Lethe met Donte at the airport where they split a taxi to get into the city. They were dropped off on a street with several residential buildings divided by small shops and a grocery. After climbing eight flights of stairs because the elevator wasnt working, a woman in her late sixties answered the door.
Donte was smiling graciously and looking very happy to be here. His suitcase immediately dropped to the floor. A younger woman, maybe thirty years old, rushed over to help Lethe. She reached for his suitcase and carried it into another room.
You had to follow her around when she was talking. She talked fast, in a string of adjectives and nouns and participles. Lethe was trying to make out her sentences, and translate them quickly, but each time he had a sentence figured out, there was another he didnt understand. The Senora stood off to the side, content to watch her daughter take care of things. The older woman had a solemn, but not unfriendly expression, and she was mostly silent.
In the kitchen, there was a skylight and a compact European laundry machine. A clothing line stretched from the top of the stove to behind the laundry machine, with plants in the window next to it. Donte explained to Lethe that the Senoras daughter had just gotten married. This caused some embarrassment for Lethe, as if Donte could tell he was confused. One of you will have my bedroom, the Senoras daughter said. This Lethe understood.
Theres coffee here, the daughter pointed in the direction of the counter.
Much gusto, gracias. Lethe replied. Later he wondered whether the coffee had been offered to him.
The Senoras apartment was thoroughly grey. The blankets on the couches were grey. The curtains, while not grey, filtered the light so that the center of the room was a pool of bluish grey. And the little metal ashtrays had heaps of grey ash standing in them. The Senora went around to pick up these ashtrays and she emptied them in the trash while her daughter brought the coffee into the living room.
Lethe didnt even pretend to follow the conversation after the first ten minutes. He just looked about the room in a half-daze, wondering when he would get to see his bedroom. All the syllables and accents blended together; the back and forth of Spanish words grew indistinct. But then the Senora took out a cigarette from her shirt pocket and lit it in front of him. He looked at her intently. She puckered her lips on the cigarette, taking deep drags each time and her face seemed to glow with an extraordinary kind of pleasure. After making these gestures a couple times, Lethe was struck with the impression that he had known the Senora for many years. She seemed familiar to him.
Lethe reached for his cigarettes in his pocket, and Donte turned away, as if averting himself from some terrible thing. But Lethe looked again, and Donte was smiling graciously just as he had smiled when they arrived at the apartment. Now Lethe decided that Dontes smile was a fake one, a buoyant fake smile which almost never went away.
The Senora and Donte were sitting on the couch, facing each other, and the daughter had stopped talking and was writing something down on a piece of paper. It was apparent that she had lost her energy as a host. Meanwhile, Donte continued a conversation with the Senora, who at this point, only seemed to be half-listening to him. Lethe couldnt understand a word he was saying, but he imagined Donte giving the Senora all sorts of good-natured reports, about his old schools, his family, his brother in Cuba. This was fine because Lethe wanted to sit on the couch and smoke his cigarette. A general pleasant feeling came over him, thinking about living here in this apartment.
The Senora nodded her head to show she was listening to Donte. Occasionally she added to the conversation, but mostly it was Donte speaking. While the two of them were more or less occupied, Lethe took the opportunity to steal another glance at the Senora. Her short grey hair appealed to him, close-cropped, even stylish for an older woman. She had a trait of masculinity too, or maybe it was androgyny. She was not feminine, but she was also an older woman, so perhaps women stopped being feminine when they grew older.
And then Lethe reflected on Donte, whose perfect mold of jet-black hair brushed his forehead lightly as he engaged himself in conversation. His skin was a rich carmel-color, like what the carmel looked like when it was in your mouth with the saliva on it, and he resembled a Spaniard even though he was not one.
Afterwards, the Senoras daughter showed Lethe and Donte to their separate rooms. The rooms were also grey, but clean. Each of them had a balcony. Lethe quickly stepped outside onto the balcony.
The pastel stucco buildings that covered the horizon of the city had an artificial quaintness. Lethe puzzled over the beauty for awhile. The mountains in the far distance possessed an undeniable charm. The patios were flower-filled and had shiny white railings. The drapes of the apartments were white lace. The whole Spanish world seemed like a picture of perfection to Lethe, with heightened beauty all around.
Donte knocked on his door and suddenly broke this spell. He wore a hemp purse slung around his right shoulder. Do you want to go for a walk?
Inside the souvenir shops that lined the street, there was a dank smell. The vendors looked up in a mood of semi-irritation and mumbled incoherently into cellphones. Real gypsies reposed on heaps of fabrics with their scrawny, green-eyed children offering trinkets and begging for change.
The city itself was in a hurry. To Lethe, it seemed like everyone was rehearsing for a large theatre production. Chic, well-dressed Spaniards darted at his sides, and businessmen carried brown briefcases with determined faces.
The city had a gothic aspect; stone buildings with grille windows, and narrow, labyrinthine streets. In the air was the smell of fried pastries and the occasional whiff of trash bags.
There were signs, all of them in Spanish. National banks, telephone companies, lottery tickets, fresh vegetables, cigarettes. Lethe studied the letters, but he was unable to decode their meanings. The strong presence of foreign words, words that couldn't be ignored, words that appeared in big and small lettering everywhere you looked, added to the strangeness of his first experience in the city.
Spanish women wore provocative clothing. Lethe saw one woman in a black, elegant summer dress without any underwear. He walked behind her for a long while. Then he declared, Im in love.
With whom? Donte looked around.
Im in love with this fucking place.
Its not that bad.
Not that bad. Its incredible. I cant believe were actually here. Now, what are we going to do?"
--Scenes from the Novel of Life