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Tuesday
Jun042013

Johanna

A work ("Johanna") by this Argentine man of letters.  You can read the original in this collection.

Perhaps it is because I so enjoy reading memoirs that I would like to write one of my own.  Yet when I set to recalling the events of my life, I ask myself: who would be entertained by this?  I was never in a war; I never devoted myself to espionage; I never committed any murders; I never even involved myself in politics.  It seems inevitable that my book would consist of descriptions of various states of mind, like those which callow and pretentious authors tend to bring me.  A colleague once said: "He who tarries overmuch in examining his own projects does not finish them.  There is no better recipe for writing than to write."  I don't know why these words imbued me with confidence.  I will take advantage of this confidence to tell you of an episode that occurred over the course of three nights in 1929.

On the first – a moonlit night – I crossed Montevideo street between Quintana and Uruguay with a group of people who were laughing and singing.  A girl caught my eye – for her beauty, for her sharp features, for the whiteness of her skin.  I must have looked at her with no little haste because she bowed, more light-heartedly than mockingly.  In the days that followed I would return, on a variety of pretexts, to this crossing in Montevideo.

At length I found her.  She was called Johanna Glück, the descendant of a musician.  Born in Austria, she had been educated in Buenos Aires – in Belgrano, to be exact – and was married to a very serious old gentleman, a penitentiary judge, Doctor Ricaldoni.  That night, the second in my series, in a hotel in the Vicente López Partido (the big ramshackle house of an old farm with a vast garden, of which I remember an eucalyptus and its view of the river), I dreamt that I had kidnapped her in a Packard on the night we crossed paths in Montevideo street.  I felt flattered, above all owing to my role in the dream, but also because of the car.  Vanity is a rather crude thing.

We returned by train to Buenos Aires.  I walked her to her house in Tucuman street.  It was almost two o'clock in the morning.

"It's late.  I hope your husband doesn't give you any trouble."

"Don't worry," she replied.  "I'll take care of it."

I wanted to believe her, although my experience as a superstitious lad informed me that an instant of vain self-flattery sufficed for the self-flatterer to receive his comeuppance.

The following day I was awakened by the phone.  I recognized her even though she spoke in a murmur:

"Farewell.  We are off to the farm in Pilar.  I told my husband everything.  Forgive me."

"I warned her," I thought with some irritation.  "The poor thing was so certain.  What can I do?  For now, nothing.  Only wait until an opportunity arises."

Since exams were coming up very soon, I decided to study.  But I could not manage to concentrate.  In reality, I didn't know what to do with myself.  "Why did she ask me to forgive her?  When she said 'farewell,' did she mean 'see you around' or 'goodbye forever'?"  I did not know that I loved her so much.

Doubtless her message had been too fast and too much remained to be clarified.  Since I didn't know what to do, I ran my eyes over a used-car column in the newspaper.  I read: "Packard, 1924, twelve cylinders, unbeatable condition, $600, Landívar residence," and a house number on Florida street.  Then I looked at the cinema listings.  Nothing advertised seemed to appeal to me.  In the Petit Splendid they were showing The Sheik, a film I had seen years ago, and of which I only remembered, or thought I remembered, Rudolph Valentino dressed as an Arab, on horseback, with the heroine on the horse's rump.

The telephone rang.  I attended to it hastily and was disappointed: I did not hear the voice I had been expecting.  Instead it was the voice of a friend offering me a job.  A translation from the French for a law firm of certain documents concerning an uncredited use of the name of a famous eau de cologne.       

"They pay well," said my friend.  "A hundred pesos a page."

They can keep their pesos, I was about to reply.  Then I considered that this work would oblige me, at least for a while, to think about something else, so I said yes.  After telling my mother that I wouldn't be having lunch at home, I made my way to the law firm.

I reviewed the documents and asked:

"When do I have to turn in the translation?"

"Today."

They took me to a small room which had a typewriter and everything I would need, including a French-Spanish dictionary and a French dictionary on law and jurisprudence.  I was busy until the middle of the afternoon, with no interruptions save that of a cup of black coffee.  I translated, corrected, and typed it all up.  I handed in six pages.  With six hundred pesos in my pocket I proceeded as quickly as possible to the Landívar residence.

The Packard was a grey monstrosity with a long convertible hood trimmed with two lines of bolts which gave it a forceful appearance not unlike that of an armored tank.  The hood was in perfect condition with its lateral bars, or shutters, and mica windows.  I took it out for a test drive accompanied by the seller, a Mr. Vilelo, a short, brown, skinny, and bony creole with brilliantine-slicked hair and a double-breasted suit.  When we returned to the agency, he asked me:

"How would you rate it, son?"

"The Packard?  Five stars!  But I need to ask you a stupid question.  It couldn't have some hidden flaw, could it?"

"Look, son, I'm not going to lie to you.  The Packard twelve-cylinder is a great car with a hidden flaw that everyone knows about: it's a guzzler.  Twenty liters every fifty kilometers.  Like you I bought a less powerful Packard.  It will cost you more, yet also less.  I don't know whether I'm explaining myself."

"I won't buy it, then."

"No craving for a twelve-cylinder?"

"It's not that.  I have six hundred pesos and change.  The car and a full tank of gas."

"Cravings are bad advisers, son.  Will you be paying in cash?"

"I will only if I can take the car immediately." 

"For three days with a permit.  Tomorrow or the day after, call me and we'll go for a ride to the Department of Motor Vehicles and put everything in order.  If so, son, don't let the Packard go to your head and explode."

"Do you think I can make it to Pilar?"

"Why not?"

"Because of last night's rain."

"That falls under my competency.  The Packard twelve-cylinder is a tractor in the mud." (The roads were made of mud still, since this story took place before 1930).

If I remember correctly, I left Buenos Aires via San Martín avenue.  I didn't hesitate to get a firm grip on the car: at the beginning, true enough, I was more prudent.  But by San Miguel I noticed not a single car remained unpassed.  I drove into Pilar with some insolence, as if screaming: "Make way, here I come!"

It was also true that I had no one at whom to scream.  Everyone must have been busy at home: it was meal time.  I asked a passer-by where the Ricaldoni farm was.  The explanation was too lengthy for my attention span.  I asked a second passer-by and still spent a while turning here and there before hitting upon the farm.

I was going to say to whoever opened the door: "I would like to speak to the lady of the house."  The door was opened by her husband.  "It's better this way," I thought.  "Less procrastination." 

"I would like to speak with Johanna."

"Please come in," he replied.

He was a tall, pale man, doubtless far younger than I had assumed.  Although this circumstance, this change in the predicted situation, disconcerted me a little, I thought:  "It's better this way.  Fighting with an old man would be unpleasant."

I entered what I considered a well-furnished living room.  A fire burned in the hearth and flowers sprang from every vase.  A staircase led upstairs.

"I've come to get Johanna," I said.

"I'm very happy that you've come.  Sometimes talking helps sort things out."

"I want to talk to her."

"When I heard your voice, I came downstairs to open the door because I knew it was you."

"How did you know?"

"You know how Johanna is.  My wife has the gift of making us see the people she describes."

The conversation was annoying me and I didn't want to hear what Ricaldoni had to say.  I was also annoyed (I don't quite know why) by this room and its armchairs that invited me to stay, this chimney and its flowers, with the pictures of Johanna laughing as she had that first night in Montevideo street, in the  light of the moon.  I tried to explain, but the difficulty of arranging my thoughts discouraged me.  To end our conversation once and for all I said, raising my voice:

"If you don't call her, I'll go find her myself."

"I wouldn't," said Ricaldoni.

"Why not?" I screamed.  "You won't let me?  Just wait and see."

"What's going on here?" asked Johanna from upstairs.

She was leaning on the railing of the stairs.  To me she seemed paler, more serious, and more beautiful than ever.  Her hair fell between her shoulders.  

"I've come for you," I shouted.

"For me?  No one asked me whether I wanted you to do that."

 Silence ensued.  Finally Ricaldoni said:

"I'll talk to the lad."

"I'd really appreciate that, thanks," said Johanna.

And she was gone.  I heard her locking a door.

"I don't understand," I said like a robot.

"Why do you love her?  We also love each other."

I muttered:

"I thought that she ..."

Seeing that I was not going to finish the sentence, he said:

"I know, and I take responsibility for it.  It must be terrible.  Now allow me to explain to you how I see matters.  What the two of you have is an impulse of the moment.  It is nothing.  Nothing has happened.  What the two of us have is life itself."

Could Johanna have lied?  I didn't know what to think, but I understood that on this point I mustn't ask for any clarification.  I decided to make a claim:

"And why couldn't what the two of us have one day become life itself?"

"Yes, why not?  Nevertheless for you this is more likely to be just an episode, to be followed by others.  Life is long and it lies ahead of you.  Johanna and I are going through it together."  

A ditty one is told because one is young, I assured myself.  Yet at the same time I thought that if Johanna really did not love me, then the man was right.  I felt defeated and muttered:

"I'm leaving."

I was so shaken that, as I left the farm, I asked myself whether I needed to turn left or right in order to return to Buenos Aires.  I turned left.  First I thought that it was sad to have ended things this way with Johanna, and soon thereafter I asked myself whether I lacked courage.  Maybe so; but the other option was to fight, in bad faith and like a fool.  For sure, after my arrival in the Packard (I already saw myself as a sheik on horseback, certain of kidnapping the heroine), I retreated, spurned by her and her husband (even worse: spurned paternally by her husband).  A sad ending in terms of vanity, but I did not see a better solution.     

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