Global stories, local voices

By Diego López de Gomara

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Two strangers at a café in Buenos Aires. A man and a woman brought together in a silent complicity, through their love for books. What will their fate be?

He liked revolving doors and how he used the weight of his body to make an entrance. That is why he chose this old bar in Buenos Aires, away from the usual movement of people.

After walking through the door, he greeted the waiter and looked around to see who was accompanying him. He saw two crazy cats. And so, on that sunny Sunday afternoon, he chose to sit at a table as faras possible from the two crazy cats. He opened a small leather case (he didn’t like carrying the books in his hand without something to protect them) and he took out a novel by Stendhal, which he had read twice in previous years. It was the fifth novel he had read that month — the month he was halfway through his journey. It was only when the waiter handed him his coffee that he started reading it.

Absorbed in his reading, the hours passed without incident. It was getting dark, and as the sky reflected the ochre hues of the setting sun, the place began filling up. He felt thirsty and asked for his second coffee with a large glass of water. As he waited for the order, during the brief interlude from his literary world, he looked at the people around him and within seconds, found himself in the midst of passionate discussions (devoid of illusions), laughter and silences. He was the only person who was alone. He had no mixed feelings about this and was grateful to be an outcast. He looked down at the book, and in doing so, as if by magic, as if he were pulling rabbits out of an empty hat, he felt that he was accomplishing something meaningful which justified his solitude. When the waiter returned with his order, he listened carefully to the sound of his own voice

"Thank you."

The mere fact that someone was listening to the sound of his voice and listening to it himself after hours of being lost in his thoughts, even if it was just for a word of common courtesy, was enough to bring him back to the material life for a moment.

Juana pushed the revolving door with difficulty. She glanced quickly at all the tables in the bar, and without taking her eyes off Juan, she sat down at a table as far away from him as possible. She looked for something in her handbag and, amidst the hustle and bustle, went on to finish reading her sixth novel of the month.

The whole bar, the life force of some fifty people — fifty people who wanted to affirm themselves out loud — stood between them. People were talking more and more heatedly, the waiters seemed busier than ever, life was churning within a few square metres, and no one noticed the two inconspicuous readers. 

However, within the imaginary characters evoked by the reading, two new characters emerged: Juan thought of Juana and Juana thought of Juan.

Two hours after feeling she had been accompanied from a distance, Juana gently placed her glasses on the book she was reading, got up and went to the bathroom. For a brief moment, the most eternal moment of the day, their eyes met. She returned, paid and left. 

Once again, Juan was a solitary reader. He returned to his previous state of being which was considerably different from what he had experienced for a few hours, yet his demeanour appeared to be the same. Although no one was waiting for him at home, and he only had a few pages left to finish the novel by Stendhal, his eyes had lost their expression of fortitude and enthusiasm. He paid for his four coffees and also left.

The following week and for the first time in several years, they did not go near to a book. Nothing could disrupt them; neither the political and economic upheavals in their country (which were regular occurrences), nor the turmoil in the world, where millions of people watched the same television channels for hours on end — as images flashed up on the screen, the poetic quality of life was put aside, and an inability to laugh set in. However, amid the stream of images, Juan and Juana both managed to have a break. Unable to read in his free time, he went to the cinema, looked at shop windows with little interest and went for long walks. Unable to read in her free time, she went to the cinema, looked at shop windows with some interest and went for moderate walks. Their routine jobs were sought after somewhat deliberately and were just a way for them to make a living rather than experience the essence of life. 

The following Sunday, Juan arrived at the bar one hour earlier than usual. He pushed the revolving door with enthusiasm as if he were a dancer, greeted the waiter, sat down at the same table as the last time (he was the only customer) and set about finishing his Stendhal book. He then started reading a transmodern novel with no grammar, no theme, no characters, no beginning and no end. He was sure she would show up. 

Juana did not get bored of her small lodging and the few flowers she bought made it a very pleasant place. Hoping to see Juan again, she pushed the revolving door of the bar a few hours earlier than the previous Sunday. Both lonely, their eyes met in a deserted place on another sunny afternoon. Juan was on the verge of speaking to her but restrained himself. After a brief moment of pondering, it seemed the best decision. Like the last time, Juana sat at a table as far away from him as possible.

They read for hours, aware of each other’s presence. The reading was intense and emotional. In their inner worlds, they laughed, hated and loved. At nightfall, they got up and left, only fifteen minutes apart. They exchanged looks as she wrapped a scarf around her Modigliani neck, which for both of them meant " until next time. "And thus a pact of distant companionship was established.

For a long while, during four seasons, neither of them missed a Sunday. They never spoke to each other, but had brief visual exchanges out of the corners of their eyes, they adjusted the time lapses and determined the hours of meeting and parting. Juan would sometimes leave the bar when the door wings were still in rotation from her push. It would happen most often when the gears had been greased and were consequently very sensitive and almost frictionless.

He was the only one who knew she smoked quite a lot. He would see her arriving with a cigarette and taking one out when she was leaving. He was the only one who knew she was addicted to coffee. For the remainder of the week, the reality of living was just a tunnel in between essential moments. They did not hope for much more from this period; they had no expectations and so avoided being disappointed. Rather, they appreciated this time that seemed idle yet which ultimately led them to one place. Outside working hours, they enjoyed wandering through the streets. Their random paths and traces left on the city did not usually coincide. Sometimes they did, but Juana liked walking in the morning and Juan late in the afternoon. She was a lark and he a night owl. They were unaware of this difference between them.

Occasionally, in times of crisis and extreme melancholy, Juan wondered whether Juana was aware of him, whether she felt his presence, whether she knew that they had a relationship, shared a pretty intense passion that gave him life. Sometimes, in times of crisis and extreme melancholy, Juana wondered the same thing.

One day, Juan was in a state of expectation, you might say planned by his own destiny; he was alone in the bar and she did not turn up. He sat there the whole afternoon, glancing at the door, drinking more coffee than ever, and didn’t manage to read a single page. He spent a restless week, only suspended by its own vacuum. There, for the first time, for the only time, he told his story to someone. He felt bad about breaking his secret — a secret which on the other hand his fleeting listener didn’t care much about. The following Sunday the same thing happened, but with a slight difference: after waiting for her for several hours one rainy day, the bar which had attracted more customers than ever, was beginning to empty out, when a very old man wearing a blue raincoat walked past him and Juan thought he heard him saying: " "Don’t worry, she has something important to do but she’s coming soon." " Not knowing whether what he had heard was true or simply an expression of his desires, he opted for the former and felt calmer. 

Almost one year later, the door turned very slowly and Juana appeared; she had changed the colour of her hair which was shorter and her clothes were different. Their eyes met, and as before, she sat at the table as far away from him as possible. For an instant, Juan doubted that it was her, but then, when he saw her take a book out of her pocket with the same delicate gestures as before, he was convinced it was her.

From this day onwards, nothing changed their established relationship — and certainly not time. In all those years, Juan considered talking to Juana on a few occasions. In all those years, Juana considered talking to Juan on a few occasions. But, they were happy the way things were; they could not have known otherwise — or so they assumed. The theories, views, and people who say that in life you have to take risks, try, test, commit to things, hold on to what you want with a firm and visible hand were only opinions to them, no more and no less valuable than their own. 

For Juan and Juana, what they had was enough, it was more than enough. Juana, the distant reader, represented the tautological universe to Juan, the whole universe, the framework for his life, his stories, the narratives he read and interpreted. She was his travel companion in an odyssey where he navigated accompanied and where the woman did not symbolize death; she was the journey, not the end. As always for Juana, Juan meant the same for her.

They had not met for several months — although meanwhile, they read in their respective lodgings, knowing that the other one was doing the same. He noticed that she had aged and was aware that the years had passed and that the story they had created was halfway through. He would have to leave without hurrying and think of a denouement.

During the following years, life went on as usual in the external world. Only part of the scenario changed: a new bar opened just three blocks away from the other one which had to close due to a lack of customers. They missed the revolving door but the new place had an architectural feature which was appealing. These were, however, years of great inner turmoil, of important changes in the way they thought, felt and saw life, but not when it came to taking action, which was always the same.

One small exception took place during the years of the second pandemic. They met on several occasions over coffee standing outside the bar. Juan was trying to read; Juana, however, wasn’t trying and smiled fondly beneath the mask at his efforts. There, for the first time, each one saw the book the other was holding. Up until then, it was the act of reading that united them and not the subject matter. Juan was reading a book about the double-slit experiment and Juana a book with a deep blue cover about Sufism. Both of them later became experts on the subject of the other. They studied it deeply. Juana learned in detail how the experiment that Juan was interested in was perhaps the most beautiful and dislocated experiment in the history of science, and with the most interesting consequence possible: the observer creates and defines the observed object. The object hardly exists; it is terribly ambiguous if it is not observed. Juan understood that in Sufism any legality and norms have to be set aside in the search of the absolute. Its adherents do not claim to possess or be possessed, and it is perhaps because of these aspirations that they were persecuted so much.

At the end of the second pandemic, it was more difficult to obtain paper books. The bookstores open to the public had completely disappeared and they never used electronic means of purchase. They both had friends who wanted to give them their books. Paper had become a shady material.

And so, many years vanished into thin air ...

Juan got up early. He hadn't slept well that night. He felt tired. The medication he often took did not have its usual effect. He bathed and made himself a hearty breakfast. This was out of the ordinary but he needed an external force to motivate him. He had been thinking a great deal about how this day would go, although not obsessively; what would happen would happen. The decision had been taken and the time had come. He looked through the window, and watched the clouds changing shape for quite a while. He didn't know how much time had passed but he was sure that she would be there by now. He put on a smart jacket and walked the usual seven blocks.

He opened the door and stared at her. She averted her gaze, but when she looked up again, he was still looking at her. She walked up to him, pulled a chair and sat down at his side. He told her who he was, all about his life, about what he liked and what she had meant to him. They talked all afternoon and all night long. At dawn, he thanked her sincerely and she did the same. 

They both said: "It was a beautiful life."

They parted ways for ever.

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About the author

Diego López de Gomara
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Diego López de Gomara est né à Buenos Aires. Il est psychiatre et psychanalyste. Il a publié, entre autres, les romans Patria paria (Grupo editor latinoamericano) et La mujer escrita (Grupo editor latinoamericano).