Translated by: Catherine Nelson
Artwork by Sarah H. Robertson
Her brother called to give her the news. As soon as they’d hung up, Sesi called her father’s cell. No one answered. She returned two dresses to their hangers and grabbed the one hanging next to them, a dark, sleeveless dress with a deep décolletage; the same dress displayed on the mannequin in the window. Without removing the tag, she put it in her purse; she was ready to go. Earlier, she had arranged to meet Pablo after work that evening, just to talk, but before leaving home, she had gathered a few articles of clothing, lingerie, and her toothbrush, just in case. They would do. She set the alarm and locked the door. She greeted some of the clerks from the other shops on Madrid’s Calle Piamonte who also were closing up and headed out to lunch. She excused herself, explaining she didn’t have time, and hurried away. She then went to the metro station. Once at the airport, she was severely tested by the airline agents, who seemed to have never before dealt with a traveler wanting to purchase a ticket at the counter.
The seat next to her was empty; the aisle seat was occupied by a foreign woman who was engrossed in a celebrity magazine, studying the pages like the information was worthy of memorization. They passed through some turbulence, but Sesi didn’t notice, not even when a soft drink can came rolling up from the row behind her. She spent the flight besieged by a series of disjointed images—from her childhood, of family members, of places she’d been, of things people had told her. When she disembarked in Barcelona, the fresh air, in which the memories were less concentrated, was a relief, despite the heat and humidity.
She was waiting her turn for a taxi when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She turned; it was Raúl. He had gained some weight and even looked a little taller, though that seemed unlikely. He smiled and seemed genuinely happy to see her.
“Raúl!” she said, eyes wide in surprise. “It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, it has,” Raúl kept smiling and nodding. He was wearing jeans and a shirt, and looked fit and happy. “How are you? How’s life?”
“Well,” Sesi moved forward, keeping her place in line, and motioned for Raúl to follow her. “I don’t get to Barcelona very often. I’m still living in Madrid. You?”
“I’m still living in Barcelona and don’t get to Madrid very often. I travel quite a bit for work, but not there.” Raúl held up his small suitcase, “I just got back from Málaga.”
Sesi smiled at him warmly. She couldn’t think of anything to say.
“I started specializing in animal anesthesia a while ago, and now that’s about all I do. Horses, mostly.”
“That must be better than working with people.”
Raúl smiled, though he knew full well that Sesi had no sense of humor and she had meant it literally. She advanced a few more steps, and he paused a few seconds before he spoke again.
“So what brings you here?”
Sesi also paused before answering.
“My father died this morning. He had a heart attack while eating breakfast.”
“Oh! I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know.”
“It’s OK,” Sesi said and sighed. “Thank you.”
Raúl swallowed. They continued to move forward, the line had found its rhythm. He, too, found himself shaken by images of things that had happened long ago, things he did not often think about.
“It’s good we ran into each other,” she said, looking down at the ground. “Instead of you hearing about it on the news. My cell phone got stolen and I have a new number. It would have been hard for you to find me.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” he replied. As soon as he said it he felt like a jerk. His response did not sound very kind, and seemed completely void of affection or sympathy. But she didn’t seem to notice; she was still focused on how quickly the other travelers were being dispersed among the vehicles, and may not have even heard him.
Observing her profile, it looked like Sesi had matured. Not that she looked older, but she had lost that childish air that she had about her even after college. Even then had she had not been what you would call pretty, but her face had a certain magnetic quality and was not easily forgotten. Now her features were more pronounced, the skin under her eyes darker and bluer. Her chin-length hair was the same, though. Her clothing too: colourful, casual, and expensive.
“I’m really happy to see you, despite the circumstances.” When it was just about her turn, Sesi took Raúl’s hand and squeezed it. “But I don’t have any time to stay and talk. I need to shower before going to the funeral home.”
He released her hand so he could open the door for her. As Sesi settled into the seat, Raúl said he would like to ride with her, lowering his voice to an almost inaudible level.
“If you don’t mind.”
Sesi looked at him and shrugged her shoulders.
“Where are you going?”
He quickly went around the back of the taxi to get in on the other side before the other drivers started honking.
“It doesn’t matter.”
They greeted the driver and he looked at them inquisitively through the rear-view mirror. Raúl was the one to tell him they were going to Calle Princesa. He looked at Sesi for affirmation, but she wasn’t paying attention. She was staring out the clear, recently washed window, and maintained her silence throughout the drive. As they passed by Hospitalet, Raúl assured himself that once they reached Barcelona proper, their conversation would resume. But when they finally entered the city, he opened his mouth only to close it again, realizing that nothing worthwhile would come out of it. “Damn cars,” the driver muttered for him.
“Life goes by so fast, yet so slowly.” They had just turned on to Vía Laietana, and she stretched and yawned. “Don’t you think?”
They got out in front of a late 19th-century eclectic building with gothic elements. Looking up from the sidewalk, Raúl observed again how the balconies of each apartment were unique, differing slightly from those of every other apartment. Before getting out of the taxi, Sesi had thanked him for wanting to stay with her, but she did not allow him to carry her bag.
They were able enter the building without needing to ring a neighbor since there was a truck from one of the large department stores parked outside, making a delivery. Raúl noticed that the entry had been remodeled, though it still had the antique feel of the dark wood and mirrors. The completely modern elevators, however, were so white they shone. Sesi remarked that when she was young she had learned to push the button for her floor by feeling the Braille signs, and she tried it now, reliving that playful past. A few moments later, once they crossed the threshold of the door, with the help of the key that her brother had left under the mat, her somber demeanor returned.
It had been six years since Raúl had been inside that home—the same amount of time that had passed since Sesi and he had broken off their relationship, the same amount of time that had passed since they had seen each other. When he opened the first door on the left and entered the living room, he felt something similar to what he had felt when he ran into her at the airport: that childlike bewilderment one feels when faced with the passage of time. The paneling had yellowed. There was a pile of newspapers and magazines on the wood floor, like before, and an abundance of ashtrays and books.
Sesi had spent a few days here last Christmas, but maybe it was what the details of the house now suggested that made her notice changes, oddities, and signs of tragedy among the furnishings. The piano was open; there was a wet towel on a chair.
“The breakfast dishes are still on the table,” she murmured, looking into the kitchen from the hallway.
Resting on the tablecloth were a plate with bread crusts and a battery-operated radio. A faint, pale light filtered in from the neighbor’s patio.
They walked down the hallway, not entering any rooms until reaching Sesi’s. She motioned for him to go in first.
“It’s exactly the same!”
“Well, I left Barcelona the day after we said goodbye,” Sesi smiled, behind him. “So, I guess you could say the room is just as we left it.”
There were two beds, a table, and several shelves full of videotapes, photo albums, and notebooks. The shelves were mounted on the wall, and Raúl thought about how he had always been afraid one would fall on them. He had spent endless hours in this bedroom with Sesi during those years when her progressive family had provided a place for them to be together.
Raúl turned and they looked at each other intently. When they were dating, from when they were 19 to 25, Sesi was always eager, impulsive, capricious, energetic, and sexy. But she was not as intelligent as she appeared, or as cultured—although hardly anyone noticed because she surrounded herself with well-educated men. He wondered how many of those qualities she still possessed and how many new ones she had assumed. Sesi had always been heavily influenced by those who appeared in her life, and she drew from others to create her persona much more than she was aware, and undoubtedly much more than she would have liked.
“Damn, Sesi. I loved you so much.”
Her brow furrowed, she looked at him inquisitively. Then she pushed him, gently, toward one of the beds, and sat on the other one.
“Do you really mean that, or are you just saying it like you said so many things?
During the final months they were dating, their relationship had deteriorated and they ended up saying things with the exact opposite meaning of what anyone listening would have thought they meant. One night on the phone, both had assured the other that they each preferred to sleep in their own respective homes. Yet a few hours later they came face to face with each other at a crowded concert.
“I really mean it.”
Sesi rested the palms of her hands on the bed and stretched her back, ignoring his comment.
“Are you married?”
Raúl arched his back too.
“No, but I’ve been living with someone for a couple years. She’s a little older and wants to have kids.” Raúl scratched his nose. “Maybe it’s time.”
“I hope your children are better behaved than we were,” she said with a melancholy smile.
Raúl suddenly remembered that Marcos Julián, Sesi’s father, had just died. Tonight the news anchor would mourn his passing and on Saturday, they would show one of his movies. Raúl had only seen a few of them. Most were from decades ago. In his opinion, they had not withstood the test of time and portrayed a Spain that was no longer even recognizable.
Much in the same way, Raúl had never been able to come to a definitive understanding of the off-screen Marcos Julián. Although he knew her father was an integral part of Sesi, like an arm, a mole, or an uncontrollable tic, the two of them did not get along well. And although Raúl did not feed the antagonism, he also did nothing to counter it. Her father’s personality made any interaction extremely difficult. It was not that he was a bad person, but he wove heavy, intricate webs around the people in his life. One time he had come home after shooting a commercial. It had been years since he’d made a movie; by that time he dedicated himself solely to the theatre. He did not greet them when he came in. He sat down in a chair with a drink in his hand and, when his daughter came in to ask to borrow the car to go to the beach, Marcos Julián indolently turned his head toward her and simply said no. There was no way to get him to change his mind. Sesi broke into angry tears that day. A few months later, Raúl saw the TV commercial, which was for a fruit juice, and then had been a little more understanding of Marcos Julián’s bad mood that day. In contrast, there was a time when Marcos Julián had brought home a big, fancy aquarium with twenty different kinds of fish. It was for Sesi, who was turning twenty, and she went crazy with delight. With great ceremony they cleared off a table in the family room and made a spot for the aquarium where it could be admired from every angle. A month or so later, for no apparent reason, a couple of the fish died, followed soon after by most of the others. Despite the fact that Sesi was already heartbroken, her father viciously reproached her for having neglected them and forbade her from bringing any more into the house.
“And you?” Raúl had just passed a hand across the back of his neck and noticed his hair was damp on the ends. With the oppressive heat, he would have liked to strip down to his boxers. “Are you married?”
“No. I’ve had two or three boyfriends, but no one who really suited me.”
It seemed that Sesi, staring at the wall, did not feel the same suffocating heat. She was wearing a t-shirt and wide-legged plaid trousers. Yet, before Raúl could say anything, she got up.
“I’ll get us some water.”
She left the room, her hips swaying, her back straight. Raúl had already assumed she was not married, despite how easy it was to fall in love with her. Now that he himself had begun to think about it, he had come to realize that marriage was like a building that required solid materials. One of the materials was love, of course; but love alone was not enough. And the amorous Sesi was more like a tree planted in the garden of marriage, belonging around the edges. When men got close to her branches, they could see how the wind passed right through the gaps.
“I gave them more attention than I should have,” she told him as she returned with a tray in her hands. She rested it on the night table and held out a glass to Raúl before going back to sit on the bed. “And you know why? Because I was bored with work. I needed a distraction, an outlet.”
Raúl downed the water in his glass and refilled it from the bottle. As he was doing so, he looked at Sesi and nodded, so she would not think he was not giving her the attention she deserved.
“But I’m going to change that,” she continued. In contrast, she did not look at him and may very well have been talking to herself. “I’ve decided I’m going to keep my distance from men for a while and start over with my career. I need to look for something new, begin a new chapter.”
“What are you doing now?”
Sesi sighed and stretched her back again. Her previous determination seemed to have disappeared. She looked smaller.
“When I got to Madrid I looked around and ended up working at a boutique. It’s very exclusive. A lot of well-known actresses shop there.”
Raúl made a face.
“That doesn’t sound so horrible.”
Sesi also made a face.
“You would think. But I work way too many hours. The actresses are easy clients, they’re good to me and they confide in me. But it bothers me that they think I’m the owner. Because I’m not; the truth is I barely make enough to get by.
Sesi had spent her whole life complaining, though Raúl remembered her as being happy. But her family made her mad, her professors, the cold, her broken high heels, the metro that made her wait, him. At that moment a wave of tenderness passed over him and he got up and went to sit on the bed with her. Sesi did not protest, but she lowered her eyes.
“And is there something you would like to do?”
She shook her head no, and then smiled, as if embarrassed.
“But it’ll come to me. I just have to refocus.”
“Of course,” Raúl caressed her hair, and tucked it behind her ear.
“It’s easy for you,” Sesi said suddenly, reverting to what sounded like complaining. “If you study veterinary medicine, you become a veterinarian. But if you study languages you’re nothing, you’re just…whatever.”
“I’ve spent my whole life rebelling against authority,” she went on, “and now, sometimes I wish someone could just tell me what to do and save me from having to decide everything myself.”
Sesi looked him in the eye.
“Of course I don’t mean a boyfriend. Maybe I need a father.”
Raúl hugged her, first gently and then firmly, until each of them could feel each other’s heartbeat. It was a simple and serene gesture that gave them both a sense of peace. Years ago there had been so many people who got between them, but now neither of them was thinking about that.
A few minutes later Sesi gently removed herself from his embrace.
“It’s getting late,” she said.
While she was showering, Raúl looked through the videotapes on the shelves. It was fun to see some of the titles; he’d already gotten rid of all his things like that. In making the move to live with Gloria, they had combined their CD and DVD collections. His past—the cassette tapes and vinyl records—had been discarded somewhere along the way.
Gloria was a tall, energetic blonde. A little plump. She had an extraordinary combination of practicality and imagination; she was smart and capable. Moreover, she had the ability, and patience, to share her wisdom with others. She didn’t take things too seriously. Raúl thought that those virtues came from the the fact that her mother had left home when Gloria was a teenager, which meant she assumed responsibility for her younger brother and sister. She deserved a lot of credit. He admired her, he loved her. Gloria could simplify the most complex problems. She loved to apply common sayings to the circumstance and she developed her own theories that she used to explain the mysteries of life to those around her. One of her philosophies was that of the sum and the remainder. According to Gloria, a lot of people evaluated their lives like a subtraction problem: the result was what remained after taking away all that they would never achieve. But she thought life should be looked at like addition, as the sum of all that has been accomplished. The two results are never the same; the sum is always greater.
He was about to explain this to Sesi when she returned, but decided to keep quiet. Raúl was lying on the bed; she looked and him and did not say anything either.
She wore a towel wrapped around her head and another around her body. Sesi had the most beautiful shoulders he had ever seen. The rest of her body was long, thin, and smooth. She turned her back to him and took the dress out of her purse.
“After we broke up,” Raúl said, “I swore I’d never go dress shopping with a girl again.”
Sesi smiled, but did not turn around to share her response. She was trying to pull the tag off the dress without ripping the fabric, since she had no idea where the scissors were. When she finally got it off, she removed the towel from her head and shook out her hair. A little water fell on Raúl and the droplets on his skin were refreshing.
She took some black panties out of her purse and put them on. She tried getting the dress on without removing the towel she had clutched to her chest. It was tricky since the dress did not fit over the towel.
She continued trying and did not respond.
“Sesi,” Raúl insisted. “You don’t want me to see you naked?”
She gave up and pulled the dress back off over her head.
“Honestly, no,” she said. She was in the middle of the room, her face showing her consternation. Somewhere in the apartment a telephone rang.
“I’ll leave the room, OK?” Raúl moved awkwardly toward the door. He was suddenly nervous. “I’ll wait out there.”
Before turning the doorknob and leaving the room, however, he turned and looked at her for a few seconds. She returned his gaze.
“It’s too bad, isn’t it?” he said.
“Yes,” she agreed.
Neither of them was sorry that the desire they had once felt for each other was gone: all things considered, that was a relief. But the attack of modesty between them was both mysterious and mournful.
Once Raúl closed the door Sesi dressed quickly, then took a few moments to sit on the bed before leaving the room. She felt lightheaded and drank some water as she heard again, in the distance, the ringing of the telephone. Maybe the vertigo was due to the unforgiving summer heat, or maybe to the fact that Sesi had not eaten that afternoon.
Or maybe it was because she could not stop thinking about all the things that had died within her, and yet she continued to live. About the great number of things that died every day that people forgot to bury.
Irene Jiménez (Murcia, 1977) has been recognized as one of the significant voices in contemporary Spanish short fiction and appears in various anthologies. She is the author of four books of short stories, including La suma y la resta (2011), from which the present story “Sesi” is taken.
Catherine Nelson is Associate Professor of Spanish at Nebraska Wesleyan University. Her short story translations have appeared in Indiana Review, InTranslation, and MAYDAY Magazine, among others.