consumed the entire lunch in mourning for an ill-fated love. Just then, he feels a nasty jealousy—if only he could also feel a connection with someone! Over the years he has suffered a kind of emotional barrenness that eats away at everything; his very friendships bring out a very superficial tension in him, and in no way create internal demands.

He imagines the rain through the window. He’ll have to be locked up in that foul-smelling room for the next few days, drenched in sweat, annoyed, with no appetite for work or reading. More weeks like the last few, with money that doesn’t arrive from Mexico, and while people pester him to move out of his room and go live with one of those harpies he visited and begin life as a boarder, which he has always shunned. The weariness brought by the fever causes him to despair, his eyes hurt, he can’t read, listening to music annoys him, the idea of ​​receiving visitors while he’s unable to clean up or air out the room disgusts him. Everything becomes an uphill battle; not knowing how to revive the old notion that has sustained him on other occasions: to disappear, to fold his death into mystery. The reality of dying doesn’t frighten him, but he is horrified by the possible comments about his suicide. It was a pleasure that he would not give to certain relatives and friends who would claim to have always predicted that end, “after all, the path he chose was inevitably going to end like this.” He would walk into a forest, lie down somewhere, and allow the snow to finish him; no one would ever know what he was doing there. Impossible to talk about suicide.

The phone rings, he lets it ring—one, two, three, four long rings—without lifting the receiver; he’s certain it’s the woman from the fellowship office calling to urge him to move out of the hotel. He takes off his pajamas, dresses rather haphazardly, slowly. His movements are difficult; he places, out of habit, some books in his satchel and leaves. He says hello to no one in the lobby; he leaves the key and departs as if in a hurry, as if someone were chasing him, he goes out into the street and hails a cab to take him to the train station.

His head is about to burst; he wants to hurry events along, to end everything once and for all; his throat barely allows him to swallow his saliva. He walks around the main hall, in the midst of people scurrying, shaking off the snow, groups saying goodbye. He moves, as if sleepwalking, toward a window, gets in line; when it’s his turn he asks for a ticket to the German border. He’ll get off at a village near the dividing line and enter a forest; in his current debilitated state, the cold will make short work of him; the following day they’ll find his body. The clerk hands him the ticket, he asks about the next train, it will leave in six hours. He stumbles out onto the street, he doesn’t know how he has fallen into such a puerilely macabre plan. It terrifies him to think that if a train had been about to leave, he would have boarded it and allowed himself to be carried away by the rhythm of events; his teeth chatter, he can barely control the trembling of his knees. He has to wait a long while in the elements for a taxi; when he returns to the Bristol, standing in front of the great Venetian windows, the person entering looks like a mere specter, the ghost of himself. In the lobby, as he asks for the key, someone approaches him, it’s Zofia, who’s accompanied by another person, undoubtedly a doctor: she explains that after having spoken to him on the phone she became very worried; an hour later she called back and no one answered; she rang management and they told her that he was in his room so she imagined that if he hadn’t answered it was because he felt very bad. She had brought a doctor. Why on earth had he gone out in this weather! Only a madman would have had such a notion! He apologies, says he only went to the pharmacy. They go upstairs, the doctor examines him, whispers something to Zofia, they then explain to him that he’s very ill, that he must be admitted that very night to a hospital. He hears his friend begin to make the arrangements over the phone. He’s burning with fever.

“It’s all arranged. Unfortunately, I won’t be able to stay with you. I have an urgent matter at my sister’s house. Our lawyer will meet you there. I’ll drop you off at the hospital. You’ll give them these papers.”

They go downstairs. He can barely see, remain conscious. He finds himself seated on a wooden bench in a room covered with white tiles where Zofia has left him. A nurse comes out, collects the papers, tells him to sit down again. A woman beside him wrings her hands. Inside, the screams are terrible. Veritable shrieks of despair, of madness. He knows that if they continue he will also begin to howl.

“It’s my sister,” the woman next to him explains. “She has fits.”

He wonders why they don’t come to attend to him. Why have they left him there, in that senseless waiting room?

“I studied English for seven years, and I can’t say a word,” the woman continues on learning that he’s a foreigner. “Seven years! But that’s just the way I am…”

He begins to laugh. He sees a kind of string of stones, braided rock clusters. He struggles to know what it is, those interwoven rocks that contract and expand and that in some way tell him that he is there and then, that he’s still alive. He notices that the thousand theories in which he has taken pleasure during the last years, explanations, justifications, presumptuous interpretations, collapse and remain at his feet like fallen leaves, he’s heard screaming that he wants to return to his homeland, to his house, his childhood, for them to leave him alone, that he wants to return, die, lose himself there. He manages still to see a nurse working diligently at his side; in his vein he feels the needle that will restore him to the night.

 

Warsaw, February 1966

 

____

 

Sergio Pitol, “El regreso” from Los mejores cuentos. Barcelona: Anagrama, 2005.

Author
Sergio Pitol (1933–2018) is one of 20th-century Mexico’s most celebrated authors. Winner of the Cervantes Prize, the Herralde Prize, the Alfonso Reyes International Prize, and the Juan Rulfo Prize, his literary oeuvre spans more than six decades and includes short story, novel, memoir, and translation.
Translator
George Henson is an assistant professor of Spanish Translation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. He is the translator of Sergio Pitol’s Trilogy of Memory, as well as Elena Poniatowska’s The Heart of the Artichoke. His translations have appeared variously in the Guardian, Asymptote, the Paris Review, the Kenyon Review, Words Without Borders, and World Literature Today. His translation of Pitol’s Mephisto’s Waltz: Selected Stories will be published in November 2018 by Deep Vellum Publishing.