Then my father asks what my plans are and I make the mistake of telling him that Ignacio’s girlfriend is coming by so we can go for lunch.
“And he’s not going?” Dad asks.
“He’s away,” I say.
He says nothing. I struggle to picture him on the other end of the line.
“Dad?” I ask, hearing him grunt.
“Don’t you go fooling around with her,” he says.
I didn’t expect this from him, let alone in these terms.
“Listen to me,” he says.
“Yes,” I say.
“You’re not going to fool around with your friend’s girlfriend.”
“I know, Dad. You don’t need to tell me that.”
But he won’t let it drop.
“Ignacio has done a lot for you. You can’t do this to him.”
“This isn’t how you repay him,” he says.
“There’s really no need for all this,” I say.
And later, in my room, before heading out for lunch, as I enter her and start to move on top of her, I can’t get Dad’s alarmed tone of voice out of my head.
He calls again that evening, inventing some lame excuse. What he really wants to know is how it went with Ignacio’s girlfriend.
“She didn’t come in the end,” I say. “She called to say they needed her in the lab.”
He says nothing, deciding whether or not to believe me.
“And you didn’t go in, too?” he finally asks.
His life has changed substantially since they pensioned him off. He always said he would die at his desk, that he’d leave that office feet-first, but the company left him no choice.
“I went in,” I say, “but later, and just for a bit. I had the day off.”
“What did you do?” he asks, delving deeper still.
“I took the opportunity to rest,” I say, as I remember the way Emma’s face transforms when she’s about to come. First her tongue inches out and then her features slowly start to soften and there’s a moment when she’s more beautiful than ever. This look lasts until the shudders peter out, and I watch her, out of my mind, as I come inside her. Then, very quickly, she returns to herself, to her usual hardness, to what I call her Canadian distance, and more often than not she pulls apart right away, as if from one moment to the next she was repulsed by having me there at her side.
“It’s important to rest,” says Dad, even though in reality he never learned how. “I pruned the trees in the yard.”
I hear a noise in background and, with the receiver resting on my shoulder, lean out the window. Two teenagers are walking along the street, both of them in oversized coats. The snow is on its way and soon everything here will be white. As if he’d heard my thoughts, or as if I had some bearing on the trees in the yard, Dad asks if I am coming back in December.
“I don't know yet, Dad. It all depends on the lab.”
“Well let’s hope so. By the looks of things, we can expect rich pickings from the fig this year.”
A silence hangs in the air. The teenagers have already moved on and there’s nothing on the street, absolutely nothing.
“Well, then,” he says out of nowhere.
“Well, then,” I say. But I don’t want him to go yet. Despite the fact that we have nothing left to say, despite the fact that we’ve already spoken twice today, for a second I feel like asking him to stay there a bit longer.
“Get some rest,” I say.
“Thanks,” he says.
And we hang up together.
“When’s Ignacio back?” I ask Emma the next day. We usually see each other once a week, but with him away the routine has changed.
She folds her clothes and lays them on the chair. She’s in nothing but her panties now, and in the end they, too, come off. She ignores my question.
Sometimes I think about her childhood and teenage years, about her youth, and about how different it must have been from Ignacio’s and mine. My dad and his were best friends and we grew up together. We went to the same high school, the same college, and then he came to try his luck here. He found it hard to settle in but did eventually, and a few years later he convinced me to go, too. More than anything, I accepted to get out of my miserable job, which paid less than a fifth of what Ignacio was offering.
I watch her throw herself on my bed. The heating’s on. It’s hot. A fake heat—outside everything remains cold.
We’ve hardly said a thing since she arrived, but this doesn’t matter so much now that she’s waiting for me naked in bed.
“Come here,” she says.
I stay where I am, watching her.
Her milky skin, her lush pubis.
What binds us together? Why are we here?
“Come here, go down on me,” she says seriously, without a hint of playfulness.
When I come across him in the lab, Ignacio embraces me as if we’d been reunited after years apart. He’s at least eight inches taller than me and it’s an awkward kind of hug because he doesn’t bend down far enough and for a few seconds my head rests against his chest.
He’s come back full of beans.
“Well, I can confirm that there is indeed a world out there,” he says. “The world goes on, it exists.”
I smile, but don’t say anything.
“With streets and bars and noise. With smells,” he says, “with normal folk.”
He doesn’t seem it, but he’s a seriously bright guy. I don’t know anyone as generous or dedicated to his job, although he doesn’t seem that either.
“How was the conference?” I ask, unable not to think of Emma. It’s like I can still feel her in my mouth, like she left her taste in me.
Ignacio reels off a lengthy answer.
But I can no longer focus on what he’s saying.
Dad calls in the evening. He doesn’t mention Ignacio or his girlfriend. Either he’s forgotten all about it or he’s decided it’s better not to push the matter. He does, however, bring up Christmas.
“So you’re coming back in December?” he asks.
“I’m still not sure, Dad,” I say.
“Don’t you get vacation?” he asks. “How is it possible you don’t get vacation? We’re talking about the First World, aren’t we? That’s the reason you stayed.”
Unlike Ignacio, I’ve not been home for three years; something Dad finds it hard to accept . “How come he visits and you don’t?” he asked over and over last time.
In the office the next day, I study the calendar on one of the computers.
Ignacio seems twitchy.
He manages to sneak a peek at my screen from his seat.
“You should do it,” he says.
He witnessed the damage; he knew about the prolonged devastation caused by Mom’s sudden death two years ago. I couldn’t go back and didn’t want to. And now, things are better, in great part thanks to Emma and the consolation she offers.
“Are you guys going?” I ask.
“We’re still between there and Montreal, which wouldn’t be too bad either, right?”
Two Mondays later, however, as she’s pulling up her tights, she tells me that she’s going to leave him. The announcement is so out of the blue and her tone so neutral—and as such so hurtful—that I can’t speak.
I don’t know what to feel. Something doesn’t fit. This is terrible, I think. This is not what was meant to happen.
“Not for you,” she adds with the ruthless frankness I’ve always admired in her.
“For who, then?” is the only thing I can think to say, even though, really, it doesn't make much sense.
“For myself,” Emma says.
“I don’t understand,” I say.
“It’s pretty simple, I want to be alone for a while. I’ve been thinking about it and I’ve realized that this is what I need.”
“Just like that?”
“It’s not just like that.”
It’s as if I didn’t exist, I think, trying to find my place in the equation and at the same time afraid to ask any more questions.
“Is there something I don’t know?” I ask.
“I’m not going to see you anymore either,” she replies.
The coldness was always there. The coldness wasn’t a sign.
What binds us together? What’s held us together till now?
I get out of bed and start to put on my clothes.
You’re just like any other gringa, I think to say to her. That, or that for me this was never anything more than sex. But once dressed, what I do instead is go up to her and embrace her from behind.
“There’s no rush,” I say.
Thinking about Ignacio. Thinking about myself.
I plant little kisses on the back of her neck, knowing how much she loves it.
She shuts her eyes tight.
And doesn’t respond.
A month and a half later, in December, after three years that feel like ten, I go home. Mom is no longer there and everything is different because Mom is no longer there, and because the distance between what used to and what no longer exists is insurmountable. On my first Sunday back, however, nothing can get in the way of Dad and me firing up the barbecue, and we sit in the shade of the trees, eating and drinking ice-cold beers from the cool box.
Nothing could taste better than the beer as it slips slowly down my throat, far from that town where it’s so hard to live. The heat clings to my skin. Nothing could feel better than this drowsy calm washing over me, next to Dad, who must feel exactly the same.
By our third or fourth bottle I tell him that he should come back with me.
“My life is here,” he replies, even though there’s barely anything left of that life: not his job, not his wife or son, not anything.
“At least come visit,” I say.
He nods, but I know he won’t. And as if they were the only things that existed there, he asks after Ignacio and his girlfriend.
I tell him they’re happier than ever. For some reason that’s what I say, almost wishing it to be true. And a second later, because the first bit doesn’t seem sufficient, I add that they’ve decided to become parents.
Dad answers saying it’s about time I was one, too.
I take a swig from the bottle. The beer there is like water compared to this, which has body and texture and a lingering, tart aftertaste.
“Is there anyone?” he asks, scratching his beard.
I shake my head.
“Tell me,” he says.
“No one, Dad,” I say.
“Tell me,” he insists.
“No one,” I repeat.
And I think about Emma, of course. Emma with her tongue out, transforming. Emma naked and far away and alone. Emma damaging everyone around her.
“We all need someone,” he says, perhaps thinking of Mom, of versions of Mom that I can’t begin to imagine.
Then he takes a swig of his beer and I take another of mine and I realize in that moment that it won’t be long until I’m leaving again.
“Cheers, Dad,” I say.
It’s the easiest thing to say amid confusion or guilt.
He should know.
“Cheers,” says Dad.
“Larga distancia” © Rodrigo Hasbún. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Sophie Hughes. All rights reserved.