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A Separation

After a tumultuous delay (domestic battles, locum solicitors, heartless agents, judicial strikes, and sudden deferrals), Arturo was given confirmation of the appointment. When he received the news he remembered, with a touch of sentimentality, the long-gone moment when he had committed the rest of his life, in writing, to a woman he would have cut his own head off for. He could not have imagined then that cohabitation and time would be the only executioners.

On the day of the signing, Arturo arrived early. He wanted to avoid the daily farce of the traffic, the chance of a downpour, the closing of the motorway for some protest, or a standstill in the car park at the crowded courts. The desire for a true freedom, one recorded and recognized by the law, fueled his apocalyptic visions and the inevitable hypochondria. The call from the lawyer gave him an allergic reaction; an enormous rash turned his hands, arms, and shoulders a red that was as deep as it was imaginary. When he arrived at the office, a secretary informed him that, given that his appointment was scheduled for eleven o’clock that morning, he couldn’t be seen first thing. Arturo, nervous and skeptical, decided to wait out the end of his sentence in a nearby bar. It was there that, quite by chance, he met Julio, an old friend from university.

They had coffee. It was many years since they had seen each other. Arturo didn’t want to recount to his friend the latest wretched episodes from his life, and so he chose instead to spend their reunion asking for news of mutual acquaintances, remembering dreary anecdotes (worsened by melancholy), and allowing the time to pass in banal conversation. Arturo felt a stab of heat in his stomach when, at around ten o’clock, he received a text message. “Can we talk before the signing?” asked his ex-wife, who, at the moment he read the message, was still his legitimate spouse. This unexpected intervention disarmed him. For more than a year he had been alert to the possibility of an armistice or a cry for help. His last meeting with her had been a mounting exchange of curses. Since then, all of the work of communication and conflict had fallen into the hands (and the pockets) of the lawyers. Julio noticed how pale his friend was. When Arturo, who was tormented by the situation, told him some of what was happening to him, his old classmate spoke with the owner of the bar and discreetly ordered a bottle of whisky. The drinks were served in plastic cups. They toasted. Julio listened to the story without speaking, his eyes glued to the television set that was playing the highlights of a baseball game. The injured party set out, in a frank and overacted way, the elaborate disasters of his conjugal existence, as though he were the world’s only downtrodden, unhappy man. When he had finished, Arturo told him that his wife had just sent him a text message in which she suggested the possibility of a meeting. Julio refilled his cup. The ice cube melted under the touch of his thick fingers. “Arturo, listen. I don’t know what your situation is. I don’t know why you’re telling me what you’re telling me. It’s years since you and I have spoken. I know it’s not my problem, but I’d like to tell you my story. Maybe what happened to me will give you a few clues about what decision to take.”

It was more than five years ago that Julio had married a colleague, he told Arturo. He admitted that, until the moment of collapse, he had been in love with his partner, had even been happy. The first months of their marriage coincided with a good professional spell. The economic climate of the time allowed him to enrich the model of a prefabricated life to which he had always aspired by buying a house, a car, and even a Dalmatian. Later, they had a daughter. He had managed to carve out for himself a conventional and perfect world that, to his surprise, fell to pieces from one day to the next. “The problem,” he said as he finished his drink, “was that Cecilia went mad.”

It happened early one December. Julio went to pick the girl up from school, came home, washed, and when he came out of the shower he found his wife sitting on the edge of the bed. She was naked, her eyes were popping out of her head, there were scratches on her face. The mattress was covered in tufts of hair; a blood-stained pair of scissors sat on the pillow. Cecilia told him that she couldn’t stand him, that if she spent one more day in that house she would take the irrevocable decision to kill herself. In a trembling voice, the woman listed a series of things she found distasteful in him: morning breath, disgusting habits around food and hygiene, a vulgar sense of humor, flatulence in the small hours. Cecilia said that she hated her life, that she was allergic to the Dalmatian, and that, furthermore, she couldn’t stand the stupidity of a daughter she had only had to please him, so that he would stop delighting in his stupid idea of the perfect family. “I curse the day I met you. I curse all the days on which you touched me. I curse the day you raped me, and damned me forever with your rotten seed,” she yelled with conviction.

Julio reacted calmly. He didn’t take it seriously—he thought it was a fit of hysterics, a tasteless joke of the sort that prophets of astrology attribute to the wanderings of the planet Mercury. “I moved to a hotel with the girl,” he explained. He spent the night absorbed in careful reflection on what had happened in the last few years of his life. Julio analyzed, minute by minute, shot by shot, every event related to his marriage. He knew that, at the beginning of the relationship, they didn’t have much in common; that their tastes (gastronomic, musical, cinematic, literary) were somewhat divergent, but he had always appreciated these discrepancies as an excuse for living in constant discovery of the other.

Cecilia said that she didn’t want to see him. Julio tried to find allies in his unlikely bid for reconquest. He talked with his sister-in-law, with whom he had always maintained a respectful and honest relationship. To his surprise, she took the other side. Julio had to admit (she believed) that he alone was responsible for everything that had happened . . . “But, honestly, Arturo, I didn’t feel responsible for a thing. If I made a mistake, I didn’t see it; if I was harsh or unfair, I didn’t notice. I wondered, and still wonder, if the life I lived for more than five years was imaginary, if it was all something I just wanted to believe, a mirror image or a bad piece of theater.”

Julio’s memory, awakened by disillusionment, re-ran a series of anecdotes. Nonsenses, trifles, unimportant details that, according to his logic, couldn’t possibly be relevant. Whatever you like, for example. He spent more than four hours trying to decipher the meaning of that expression because, for a long time, it had been Cecilia’s only response. As he revisited those moments, Julio conceded to one of her complaints: they always ended up doing exactly what he wanted to do (he would choose the restaurant, the film, the wine, the brand of coffee, decide when they would meet, when they wouldn’t). “But,” he said, “if I did that it’s only because it seemed it was all the same to her. She never said ‘I don’t want to.’ She never made a face or bemoaned the invasion of a privacy that I always understood was something we shared.”

Julio poured himself another drink and shrugged. “We certainly didn’t have problems in bed.” He recounted how, up to the night of the accusation, the pair had enjoyed a fun and playful sex life. Time, Julio admitted, had dulled their devotion. The frenzy had stopped, the intensity, the inventiveness, the unusual positions, the delicious transgressions, the sweet torments. Their love had adopted the classic format of a physiological coupling that merely served to calm the nerves, deaden impulses and induce a deep sleep. “Cecilia said that making love with me disgusted her, and that it had always—from day one—disgusted her,” he told his friend. It was hard for him to realize that what had seemed to him like pleasure was in fact pain, that the only relief she had managed to feel at his side was when she could finally get him off from on top of her. “She never resisted,” Julio stressed. She never showed any distaste at being close to him, or at his body. Julio accepted some of the blame, admitted a certain responsibility and short-sightedness, but felt he couldn’t be so mad as to have missed the fact that his whole married life had been a pretense.

Arturo received a second text message. His wife was asking if he wanted to meet in an old bar near the clerk’s office; she said she wanted to talk about something important. They poured themselves another drink. Julio went on with his story. “I admitted defeat,” he said. Two or three times he tried to speak with her but she was blind with rage and wouldn’t exchange a word with him. She changed the locks on the house, made their separation public on social media and a group of bogus friends gave their approval to the decision. “I was the bad guy.”

Keep your daughter if you want, I’m not interested, she had announced, during a telephone conversation. The dog disappeared. A neighbor told Julio that the previous night he had heard strangled howls and that, when morning came, he had seen a suspicious shape at the farthest end of the garden. The hardest thing to bear were his daughter’s questions. One morning when the girl suffered an acute fit of bawling, Julio decided to give in and sign the papers. He spoke with the lawyer. Feeling bewildered, shocked, sad, hurt, and frustrated, he started the process of separation.

The divorce was bureaucratically slow and traumatic. The lawyers couldn’t come to an agreement. The courts, afflicted by strikes, holidays, substitute judges, and other contingencies, dragged out the trial to an irrational degree. The day he least expected it, a police squad arrived at Julio’s office. Cecilia had reported him for psychological abuse. The new laws, founded on gender equality and discourse, were on her side. The complaint came after a change of heart. At the last minute, Cecilia insisted on getting custody of the girl; she belonged to her, and he had absolutely nothing to offer her. “If you take charge of bringing her up, in ten or twelve years’ time we’ll suffer the humiliation of seeing her name in the classifieds,” she said, through her lawyer. “I loved that woman, Arturo—I respected her personally, professionally, and as a partner. We lived together for more than five years, she gave me a daughter. Her arguments made me very cautious about anything to do with the divorce. I didn’t want the girl to grow up overshadowed by fighting, I didn’t want our separation to become a trauma for her—but a moment arrived when, really, all I wanted was to hurt Cecilia.” A year after the big performance, Julio woke up one day with a fever. He could hardly get up. He called his office and said he wouldn’t be coming in. He showered, had some corn flakes with expired milk for breakfast, paced around the house for a while (two months before he had rented an apartment from a colleague) and had a clear revelation: hatred. He reviewed his feelings for Cecilia and found only a genuine and spontaneous feeling of scorn. He picked up his cell phone and called the lawyer: “It’s OK, we’ll do it your way.”

Arturo was listening closely. The story of his friend allowed him to let his mind wander, to recognize himself in another, and— most importantly—to kill time until eleven o’clock. He didn’t understand why, when the two of them hardly knew each other, Julio was telling him this sorry tale. He was afraid of looking at his cell phone but he couldn’t help it, and lowered his eyes to the screen every minute. Luckily for him, his wife hadn’t written again.

“A week before signing the divorce papers, Cecilia called me,” Julio said. “She said she wanted to see me, that we needed to speak.” She was calling a ceasefire. She didn’t make any claims or complaints, and she didn’t attempt to attack him physically. Cecilia floated the idea of forgiveness and suggested the possibility of a meeting. She admitted she had gone too far; she said that, for a few weeks, she had been taking part in a helpful and constructive therapy group. She suggested they go together, that they air their domestic difficulties under the eye of an expert in human relations; she said she wanted to live with her daughter and husband, with the man she loved; that she didn’t know what had happened, the city had worn her out, and so had work, and so had the stupidity of others, and that, in the grip of a horrible fit of anxiety, she had said and done some unacceptable things. Suddenly, the dog appeared; Cecilia said that a neighbor had found him wandering around a vacant lot. The girl played with him for a while. That night, from under the shelter of her naïveté, his daughter told him that this dog was very nice but that it wasn’t the same animal. Julio and Cecilia rustled up a romantic dinner (the sister-in-law took charge of the preparations). They talked about things they had never talked about before, owned up to mistakes, committed to a feasible level of tolerance, rediscovered the laughter and complicities of the days when they were engaged, and, as in the most heated encounters of youth, took full advantage of every minute of the night. “We started again,” Julio said. The lawyers had already set a schedule for making the separation official, but the day of the signing, we weren’t there.”

And, predictably enough, the madness returned. The new episodes, however, had a distinguishing feature: violence. Julio suspected that something was wrong on the day of a strange accident: the girl nearly drowned in the bathtub, supposedly after slipping. One morning, after a trivial argument (the orange juice had run out), Cecilia attacked him with a knife. In self-defense, Julio hit her in the face. According to him, the blow was a reflex, the inevitable effect of a sharp but spontaneous movement. Cecilia dropped her weapon and, when she realized she was bleeding from her nose, burst out laughing. “Now you really have fucked yourself, you idiot. I’m going to destroy you,” she shouted, before reporting him. The photo of the bruise, published on social media, turned Julio into a pariah. The news was a scandal. For the sake of the company’s image, his boss put him on a few days’ forced leave. The lawyer resigned, the girl passed into the custody of the mother. The money, tied up brokering the first signing, was starting to run out. “And here I am. I have to show up at this office every two weeks, be interviewed by a secretary who is of the opinion I ought to be in jail, that I’m an incorrigible abuser, and hope the new lawyer can at least stop that madwoman from harming the girl. I don’t know that woman, Arturo. She’s not the person I married. Or perhaps she was, but I was blinded by stupid feelings and I didn’t realize. Yes, I loved her, I admit it; but honestly, I want her to die, I want a car to run her over, a lightning bolt to split her in two, some angry drugged-up murderer to run into her. I don’t know what kind of problems you’ve got,” he said, “but if you took the decision to separate, if you thought something was wrong in your relationship and you’ve made it this far, don’t even think about getting back together with her. If at the last minute you have that coffee—or, even worse, that wine or that beer—you’ll be setting yourself up for another disaster. It’ll be your undoing, and you’ll never—listen to me—you’ll never get the chance to start again.”

Arturo listened to the lecture. His story did not remotely resemble the adventures his friend had lived through. His wife, he thought, suffered from a benign, conventional, hypocritical form of madness. Nothing compared with what he had just heard. The failure of his marriage had not followed the same course; his own experience had to do with mutual boredom, with fatigue, with the inevitable appearance of third parties. His friend’s story, however, allowed him to review the set of circumstances that had led him to feel so keenly that he was fed up with his partner. It confirmed his impression that, for both their sakes, it was best that they never see each other, speak, remember each other, or feel each other’s presence again. The cell phone rang, and Arturo picked it up immediately. “Didn’t you get my messages?” asked a woman’s voice. “Messages? What messages?” “The ones I sent you. I was saying I wanted to talk before the signing.” For a few prolonged, almost endless seconds, Arturo pictured the outcome of the meeting. He thought his wife would ask him for another chance, for more time—the horrifying idea of starting again. But reality cut through the romantic ideal. His wife just wanted to know if she had left the pair of high heels she had bought on their last trip to Rome at his house. She couldn’t find them anywhere. Considering that, after the signing, she didn’t want to hear from him again, she wanted to find out what had happened to her much-missed fetish. Arturo remembered that he had thrown them in the bin more than two months ago. He told her, though, that he hadn’t seen them. They agreed to meet at the court. They hung up without saying good-bye Arturo got up and clapped his friend on the back twice. Julio didn’t say good-bye; he spent the rest of the morning (and afternoon) drinking and talking to himself.

"Una Separación," © 2014 Eduardo Sánchez Rugeles. Translation © 2014 by Ollie Brock. All rights reserved.