In the Night of Time(2)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina

    In recent months you can no longer be sure about certain things, can’t know whether a friend, seen a few days or only hours ago, is still alive. Once death and life had clearer, more precise boundaries. You send letters and postcards and don’t know whether they’ll reach their destination, and if they do, whether the one who should have received them is alive or still at that address. You dial the telephone and there’s no answer, or the voice at the other end belongs to a stranger. You pick up the receiver to speak with someone or get information and the line is dead. You turn on the faucet and water may not come out. The customary, automatic actions are canceled by uncertainty. Ordinary streets in Madrid abruptly end in a barricade or a trench or a heap of rubble left by an exploded bomb. On the sidewalk, turning a corner, you can see in the first light of day a rigid body pushed against a building that served as a blank wall for a firing squad the night before, the half-closed eyes, the yellowed face, the upper lip contracted into a smile that reveals teeth, the top of the head blown off by a shot fired from a few inches away. The phone rings in the middle of the night and you’re afraid to pick up the receiver. You hear the elevator motor or the doorbell in your sleep and can’t tell whether it’s a real threat or only a nightmare. So far from Madrid yet Ignacio Abel still thinks of those fearful nights and months of insomnia, fearful nights in the present tense. Distance doesn’t cancel the verbal tense of fear. In the hotel room where he has spent four nights, the deafening noise of enemy planes woke him; he opened his eyes and it was the rattle of an elevated train. The voices continue to reach him: who has called his name just now, as I saw him standing motionless in his open raincoat, holding his suitcase, wearing the anxious expression of someone who looks at clocks and signs afraid he’ll miss a train; what absent voice imposed itself above the uproar of real life, calling him, Ignacio, Ignacio Abel, urging him to run faster or to stop and turn around and go back?

    Now I see him much more clearly, isolated in that instant of immobility, encircled by sudden gestures, hostile looks, the rush of the crowd, tired after working in offices, hurrying to catch trains, driven by obligations and trapped by the spider webs of relationships he lacks, like a vagrant or a lunatic, though in his pocket he carries a valid passport and in his hands the train ticket and his suitcase, the battered yet still distinguished suitcase I can almost see as if through Ignacio Abel’s weary, avid eyes. I see the hand clutching the leather handle, feel the excessive tension of his grip, the pain in his joints from repeating this action for over two weeks, when the same figure of a tall, middle-aged man, now lost in the crowd, walked alone at night along a street in Madrid where the streetlights were out or broken or painted blue and the only light filtered through the closed shutters of a few windows. The same figure, cut out of the photograph of Pennsylvania Station and inserted in a Madrid street, Calle Alfonso XII perhaps (the name was changed and for a time it was called Niceto Alcalá-Zamora; now it has been changed again and is called Reforma Agraria), or walking past Retiro Park fifteen or twenty days earlier on his way to the train station, staying close to the walls, his suitcase banging against the corners as he tries to disappear into the shadows. In the silence of a curfew, an approaching car can mean only danger, even if all your documents are in order. He would have to know the exact departure date, but he hasn’t kept count of the number of days he’s been traveling, and time moves away very quickly in the past. A city in the dark, besieged by fear, shaken by the sound of battle, the engines of planes that approach but are still no more than an echo of distant misfortune. He looks at one of the clocks hanging from the iron arches and calculates that for several hours it has been night in Madrid, as the minute hand advances with an identical spasm in all the illuminated spheres, jumping from eight to seven, a stroke of time like an urgent heartbeat, the step one takes into the void on falling asleep: seven minutes to four; the train he’s supposed to catch leaves at four and he has no idea where to go, which of the paths intersecting in the crowd like currents on the ocean’s surface is the one that will carry him to his destination. As in a lucid dream, now that he has turned I can see his face, close, just as he saw it this morning after wiping the steam from the mirror at which he was going to shave in the hotel room where he spent four nights and to which he knows he’ll never return. Now the doors close forever behind him, and his presence disappears without a trace. He walks along the hotel corridor, turns a corner, and it’s as if he’d never been there. I saw him shave this morning at the mirror over the sink in the room he knew he was finally about to leave, thanks to the telegram he’d received a few hours earlier, the one lying open on the night table, next to his wallet and his reading glasses and the letter handed to him yesterday afternoon, the one he almost tore up after he read it. Dear Ignacio, I hope this letter finds you well your children and I are fine and safe thank God, no small thing these days though it seems you haven’t worried too much about finding out how we are. The telegram contains a brief apology for the days of waiting, as well as information regarding the train and its departure time and the name of the station where he’ll be picked up. The letter was written and mailed almost three months ago and reached him at this hotel in New York owing to a series of accidents he cannot quite explain, as if the very density of the rancor its words exhale (rancor or something else that for the moment he prefers not to name, or doesn’t know how to) guided it in its dogged search for him. Nothing is how it once was, and there’s no reason to think that after the upheaval things will go back to the way they were. A letter sent to Madrid from a village in the Sierra is lost en route and it takes not two days but three months to arrive after passing through Red Cross headquarters in Paris and an office of the Spanish postal service where someone stamped the envelope several times: Unknown at this address.

    Ignacio Abel has been away from his home in Madrid for so short a time and already he’s a stranger. I see the envelope in the light of the lamp on the night table in the gloomy room where the noise of an elevated train sounded regularly. Once again Ignacio Abel packed the suitcase lying open on the bed, and shaved more carefully than in recent days now that he knew people were expecting him, that at six this evening someone would be on a platform trying to make out his face among the passengers getting off at the station with the strange Germanic name printed now on his ticket: Rhineberg. He’ll get off the train and someone will be waiting for him. He’ll hear his name and a part of his suspended existence will be reimposed on him. It matters a great deal to him not to cave in, not to let himself go, to fight with small acts of resistance the entropy of solitary travel, to tend to every detail as one does when constructing a building but forgoes in the sketch of its model. He must shave every morning, though the shaving soap is running out and the razor is losing its edge and the badger brush its hairs, one by one. He must do what he can to keep his shirt collar from looking soiled. But he has only three shirts and they’re wearing out from so much washing. The cuffs and collars are fraying, the creases in his trousers are becoming threadbare, his shoelaces are unraveling. He was fastening his shirt this morning and discovered that one of the buttons had fallen off, and even if he could find it, he wouldn’t know how to sew it back on. I see Ignacio Abel as if I were seeing myself, with his maniacal attention to detail, his incessant desire to understand everything, his fear of missing something of consequence, his anguish over the passage of time, its crushing slowness when it becomes waiting. He feels his face after shaving, rubbing it with a little lotion from the almost empty bottle he brought from Madrid, and I feel the touch of my fingers on my face. On a journey things wear out or are lost and there’s no time to replace them, or you don’t know how or how many days are left before you reach your destination, how much longer you’ll have to make your increasingly meager funds last, the bills in your wallet, the coins in your pockets, the trifles kept for no reason and eventually lost: subway tokens or telephone slugs, a train ticket, an unused stamp, the ticket stub from a movie house where he waited out of the rain and watched a film not understanding a word of what was said. I want to enumerate these things just as he does on many nights when he returns to his room and methodically empties his pockets onto the night table as he used to empty them on the desk in his study in Madrid, his office at University City; I want to search Ignacio Abel’s pockets, the lining of his jacket, the inner band of his hat, with the touch of his fingers; listen to the clink in his raincoat pocket of the keys to his house in Madrid; know each object and each paper left on the night table and dresser in the hotel room, the ones he has kept as he hurried out to Pennsylvania Station and the ones left behind that will be tossed into the trash by the cleaning woman who makes the bed and opens the window to let in the October air that smells of soot and the river, laundry steam and cooking grease: transient things that contain a fact, an indelible moment, the name of a movie house, the receipt for a fast meal in a cafeteria, a calendar page that has a precise date on the front and on the back a hurriedly scrawled telephone number. In his study, in a drawer he always locked, he kept Judith Biely’s letters and photographs along with any small object that had something to do with her or had belonged to her—a box of matches, a lipstick, a coaster from the Palace Hotel nightclub with the circle made by Judith’s glass. People’s souls are not in photographs but in the small things they touched, in the ones that bore the warmth of their hands. With the help of his reading glasses he searched for her through the columns of tiny names in the Manhattan phone book and was moved when he recognized it among the names of so many strangers, as if he had seen a familiar face in the middle of a crowd or heard her voice. Close variants complicated the search: Bily, Bialy, Bieley. In one of the wooden phone booths that lined the back of the hotel lobby he asked for the number listed next to the name Biely and listened to the ring, his heart racing, afraid he would hang up the moment someone answered. But the operator told him there was no answer and he remained sitting in the booth, receiver in hand, until someone’s banging on the glass pulled him out of his self-absorption.

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