I had always loved Paulina. In one of my first memories Paulina and I are hidden in a dark arbor of laurels, in a garden watched by two stone lions. Paulina said to me: “I like blue, I like grapes, I like ice, I like roses, I like white horses.” And I knew that my happiness had begun because these preferences of Paulina’s were also mine. We resembled one another so miraculously that in a book on the final conjoining of souls into the soul of the world, my female friend wrote in the margin: “Ours have already been conjoined.” Ours, at that time, meant Paulina’s and mine.
To explain this similarity, I will argue that I was a hasty and distant sketch of Paulina. I recall having written in my notebook: “Every poem is a sketch of Poetry, and in every thing lies a prefiguration of God.” I also thought: “I am safe as long as I resemble Paulina.” I saw (and see even now) identification with Paulina as the best possibility for my own being, as the refuge in which I would be freed of my natural defects, of my obtuseness, my negligence, my vanity.
Life was a sweet habit which led us to await, just like something natural and sure, our future marriage. Paulina’s parents, immune to the early literary success which I had soon squandered, promised their consent once I had completed my doctorate. So often we imagined a tidy future with enough time to work, to travel, and to love one another. This we imagined in such vividness that we became persuaded we were already living together.
But talk of our marriage did not induce us to treat each other as betrothed might. All our childhood was spent together, and there persisted between us the chaste friendship so typical for our age. Never did I dare assume the role of lover and say to her in solemn tones: “I love you.” But I did as she wished, however, and gazed with astonished and scrupulous love upon her resplendent perfection.
Paulina liked it when I had friends over. She would prepare everything in anticipation of my guests and secretly act like she were the lady of the house. I must confess that these meetings were not to my liking. The one we held for Julio Montero to meet some writers was no exception.
Montero visited me for the first time that evening. On this occasion, he wielded a copious manuscript and the despotic demands that the unedited work made on the time of his fellow men. Some time after the visit I had already forgotten his hairy, almost black face. Referring to the story that he read me — Montero had beseeched me to tell him in all sincerity whether the impact of his bitterness had turned out too bold — it happened to be notable because it revealed a vague attempt at imitating a large number of different writers. The probable sophism had given birth to the central idea: if a certain melody arises from the relationship between the violin and the movements of the violinist, the soul of every person arose from a certain relationship between movement and material. The hero of the tale designed a machine to produce souls (a kind of stretcher, with wood and pylons). Then the hero died. A wake was held, then a burial; but in the stretcher the hero was secretly alive. Towards the last paragraph, the stretcher appeared along with a stereoscope and a tripod with a galena stone within whose space a young woman had died.
Once I had managed to impart to him the problems of his argument, Montero exhibited a strange urge to meet some writers.
“Come back tomorrow afternoon,” I told him. “I will introduce you to a few.”
Calling himself a savage, he accepted the invitation. Moved perhaps by the pleasure of seeing him leave, I accompanied him down to the front door that gave onto the street. When we got out of the elevator, Montero came upon the patio garden. Sometimes, in the faint light of the evening, coming to it through the large glass door that separated it from the hall, this little garden suggested the mysterious image of a forest at the bottom of a lake. At night, projectors of lilac and orange light converted it into a horrible caramel paradise. Montero saw it at night.
“I’ll be frank,” he said, resigned to averting his eyes from the garden, “Of everything I’ve seen of the house, this is the most interesting.”
The next day Paulina arrived early, and it was five in the afternoon when I had everything ready for the reception. I showed her a Chinese statuette made of green stone which I had bought in an antique shop that morning. A savage horse with its legs and mane raised in the air. The salesman assured me that it symbolized passion.
Paulina put the little horse on one of the bookshelves and exclaimed: “For life’s first passion, it’s beautiful.” When I told her I was giving to her as a gift she immediately threw her arms around my neck and kissed me.
We took our tea in the breakfast room. I told her I had been offered a two−year scholarship to study in London. Suddenly it was like we were married, on a trip, in our life in England (it seemed to us as immediate as our marriage). We considered the details of a domestic budget; the privations, almost sweet, to which we would subject ourselves; the division of study time, of walking, of relaxing, and perhaps even of work; what Paulina would be doing while I attended class; the clothes and books we would take with us. After some time mulling over projects, we admitted that I had to turn down the scholarship. My exams were a week away, but it was already evident that Paulina’s parents wanted to delay our nuptials.
Our guests began to arrive. I wasn’t feeling happy. Whenever I talked to anyone, I was only thinking of excuses to move on. It seemed impossible to propose a topic that might interest the person to whom I was speaking. Whenever I wanted to remember something I couldn’t, or my recollections came back far too slowly. Anxious, futile, dejected, I moved from one group to another, all the time just wanting everyone to leave for us to be alone and for the moment to come, however brief, when I would walk Paulina back to her house.
Near the window, my fiancée was talking to Montero. When I saw her she raised her eyes and inclined her perfect face towards me. In Paulina’s tenderness I sensed an inviolable refuge where we were alone. How I yearned to tell her that I loved her! That very night I made the firm decision to abandon my puerile and absurd embarrassment about speaking of love. “If I could now,” I sighed, “communicate my thoughts to her.” In her look there palpitated a generous, happy and surprising gratitude.
Paulina asked me which poem was it where a man distanced himself so much from a woman that he did not greet her when he saw her in heaven. I knew that the poem was by Browning and had a vague recollection of the lines. I spent the rest of the afternoon looking them up in the Oxford edition. If they weren’t going to leave me alone with Paulina, looking for something for her was preferable to chatting with other people. But I was singularly dumbfounded and asked myself whether the impossibility of finding the poem wasn’t an omen. I looked towards the window. Luis Alberto Morgan, the pianist, must have noticed my anxiety because he told me:
“Paulina is showing Montero the house.”
Hardly concealing my annoyance, I shrugged my shoulders and pretended to turn back towards my book by Browning. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Morgan enter my room. “He’s going to call her,” I thought. He immediately returned with Paulina and Montero.
Finally, someone left. In indifference and slowness, others then began leaving. The moment arrived when only Paulina, Montero, and I were alone. Then, as I feared, Paulina said:
“It’s very late. I’m off.”
Montero quickly intervened:
“If you so desire, I can escort you back to your house.”
“I can also escort you,” I countered.
I spoke to Paulina but looked at Montero. I pretended that my eyes conveyed to him my contempt and hate.
Arriving downstairs, I informed Paulina that she didn’t have her little Chinese horse. I said to her:
“You’ve forgotten my gift.”
I went up to the apartment and returned with the statuette. I found them leaning against the glass door looking at the garden. I took Paulina by the hand and did not let Montero approach her from the other side. In conversation, I openly disregarded Montero.
He did not get offended. When we had taken our leave from Paulina, he insisted on accompanying me back to my house. On the way he talked about literature, probably with sincerity and fervor. I said to myself: “He is one of the literati, I am a tired man frivolously preoccupied with a woman.” I considered the incongruence which existed between his physical vigor and his literary feebleness. I thought: “He is protected by a shell. What his interlocutor says doesn’t reach him.” I looked with hate at his lively eyes, his hairy mustache, his hefty neck.
That week I almost didn’t get to see Paulina. I was studying a lot. After the last of my exams, I gave her a call. She pleased me with her insistence that it didn’t seem natural and said that at the end of the afternoon she would come home.
I took a nap, bathed with great slowness, and, leafing through a book on the Fausts of Müller and Lessing, waited for Paulina.
Seeing her, I exclaimed:
“Yes,” she responded. “How we know one another! I don’t need to talk for you to know what I feel.”
We looked into each other’s eyes in an ecstasy of beatitude.
“Thank you,” I replied.
Nothing had ever moved me as much as the admission, on the part of Paulina, that our souls were conjoined in profound compatibility. I confidently abandoned myself to this blandishment. I don’t know when I asked myself (incredulously) if Paulina’s words concealed another meaning. Before I was able to consider this possibility, Paulina embarked on a confused explanation. Suddenly I heard:
“That first evening we were already so hopelessly in love.”
I asked myself whom she might mean. Paulina continued:
“He’s very jealous. He is not opposed to our friendship, but I promised him that I wouldn’t see you for a while.”
I was still waiting, however, for the impossible clarification which would calm me. I didn’t know whether Paulina was joking or serious. I didn’t know what expression my face now wore. And I didn’t know what was tearing it apart was my anguish. Paulina added:
“I’m going. Julio is waiting for me. He didn’t come upstairs so as not to bother us.”
“Who?” I asked.
Immediately I feared, as if nothing at all had occurred, that Paulina had discovered that I was an impostor and that our souls were not joined.
Paulina answered in all naturalness:
The response did not manage to surprise me; nevertheless, on that horrible night, nothing moved me more than those two words. For the first time I felt far away from Paulina. Almost contemptuously, I then asked:
“Are you going to get married?”
I don’t recall what her response was. I think that she invited me to her wedding.
Then I found myself alone. Everything was absurd. There could not have been a person less compatible with Paulina (or with me) than Montero. Or was I mistaken? If Paulina loved this man, perhaps then she had never resembled me. An abjuration was not enough for me; I discovered that many times I had caught a glimpse of the terrifying truth.
I was very sad, but I don’t think I felt any jealousy. I went to bed, face down. Stretching out my hand, I found the book which had just been reading for a while before. I cast it far from me in disgust.
I went out for a walk. On one of the corners I took a look at a merry−go−round. That night it seemed impossible to go on living.
Over the years I remembered her. And as I preferred the painful moments of our split (because they had taken place with Paulina) to the subsequent solitude, I ran through them again and again, examining them in minutest detail and reliving each one. In such distressed deliberation, I thought I was discovering new interpretations of the facts. Hence, for example, in the voice of Paulina telling me the name of her lover I was surprised to find a tenderness that, in principle, did not fail to thrill me. I thought that the girl felt sorry for me, and her goodness moved me just as her love had before. Later, reconsidering the matter, I deduced that this tenderness was not for me but for the name she had uttered.
I accepted the scholarship and silently busied myself with preparations for my trip. Word, however, got out, and on my last evening I was visited by Paulina.
I felt far from her, but once I saw her I fell in love again. Without her saying it, I understood that her appearance was a furtive one. Trembling in gratitude, I took her hands in mine. Paulina said:
“I will always love you. Whatever may be, I will always love you more than anyone else.”
Perhaps she thought she had committed a betrayal. She knew that I did not doubt her faithfulness to Montero, but as if disgusted by having pronounced words that involved her (if not for me than for an imaginary witness) in an unfaithful intention, she added rapidly:
“Obviously, I’m sorry for you is not important. I’m in love with Julio.”
Everything else, she said, was not important. The past was a desert region in which she had been waiting for Montero. To our love, or friendship, she could not agree.
Then we spoke a bit more. I was very resentful and pretended to be in a hurry. I walked her to the elevator. Once we got to front door it immediately began to pour.
“I’ll find you a taxi,” I said.
With sudden emotion in her voice, Paulina yelled at me:
She ran across the street and disappeared from sight. Sad, I turned around. Upon raising my eyes I saw a man crouching in the garden. He sat up and pressed his hands and face against the glass door. It was Montero.
Rays of lilac and orange light crossed above a green background with dark thickets. Pressed against the glass, Montero’s face seemed deformed and ghastly pale.
I thought of aquariums, of fish in aquariums. Then, with frivolous bitterness, I said to myself that Montero’s face suggested other monsters: those fish deformed by the pressure of the water living at the bottom of the sea.
The next day, in the morning, I departed. I hardly left my cabin for the duration of my journey, and instead wrote and read intensely.
I wanted to forget Paulina. In my two years in England I avoided thinking about her whenever I could: from meeting with other Argentines to the few telegrams from Buenos Aires where the daily newspapers are published. It’s true that I seemed to be in a dream, a dream so real and of such persuasive vividness that I asked myself whether my soul was counteracting at night the privations I imposed upon myself during the day. Obstinately I eluded her memories. By the end of my first year, I managed to ban her from my nights, and, almost, to forget her.