03 Oct The Gillette
by Abdón Ubídia
Translated by Nathan Horowitz
The man is sitting in front of the typewriter. Distractedly, he observes the keys, the springs, the sheet metal, that inextricable mechanism that can be seen in the intervals between the types. Sometimes his gaze rests on the ribbon, which he bought a week ago and which still stains the pages with an energetic, oily blue-black. He remains immobile while through his brain circulate furtive forms, vague ideas, imprecisions, which make him unaware of what he’s taking in with his eyes in his useless inventory of the icy baroquism of that old Remington, tall and black, like a machine that might have some purpose at a funeral, like a schematic instrument of evil.
Something in his chest prevents him from working, or even adopting the proper posture of someone concentrating on work. His ideas are not organizing themselves in his head and he’s not doing much to organize them. It must be the theme of the story which is the problem. The theme of the story is death.
The story which has asserted itself refers to the gradual decline of man who, little by little, because of a stupid flair for self-destruction, sets about undoing everything he has been and done in his life: his work, his relationships with friends and family, and lastly, his relationship with another character, Veronica, to whom he assigned in his world the role of nucleus, of organizing principle, around whom everything else articulated itself. Once everything that makes up his professional and personal life is destroyed, the protagonist’s suicide is nothing but an afterthought.
And that’s the story. The man is almost finished with it. Only the last part remains to be written, the scene of the suicide. The man knows it by heart and could write it with his eyes closed. Nevertheless, he doesn’t do it, because, now that he thinks about it, he has a slight headache, a gentle hammering in the brain that extends the back of the eyes. He must need another pair of glasses. He should go to the ophthalmologist.
But everything feels impossible now. The business of getting a new pair of glasses seems as far-off and difficult as working at the typewriter. He won’t go to the ophthalmologist. He won’t write either. Once, in these circumstances, he would have feared a night of insomnia, the inevitable punishment for a day of lost work. This time he’s not afraid of it. The man passes his hand across his face, across the back of his neck.
Suddenly he makes an involuntary movement and knocks the pencil that he uses to underline things off the desk. He picks it up, examines it. He discovers that the point has broken off. He looks for the Gillette. It’s atop the very old, illustrated Larousse. He takes the Gillette and whittles a new point for the pencil. He puts down the pencil, put the Gillette on the Larousse and begins to write.
But again, that inertia, that sense that it’s meaningless, stops him from tapping the machine’s keys. He lets his eyes dart around the walls of the room. But the Gillette is gleaming atop the illustrated Larousse. The gleam annoys him. He looks back at the ridiculous form of the Gillette: a weathered surface, two shiny parallels, and in the center something like a frightful mouth with half its teeth smashed out. He picks up the blade and hides it among the dictionary’s pages. He opens one of the drawers of his desk and places the Larousse there.
But he thinks that that’s not the solution and opens the drawer and then the Larousse and searches for the Gillette. He picks it up carefully between finger and thumb, carries it to the window and throws it out onto the street. He breathes deeply, looks at his watch and sits back down in front of the typewriter, which he sometimes thinks of as his loom because he has imagined that the written pages that emerge from the top are a kind of cloth.
Presently he discovers the open drawer of the desk. Inside it, wrapped in shadows, as if lurking there, is the old German Luger, loaded, ready to shoot. He quickly closes the drawer and involuntarily glances at the bottle of pills he left on the bookshelf jammed with disordered books. Wanting to make a joke, he wonders to himself how he could have remained so long in such a dangerous place without realizing it. The man gets up again, puts on his jacket, and goes out on the street. He’s abandoned that story that’s never going to end, at least not the way he planned it. He advances rapidly down the sidewalk. It’s important that he advance rapidly, pushing his way between the passersby.
Now, from the other side of the avenue, the man sees her pass through the green-painted doorway and walk up the cobblestone-paved alley. Without knowing it, she approaches him. She has her eyes lowered and her arms crossed over a pair of books, like a high school girl. The man has been waiting for her for an hour without daring to enter and look for her in that strange institute where there is nothing but a library and some enormous rooms with archives that no one consults. He says to himself that it’s a good omen that no one else was waiting for her to get out of work.
He says to himself that the summer wind, the blue sky and the midday sun are even better omens. Also, in that part of the city, there’s still enough silence and solitude to talk without interruption. Suddenly she discovers him, too late to avoid him. The man imagines what the woman must be thinking: that if she could tear up one of the cobblestones, she wouldn’t think twice about throwing it at him.
The woman has turned away her face with its expression of a frightened little girl so that she can’t hear what the man has not yet begun to say—nor will he, because he has not taken the precaution of choosing his opening words, the appropriate and precise language to initiate his discourse. They walk in silence on the sidewalk, which is almost white with so much light. She acts like she doesn’t know him. He isn’t sure whether to take her by the arm, or once and for all to embrace her and kiss her desperately.
“We can talk, right?” he says.
She speeds up. She recalls, without sorrow, her final resolution: that relationship ended exactly three months ago. Ended forever. Of course, in the first days that followed the breakup, she was afraid of finding him waiting for her outside the institute or at her mother’s house, and she feared every telephone call that she answered, and every doorbell ring and knock on the door of the office or of her mother’s house. Then, only a few of his words would have been enough to make her crumble.
And there wouldn’t have been just a few words, but lots of them. A real avalanche—just like the one that would cover her in an instant if she let him speak now. He was a man of words. He was made of them. They didn’t cost him anything. And he spewed them out with shocking irresponsibility. In those early days of tears and remorse, maybe she could have heard him and gone back with him. Today, though, she feels strong and free. “Speak, you idiot, I’m not going to listen,” she says to herself, her mouth clamped shut with indignation. He follows her in silence, looking at the cement of the sidewalk as if searching for something.
“Talk, then,” she says, almost in a sigh.
He sees he has won his first victory. She hasn’t stopped at the bus stop, but continues walking with that too-distant, too-frozen attitude too deliberate to be real. And she’s even letting him talk. This is the moment to insist. But now something strange happens. The words slow down and get tangled up in each other in his head. And he doesn’t manage to untangle them. Actually, he doesn’t know what to say to her. To ask her, just like that, to come back and live with him after three months of total silence seems ridiculous.
Also, it doesn’t occur to him to promise her anything in return for getting back together with him. And he wouldn’t know where to start with the useless, tasteless, obviously lying offers that would soon seem to her like an interminable litany: he won’t get drunk, he won’t make passes at her friends, he won’t ridicule the concept of domestic life or reject its material aspects, he won’t hate her mother just for being conservative, he won’t demand that she read things she doesn’t like; he will be tolerant and understanding, he will only say what is necessary to say, without excessive theorizing; he will overcome, once and for all, his manic depression—cultivated and periodically indulged in, like a vice—: he will try to become more stable, et cetera, et cetera.
The man knows that this isn’t his style. He has learned to avoid simplicity and directness, which feel to him like meager abbreviations that never communicate anything. That’s why he needs the circumlocutions of literature. Furthermore, he doesn’t really want to promise anything. Because he doesn’t really want to change. On the contrary, he wants to remain that half-real, half-imaginary character which is his self. And he wants to justify that self, to explain it; although, now that he thinks of it, he’s not eager to do that now. Because she knows all about it. He’s explained it to her many times in many ways.
It’s not worth insisting on, especially not now. So, confronted by the sudden and somewhat unfamiliar need to be sincere, he prefers to remain silent, pursuing her wordlessly like a flustered adolescent. One of his beloved Malcolm Lowry quotes comes to his mind like divine assistance: “Who was she to judge who he had been before she came along?” It seems to him an important phrase, the most respectable of the various justifications he imagines. That quote safeguards his difficult, rebellious way of being.
It’s not necessary to speak it aloud. It would require a prologue that doesn’t occur to him now. And there’s nothing for him to do but to repeat it to himself like a prayer. Because the quotations he has consciously or unconsciously picked up from books, and which from time to time, and without his calling them, enter his mind, are, without doubt, the prayers of the personal religion to which he frenetically adheres: language, the dubious path of art, which he sometimes describes as his “stingy, egotistical, perfect alibi.”
“I wanted to see you,” he says.
“After three months,” she thinks. She doesn’t say it out loud so he doesn’t think she’s blaming him. The woman has made her first mistake: instead of stopping at the bus stop, she’s kept going. She doesn’t know why but it seems foolish to turn around and go back to it. That would be like advertising the fact that she’s flustered. She decides to continue on to the next corner. Behind her, she hears and feels the bus coming. Now she sees it surge by, packed with people heading toward the south of the city.
She watches it disappear down the deserted avenue. The houses here seem empty, though there must be some people inside. As they walk, she looks at the small, lovingly-cultivated gardens. Geraniums. Shrubs. Sometimes a dog barks at them from behind a fence. The cool, quick, playful summer wind lifts up papers and dry leaves, and makes a noise like a river in the trees.
The sky is blue. There’s not a single cloud, and the sun burns with all its power. It’s the dry season in the Andes: a fearsome sun, with a brisk wind to appease it. She thinks that without the imbecile who walks with her in calculated silence, cunningly pretending he didn’t know what he was going to say to her, she would have wanted to walk a bit before catching the bus anyway, to forget about the darkness and the chilly dampness of her office.
“Has anything occurred to you?” she says indifferently.
He thinks he understands her new plan. She won’t flee now. She walks slowly at his side and speaks to him with that smooth, calm voice, because she’s told herself that it’s better not to run away, not to provoke a confrontation, the dramatic, total rupture of two people who hate each other. It’s better to stay in neutral territory, to be accommodating, and to tolerate him like a casual acquaintance, nothing more.
Which is exactly what he will never accept. So he moves his hand toward her. He tries gently to take her arm. She turns her face to him. She looks at him, hard, strange, as if uncomprehending. He understands: she’s on her guard. She’s defending herself with her gaze, wanting to emphasize her distance. The man withdraws his hand. He does not insist. He consents to give her time. And to yield the point to her; in his own way, to be accommodating. But it’s only a tactic. He will insist again, once, several times, as many times as may be necessary.
“I wanted to see you,” he repeats, wanting to go back in time and erase his last gesture like someone retracing his steps after a wrong turn.
“Has anything occurred to you?” she would have repeated with the same indifference in her voice to close the circle and disarm him again. But she doesn’t say anything. She begins to get disgusted with herself. Very much despite herself, she feels wooed, courted. Very much despite herself, she feels herself playing the game. Again she wants to run away. She looks again and there’s no bus anywhere around.
A ramshackle truck laden with bricks appears. She represses the impulse to lift her arm and signal the driver to stop and pick her up. The truck goes away. The distance to the next corner seems endless. Really, it’s a very long block. Two or three times longer than an ordinary one. At the end, above the irregular, compact profile of the city, above the sudden blue of the mountains, rises the perfect, brilliant snow-covered cone of the volcano, luminous in the deep sky.
She would have preferred a winter landscape, gray and rainy, better for reinforcing irreversible decisions. The sun begins to suffocate her. She wants to take off her jacket. But her arms are bare and the man might take it as a provocation. He always said he liked her arms, her skin, her smooth shoulders. He’s too dirty-minded not to think of it as a provocation. Now she wants to hate him.
She needs an immediate reason to hate him. She observes that they have just passed some gardens, where bougainvilleas and roses protruded between the bars of fences as if offering themselves to the passersby. The man doesn’t notice things like that. Of course he doesn’t. He’s not the type who gives flowers. Or perfume. He used to say that perfume was a slow-acting toxin. And that cut flowers reminded him of funerals, and that he felt it was better to leave the flowers on their plants, appreciate them there, share the world with them without mutual aggressions.
That statement about his feelings was only partly true. Like everything about him. Except, of course, his total lack of courtesy, of politeness, which was completely true. He never gave her a special surprise gift. Except once when he bought her a watch. He must have done it by mistake. He was personally involved in all the other attentions he paid to her. He took her out to eat, took her dancing, took her to films, things like that. Sometimes to the point of exhaustion and even when she didn’t want to go.
At last they reach the other corner. They stop. The man vainly attempts again to take her arm. It’s barely a gesture at all. The man feels he has suddenly lost his sense of reality. Now that he should talk, he doesn’t talk. Now that he should insist, he doesn’t insist. The concrete situation altogether escapes him. He’s only able to grasp (to appreciate, as if it were a dream) what he sees before him: the two of them, together, in silence, on a random corner of a deserted street on a fantastic midday of sun and wind.
The past is only a vague suspicion and the future seems harmless. So why talk. It occurs to him that sometimes, that precise kind of interruption of action comes over him. Especially when the most prudent thing he can do is wait. And in that moment he is waiting, wisely, patiently, for the confused set of reactions that must be occurring inside her to calm down and cease, and then his timetable and her timetable will synchronize.
That’s why he’s surprised to see the bus stopping at the corner. That’s why it seems unjust that the woman says “Goodbye” and begins to get on the bus. So there’s nothing to do but hold her back by force, and say to her in an actually violent tone of voice, “Stay here, we have to talk!” And it doesn’t matter to him that on the other side of the half-pulled down bus windows, the people first look at them with surprise and then burst out in a single enormous laugh while the driver swears and accelerates. The man realizes he has committed his first error. The woman’s face is burning. Behind the lenses of her glasses, her eyes fill with tears. She’s furious.
As if from far away, the man hears her say, “What do you want from me!” She frees herself from his grip and backs away. It’s not only anger she feels, but fear, too. She doesn’t know what to do. She turns around and starts walking back the way they came. She draws away. He follows her. He stammers an apology that she doesn’t hear. He decides to shut up. They walk. Suddenly the woman stops, leans against the stone wall, covers her face with her hands and cries piteously. A fast whirlwind passes close to them, carrying with it a spiral of dust, leaves and papers. Very far down the street, a fruit vendor pushes his cart.
The man leans toward the woman, takes off her glasses and helps her dry her eyes. She permits this, but when he tries to kiss her, she avoids him without ceasing to cry. He caresses her hair. The woman permits it but only for a moment. The man resolves to wait. The papers the whirlwind has flung up are white against the intense blue of the sky. High above and off to one side are two kites, one yellow, the other red.
The strings are invisible, but he sees their long tails made with rags. The skeletons of some other kites are tangled in power lines. He takes her gently by the arm, he pushes her gently, obliging her to walk. She lets herself be guided without offering any resistance. Soon they cross a street that intersects the avenue. The woman has stopped crying. She sobs from time to time. Her eyelids are a bit swollen and her eyes are red. He thinks this is a shame. She has begun to speak.
She repeats, again and again, in a faltering voice, the many reasons why she will never go back to him. He listens to her, unconvinced. It seems to him that she is exaggerating and that she is coming out with some gratuitous slanders. He prefers not to contradict her. He sees that the woman is trying to convince herself with her reasons. When of her reproaches there remain only her lowered gaze, lost in the pavement, and some uncontrolled sobs, the man doesn’t hesitate to whisper to her: “I won’t let you leave me ever again.” It’s an affectionate phrase meant to invalidate everything she’s said. But it’s true: he won’t let her leave him again.
The sun at 1:30 p.m. is like a mad fire. The little whirlwinds, and the gusts that come down from the heights and the snowcapped peaks, can do nothing to cool the baking earth. Now the real heat begins. The two of them are lucky to run across a little restaurant in that part of the city. Red-striped white cloths cover the tables. Behind the counter, the owner—almost round, dark-skinned, her cheekbones enormous—doesn’t stop looking at them, stony, indifferent, immobile like an idol.
The man devours his sandwich and calmly sips his beer. She doesn’t want to eat. And her bottle of cola is untouched in front of her. Uncomfortable on the stool with its unequal legs, her jacket folded on her lap, she observes the man out of the corner of her eye. She’s surprised to realize that she has forgiven him. She finds that in the lethargy of the afternoon, she has even begun to reproach herself for her own insecurities, her capricious, spoiled-little-girl character.
It’s the furious light and the crackling joy of the dry season that are to blame for this. Now only a bit of dignity and self-respect keep her apparently firm in her original decision never to go back to the man, who, for his part, looks at her from the other side of the table with optimism and tranquility that sink her, disquiet her. Yes, the weather is to blame. Without its splendor, she wouldn’t have remembered the damp cold of her office, or the silence and darkness she had carried within her for three months—the void left by a love, a habit, that had been, and then was no longer.
She thinks the man must have felt the same way, and that’s why he’s come looking for her. She reflects that love is like a secret dance requiring distances and pauses: the ritual of two people who search for each other without knowing it, and come together and draw apart and come together again. She thinks fearfully that the reencounter is imminent. She finds it hard to keep herself incredulous and distant. Although in a way, the man helps her to keep resisting, by appearing too confident and optimistic.
At that exact moment, the man is remembering a phrase he found in a book and adopted as a personal definition: “I’m an uneasy mix of external timidity and internal arrogance.” That was from Raymond Chandler. But the man believes that if he had not read the phrase, he would have written it himself. Under normal circumstances it applies to his own way of being. Now, however, the equation has been reversed.
Now, on the outside he makes a show of his nonchalance, while on the inside, he’s shaken by the fear of losing her, of having lost her already. Curiously, three months earlier, at the time of the breakup, the quotation seemed to help him find the stoicism and resignation he needed at the natural demise of a much-loved phase of his life. The breakup was hard, but he pretended to accept it, like an inconvenient and unforeseen pain that comes from outside. Like an accident in which no one is at fault.
He found within himself the arrogance or shamelessness he needed to pretend things were normal: he ignored the void that grew within him: he had short-term sexual encounters, he drank, he started a publishing company, and he made progress in the writing of that short story which, at a certain hour of that very morning, he had abandoned, leaving it trapped in his old Remington typewriter. In writing the story, he had taken certain personality traits of the woman (who from the other side of the café table eyes him mistrustfully, like a prisoner planning her escape), and used them to create the female character, whom he had baptized Veronica, a name that did not evoke anything special to him.
Moved by that same absence of inhibition, he had written in a version of himself as the male character, who has to leave Veronica to be faithful to a vision which has captivated him for a long time—the temptation of disgrace. The writing of the story went along smoothly until very near the end. To be precise, until its author became revolted by the conclusion he had foreseen, which was, ironically, the very idea that breathed life into the story and made it possible.
In the scene in question, the main character, whose voluntary wanderings through the regions of misfortune have enclosed him in ever-narrowing circles, is sitting in front of a mirror holding a Gillette blade between his finger and thumb. The basic elements of the scene are clearly described: the main character; his reflection in the mirror; the Gillette; the jugular vein under threat from the Gillette: any sudden movement or decision in that last circle will be purely instinctive: life, or death; either the distance will be maintained between the character and his reflection in the mirror, or both of them will fall into the same shadow.
Of course, certain external components of the story are not written into it. In the first place, the fact that the scene had taken place in reality, ten years before, and its tragic end shocked and saddened the city (which puts the author in a difficult position: how can we use other people’s tragedies for artistic purposes without profaning or falsifying them?). And in the second place, the fact that when sitting down to finish writing the story, the man had, like a painter posing a model, left a Gillette blade atop his Larousse dictionary.
The interruption of the story happened surprisingly, almost fantastically: when the man needed to pick up the razor blade to sharpen the point of the pencil with which he underlined the words he would have to change, a kind of short circuit came over him, a superimposition of imaginary and real, past and present. The fictional character facing the mirror, the author facing the page (another mirror), and the man who committed suicide ten years earlier, all coincided at a single point.
For an instant, the imaginary was real, the present was the past, and the future didn’t exist. And at the center of it all, like an axis, the calm, pure, splendid form of the razor blade halfway to its destination. The writer looked death in the eye, pausing on the threshold of absolute zero.
And like the character in his story, his only possible response was purely instinctive. So after his initial bewilderment, all he could think of was getting out of there, running away from the freezing shadowland that was trying to draw him in. He made his way back along the path he had taken to get to that point. He threw the Gillette away, stopped trying to write the story, abandoned the dark, nicotine-saturated apartment in which the fogs of the rainy season seemed to linger still, and went to look for her.
In the café, the woman is looking at him strangely. The man’s face has darkened. His mind is somewhere else. The woman doesn’t trust that expression. The man recovers from his momentary mental flight. He gets up. He goes to the counter and pays the bill. He returns to her. “Let’s go,” he says quietly. She follows him. They walk toward the avenue. The man has decided not to insist.
Nevertheless, he insists.
That’s when the miracle happens. He feels her press against him gently, take refuge in him, come to his side as if arriving from very far away. And he receives her and protects her. And the silence breaks like a bottle full of words that no one knew were inside; and he talks, and she talks, and he tells her, and she tells him. And they make promises to each other that they’ll break later.
And at that moment, the man senses the energy of the dry season, and the blinding afternoon sun, and he knows that the friendly wind that plays with the two of them is the same as the one that, a little way ahead, lifts up a yellowed scrap of old newspaper, spectacularly useless, which seems a metaphor for what’s happening inside him; meanwhile, the woman—without being able to suppress a few sobs (because she is a woman)—is feeling half-happy, half-guilty, and thinking she’s doing the stupidest thing she’s ever done in her life, and only an idiot could get back together with a man so difficult and so strange, eccentric is the word, who will never resign himself to accepting the simple, straightforward things of the world, because he will always be suspicious of them, analyzing and interpreting them, in search of hidden meanings and motivations, when all he ends up doing is confusing and tangling up everything.
This is what the woman is thinking, when with surprise, she finds that these kinds of thoughts aren’t very important to her, and when they reach the avenue and the man hails the taxi that happens to be there and the taxi stops in front of them, she finds that they’re even less important, and even less when he kisses her and loves her, while the taxi flies down streets and avenues toward that working class neighborhood that she hasn’t seen in three months but which she knows like the back of her hand.
And while the man, for his part, too, is making discoveries, such as that if literature has been useful to him at all, it is because it shows him the interior of life as if it were an exterior—that is, objectively—, and now it shows him that up until that morning, he had not been able to introduce into his recent adventures the elements of reason, lucidity or judgment; judgment of his own errors and weaknesses, which, in slightly different forms, were also the errors and weaknesses of his character, and among which could be included forgetfulness and carelessness with respect to his obligations toward the surrounding reality—other people’s reality, everyone’s; the reality which he is at this moment watching out the window of the taxi, that whole luminous, contradictory vastness that flows before his eyes in splendor and infamy, and which—because he chose to be a writer of stories—claims him as its spokesman, demanding that he decode it and name it.
This he thinks, along with various internal negotiations and amendments concerned with the woman, and he thinks many other things, pulled as always in the sharp zigzag movements that characterize his ideations and don’t let him linger on a memory or a joy as long as he’d like, but drag him from one side to another, keeping him permanently unsettled inside, which is, more or less, his way of life, his style, which in the future he will somehow have to control, so that what he has been able to rebuild on this day might not fall to pieces again.
The familiar space of the neighborhood encloses them. The taxi stops. They get out. She looks at the old building, at the windows of the apartment on the second floor. He goes to open the building’s front door, but first, turns his head to look around. By chance, he locates the tenuous metallic reflection a few meters away. Leaving the key in the lock, he picks up the now-inoffensive Gillette.
The woman, watching, tells herself it’s crazy to move back in with a man who’s so crazy that he picks up razor blades off the sidewalk and puts them in the breast pocket of his shirt. For his part, he only smiles. Soon enough, he’ll explain it all to her. He doesn’t want to waste time now on confusing explanations. The man has always believed that happiness and sadness, independent of the events that provoke them, are not emotions that can last a long time.
Now, as he ascends the steep wooden staircase, he knows that it’s not worth the trouble to jeopardize his current happiness with useless invocations. He should, instead, seek to benefit from his favorable position. As he will doubtless benefit from the dry season itself. All the signs point to it. The intense wind that blows and whistles under the door, seeming to offer him advice.
The woman at his side who kisses him and loves him. The sudden illumination that has left in his mind the perfect tone that he needs to finish the story he’s writing. And now that the breakthrough has taken place, love will come, and after that, a friendly evening with yellows and scarlets that will smolder in the sky and paint pink and violet on the snowcapped peaks and blue on the green mountains, and after the evening will come the night, which will be brisk and starry, or perhaps with an enormous moon that will light up even the farthest reaches of the Andes, and he will see it all with new eyes, or with the eyes of one who, by a lucky chance, has saved his own life.