In the Night of Time(5)
Author:Antonio Munoz Molina

    The same haste he felt then propels him forward now toward the unknown, Rhineberg, a place that is only a name, a hill overlooking a river of maritime width, a nonexistent library that at this stage of the journey is nothing more than a series of pencil sketches and an excuse for his flight. The haste that carried him to his obligations, driving his small car at top speed through Madrid, that made him wake at night, impatient for dawn, distressed at time’s passage, the irreparable waste of time imposed by Spanish ineptitude, indifference, and that age-old sullen resistance to any kind of change. Now the haste endures, stripped of its purpose, like the phantom pain that continues to afflict someone who’s had an amputation, like the reflexive impulse that carries him to an immediate destiny where he won’t find Judith Biely and beyond which he can see nothing: the voices dreamed and real, the minute hand that abruptly advances on all the clocks in Pennsylvania Station, a staircase with metal steps descending into the echoing underground vault where the trains depart, his suitcase in his hand, his knuckles aching, his passport in the inside pocket, touched for a second by the hand that holds his ticket, a conductor who nods as he shouts the name of his destination, a voice drowned by the vibration of the electric locomotive as beautiful as the nose of an airplane, ready to leave with merciless punctuality, roaring like the machinery and sirens of the SS Manhattan as it moved slowly away from the pier. Occasionally his haste lessens, but its urgent pang is not erased. The only letup is the moment of departure, the absolution of a few hours or days when you can abandon yourself without remorse to the passivity of the journey, or lie down and close your eyes in a hotel room without taking your shoes off, lie down on your side, your legs drawn up, wanting not to think about anything, not to have to open your eyes again. Soon that period of time will be over, the uneasiness will return: the suitcase has to be packed again or taken down from the luggage net, documents have to be prepared to make sure nothing is left behind. But for now, having just entered the train and taking his seat, Ignacio Abel leans with infinite relief against the window, at least for the next two hours protected and safe. He has placed the suitcase on the seat beside him, and without removing his raincoat touches all his pockets one by one, his fingertips identifying surfaces, textures, the cover and flexibility of his passport, the bulk of his wallet with the photos of Judith Biely and his children and the few dollars he has left, the telegram he will take out soon to reconfirm his travel instructions, the envelope with Adela’s letter, packed with sheets of paper he perhaps should have torn up before leaving the hotel room or simply left behind, forgotten, on the night table. There is something he doesn’t recognize right away, a fine cardboard edge in his right jacket pocket: it’s the postcard of the Empire State Building with a zeppelin moored to the top, which he forgot to slip into one of the letterboxes at the station, each bearing the name of a country in gold letters. He notices now, as he crosses his legs, how dirty and cracked his shoes are, the soles still carrying dust from the streets of Madrid, the hand-sewn soles that are wearing out, just like the crease in his trousers, and his shirt cuffs. The most interesting part of a construction begins when it is finished, said the smiling engineer Torroja, the man responsible for reviewing the structural calculations for the buildings at University City and who had designed a bridge with tall narrow arches like those in a canvas by Giorgio de Chirico. The action of time, the pull of gravity, the forces that continue to interact among themselves in the precarious equilibrium generally called stability or firmness, which in reality has no more substance than a house of cards and sooner or later will succumb to its own internal laws—Torroja would say, aiding the enumeration with his fingers, or a natural catastrophe, a flood or an earthquake, or the human enthusiasm for destruction. The door at the rear of the car opens and a young blond woman appears, slim, hatless, looking for someone, an expression of urgency on her face, as if she had to get off the train before it started moving in less than a minute. For a moment, barely the lapse between two heartbeats, Abel recognizes Judith Biely, re-creates with the precision of a drawing what he didn’t know had remained intact in his memory, what exists and is erased without a trace in the presence of an unknown woman who doesn’t resemble her at all: the oval of her face, her eyebrows, her lips, her curly hair, a light chestnut color, the red nail polish, her broad shoulders, like those of a swimmer or a mannequin in a display window.

    2THE MIRACLE OF such a sight ends suddenly. That Judith Biely is in the world right now seems as improbable as her appearing in the car of a train about to depart, forcing him to invent the melodrama of her last-minute arrival at the station. He doesn’t remember exactly how long ago she left Madrid, but he has a precise count of the days that have passed since he last saw her. He has walked through the city for four days, traveled on streetcars, subways, and elevated trains, and has never stopped looking for her in each young woman who crossed paths with him or whom he saw from a distance, and the repeated disappointment hasn’t inoculated him against the hallucination of recognizing her. In union   Square he saw a poster announcing an act of solidarity with the Spanish Republic and the glorious struggle of the Spanish people against fascism, and he made his way through the crowd waving placards and banners and singing anthems only in the hope of running into her. From the deck of the ship he saw the towers of the city emerge from the fog like brightly lit cliffs, and aside from fear and vertigo, his only thought was that Judith Biely might be somewhere in that labyrinth. In the innumerable columns of names in the New York telephone directory, he found hers listed three times; he called two of them, annoyed voices he could barely understand telling him he had the wrong number, and the third rang a long time but no one answered. The mind, however, secretes images and fictions just as the glands in the mouth secrete saliva. Judith running past people in the great lobby of Pennsylvania Station, looking for him, thinking she saw him in any middle-aged man in a dark suit, descending the echoing iron steps with gymnastic agility in spite of her high heels and narrow skirt, and arriving on time. And so he looked for her among the passengers on the express trains about to leave Madrid on the night of July 19, a seemingly ordinary night and not a definitive threshold in time, despite the radios blasting at top volume on the lighted, wide-open balconies, and the crowds shouting down the main streets, and the bursts of gunshots one could still mistake for backfires or fireworks. He’d find her a few moments before her train pulled out, her blond hair billowing from a sleeping-car window in a cloud of steam made iridescent by powerful electric lights, and when she saw him, she’d back down from her decision to break up with him and leave Spain, and throw herself into his arms. Puerile fictions, the subliminal effect of novels and films in which destiny allows the reunion   of lovers seconds before the end. Musicals he’d seen with her in the movie houses of Madrid, enormous and dark, smelling of new materials and disinfectant, their surfaces golden under the silver light of the big screen.

    They used to meet in one of the theaters on Calle Bravo Murillo, and though it was unlikely anyone would recognize them in a working-class district far from downtown, they entered separately for the first afternoon showing, when the audience was smaller. The bustling, dusty street was hot in early summer and the sun was blinding; all you had to do was walk through the doors lined with garnet fabric and into the artificial delight of darkness and cooled air. It took time for them to become accustomed to the dark, and they looked for each other by taking advantage of the best-lit scenes, the sudden brightness of midday on the first-class deck of a fake ocean liner, the sea projected on a transparency screen, an ocean breeze from electric fans agitating the heroine’s blond curls. In the newsreel, two million men carrying olive branches and tools on their shoulders marched along the avenues of Berlin on May Day to the rhythm of military bands. An equally oceanic and disciplined crowd waved weapons, flowering branches, flags, and portraits on Red Square in Moscow. Cyclists with the hard faces of farm laborers pedaled up rocky paths in the Tour of Spain. He searched avidly for her hands in the dark, the bare skin of her thighs; he abandoned himself to the secretive, indecent caress of her hand, her smiling face illuminated by powder flashes from the screen. Insolent Italian legionnaires with black pirate goatees and colonial helmets crowned with feathers marched before the recently conquered palace of the negus in Addis Ababa. Don Manuel Azaña left the Congress of Deputies after his swearing-in as president of the Spanish Republic, dressed in tails with a sash across his distended torso, pale, wearing an absurd top hat and an astonished expression as if attending his own funeral. (Judith had seen the procession pass in the street and recalled the contrast between Azaña’s colorless skin in the open car and the red crests of the cavalry soldiers who escorted him.) Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire glided weightlessly on a lacquered platform, holding each other as they danced in a pose identical to the one on the full-color canvas announcement that covered the façade of the Europa. The evident fakery of the film offered Judith a true emotion to which she gave herself up with no resistance: the mouths that moved without singing, the unlikelihood of a man and woman dressed in street clothes talking as they walked and a moment later singing and dancing and having to protect themselves from a sudden, obviously artificial rain. She knew all the songs by heart, including the ones on Spanish radio commercials, which she studied as meticulously as the traditional ballads or the poems of Rubén Darío she was learning in Don Pedro Salinas’s classes. She’d recite the lyrics of the songs in English and asked Ignacio to explain the ones sung by Imperio Argentina in Morena Clara, which for reasons he didn’t understand she liked as much as Top Hat. On the phonograph in her room, she played songs she’d brought from America as often as those of García Lorca accompanying La Argentinita on the piano. That Judith liked those muddled movies about flamenco dancers and smugglers, and the strident voices that sang in them, irritated Ignacio Abel less than the fact that his son, Miguel, at the age of twelve, adored them too. The first time he saw her, her presence had been announced by the music that radiated from her as naturally as her voice or the shine of her hair or the fragrance, between sportive and rustic, of the cologne she wore. One afternoon at the end of September, Ignacio Abel entered the auditorium of the Student Residence looking for Moreno Villa, and a woman with her back to him was playing the piano and singing quietly to herself in the empty hall, flooded by the reddish-gold light of sunset that would remain intact in his memory like a drop of amber, the precise light of that late afternoon on September 29.

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