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« Máscaras venecianas (part 2) | Main | The Secret Garden »
Monday
Mar092009

Máscaras venecianas (part 1)

The first part of a short story ("Venetian masks") by this Argentine.  You can read the original in this collection.

When some people talk about somatization as if it were an inevitable reality, I tell myself bitterly that life is more complicated than they might suppose.  I neither attempt to persuade them otherwise nor forget my own experiences.  For many long years I stumbled from one love to another without a set course; there were few, considering how much time I spent, all sad and unresolved.  Then I met Daniela and knew that I had to search no longer, that everything had already been found.  And that was precisely when my fever attacks began.

I recall my initial visit to the doctor.

"Your glands are not unaffected by this fever," he announced.  "I'm going to prescribe you something that will reduce the swelling."

I took the statement to be good news; but as the doctor was writing down the prescription I asked myself whether the fact that he was giving me something for my symptoms might mean he wasn't giving me anything for my illness because it was incurable.  It occurred to me that if my doubts never left me I would have to ready myself for a stressful and anxious future; on the other hand, if I asked about my condition I would risk hearing an answer that rendered going on with my life impossible.  In any case, the idea of grave doubt seemed far too tiring for me and I got up the courage to ask.  He replied:

"Incurable?  Not necessarily.  There have been cases, I can assure you that there have been cases of total remission."

"Completely cured, you mean?"

"You said it.  I'll put all the cards on the table.  In situations like your present condition, a doctor will rely on all his energy to instill confidence in a patient.  Pay attention to what I'm about to tell you, because it's important.  There is no doubt that some cases have been cured.  Doubts only surface in the how and why of the cures."

"So there's no treatment?"

"There most certainly is treatment, palliative treatment."

"Which now and then results in a cure?"

He didn't tell me no and I poured all my desires of healing myself into this imperfect hope.

There seemed to be no doubt of my having fared poorly in the clinical examination; and yet when I left his office, I no longer knew what to think.  I still wasn't in any condition to attempt a balance, as if I had just gotten some news which, for a lack of time, I hadn't been able to read.  I was more crushed than sad.

Two or three days later the fever left me.  I was still a bit weak, a bit tired, and perhaps I accepted the physician's diagnosis literally.  Then I felt well, better even than before I fell sick, and began to tell myself that doctors were often not so sure about their diagnoses, that perhaps there would be no relapse.  My reasoning was as follows: "If it had to do so, some discomfort would surely manifest itself.  But the truth is I feel better than ever."

I did not deny my inherent proclivity towards a certain disbelief in illnesses.  Probably this was how I kept myself from the thoughts into which I tended to slip regarding, as it were, its possible effects on my future with Daniela.  I had grown accustomed to being happy and life without her was unimaginable.  I would tell her that a century was not enough for me to gaze upon her.  The exaggeration stated precisely what I felt.

I liked when she talked to me about her experiments.  On my own I imagined biology  her field of work – as an enormous river which flowing forth with prodigious revelations on each shore.  Thanks to a scholarship Daniela had studied in France with Jean Rostand and with his no less famous collaborator, Leclerc.  In describing the project which Leclerc had been working on for several years, Daniela used the word "carbonic"; Rostand, for his part, investigated the potential of speeding up the anabolism.  I remember that I said to her:

"I don't even know what the anabolism is."

"All beings pass through three periods," Daniela explained, "anabolism, growth, and then after a more or less extensive plateau, the period in which we are adults, there is the last phase, the catabolism or decadence.  Rostand believed that if we were to lose less time growing we could gain useful years for living."

"How old is he?"

"Almost eighty.  But don't believe that he's old.  All his students are in love with him."

Daniela smiled.  Without looking at her, I replied:

"If I were Rostand, I would devote my efforts to delaying, if not suppressing catabolism.  And I promise you I'm not saying that because I think he's old."

"Rostand thinks just like you, but insists that to understand the mechanism of decadence it is indispensable to understand the mechanism of growth."

A few weeks after my first outbreak of fever, Daniela got a letter from her teacher.  Her reading it to me gave me true satisfaction: I found it incomparably pleasant to see a man so famed for his intelligence value and love Daniela.

The card was a request for her help in an upcoming biology conference in Montevideo, where she would meet one of the group's researchers, a doctor Proux or Prioux, who would be able to update her on the current state of their work.

Daniela asked me:

"How do I tell him I don't want to go?"

She always found these congresses and international conferences useless.  I do not know anyone more reluctant to show off.

"Do you think saying no to Rostand would be a sign of ingratitude?"

"Everything I know, I owe to him."

"Then don't tell him no.  I'll go with you."

I remember the scene as if I could see it now: Daniela threw herself in my arms, muttered a pet name (which I won't bother mentioning since pet names of other people always seem ridiculous), and then exclaimed jubilantly:

"A week with you in Uruguay  how fun!"  She paused and added: "Especially if there were no conference."

She let me talk her into it.  The day of our departure I burned with fever, and by midmorning I felt absolutely awful.  If I didn't want to be burden to Daniela I would have to do without the trip.  I confess that I hoped for a miracle and that only at the very last minute did I announce that I wouldn't be going with her.   She accepted my decision, but then voiced her complaints:

"A whole week apart so that I don't miss out of this borefest!  Why didn't I tell Rostand no!"

Suddenly it was late.  Our very hurried farewell left me with feelings of incomprehension mixed with sadness, incomprehension mixed with neglect.  To console myself, I thought it was a stroke of luck that I hadn't had the time to explain the onset of my fever attacks.  I likely assumed that if I didn't talk about them, they would lose all importance.  This illusion did not last long.  I found myself so sick as to be completely disheartened and understood that it was serious and there was no cure.  The fever only yielded to treatment far more rigorous than what warded off my first attack, and I was left anxious and exhausted.  When Daniela returned I felt happy but I couldn't have looked particularly healthy because she asked me repeatedly how I was feeling.

I had promised myself that I wouldn't talk about my illness, but before god-knows-what-sentence in which I noticed, or thought I noticed, a veiled reproach for not having gone with her to Montevideo, I told her about my prognosis.  I told her only the essential bits, skimming over the treatments, which perhaps might not have taken place without a physician's help, so as to lend dimensions to the terrible truth which he had communicated to me.  Daniela asked:

"What are you suggesting?  That we stop seeing one another?"

I assured her:

"I don't have the strength within me to say it, but there is something that I can't forget: the day you met me I was a healthy man, and now I am anything but healthy."

"I don't understand," she replied.

I tried to explain to her that I did not have the right to burden her forever with my invalidism.  She saw it as a decision which was definitely nothing more than wild thoughts and scruples.  She muttered:

"Very well."

There was no argument because Daniela was very respectful of the will and decisions of others and, first and foremost, because she was upset.  From that day on I didn't see her.  I made light of the situation sadly: "This is the best solution for both of us.  However horrible her absence may be, closing my eyes to the facts would be worse.  It would be worse to tire her out, to notice her fatigue and her desire to leave."  In addition, my illness might oblige me to give up my daily work at the paper, which meant that Daniela would not only have to put up with me, she would also have to support me.

One of her comments came to mind which I used to find amusing.  Daniela said: "How fatiguing are these people who fight and make up."  For that reason I didn't dare make up with her.  I didn't go to see her or call her.  I simply looked for a casual meeting, and never in my life did I spend so much time walking through Buenos Aires.  When I left the paper I did not resign myself to heading home and putting off the chance of meeting her until tomorrow.  I slept badly and woke up as if I hadn't slept at all, but still sure that today would be the day I would run into her somewhere for the simple reason that I didn't have the strength to go on living without her.  Amidst these anxious expectations I learned that Daniela had left for France.

I told Hector Massey (a lifelong friend) what had happened to me.  He pondered the matter out loud:

"Look, people vanish.  You break up with someone and you never end up seeing her again.  It's always the same old story."

"Buenos Aires without Daniela is a different city."

"If that's how you see it, perhaps something I happened to read in a magazine will make you feel better: other cities are supposed to have twice as many people we know."

Perhaps he was saying this just to take my mind off the subject.  He had to have discerned my irritation because he apologized.

"I understand what it means to give up Daniela.  You'll never have a woman like her."

I don't like talking about my private life.  Nevertheless, I discovered that sooner or later I end up consulting with Massey on all the troubles in my personal sphere.  I'm probably just looking for his approval because I consider him honest and fair and because he never lets feelings sidetrack his criticism.  When I related to him the details of my last conversation with Daniela, he wanted to make sure that my illness was really the way I had described it and only afterwards tell me why.  He added:

"You're not going to find Daniela."

"I know that all too well," I  said.

Many times I've come to think that the ingenuous insensitivity of my friend is a virtue, since it lets him speak his mind with utter frankness.  People who consult him professionally  he's an attorney  praise him for what he thinks and for having a clear and simple vision of the facts.

I spent years marooned in my nightmare.  I hid my illness as a badge of shame and believed, perhaps with good reason, that if I couldn't see Daniela it wasn't worth seeing anyone.  I even avoided Massey; one day I learned that he was traveling in the United States or in Europe.  During work hours at the paper, I tried to isolate myself from my colleagues around me.  I retained in everything a certain thin hope which I never explicitly formulated but which helped me overcome my despair and adjust my actions with the invariable aim of reconstructing the ravaged sand castle that was my health: the desperate hope of curing myself  don't ask me when  and of finding Daniela again.  But hoping was not enough for me; I gave myself to imagination.  I dreamt of our reencounter.  Like a demanding film director, I reshot the scene again and again so that it would be even more moving and triumphant.  Many are of the opinion that the intellect is an obstacle to happiness.

But the real obstacle is imagination.

From Paris I got word that Daniela had immersed herself in her work and biology experiments.  I thought this good news, indeed.  I was never jealous of Rostand or Leclerc. 

Here is where I think I began to improve (the sick vacillate continuously between illusions and disillusions).  During the day I didn't think much about the next attack; the nights were also less frightening.  One morning, very early, I was woken up by the sound of the doorbell.  When I opened the door, I saw Massey who, as far as I understood, had arrived from France  directly, without even so much as going by his own house.  I asked him whether he had seen her, and he said he had.  The silence that ensued was so long that I asked myself whether the fact that Massey was present here had anything to do with Daniela.  Then he said that he had come for the sole purpose of telling me that they had gotten married.  

The surprise and confusion left me speechless.  Finally I rejoined that I had an appointment with my doctor.  I was in such bad shape at this point that he could only believe me.

I never doubted that Massey had acted on good faith.  He had to have concluded that he wasn't taking anything away from me because it was I who had distanced myself from Daniela.  When he said that their marriage would not be an obstacle to our seeing one another, the three of us as we had before, I had to tell him that it would be best if we didn't see each other for a while.

I didn't tell him that his marriage wouldn't last.  And I didn't reach this conclusion out of spite, but based on my knowledge of the two people involved.  It is clear now that I was consumed by spite.  

A few months later I heard the news that they had split up.

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