The Private Lives of Trees
Verónica was studying for an Art degree—she was in her second year—when Daniela arrived and threw everything off course.
Anticipating the pain was her way of experiencing it—a young pain that grew and grew and sometimes, throughout certain especially warm hours, tended to disappear. During the first weeks of her pregnancy, she decided to keep the news to herself; she didn’t even tell Fernando or her best girlfriend, although she didn’t have, exactly, a best friend. That is, she had many girlfriends who inevitably came to her for advice, but their confidence was never entirely reciprocated. That time of silence was one last luxury that Verónica could give herself, an added-on privacy, a space in which to construct her decisions with an uncertain calm. “I don’t want to be a student/pregnant woman. I don’t want to be a mother/student,” she thought; she definitely didn’t want to find herself, in a few months time, wrapped in a wide and flowery dress, explaining to the professor that she hadn’t been able to study for the test, or later, two years on, leaving the baby in the librarians’ care. Imagining the faces of the librarians, enraptured with their role as the faithful guardians of other people’s children, sent her into a panic.
During that time she went to dozens of art galleries, shamelessly questioned her professors, and lost many hours to letting herself be pursued by upper-level students, who, as was to be expected, turned out to be insufferable nice guys—nice guys who claimed to be bad and nevertheless found success faster than their civil engineer brothers or their educational psychologist sisters.
Sooner rather than later, Verónica found the resentment she was looking for: this was not a world she wanted to be a part of—this wasn’t a world, not even close, she could be a part of. From then on, every time she was knocked down by a dark thought about her abandoned vocation, she retrieved the counter-examples she had hoarded away. Instead of thinking about the healthy disdain some of her professors felt for artistic fads, she remembered the classes she took from two or three charlatans of the type that always seem to hover around art departments. And instead of thinking about the honest, true works of some of her classmates, she preferred to return to the naïve galleries where the advanced members of the class exhibited their discoveries.
Young artists perfectly imitated the language of the academy and enthusiastically filled out endless forms for government grants. But the money soon ran out, and the young artists had to resign themselves to giving classes for amateurs, like the classes Verónica takes, in the inhospitable event hall of a nearby municipal building. In the morning Verónica bakes sponge cakes and answers the phone. In the afternoon she delivers the orders and attends classes, where sometimes she gets bored and other times enjoys herself: she is an agile, disciplined painter, finally comfortable with her amateur status. She should have been back from her drawing class more than an hour ago. “Surely she’s on her way,” thinks Julián, while he watches TV. Then, in the eighty-eighth minute, and against all odds, Reggina scores, one to nothing. And that’s how the game ends: Inter 0, Reggina 1.
Last week Julián turned thirty years old. The party was a bit odd, marred by the gloominess of the guest of honor. In the same way that some women subtract years from their real age, he sometimes added a few years on and pretended to look at the past with a tinge of bitterness. Lately he has started to think he should have been a dentist or geologist or meteorologist. For now, his actual job seems strange: professor. But his true calling, he thinks now, is to have dandruff. He imagines himself answering that way:
“What do you do?”
“I have dandruff.”
Doubtless, he’s exaggerating. No one can live without exaggerating a little. If there are in fact stages in Julián’s life, they would have to be expressed according to an index of exaggeration. Until he was ten years old he exaggerated very little, almost never. From ten to sixteen his pretension steadily increased. From eighteen onward he became an expert in the most varied forms of exaggeration. Since he’s been with Verónica the exaggeration has decreased considerably, in spite of the natural relapses that at times overtake him.
He is professor of literature at four universities in Santiago. He would have liked to stick to one specialty, but the law of supply and demand has forced him to be flexible: he teaches classes in American literature and in Spanish-American literature and even in Italian poetry, in spite of the fact that he does not speak Italian. He has read, closely, Ungaretti, Montale, Pavese, Pasolini, and more recent poets, like Patrizia Cavalli and Valerio Magrelli, but in no way is he a specialist in Italian poetry. In any case, teaching classes in Italian poetry without knowing Italian is not terribly extraordinary in Chile, as Santiago is full of English professors who don’t know English, dentists who hardly know how to pull a tooth, overweight personal trainers, and yoga teachers who could never manage to face their classes without a generous dose of antidepressants. Julián tends to clear the bar in his pedagogical adventures. He always salvages the situation by camouflaging some quotation from Walter Benjamin, Borges, or Nicanor Parra.
He is a professor, and a writer on Sundays. There are some weeks when he works as much as possible, obsessively, as if he had a deadline he couldn’t miss. This is the time he calls his “busy season.” Normally—in the slow season, in any case—he puts off his literary ambitions until Sunday, the way other men devote their Sundays to gardening or carpentry or alcoholism.
He has just finished a very short book; nevertheless, it took several years to write. At first he gathered materials: he accumulated almost three hundred pages; but he gradually reversed course, throwing more and more away, as if instead of adding stories he wanted to subtract them or erase them. The result was paltry: an emaciated sheaf of forty-seven pages that he insists on calling a novel. Even though this afternoon he decided to let the book rest for a few weeks, he has turned off the TV and begun, again, to read the manuscript.
Now he reads, he is reading: he tries to pretend he doesn’t know the story, and at times he achieves that illusion—he lets himself be carried along innocently, shyly, convincing himself that the text before his eyes was written by someone else. A misplaced comma or a harsh sound, however, and he returns to reality; he is then, again, an author, the author of something, a kind of self-policeman who punishes his own mistakes, his excesses, his inhibitions. He reads standing up, walking around the room: he should sit or lie down, but he remains standing, his back straight, and he avoids the lamp, as if he’s afraid that a brighter light would reveal fresh mistakes in the manuscript.
The first image is of a young man conscientiously tending a bonsai. If someone were to ask him for a summary of his book, he would probably respond that it was about a young man conscientiously tending a bonsai. Maybe he wouldn’t say a young man, maybe he would limit himself to the statement that the protagonist is not exactly a boy or a mature adult or an old man. One night, many years ago, he mentioned the image to his friends Sergio and Bernardita: a man locked in with his bonsai, tending it, moved by the possibility of a real work of art. A few days later they gave him, as a joke, a tiny elm. “So you’ll write your book,” they told him.
In those days Julián lived alone, or more or less alone, that is, with Karla, that strange woman who was on the verge of becoming his enemy. Back then Karla was almost never home, and above all, she managed to never be home when he returned from work. After making tea with amaretto—this seems repugnant to him now, but in those days he had a passion for tea with amaretto—Julián occupied himself with his tree. He didn’t limit himself to watering and pruning it: he watched it for hours, waiting, perhaps, for it to move, the same way some children will lie motionless in bed at night for a long time, hoping to feel themselves grow.
Only after watching his bonsai for at least an hour would Julián sit down to write. There were inspired nights, when he filled page after page in a sudden burst of confidence. There were other, less productive, nights when he couldn’t get past the first paragraph. He floundered there before the screen, distracted and anxious, as if hoping the book would write itself. He was living on the second floor of a building across from Plaza Ñuñoa. On the bottom floor there was a bar, from which issued a confusion of voices and the constant ricochet of techno music. He enjoyed working with that music in the background, though he was hopelessly distracted when some comic or sordid conversation reached his ears. He especially remembers the sour voice of an older woman who used to tell anyone who would listen about her father’s death, and the panic of an adolescent who, one winter dawn, swore that he would never screw without a condom again. More than once, he thought that writing down what he heard, creating a record of the conversations, would be a good idea; he imagined an ocean of words traveling from the ground to the window and from the window to the ear, to the hand, to the book. There would surely be more life in those accidental pages than in the book he was writing. But instead of being content with the stories that destiny put at his disposal, Julián remained fixated on his bonsai.