One afternoon, indistinguishable from any other, the phone rang. I hesitated, the ring sounded hostile, an intrusion on my privacy. I looked at the telephone: a haunted object. I let it ring, allowing the empty moment to stretch on indefinitely. Then there was silence.
I found myself standing paralysed next to a window that looked out onto a quiet street. The grey sky seethed with dense clouds. A few exhausted men were wandering the streets, leaning on walls, on the shutters of closed businesses and cracked shop windows. In the suburbs, every man could be taken for a beggar: the way they walked, their clothes, their physical defects. It surprised me that I wasn’t yet used to the sight of them outside. From time to time it was a shock to see them. Very occasionally, I was afraid, even though I knew that they were there living their lives, not watching me.
All men end up like that sooner or later. I never knew where they were going. I never asked why. I was never interested in having contact with my neighbours, because if I asked them questions, they might respond in kind. It worried me to think that they might know something I didn’t, and for that very obvious reason I made no further enquiries. But there is no doubt that their ignorance humiliated them just as much, or perhaps more, than it did me.
After the phone call, I was worried, not so much by the anonymous lost souls across the way, doomed as they were to a primitive eternity, but rather by the memory of my mother. I was afraid of them, especially because I didn’t have anyone with whom to discuss their existence and because any time now I might join the procession out in the street and get lost in the city’s labyrinth of tunnels, passages and corridors. I was still – I’m not ashamed to admit – unprepared to accept that they existed. In contrast, not being able to remember when my mother had died, how many years of routine and solitude had passed since then, was utterly horrifying. I was afraid that between her and me lay the same false eternity that gave birth to the men down below and kept them going. I thought hard, trying to pinpoint something that would help me understand. A zone of silence containing only the inscrutable neighbours. I didn’t remember ever having received death certificates, wills or obituaries.
The loud ring of the telephone saved me from my emotional quandary. I stood paralysed in the same place. There was no denying that once again someone on the other end of the line was trying to contact me. I hadn’t received a phone call for days, not even a wrong number. Maybe answering was the right thing to do. There was no danger: the worst thing that could happen would be for, after all that anticipation, someone to ask for someone else. Or some intrepid neighbour daring to ask who lived opposite. Or my mother calling from the beyond to reassure me. I bent over, picked up the receiver and listened. A woman with a tremulous voice asked aggressively for a Mr Reti, and almost immediately told me about an object that might interest me. I have spent my life – or rather the years following my mother’s passing – collecting objects that have been devalued by time and professional collectors – preserving objects for the good of humanity – yet I was initially surprised to be granted the honour of such a proposition, and then later, that a woman had spoken to me, a loner who had been so discreet about his little vice. No one has ever had access my objects . . . I tried not to think about how she knew so much about my intangible qualities.
I rejected the offer immediately: it sounded to me like an accusation masquerading as mockery. And yet, I wasn’t brave enough to hang up. Excited by the situation, I asked her name. It had been a while since I’d asked a question and heard an answer in a woman’s voice. She gasped out a single word as though her throat had seized up: Laura. I noted down her telephone number and promised to call her in a few days, after having thought it over properly. On the other end of the line, she said: ‘Of course, as you wish,’ and hung up. I was filled with a pride that had lain dormant for years. There were so few women left . . . and one had contacted me! Was this a trap? Why me? And what about them . . . ?
Three hours later, uncertain, not knowing whether I wanted to talk to Laura, a neighbour or just anyone, I dialed the number. I was afraid that someone else would answer, that the woman would have disappeared and I’d find myself in the embarrassing situation of talking to an anonymous man and trying to give an explanation that I hadn’t prepared. Another person in the same situation might have resolved this by just asking, but I was afraid that I wouldn’t be capable of saying something like ‘Is Laura there?’ without establishing beforehand that I had the right to ask. Just as my uncertainty was growing into panic and I was about to give up on the phone call and the anonymous woman, I heard the same stuttering masculine voice on the other end of the line. We agreed to meet at her house. There was no time to waver or ask questions: once the phone call was over a terrifying complicity had been established between us, the kind that exists between two people about to break the law together. And just as I couldn’t remember when my mother had died, I found, almost with pride, that I’d lost count of how long it had been since I’d gone out onto the street. But of course, losing count of how many days one spends locked away because they’re outside isn’t the same as forgetting, for mysterious reasons, when one has lost the person closest to them.
The next day, I dug a suit out from my prehistory: in my youth I had slaved away at my job . . . which was in an office of course. I wouldn’t have been able to stand any other environment. I spent some of the best times of my life in a public archive. I don’t remember where or when exactly. Maybe it was a municipal office in this city, full of dusty files, dossiers and greasy-looking bosses with enormous, grey eyebrows. I do remember that even then there were barely any women left. Our work was pointless, useless, scant consolation, like all the other jobs preserved strategically by the state to protect a few men from the decline of the rest. If I remember correctly, ten of us worked at the archive; melancholy, corpulent men with inoffensive movements and dull gazes, and a sullen old woman whose biological potential had expired, unwanted by men or the state. The key to putting up with jobs that had such made great emotional demands was to know how to accept the farcical aspects. That was why I lasted until mother’s disappearance. I might even have got one of those fictitious promotions if it hadn’t been for her; I mean for her irrepressible absence. And her son no longer remembers the date . . . that oversight ushered in and justified so many other omissions! It all happened so quickly that I couldn’t ascribe my misfortune to a single specific cause. Should I have harboured hope that she might come back one day? Should I have dedicated myself to preserving her memory?
I couldn’t remember the city streets either. In recent years the city had grown so much that if one walked through it for long enough eventually they would reach the border of a neighbouring country. That day, fearful of getting lost and being assaulted by a group of criminals, I invested what was left over from my pension in a taxi. It seemed so natural to me by then not to remember, so right, that I thought it must always have been this way: I couldn’t recall a time when memory had truly been necessary to man. If Laura hadn’t called me, I’d have even forgotten my name. Without it I would have gone out. But maybe that was why she appeared in my life: to give me back my name and save me from anonymity.
At the appointed time I was at the door of a crumbling mansion – I would say that all the historic buildings in the city are in ruins. Feeling a mixture of anxiety and curiosity, I stood quietly at the threshold for a few minutes. I was hit by a flood of impossible expectations, memories and dreams, revealing an unquenchable subterranean layer beneath the tedium of routine, and finally I rang the doorbell. I think that I rang for longer than I should have. Of course: that is how powerful, punctual men announce themselves.
The door was opened immediately by a woman dressed in an elegant but old-fashioned style, as though she had been waiting on the other side for me to ring. She introduced herself to me as Laura and, staying back, afraid that she’d be seen from outside, she let me in. She seemed almost disappointed that I had answered her invitation, and punctually at that, but still led me along a corridor. The rooms were large and dark. The dust had an ancient, luxurious, wounded quality, a dreamy, post-war chill.
I found the overall effect disappointing. It had been such a long time since I’d seen a woman that in my mind I had transformed them into fabulous, languid creatures. Despite the limited contact that my generation has had with the female sex, I can say that it is important for them to emulate some kind of zoological form: a crane, a swan, a panther or a cicada. Laura had very few resemblances to the animal world. In fact, she preferred the inanimate universe: her curved back, sunken thighs and squat calves immediately indicated – as any remotely attentive person would have noticed – a woman trying to resemble an object. She avoided courtesy with the same subtle conviction. She walked along the corridor, passing by doorways and small winter gardens as if I was chasing her and she was trying to get away.
Finally, we stopped in a room where all the furniture was covered in black gauze. The air smelt slightly rotten, of damp wood and tar. She pointed to an armchair and in a hoarse voice, as if worn down by her continuous falsetto, told me to take a seat while she made something to drink. I tried to take in the details of the room but as I looked around the objects, the residual shadows and corners multiplied, and with this shift from quality to quantity, the gloom grew overwhelming. Suddenly I found myself sitting alone in the armchair. I looked for Laura. I hadn’t heard her walk away. Where had she gone? A short while later she came back with a wicker tray, a bottle of cognac and two glasses. It seemed that she was being a good hostess in spite of herself.
I’d have liked to refuse, I didn’t like alcohol and I didn’t want to put her in danger: one glass, two glasses, and then, as in so many cases over the years, envy, the need to take hold of a woman, to deprive others of her, and finally the crime! This explanation would have offended her greatly so when she handed me the glass I downed it in one so as to avoid worrying about losing my mind with each sip. She observed me carefully, making a studious assessment. There was nothing romantic about it; it was an insolent demonstration of her superiority. She seemed beyond any of the risks that women run from men in our world. She only spoke once I had placed my glass back on the table:
‘You don’t ask any questions, you don’t seem anxious. I am a woman. What, you think that everyone gets this opportunity? Sorry, I’ve just noticed that you’re missing several teeth,’ she touched her face to emphasize her amazement. ‘If I’d known I would have called someone else.’
I nodded distractedly. I had the feeling that she thought she was talking to someone else. A few teeth? When and how had I lost them? As far as I could remember, I was only missing one. Surreptitiously, while she looked over my shoulder with an angelic smile, caused no doubt by something hovering behind me – perhaps my own uncertainty – I put my little finger into my mouth and ran it around, trying to measure the distance between each tooth, to get to the heart of the matter, or rather, the offence. I found that I was in fact missing more teeth than I still had. I found it impossible to plot a dental map of my teeth. Laura wasn’t just correct, she also had every right to indignation and discomfort: if I’d realized how scruffy I looked I would have chosen to stay in my room, under the influence of them. But how could this be? Suddenly, they didn’t seem so immoral . . . The more I felt my gums with my finger, the clearer my affinity with them became: they, like me, could not remember and that was why they wandered. Maybe some day in the future I would also be wandering around, with the frustrated illusion of having somewhere to go.
‘If you don’t ask, I’ll throw you out,’ she said, standing up and pointing to the door. ‘I can’t stand you touching your mouth instead of talking. It’s disrespectful. You’re not the right person. Thousands would die to be in your position. Don’t be ungrateful. You’re very different to the person your voice promised me yesterday. Are you sure that you’re the same person? There hasn’t been a misunderstanding, has there?’
That was all I needed: she was trying to convince me that I wasn’t the person I ought to be. I shuffled in my seat. I felt the cognac burning in my stomach. I rejected my first impulse, which was to get up and strangle her like so many anonymous men who haven’t been able to stand the courage and meaning of a woman. This was an opportunity that might not present itself again: to escape them, recover my memories, maintain my name permanently and humanize myself with a woman. I made an effort, I reflected on how life and memory are short. I considered the undeniable advantage I had in that moment over other men. Stammering, I asked her why she had called me. Reluctantly, she answered that for a long time she had been gathering information about collectors; a trafficker of objects who would remain unnamed had given her my telephone number, describing me as one of the last men: a respectful innocent, a moralist. She’d been very confident when she called me. She hadn’t expected to be met with an insecure creature whose greatest weakness wasn’t his decrepitude but that he was trying to live up to the man he had been, lingering between the present and the past to make my imminent dispossession less painful, it was almost an act of negligence. The only real alternative left to refugees of my kind was the future. You could tell that I was in transit and that if I didn’t do something soon, if I didn’t invest the time and space in which we were mired with a cause, I would soon be unable to resist their influence. It was just a matter of days, or weeks before the dam caved in. My resilience, as prudent and coherent as it might seem, would disappear when faced with the cyclical, imposing power. We would all give in. In the not-too-distant future, all men would be on their feet, reduced to wearing out their soles on the streets.
I digested this warning in silence. Then it occurred to me that she might be lying, taking advantage of my presence to rejuvenate herself. I didn’t think that I was so close to succumbing to the other side. Also, no one could have given her my number . . . Yet how else could she have known that I would answer? How did she know about my weakness . . . my hankering for unwanted objects. . . forbidden objects? Had she had some contact with my mother? I decided to continue the conversation and address the issue later, when I had overcome the fear and impotence her prophecies generated within me.
‘Fine, let’s get to it,’ I said with false courage. ‘If you’re going to offer me something, do it now. If not, I’m going and you know what that means. You said so yourself, I’m almost on the other side.’
Laura looked at me, satisfied by my fit of daring. She knew that in goading me she had cut through the veil of placidity that concealed the insatiable collector underneath: an irreverent monster of the boudoir, incapable of tender confidences. She stood up, walked carefully to a door and, regarding my expectant expression, told me to follow her. I obeyed with exaggerated lethargy. This time, courage was useless. From behind, in spite of her antiquated clothing, she was a captivating woman. I saw that every part of her body – shoulders, legs, hips – cast off their tormented ugliness to form a radiant body worthy of worship.
We walked down another corridor, damper and more dilapidated than the last. Dim lamps cast a muddy light on the walls. We came to a door at the end. She looked at me with compassion, as though she didn’t think I was ready for what was on the other side. I was staring at her mouth, oblivious to the challenge of going through the door. Her lips bore evidence of her youth: although she pretended otherwise, although she made herself ugly and dressed like an old woman, the lushness in her gaze revealed her fertility. I was unsettled: it had been a long time since I’d been so close to a young woman. This was a genuine and compromising privilege. There weren’t many left and it was understandable that she was concealing her status to stay safe. They didn’t even have older women. There were so few that the state was rounding them up to ensure the survival of the species. The few women still left at large ran extreme risks, like being raped or the victims of gauche crimes of passion. Although killing a woman was a much more serious crime than killing a man, punishable by death, as soon as they had possession of one, men would take the liberty of murdering her rather than risk humiliation. The shame of being male weighed on us like never before. This is why they seemed to be growing more numerous even though they didn’t reproduce and were doomed to die.
In my humble and somewhat heretical opinion, the shortage of women was caused by the lack of men with the character to put up with their cost: the impotence to which they had subjected us for so long. The women undoubtedly existed somewhere. The romantic ones were hidden in the hearts of the cities, in the old quarters, indebted to their gender, refusing to give up their catastrophic kingdom. Laura was one of the romantics: either she’d escaped from the parallel territory created by the state to ensure the continuity of the species or she’d never been discovered by the squadrons of single men sent out as part of the dubious emergency response.
We entered an apparently unremarkable room. It was windowless, and had the welcoming, cosy air of storage areas that have been shut up for a long time. The walls were fitted with shelves and brackets on which all manner of forbidden objects had been placed. I inspected them one by one, comparing them with those I had in a similar windowless room at the back of my house. Laura stopped me from getting too close to the relics. She suggested that I sit down. I did so and only then did I realize what a woman might mean. I perceived the inconceivable, the crux of the mystery. I think that someone else in my place would have been unable to control themselves and would have tried to take the woman then and there . . . I held back, however, and tried to behave rationally: there was no good reason to start behaving like them, as attractive as the prospect might be. I felt as though I was enjoying a perfect dream and that one wrong move might wake me up, returning me to my neutral, unreal window.
I stayed still, trying to overcome my uncertainty. She sat down in another chair and pointed to a box with plastic sides and a glass front. I recognized the object, it was fascinating. I’d heard people talk about it. When my mother was alive, eager collectors had described it with a certain mystical reverence.
‘Look at it more closely if you like. But don’t touch it.’
I went over to inspect it. I saw from the knobs and enamel surface that it was one of the first ever made. I didn’t want to ask questions that would violate the aura emitted by this treasure. Her presence alongside this undeserved object aroused my curiosity: how could Laura have spent so long hidden away without being discovered? How was it possible that no one had given her away? And why couldn’t I work out my role in all this, why had she invited me?
It occurred to me that I could easily bring about her downfall. I just had to go out onto the street and report her to them: tell them that she was a young woman who had been hiding in mysterious secrecy. I stopped myself quickly, reassured by the memory that she had promised me an object. To make up for my ingratitude, I told her that I truly appreciated her invitation. It had been a long time since someone had done something so good, so human, for me. She nodded, her reserve redoubling the enigma. She didn’t mention the object or her promise to give it to me, which now seemed ridiculous. How could she be giving it to me? No, she wasn’t going to talk. I was going to have to find a way to take it myself. She wasn’t going to make my conquest easier with a vulgar offer. This was more complicated than it had seemed. No doubt Laura was ready to part with the object, but in exchange for something . . . for a logical, agreed upon price:
‘Laura, are you aware of the risk you’re taking?’
‘Yes, of course,’ she seemed to light up at the prospect. ‘That’s why I called you, isn’t it?’
‘I’d like to help you, to accept . . . but I don’t know.’
She sighed in understanding. Of course, the problem, the obstacle if you like, was them: How could one not obey the call when the fact that I saw them day after day exercised an irresistible influence? I thought that one possibility – the most logical one – was to strangle Laura and leave with the object. There was no danger in behaving with wild immorality. I would just be acting on blameless impulse. The other option was to negotiate. I could just swear absolute secrecy: her life – if she was still interested in living – was safe for the moment. Then I rejected the idea: it sounded like extortion, a way to avoid taking one side or the other. The best thing was to offer her what I believed to be appropriate: just less than what was fair. I wasn’t going to be a timorous coward. Pretending to be mediocre, or an idiot, always gives one the advantage.
I asked her if she had a deal in mind. She was offended, as though I’d threatened or insulted her, and told me to put myself in her place, she couldn’t make any offers. I hesitated. Deep down, she was asking me for help: her solitude must have been worse to bear than mine. She too watched through the blinds as they wandered around day and night. And no doubt she suffered, worrying that everything might change suddenly: either she would be rescued by special patrols designed to protect women – spies placed among them to gather information – or she’d die at the hand of some desperate man who couldn’t stand what a woman represented.
Men didn’t generally save women any longer. Whatever happened women were doomed, exposed to an evil that regenerated itself and preserved the hopes of their executioners: denunciation. Of course, trying to save one meant condemning oneself and betraying the other men. Any attempt to do so would have been useless; counterproductive. Moreover, Laura had chosen the life of a recluse, the only viable way of life. I couldn’t stay . . . I could never have her while outside they were stumbling around on the trail of women. I couldn’t accompany Laura in her pain or share her secret. My fidelity wouldn’t last. It would be a matter of weeks, three months at the most, before my anxiety drove me to barbarism. And then . . . I’d be lost to the asphalt, in the glare, absorbed into the mist. Now I thought I understood all those impenitent spectres. I couldn’t accept the object at that price. Though its sumptuousness was worth sacrifices of every kind, I’d never enjoy it. That is the nature of forbidden objects: their allure resides in the prospect of enjoying them and when that and the fleeting sense of well-being has gone, there is an emptiness, a puff of wind, a sigh. And then once again the need for that object returns. So, if I wasn’t going to fully enjoy it or Laura, if I was going to be trapped in this sense of deferment, it wasn’t worth risking tragedy. I couldn’t predict or control how I would react to days spent together with Laura. I didn’t like the idea of joining them. I thought that in coveting this relic I was in danger of losing my own modest collection, my kingdom.
‘Laura, forgive me, it’s not that I don’t appreciate your offer, but I can’t, I can’t stay.’
Her tense face relaxed and each feature seemed to fade into a blur. She was the embodiment of disappointment, fear and regret. After this honourable refusal, I ceased to feel harmless: in her eyes I now loomed as a potential traitor. I was forced to inspect my own behaviour and within it I saw an achievement, something praiseworthy. Laura had suddenly become vulnerable. It was better to go, to leave with the object, without hurting my benefactor. She wouldn’t resist the theft because she didn’t want to cause a scene. But was it necessary to humiliate her? I could offer her a simpler trade, something to smooth over the slight – a promise, so as not to feel so ungrateful for the opportunity I had been granted: a weekly visit to assuage her loneliness. Just as I was about to present her with this proposal, she came forward from the corner of the room:
‘Do you think that I would allow you to stay here, smothering me? Don’t be stupid, my solitude is plenty as it is.’ She gave me a vicious look, prepared for this moment. ‘Imagine if your loneliness were combined with mine! Please, you can’t reconcile solitude, nor betray it. Follow your instincts.’
Then I thought of them . . . That was my first impulse: to immerse myself in the cold, sticky mass of men with barely a hint of breath left in them. I thought that I understood: Laura didn’t want to be humiliated in the street or the state-controlled areas. She wanted peace, a dignified, almost loving, end. To have a privileged death. Few women were lucky enough to die in private, in their own home at the hands of an innocent man for whom a treasure, rather than forlorn desperation, would bathe the crime in a loving halo. No one could deny her right to die as a human being. Suicide was unworthy, an ill-advised end for a woman: after all that effort, the secrets that she had cherished in her seclusion would be defiled. For Laura, everything would become absurd. Her body, her promise, would be undone by an ungrateful mistake. In any case, there were so few women that none would have dared to do something so rash. It was much more than a suicide: countless men would be brought to an end along with them. So, in spite of the isolation and nostalgia, none of them did it . . . They had never felt what it really meant to be surplus to the world.
I quickly walked through the house with the object on my back. I didn’t want to think and get weighed down by questions. I just wanted to get out, into the immediate future that I believed the relic would grant me. I went back through the enormous living room, through the static air, past the beautiful opaque armchairs. I went through the different winter gardens and wandered corridors that led me to untouched, dusty rooms whose closure had something illicit about it . . . something eternal. The house looked as though it had been abandoned for some time. There was no sign of Laura’s past. I preferred not to go back. I had the object; that was enough, I didn’t need to know any more. I didn’t need to save myself. Behind me, the darkness spread, eliminating shadows, dark stains subverting the majesty of the abandoned paradise. I continued and in every room I found the same stark atmosphere and covered furniture. My booming footsteps created a ghostly symmetry with all these still lives.
Finally, I found a way out. I didn’t remember having come in through that door. It was a cloudy, starless night. The moon, excessively bright, was refracted by the city’s metal surfaces. In the darkness I saw the endless trudge of dark eyes streaming by. The wind carried a swollen, sulphurous, rusted smell along with the mist. I heard flowing, unidentifiable footsteps. There was something sweet and moving about the scene, as though someone were sharing all the inconsolable wisdom to which men can aspire, unaware of their decline. I put down the object, rested and took a deep breath, sheltered by the threshold.
Photograph © Kevin Dooley