Salvaged from the Shipwreck
The first time I saw Doctor Farazzo, she was accompanied by my lawyer. The doctor shook my hand, smiling, and didn’t sit down until we were left alone. She had an extremely powerful smile, like steel. She won a lot of battles with that smile. What I admired most about the doctor wasn’t her pharmaceutical knowledge, but rather her imperturbable common sense. She had come across the country in order to examine me; she was one of the few forensic psychiatrists in France who could speak to me without an interpreter. She explained who she was, and asked after my health and how I was adjusting to life behind bars; to this I responded that I was attempting precisely not to adjust, because I was hoping to get out as soon as the facts were cleared up.
“I have to give you a written questionnaire,” she said, “it’s an official requirement. I want you to answer it quickly, because it’s in both our interests for you to finish as soon as possible so we can talk.”
She didn’t waste time beating around the bush and as soon as I put the pencil on the table she picked up the papers.
“Do you know why you’ve been imprisoned?” she asked.
I answered yes. I was accused of robbery, battery, and homicide. However, although I could not deny certain participation in the incidents in question, I had not committed a crime, because my involvement was circumstantial.
“What do you mean by that?”
“Chance played a much more important role than my free will.”
“Could you explain the meaning of the words free will?”
After a little while I responded that no, I couldn’t, that she should ask a philosopher. The only thing I could tell her was that there are times in life when circumstances force you to do things that you would never conceive of in any other scenario. The doctor wrote down my words and promised me that we would keep seeing each other so that I could tell her my version in detail. From then on, Farazzo visited me at least twice a week.
The days when she came in the morning disturbed me. When I tried to remember Null and Teba, all that came to mind were my dreams. I made an effort to answer the doctor but the images’ persistence made it difficult to speak and with each new sentence I got tangled up to the extent that I couldn’t differentiate between my experience and my dreams. Then my hands would sweat and I would stumble over words more than two syllables long. Farazzo usually calmed me down immediately, allowing me to choose the topic of our chat myself. I always opted for dreams. One of my recurring nightmares dealt with the return home. I found myself lost in a neighborhood, near where I grew up. I wanted to go back to my parents’ house. The scene was disconcerting; it was neither familiar nor completely unknown. Perhaps it’s the same strangeness that repeats in the telling of my story, as if by talking and talking, my experience becomes independent from my imagination, telling its own truths. I asked the doctor what these dreams meant, and she answered that the important thing was what I believed they meant, but the doctor knew that I didn’t believe in anything.
Teba left me several messages before I decided to pick up the phone. “Pablo, don’t be stupid,” the first one said, “I want us to talk, please.” “Why are you being like this? I’m sorry, really, I’m very sorry. I had to do it. I love you, but I have to be with her. Let me explain. Please, pick up. Come on, don’t make this so hard.” This conversation marked the beginning of my story.
“Yes. Where are you?”
“You have no idea how hard it was for me to find a phone to call you.”
“Where are you?”
“We’re on a train.”
“When are you coming back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Where are you going?”
“Give me a break. Pablo? Don’t hang up.”
“Are you angry?”
“Yes, you’re angry.”
“No Teba, I’m not, it’s just that I don’t understand why you’re calling if my questions upset you.”
“It’s not because of you, and you know it.”
“Are you going to explain?”
If Teba hadn’t called I would have kept circling around Madrid like a walking corpse. It displeased Farazzo that I used such forceful expressions, but I didn’t know how to speak any other way. Teba called me to confess that her passion for Semiramis had existed longer than I imagined. Even before having met her. Semiramis had been Sergio’s lover. She discovered the affair searching through her brother’s e-mail. Ever since Sergio gave her his password so she could look up some information that he needed while on vacation, Teba went into her brother’s e-mail daily as if she were checking the news or the weather. One day she discovered passionate messages of love that he received from a woman, where the sender appeared as “null.” This was why Teba christened her with such an insipid name.
It irritated me that Teba didn’t respect her brother’s privacy. I told her as much and she answered that there were more important things than privacy.
“Look, Pablo, everyone is hiding something, but it’s one thing to keep secrets and a very different thing to accumulate lies. My brother is a liar.”
I tried to reply. Teba didn’t want to explain further but rather read me some of Null’s messages, and she asked me to look for the rest on her parents’ computer.
“Wait, Pablo,” Farazzo interrupted. “Why did Teba share something with you at that moment that she’d had kept quiet until then?”
I had questioned this change in attitude many times. I think Teba needed a witness to reinforce her memory, someone to know her before and after Null. Someone like me, able to remind her of the decisive role the woman had played in her life.
The first message that Teba read me over the phone was “Lip’s corners,” a creationist poem that was surprisingly erotic, and very short, or so it seemed to me when I heard it. I knew the poem by heart and when I recited it in front of the doctor a terrible melancholy washed over me, like its pain penetrated me. The strangest part is that it wasn’t a sad poem. Nonetheless, I teared up, and Farazzo let me cry. She left the room with her innate elegance of angels and left me alone for a while. I think the doctor had telepathic abilities, because she came in at just the moment when I needed to talk.
“The first time I heard this poem it seemed sentimental and vulgar. Now I understand that she wrote it to only one sender, and it needs to be hidden. It’s so hard to make yourself understood. I wonder how well I knew Null; how well I understood Teba. Tell me, doctor, how do I know who I am?”
Teba connected with the poem instantly, appropriating its content as if it had been dedicated to her, or as if she were the only person in the world capable of understanding it. It arrived in an e-mail at the beginning of November, a few weeks before Sergio was flying to Germany to take up his studies again at the University of Heidelberg. From the moment she read it she only went into her brother’s e-mail to look for Null’s e-mails, which invariably went unanswered. Teba found e-mails that went back to the summer and used them to work out the nature of the affair: Null was hopelessly in love with Sergio, although she had tried to leave him on numerous occasions due to his lack of affection. Reading e-mail after e-mail, she began to take Null’s side. Her texts transformed Teba. She was the one who had best interpreted the actress. I should have started to worry months before when Teba started to recite Silvina Ocampo: “Living is hard for anyone who loves too much.”
“Null is a mystic, Pablo, like Saint Theresa, like Simone Weil, the expansive spirit of our time,” she told me on one occasion and I had no other choice but to tell her off and insist that she lose that messianic tone when she was talking to me. Teba was offended.
“Don’t talk about things you don’t understand,” she added. “You haven’t been there and you have no idea of the strength that Null radiates on stage. I won’t let you judge her.”
“I didn’t judge anyone.”
“I can hear it in your voice.”
“What’s wrong with my voice?”
“That arrogance, like you’re looking down at us.”
I didn’t know what else to say except that I had also liked the theater piece, but that, in case she didn’t recall, she had left me without any explanation, and I was hurt and, given the circumstances, it seemed appropriate that my voice sound however I wanted. I suppose I moved her. Teba changed the subject. She said that she had spent her life trying to be a model skeptic, and she was fed up. She wanted to believe.
“Believe in what?” The doctor asked me. I didn’t know how to respond.
Through the e-mails, Teba discovered that Null was working on The Daughter of the Air, the play that Sergio’s official girlfriend, let’s call her Lorena, was putting on. One day Null heard Lorena say that her boyfriend had gone to Germany and that at the end of the season she was going to follow him, so they could start a new life together. That was how she found out that her lover had left the country and had not left, nor was thinking of leaving, his partner. All this threw her into a deep crisis from which she didn’t awake. When Teba learned that her brother disappeared from Null’s life without a single phone call she was outraged. She remembered that the night of the discovery, sitting at the table, her parents were talking about an oil tanker that was having problems in the North. No one really knew why it was stuck right next to the coast. Her mother prophesied the tragedy and even then demanded political responsibility. The youngest child of the house wasn’t in the mood for oil, she was itching to get online. That night an e-mail arrived in which Null asked Sergio to please tell her if it was true that he had left the city and was planning to start a new life with Lorena. Sergio didn’t respond. Teba and I became indignant together over the phone until at the height of rage she confessed that she had written back.
“I answered her,” she repeated.
Passing herself off as her brother, Teba wrote to Null from Sergio’s e-mail, a single sentence: Please, don’t write to me anymore. Six words and she was satisfied, as if she’d returned order to things. This was the reason we went to the theater. Teba needed to meet her, and she invited me to The Daughter of the Air for our anniversary. We were present at the dying bird’s first incarnation. It proved an immediate success. The audience left the theater enthusiastic, and present among them was an important editor at a private channel, who insisted on putting the performance on his news program. After television, other media followed, and the gannet act gained prominence. Null never spoke publicly; in her place, Lorena granted an interview in which she proclaimed the theater’s social mission and political commitment, as if the idea of addressing the topic of the environmental disaster had been her own. For a couple of weeks she adapted the staging so that Null could do her performance, and the high point of the drama became the gannet’s death throes.
The phone conversation left me exhausted. The next morning I woke up to the sound of the window rattling against the frame. The wind had managed to open it during the night and was now entertaining itself with playful little taps. I covered my head with my pillow and tried to go back to sleep. It didn’t work. I sat up halfway and tossed the pillow at the window muttering some atrocity. When I was alone I liked to curse at the slightest excuse. The pillow landed between the two panes of glass. The blow was softened but it now ran the risk of falling into the abyss and it was my favorite pillow. I had really taken a liking to it. After my divorce (I was married for five years before meeting Teba) it was one of the few objects I had salvaged from the shipwreck, prevailing upon my ex, who wouldn’t even give up the can opener. It was incredible to me how much I’d watched her change, though surely I had changed as well. This thought distressed me. I had no other choice but to give in and get out of bed. I grabbed the rectangle of cloth by one corner. The pillow ripped, scattering feathers everywhere; my bedroom resembled a nest.
I was usually a precise machine in the morning. I became conscious after two coffees: one black and one with milk. My coffeemaker was the perfect size for the two cups. When Teba stayed over I preferred having breakfast out, because I hated sharing my dose and not being able to drink that second cup. One day poor Teba showed up with a box of tea to avoid having to leave the house so early. Based on my behavior I deserved to have her slam the door in my face, but even so she didn’t forget to call me. She had asked me to go to her parents’ house to read the rest of Null’s messages on their computer. I didn’t drink my second coffee, and called the University faking sick. It was the least I could do for her. I decided to walk. No one would be home in the apartment until lunchtime and walking always cleared my head. Teba’s family lived in a red-brick building, a graceless construction from the 1960s with no possible remedy. Teba knew it and when she showed me the apartment for the first time she was embarrassed. I was so touched that we had to make love right there; on her twin bed. If she’d seen my house when I was a newlywed she would’ve had no reason to blush. It’s hard to imagine a more impersonal place than that one. My apartment now that I was recently divorced was another story: small but sufficient. I rented it when my wife announced that she was going to keep the townhouse. It was a relief, leaving the mortgage and the memories in her hands. When I moved, I felt liberated. It was the type of place my ex-wife would have vetoed. The bathroom is dirty, she would have said, and with good reason. But since the separation I could live in an uncomfortable place if I felt like it. There were a lot of inconveniently popular bars nearby. On the weekends it was impossible to sleep through the night. In the early morning some drunkard’s scream always made it up to the window, but I was satisfied. Whenever I got to the door, I looked around with pride. My apartment was mischievous. I wonder who lives there now; it’s a good place for constant lethargy. I’d never thought about it before but it now occurs to me that, for me, living in that house was like living in limbo.
I got to Teba’s parents’ house earlier than I had planned. I started walking up and down Avenida de América to kill time. The rain was falling softly. After the second loop I went into the cafe on the corner to read the newspaper. A brief news piece, almost hidden, mentioned the riots in Llanes. Almost daily, groups of volunteers were organizing marches and calling for the government to take responsibility for the towns affected by the oil spill. Routine demands that were becoming less and less effective. Some people brought the sludge to the doors of City Halls. The newspaper said: Among those in attendance at the acts of protest was “Semiramis,” who has yet again managed to flee the authorities.
Teba’s mother was walking in the door of the building. I paid quickly and managed to intercept her. She greeted me quickly, but we didn’t give each other a kiss on the cheek, or a handshake, or anything. She seemed a little brusque, but it must have been her nerves. The hallway felt longer than usual. The parquet floor creaked under my feet. I would’ve preferred not to make so much noise. She motioned for me to sit on the sofa. Across from her. The woman had a wandering eye. Normally it wasn’t noticeable, but at that moment the little one was particularly rebellious and bounced in both directions. She asked me if I knew anything about Teba, looking at me as if I were a life preserver. I had to take a deep breath in order to answer her. I wanted to be frank with her, but I didn’t want to betray her daughter. She looked at me sadly, and I ended up confessing to the phone call; at least I could say that she was ok. My information had no effect. She already knew. Teba was communicating with her mother by text messages that she sent from different cell phones. What she wanted to know was when they were coming back. I didn’t know how to answer and felt guilty—impotent and guilty.
“Are you going to look for her?”
The question came out of her mouth like a plea, and I automatically said yes.
“Yes,” I repeated.
It was a big statement, dry, determined. Yes, I was going to look for her. How was I going to go look for her? Had I gone crazy? No, I wanted to get involved. It was time to get my feet wet. Yes, yes I was going. No more talk of the subject, I’m going. And that was how I embarked on the journey.
Teba’s mother wanted to put me on the trail as best she could. They wouldn’t be in Llanes anymore but they were definitely still in the North. She didn’t let me comment, maybe because she was afraid I’d regret my decision, or maybe because she knew that I had nothing to say. If the wayward daughter’s boyfriend had made it to her house, the chances were growing that she would come back too. I had to help her; any effort was not enough. She’d already been in contact with all of her daughter’s friends that she knew personally and none of them had been able to do a thing. She didn’t want to investigate further out of fear of implicating her daughter, but she was sure that her colleagues from the commission or the League knew where the girls were.
“Do you think Teba had anything to do with the attack on that young man?”
I flatly denied it. I was sure it was an accident. Not even Null was aware of her actions and of course no one had known that he was a soldier. Bad luck. I looked up and had to concentrate on her good eye. I had always found eye contact problematic, and Teba’s mother’s physiological anomaly made it even more complicated.
“You’re a lawyer, right?”
The question hurt me. Whose side was this woman on? It upset me when people mentioned my juridical years.
“No,” I answered. “I just have a law degree.”
Her pupil jiggled as if it didn’t accept my answer and I managed to calm her down. I assured her that nothing was going to happen to her daughter. She could be sure of that because I was going to take charge. We shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves; first and foremost we had to find her. She said I was right, though I’m not sure if because she was convinced or because she didn’t want to contradict her new ally. Then, switching topics, she asked me what had brought me to her house.
“I need to look at your computer.”
“It’s over there.”
The woman stood up, and I did what was proper. Before leaving the room she turned around, begging me to do everything in my power to find Teba and I said of course, don’t even mention it, leave it in my hands: I would go to the mouth of hell to rescue her.