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from the September 2003 issue

Agony in the Kitchen

A father finds that a vacation cannot cure his anxiety in this short story by Premio Nadal winner Juan José Millás.

Over the past year he had earned a lot of money, so he rented a house by the sea where they would spend their vacation. It was a big two-story house with a garden in the back where they could have an afternoon bite and admire the sunset. His wife and two children were overjoyed when they saw the old mansion and he felt proud of himself: life was hard but there were moments when happiness was almost at hand. While the kids darted through the bedrooms in search of secret places, invisible staircases, and mysterious nooks and crannies, he and his wife unloaded the car and efficiently, lovingly, got things set up. Night had fallen by the time they finished so they ate the sandwiches she had prepared before leaving the city. Tired after the long trip, they got into bed and quickly fell asleep.

The next day they got up late and found the weather was gorgeous. The branches of the trees in the garden swayed in the gentle breeze and the birds, indifferent to the activity of the recently arrived family, pecked at fruit.

After gathering their towels, the inflatable raft and the sunscreen, they drove down to the beach. The father and mother sprawled out in the sun while the children played at the water's edge. She took a novel out of her bag and started reading. He remained there, lying down, watching the kids in the distance and enjoying the harmony of the triangle formed by the sun, the sea, and the children. But inside that imaginary triangle a stern eye suddenly appeared, and he smiled, remembering the old geometric figure where as a child God would emerge before him. A wave overturned the inflatable raft and flipped the kids out and onto the sand where, to playful giggles they had begun to share with other children, they managed to get back on again. He considered the possibility of the children being swept out to sea by a strange current and felt a pang of anxiety in his chest. He realized there was no rescue equipment on the remote beach. He would barely be able to swim as far as their flailing arms, grasping in vain for something to hold onto. If a disaster of that sort were to strike, he thought, he would ask for help from others on the beach. Surveying the men near him to see which ones looked more athletically inclined, he selected the members of a prospective rescue party. He found two or three who seemed like they might do, which left him feeling slightly more at ease. But just in case, he got up and walked to the water where he told the kids to be careful. "The tide is coming in," he explained. "Even if you stay in the same place the water might get too deep for you."

Back again at his wife's side, he was suddenly assailed by the thought that he might have left the car unlocked. He walked up to the parking lot and saw that the doors were locked but discovered his wife had left the window on her side slightly open. He rolled up the glass and returned to his towel.

"You left the window on your side down," he said.

"Just a crack, to let in a little air. Otherwise it gets too hot."

"And what if some joker decides to throw a burning cigarette butt in?"

She made a little noise that could have been interpreted in any number of ways, closed her novel, and began rubbing lotion on her shoulders. He looked away, trying to spot his children, and experienced a state of panic until managing to make them out among the kids playing at the water's edge.

"Did you unplug the television?" he asked his wife, his gaze still fixed on the children.

"You turned off the circuit breaker yourself before we left," she told him.

"I know, but when you leave a house for a whole month, it's a good idea to unplug everything. You never know what can happen."

"I unplugged it. Don't worry," she said.

He had the urge to light up a cigarette but didn't, thinking that his small sacrifice might help avert some unforeseeable catastrophe during the vacation. Instead he reached for a piece of driftwood and knocked on it three times with his fingers crossed, his eyes never straying from the children.

In the afternoon they went into the village, where they bought an enormous lobster at the market to celebrate the beginning of their vacation. The lobster was alive and the kids playfully poked twigs between its claws as their father looked on, nervously imagining the animal crushing the hand of one of his children. When they reached the house, he looked for some string, tied the crustacean's powerful claws, and placed the animal in the kitchen sink.

"Tomorrow we'll eat you," he said, trying to sound jovial but overcome with a sense of apprehension the lobster had begun to bring on in him.

That night he woke up at three in the morning to a faint but rhythmic sound piercing the vast silence of the countryside. It seemed to be coming from the ground floor. He put on his slippers and went down, proceeding cautiously, but the creak of the stairs drowned out the mysterious sound.

He went straight to the kitchen and realized that the noise was coming from the sink, where the lobster was in the throes of agony. The animal was opening and closing what looked like two tiny flaps that must have been its mouth and that accounted for the knocking sound the house had a way of amplifying. Watching the animal only heightened his apprehension: more than a sumptuous meal, the animal was a being removed from its natural habitat and now fighting for its life.

The crustacean shifted its eyes and he imagined the agony of being stuck inside that inflexible shell.

Maybe it's screaming, it occurred to him, in a frequency I can't hear. And then he realized that the string on one claw had come loose and that the animal's right limb was free. It might be left-handed, he thought to himself, to lessen the sense of dread that was getting the better of him. He reasoned that the lobster couldn't get out of the sink, and even if it somehow did, it wouldn't be able to climb the stairs and reach any of the bedrooms. Still, he went into the bathroom to look for a rubber band, which he twisted a few times around the powerful claw, managing once again to immobilize it. I won't be able to stand that death rattle all night, he thought. But he didn't know how to take the life of a lobster.

He picked up a saucepan and whacked the animal on the head, but not so hard as to break the shell. The creature went on dying at the same slow expressionless pace. Maybe if he stuck a needle in the spot where the head met the tail he would be able to pierce some vital organ. There were no needles around but he found an ice pick that, with considerable effort and a mixture of fear and disgust, he managed to sink into what he guessed was the animal's neck. Still, the inscrutable dark wet face gave no indication of how much damage had been done. Oozing a repulsive death's-door foam, its mouth continued to open and close at the same speed.

In desperation, he gagged the animal with a handkerchief, tied it by the neck to the faucet and, in a state of great anxiety, went upstairs to sleep.

The next day they went to the beach where neither of his kids perished and the car didn't catch on fire, notwithstanding his wife's repeated carelessness. Later they prepared the lobster, which, according to his family, was delicious. Claiming to have an upset stomach—in part because he was in no mood for lobster, in part because he hoped his little sacrifice would bring about a truce with reality during that month of August—he didn't taste it. Vacations, he told himself, are for resting.

To make a long story short.

© Juan José Millás. Translation © 2003 by Tobias Hecht. All rights reserved.

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