A landscape never lies. It’s our perspective that disguises it: what we see is merely a reflection of our frame of mind, making the same place look different every time. A faded sign on the side of the Toledo highway pointed the way into town. It wasn’t a pretty town—in fact, it couldn’t even boast the Romanesque church that all ugly towns seem to have. But it was there on the map and it existed. Its existence was hinted at from a distance, a brownish stain there amid the nothingness, flanked on all sides by vast expanses of golden fields. Eduardo turned up the volume on the radio and lost himself in the music of Miles Davis, as though “Blue in Green” had been composed solely for him to enjoy that carefree moment. The whistling of the melody and the crackle of tobacco burning close to his nose afforded him a sense of wellbeing—and that was more than he managed most of the time. The half-empty bottle of whiskey rolling around under the seat had done the rest. But there’s no way to live inside a song, just as there’s no way to live inside a car that smells of tobacco and has a glove compartment full of expired parking tickets, which he kept forgetting to toss. He cracked the window a few inches and threw out his cigarette butt; then, downshifting, his heart began to pound. On the other side of the highway he took a road that seemed to lead nowhere. The asphalt gradually disappeared under thicker and thicker layers of dust, and after a few yards the road’s surface simply vanished—as though swallowed up by the earth—and turned into a cart path riven with deep potholes. And then that road vanished too. Beyond it was nothing, nothing but a swathe of uncultivated earth from which shrubs sprouted up like cathedrals. Judging by the desiccated furrows and the weeds growing at will, it had been quite some time since anyone had bothered to cultivate the land here. And rounding off this portrait of abandon was an old tractor with a discolored slipscoop, its thick flat tires rutted in the earth. At the edge of the field stood a fence, and beyond that a rambling old house. House and barren field eyed each other indifferently from a distance, forming part of an indivisible unit, like painting and frame. Eduardo closed his eyes. It smelled of countryside. Oh, how smells deceive, how landscapes lie, he said to himself, swallowing spit. He took the bouquet of dahlias from the passenger seat, smoothing the onionskin paper that held them together. They had no smell, and even their color seemed washed out, as if the closer they got to the destination the more fictitious it became. Eduardo struggled out of the car with difficulty and massaged his knee. Night was falling and birds flew close to the ground in search of insects hovering near the surface of the creek, which ran parallel to the access road. A few blackberry bushes were still dripping like sheets hung out to dry, swaying beneath the reddish sky, and peaks of the sierra were visible in the distance. Eduardo made his way down a small incline separating the road from the creek. The place was uninhabited and silent, and after a few yards the creek curved sharply to bypass a reed bed and a large boulder from which the silhouette of Madrid’s suburbs could be seen, far off in the distance. This is where it had all happened. He took off his shoes and deposited them on the shore, then rolled his pants halfway up and stuck his bare feet into the stream’s gentle, freezing waters. The shocking cold made blood rush to his head. Wading a bit further in, until the water was up to his knees, he felt hundreds of minuscule shards of glass pricking his skin, but he managed to withstand it for a few minutes, staring vacantly at the reeds on the other side. He tried to find some vestige of the accident, but found nothing. Nothing, not a chunk of windshield, or a tire track, or a stain—it was as if the earth and stream had simply swallowed up the evidence of what had happened and then kept right on flowing with the calm of centuries. Eduardo cupped some water into his hand and let it dribble out between his fingers. It no longer had the crimson tinge of fourteen years ago. “The only possible radical experience you can count on is death,” he murmured, recalling the words of consolation spoken by a friend at the funeral. There are words of consolation that don’t console, friends who stop being friends. Landscapes that erase all traces of tragedy. Dahlias with no scent, no color. A day like any other day, a single second identical to the one before it, a second that in no way had presaged that it would be the last moment of happiness in his life. It was an absurd thought, but had he known— had he had even an inkling—although he couldn’t have avoided it, he could at least have hugged them tighter, said things that weren’t as pointless and ridiculous and trivial as arguing. There is always something left to be said when there’s no longer any time left to say it. Thunder rumbled, stirring the air, and fat raindrops began to fall, creating expanding ripples around him. Some drops bounced like rubber balls off the shoulders of his coat, others slid down his forehead and onto his cheeks. It was getting late and he’d gone too many miles out of his way. He had to go back. There was no place for him to go—that was certainly the truth—but he couldn’t stay here any longer. “I have to get back,” he said to himself as he dried the tears forming in his red eyes. Sometimes people only weep their sorrows on the inside. He dropped the bouquet of dahlias, the flowers Elena had loved so much, and for a few minutes stood and gazed at the stream as it swallowed them up. Then he returned to the car and drove away without looking back.
Six months earlier, January 2005.
Eduardo walked over to the window. The playground on the other side of the street was deserted: it was odd, to see swings swinging with no children, wet wooden benches with no grandparents, puddles in the sand with nobody splashing through them. Rainy days only accentuated his conviction that an insurmountable distance separated him from the things that seemed to matter to others. And nothing could diminish that feeling. He turned his head back to the inside of the office:
Formica shelves, overflowing fi ling cabinets, forensic medical texts. In one corner a ceramic pot with a moribund geranium. He closed his eyes. On opening them, Martina was still sitting there behind her desk with an inscrutable expression. Her face could be deceptive, looking sweet or fragile. You felt an immediate fondness for her smile—but Martina seldom smiled. The light cast from a desk lamp softened the severity of her pursed lips.
“Are you planning to write down everything I say?”
She nodded, crossing her arms.
“That’s what the pen and pad are for.”
“Why don’t you just sign the report, write me out a prescription, and we’ll part amicably? We both know these little chats are a waste of time, Doctor.”
Martina pushed up the bridge of her glasses. The pen between her fingers trembled imperceptibly. What kind of perfume was she wearing? There was definitely something citrusy to it, very understated. Certainly not the type of fragrance that revealed anything about her.
“I disagree entirely. Personally, I actually care—quite a bit, in fact—about what we do here.”
Eduardo knew she was lying. In order to lie convincingly, the first thing you have to learn is how to
control your facial expressions, and not everyone can do it: the doctor’s eyes betrayed a look of skepticism. She didn’t like him. A simple question of empathy. Their relationship had been tense from the start; they were like an ill-disposed couple forced to spend a few hours together each month without arguing, and during which time they both behaved fittingly. He stroked the table’s smooth surface, tracing the imaginary course of a winding river in the thin layer of dust.
“All right, then. What do you want me to tell you this time?”
Martina zeroed in for a moment on the scars on his wrists. Noting this, Eduardo tugged at the cuffs of his shirt, hiding them.
“How’re you adapting to everyday life?” the doctor queried, not straying from the script.
“Everyday life”—now there’s an expression, Eduardo thought. For him, death was a matter of slowly breaking the habit of life.
“I’m living in an apartment building on Calle San Bernardo, the rent’s cheap, and the landlady is a good woman. She doesn’t ask questions. I’m doing a few commissioned portraits I got through Olga, earning enough to get by. So, not bad, I guess.”
“And what about your feelings?”
“My feelings are where they need to be, don’t you fret.”
“And where is that?”
“In a safe place.”
Martina made a note and then laced her fingers on top of the notepad, staring at him in curiosity. Possibly feigned, possibly genuine.
“And what about your nightmares?”
Eduardo pressed his thumbs into his eyelids.
“Listen, Doc, are you seriously planning on keeping this up?”
“Why don’t you tell me what your dreams are about?” Martina insisted. Eduardo gestured vaguely.
“I don’t know, they’re all different.”
“Tell me about the most recent one.”
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin.”
“At the beginning.”
Dreams have no beginning and no end, Eduardo thought. In his, there was a boy in the rain. His face was blurry, like the sketch for a portrait that’s been smudged with a damp sponge that makes the colors and shapes run. Maybe seven or eight years old. He was on a muddy road, barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a frayed pair of trousers. You could see his ribcage sticking out beneath
dirty skin and a network of veins running like the branches of a tree from his legs to his neck. They
were all throbbing at once, an underground river of magma, and the boy was looking up at the top of a hill, anticipating something that was about to happen, from one moment to the next. From the fog emerged a man—running, stricken with panic. He was being chased by two huge, slobbering mastiffs with spiked collars and yellow in their eyes. The man ran, turning to look back, and even though he was taking great long strides, the dogs were gaining on him. They’d catch him at any moment. Finally, after racing desperately down the hill, the man stopped and spread his arms, as though he could do nothing else—or perhaps he was tired of fleeing. That was his way of saying he had given up, he wasn’t going anywhere. The dogs, surprised maybe, slowed their pace and advanced like prowlers. They growled at him, baring their teeth. The man and the beasts took measure of each other from just a few yards’ distance, and then the dogs’ instincts sprang into action—all at once they leaped on him, and he simply held his hands up like a useless shield that might somehow fend off their attack. The force of impact knocked him to the ground and the dogs launched into a frenzy of carnage—jaws, snapping bones, flailing legs, screaming. Within a few seconds he’d been torn to shreds, but was still breathing. A stream of blood spurted from his mouth, glistening in the rain. The man looked up at the sky and, although he was dying, he smiled benevolently; he reached out a hand and spread his fingers, before clenching them into a fist. Not a threatening fist, but morean attempt to grasp at the air, to use it to keep breathing.
Satisfied? Can I have my prescription now?”
“How do you interpret that, Eduardo?”
“You’re the expert, that’s what it says there on your diploma. I’m just the guinea pig.”
Martina glanced discreetly at the clock. Five more minutes till the end of the session, and thankfully her next patient was already in the waiting room. She was grateful to be getting rid of the guy. Eduardo made her exceedingly uncomfortable. Scribbling out the prescriptions with administrative
efficiency, Martina adopted a neutral tone, warning him not to drink too much on Risperdal. Eduardo made no comment, but the doctor caught a glimpse of something troubling in his eyes. Sometimes Eduardo’s expressions were like a fist punching her right in the pit of her stomach.
“That’s it for today. See you next month.”
“Maybe. Good afternoon, Doctor.”
Through the window, Martina watched him cross the street, limping on his right leg.
“I should have chosen another goddamned line of work,” she said under her breath. Returning to her desk, she glanced over the notes she’d taken, gently biting her lower lip, struggling for the necessary calm to order her thoughts. With a firm hand, she wrote:
Eduardo Quintana, seventh follow-up. After eight months the patient continues to exhibit the same symptoms: anxiety, denial, self-destructive thoughts. Conclusion: unstable.