Phone Calls By Roberto Bolaño
B is in love with X. It is, of course, an ill-fated love. B, at one time in his life, was prepared to do anything for X, more or less what everyone in love thinks and says. X breaks up with him. X breaks up with him over the phone. At first, of course, B is in anguish. But eventually, as is usually the case, he gets over it. The
One night, when B has nothing to do, he manages, after making two phone calls, to get in touch with X. Neither of the two is young and this can be heard in their voices that cross Spain from one end to the other. Their friendship is reborn and a few days later they decide to meet again. Both carry the baggage of divorce, new illnesses, frustrations. When B takes the train heading for X’s city, he is still not in love. They spend the first day holed up in X’s house, talking about their lives. (Actually, it is X who speaks; B listens and asks a question now and then.) At night X invites him to share her bed. Deep down, B has no desire to sleep with X, but he accepts. When he wakes in the morning, B is again in love. But is he in love with X or is he in love with the idea of being in love? The relationship is problematic and intense: X borders on suicide from day to day, is in psychiatric treatment — pills, lots of pills, which nevertheless do nothing to help her. She cries often and without any apparent reason. So B takes care of X. He cares for her tenderly, diligently, but also awkwardly. His ministerings imitate those of a person truly in love. B realizes this right away. He tries to lift her out of her depression but only succeeds in leading X down a dead-end street or one X judges to be a dead end. At times, when he is alone or when he is watching X sleep, B also believes the street to be a dead end. He tries to recall his lost loves as a kind of antidote; he tries to convince himself that he can live without X, that he can save himself on his own. One night X asks him to leave and B catches the train and leaves the city. X goes to the station to see him off. Their farewell is affectionate and desperate. B travels in a sleeping car but is unable to fall asleep until very late. When at last he goes to sleep, he dreams of a monkey made of snow walking through the desert. The path of the monkey is bordered off, leading most likely to failure. But the monkey prefers to ignore that and its cunning turns into its will: it walks by night when the frozen stars sweep the desert. When he wakes up (now in the Estación de Sants in Barcelona), B believes he understands the meaning of his dream (if it had one) and is able to make his way somewhat consoled. That night he calls X and tells her his dream. X says nothing. The next day he calls X again. And the next. X’s attitude is getting cooler and cooler, as if with each call B were receding in time. I am disappearing, B thinks. She is erasing me and knows what she’s doing and why. One night B threatens X that he will take the train and be standing on her doorstep the next day. Wipe that thought from your mind, X says. I am going to come, says B. I can’t stand these phone calls any longer, I want to see your face when I talk to you. I won’t open the door for you, X says, and then hangs up. B doesn’t understand a thing. For a long time he thinks, How can a human being possibly go from one extreme to another in her feeling, her desires? Then he gets drunk and seeks comfort in a book. The days pass.
One night, a year and a half later, B calls X on the phone. It takes X a while to recognize his voice. Oh, it’s you, she says. The coldness in X’s voice is enough to put his hair on end. Nevertheless, B senses that X wishes to tell him something. She’s listening to me as if no time had passed, he thinks, as if we had spoken yesterday. How are you? B says. Tell me something, says B. X answers with monosyllables and after a while, hangs up. Bewildered, B dials X’s number again. When they are connected, however, B prefers to remain silent. At the other end, X’s voice says: Hello, who is it? Silence. Then she says, hello, and is quiet. Time — the time that separated B from X and that B was unable to comprehend — passes through the telephone line, is compressed and stretched, reveals an aspect of its nature. B, without realizing it, has begun to cry. He knows that X knows who is calling her. Then, silently, he hangs up.
Up to this point it is a familiar story — sad but familiar. B understands he must never call X again. One day he hears a knock at the door and standing there are A and Z. They are policemen and wish to question him. B asks what the reason is. A is reluctant to tell him. Z, after awkwardly beating around the bush, explains. Three days ago, at the other end of Spain, someone has murdered X. Initially B collapses, then he realizes that he is one of the suspects and his survival instinct puts him on guard. The police ask him about two days in particular. B doesn’t remember what he has done, whom he has seen during those two days. He does know — how couldn’t he — that he hasn’t left Barcelona, that in fact he hasn’t left his neighborhood and his house, but he can’t prove it. The police take him away. B spends the night at the police station. At one point in the questioning he believes they are going to transfer him to X’s city and he finds the possibility strangely seductive, but in the end that does not happen. They take his fingerprints and request his permission to do a blood analysis. B agrees. The following morning they let him go home. Officially, B has not been arrested, he has only agreed to work with the police to clear up this murder. When he gets home, B gets into bed and immediately falls asleep. He dreams of a desert, of X’s face. Just before he wakes up he understands that they are one and the same. It is not hard for him to conclude that he is lost in the desert.
That night he throws some clothing in a travel bag and heads for the station, where he takes a train whose final destination is X’s city. During the course of the trip, which takes the whole night, from one end of Spain to the other, he is unable to sleep and spends the time thinking of all that he could have done and didn’t, of everything he could have given X and hadn’t. He also thinks: If I were the dead X, I wouldn’t have taken this trip in the other direction. And he thinks: That’s precisely why I am the one who’s alive. During the sleepless trip, he contemplates X as she actually was for the first time, he once again feels love for X and scorn for himself, almost unwillingly, for the last time. When he arrives, quite early, he goes straight to X’s brother’s house. X’s brother is surprised and confused, but nevertheless invites him in, offers him a cup of coffee. He has just washed his face and is half dressed. He hasn’t showered, B notices. He’s only washed his face and splashed some water on his hair. B accepts his offer of coffee, then says that he just found out about the murder of X, that the police have questioned him, that he should explain to him what happened. It’s awfully sad, says X’s brother as he makes the coffee in the kitchen, but I don’t see what you have to do with all of it. The police think I could be the murderer, says B. X’s brother laughs. You always had bad luck, he says. It’s funny he should say that, B thinks, when I am the one who’s alive. But he is also grateful that X’s brother doesn’t doubt his innocence. Then X’s brother goes off to work and B remains in his house. A while later, exhausted, he falls into a deep sleep. X, as one would expect, appears in his dream.
When he wakes up he thinks he knows who the murderer is. He has seen his face. That night he goes out with X’s brother. They go to bars and speak of trivial things and no matter how hard they try to get drunk, they fail. As they walk down the empty streets heading home, B tells him that once he called X and didn’t speak. Son of a bitch, says X’s brother. I only did it once, says B, but then I understood that X was getting these kinds of calls. And she thought it was me. Follow me? says B. The murderer is the anonymous phone caller? asks X’s brother. Exactly, says B. And X thought that it was me. X’s brother frowns. I think, he says, that the murderer was one of her ex-lovers. My sister had many suitors. B chooses not to respond (X’s brother, it seems, hasn’t understood a thing), and they are both silent until they get home.
In the elevator B feels like he is going to throw up. He says, I am going to throw up. Hold on, says X’s brother. Then they quickly walk down the hallway, X’s brother opens the door and B takes off like a shot for the bathroom. But when he gets there he no longer feels like throwing up. He is sweating and his stomach aches but he can’t throw up. The toilet bowl, with the lid up, looks to him like a mouth full of gums laughing at him. After washing his face he looks at himself in the mirror: his face is white as a sheet. He can barely sleep the rest of the night and passes the time trying to read and listening to X’s brother snoring. The next day they say good-bye and B returns to Barcelona. I will never visit this city again, he thinks, for X is no longer here.
A week later X’s brother calls him to say that the police have caught the murderer. The guy had been harassing X, the brother says, with anonymous phone calls. B doesn’t answer. An old lover, X’s brother says. I’m happy to hear it, says B. Thanks for calling me. Then X’s brother hangs up and B is alone.
Translated from the Spanish by Mark Schafer
From Grand Street 68, in memory of Roberto Bolaño, 1953-2003