Authors: Antonio Munoz Molina
This work has been published with a subsidy from the Directorate-General of Books, Archives and Libraries of the Spanish Ministry of Culture.
Copyright © 1999 Antonio Muñoz Molina
Originally published as
En Ausencia de Blanca
, by Antonio Muñoz Molina.
Translation copyright © 2006 Esther Allen
Production Editor: Robert D. Hack
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
Muñoz Molina, Antonio.
[En ausencia de Blanca. English]
In her absence / Antonio Muñoz Molina; translated by Esther Allen.
I. Allen, Esther, 1962- II. Title.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
THE WOMAN WHO
was not Blanca came down the hall toward Mario wearing Blanca’s green silk blouse, Blanca’s jeans, and Blanca’s ballet flats, her eyes narrowing into a smile as she reached him—eyes the same color and shape as Blanca’s, but not Blanca’s eyes. She welcomed him home in a tone so identical to Blanca’s that it was almost as if she really were Blanca, and she stooped a little to kiss him because she was slightly taller than
he was, just like Blanca. But instead of the daily absentminded brush of her closed lips against his, she opened her mouth to Mario’s tongue, and he, startled by this unanticipated ardor, didn’t respond in time.
In the warmth of her breath and the brief, carnal softness of her lips he felt as if he’d gone back in time to Blanca’s first delicious kisses, now identical, but falsified with a flawless or almost flawless precision that made everything all the more unreal. He was grateful for the touch of those long, soft hands even though they weren’t Blanca’s hands, the odd way she had of putting her arm around his waist as she led him toward the dining room, as if he, its owner, didn’t know his way around the apartment where he’d been living for some time before he met Blanca, or as if the apartment, too, were a precise replica of something that had been lost: the apartment, the pictures in the hallway, the dining room furniture that Blanca objected to, and rightly so—when Mario bought it he’d had pitifully bad taste—the tablecloth
embroidered by Mario’s mother or grandmother, the dishes, the steaming bowls of a soup just cooked by the impostor or near-double of Blanca who’d taken it off the stove and served it when she looked out from the balcony and saw Mario crossing the street toward the apartment building. (But Blanca, the real Blanca, the one from before, might never have looked out from the balcony to see if he were coming.) The soup smelled better than ever, Mario thought almost remorsefully, noticing for the first time not that he was beginning to give in, but that the possibility of giving in existed, comprehending with melancholy and relief that he wouldn’t be able to keep up this suspicious hostility, uncompromising vigilance, and desperate solitude forever. Unlike Blanca, the woman now sitting across from him didn’t dab her lips with the corner of her napkin after each spoonful, didn’t raise her eyes in silent reproach if he made the slightest noise as he ate his soup, and didn’t sit motionless without saying a word until he realized it was time for him
to bring the tray with the main course and fresh plates and silverware on it from the kitchen.
Blanca would never have lit a cigarette before clearing the table, much less settled down on the sofa to watch TV without first straightening up the dining room and cleaning the kitchen until it was spotless. In fact, Blanca hardly ever watched TV, nothing but the news and a strange late-night program with jumpy images and a heavy-metal sound track called
, which once ran a piece about the painter she’d just broken up with when she met Mario. Sure of herself and fraudulent, dressed in Blanca’s own clothes—the silk blouse that had almost exactly the same feel as her skin, the jeans so tight they made her seem taller and more curvaceous—the woman who was not Blanca leaned back on a wide black leather pillow and watched television, her feet now bare, Blanca’s flats lying on the floor next to the sofa. She was smoking a cigarette or rather just holding it, having forgotten it so completely that if Mario, with deft and steady fingers, hadn’t taken it from her just in time she
would have burned herself or spilled ashes all over the rug, perhaps damaging it. Wary, always on the lookout for signs of imposture, Mario studied her feet that, though often a little the worse for wear, were long and delicate with a faint blue tracery of veins in the instep. This time he was surprised to see no sign of chafing or roughness on the heels and as his eyes moved further he discovered that the toenails were adorned with red polish, something he’d never seen on Blanca’s toes before. But then immediately he wondered about that. It wasn’t the kind of thing he’d ordinarily notice; Blanca herself had sometimes complained that he paid no attention to the clothes she wore or the new touches (nothing too ambitious; they didn’t have much money) by which she tried to improve the apartment’s somewhat rudimentary decor. Yet he really did think—yes, he was sure—that Blanca had never polished her toenails. But even as he strained his memory to achieve clear certainty he began to doubt and despair, finding, all the while, that Blanca’s shiny red toenails and softer and smoother feet were very
delectable. He remembered the night before, how she’d wrapped her arms around him from behind after he switched off the bedroom light, warming her cold feet against his legs with a physical complicity that would have been gratifying if it weren’t for the obvious imposture, the fact, more bitter now than astonishing, that this woman, so identical to Blanca, was not Blanca, could not be Blanca.
She seemed to be dozing off while Mario cleared the table, but then opened her eyes and held them steadily on him at a moment when he was watching her from the kitchen. He realized that nowadays it was only when she wasn’t looking at him that he dared scrutinize her intently, out of a superstitious wariness that was quite futile and frequently embarrassing, for this Blanca-like woman always caught him at it immediately, was always smiling at him in weary tolerance. Right now, for instance, as he washed the dishes, he’d been watching her from the kitchen, trying to see whether her chest was rising and falling, thinking he could make out the placid rhythm of her
breathing against the babble of the soap opera, beginning to grow bolder. Little by little, without realizing it, still clutching a damp dishtowel, he’d moved toward the dining room door, stepping out of the corner of the kitchen where she couldn’t see him with a ridiculous mixture of caution and recklessness. With every step he took, his face was undoubtedly taking on the particular expression of a person who’s watching someone else in the belief that he himself is unobserved. Just then she opened her eyes, with no trace of surprise, and of course no alarm, as if she’d heard his footsteps or had been able to tell, from the sound of his breathing, that he was approaching. He was never sure whether he would actually find Blanca there the next minute or what her mood would be: Blanca could intuit everything about him without needing to open her eyes, but lately that secure knowledge of him no longer seemed to be slipping into disdain or the unthinking, perilous neglect of a woman who’s grown used to taking her lover’s loyalty for granted.
The eyes from which Blanca did not look out at him lingered for a moment on the damp dishcloth he was still holding, then rose to meet his own evasive gaze and held it. Blanca’s hazel eyes, Blanca’s straight black hair, her faintly freckled nose, the dark pink of her lips, Blanca’s own rings on the same fingers where she wore them, her wedding ring, which he would have liked to examine more closely to see whether the forgery had been so painstaking that this ring, too, was engraved with the date they met rather than the date of their wedding, because both agreed (though the idea originated with Blanca) that what deserves to be remembered isn’t the official ceremony but the first meeting, with its rare mixture of chance and destiny.
Mario went closer and watched her curl up small on the sofa and then stretch out her arms in pleasurable indolence, her hair hanging loose now, her face sleepy and ready to nod off, her blouse almost entirely unbuttoned, the silky fabric of her bra on view, the sweet cleft between the breasts that seemed so much like Blanca’s breasts, though he no
longer knew for sure whether their shape and the pinkness of the nipples was or was not identical to the breasts he remembered. He heard her saying his name in Blanca’s voice, almost more tender now than ever before, without the faint note of cool distance whose existence he had always refused to accept, just as he had refused to see and understand so many things, so many slight untruths, so much silent disloyalty. He took one more step, put the dishcloth down on the table, afraid his hands still smelled of grease or detergent, and knelt down next to the sofa, next to the woman whose breath carried nuances different than Blanca’s yearned-for breath or the succulent taste of Blanca’s mouth. As he leaned toward her, he was surprised by a renewed excitement, an unexpected liberation from nostalgia, if not from suspicion. It occurred to him that he, too, was learning how to pretend, and he tried to justify this by telling himself, as he pushed the hair away from her face and kissed her eyelids and nibbled an earlobe perhaps slightly fleshier than Blanca’s earlobe, that this apprenticeship in
simulation would help him root out the lie—and not simply in order to make his peace with it, never that. But the fact is that as he kissed and caressed her and unbuttoned her green silk shirt all the way down, he closed his eyes very tightly so that there would be moments when he was sure he really was kissing and caressing Blanca, recognizing her in that willed darkness with a certainty neither his intelligence nor his emotions could grant him.
MARIO LÓPEZ ALMOST
never went out for a beer after work with his colleagues. He wasn’t in any way unsociable and prided himself on getting along well with everyone in the office, but each day at ten minutes to three when the staff left the Provincial Council building and dispersed in eager, noisy groups to various nearby bars, he always invented some excuse or simply waved an energetic good-bye and quickened his steps to get home as
soon as possible so that he could open the door and call out to Blanca by no later than five past three or, at the very most, ten past.
The only greed he could conceive of was greed for time spent with her. If he yielded seven hours of his life each day to the civil service, and devoted seven more to sleep, any carelessness in the use of the ten hours that remained for living with Blanca would be a reprehensible squandering, a quotidian amputation of happiness. He had never lost the avid and perpetually unsated need to be with her that he’d first experienced during their early days, when they’d spend an afternoon together or go out to dinner and then not see each other again for a week or two, when he didn’t yet dare call her every day from fear of seeming too pushy.