My Nobel Prize
[ fiction - october 06 ]
The dinner for Alejandro Ruiz was at the Spanish embassy and a friend of mine who works there wangled me an invitation. I started reading English translations of his novels after he won the Nobel Prize in 1994 and was eager to meet him even though I speak no Spanish, and he speaks no English. I practiced a few Spanish phrases, put on my black dress, and took a taxi from my apartment in Georgetown to the embassy.
I knew that Ruiz was seventy-five years old, and that his second wife, Sonya, was my age - thirty-six. In the dining room, I was clearly among the third-class seats, beside a sour cultural attaché who had been seconded at the last minute to round out the table and was fuming at missing World Cup reruns on cable. On my other side sat a French diplomat, who confided that he had agreed to attend the dinner in return for using the embassy limo to pick up his girlfriend at Dulles the next day. It was the weekend before Election Day, so after both had assured me that Al Gore would bury George W Bush at the polls on Tuesday, we subsided into silence.
Just before dessert, the ambassador asked Ruiz to speak. The guest of honor raised his eyebrows and sucked in his cheeks as if abashed, and then unfolded himself, like a black-clad grasshopper, from his place. He spoke in Spanish, waited for his interpreter to continue in English, then bowed and sat down. After dinner, I found him in a study off the foyer, signing copies of After Everything, the English translation of his most recent novel. He handed a book back to the woman before him and said, “Voilà!"
I teetered before him on high heels and blurted, “Mais, vous parlez français!" I had kept my distance all evening and now, as I was about to leave, I learned we had a language in common.
“Mais si, je parle français," he smiled and took my hand. “You're French? And what is your name?"
Realizing I was standing before the writer I most admired in the world, I was unable to speak, and could only stare at his shoes as he held my hand.
“I wish I had brought one of your books," I said. In fact, I had been holding out to borrow After Everything from the Georgetown library rather than buy it.
“Come to my hotel in the morning, and I'll sign it."
“I couldn't possibly disturb you."
“It's no trouble," he insisted. “I'm at the Jefferson. Do you know where that is?"
I nodded and he squeezed my hand again.
It was after midnight when I got home, changed and set out again on my bicycle to the one bookstore in Washington where I could buy After Everything at that hour. Then I wrote down the evening in my journal, fearful of forgetting anything. I stayed up past two o'clock, leaning on my Larousse unabridged French dictionary as I drafted a note thanking him for the pleasure of his acquaintance and his novels. I didn't want to sleep for fear of waking and learning I had dreamt it all.
Washington stays warm through early November, so I dressed in just a cardigan and skirt before cycling through sunshine and burnt-orange leaves to the corner of 16th and L Streets, certain that circumstances or my nerve would fail me, and I would end up just leaving the note at the hotel. I didn't dare leave my bicycle in front of the Jefferson, and was locking it to a street sign around the corner when I heard women's voices: Ruiz's wife and the interpreter walked past me down the street.
I telephoned up to his room, my confidence and excitement ebbing. What if I woke him? I imagined a phlegmy cough and stertorous, old-man throat-clearing. I don't recall if he said “Allo" or “Hola" - only that he promised to come downstairs, and that before I could find a bathroom to brush my hair and blot the bicycle grease on my wrist, the elevator opened and he appeared and I was as mesmerized and wooden as the night before.
“Bonjour," he shook my hand and led me back to an alcove off the lobby. He sat beside me on the couch, I held out the book with a barrage of frilly thanks, and he wrote, after I spelled my name: “À Lucy, de Alejandro Ruiz." As he wrote, he leaned closer, until his thigh and knee were pressed against mine like a blood-pressure cuff. I nearly laughed at this clumsy move, and burbled questions about his work and where he lived.
He answered deliberately, “We live on one of the islands in the Ionian Sea, because it's beautiful and remote. You know, I finished After Everything three years ago. I've written a new book but it will take a year to translate. You can read Spanish can't you?"
“Well, it's not that different from French."
“I'll send you a copy."
“But will you ever be back in Washington? May I write to you?"
"Of course." He wrote an address and fax number. "I'll be traveling for the next few months." He stood up and when I followed, gingerly testing my leg, he took me in his arms.
"I am so glad to meet you," he said, and kissed me before I could fret about whether or not I had brushed my teeth. He kissed me again and again, and then, with his arm tight around me, I staggered down the lobby and out the door. On the sidewalk I looked back again at the hotel, and almost expected to see my bicycle gone, or replaced by a huge bed of fragrant hyacinths on the sidewalk. I put my book and envelope into the basket and rode home, my lungs almost too full of sweet warm air to be able to contain myself.
Normal life resumed on Monday and I returned to the newspaper where I have worked for almost ten years, and tried not to wonder if I would hear from him again. Two weeks later, a fax arrived with barely a paragraph of text.
"Kefallinia, November 2000,
My dear friend - I begin traveling soon and tomorrow I leave for Madrid. I'll be there all weekend, and I'll try to call you on Saturday or Sunday. I don't know what is going to happen. Alejandro.
Almost five years later, I don't know what was most intoxicating - that someone appeared to be falling in love with me, that Alejandro was a famous writer, or that we could only communicate in French, and there was a thrilling difference between our ages. I couldn't understand why a man with a beautiful and seemingly devoted wife would bother pursuing a stranger in America. I remembered Sonya as plump, brunette and tanned. I am wiry and thin, with the blue eyes and fair skin of my Irish parents, and although I also have inherited their Catholic faith, I did nothing to stop Alejandro.
He called from Rome and we spoke for the first time since the Jefferson Hotel, in halting, self-conscious French. I laughed often from nerves and excitement, while Alejandro's laugh started out as a low giggle and then took on surprising life, spreading like a concertina of croaks. It was six o'clock in Washington and after midnight in Italy, but he kept talking, since the next day his book tour brought him to Africa and he didn't know when he would be able to call again. Finally, he said, "It's time to say good night. I must tell you - I love you."
I was balancing, storklike, on one bare foot in my kitchen, with the other foot curled against my knee. "Yes," I answered. "I know. I love you, too." I didn't feel that I was exaggerating, since after a divorce and a handful of romances gone awry, I had a shaky grasp of love. An old man calling from far away to tell me how much he adored me in a language that was native to neither of us made me as happy as anyone had.
I pitched along on limerence over the next few weeks, living for the chirp and crackle and tenuous connections of international calls. I edited financial news, unfazed by the fight over the election and the fact that weeks after the polls had closed, Americans still didn't know if their next president would be George W Bush or Al Gore. Alejandro's novel - this one inscribed, "À Lucy, avec tendresse et amour," - had arrived, and at night I was trudging through it with my Spanish dictionary, in hopes that reading the words aloud, as he recommended, would make them more comprehensible.
In November, he called from Cairo and asked if I would join him in South America. His schedule was packed, but if I flew to Lima in mid-December, we could have a weekend to explore Macchu Pichu, before his obligations resumed on Monday. It wasn't exactly an invitation, since there was no talk of covering my plane fare or five nights in hotels, but in hours, I had made my reservations. I couldn't leave the country without telling my parents, and over Thanksgiving, I confided all to Mummy, who was appalled: "I don't care what prize he's won, he's a dirty old man! Lucy, you'll regret this."
"Mummy, it's just a lark! It's not going to hurt anyone. And it's hardly costing me anything, since I'm using frequent-flyer miles and the hotels are so cheap."
My brother Charles couldn't stop laughing: "Heading to the Third World for a blind date with a centenarian and his oxygen tank? You're out of your mind."
The worn Let's Go: Peru guide that I checked out of the library was no more reassuring, with its descriptions of Shining Path ambushes and foodborne bacteria that survived boiling and cooking. But I glided through the office Christmas party, packed my clothes and rations of candy bars, and left Washington the day after Gore conceded.
I arrived at midnight, reassured by Lima's grand Country Club Hotel. The receptionist said I had no messages, and a somber bellboy brought me to my room, where I brushed my teeth with bottled water and wrote in my journal. I woke with an excitement that I have not felt since childhood Christmases and as I wondered how to extinguish the hours before Alejandro flew in from Montevideo, the telephone rang and I heard a voice that was pleasant but with a peremptory edge: "Is that Lucy? This is Carolina Ochoa."
Alejandro had said someone in public relations from his publishing house would call, and I was eager to shake her. "I'm here working on an article and I've got a lot of reporting to do before Macchu Pichu this weekend."
"We're going to have such a fun time!"
I thought: "We are?" and said, "I look forward to meeting you tomorrow."
I had left winter in Washington and here it was summer: I could see palm trees on the golf course and the blue shimmer of a swimming pool. I had a breakfast of Evian water and four squares of a Super Chunky from my suitcase, and set off to explore.
I returned at five o'clock for tea, and watched a group of women having a baby shower, an activity that seemed a wholesome contrast to my hunching over a pot of Darjeeling and a sandwich of cured ham, waiting to ambush a married man.
Eight o'clock came, then eight-thirty, then nine forty-five. I tried to write, but my giddy penstrokes produced flicks and slashes, not words, across the ruled pages. I almost hoped that everything would be derailed with one phone call from Alejandro in Uruguay or Carolina in Lima, scuttling the weekend. I don't have my mother's instincts - if I did, I certainly wouldn't have encouraged Alejandro, much less traveled to Peru - but I do have her gift for premonition and I sensed that the reunion was moments away.
I heard a knock and hurtled across the room. I opened the door, saw Alejandro, who hugged me and jostled us inside, showing surprising deftness as he kicked the door closed and started scrabbling away at my clothes. While I pass unmindful through mundane swathes of life, at moments of grief or joy such as this, I mentally step back and watch and record what's afoot in my body and mind. I forgot about being happy to see Alejandro, and was relieved that I had not - yet - made a fool of myself, that I had not traveled thousands of miles to be stood up. At home, I had studied Alejandro's photograph and been mesmerized by his voice on the telephone, but hadn't decided much beyond that, even though I knew he hadn't summoned me to South America for glasses of sherry and conversation about literature.
Before we had exchanged a handful of sentences - again, he displayed impressive dispatch at getting right into bed and to the matter at hand - it was all over. With the sustained squeak of a triumphant blue jay, he flopped back in the darkness beside me. After he had caught his breath, he described the farewell he had received from Montevideo and the even more effusive welcome on the tarmac in Lima. Then he said he had to return to his room, since we had an early start the next day. I wanted to be alone and absorb what had happened, so I didn't protest, just sat wrapped in the sheets as he dressed, folded his socks into his pocket and laced his shoes up over bare feet.
In the morning, we waited in the lobby and a woman of about forty appeared, trim and energetic in tight jeans, a wide belt and sleeveless shirt.
"Buenos días! Good morning! I'm Carolina. The taxi's out front." She alternated between Spanish for Alejandro and English for me, a diastema between pointy front teeth that tapered like shiny white candy corn making her smile appear extraordinarily broad. We jolted out to the airport, and now that the tension of reuniting with Alejandro was spent, I was happy and weary and wished that we could pass the weekend in the Country Club Hotel, and forget Macchu Pichu and Carolina. It wasn't even 5:30 in the morning, but she kept up a rat-a-tat-tat of conversation, chattering over her shoulder to us and spraying the driver with occasional imperatives.
Although Alejandro's passport drew some signs of recognition from the Aeroperu agent, we were shunted into the same waiting room with the other passengers, and after an enervating wait, we shuffled out to the plane. I wanted the dynamic among the three of us to sort itself out, wondering why Alejandro was paying Carolina so much attention. He stashed me in the seat at the end of our row - "You'll want to see out the window, won't you?" - and planted himself contentedly between the two of us, where he could turn to tease me in French and Carolina in Spanish. I futilely tried to get him to swivel only to me, and leave Carolina to her pouches of travel documents and the pen in a plastic lariat around her neck.
In Cuzco I pulled ahead and walked briskly to the terminal. Carolina called out, "Lucy, watch out for soroche! Your first day here, you have to take it slow." She was right: the few paces to the building nearly felled me. But aboard the helicopter for Macchu Pichu, my energy returned and I was pleased that the two-by-two seating had finally isolated us - if only by several rows - from Carolina. After transferring from helicopter to bus to van, we tramped around Macchu Pichu with a Quechua guide. Alejandro held my hand as we walked the first part of the trail and kissed me when Carolina asked us to pose for pictures. But every high point - Alejandro saying he loved me or his being recognized by tourists chanting a chorus of "premio Nobel" - was countered by a low one. Carolina asked me to take pictures, and soon Alejandro was kissing her at every photograph, and strolling with an arm around both of us. I laughed because I couldn't storm back to the van to the bus to the launch pad, then commandeer the helicopter back to Cuzco and attempt to find the hotel where our bags had gone. I couldn't let on that I cared at all.
Under a cold drizzle, we slogged through the sites and then stopped for lunch, where a spate of VIP treatment soothed my scalded heart. Carolina scurried ahead and by the time Alejandro and I reached the restaurant, a table was ready in a room apart from the other tourists. I had my first solid meal since leaving Washington, and then for a leaden two hours, the rain fell and Carolina talked while we waited for the bus back to the helicopter. As we descended, Alejandro, asked if everything was all right.
"Back there," I shook my head at the mountain behind us. "I don't understand what you were doing with her." I kept my voice low, even though Carolina, who was seated several rows ahead, couldn't understand French.
"It's nothing!" Alejandro shook his head impatiently. "You know we were just joking."
I remembered Mummy's warning, "They're all the same, these loose ones - a girl in every port." She and my father have been happily married for 53 years, so she lacks all experience of "loose ones," but she was right. I reminded myself that this was just a lark, but couldn't shake the regret or disappointment.
At our hotel in Cuzco, altitude sickness kicked in again, but I still crept into Alejandro's immense suite for a searingly uncomfortable bout that ended just as his telephone rang. I knew it was his wife, and as he murmured into the receiver I dressed and stumbled back to my room, fearful that I would faint in the hall. I limped through the evening, wondering if it was simply psychosomatic misery and not mountain fever that had affected me but spared Carolina and Alejandro. I went to bed and by morning had recovered enough to be able to gaze at food during breakfast without retching. I adjusted to the thinner air just the Macchu Pichu adventure was over and it was time to leave.
After we landed in Lima, Carolina seemed to catch a second wind, energized by the mindless talk with which she killed time in airports and taxi queues. As she leapt from weather to hairstyles to the latest celebrity news, she radiated exuberance, her maroon-varnished nails tearing over her cellphone. I understood my usual fraction of what she was telling Alejandro in Spanish, but enough to know that the next twelve hours involved parading Alejandro around before various audiences. Late that night, Carolina drove us back to the hotel, where he let me stay in his room, and fell asleep the second he was under the sheets, his breathing a measured snuffle.
Alejandro winced at the breakfast buffet's swath of domed chafing dishes, ice-filled tubs of yogurt and juices, and epergnes of pineapple and melon. At first, he held his plate against his chest, skirting the serving stations like a giraffe or an ostrich fending off the assault of choices.
"It's all too much," he murmured, reluctantly assembling a generous nest of ham, cheese and sausages. As we ate, I felt that this was what being the lover of a famous man should be all about because even if the staff didn't recognized Alejandro, we were afforded hovering attention, probably because we were ridiculously dressed up for breakfast. I liked that, and, with the fiasco of Macchu Pichu already fading, imagined future rendez-vous - at hotels across Europe and in the United States.
Christmas was less than a week away, but it was strange to hear electronic carols and see blinking lights framing the station that held the toaster. Alejandro leaned back in his chair, humming and singing along in Latin with "Adeste Fideles," and I imagined he was thinking about returning home to Sonya. I, on the other hand, would return to an empty apartment in Washington, have Christmas with my parents in Connecticut and then spend New Year's in Rome with my brother and his wife.
"You don't celebrate Christmas, do you?" I asked tentatively, since he had written so scathingly about Catholicism.
"Of course!" he answered. "My daughter will come from Spain, we'll have friends over for dinner. It's a wonderful time." He resumed singing, and I reflected on the contrast between our outlooks: This breakfast was a highlight of my year, but Alejandro was barely there, already focused on a further horizon. There was no lingering, because he had a press conference and Carolina was coming to collect us. We arranged to meet in the lobby in ten minutes, but Alejandro was not to be found. He didn't answer the door or telephone in his room, and I skittered frantically around the verandas and terraces, hoping to find him on one of the couches, his long dark legs crossed before him. I asked at the front desk, and learned that Mr Ruiz had been collected a few minutes earlier. He had ditched me, not wanting to risk having me around during questions by television crews and the international press. I went back to my room and lay on the bed, the wind knocked out of me.
Two hours later, there was nothing to do but smile when Carolina's Ford Escort station wagon rolled up the hotel driveway, with Alejandro propped in the passenger seat. I gave him a chilly glance and a few arch French phrases, practiced to crisp perfection before the mirror in my bathroom. I also offered, from my perch atop the hump of the back seat, an enthusiastic fabricated account of a morning devoted to sightseeing and calls with the newspaper in Washington.
That evening, Alejandro was going to give an address at the University of Lima. I was tempted to stay behind but feared that if I let him out of my sight I would never see him again. I dressed and ran down the hall and knocked at his door. He did not answer, and I waited desperately outside, got hold of myself and returned to my room, where I packed my bag so there would be nothing I had to do except dress for my early-morning flight. I returned to his room and could hear him on the telephone, laughing softly. I waited until his voice stopped, knocked again and he finally opened the door, looking impatient. "What's wrong?"
I began to cry.
"What is this?"
"It's nothing," I was too embarrassed to explain that I was disappointed and angry with myself for having at having gone along and laughed off circumstances that at home would have been unthinkable.
"I don't want to come," I said. "I'm going to stay here."
"You must!" he exclaimed, insisting that things wouldn't go too late and promising, like a bank teller offering a lollipop to a child, that since it would be our last night together, he would sleep in my room.
I sat alone in the back of the auditorium at the University of Lima, as the bleachers and folding chairs around me filled. The program began and Alejandro spoke, after acknowledging the crowd's standing ovation with ecclesiastical gestures - palms crossed over his breast, head lowered and shoulders bent in modesty. I tried to understand his Spanish for a few minutes and then daydreamed as my eyes, irritated by four days of contact lenses and copious tears, expelled my right lens, leaving me to stare at a blurry screen projection of Alejandro in his dark suit and white shirt behind the rostrum. I couldn't take out the other contact until the dinner afterward, where I made it through cocktails and lingered at the buffet, hoping Alejandro or Carolina would beckon me to their table. I soldiered through the evening until Carolina at last drove us to the hotel.
Alejandro showed up in dressing gown and slippers, looking somber and clearly not disposed to rehash the evening or my dissatisfaction about it. I tried not to estimate how many women in hotels around the world had seen his pajamas and under how many beds those worn leather slippers had been arranged with their pointy toes and narrow heels aligned. His face was grey with fatigue and he murmured about where we next should meet. "Paris?" he asked. "Firenze? Venezia? I'm getting email in January, and that's how we'll stay in touch when I can't telephone. And now we have to sleep."
At dawn, we walked out to the hall and said goodbye.
It was snowing in Washington - an emphatic, if picturesque, contrast with Lima. I felt bruised, rooked, duped and happy to be home. But I also felt bereft and could not keep from crying as I unpacked my suitcase and did laundry, without a call from Alejandro to say that he missed me.
Christmas with family was a tonic and New Year's in Rome with Charles and Mary even better. I wandered around Saint Peter's and a nearby bookstore, where I bought overpriced paperback English translations of three of Alejandro's novels. I still had read three of his books, and was inching through the Spanish edition of his latest. I could neither write nor telephone him, just wait. On New Year's Eve, Charles, Mary and I had dinner and then went to the roof of our hotel, watched fireworks explode across the city, and made wishes and resolutions for 2001.
I resolved to live in the same city as Charles and Mary, which meant finding a job in New York. I returned to Washington and just as I was succeeding in peeling my thoughts away from Alejandro, I found a phone message - a collage of long-distance garble and breathy pauses from which it was clear that he loved and missed me more than ever. I was transported by these words, and carried further aloft by an email message he sent the next day, the first, he claimed, to have dispatched in his life. I tried not to be too cautious, and just wrote how I felt when I thought about Alejandro before Peru, before I got to know him at all, when he was still nearly a stranger, but someone whom I felt I loved not just because he was handsome in a tall and spindly way, with white wisps of hair, but because of how he understood and wrote about people. I thought about how much I loved and knew the man who had been nothing more to me than a photo on the back of books that revealed dignity and distinction in ostensibly dull and sad lives. We tried to top one another's command of French, and I scoured my dictionary for graceful new idiomatic expressions.
The only people who knew were Mummy and Charles and Mary. I reassured myself that this hardly even counted as an affair, no matter what swooning declarations of love he vowed on the telephone or the Internet. I never dared to ask why he spent so much time apart from Sonya. I didn't like to think about her at all, and was pleased that I had only a blurry recollection from dinner at the Spanish embassy and outside the Jefferson Hotel the next morning. When I imagined that somehow Alejandro would chose me over her and one day ask me to live with him in Greece, I became terrified, and calmed down only when I realized that that would never happen.
In February, I got an offer from a New York newspaper, and within a month, I had left Washington. I was in the city I loved, just a subway ride from Charles and Mary, and a trip on MetroNorth from my parents. At night, when I walked through the canyons of the financial district to my apartment, I knew that I was not alone because Alejandro had my phone number and email address. I wrote to him as I stared out across the Hudson from my perch on the 32nd floor, describing the lighted silhouette of the Verrazano bridge, the green thickets of Battery Park and the sound of tugboats and ferries on the river.
In my calendar I charted his travel, going along with his half-hearted madcap proposals that I join him in Guatemala City or Rome for a day, only to be relieved when the invitation was rescinded, because Sonya had decided to come along. Alejandro's suggestion that I write him real letters, not just emails, and send them to a complicit friend in Madrid, who would hand them over when he was in the city for a book festival in March.
While I welcomed the opportunity to get out the deckle-edged ecru bond stationery and my Montblanc pen, I was also daunted by having to write to a Nobel prize winner, in a language that wasn't my own, or, thankfully, his, on the subject shared by painters, poets and rock lyricists: love. I concocted a saccharine parcel of nothingness - a package of letters in my half-calligraphied copper plate wrapped in pink and lace ribbon, the paper so suffocatingly laced with Chanel 19 eau de parfum it would probably stun the beagles in Customs. I didn't hear from Alejandro for more than a fortnight and knew that Sonya was along on this trip, so calling me would be more difficult. But once back in Greece, he called and insisted that they were "les plus belles lettres" he had ever received in his life. He was long on ardor and short on specifics, and while I was delighted, and persuaded he actually had read some of them, I was too careful to ask where the letters were now and if they had made it home in his suitcase or been dumped in a wastepaper basket at a hotel, or left with his friend in Madrid to be laughed over and thrown away.
Alejandro reveled in the one-way correspondence, just as he remembered verbatim the praise he received in awards ceremonies and readings. Much of our telephone time was devoted to his unironic narrations of these encomia: the professor in Madrid's heartfelt: "Thank you for living," and the critic who had crowned him as another Shakespeare. In the spring, he was briefly in California, to speak at UCLA. He was alone, and invited me to come out for the twelve hours between his last engagement and the flight home. I researched airfares and schedules but demurred, saying I couldn't take time away from my new job. I smelled doom and although I stayed in New York, I still bombarded his Beverly Hills hotel with faxes and phone calls. I heard about the VIP tour of the Getty Center, the lunch beside the Pacific and the beautiful weather, and knew that I was beginning to choose wisely.
He called from Venice on my birthday in June with an extravagant present: the promise of a reunion. Dartmouth planned to honor him in September, and since Sonya was not coming, he would come to New York before going to New England. I was overjoyed and skeptical, and in subsequent emails and phone calls pried for news of the logistics. Why couldn't I meet his plane at Kennedy and travel with him to New Hampshire? That, he explained, was out of the question because officials and journalists, not to mention acquaintances from Dartmouth, would be there and insist on accompanying him to Hanover. But, he relented, perhaps I could book a room at the hotel where he would be. Yes, he had receptions and readings, but he would make sure we had some time together. I knew what he proposed was humiliating, but it was also the only event to which I could look forward. Life in New York bowled along pleasantly, but I was working hard and had made few friends outside the newsroom.
Things took an odd turn in July, when his emails abruptly became more frequent and devoted. He wasn't traveling, but home in Greece for several weeks, and following his urgent lead, I stepped up the tone of my own messages. I wrote that I could barely sleep for joy at seeing him in September, that I dreamed of having his child, who would be handsome, tall and thin like his father. I regretted the words the minute I sent them, fearing they would be met with silence or disapproval. But Alejandro was captivated: "What you write cannot be," he answered. "But I also cannot stop thinking about it and loving you with a love I never thought possible. An old man does not expect such things. Welcome to our life together." It reminded me of a vending machine: clink in more sentiment and, in turn, more is rendered. When I wrote heedlessly, he did the same, like a dancer following my steps. However, he had far more to lose in this than I did, and proceeded to tread recklessly. He wrote that he never imagined he could love two women like this, and yet he could. He didn't want to keep his joyful secret from Sonya or lie to her, so he had mentioned me and, instead of exploding, she was thoughtful and calm, even curious to meet me.
I read this news balefully, knowing that it meant we were finished. A wife would always triumph over a sort-of girlfriend, and there was no way Sonya would tolerate this. I wrote that I was very worried; he reassured me that Sonya was mature and kind, and that if she said she was fine with our relationship, then we should all be happy. But I knew better and wasn't surprised by his next message, that Sonya had become distraught, cried incessantly and stared at him, asking "Porqué? Porqué?" He tried to explain to her that his relationship with me wouldn't affect their marriage, but she was disconsolate and he feared that he, too, was near a breakdown.
The words made me weep more from rage than sorrow. This was veering from the usual course of sentiments, and while I was delighted to read what he felt about me, I didn't want to learn about Sonya and how shattered she was. I usually pretended that she didn't exist, or thought of her fondly, since she was the one who had to live with him - cook meals, get disheveled, become irritated - heightening the contrast with his remote correspondent, and putting me in enticing relief. I wondered how a man who wrote with such empathy for the human condition could be so obtuse when it came to his own wife, like the people in magazine articles on infidelity who claim that affairs actually strengthened their marriages. How could he possibly think that she would react to his confession with anything other than rage or sorrow? Could he actually believe his words: "My wife and I have been together a long time and this will make us stronger."
I waited not one but two days before replying, because in English, French, Spanish or Greek, I had nothing to say. When the romantic veneer was stripped from our relationship, little was left and I was haunted by the image of a heartbroken wife mooning around the house in Greece. I also feared that Alejandro would write or call and plead with me to drop everything and come and live with him. But while I liked the idea of meeting in hotels and holding hands at meals, I couldn't imagine a real life together, and knew I could never leave the city and work I loved for another country and in effect, a stranger, thousands of miles away.
I didn't write that it had to end, since there was so little to end - just an email every ten days or so, and the dwindling thrill of one or two phone calls a month from faraway hotels. I would be giving up nothing but a secret, a slightly glamorous and scandalous loophole, and a figment of romance that was safely far off but real enough to console in in the moments when I imagined myself the only divorced and lonely person in New York.
I drafted a few flimsy lines saying I loved him and just wanted to see him again. He replied faster than ever before, his anger flaring like a slap across the ocean, berating me for my insensitive wish that he "be happy" when his marriage and world were collapsing, his wife abject. I was a "naive child," albeit one he loved. I read this and gasped, then thought: How dare you! Who's in torment now? And whose idea was it to tell her, anyway?
In just a month I was supposed to see him, but we still hadn't worked out our New York meeting and the Dartmouth arrangements. I didn't want another humiliation à la Lima, and besides, we would be among New England academics, who would be more difficult to hoodwink and far less indulgent than the Peruvians. I didn't reply the following day, nor the following week nor the one after that. My silence declared that he had hurt me, and while I mentally forgave all and was looking forward to seeing him, I held out for an olive branch.
But there was no telephone call or email; August ended, September began and then on a sunny Tuesday, two days before Alejandro was to arrive in New York, the Twin Towers fell. The newspaper's offices across the street were destroyed and my apartment building three blocks away was evacuated. I grabbed my passport and wallet and with a bandanna tied over my nose and mouth, tramped to Charles and Mary's apartment on the Upper West Side. I stopped at a Kinko's near Columbia, where the air wasn't heavy with soot and smoke, and sent an email to Alejandro. In the daze of September 12 and 13 and 14, as I tried to piece my life together by buying clothes and working in a temporary newsroom, I heard nothing. The airports were closed so he couldn't have arrived, but I thought it would have been kind of him to check in even if we were never to meet again.
On September 20th, his email arrived. I wrote back that I was all right and when he called the next day, I said that I loved him and that nothing had changed between the two of us, whatever that meant. "Nothing has changed," he agreed, before promising to call soon. But he didn't call and instead wrote another email, apologizing for disrupting my life, and asking me to forgive him, since he wanted just to be at peace with Sonya. I replied that I would do whatever he would like, that I loved him and also wanted peace. His reply was swift and terse, continuing from the ominous subject line: "Nous sommes assez adultes..." - We are both sufficiently grown up... - "to know that this cannot go on. I ask you not to reply to this message."
I didn't reply. I was free. I called Mummy, as I always do when I cry, and I could hear her relief that things were over. I, too, am relieved, and all that remains are this story, and a mountaintop in South America that saw us at our best.