Ana María Moix, Walter, Why Did You Have to Go? IV

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[Continued from yesterday]

Once they were grown up, his clumsiness and inability to understand her and the silence she imposed still prevented him from coming to know the thoughts hidden in her mind; but the trembling of Julia’s lips, which had never learned to smile naturally, and the depth of her gaze lent Julia an air revealing certain complex emotions among which neither happiness nor peacefulness were to be found. The smallish head, the medium-length dark hair, the thin face, always pale, the rings under her eyes, the thick lips, the sharp nose. A face whose features were regular and more or less flawless, but they practically disappeared, hazy to those observing them, because of the presence of her eyes, large, black, devouring the rest of her face. Reflecting on Julia’s eyes now, he comes to the conclusion that they were never big, in spite of what everyone who remembers her claims; it was the depth of her gaze, the amount of feeling they transmitted that made them seem huge. And now he remembers: it was Lea herself who, on some occasion, made him observe: those little eyes of hers are so intense. She said it with a smile: Lea always found Julia charming, a fact that was inexplicable to the rest of them. They never found anything charming about that thin, rather clumsy body, nor in that expression that projected only tension, anxiety, and a certain helplessness not devoid of aggression, which explained why, while she could be attractive and moving, she also inspired uneasiness and outright rejection. Agonizing uncertainty, if it could assume a shape, would be a grimace on that face. But now he wonders, did little Julia feel it, that summer, more than twenty years ago? And him, was that really what he was experiencing, or could it be that since it plagued him for such a long time, later on, he’s gotten it into his head that the feeling is old and susceptible to being projected backwards, back to his state of mind as a boy in a now distant past? He isn’t sure when it first began. He remembers that he, as far back as memory serves him, couldn’t keep his mind off Lea, who gutted the house with her absence, or filled it with roaring laughter, rebelliousness, made-up games, with sneaking out and generally making things difficult for the adults. He remembers his first attempts at calculating the distance separating him from Lea, differences in age and in personality that keep them apart at the same time as they bring her closer to her older friends who come by the house to pick her up in the evenings and who she hangs around with, in the mornings, by the pool at the club, the adult pool, while he and little Julia are off in the kiddie pool. They defy the vigilant gaze of Martina, the maid, and make their way to the café. They find her there, in the sunshine, sitting at one of the tables in the outdoor patio, or lying on the grass, on her brightly colored towel, surrounded by older kids. One of them, a tall blond guy, puts his arm around Lea’s waist sometimes. He, Ismael, has seen that embrace, not by the pool or in the café, but when he bumps into them, in the evening, taking walks in the woods. Then his eyes sting and he clenches his teeth. He counts: nine, ten, eleven. . . up to seventeen, Lea’s age, there’s eight years difference. He calculates, without moving, standing next to little Julia on the grass by the adult pool, waiting for Lea to take notice of his presence; he calculates, in the sunshine, heat and rage forcing his eyes shut: when he turns seventeen, she, Lea, will already be twenty-five. She’ll be married. He’d kill them, all those big jerks, Lea’s friends, already seniors in high school. He feels like crying, or hitting somebody. He squeezes little Julia’s hand tightly, she’s waiting patiently for the usual ceremony to take place, just like every morning: Ernesto (who, even though he’s only fifteen, is accepted by Lea and her friends because he looks older and he’s so cute and so nice that the sixteen-year-old girls don’t mind his age) exclaims: what a surprise, the babies are back. Ismael hurls himself at him, to kick him, and the blond guy who sometimes puts his arm around Lea’s waist (he’s actually seen him do it and he’s not going to let him get away with it) yells at him, for stepping on his towel: Christ, kid, watch where the hell you’re going. But Lea gets up and takes them to the café to buy them ice cream. Having ice cream is no big deal for him. But he likes to see how Lea gets up, abandoning her friends, especially the blond guy, to take off with him. In the café, she runs into some other friends, but he and little Julia don’t have to leave: until they get their cones and finish them, they’ve got an excuse to stay there, with Lea. Before going into the café, he thinks: order a Coke, order a Coke; he wishes for it nine times in a row: he believes that nine’s his lucky number and if he asks for anything nine times, the wish will come true. He’s practically praying for her to order the soda, that way they’ll stay in the café longer and they’ll have more time to enjoy Lea’s company. While having her drink, she sometimes gets distracted and places a hand on Ismael’s shoulder. Tall, thin, her black hair falling in her face when she talks or laughs, because she moves her head around, and her hands too: that’s why she takes her hand off Ismael’s shoulder, and then sets it there again, or she slides it down his back, and he feels an icy needle running, slowly, up and down his spine. Lea, standing at the counter, also caresses his neck at times, distractedly, and draws him toward her. Ismael’s knee grazes, briefly, her leg, hot from the morning sun. The contact takes his breath away. Drops of water are still sliding down Lea’s wet tan skin. She’s wearing the blue swimsuit today, sometimes it’s the white one. His head comes up to her chest, and he brushes it with his blond bangs, it’s so close. . . If she, in a t-shirt and blue jeans, gets too close when they’re at home or out walking around, he doesn’t experience the shortness of breath that he feels now, when she’s in her bathing suit. Terrified, he thinks: one of these days I’m going to pass out. It almost happened to him one morning when, as he was leaving the café, dazed perhaps because he could feel her cool hand on his shoulder, he stumbled over the step and Lea caught him, pulling him to her so he wouldn’t fall. He clung, with both hands, to her waist, and when he heard her question, her voice, so close, did you hurt yourself?, he couldn’t even answer, he couldn’t catch his breath. His face was trapped between Lea’s chest and her bare arm; when he reached for her, to break his fall, one of his hands had settled, accidentally, on her breast and the other on her stomach, and his whole body was pressed up against hers. He couldn’t even respond. The first sensation that ran through his body was a soft, warm tingling up his front and back. He started to think he had a fever, his head was burning, his legs were shaking. Frozen, immobile, I’m paralyzed, he thought, without fear, just surprise; he had never imagined it was possible to become paralyzed on the spot like that. Was his head swollen? It felt enormous, adrift, empty, filled with only a pleasant buzzing and a distant, sweet voice: is your foot o.k.? And a different tingling, not on his back this time, but on his legs, because Lea’s fingers were making their way down his body, slowly, very gently, stopping on his hip and then continuing to his thigh, can you walk? Walk? Maybe, but he couldn’t answer: when she touched his hip, his bathing suit had moved a little to one side, and her cool fingers brushed lightly against the delicate skin in the hollow between his stomach and hipbone. . . He continued to hold on to her warm body, afraid to squeeze it, but even more afraid to let go. His small hands trembled on the blue fabric of Lea’s bathing suit, and he could perceive the warmth of her body through the thin material. She was caressing his head and, suddenly, she kissed his cheek, and he felt her lips, fleshy, moist. The pool, the grass, the other swimmers seemed ever more distant, fuzzy, beneath the white glare of the sun. Some day he would kill that blond guy, the decision was final, he would do it, for sure, but not right now: he couldn’t move, he felt so. . . he wasn’t sure if he felt good or bad, but he was afraid to let the agitation come to an end. In the days following the incident, he remembered that moment and the unfamiliar sensations that he experienced, in Lea’s arms, after he tripped; he would remember it, especially when he went to bed, or when he was alone, or when he managed to distract himself from everyone else’s chattering and give free reign to his thoughts. He liked to remember it. That’s why he tried to recreate the scene, not only in his mind, but in reality and, every once in a while, when leaving the café, he would pretend to trip or to bump into a table, so that Lea would react in the same way and he would be able to hug her, Lea, in her bathing suit. They didn’t let Lea wear a bikini, but he knew she owned one, and that she had worn it, in Mallorca, where she spent a few days at a friend’s house. María Antonia and Maite had discovered a photo, hidden underneath the dust jacket of a book: Lea and her friend, on a beach, both in bikinis. But there, by the pool at the club, no one wore bikinis, and Grandmother Lucía and Aunt Emilia threatened to lock Lea up in a convent if she attempted to wear “that piece of sinfulness.” He thought it was too bad, because if Lea was wearing a two-piece, when he tripped or was about to fall, when he was leaving the café and they hugged. . . Imagining it, he would be overcome with that pleasant, sugary lightheadedness that he provoked with his own thoughts. Frequently, by simply hearing Lea’s voice, if she was speaking softly, or by looking at the line of her long neck that he could imagine touching, very slowly, or brushing with his cheek, he could already feel himself floating, wandering through unfamiliar territory in a slow vertigo that isolated him from everyone else. After the pleasant lightheadedness, he would feel forceful, strong, he believed that he could perceive more energy in his voice as it emerged from his throat and that he would accomplish great deeds in his life. Because when he turned seventeen, Lea would be twenty-five and she’d already be married. But by the time he turned twenty and Lea was twenty-eight, she’d be widowed. He knew a few widows, Lea’s mother, for one. Why couldn’t Lea be a widow? Plus, he’d be able to get rid of the husband by just wishing for his death nine times in a row. There were other possibilities: Uncle Pedro, grumbling when he saw Ricardo and Lea’s friends, claimed that this new generation of men, in addition to being idiots, were physically weak and: they don’t even need to worry about going bald, because another war or a puff of tobacco, their first brandy or any little excitement in the bedroom will do them in, ha, ha. Another possibility for marrying Lea: if the Republic came back, like his mother wanted, divorce would be legal. Or, and this is the one he liked best, Grandmother Lucía’s prophecy for Lea would come true: that girl’ll never get married [. . .]


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