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Fiction by Juan José Millás
Translated from the Spanish by
Peter Robertson
 
Music by Guthrie Lowe
 
'two of something' © 2007 Peter Schwartz
To See Them Again

One day, in the elevator, my neighbor's son called me "Dad". His mother is a divorcee, and the two of them live in the flat next to mine. At night, his mother tells her son stories that I am privy to, listening through my kitchen vent. My kitchen is American in style and gives directly onto my living-room, where I have a sofa-bed. I have turned my bedroom into a workshop and there, in my free time, I scrape together a few coins repairing hair-dryers, irons and toasters. Given that I don't have any offspring, I was taken aback when the child called me his father.

"But I'm not your father."

His mother remonstrated, "Don't take what he says to heart, he calls all men his father".

That night, sitting next to the vent, I heard my neighbor tell her son a story about a man who, having abandoned his family, decided nonetheless to set up home in the next-door flat. From this vantage point, he could watch his son grow up while protecting his former wife from burglars who kept on trying to break in. Her son insisted that she give more details of this man, and his mother went on to give a blow-by-blow description, with which I could identify. I insist that paranoia is not one of the most salient features of my personality, but there can't be that many people around who don't have a right ear-lobe. I lost mine as a boy, bitten by a hooligan in the school playground.

The next day the three of us bumped into each other again in the elevator. The boy moved right up to me so as to take a close look at my ear-lobe, which I always try to keep covered with hair--some years ago, I started growing my hair long in order to hide the amputation. Conscious that the boy was staring at me, I became so rattled that I snapped, "Stop looking at me like that, my boy".

The mother and her son exchanged such a look of complicity that I realized it would be futile to attempt to give any further explanations. Everyone knows that the expression "my boy" is not to be taken literally. Later that evening, I was soldering the cables of an electric iron when the doorbell rang, and I went to open the door. I went exactly as I was, with my hair tied up in a pony-tail, as I don't like stray hairs getting into my eyes when I am working. It transpired that my neighbor and her son had come to see me, as their hair-dryer was broken and they wondered if I might be able to repair it. Without so much as a by-your-leave, they started to scrutinize my ear-lobe, or rather the lack of it, with an expression of triumph I found unnerving. As they were leaving, the woman asked me, as a parting shot, if my lack of an ear-lobe was congenital. Hardly wanting to dwell on my affliction, I said grudgingly: "No, it happened to me at school, where I was bitten by another boy".

That night, my would-be son asked his mother to recount the same story she had told him the evening before. This time she embellished her narrative with details of the fight in the school playground.

"And after the other boy had bitten off the ear-lobe, what did he do with it?"

"He swallowed it by mistake, some lobules erupted all over his body and he died on the spot."

By now the story was getting so fantastical that I went up to the vent and expostulated that every single word she had uttered was a lie.

"If you're so sure about that, then you tell us what happened," the woman yelled from the other side of the grating.

"The truth is that when I got to the hospital they tried to stick my ear-lobe back on, but it was a waste of time. By the time we got there, too much precious time had been lost. It would have been entirely different if the school had conserved my ear-lobe in ice."

I heard her son ask me, "So what happened to the other boy?"

"He died of diphtheria," I hazarded, praying that he wouldn't bother to ask me the meaning of diphtheria, as I didn't have a clue.

The woman pronounced emphatically, "It doesn't matter what he died of. The only thing that matters is that he died".

"Good night, Dad," the boy said.

"Good night", I replied. I had reached the point where I was starting to feel disorientated, and I got into bed with tears in my eyes, at a loss to understand what had engendered such a groundswell of emotion.

The next day, I left home to buy an appliance for my neighbor's hair-dryer. Returning, I saw that she was putting the few possessions she had into a removal van. I went straight up to her and asked why, all of a sudden, she had decided to move.

"If you must know the truth, it's because I'm sick and tired of you spying, from morning to night, on both me and your son. If you must abandon us, at least have the decency to let us get on with our own lives."

She was so beside herself with rage that she seemed oblivious to the fact that the porter and some neighbors were looking on. I, for my part, was mortified by her outburst and entered the building. By the time I went downstairs, to give her the hair-dryer, she had gone. Lately, I have not been able to sleep at night, from wondering what has become of them, and I would give all I have to see them again.

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last update: June 25, 2007