Two Short Stories from The Things We Don’t Do
A Line in the Sand
Ruth was making mountains with her foot. She dug her big toe into the warm sand, formed small mounds, tidied them, carefully smoothed them with the ball of her foot, contemplated them for a moment. Then she demolished them. And began all over again. Her insteps were reddish, they glowed like solar stones. Her nails were painted from the night before.
Jorge was digging out the umbrella, or trying to. Someone should buy a new one, he muttered as he grappled with it. Ruth pretended not to be listening, but she couldn’t help feeling annoyed. It was a trivial remark like any other, of course. Jorge clicked his tongue and jerked his hand away from the umbrella: he had pinched his finger in one of the struts. A trivial remark, Ruth reflected, but the point was he hadn’t said “we should buy,” but rather “someone should buy.” In one go, Jorge managed to fold the umbrella, and stood there staring at it, hands on hips, as if awaiting some final response from a vanquished creature. Arbitrary or not, there it was, he had said “someone” and not “we,” Ruth thought.
Jorge held the umbrella poised. The tip was streaked with tongues of rust and caked in wet sand. He glanced at Ruth’s miniature mountains. Then his eyes rested on her feet blistered from her sandals, moved up her legs to her belly, lingered on the rolls of skin around her navel, his gaze continued up her torso, passed between her breasts as though crossing a bridge, leapt to her mass of salty hair, and finally slid down to Ruth’s eyes. Jorge realized that, reclining in her deckchair, shading her eyes with one hand, she had been observing him for some time as well. He felt slightly embarrassed without knowing quite why, and he smiled, wrinkling his nose. Ruth thought this gesture was exaggerated, because he was not facing the purple sun. Jorge raised the umbrella like an unwieldy trophy.
“So, are you going to help me?” he asked in a voice that sounded ironic even to him, less benign than he had intended. He wrinkled his nose again, turned his gaze to the sea for an instant, and then heard Ruth’s startling reply:
Ruth was gripping a wooden racket. The edge of the racket was resting on her thighs.
“Do you want the ball?” Jorge asked.
“I want you not to move,” she said.
Ruth lifted the racket, sat up straight, and reached out an arm in order to slowly trace a line in the sand. It was not a very even line, about a meter long, separating Ruth from her husband. When she had finished drawing it, she let go of the racket, lay back in the deckchair and crossed her legs.
“Very pretty,” Jorge said, half-curious and half-irritated.
“Do you like it?” Ruth replied. “Then don’t cross it.”
A damp breeze was beginning to rise on the beach, or Jorge noticed it at that moment. He had no wish to drop the umbrella and the other stuff he was carrying over his shoulder. But above all he had no desire whatsoever to start playing silly games. He was tired. He hadn’t slept much. His skin felt sweaty, gritty. He was in a hurry to shower and go out and have dinner.
“I don’t understand,” said Jorge.
“I can imagine,” said Ruth.
“Hey, are we going or not?”
“You can do what you want. But don’t cross the line.”
“What do you mean, don’t cross it?”
“I see you understand now!”
Jorge dropped the things; he was surprised they made so much noise as they landed on the sand. Ruth jumped slightly, but didn’t stir from her deckchair. Jorge examined the line from left to right as if something were written on it. He took a step toward Ruth. He saw how she tensed and clutched the arms of the chair.
“This is a joke, right?”
“This couldn’t be more serious.”
“Look, darling,” he said, halting at the line. “What’s the matter with you? What are you doing? Can’t you see everyone else is leaving? It’s late. It’s time to go. Why can’t you be reasonable?”
“Am I not reasonable because I’m not leaving when everyone else does?”
“You’re not reasonable because I don’t know what’s the matter with you.”
“Ah! How interesting!”
“Ruth . . .” Jorge sighed, making as if to go over and touch her. “Do you want us to stay a bit longer?”
“All I want,” she said, “is for you to stay on that side.”
“On what side, damn it?”
“On that side of the line.”
Ruth recognized a flash of anger in Jorge’s skeptical smile. It was only a fleeting twitch of his cheek, a hint of indignation he was able to control by feigning condescension; but there it was. Now she had him. It suddenly seemed it was now or never.
“Jorge. This is my line, do you understand?”
“This is absurd,” he said.
“Quite possibly. That’s the point.”
“Come on, hand me the things. Let’s go for a walk.”
“Whoa there. Stay back.”
“Forget about the line and let’s go!”
“You’re being childish, Ruth. I’m tired . . .”
“Tired of what? Go on, say it: tired of what?”
Jorge folded his arms and arched backward, as if he had been pushed by a gust of wind. He saw the trap coming and decided to be direct.
“That’s unfair. You’re taking my words literally. Or worse: you interpret them figuratively when they hurt you, and take them literally when it suits you.”
“Really? Is that what you think, Jorge?”
“Just now, for example, I told you I was tired and you play the victim. You act like I’d said ‘I’m tired of you,’ and . . .”
“And isn’t that deep down what you wanted to say? Think about it. It might even be a good thing. Go on, say it. I have things to say to you too. What is it you’re so tired of?”
“Not like this, Ruth.”
“Like what? Talking? Being honest?”
“I can’t talk this way,” Jorge replied, slowly picking up the things once more.
“Over and out,” she said, her eyes straying toward the waves.
Jorge suddenly let go of the things and made as if to seize Ruth’s chair. She reacted by raising her arm in a gesture of self-defense. He realized she was deadly serious and stopped in his tracks, just as he was about to cross the line. There it was. He was touching it with the tips of his toes. He considered taking another step. Trampling the sand. Rubbing his feet in it and putting a stop to all this. His own cautiousness made Jorge feel stupid. His shoulders were tense, hunched. But he didn’t move.
“Will you stop this already?” he said.
He instantly regretted having phrased the question in that way.
“Stop what?” Ruth asked, with a painfully satisfied smile.
“I mean this interrogation! This interrogation and this ridiculous line!”
“If our conversation bothers you that much, we can end it right here. And if you want to go home, carry on, enjoy your dinner. But the line is non-negotiable. It isn’t ridiculous and don’t cross it. Don’t go there. I’m warning you.”
“You’re impossible, you know that?”
“I do, unfortunately,” Ruth replied.
Disconcerted, Jorge noted the frankness of her retort. He bent down to pick the things up again, muttering inaudible words. He rummaged vigorously through the contents of the basket. Rearranging the bottles of suntan lotion several times, piling up the magazines furiously, folding the towels again. For a moment, Ruth thought Jorge had tears in his eyes. But she saw him gradually regain his composure until he asked, looking straight at her:
“Are you testing me, Ruth?”
Ruth remarked that the almost shocking naivety of his question brought back an echo of his former dignity: as though Jorge could make a mistake, but not lie to her; as if he were capable of every type of disloyalty except for malice. She saw him squatting, bewildered, at her feet, his shoulders about to start peeling, his hair thinner than a few years ago, familiar and strange. She felt a sudden desire both to attack and to protect him.
“You go around bossing people about,” she said, “yet you live in fear of being judged. I find that rather sad.”
“No kidding. How profound. And what about you?”
“Me? You mean what are my contradictions? Am I aware of always making the same mistakes? Yes. All the time. Of course I am. To start with, I’m stupid. And a coward. And too anxious to please. And I pretend I could live in a way I can’t. Come to think of it, I’m not sure what is worse: not to be aware of certain things, or to be aware but not to do anything. That’s precisely why I drew that line, you see? Yes. It’s childish. It’s small and badly drawn. And it’s the most important thing I’ve done all summer.”
Jorge gazed past Ruth into the distance, as though following the trail of her words, shaking his head with a gesture that veered between dismay and incredulity. Then his face froze in a mocking expression. He started to laugh. His laughter sounded like coughing.
“Have you nothing to say? Not bullying any more?” Ruth said.
“You’re so impulsive.”
“Do you think what I’m saying to you is impulsive?”
“I don’t know,” he said, standing up straight. “Maybe not exactly impulsive. But you’re definitely proud.”
“This isn’t simply a question of pride, Jorge, it’s about principles.”
“You know something? You may defend a lot of principles, be as analytical as you like, think yourself terribly brave, but what you’re actually doing is hiding behind a line. Hiding! So do me a favor, rub it out, collect your things, and we’ll talk about this calmly over dinner. I’m going to cross. I’m sorry. There’s a limit to everything. Even my patience.”
Ruth leapt up like a spring being released, knocking over the deckchair. Jorge pulled up before having taken a step.
“You’re damn right there’s a limit to everything!” she yelled. “And of course you’d like me to hide. Only don’t count on it this time. You don’t want dinner: you want a truce. Well, you’re not getting one, you hear me, you’re not getting one until you accept once and for all that this line will be rubbed out when I say so, and not when you run out of patience.”
“I can’t believe you’re being such a tyrant. And then you complain about me. You’re not allowing me to come close. I don’t do that to you.”
“Jorge. My love. Listen,” Ruth said, lowering her voice, brushing her fringe into place, righting the chair, and sitting down again. “I want you to listen to me, okay? There isn’t one line. There are two, do you understand? There are always two. I see yours. Or at least I try to see it. I know it’s there, somewhere. I have a suggestion. If you think it’s unfair that this line is rubbed out when I say so, then make another. It’s easy. There’s your racket. Draw a line!”
“I’m serious, Jorge. Explain your rules. Show me your territory. Say to me: don’t step beyond this line. You’ll see that I never try to rub it out.”
“Very clever! Of course you wouldn’t rub it out, because it would never occur to me to draw a line like that.”
“But let’s say you did, how far would it reach? I need to know.”
“It wouldn’t reach anywhere. I don’t like superstitions. I prefer to behave naturally. I like to be free to go where I want. To quarrel when there’s a reason for it.”
“All I’d love is for you to look a little bit beyond your own territory.”
“All I’d love is for you to love me,” he replied.
Ruth blinked a few times. She rubbed her eyes with both hands, as though trying to wipe away the damp breeze that had been buffeting her that afternoon.
“That’s the most awful answer you could have given me,” said Ruth.
Jorge considered going over to console her and thought he had better not. His back was stinging. His muscles were aching. The sea had swallowed the orb of the sun. Ruth covered her face. Jorge lowered his eyes. He looked once more at the line: he thought it seemed much longer than a meter.
When I realized I would be mortal like my father, like those black shoes in a plastic bag, like the pail of water where the mop wiping down the hospital corridor was dipping in and out, I was twenty. I was young, so old. For the first time I realized, as the trails of brightness slowly cleared from the floor, that health is a very thin layer, a thread that vanishes with each passing step. None of those steps was my father’s.
My father always had a strange walk. Swift and clumsy at the same time. When he began one of his walks, you never knew if he was going to trip over or break into a run. I liked his way of walking. His hard, flat feet were like the ground he stepped on, the ground he fled from.
My father now had four flat feet, in two different places: in the bed (joined at the heels, slightly open, evoking an ironical V for victory) and inside that plastic bag (imprinted on the leather, as a kind of reminder on his shoes). The nurse handed them to me the way you hand someone scraps. I looked at the tiled floor, its shifting squares.
I sat there, in front of the doors to the operating theater, waiting for the news or dreading the news, until I took out my father’s shoes. I stood up and placed them in the middle of the corridor, like an obstacle or a border or a geographical accident. I positioned them carefully, so as not to disturb their original contours, the protrusion of bones, their absent forms.
Soon afterward, the nurse appeared in the distance. She came down the corridor, skirted around the shoes and continued on her way. The floor was gleaming. Suddenly cleanness frightened me. It seemed to me like a disease, a perfect bacterium. I squatted and moved along on all fours, feeling the scraping, the hurt in my knees. I put the shoes back in the bag. I pulled the knot as tight as I could.
Occasionally, at home, I try on those shoes. They fit me better each time.
Stories from ©The Things We Don’t Do, Open Letter
Translated by Nick Caistor and Lorenza Garcia
Andrés Neuman (1977) was born and spent his youth in Buenos Aires. The son of exiled Argentine musicians, he moved with his family to Granada, Spain, where he later taught Latin American literature at the University of Granada. He has received the Premio de la Crítica, the Antonio Carvajal and Hiperión Prizes for poetry, the Premio Alfaguara de Novela, and the Firecracker Award, granted by the U.S. community of journals, independent presses, and bookstores. He was a finalist for the Premio Herralde and received special mention from the jury of the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, the forerunner of the Man Booker International Prize. He was selected by the British journal Granta as one of the most outstanding new fiction writers in Spanish. Dedicated to poetry since his beginnings as a writer, he is the author of verse collections such as El tobogán, Mística abajo, No sé por qué, and Vivir de oído, all anthologized in his most recent title: Casa fugaz (Poesía 1998-2018). He has published the novels Bariloche, La vida en las ventanas, Una vez Argentina, El viajero del siglo (Traveler of the Century), Hablar solos (Talking to Ourselves), and Fractura (Fracture); books of short stories like Alumbramiento and Hacerse el muerto; the satirical dictionary Barbarismos; the Latin American travelogue Cómo viajar sin ver (How to Travel without Seeing); and the heterodox treatise on the body Anatomía sensible. His books have been translated to more than twenty languages.
Nick Caistor has translated more than fifty books of fiction from Latin America and Spain including work by authors such as Andrés Neuman and Eduardo Mendoza. He is a three-times winner of the Valle-Inclán Prize for translation from Spanish.
Lorenza Garcia was born and brought up in England. She left the UK in her early twenties and spent two decades living and working in Iceland, Spain, and France. Since 2006 she has translated and co-translated over forty novels and works of nonfiction from the French, Spanish, and Icelandic. She currently lives in Wiltshire.
In our sixteenth issue, we celebrate Mapuche poet Elicura Chihuailaf, who in 2020 became the first indigenous writer to receive Chile's National Prize for Literature. We also feature dossiers dedicated to the work of Andrés Neuman, Latin American literary criticism, and the Latin American essay, plus a bilingual selection of texts from Dispatches from the Republic of Letters: 50 Years of the Neustadt International Prize for Literature commemorating Gabriel García Márquez, the first Latin American author to win the prestigious Neustadt Prize.