Authors: Gonzalo Torne
THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK
PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF
Translation copyright Â© 2016 by Megan McDowell
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in Spain as
Divorcio en el aire
by Literatura Random House, an imprint of Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial, Barcelona, in 2013. Copyright Â© 2013 by Gonzalo TornÃ©. This translation simultaneously published in hardcover in Great Britain by Harvill Secker, a division of Penguin Random House Ltd., London.
Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Grateful acknowledgment is made to EMI Music Publishing Spain SA for permission to reprint an excerpt from “Mi Vida Rosa,” written by Pedro Lopez Moreno, Juan Antonio Morcillo Cozar, and Miguel Angel Villanueva Caballero.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Names: TornÃ© de la Guardia, Gonzalo, [date] author. | McDowell, Megan, translator.
Title: Divorce is in the air : a novel / Gonzalo TornÃ©.
Other titles: Divorcio en el aire. English
Description: First edition. | New York, New York : Knopf, 2016. | “This is a Borzoi Book published by Alfred A. Knopf” â Verso title page. | “Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell”âCIP data view.
Identifiers: LCCN 2016012762 (print) | LCCN 2016022496 (ebook) | ISBN 9780385354028 (hardcover) | ISBN 9780385354035 (ebook) | ISBN 9780451494245 (open market)
Subjects: LCSH: Divorced menâFiction. | Life change eventsâFiction. | MemoryâFiction. | Hallucinations and illusionsâFiction. | Barcelona (Spain)âFiction. | Madrid (Spain)âFiction. | Psychological fiction. |
BISAC: FICTION / Literary. | FICTION / Psychological. | FICTION / Urban Life. | GSAFD: Love stories.
Classification: LCC PQ6720.O764 D5813 2016 (print) | LCC PQ6720.O764 (ebook)| DDC 863/.7âdc23 LC record available at
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Cover design by Oliver Munday
What could be a finer thing to live with than a high spirit attuned to softness?
I know well
You are not infallible
And how your pony's eye darkened larger
e went to the spa to save what was left of our damned marriage.
With only that goal in mind, I climbed into the driver's seat of the rented red CitroÃ«n, its gear stick so hard to handle it could have run us off the road any second, and I got down to negotiating the curvy road under the vigilant gaze of those medieval towns that in Catalonia sprout from the hills like giant stone mushrooms.
The mountains were gathered into soft crests, and the arid landscape sloped gently down into fields of rye and wheat. We drove along a road still slippery after a storm that had forced us to hole up for hours in a service station, where Helen's parents had dropped two hundred euros on souvenirs.
The afternoon was warm, as if a touch of April had been mixed in with November, which for its part was still sloughing off poplar leaves into the rushing Corb River. It was oddly disheartening to watch the water's muddy surface bucking like the back of a live animal as it flowed through the riverbed's ravines and around its twists and turns. According to the map we were less than five kilometers away. As we rounded an unexpectedly wide bend that opened to our right, I could see Helen in the passenger-side mirror, chewing on the nail of her index finger, her blue gaze fixed on the cigarette she was holding out the window so the smoke wouldn't annoy her father. The boy in the backseat chewing gum couldn't hide the fact that, with the set of his cheeks and the generous cut of his lips, he was a more stylized and robust combination of the genes of Helen's parents, who sat on either side of him. The highway narrowed into a road that dipped toward a wooded area, and I heard the luggage start bouncing in the trunk.
When the tortured river crossed the car's path again, we drove over a bridge and came to the end of a ribbon of earthen road edged by tall, decorative trees that offered no shade. It led to the imposing manor house the local government had raised from ruin to turn the place into a health spa.
I parked on a stretch of gravel near a square swimming pool devoid of swimmers and a terrace with rustic tables and plastic chairs. I took my small suitcase from the trunk, and while Helen's parents organized their sacks and bags, American items, and the knickknacks they'd bought as gifts, I looked out over the waves of grain that yellowed the mountains. In the distance I saw irrigation canals lined with sheds that might have housed animals. Before Helenâharassed by the boy and his curiosityâcould start nagging me to help her with the giant suitcase she'd brought from Montana, I was startled by the movement of a toad bouncing in and out of the weeds, leaping like a viscous green heart. From every balcony hung a pot of pink dianthus.
We unloaded the car and I let Helen go ahead with her parents and the kid; I needed to stretch my legs before checking in. Here and there, pale patrons strolled. I noticed one jaunty figure in a robe, fanning itself; it greeted me by doffing its hat. The head was shaved but there was a dusting of fuzz, like mocha sprinkles clinging to the skull. The most exciting thing on the terrace was watching the treetops absorb the light, so I headed inside to have a look around.
Helen and family were waiting in line at the other end of a large hall decorated with chandeliers and shelves where porcelain jars were displayed: pennyroyal, verbena, sarsaparilla, and other herbs. I was greeted by an obese woman with a web of varicose veins that seemed to be barely holding the flesh of her shanks in place. When she flashed me a sexless smile I averted my eyes. My soul sank when I noticed the glass wall that gave onto the exercise room beyond: some old people were swimming, frog-like, and others were struggling to flap their arms to the rhythm set by an instructor.
I saw one woman with skin so covered in yellow spots she seemed to be rusting, and a guy so overexerting himself it looked like he was swelling with helium; at any moment his face could have burst. I couldn't imagine why they would submit to those sadistic exercises, what kind of promises they'd been made. Were they hoping to strengthen their hearts, make their skin less parchment-like, unclog their intestines? After seventy years of wear and tear, wasn't it enough that they were still standing?
I'd driven over two hours from the Claris hotel in a cramped car with barely enough room to change gears; my knees hurt and hunger was starting to gnaw. I surveyed the tables to see if they were serving snacks with the drinks, and it was then I saw a black boy of twelve or so swoop across the room like a breath of fresh air, zigzagging among the chairs, his arms stretched wide. I figured he'd left something in his room and had turned himself into a flying creature to go back and get it. I was happy for him: kids with imagination are never alone. What made me saddest for Helen's kid was that, when it came to make-believe, his head was all dried up. He'd just sit there in the hotel rooms looking at me like an idiot. I know it wasn't an easy situation, but I'm sure his father had introduced him to one or two substitute mothers back in Montana, and for a clever boy three days should be long enough to adapt and to stop being paralyzed every time he laid eyes on me. Anyway, I look more WASPy than any of those Midwestern farmers, so he should have felt right at home.
I searched for a black-skinned adult among the bathers emerging from the water, their hair in clumps like starfish hitched to their heads. Then I looked at the sedated mummies deliberating between ordering a cup of tea and tempting a heart attack, and I finally caught sight of a long finger, dark like damp velvet, hovering over one of the tables. In his yellow shirt the man looked like a spot of India ink in human form. He was focused on pouring milk into his tea, which he did so slowly it curdled into a milky brain that he dissolved with two stirs of the spoon. I like black people, and although I'd never actually met one before, my feelings toward them were warm. I love how flexible their bodies are, though I think it's probably their skeletons that keep them from being good swimmersâtoo much cartilage. The one at the spa was an impressive specimen. From his trunk sprouted legs and arms so long it looked like he could kick or pick up any object in the room without even rising from his chair. I must have been standing there admiring him awhile, because when our gazes locked, the eyes floating in his sockets were hard.
I turned my head and saw
dragging the suitcases and his feet down the corridor; only in the occasional gesture could you intuit the lion he'd been, still alive somewhere inside that disintegrating body. Helen's mother followed a half-meter behind him, enveloped in a cloud of cosmetics. She and I were never exactly going to get cozy: the two occasions we'd been alone together she spent the whole time chewing English words into a mush that sounded Gaelic. In any case, the next day they'd be getting on a plane and vanishing from my life.
When I turned back, Helen was alone at the counter. I picked up her suitcase and let her go ahead with the key.
I love hotel rooms. They play such an important role in how a couple's relationship develops: I adore those prologues and counterpoints to domestic sex, the injection of the clandestine. But I had spent the whole car trip feeling only apathy when I imagined the moment we'd be left alone in our room, and I didn't know how my libido was going to respond after five months of separation. It seems supernatural, the way girls swell up and bulge out to become copies of their mothers. I'd spent the day with the flabby version of Helen's pink and lively body, its soft, damp folds blurred in oily protuberances, and it hadn't exactly been stimulating.
I got over that foolishness when I saw the way her shape (so full of vitality it always seemed the life would just come spilling out of her) climbed the stairs, managing to carry my small suitcase without losing the side-to-side sway of her hips. The whole time we'd been married that shimmy was all it took to make the voices in my head quit their absurd, disjointed chatter and join together in a chorus to demand a single thing: the very thing we were about to spend the next half hour doing.
Helen couldn't get the door open so I unlocked it, glancing surreptitiously at the surely creaky bed. We left the suitcases on the floor. A joke of a desk, a full-length mirror, a window displaying vistas of fir trees, and a bathroom with a shower stall. Helen started doing Jovanotti-style calisthenics, and the sight of the translucent down sprouting under her arm had me poised and about to dive in, but right then the boy barged into the room blaring like a trumpet, and I plopped down into a chair instead. The kid should have been off playing in the corridor; indignation crept up from my belly.
“You're sitting down? You're not going to help me unpack?”
Despite the sharp edges of her shoddy Spanish, I knew she said it with the best of intentions, without a trace of reproach. She must have felt a bit dazed after that two-hour trip cooped up with Daddy; in her voice there was even a hint of tenderness she'd dredged up from who knows where. She was trying her best, for both our sakes.
“Nagging already. We're off to a bad start.”
Helen slowly turned, and for a split second she froze in a posture and angle that allowed a simultaneous view of her breasts and gluteus, and I caught myself savoring the sight. I knew her too well not to recognize the tide of indignation swelling in her light eyes. She had to choke something thick down her throat before calling her very sweetest vocal cord into action.
“Don't worry about it, John. I'll just wash my hands and then unpack.”
She turned her back to me and went into the bathroom.
“You must be exhausted.”
The boy stared at me for a few seconds and then stood on tiptoe to gaze out the window. I could see my legs in the full-length mirror, and I heard the sound of the shower. Helen was hoping to wash away the unexpected sting of my words; she might be a while. The minibar was right there, I took two little bags of nuts.
And I won't deny that I had already heard Helen turn off the shower and slide open the latch when I bellowed:
“Are you ever coming out of there?”
The last syllables coincided with Helen's entrance, wrapped in a towel knotted over her breasts, and I watched her face move through a series of furious contortions before it settled on a petulant expression. I tried to get hold of myself. Before we got to the kissing and biting, we'd have to try to heal the wounds of our most recent year of living together. Even a woman like Helen, almost indecently aware of the upper hand her figure gave her, could forget about her body for two hours and focus on fixing her emotional dissatisfaction.
She merely smiled, rubbed her hands together, started humming and removing feminine accessories from her bag, as if she had two children in her care and not one. I refrained from chiding her for the water she was dripping all over the floor. That's the kind of generosity you get no credit for, since no one ever notices. The boy joined in her song; it was a trick too old to work, but it was friendly, cordial. I decided to speak to her plainly.
“Don't you think it's time the boy went to see his grandparents? You and I need a little privacy.”
The sun was falling like a red coin. I squinted, and the fields of mature wheat looked like thousands of anemones waving underwater.
“They'll be calling us to dinner soon. There's no time. And his name is Jackson.”
Helen, too, knew how to read the intentions in the whites of my eyes, to interpret the quick changes in my expressions. That's what living together is all about: you learn to read the other person's face like a proverbial open book. I started to take clothes out of my suitcase and scatter them around, marking my territory. But I recognized the taunting tone in Helen's voice: she knew perfectly well what she was doing to me.
“Plus, we came here to feel like a family, not like lovers.”
I suppose she couldn't help herself. There's something so entertaining about setting all the wheels in motion and seeing what happens next. I stretched my legs; even though my feet hurt, I wasn't about to take my shoes off in front of that little envoy from Helen's other world. But if she thought the kid was going to make me keep my mouth shut, she was wrong.
“Don't give me that shit. You just won't take the time.”
They'd turned on the lights out over the terrace. The grass called to mind the hide of a frightened animal, the red dots of the poppies heavy as blood. No getting around it: night was falling.
I don't remember Helen saying anything in reply. It was the boy who let out a rat-like screech as his mother dragged him from the room by his arm. She had thrown some clothes on, I didn't notice what. Once I was alone I took off my shoes and even my socks and tossed back a little bottle of gin. The tables on the terrace had emptied. I could hear the faint chugging of a motor. It was all so calm it felt possible to dispel the darkness with a puff of air. The old folks must have scurried inside when it started to drizzle, and the cool was keeping them hidden away in their rooms.
The night was a blue clear enough that I could see the tree branches as they clapped together. The gin burned the walls of my throat but slid through my veins with benign warmth, softening the contours of the absurd scene I'd found myself in. I felt the tingling of a gentle impatience begin to move over my back and hands; really, it wasn't half bad.
“There. I left him with his grandparents. Happy?”
When I saw the way her wet hair was regaining its golden hue almost strand by strand, when I watched as she turned and dripped (more) water on the floor, wearing those sweat pants and a dizzyingly vulgar top she'd thrown on, the folds of my heart, shriveled and blackened during that damned car ride, flooded with a warmth somehow tied to being married and living together. I was drenched in an excellent mood. I wanted to take her into my arms, taste her right there from her forehead to the pulp of her buttocks, pull her hair and tickle her, all more or less at the same time.
Helen stayed in profile. She was still chewing the remnants of her rage, but finally she choked them down.