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Ions

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October 27, 2004

You don’t love me, at least not how you’re supposed to if you suppose something about love, and are not in the habit of loving everyone the way you love just one, but you lie and tell me that you do, to make me happy, to make me believe that you do or to make others believe it.

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The bus is an old Volvo with brown imitation leather seats. An official decree (“No smoking,” Ministerial Order. 9/7/94) and a leap of faith (“This bus is equipped with a traction control system and anti-roll bars”) are posted in a highly visible spot on the panel isolating the driver from the passengers. The air-conditioning has been repaired recently, but it only works in certain parts of the bus so certain passengers are complaining about the heat. The Lily Queen ferry we’ll board in the morning—after resting from the six-hour drive from Madrid—looks like a huge, sleeping gull caught unawares by the high tide.

Our driver didn’t sleep well; you can see the exhaustion in his drooping eyelids. Insomnia might make his trip back dangerous, like talking on a cell phone, like driving under the influence. He got up in the middle of the night, got dressed, left the seedy hotel, and walked the two hundred yards to Club Cassiopeia because he’d heard about Roulette, the Russian. He walked in and asked for her, and a few truck drivers heard him and began to joke about her height; the Russian is huge, almost six feet, with long blonde hair down to her knees. When she lies in bed and fans it out behind her, her hair is like a peacock’s tail, a virgin’s halo, a mushroom cloud that could blind anyone who contemplates her marble body set in gold leaf like some Indochinese Buddha medallion. The truck drivers told him that the Russian would scoff if she even deigned to look down on him from her height, or from whatever position she were in at the time.

The bus finds the perfect place to stop and let us out in the center of town, and we get out and form little clusters of people we know, inviting others to join the group, competing so as to make off with those we think are most in tune with our desire to head off in search of a good time. Attracted to the chaos, we melt into the alleyways of the open-air market and immediately blend into the crowd. One body slips past, and, imperceptibly, another takes its place. We avoid exchanging glances with the strangers in the crush. We turn around. Nervous, calm, uncomfortable, we walk on, we put our hands in our pockets, we hunch ourselves up so as to better cleave through the sea of flesh, we turn sideways, charting a path with our shoulders and our arms. We watch out of the corners of our eyes. We are swept along by the Brownian movement and trapped, like a glistening shoal of anchovies, in the hawkers’ nets. We float up before the vendors selling clay figurines, selling fried dough, selling tennis shoes, selling octopus, selling key chains, selling wooden elephants, selling cheese. The human current swallows us up again and we emerge on the other side, at a silversmith’s workshop, where a man is twisting silver wire together with pliers.

Women and parents and grandparents shop for their offspring, cheap souvenirs destined to be thrown away before the trip is even forgotten. The only thing that keeps making sense over time is time itself, that demented driver who defies it and steps on life’s accelerator. A good salesman knows how to make a customer feel indebted to him, he offers the guy friendship, picks him out of the crowd (you, sir, step on over here!), I can tell that you are a man of taste, someone who isn’t interested in the kind of junk they sell on the street. He drags him into a storeroom full of tacky merchandise and, behold, a single object covered with a canvas cloth (wait till you see this!). Glancing conspicuously from side to side as if he thought he was being watched, he unveils the treasure. It might be a sculpture, a samovar, a mahogany side table, a jewelry box, a harp, a silver chest with gold overlay. The customer inspects it carefully. It has a dent, it’s cracked, there are stones or cords missing, the key has been lost, it’s come unhinged. Fortunately, foreign whims are more fleeting than domestic dreams. They disappear, suddenly, caught in a girl’s hair, and then slide down the drain with the hose water. Very rarely do they cling to your shadow and, when they do, it’s easy to give them the slip by wandering aimlessly, hopping on a bus headed somewhere else, turning the corner or taking off running. The only thing that keeps making sense over time is Kodak, the storyboard of life.

We are entirely surrounded by strangers who are looking for other strangers and, suddenly, as if obeying some higher order, many of us feel the need to get out.

We lose each other in the crowd, you’re wearing a visor and a Discman and high-heeled sandals. We look for each other but we can’t find each other. We are entirely surrounded by strangers who are looking for other strangers and, suddenly, as if obeying some higher order, many of us feel the need to get out. In midst of the masses are currents that lead us to less crowded streets, and then to an open area from where we can guess the way to the beach. We let ourselves be led along by a baroque bell tower with Compostelan features. We are tired and dirty and sweaty and it’s hot and we let ourselves get carried away by the excitement of the crowd without thinking about our earlier wish to stay clean and relaxed. I look down from the hill but I can’t make you out; all I can see, again, is the driver, who waves and heads towards me.

In ’86, our driver was an insurance salesman. Selling is what counts, not making friends. He had been thoroughly trained to deceive his possible victims, using run-of-the-mill psychological tricks: be friendly, don’t badger, start off with a neutral topic of conversation, find something in common, make him laugh, discover his weaknesses, his fears, feel out his emotional ties, establish an apparent friendship, deduce his real needs. Receiving attention and being understood are man’s most common yearnings. Then make the client picture himself in a compromising situation, a fire, a terrible illness, an accident what would become of him? Of his family? Send him up the creek but then hand him the paddle. Dramatize the catharsis. Once he has accepted the portrayal of his troubles and conceded that the solution is valid, the seller has power over him. The purchase has been rationalized, so all resistance can be viewed as an illogical impulse that will unnecessarily imperil both parties. The seller then pretends to feel disappointed, his confidence and friendship betrayed. He was making money but he hated his life, so he left the insurance company and decided to travel the world and ended up behind the wheel of a bus.

The rain will be unleashed; it’s legendary here. Locals swim in the rain.

We sleep in sleeping bags on the beach, so in order to get close to you I have to slip out of mine first, then slip you out of yours; it reminds me of that movie where the giant extraterrestrial plants replicate human beings that emerge from enormous pods, and when we make love I imagine that it’s our clones rather than our bodies that are coupling on the shore. The night does not speak to us: no noise, no smells apart from saline decomposition. To celebrate your vigorous, new body—painstakingly achieved through needle after needle, for cell and cellulite, skintight and skin deep, worked out palm over palm, embalmed in eucalyptus oil, anointed ivy hands—we pretend our feelings are mutual. You don’t love me, at least not how you’re supposed to if you suppose something about love, and are not in the habit of loving everyone the way you love just one, but you lie and tell me that you do, to make me happy, to make me believe that you do or to make others believe it. At least I won’t find anything in you that isn’t you. The driver spits into the sand. I piss into the sea. A woman walks along the shore with high heels in her hand. You’re wearing a black bathing suit, your skin is white and fine and transparent like onionskin paper. The driver and I are sitting on a dune, overstating your physical imperfections: those ankles, those hips.

Tide is coming in, dragging its belly over the sand like a slow beast, pushing itself into little crevices and arching its back in a shuddering whiteness. It shatters the ocean’s placid, silver surface as it goes and soon it will hit the beach, invited by the wind that’s picking up. The rain will be unleashed; it’s legendary here. Locals swim in the rain. You watch the lightening dart between the clouds, fork in the sky and disappear an instant later, and the wind brings chlorine! iodine! sodium! ozone!, the most restless stardust conceivable.

Germán Sierra was born in La Coruña, Spain, in 1960. He obtained his MD and PhD degrees at the University of Santiago de Compostela, where he currently teaches biochemistry and neuroscience. He has published the novels El espacio aparentemente perdido (1996), La felicidad no da el dinero (1999) and Efectos secundarios, which was awarded the Jaén Prize in 2000. Alto voltaje, a collection of 14 short stories, is his most recent book (2004). More information about his scientific and literary work can be found at www.germansierra.com.

Lisa Dillman teaches at Emory University. Her publications include Spain: A Literary Traveler´s Companion, which she co-edited with Peter Bush (Whereabouts Press, 2003); Eugenio Cambaceres’ 1881 Argentine novel, Pot Pourri: Whistlings of a Vagabond (Oxford University Press, 2003); translations of short stories by Cuban writers Edmundo Desnoes and Roberto Uría, included in the anthology The Voice of the Turtle (Quartet, 1998); and Chilean writer Tito Matamala, included in Chile: A Literary Traveler´s Companion.

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