The priest was going on a bit and so I went outside to smoke a cigarette. I stepped out onto the terrace, where the whole Ronda landscape lay before me, a vast expanse seen from on high, although not so very high, more a vision in Cinemascope, where one was conscious more of breadth than of height, similar to the view I’d seen on other occasions from the famous Ronda hotel which has, in its gardens, a dark, incongruous statue of the poet Rilkethey’ll even show you the room where he stayed and which they’ve turned into a minuscule museum. I rested one foot on the lower part of the balustrade, my foot slightly raised, and lit a cigarette despite the unfettered wind, or perhaps it was just a strong breeze, stimulating rather than irksome, the kind of breeze you get on a bright, early March day, when it’s still winter, according to the calendar.
Another man came out after me, barely ten seconds later, as if I had encouraged or infected him, because it’s rare for just one person to leave a public event, others usually take courage from such a departure and follow suit, even right in the middle of a concert or a lecture, and the poor abandoned scholar or musician stumbles and feels momentarily disheartened and, despite himself, his words or his notes waver and, for a second, falter. Like me, that other man placed one small foot on the balustrade, about three paces to my left, took out a shiny lighter, the rechargeable kind, and cupped the flame with his hand.
“That priest is going on a bit,” he said, “and he looks set to talk for a good while yet.” I immediately noticed his Andalusian accent, although it wasn’t very pronounced, as if he corrected and controlled it, he was doubtless someone who could disguise it almost completely when not in Andalusia and easily recover it when he returned, an imitative, indecisive fellow. “I really don’t see the need for such a long homily.” I felt sure that “homily” wasn’t the right word for that verbose priest’s semi-matrimonial meanderings addressed to the bride and groom, but I haven’t been to church in a long time and don’t know the exact terminology, was it admonishment or admonition, or is that something that happens before the couple are married, I’ve no idea really.
I said, “He has to make the most of his opportunities; he won’t often have a full church.”
“You’d be surprised,” the man answered, “here in the South, churches aren’t as depopulated as they are elsewhere. My name’s Baringo Roy, by the way. Are you on the bride’s side or the groom’s?”
I again wondered if he had intended to say what he said and if “depopulated” was the right word. Had he meant “unpopular”? He had given his two surnames naturally and unemphatically, as if he were accustomed to giving both, like a football referee, for example, or García Lorca or Sánchez Ferlosio. Although with such an unusual first surname, Baringo, it was hard to see why he would need a second.
“Neither, I suppose. I’ve just driven up from Madrid, giving a lift to a friend of mine who doesn’t drive. She’s a cousin of the groom, but I’d never seen either bride or groom until now. I still haven’t seen their faces, not properly, or only when they each walked down the aisle, otherwise I’ve only seen them from behind as they were standing at the altar.”
Up until then he had only imitated my posture, placing one foot on the lower part of the balustrade and gazing out at the broad, pleasant fields; now he turned towards me, tilting his head very slightly when he introduced himself.
“Ah, the pretty little cousin from Madrid, yes, I’ve met her already,” he said. “Her name’s María, isn’t it? I was introduced to her just a moment ago.”
“Yes, the pretty little cousin,” I said and thought how María would have hated that diminutive. I would tell her about it later on, just to tease her. “And you’re on the bride’s side,” I stated rather than asked, although I only did so out of politeness, I really didn’t care, I felt no curiosity whatsoever about these people, I was just doing María a favor, she goes to a lot of weddings, which I never do, in fact whenever I’m invited I tend to sneak off and send a nice present in my place.
“Well,” answered Baringo, “I’m on both sides, since I know them both. But I’m more on the bride’s side really. I met her first, before I met him. Not much before, but a bit. And before him. I mean, before he met her.”
I wasn’t really paying attention and so what he said seemed extremely confusing, but I didn’t particularly want him to clarify the matter, I wasn’t interested, to be honest, people often give overlong explanations without being asked, they seem to feel it’s vital to provide complete strangers with a clear, detailed explanation of the most insignificant aspects of their life, they have time on their hands, at least idle Andalusians do, although some are very silent and you practically have to drag the words out of them, while others are very quick and nimble. He’s the idle kind, I thought, and for the first time I turned to face him too and looked at him more closely. He was of average height and rather burly and square-set, not enough to suggest that he worked out at the gym every day, perhaps it was simply his natural build. He was wearing glasses with very pale tortoise-shell frames, which made his eyes seem smallerhe was obviously seriously myopicand gave him a vaguely professorial air, which fitted ill with his very tanned skin, the same color as his thick lips, as if both skin and lips formed a continuum of color. I noticed that he was very smartly dressed even for a wedding, and I tried to identify what it was that seemed so excessive. This proved fairly easy: the cut of his suit (and his tie)both in rather too light a gray considering that it was still winterinevitably made one think of a morning coat, a fake or approximate morning coat, which, in turn, gave him the appearance of being a reserve or deputy groom rather than a mere guest.
“I see,” I said, more as a response to his silence and to avoid having him launch into an explanation of his previous brain-teaser of a sentence.
When I turned towards him, he changed position again and stood facing the church, leaning his elbows on the balustrade. He gestured with his head toward the church, as if pointing it out to me with his eyebrows. He repeated this gesture twice more before he spoke again, as if taking a run-up to what he was about to say.
He said, “I’ve had it off with the bride, you know.”
I have to say that this comment rather amused me, and I may even have thought: Ah, the thwarted lover. But his remark wasn’t so much scornful or boastful as utterly childish, a quality I hate in men, even in myself sometimes. I don’t like men who boast about such adventures, which usually have no basis in truth, but in what he said, at least initially, there was more a note of possessive revindication than mere bombast. I thought: It’s one of two things. Either no one else knows about this and when he saw her getting married and thus moving irrevocably away from him, he just couldn’t stand it any longer and simply had to blurt it out to someone, and he made a good choice in me, a non-threatening stranger; or else everyone knows about itthey were engaged once or a couple, for exampleand he couldn’t bear the fact that there was someone here, someone from Madrid, completely indifferent to and uninformed about his past connection to the bride. And because his assertion amused me, I couldn’t help but respond in a somewhat jokey fashionI often find it hard to keep my humorous remarks to myself.
“Oh really,” I said, “I can’t imagine you’re the only one.”
“What do you mean by that?” he said, immediately on his guard. “Don’t get me wrong now, there aren’t many men who can say what I just said.”
I had besmirched the good name of the bride, which, according to certain ancient traditions, he had already besmirched in the presence of a complete stranger and in the middle of the marriage ceremony. How things have changed, I thought. Here we are at the beginning of the twenty-first century and already ninety percent of twentieth-century Spanish literature is completely outdated, as remote as Calderón de la Barca, at least as far as sexual mores are concerned. Valle-Inclán and Lorca and all the others who came after them will soon be relegated to the museum, pure archaeology.
“No, as I said, I don’t know the bride at all, I’m just here as a favor to a friend. But given that the bride is in her thirties, it’s only normal that, like everyone else, she’ll have had some experience. Although nothing to compare with you, I’m sure,” I said, unable to resist that final comment. “Does the groom know?”
Baringo Roy adjusted his glasses with the middle finger of his left hand, meanwhile offering me one of his cigarettes with his right. I accepted, and he didn’t respond to my question until we had both lit up, again using that ostentatious lighter, the flame cupped this time by our four hands against the Ronda wind that continued to blow untrammeled.
“Well, he does and he doesn’t,” he said, again leaning his elbows on the balustrade, his back to the view. “The man’s an idiot. He does know, but at the same time he can’t really get his head around it. His bride, who’ll be standing there now with her veil and her bouquet making him all kinds of promises,” and again he indicated the church, perhaps with just one eyebrow this time, not two, “well, I’ve had her every which way. Kneeling, on top, underneath, from the front, from the back, from the side, at an angle. She’s a real tiger, when she’s with me, that is.” And he circled one index finger twice in the air, as if drawing a spiral.
I was beginning to like Baringo Roy. Perhaps he really was angry as well as being somewhat cocky, but that was apparent more in what he said than in the tone in which he said it. There wasn’t any real anger in his voice, nor any desire to humiliate the bride and groom. That wasn’t what was impelling him to talk, his lack of discretion seemed to respond rather to a desire to establish the truth of the situation, to set the record straight, at a crucial albeit inopportune moment. Not that he expressed himself dispassionately (he had pronounced the word “tiger” with a certain vehemence, but also with a degree of respect), but his tone did not denote rage or a desire for revenge either, nor a desire to discredit the ceremony that was taking place at that very moment, nor any feelings of rancor towards the bride, or even towards the groom. He was quite clear that the groom was an idiot, but that was all, and he had said this as if stating a self-evident, widely-known fact, not his own personal opinion or a private insult, but a commonly held idea. And now that I had taken a liking to Baringo, I allowed myself to be carried along by the same jokey tone, fostered by the sense of camaraderie that immediately springs up between men who are neither attacking each other nor competing, a camaraderie that is somewhat frowned upon these days. We men tend to know at once what other men are like because we’ve been observing them all our life, ever since we were children, at school and in the street. We often dismiss or even detest certain men on sight for the same reason, because we can see straight through them, we can understand or recognize them or recognize ourselves in them, because we know that it would not take much for us to be like the worst of them, on the contrary, we constantly have to make an effort not to be like the worst of them. And so I said, “Well, if she is such a tiger, perhaps you’re wise to pass her over to the groom. We wouldn’t want you dropping with exhaustion.”
He looked at me as if I were nothing but a little squirt, even though I was about an inch and a half taller than him. His expression was so unequivocal that I thought he was about to give full vent to his cocky self and say: Watch your mouth, buddy, or some such thing. He didn’t go that far, though, perhaps because it wasn’t my possible impertinence that astonished him, but my ingenuous concern for the groom.
“The groom? That idiot? He sleeps with bedsocks on.”
“Do you mean he’s inexperienced? That tiger of a bride might get him to take them off.”
He continued to regard me as if I were a mere worm.
“No, I mean that he’s an idiot, incapable of learning anything. Anyway, I said she was a tiger when she’s with me, right? With me, you understand. I’m a very sexual guy, you see. I’ve even been with transvestites.”
I couldn’t quite see the connection here, although, out of politeness more than anything, I tried to find one.
“Ah, I see,” I said. “They do say that it’s mainly heterosexual men who go with transvestites…”
“You’re damned right,” he said, cutting in.
I found this strange digression distinctly embarrassing and didn’t really know what to think. I felt more comfortable talking about the tiger, and so I turned the conversation back to Baringo and to her.
“What I don’t understand, then, is why you’re not there in church instead of the guy with the bedsocks. Or are you already married? I don’t wish to be indiscreet, but after what you’ve told me…”
Baringo Roy gave a short, sharp, emphatic guffaw, as if to make it perfectly clear that this was a sarcastic laugh. Then he twice puffed out those thick, flesh-colored lips of his.
“I’ve never been seen in a church and never will be, I wouldn’t let myself, no, I’m your typical outsider. Like I said, I’m a very sexual guy, and for that very reason I choose never to be too available. To anyone. I’m the guy who can’t be relied on to be there, I’m the exception, the impromptu party. I would hate to find out one day that the party was going on somewhere else, and I’m not referring just to sex now, but to everything, to fun, excitement, the unexpected. And sex as well, of course, that goes without saying, don’t you think. What that idiot doesn’t know is that I screwed his bride just two weeks ago, and right under his nose too. We were having supper with a big group of friends in a restaurant in Seville, and the two of them were there too. After the meal, I left the table and went to the toilet. Two minutes later, she joined me, we bumped into each other in the corridor, her coming and me going back. Anyway, I had her right there, quick as a flash, in the gents’ toilet, we shot the bolt on the door and away we went.”
“It would have to have been as quick as a flash.” I couldn’t resist making that remark either, although this time I think I was genuinely taken aback.
Baringo Roy ignored my comment, he still had more to say.
“And what he can’t know either is that in another couple of weeks’ time, when they’re back from their little honeymoon, the same thing will happen again. Not necessarily in a toilet, of course. But no amount of will-power can control a thing like that. She may not even know it herself at the moment, and I’m not saying she’s behaving like a sly bitch, not at all. That happened two weeks ago and when I phoned her a week later, she didn’t even want to speak to me: That’s all over, she said, which is perfectly normal, considering that all this was just about to happen.” And he again made that gesture towards the church with his eyebrows, although with less expression this time, less brio, in fact, he may only have used his eyelashes. “I can understand that, because you have to prepare yourself mentally for something like this, otherwise it’s really hard work. But two weeks from now, she won’t be able stand it any longer, you’ll see.”
“I doubt very much if I will see, actually,” I said, unable to resist making yet another wry comment. “We drive back to Madrid tonight, after the post-wedding revels.”
“No, of course you won’t see, that was just a manner of speaking. But I’ll see and so will she. Some things you just can’t fight, as I’m sure you know. What you will see is the way she looks at me when she comes out of the church, even if she is the newlywed, the bride. You can’t hide feelings like that, you can tell by the look in someone’s eyes. The thing is, though, that so few people know how to interpret looks.”
I immediately turned to see the look in his eyes, which wasn’t easy and certainly not interpretable behind those glasses that made his eyes seem smaller anyway. My curiosity was growing, I wanted to see the faces of the idiot and of the tiger, who, as Baringo put it, was capable of bolting the door and going at it as quick as a flash. I had only glimpsed the couple briefly and from the side, when they each walked down the aisle. My impression of the groom had been one of elegance and good looks. María said that her cousin was by far the best-looking of all the cousins, and she, who is also a “pretty little thing,” was including herself when she said that. But that had nothing to do with what Baringo was talking about.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be watching,” I said.
And when I said that, I already knew that I would do the exact opposite, that I would do everything I could not to look and not to watch what was sure to happen. I knew this because of Baringo Roy’s desperate certainty. He lit another cigarette with rather more agitation and impatience than beforeimpatience with himselfthis time even neglecting to offer me one too. I think this was because at that precise moment we began to hear murmurings indicating that the ceremony was over and, immediately afterwards, guests began to emerge from the church door, gradually, step by step, although there would still be many guests inside greeting each other or dragging their weary feet, the traffic jam would have to ease before the bride and groom could come out, and then the people hanging around outside would cheer and throw flowers; I very much hoped that the prosaic custom of throwing rice had not yet reached the South.
Baringo Roy had moved away from the balustrade and stepped forward as soon as he saw the first guests appear. He wasn’t looking at me now and he didn’t look at me again, he had immediately, seamlessly forgotten about me and our conversation. He took a few more steps towards the church, and by then I could see only his back. The false morning coat suited him quite well, but it still seemed inappropriate. He discarded the cigarette he had just lit, still almost intact, and moved a little closer, although not so close that any acquaintances would come over and incorporate him into their small groups and distract him with their talk. He only joined the other groups when we both saw them turn as one towards the door to greet the long-awaited appearance of the newlyweds, the tiger and the idiot or the idiot and the tiger. I noticed that as soon as they appeared, smiling and arm-in-arm, Baringo Roy burst into applause along with all the other guests, except that he applauded more loudly, one certainly couldn’t accuse him of a lack of enthusiasm, which seemed quite genuine, not put on, or perhaps it was an expression of his devotion for her. Then I turned away and gazed out at the broad, pleasant fields and allowed the unfettered breeze to strike me full in the face. I wasn’t even going to try and make eye-contact with María, whom I had left behind in the church some time before. I didn’t want to run the risk of looking at the bride and seeing with my own eyes that at no point did she direct her gaze at Baringo. I knew she would be cheered all the way to the ribbon-bedecked car and would get in together with her idiot husband and her long train without even once remembering that there among the guests was Baringo, abruptly relegated to the past. Not that he would care if I saw the absent female gaze that failed to linger on him, no, Baringo Roy had already forgotten all about me. But it mattered to me and I preferred not to see it, because by then my sense of camaraderie had become too entrenched, too deep.
(Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa)
Javier Marías, who lives in Madrid, is the author of Your Face Tomorrow, A Heart So White, and many other works; his latest novel, The Infatuations, was published in 2013. His translator, Margaret Jull Costa, has also translated José Saramago, Eça de Queiroz, and Bernardo Atxaga; she recently won the Premio Valle-Inclán for her version of Teolinda Gersão's The Word Tree.