For Rodrigo Cortés
If you press me to say why I loved him,
I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I.
—Michel de Montaigne
Cormac and me were inseparable. Cormac’s film-star looks; tall, his fledgling moustache; me a mouldy, soulful melancholic sort; baby faced, short. Cormac with his top of the range Nike school bag; me with my bag on wheels so as to avoid future back problems. Sherlock and Watson in school. Bonnie and Clyde in class. Jekyll and Hyde on the streets. Cormac the prophet, Cormac the king of the ball. Cormac the leader, the confessor, the Argonaut; Cormac’s bright future. Cormac the mathematician, the ornithologist; Brother Cormac, the Professor of song, the saxophonist, the bold. Cormac, Laura’s boyfriend.
I, on the other hand, had no attributes, no distinctive features, I was the squire sat with his face resting in his hands, the virgin, devotee of the little religious pictures of the saints his grandmother saved for him and no one’s boyfriend. Well, maybe someone’s, but not boyfriend, more a slave: Loulou’s slave. Ah, Loulou, this hurts, in retrospect; the chocolate milkshakes that we had together. The four of us in the park, that hurts too, those two playing around while we looked at the stains on each other’s lips; Cormac and Laura’s needy hands seeking each other out and ours showing their innocence among the weeds. The sudden appearance of toads. The groans from the bushes hurt while I tried to read, with epic feeling, poems to your snores. Loulou, the girl who sleeps in the grass, the effigy, the administrative edification. Me, the lost bureaucrat, the merchant with nothing to sell.
My shortcomings compared to Cormac were set one Easter Week in the ‘90s, we had barely turned eleven. He said —We’re going to do a test. And I said —What test? He said —The test is to see who can keep their arm raised the longest. He raised his arm like someone asking a question in class and said —Like this. —Okay, I said, and I raised my arm. We walked through the city with our arms raised like the pantographs of an electric motor, we crossed the main square, we had a coke on the terrace and we ran across the Roman Bridge.
Time passed. Cormac and his arm raised. Me and my arm raised. And so we were equals, partners in a strange affair that reached for the higher attributes of resistance. We walked with our arms raised under the sun and under the rain we walked as it fell heavily on our raised arms. There was lightning and the sudden fear that our arms would attract it.
I remember Cormac’s wet and brilliant face and his arm held high, taking the lead, between the drizzle and the dust and humidity, I remember the beginnings of pain in my shoulder and the first cramps and Cormac out in front, firm, strong, incorruptible, and a sudden uneasiness. I remember the Cathedral was on our right when I said to him—I almost had to shout it,—Cormac, I can’t take any more! Cormac, I’m tired! And him up ahead, marching under the pointed arches with his arm raised, getting lost among the soutaned seminarians and shouting back to me, —Yes, you can! You must resist! God is watching you!
But God wasn’t watching me. God doesn’t keep an eye on the stragglers and the whingers. God doesn’t grant his compassion to the fainthearted who moan about a raised arm.
I slowed down, I began to falter by the altar steps and I finally surrendered by the baptismal font. My arm plunged into the holy water and that’s when I saw Cormac: running toward the apse like an Olympic torch bearer, superior in so many ways, gifted with the talent of keeping his arm raised; the symbol of all the gifts that would eventually embody Cormac. Cormac the lauded, Cormac the star, Cormac in whirlwind affairs with Nicole Kidman in America, the gleaming Ferraris, the caviar from the Black Sea all foreshadowed now in that little boy’s mouth, in that Cathedral, before the God who had seen me give in too soon from cramps and desperation and relief and repentance for the relief.
I don’t know what he saw in me, but he made me his faithful companion. Like a true gentleman, he didn’t ridicule me for being his squire. He protected me, he spoke for me when I was dumb, he made me play his games, he shared his stickers with me and his future plans.
My talent, perhaps, was knowing how to listen. My talent, perhaps, was knowing how to love without constraint. My gift was the gift of sensitivity. The doctor, while examining me, moved aside and said —Your heart beats faster when I listen to it. Your heart is an excessive machine that will bring you to your end or to the vain dream of poetry.
Laura and Loulou were an equivalent pair. Laura and her curls and swaggering hips; Loulou with freckles and Bram Stoker books under her arm; Laura with the linguist’s body; studious Loulou with the nunnish turn.
Cormac left me with Loulou to go play with Laura. I sat silently on the park bench with Loulou. She, for her part, sat silently too. Since I hadn’t read Bram Stoker, I couldn’t talk to her about Bram Stoker. I searched for something to talk about in the fallen leaves floating by on the river, in the industrious insects preparing for the winter. I held out my open palm and showed her an ant and Loulou looked at it closely and then looked at me as if to say —What do you want to tell me with this ant? What is there of you in this ant that you show me with your messenger’s devotion? Oh, Loulou, the terrible fate of metaphors. Because, think about those two, with no introductions, no prefaces, no footnotes, scattered about, rolling about the grass like little mechanisms of anatomic clockwork, the ant mute in the palm of my hand and in the background their slobbering smack of kisses. The knowledge of the soul gleaned from experience, I get that now, no speculation, no contemplation, waiting for nothing Loulou. Or maybe it’s that desire is sown in the gesture and not in the word or in silence. Or, even simpler, you didn’t like me then, you liked nothing more than vampire novels and you dreamt, at the back of it all, of an all-powerful Cormac with his arm raised who would suck your blood without asking and not of the mouldy clown who stupidly showed you a lost ant in the palm of his hand.
Slavery is forged in the relapse. I began to depend on Cormac and I began to depend on Loulou.
The tests were incessant.—Let’s see who can last the longest round the track, said Cormac, —Let’s see who can memorise the most decimal places of pi, said Cormac. Through my defeats, Cormac’s personality, design and strength was fortified. On the other hand, he protected me from my faintheartedness, he included me, he invited me over, he brought me out, he gave me prophetic advice. You can’t have a good leader without a good secretary. You can’t have a secretary without an obliging leader. Through Loulou’s continued silence however, and the constant lack of proof, the absence of words and moves, my troubadour’s love of Loulou was fortified, my idea of a perfect Loulou. And she began to appear in my dreams transformed into a Romanian Princess or an air hostess on an intercontinental flight to the Antarctic, to the black ice, my nightmare, her petrified lips an inch from mine; Tantalus, in comic version.
One morning Cormac told me to meet him at the riverbank. It was barely dawn; the beavers were leaving their nests, the council sweepers had stopped for breakfast in the donut shop. He suggested a new game, proof that his personality was shaping a vocation for the eccentric and bizarre, into the realm of special effects.
—Salivator, he said.
—Salivator? I answered.
—It’s a version of Terminator but for the people, he said. Salivator.
—Salivator, I repeated.
—That’s it, Salivator, we collect saliva in our mouths for the whole day and the first one to swallow, loses. What do you think?
—What’s the point?
—Easy, he said, at the end of the day, with our mouths full of slime, if we don’t swallow it, we’ll launch an attack on the mayor’s car.
And so our child’s play turned to grown up games; the righteous, moral component, the mythomania with just a little room for aesthetic pretension.
—The hawkers, slobber devils, two boys identified by their bloated mouths on the cusp of the attack, said Cormac.
The dream of being a superhero that no adolescent escapes. And a revolutionary mission; the overthrow of the mayor, Mr Lanzarote, or at least his car.
—We will be the silent police, the judges, justice dealers with aquatic weaponry.
And I remembered: yet at the same time we’ll be competing again, Cormac and his inept disciple, me, the funny support actor of the comedies with his one-liners and buffoonery.
That life is a fiction is an acceptable choice. The problem lies in the unequal distribution of the parts. To be Hamlet or to be resigned to the role of pathetic Polonius behind the curtains.
It’s difficult to accumulate saliva and not swallow it. And there lies the challenge. First we rubbed our tongues against our palates to create the illusion of hunger that is going to be satisfied. Although it is better to stand at the cake shop window and think with your avaricious eyes of those luscious creams, rushing river water also works. The saliva began to come on its own into our mouths. Moving it around creates more phlegm. Throat mucus adds consistency; it has presence and flavour. Little by little a uniform mass is created that the throat tries to swallow, and there’s the fight, between the tongue and the throat, between the primordial impulses and the will to repress them.
We looked at one another with complicit and evil eyes. Complicit because the end of the game would be our first attempt at revolution, and evil because, behind it all was the test of our own resistance. And there was Cormac with his cheeks ballooning, and his wild hair by the river—a sort of philosopher of the spit with his hands on his hip; I remember it well, it’s practically the most vivid memory I have of him, a painting by Friedrich, and that memory sends me back to the memory of my tongue moving desperately between my teeth and my gums to collect quickly as possible the necessary saliva.
Like a military move, Cormac pointed to the street where the diocese was. We passed by the Cathedral through the cloisters. Because of our disfigured faces, the nuns stood out of our way invoking God and all his archangels. We passed the English department and down the street till we reached the main plaza. There were families from the provinces with shotguns resting on their shoulders, ready to head for the woods for the Sunday hunt of hares and starlings. I remember it didn’t take long to fill our mouths with saliva, and all the accumulation soon began to feel heavy, when there was still a long way to go to the mayor’s house. Cormac took the lead decisively and now I couldn’t see his face. But I could feel mine, the disgust tattooed across it and my cheeks full of sorrow. I wanted to swallow, for God’s sake, I wanted to swallow all that waste in my mouth. Surely Cormac must have felt the same? Maybe he, once again, was immune to panic and surrender? It was hard following in his steps along the street where the diocese was, and when we came to the plaza I began to feel suspicious movements in the pit of my stomach. A heaving. I couldn’t take it anymore. But why suffer once more the humiliation of defeat? Why surrender? Why not aspire for victory, even for something as small as this? I quickened my steps, convinced, resolved for once not to surrender to the masked pleasure of failure.
And that’s when we saw them, Laura and Loulou walking into the plaza right at that moment, from the far side. Laura saw us and waved frantically and Loulou prudently creased her forehead and snorted. We met in the exact centre of the quadrilateral. A cheap western. They were a little disconcerted seeing our disfigured faces, flushed, our cheeks bulging with violet intravenous lines mapped across them. —What’s up with you two? asked Laura as Loulou silently stood and looked suspiciously at me. We didn’t answer, the saliva pushed to leave or be swallowed. —Cormac, said Laura, what’s up with you? Cormac shrugged his shoulders and let out onomatopoeic grunts with his mouth closed, trying to shy away from Laura, —Mmm, mmmm, —What? said Laura, would you like to do me the favour of talking like a normal person? And Loulou looked at me, —Mmm, mmmm. —What? What’s in your mouth? Talk to me, Cormac! Cormac! The hysteria of lovers that demand answers, the apprehension, the suspicion, the sudden jealousy in the face of silence. —Mmm, mmmm, —What are you saying? I can’t understand you! she repeated, closing in on Cormac. Loulou looked at me. —Talk to me! Say something! What stupid games are you playing now? Open your mouth! Childish slaps. —Stop being such an idiot! Come on Cormac! Kiss me, give me a kiss… and then it happened, all over her, the superior sputter, the tribal baptism of lovers. And there she stood, impregnated in a definitive and complete way by another of Cormac’s talents.
And in that moment, my dearest Loulou and I looked at each other, satisfied, redeemed in some way, and I swallowed with little movements of my throat and I remembered the day when I showed with no words, but correctly, a lonely ant that had ended up in the palm of my hand.
Metaphors take a while to be understood, and at times they’re not enough for what you want to say.
—Translated from the Spanish by Keith Payne