A sweat drop. I can feel it in my forehead, tickling. I could make it disappear in a second but I choose to ignore it. Sometimes, I do things like that just for the sake of it. It's nice to have little rituals, little games just for yourself. I focus on my breathing, making my exhalations longer and longer. Eventually the tickling disappears. And in that very instant the bus reaches a stop with a sudden halt. It's been like this since I got on at Cromwell Road. The driver pushes the gas pedal like crazy till the next stop is at sight and then he brakes all of a sudden. Any moment, I'm sure, we're going to crash, but it's kind of fun though. We are in Bank now. The bus stops and picks up a couple of new passengers. Before they can get a seat, the bus is already speeding down the road. One of them tumbles and nearly falls over me. I help him recover his balance.
'Thanks a lot, man.' He says.
'Don't even mention it.' I reply, smiling.
The smile helps me control the urge to laugh. Every time someone tumbles or something that is not supposed to break actually breaks, I get the giggles. I'm not the asshole you might think I am. I just can't help it. So, I smile while I take a look at him. He wears a tunic and a small hat. He looks North African. I tried to figure out his country of origin but it's completely useless. I didn't even know the names of half the countries in North Africa. You see, I'm quite an ignorant fellow. I read fiction and fiction only. So the little culture I have is second-handed.
When we reach Whitechapel the man gets down the bus. I think about it for a couple of seconds and then I get down as well. I'm still three stops away from home but I think that it would be nice to get some stuff at Sainsbury's and fix myself a special dinner. What kind of life would be this, without some self-indulging once in a while?
The North African man is just some feet ahead of me. He walks exactly in the middle of the sidewalk, his back perfectly straight. He marches leisurely, in a way only people completely sure of themselves are capable of. It would be nice to be able to walk like that. He must be around sixty. Has he walked like this all his life? Would I be able to walk like that when I'm sixty? Well, I don't think so. I'm lost in these thoughts when the man stops and turns around. He speaks quietly, caressing each word.
'Can I help you?' Here it is the strangest blend of accents I've ever been exposed to. I can discern Scottish and some French. The rest is way beyond my linguistic abilities.
'I'm sorry.' I reply. 'It may sound a bit weird but I was just admiring the way you walk. I apologize if I have offended you or something.'
For a while, he seems to be considering my explanation, half a smile painted in his mouth.
'How about some tea?' He says finally.
Since I was a teenager I've been in the habit of letting myself be carried away by the circumstances. So I accept the invitation right away. As I walk alongside him, I consider the possibility of ending up floating in a water canal, half my organs stolen or getting gang-raped by a group of kind, stylish North Africans. It's almost too late, though. He lives just around the corner.
The house is pretty much unfurnished, the walls unadorned, safe for a few bookshelves here and there. He leads me to the living room where I wait while he prepares the tea. Before I take the first sip, it's hard to believe that it could taste better than it smells but it actually does. It's heavily spiced. Who knows what's really in there. Anyway, it's probably the most delicious liquid that has gone down my throat in my entire life. I let him know. He bows his head, that half-smile of his always there.
'So, where are you from?' He asks.
'North of Spain.'
'That's right.' How could he know that? 'How did you know?' I ask in an amused tone.
'I met a lot of Asturian people in my home-country'.
'So, where are you from?'
He just smiles for a while without saying one more word. Then we start talking about cats. I'm not really sure where the conversation comes from, but once the theme is on the table we just can't stop. About an hour later, the conversation starts to fade away. I get up, say my thanks twice while I shake his hand and I'm out of there. As I go down the stairs, a phone rings. I hear him answering the call. I could swear that he's talking in Spanish. For a while I'm tempted to wait and see if I can overhear something but it doesn't feel like a wise thing to do. For once in my life I listen to the voice of reason and go back to the initial plan: Sainsbury's, nice dinner, lots of self-indulging.
The moment I left the building a mass of hot air punches me in the face. A heat wave has been tormenting the ill-fated inhabitants of this city for the last two weeks. Yesterday at noon, I was at the subway, and in the lapse of less than twenty minutes, I saw three persons collapse to the floor. As for myself, I can handle a heat wave or two. It's not that I like the heat. I simply don't bother to think about it.
I walked toward Sainsbury's. I'm a bit disoriented, so, in fact, I walk in the direction I suppose Sainsbury's is. Soon, I get back to familiar streets. When I'm getting close to the supermarket's door I take the Discman out of my bag, put the headphones on, and press the play button. The disc spins while this piece of junk cries for help in a nasty tone. I open the lid, take out the disc and I force the little cart that carries the laser-lens to slide. Then I put the disc back on. It works like a charm. Nick Drake will keep me company for the next half hour or so. I enter Sainsbury's a new, fresh man. I buy eggs, potatoes, bread, the most expensive sausages I can find, a big jar of Milky Way, a Cardbury's Chocolates Selection box, two creamy yoghourts with bits of peach and passion fruit and a Heineken six-pack. I paid for everything and I go wait for the next bus. It's only a few minutes ride. I get out at Mile End where I share a three-story house with another seven immigrants. As I walk through the door, Marie, the German girl, greets me from the stairs.
'They called from that restaurant at Bank.' She says in a playful tone. 'They said you're hired. Congratulations. Seems like you got yourself yet another crappy job.'
I've been unemployed for just a few days. Two more weeks like this and I would have to get back to Spain. There are two things you have to know about this city: she's a bitch and she's way stronger than you. Never forget those two things and you'll probably be ok. Having said that, I have to admit that just one week ago I told my previous employer, Pietro B. (co-owner and maître'd at Mediterranea, a successful Italian restaurant in South Kensington), to go fuck himself. The hard work and the shitty pay, those I could handle. The crazy overtime schedules and the daily humiliations, not so much. I don't really like the idea of another Kitchen Porter job but that Bank restaurant seemed like a decent place. A far better salary than Mediterranea's, a friendly environment and last but not least: I would work the morning shift. In any given job I only need two things: Energy and free time. Unless I'm starving I'm not interested in any job that completely steals those two things away from me.
So, I call Ralph P., who is my contact person at the restaurant and he says that, if I'm still interested, the job is mine. I have to show up on Monday at 7:30 in the morning. I thank him twice and then I hang. I'm overcome by a wave of stupid happiness. I've got a new job and a whole weekend just for myself.
I cleaned the leftovers of London executives for over six months. Sometimes I peeled potatoes, cleaned fish, chopped wild asparagus and things like that. Twice a week I shredded Parmesan till my elbows hurt like crazy. My elbows have always been the weakest part of my body. At times, the job was stressful. But everyday, come 3:35 in the afternoon and I was walking the streets, free as a bird, without a single thought about the restaurant tormenting my mind. Something I could never do when I worked at Mediterranea. During those six months I was reasonably happy. I bought lots of books and read almost half of them. I went to the movies twice a week and slept with a different girl every fifteen days. Sometimes, even more frequently and when you're talking about me, that's no small feat. However, a dish containing the leftovers of a particularly crispy bistec a la fiorentina ended that happy period of my life in just one strike.
Back then, when someone asked me if I believed in the supernatural, the afterworld or things like that, I always gave them the same answer: All that was a bunch of bullshit for New Age junkies and people who have lost their way. Still today, I would probably give them the same answer. However, for a while, things were different for me. I was different.
I take the tray full of dirty dishes out of the right elevator. From 12:30 to 15:00 this is kitchen hell. You have to keep the elevators empty at all costs. This is a plain, ordinary tray with nothing special whatsoever. A tray in an ocean of trays. It carries the usual amount of untouched side dishes: carrots, small potatoes, broccoli. There's also two slices of unfinished lemon tarta and a plate I can't figure out. Someone has spread all over it the leftovers of at least half a dozen other dishes. The moment I put my eyes on it I begin to feel anxious for no reason. I consider the idea of throwing everything, plates included, into the garbage can, hoping that no one sees me. But, what would be the point? Seriously, what the hell is wrong with me? So, I try to overcome the sudden burst of superstition following the usual cleaning procedure. When everything is clean except for the infamous plate, I take away everything that wasn't there in the first place. And then I know. The client has asked for a bistec a la fiorentina. The next thing I know is that he has blond hair and beautiful grey eyes. He's almost six feet tall and starting to get bald. A while later I know by heart everything there is to know about his family life. Whatever is happening to me is getting faster. The images flash through my head like a movie rolling two thousand times its usual rate. It feels as if a dozen claws were squeezing my brain. In no time I'm at the core of Mr Bistec a la Fiorentina. For just an instant I get a glimpse of who he is. I mean WHO with capital letters. For just an instant, I know his true essence, what he, as a human being, is. Something he's far from knowing. Something few people on this earth know. And then, the pain becomes unbearable and the next thing is pure blackness.
I wake up lying on the kitchen floor. Two kitchen assistants, the first chef and the chef de partie surrounding me. They look worried.
'What happened?' I have to struggle for each word that comes out of my mouth. It feels as if my will was a thousand miles away.
'You were standing there, staring at the tray', says the youngest of the kitchen assistants, 'and then you fell down like a log, man.'
'I've just had the weirdest fucking dream ever', I say, barely recognizing my own voice.
The moment they hear me say that, they burst out laughing. I don't get what's so funny but I laugh as well anyway. I try to get up, but before I'm completely on my feet again, I'm about to fall down for a second time. They hold me till I start to feel better but before they let me loose they make sure that I'm not going down again. The first chef tells me to take the rest of the day off. He says that I should go home and have a good lunch and maybe a couple of beers. I say that I feel ok and I can keep working just fine. He wouldn't hear a word of it. 'Get the fuck out of my kitchen.' He says. 'Health must always come first, mon ami.'
No one's home when I get there. At least, there's no one outside of the dorms. I grab a bottle of watermelon juice from the fridge and go to my room. It's on the second floor, in front of the stairs. I have managed to keep the incident out of my mind since I got out of the restaurant. Sitting in the subway I even felt happy to have the rest of the day off. Now, as I'm sitting at the edge of my bed unlacing my shoes, everything feels so fucking alien. I can't focus my attention for more than two seconds. Random ideas flicker on the surface of my consciousness. I jump from one absurd chain of thought to an even more ridiculous one in a matter of seconds. Irreversible. Palindromes. You can't go back.
I get myself in the wardrobe, put my mouth against a pillow and I start screaming till my lungs give up. When I catch my breath again I scream a little bit more. I keep doing that for a while. When I get tired of the screaming, I put the pillow against the wall and I give the cushioned bitch the right punch treatment till my knuckles are about to start bleeding. If someone else is at home, they're probably thinking that I've lost my mind for good. I couldn't care less. I let myself fall over the bed. My heart is pounding like crazy. My wrist and forearm are sore. My head, however, is clear, at least for the time being. I stare at the ceiling and for the first time since I got here, I realize how boring a ceiling it is.
In my dream, I see a man trying to release himself from a chain that keeps him tied to a pole. I look up. The pole ending is lost in the clouds. We are somewhere in the mountainside. The colors of the earth, the sky, the trees, they are all wrong. Reality seems like a coloring book that had fallen in the hands of a twisted child. The man has normal colors though. He is a muscle man, if ever was one. He looks just like Arnold in Hercules in New York. The only thing he wears is a loincloth. He seems to be using all his strength to push forward. His body is covered with sweat but his face looks placid somehow. He doesn't seem to be aware of my presence, even though I'm at a mere ten feet from him.
'On next Sunday it will be three thousand years since they chained him there.'
I turn around. There's a tiny man by my side. He wears a trench-coat and a fedora hat. He's sneering.
'He has long forgotten why they chained him. It's been a while, so who could blame him?' He looks at the muscle man and nods. 'I remember though.'
I don't know what to say. Anyway, as he speaks, I'm overcome by the certainty that I can release the muscle man. I approach the pole and somehow I'm able to untie the chain in a matter of seconds. Trench-coat guy gets beside Muscle guy and they start walking. Muscle guy drags the chain as he marches along, but he doesn't seem to mind. I think that, any moment now, they are going to turn around and say something to me. Suddenly, I need to know that my efforts were appreciated. I feel lonelier than ever before in my life. I try to call them but my mouth won't even open. I try to go after them but my legs won't move. In no time, they are just two blurred figures against the horizon.
When I wake up, my body is as paralyzed as in the dream. A primal fear takes control. I've never been so scared. I don't know how long I am in that state but it seems to last forever. Finally, I try to scream and that's my free ticket home. No sound comes out of my mouth but I can move again. Now that I'm full awake, I'm still a bit freaked out. I don't like the perspective of going back to sleep but I'm not exactly in the mood to get out of bed either. I'm trapped.
I don't know how, but eventually, I gather enough force of will to get up. Up to that moment I don't realize how dark the room is. I look at the clock. Well, it seems that my little afternoon nap have lasted more than ten hours. I wondered if I'm actually getting sick or something. But the truth is that I feel fine. Physically, at least. I put my slippers on and I get out of the room. I take some yoghourt from the fridge and go outside to have it. The night's air feels so nice. The front garden is full of bad weeds moving slowly in the wind. There's something soothing about the quietness of this abandoned Eastender hole.
I hear something at my back. I turn. It's Marie.
'I couldn't sleep and then I heard footsteps on the stairs. So I thought of maybe keeping company to whoever it was. I'm glad it's you.'
Marie is more or less about my age. Redhead, blue eyes, a really nice body. The kind of girl that, in the street, draws the attention of men and women alike. When I got here she was already living in the first floor. She was very welcoming with me, helped me a lot. She's really like that with everyone.
Every day, we managed to talk for at least half an hour. We haven't got that much in common but somehow we get along pretty well. From time to time I toy with the idea of dating her. But a guy like me has close to zero chances of going out with a girl like that. What can I say? I suppose I'm a down to earth kind of fella. That makes my life a boring hell sometimes, but it keeps me out of a lot of embarrassing situations.
Marie goes inside to get a yoghourt for herself and when she comes out again, she sits beside me. I told her about the incident at the restaurant and the weird dream and the whole horrible paralysis experience. Once I start, no one can stop me. I tell her everything. Hearing the story out loud, I realize I'm scared shitless. The paralysis business starts to seem like something that happened a long time ago, but that thing at the restaurant... That's a completely different matter. I remember the deafening pain and the flickering nonsensical images. Hard as it is, I have to face the facts: What happened at the restaurant, whatever it was, it wasn't part of the dream but something real. Perhaps I'm developing some kind of psychiatric or neurological disorder or whichever of those things that can send your life straight to hell overnight. For a while, I think that I'm going to have a panic attack. She laughs at my hypochondriacal behavior and says that she bets I'm totally fine. 'It's probably your subconscious trying to tell you something.' And just like that, I see it clear. I'm not going back to the restaurant. My days here are done. I didn't leave a home in the place where I come from but I feel that I have to go back there anyway. Marie nods and says she's gonna miss me. Then she gets closer and kisses me on the lips. She catches me by surprise, but I kiss her back anyway. We stay like that for a while. Then, she gets up and goes back inside the house without saying a single word. I stay there, trying to figure out what to make out of the situation.
The next morning I knock at her door but she's not there. Looks like she's gone. I suppose that yesterday we said goodbye for good. I pack only the essential stuff in a backpack, leaving a wardrobe full of clothes, videotapes and lots of books. Maybe somebody else will find some use for it. I couldn't take it even if I want it. It belongs here and here will stay as far as I'm concerned.
I leave the room's door open as I get out of there. In the front door I bump into the South African girls that share a room in the ground floor. I say hello like it was any other given day.
I walk up the street. Goodbye railway. Goodbye sinister hedges. Goodbye Cemetery Park. And finally, far in the distance, goodbye Canary Wharf. Only then, looking at the skyscraper, I feel how much I'm going to miss this place.
Down in the tube, I buy two chocolate bars from a Cardbury's vending machine. I devour them in less than a couple of minutes. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.
Less than half an hour later I'm at Victoria Station sitting in a non-first class wagon of the Gatwick Express. On the ride to the airport I read a copy of yesterday's Evening Standard that I find on the wagon's floor. I don't look out the window, not even a single time.
The flight ticket to Barcelona eats away half of my savings. The plane leaves in five hours or so. I decide to kill some time at the duty-free shops. I buy some packages of soft candy and a Jim Thompson's novel. The five hours go fast.
In the plane I take a quick look at the leftovers of the sandwich the man sitting next to me has ordered. Nothing weird happens this time. Maybe my brain isn't frying after all.
Some hours later I collapse in the bed of the cheapest room I can find in downtown Barcelona. It's kind of a bed and breakfast. I've been here before with girls whose names I can barely remember. The place is inexpensive and reasonably clean. Anyway, living here, I'll get out of money in less than two weeks. I have to look for something else as soon as possible.
The next day I call an old pal from college. His mother tells me that he doesn't live there anymore. She gives me his cell's number and takes the opportunity to tell me how unfortunate it was that I quit college the way I did.
'I'm planning of going back next year.' I lie, not knowing exactly why.
We were best buddies at college. We already knew each other from high school but it wasn't until later that we really click. Then I left to London for what was going to be just one summer and I didn't come back. My first month there I called him two or three times a week. But after a while, the phone calls started to thin out, the emails grew shorter and finally we lost contact for good.
Alvaro sounds glad to hear my voice. We agree to get together later that afternoon. We meet up in a bar I've never been before. We hug, we say how much we have missed each other and then, beer after beer, I tell him everything about my London adventures, avoiding the weird shit of the last couple of days. What I don't avoid is talking about my fucked-up financial situation. I feel awfully guilty considering how I've been ignoring him all this time but I don't have anyone else to turn to. He comes with a solution in no time.
'Remember that Irish girl?'
The last couple of weeks before I left for London, Alvaro had been obsessed with a girl he referred to as 'The Busty Redhead'. I don't remember him mentioned her again, though.
'The Buus...' Alvaro doesn't let me finish.
'Her name is Sinéad.'
Marie had a friend named Sinéad. She came to the Mile End house from time to time. That other Sinéad was a brunette transvestite though.
'That's a pretty name.' I don't know what else to say. I feel awkward and stupid. I guess you can't overcome months of silence in a matter of hours.
'Yes, it is a pretty name. The thing is that her parents own a pub, O'Sullivan's. It's something like a folk tavern and they are in need of a new bartender. Bartenders don't last at that pub. I don't know why. They treat their personnel really nicely. If I give them a call, the job is yours.'
'I don't know what to say. All these months I've been missing and now you save my ass without giving it a second thought.'
'That's what friends are for. Besides you'd do the same thing for me, right?'
Would I? Maybe I would. I'm not such a bad fella when you get to know me. I nod and thank him again.
'There's a condition, though.' He says. 'I share an apartment with two other guys but one of them is leaving today. So, there's a free room and you are going to live there. I don't accept no for an answer.'
'What can I say? Sounds like fun.'
I've been living alone for a while and I kind of like it but the idea of sharing an apartment with Álvaro really sounds like fun. He's probably the laziest motherfucker on the entire earth but ask him a favor and he becomes altruistic, efficient, and self-disciplined. Just look at how he solved my financial and accommodation problems in a finger-snap.
So I move into his apartment that same evening. Later, lying in bed, I think about my other problems, the unsolved ones. I think about the incident at the restaurant. By now, how many times would Ralph P. have called my old residence at Mile End? I feel sorry for him. He was a good guy after all. I just didn't have enough courage to stop by and explain myself or even give him a short phone call: 'I'm really sorry Ralph. I'm suffering post-traumatic stress disorder after taking a brief look at the leftovers of a bistec a la fiorentina. I can't risk that happening again. Bye-bye.' Definitely, it has been better not to make that call.
Coming back to Barcelona hasn't magically erased the memory of those last hours in London. A part of me was hoping so. It's not that I'm completely naive. I'm fucking dumb, that's all. But what can I say? I always try to keep the flame of optimism alive and well. That's the way I am and in any case, I couldn't have stayed one more day in London. If someone asks me to explain why, I will be unable to give a reasonable explanation. But that doesn't make it any less true.
Two months pass by. I read a minimum of two books per week and watch a movie every two days at the very least. The chemistry between Álvaro and me gets back to the way it used to be. Once or twice a week, when I close O'Sullivan's, I cook something and we have a late dinner and drink enough Guinness to kill a horse and we cheer at each other and laugh for old and future times sake. Sometimes, Sinéad joins us. When it comes to drink beer she can beat the crap out of us anytime. She's also a sight to behold. Álvaro wasn't exaggerating when he first told me about her, but I could swear she's even more gorgeous inside. I'm almost jealous of him. In any case, we have a lot of fun the three of us together. And then, a Saturday night, out of the blue, it happened again as I was having dinner in a Syrian restaurant.
The man sitting at the table by my right side is dining alone too. He has a kind of weird sense of style. He looks like an Abe Lincoln impersonator, beard and hat included. When I get there, he's already well into the main dish. While I wait for the appetizers, I take the opportunity to have a good look at the place. Just glancing at the walls you feel at home. The place is almost unadorned and unembellished but it has a terrific aura. I wonder why it took me so long to find it, considering that I'm a sucker for this kind of food. My little eye-travel ends in Abe Lincoln. He realizes I'm looking at him and nods in a neighborly sort of way. I wonder if we have met before. Then the appetizers arrive and all my attention goes to them. I'm starving. The poor appetizers are devoured in the blink of an eye. So, with nothing better to do, I turned my attention back to Abe Lincoln. Sometimes, I just can't help it. Curiosity killed the cat but I'm no cat. I wish I was.
Anyway, I keep looking at him and if he notices it, he does nothing about it. In his plate there are but the few remains of what once must have been a magnificent main dish. But even those few remains are more than enough for me to be sure that it was a Chef's Taste Kibbeh Nayyeh. How could I know that if I've never been to a Syrian restaurant? Seriously, do I even have to ask?
Lorenzo Schoeler (that's Abe's real name) lives in an uneventful world. He leads a boring life in spite of his colorful appearance. Just because of that, it's the more surprising the massive amount of data I'm getting about him. Every tiny, irrelevant detail of his domestic life is filling my short-term memory, menacing to blow it up. The claws squeezing my brain are crueler this time. When I get to Lorenzo's second divorce, I passed out.
The owner and Lorenzo help me get back to the chair. They both look very concerned. I assure them there's nothing to worry about. To prove my point I get up and walk a little bit around the table. The owner offers to call an ambulance or a taxi or whatever I want. 'It's not really necessary. Thank you very much again.' It looks like he's going to argue but he says nothing. I continue. 'Please don't take offence but I won't be able to have the rest of my dinner. I'll pay for everything, of course.' The owner refuses to take my money and insists on giving me a two-person dinner coupon. I try to decline the offer but he wouldn't take no for an answer. Finally, I put the coupon in my pocket, say my thanks five or six times, apologize around ten and go straight to the front door. Before my right foot comes in contact with the street's pavement, someone holds my arm. I turn around. It's Lorenzo. He wants to know if I need him to walk me home or something. His offer is kindly declined too. I don't need company right now, but even if I did, it wouldn't be the company of the man whose life I have just being spying onto. I say goodbye and start walking down the street. On the first corner, I turn right.
Twenty minutes later I'm sitting on a bench, chewing over the events of the evening. This much is clear to me: either I'm getting fucking nuts or there's some kind of chemical crazy mojo boiling up in my brain or last but not least: I'm getting supernatural powers. I contemplate the third option for a while and I start laughing till I almost shit myself. A young girl points at me and his mother says something to her that I don't get. Considering my luck, the problem will be a combination of the three. I'll spend my last days running naked in the streets, reading the palms of the people who happen to pass by.
Well, if I can still laugh at myself, then not everything is lost, right? The pain has been considerably worse this time, but somehow the suffering wasn't as unbearable. It's hard to put it into words. Maybe the Mediterranean air is to blame. Who knows?
For a week, I look at every plate with leftovers I can find. I gaze at them and say: 'Common motherfucker, sing for me.' Each and every time, nothing happens. On Sunday night, Álvaro is at the movies with Sinéad. I'm sharing a king-size pizza and watching Videodrome with Carlos, the third inhabitant of the apartment. Maybe a David Cronenberg flick is not the best thing to watch while you are swallowing food but we are tough guys with strong stomachs. Carlos finishes his half before I do. He puts the plate on the floor and five minutes later he gets up.
'Pause the movie just a second, man. I gotta take a shit.'
He does that all the time. It randomly happens on breakfast, lunch or dinner but five minutes before he finishes one of those meals and off he goes on a shitting spree. I take a look at his plate. I know that nothing is going to happen but I look anyway. I look intently, as if I wanted to pierce trough the porcelain's surface. I look at every bit and every crumb. The pizza had double mozzarella, red pepper, onion, anchovies, and pepperoni. Knowing all that is a given, considering I've been eating the other half. However, I try to solve the puzzle ignoring the fact that I already know the solution. I strive to make every bit of food left in the plate sing for itself and then join the rest of his brothers in a choir. 'Sing for me, my sweet darlings. No one else can hear you.' And they do. They sing beautifully. At first they talk about the pizza. No shocking surprises there. And then, they talk about Carlos. And what they say makes me want to leave the apartment immediately. But before I do that, I pass out. I wake up to the sound of his voice. He looks worried. I sit in the floor for a while and when I feel like myself again, I look for an excuse to left the apartment. I don't find a good one so I just say that I need some fresh air. He doesn't offer himself to go with me. He's not that kind of person.
I go up the street. There's a taxi stop two blocks away. I get into the first one in the line and give the driver the address of Cines Levedad. I'm pretty sure Álvaro and Sinéad are there. I hope I'm not wrong. When I get there, none of the night sessions have finished yet. I lean against a movie poster in the back-door hall and wait. The movie still runs for forty-five more minutes. Álvaro looks a bit startled to see me there.
'What the hell are you doing here, man?'
'Look, Sinéad.' I say, ignoring him. 'This is going to sound a bit weird but, could we please spend the night at your place?'
'Have you been drinking or som...'
I cut him off in mid-phrase. I address Sinéad again.
'I want you to understand that we cannot come back to the apartment tonight. It’s not an option anymore. I wouldn't ask if it wasn't important.'
She has that smile of hers painted on her face. I could swear she's not freaked out by the situation at all. She really is a lovely girl this Sinéad, and Alvaro a lucky son of a bitch. He deserves to be lucky though.
'He was going to stay over anyway.' She says, looking at a gloomy Álvaro. 'The more, the merrier.'
As she's saying that, he approaches me.
'Seriously, pal.' He says. 'What the fuck is this all about?'
'You gotta trust me on this one, man. Let's say I just find out how fucked up Carlos really is and that we'd better stay away from him for the rest of our human existences, ok?'
Álvaro looks at me, expressionless.
'Common.' I beg. 'Don't you trust me?'
He takes some good ten seconds to answer.
'I guess I do.' He says smiling. 'That son of a bitch always gave me the creeps anyway. With his bathroom issues and all that shit.' As he says that, the three of us burst out laughing.
On the way home they tell me all about the movie they have just watched. It was called Chungking Express. They are running a Wong Kar-Wai retrospective at that theater and this was the fourth movie. They have watched the other three and Chungking is the one they have liked the most so far. Sinéad does most of the talking. The movie has made her ecstatic. I've been wanting to get into Wong Kar-Wai films myself for quite a while, but somehow there was always something in the way.
The moment we come into Sinéad's apartment they start recreating scenes from the movie. I even feature in a couple of them. Look at these two: They are in love, this is their special night, and in spite of all that, they are happy to have me with them. People this nice always make me feel guilty.
We closed the evening by having some spiced tea while we watch the last minutes of a horror movie they are showing on tv. The tea is not as good as the one my North African friend treated me to, but it gets pretty damn close.
'This tea of yours is so fucking amazing, Sinéad.' I say. 'If that specimen you call boyfriend ever kicks the bucket, would you consider marrying me?'
'I'd marry you right now.'
'I would like to say that I would kill you both.' Álvaro says, half smiling. 'But the thing is I love this cunt so much...'
Sinéad pushes her elbow into his stomach. Álvaro bends over and falls on the floor. He's almost out of air but still smiling.
'As I said,' he continues from the floor. 'I love this cunt so much, but you, my dear friend, you'd end up with all your genitalia shoved up your ass. You understand me?'
I get up and salute him in a martial fashion. It's past three o'clock in the morning. Standing up, I feel the burden of the day for the first time.
'Listen, guys.' I say. 'I'm so fucking exhausted. Would you mind if I go to bed?'
'You can go at ease.' Álvaro says. 'But on one condition: We are not accepting, in any way, cum stains on the sheets. My lady is not cleaning that shit anyway. After all, her family runs an Irish tavern. They are pretty used to clean puke, but cum is not their area of expertise.'
Sinéad gets up and starts kicking Alvaro who is still on the floor.
'Have you heard that?' She asks me, laughing. 'He sure knows how to protect his lady.'
Before I go to bed for good I thank both of them.
'You've been so kind to me. I hope I can do something in return for you sometime soon.'
They're both in the floor now. They're wrestling and Sinéad has the lead. They stop for a second, sneer in a playful sort of way and stuck their tongues out at me. Then, the fight continues.
Same night. A bit later. I'm lying in the still-made bed of my temporary new bedroom, thinking of doing something in return. Haven't I already done it, keeping them away from Carlos? Or was I just saving my own ass? Or even worse, am I trying to convince myself that I'm not a crazy fuck, making them accomplices of my visions or whatever they are? I can hear them in the adjacent room, talking. I can't make out a single word they say. Not that I want to. Eventually, the conversation ceases and some minutes later comes the panting and moaning. I try to behave myself but it's no good.
The moment I ejaculate, there it goes the remaining tightness in me. Before I go to sleep I make sure to avoid leaving the infamous cum stains. I fall unconscious with most of my clothes on. I don't bother to unmake the bed either.
The next day we manage to slip in our former apartment while Carlos is away. We pack everything worthy of saving in about five minutes and then we get the hell away from there.
A week later they are still talking about Chungking Express. So I decide to buy the dvd. The movie lives up to the expectations. It's flawed and naive sometimes, but anyway, I wouldn't change a single frame of it. I tell Alvaro and Sinéad when they come home and we watch it together again. And just like that, it becomes kind of our thing. We watch it so many times that soon we know each line by heart. We start recreating scenes from the movie on a daily basis. It's been a long time since I had so much fun. We buy a couple of raincoats, a policeman uniform and some wigs. Sometimes we play California Dreamin' so load that I think the walls and the floor are going to give up on us. The old woman on the third floor must think the same thing because one day she calls the police. When they knock, I open the door dressed in a Hong-Kong cop costume. They let us go with a warning.
Many afternoons, the house is deserted. If I'm not working, I dedicate a good portion of that quiet time to conduct little experiments on myself. I've been collecting the leftovers of the appetizers we serve at the pub. An appetizer doesn't give you much. Little flashes of lives, mostly entangled and knotted between them. Ninety percent of the times I manage to force the visions to come but sometimes they still knock on my door unannounced. Either way, I always pass out eventually. Every time I wake up in the kitchen's floor, I feel like I'm inhabiting a receptacle I don't belong to. Even my own mind seems someone else's property. That sensation usually goes away in an hour or so. Except for one day. Alvaro and Sinéad come home and I'm still like that. I use all my force of will to behave like the normal me. That feels even weirder.
As nice as it is to live with them, I know that this situation can't last for much longer. It's clear now that Álvaro is staying with Sinéad. They are great together. It seems that something good came out of this after all. Anyway, it's their first year living together and I've already screwed their first few months of domestic intimacy. They would never bring up the subject and they most likely haven't even thought about it. All the more reason to start looking for an apartment.
Every day, I read the real estate ads in the local newspapers. The monthly rent for a craphole is almost twice what I can afford, not even counting the deposit. The payment at O'Sullivan's is not bad at all but this city can be as greedy a bitch as the best of them. I should look for a room in a shared apartment, but at this point I loathe the idea of living with strangers again. One day, in the middle of the real estate ads I find a framed note: "Have you been talking to leftovers lately?" Below that, there's a cell phone number. Paranoid schizophrenia anyone?
I call. What else should I do? At the other end of the line a man with a foreign accent I can't recognize gives me an address in the Montjuic surroundings. He tells me to be there tomorrow at noon. Then he hangs up.
The place seems to have been a restaurant not so long ago. It's completely empty now. I notice that some walls have been torn down. On the furthest corner from where I stand there's a big table. Beside it, two young men dressed in identical grey suits stare at me.
'I'm here about the ad.'
'Come closer,' says one of them.
I do as he says. They watch me for a while without even twitching a muscle. Then, the one who told me to get closer gets something out of a drawer and puts it on the table. I have a pretty good idea of what it is, so I refuse to look down. The little grey men look me in the eye with a placid expression that gets on my nerves pretty badly. Five minutes later or so, I surrender and look down. These leftovers have way more strength than any of the ones I have faced so far. It's not the amount of data what's causing the unbearable pain. Not even the information itself. It's the ability showing its true colors. I beg for the moment of passing out to come. But before it happens, one of them approaches me with a syringe and gives me shot in the neck.
'We must avoid the fainting from now on.' He says. 'Every time you lose consciousness, there's a heavy risk of irreversible neurological damage. We are not even sure how serious it can get but I could swear you are not in a big hurry to find out.'
I nod. The shot has left me a bit dizzy, but the pain is way better.
'Stay with us, ok? Keep awake. We'll help you through all this.'
They take me to a nearby chair. They sit in front of me and ask me some questions about the leftovers on the table. Basic stuff. Soon, they seem satisfied with my answers and don't ask me anything else. They give me a couple of cards. I recognize one of them. It must be the most expensive real estate agency in town. The other has an address on Diagonal Avenue inscribed in red letters.
'You need a place to live. These people will help you find a cozy spot. When you find something you like, take a week to get used to it and feel comfortable. Then show up in the other place.'
The laconic little grey man hands me a small cardboard box.
'Every time you feel you are going to suffer one of this episodes, put one pill under your tongue. Use them wisely. If I dish look suspicious, just look away.'
I nod again. They congratulate me for being "one more in the House". They say it's been a long time since they started looking for someone like me. Then, they show me the way out. We'll be in touch. Goodbye.
The agency gets me a massive penthouse in a beautiful building. Carl, the interior designer, puts everything in place just the way I want, even before I know what I want myself. They also add a phone line, satellite Internet access, and a lot of stuff I've never needed and soon I won't be able to live without. When I ask them who's going to pay for all that, the secretary at the agency office laughs at me. 'You are, sir. Who else?' There's a trace of German in her voice. Now that I think about it, lately there's a trace of German in everything around me.
Halfway into the week, the phone rings for the first time. It's someone from the House, but the voice doesn't seem to belong to one of the little grey men. Whoever he is, he apologizes about having been so silent about my salary. He asks me to come to a Barclay's office nearby as soon as I can. I go right away. I'm pretty eager to know how much I'm going to make. At the office, a bald young man with yellow-rimmed spectacles tells me about all the goodies the bank will be thrilled to treat me to. I don't know why, but he reminds me of a pigeon with no feathers. When he's done, there's a bunch of papers for me to sign. I put my poor excuse for a signature in each of them without even reading a single word. In the end, no matter what, banks will screw you. So, why bother?
Back in the penthouse I take a look at my account's balance. They have paid me six months in advance. Even living in a place like this, with just one month's salary, I could survive for almost two years. I've taken a week off at O'Sullivan's. I gotta stop by and tell them I'm quitting for good. They've been so nice to me it almost feels wrong to quit, but what can I do? It's not only about the shitload of money these other people are paying me. They have offered to help me with all the supernatural crap. And I just can't say no to that. Even if they scare me to hell, and they do, I just can't decline an offer like that.
Sinéad's Dad is really understanding about everything. I tell him I've got a job as an interpreter and that this is like a dream come true. He pours two glasses of Macallan 1937 and proposes a toast. 'May all your dreams come true', he says. I can't begin to imagine how much this bottle must have cost. It's not even for sale. It's a piece of the pub. An important one. There's no pub without the bottle and no bottle without the pub. 'Now,' I think, 'I probably can afford this kind of stuff.' The thought makes me shiver.
The next day, I invite Sinéad and Álvaro to my new and not so humble abode. I tell them that the penthouse is part of the deal, which in fact is true, but quite uncommon for a junior interpreter when you think about it. They seem suspicious but don't say a single word on the matter.
'Choose a restaurant, whatever you like, really.' I say. 'I'm buying dinner.'
I hope that a luscious meal soaked in alcohol will cast the awkward atmosphere out. As a matter of fact, it does.
Saturday morning. Someone's knocking at the door. I open it half-asleep. The courier hands me a small package. A few minutes later, sitting in the living room, I wonder what the contents of the package could be. Perhaps anthrax or some kind of biological weapon? I'm not in the mood for a biological attack at this hour on a Saturday morning. I think about going back to bed. If I go right now I might catch again my last dream which judging by the size of my erection must have been a pretty nice one. Instead of doing that, I open the box and do I find anthrax inside? Even worse. It's a cell phone. For many years I've been avoiding to buy one of those things. I've seen how the plague extended itself but I've managed to resist. Till now, at least. I used to feel special about it. I used to feel like a member of a distinguished club. A rare breed which got more and more rare by the minute. Besides the phone, there's a note inside: 'Keep this with you at all times.' So much for my distinguished club.
It's been a bit more than a week. It's time I pay a visit to whoever lives in the second card's address. The boy who opens the door looks slightly under twenty. He's thin. Very blonde, almost white, long hair. He wears some sort of pajamas but even in that, he's stylish and elegant. He says my name with a big smile and tells me to come in. I take a look around as I walk inside. The apartment is as ordinary as it gets. He walks me to a small room in the back, tells me to please sit down and only when I do sit down, he sits in front of me. He hands me a set of five cards attached by a ring. Each card has a different color. The first one has a Chinese character written on it. Each of the next three has a series of drawings somehow related with each other. As for the last one, it's just pure yellow and nothing else.
I do as he says.
'What do you think that character means?' He asks less than a minute later.
'Joyful, easy, music.' I don't hesitate, not even for a second.
'Good boy! You and me are gonna get along real fine. Mark my words, mon ami.'
Only that morning I go through more than a hundred sets of cards. The characters come into my head effortlessly and I have a feeling they're going to stay there. I'm about to ask the boy what the characters have to do with the leftovers and everything else. But what would be the point in asking at this stage? I always wanted to learn Chinese anyway.
For six months I see the boy of the cards twice a week. The rest of the time I read, watch an insane amount of movies in the obscenely massive screen installed in the living room, and learn Chinese. The boy only takes care of the characters and their meanings. So I figure why don't go to the very end and actually learn the language. One day I ask the boy why they don't try to capitalize on such an extremely efficient learning method. Normally, you'll need years of constant study and reviewing to learn a decent amount of characters.
'The House financial status is quite healthy.' He says grinning. 'It has all the money you can imagine and then some. Besides, this only works with certain people. You need, how do I put it... Your brain needs to be wired in a very very specific way.'
One particularly sunny day, the boy says I've already learnt more than enough. He hugs me, wishes me luck and says it's been a pleasure to know me.
Every Friday, Álvaro and Sinéad come to have dinner at my place. Most times the agency's catering service takes care of the food. They can get you just about any dish you can imagine. After dinner we watch a movie or two in the infamous living room screen. Normally, Sinéad gets to choose the movies. That can mean either Katherine Hepburn or a gore flick. No complaints in that department.
It's the first Friday since the boy of the cards and me parted ways. We are watching "Long Day's Journey into the Night" and "Suspiria" is going to follow. I'm not really a fan of long movies but I'm loving the hell out of this one and wishing it never ends. And just because of that, my cell rings for the first time.
A restaurant in the Barri Gòtic. I have to be there in forty-five minutes. Before I can ask anything, they hang. I tell my guests pretty much the truth: 'There's been an emergency at work and I have to fly.' They practically laugh at me.
'Do they need you to translate something in the middle of the night?' Sinéad asks between giggles.
I'm afraid it might be something pretty close to that. There's going to be a translation of some kind. I tell them to stay and watch the rest of the movie without me, even sleep over if they want. There's plenty of room. As much as I insist, it's no good. They leave. Five minutes later I call a taxi and leave too.
I have heard about the place. It's a literary theme restaurant. They choose an author or a certain work and then they design the decoration and the entire menu based on that. Sometimes a theme lasts a week, sometimes a single night. It sounded like utter bullshit to me the first time I heard about it, but now that I'm here I can say it really works. The hall's wallpaper is made out of crime reports from North-American newspapers and black and white shots of several dubious individuals. At the reception desk stands a girl dressed in a black tuxedo.
'You're early.' She says. '¿Can I offer you something?'
'I've already have dinner, thanks. Raymond Chandler must be tasty though.'
'It's a Jim Thompson night.' She says.
'Oh, my mistake.'
'Listen, if you are not going to eat or drink anything you can wait there.' She shows me a armchair one feet to her left.
I sit in the armchair. Time passes and nothing happens. The silence is a bit awkward but you get used to it. Exactly forty-five minutes after the call, a man shows up and tells me to go with him. I follow him all the way to the kitchen. There's a platform with several plates in line, in each plate, the leftovers of a different Jim Thompson specialty. Besides the plates, there's a stack of multicolor origami paper and a fine point marker.
'Go from the right to the left.' The man says. 'Use one sheet of paper per plate.'
I'm not sure of what I'm exactly supposed to do. Asking seems foolish though. So I go straight into the first plate. The images come and I try to write down keywords to remember the ones that seem more important. I have a pill ready in my pocket. I don't want to pass out in my first day at work.
I'm not even halfway through the process when the man yanks me away from the platform. The images cease to come. Once it starts I'm completely unable to pull away from it. It hadn't come to my mind that someone could do it for me.
'What the fuck is this?' He says, taking the piece of paper away from me. 'They told me you were done with the cards.'
'What?' I say. I feel completely out of sync with reality.
'The fucking cards. Those Chinese symbols. Ideograms, logograms, whatever they call them. Are you done with them?'
'So?' He says pointing to the platform.
I think I've figured out what he wants from me. I restart the process and this time I draw a character for each image the leftovers give me. Everything slows down. It feels perfectly natural. As if the experience was meant to be this way from the very beginning. The dish was a fillet mignon à la failed embezzlement. Somehow, it doesn't strike me as Thompsonian enough but it seems it was exquisite. When I get to the core of the woman who's eaten the fillet mignon, time slows down even more. As I draw the final character I take pleasure in each stroke I make with the marker. Once I'm finished, the man takes a good look at the paper. He crosses out every character but the last one.
'This is so much better.' He says, smiling. 'But I'm only interested in this motherfucker.' He points to the final character.
The man puts the paper, which is purple by the way, over the plate. I repeat the same process with the rest of them. I don't draw anything until the very end but in my mind I still assign a character to each image. I use almost the entire surface of the sheet to draw the core of the person. I'm so glad I've finally found a way to get all this shit under control. The fainting era is gone. The pain is gone too. Once you put a name to them, even the most terrifying things in this world lose most of their power.
The man examines the results. He seems pleased.
'You know what?' He says in a very friendly way. 'I once try to learn all this stuff from the card-boy, but it was no good. He said something about my neurological structure or something like that. At first, I think he was fucking with me, calling me retarded or something. I was about to blow his fucking face off. But, you know? The House loves that faggot to pieces. So I suppose I gotta love him too.'
I stare at him for a while. I'm not sure if he's finished or not.
'Anyway,' he continues, 'you've made one hell of a first day, my friend. Pretty fucking good job if I'm allowed to say it. You are a quick learner, sonny boy.'
The question escapes my lips. I just can't help it. I wish I could.
'Are you looking for a certain character?'
The man smiles. If the question has bothered him it's impossible to tell by the look in his face.
'Yes, we are looking for one in particular.'
I wonder how he is going to recognize it.
'When the time comes I'll recognize it, don't you worry.'
I guess he read it in my face. I blush. I don't remember the last time I've blushed. Somehow, this guy makes me feel like I've gone back to primary school. I feel so helpless.
'Hey, don't be awkward pal.' He says, putting a hand on my shoulder. 'In this line of business it's perfectly normal to have questions. This is not some kind of fucked-up obscure cult, ok? So, don't be afraid to ask. Just make sure that you ask me and no one else, all right?
'Ok, sonny boy. Like I told you, you've made one hell of a job. Now, get the fuck out and go have some fun.'
I take the back door. I don't know how to feel. I have this puncturing sensation in my chest and I can't shake it off. Slow breathing is no good. This execrable anxiety doesn't want to go away. I'm so glad I've finally got the leftovers crap under control, but somehow it feels like I'm getting in even deeper shit. But to say that it's too late to go back would be a bit of an understatement.
They call me once or twice a week. Always a different restaurant. In time, I come to the conclusion that half the fashionable restaurants in Barcelona belong to the House.
I always repeat the same process: I come into the kitchen, assign a character to each plate and get the hell out of there. I suppose you can find one or two jobs worse than this. Sometimes I think about the person they are looking for. I wonder what they want from him or her. Have I sold my soul to the devil? Did that man refer to this kind of questions when he told me I could ask him anything?
Otherwise I'm pretty much living the dream. I have all the time in the world and there's nothing more precious to me. I watch more than fifteen movies a week, lost count of my readings and get fit for the first time in my life. I even get into videogames. Nowadays, a lot of them are story-based. Most of the stories are way better than the average Hollywood movie, which isn't saying much when you think about it. Anyway, they do a terrific job of keeping me from thinking about pacts with the devil and stuff like that.
I also manage to keep my Chinese studies in high gear and see a lot of Sinéad and Álvaro. Studying Chinese is a pain in the ass when you don't have the boy of the cards around. But I need to, at least, pass the intermediate level official test. I'm starting to loathe the whole language but it's the first time in my life I persevere in anything and I got to see it through to the end.
It's been almost two years since I started all the Chinese studying business and I think I'm ready to pass the test. And so the big day comes. It's a Saturday, two weeks before Christmas. They make us write for three hours. Every fiber of my hand aches. Am I getting rheumatic arthritis on top of everything?
Anyway, I'm pretty sure I did ok in the test. When it's time to give in the papers they ask me for some id. I take out my identity card but in doing that, all the rest of the cards in my wallet go flying away. There are at least half a dozen member cards for video rental shops, three credit cards, health care id, and a bunch of useless bits of cardboard and plastic. The girl who's just turned over her exam kneels down and picks up all that shit in no time. She's a brunette with green eyes. My height more or less. She's somehow slender and busty at the same time. Wears jeans and a green t-shirt. The t-shirt has an inscription on big capital letters. It's one hell of a declaration of principles: "Don't fuck. Love!" That's what it says. Below the shirt I could swear there are the most beautiful breasts I've ever seen. I can't keep my eyes away from her. Once everything is back in the wallet I apologize to the examiner and we get out of the room together. She's the one who breaks the silence.
'Back in there, were you looking at my shirt or my boobs?'
'Both of them, I'm afraid.'
She laughs. It's a beautiful laugh. I laugh too. Not a lot of beauty there, but she doesn't seem to mind. From laughing to an engaging conversation. We start talking about the test and the pains of being a Chinese language enthusiast and then the conversation gets more and more personal till we practically undress our souls. First her. Then me. Never before in my life something like this ever happened to me. But these days, my life is not what you'd call a definition of normality. We agree to get together for dinner that same evening.
We meet at nine-thirty at the restaurant's door. I wonder if my employers own this place too. Every time I eat out, I ask myself the same question. We get there almost at the same time. Even though it's a bit chilly outside, she wears the same jeans and t-shirt. She greets me with a kiss on the lips. When we get to our table we throw ourselves in an even more engaging conversation than the one we had before. The food at this place is really nice. We're both starving and devour everything they put in front of us. When we're done with the second dish, her leftovers start to tempt me. Ever since I started in this line of work I've never surveyed a dish that wasn't part of a job. I suppose you could call that professional ethics.
There's something different about her leftovers though. The moment I put my eyes in that plate, all my efforts to back off are pointless. The carpaccio looked excellent. Its leftovers are a bitch. The problem is not what they make me see but rather what I don't see. I don't see a single thing. For the rest of my life, whenever I examine some leftovers that's all I'm going to see, leftovers. My gift is gone, just like that. I come to that conclusion in an instant. That's what my life is lately: A never-ending series of instantaneous revelations. I don't feel sad. Empty is how I feel. So fucking empty.
She doesn't keep her eyes away from me. She asks if everything is fine. It's hard to tell if she's aware of what just happened. But at this point I have a problem when it comes to believe in random events. I tell her I feel a bit dizzy and she suggests we skip desert and go straight to her place. 'It's less than five minutes from here.' She says biting her lower lip.
Any thought, any feeling I was experiencing up to that moment gets smashed over by an overwhelming lust and desire. All I can think about is how beautiful must be those tits under her shirt and how much I would like to lick them and how everything will make sense when I start playfully biting her nipples. Everything else is ridiculously banal. I just let go.
On the way to her place we stop to kiss in each corner, each building's doorway, each lamppost, like a couple of teenagers in love. When we finally get there, we rip our clothes off before we reach the bedroom. Her tits more than fulfill their promise. We fuck for more than an hour in her king-size bed. We behave in a savage way, but there's not a single movement out of place. Everything is in harmony and, for lack of a better word, pure. It's like every sexual experience I've ever had had vanished. I'm a virgin again and she's taking care of it. When we are done, there's no time to talk, no time to think. I fall asleep in less than five seconds.
When I wake up, there's a new sun in the sky. She's still beside me, asleep. I get up, pick up my clothes and go half dress to the bathroom. I throw some water in my face avoiding to look in the mirror. When I get back to the bedroom, she has moved in her sleep. She's on her back now. Everything above her bellybutton is exposed. Those beautiful breasts defying gravity... She's, no doubt, the most gorgeous creature I've ever seen. I really, really hope I won't see her again for the rest of my life.
I come outside a normal human being. The emptiness feeling is back. I can't feel anger, not even the usual self-pity. It's like nothing could have happened in a different way. I'm not the biggest fan of fatality but that's how it is.
For three weeks I still attend the House calls. I write random characters, put them over the plates and go away. If they can see through my bullshit they don't show it. Still, the moment I left the kitchen a suffocating knot settles in my chest and refuses to go away. It gets worse with each job. One day, I take my cell and call the only entry that was already in the phonebook when I got it. It's called "House". I don't recognize the prefix.
A very old man takes the call at the other end of the line. He speaks in a calm, sweet voice. He's like the grandad I've never had.
'Hey, sonny boy! How's life treating you these days?'
'Can't complain, I guess.' I don't know what else to say.
'That's really nice.' He says with enthusiasm. 'Really nice. I'm very glad you've called. I've been wanting to thank you for the terrific job you've done. Your services are not needed anymore, but we have an eternal debt to you, you better believe that.'
'Have you found the person you were looking for?'
'We weren't exactly looking for a person but, yes, I found what I was looking for, thanks to you.'
'Can I ask when...?’
'Mmm... Let me see. Must've been about three weeks ago if I remember correctly.'
'I don't understand. The last calls...'
'You'll get used to it.' He interrupts me in a caring voice. 'That emptiness feeling won't ever disappear completely but you'll get used to it. It's better this way. Believe me, my dear boy. Thanks a lot again.'
'No, thanks to you, sir.'
'Oh, come on.' He says laughing. 'Don't sir me, sonny boy.'
'Just thanks, then.'
'Farewell, my young child. May you have a life of meaning. You truly deserve it, even though you may not know it yet.'
'Thanks again, really. Goodbye.'
It came with the sharpest pain you can possibly imagine but when it went away, I didn't even notice.