It annoyed the professor when people slept late, but he didn’t want to awaken Valeria, because she enjoyed sleeping. “She is really very diligent,” he thought, studying her delicate profile and the profusion of red hair against the white pillowcase.
The professor’s name was Felix Hernandez. He seemed young, as did so many of his age at that time (twenty years earlier they would have been old already). He was famous, even outside of the academic world, and much beloved by his students. He considered himself fortunate to be living with Valeria, a university student.
He went to the kitchen to prepare breakfast. Taking care to brown the toast just so, he remembered, “This morning Valeria will be defending her thesis. She must not forget the three periods of history.” After a pause he said: “Lately I’ve been talking to myself.”
He carried the breakfast tray to the bedroom just as the girl was getting out of the shower, still wet and wrapped in a towel. As he handed her a cup, he caught sight of his own face in the mirror, with his salt-and-pepper beard that even recently shaved looked three days old. He looked at the girl, looked again in the mirror, and thought to himself, “Such a contrast. Really, I am quite fortunate.” The girl announced:
—If I don’t wake up, I’m dead.
—Because you won’t get your doctorate? You won’t be missing much.
It is no longer understood that it is possible to study alone. Just because they’re in a classroom with a professor, students believe that they are studying. The universities, once fortresses of learning, have become patent offices. Nothing is more worthless than a university degree.
The girl continued, as if speaking to herself:
—I don’t care. I want the degree.
—Well then, maybe it would be worth mentioning the three periods of history. When man believed that happiness was dependent upon God, he killed for religious reasons. When he believed that happiness was dependent upon the form of government, he killed for political reasons.
—I read a poem. It said that each one kills the thing he loves.
She looked at him, smiled, and shook her head.
—After dreams that were too long, true nightmares—Hernandez went on to explain—we arrived at the present period of history. Man woke up, discovered that which he always knew, that happiness is dependent upon health, and began to kill for therapeutic reasons.
—I think I’m going to start talking to the wall.
—I don’t see why. Does anyone doubt that at a certain age he will receive a visit from the doctor? And isn’t that a form of killing? For therapeutic reasons, naturally. A way to kill the entire population.
—Not the entire population. There are those who manage to escape to the other Zone.
—And from there looms the threat of a second wave of killings. Immense. For therapeutic reasons, also.
—But that’s only—she added with apparent distraction as she dressed—if we declare war on them.
—It’s not going to be easy. Among those decrepit old people of the Eastern Zone there are astute negotiators who always manage to give up that which is essentially worthless.
—They make me sick—she said, ready now to go out—but as long as they postpone the war, it’s all right with me.
—Sooner or later it will have to be decided. It’s inconceivable that in the other Zone there is a source of infection, a culture-medium of all the diseases that we have already eliminated. Unless someone were to discover the way to halt old age…. But what are you going to answer if they ask you how the third period began?
—When no one believed any longer in the politicians, it was medicine, with its amazing discoveries, that captured the imagination of the human race. It is medicine that has come to replace both religion and politics in our time. The Argentine doctors, from the legendary Team of Calostro, one day perfected a long-lasting and multipurpose antibody defense system. This signified the eradication of infections, quickly followed by that of the rest of the known diseases and also an extraordinary prolongation of youth. We believed that it was not possible to go further. But shortly thereafter the Uruguayans discovered a way to suppress death.
—The news of which we received as a blow to our national pride.
—But not even the Uruguayans have managed to halt the aging process.
—It’s a good thing….
—When you interrupt, I lose my train of thought, said Valeria, and resumed her recitation.—Around these two countries of the Río de la Plata were formed apparently irreconcilable blocs, which today divide up the world. Our enemies call us young fascists, and to us they are just the dying who refuse to die. In Uruguay the proportion of old people is increasing.
Without pausing, she added:—It’s almost ten. I’ve got to run.
He saw her to the door, kissed her, asked her not to return home late, and waited there until he lost sight of her.
A little later, when he was just about to leave, he heard the doorbell ring. He picked up a notebook that Valeria had probably forgotten, and muttered, “You forget everything. What a scatterbrain!” As he opened the door he encountered two of his students, Gerardi and Lohner.
—We came to see you, announced Lohner.
—I haven’t much time. I have to be at the university at eleven.
—We know, Gerardi answered.
—But we must speak to you, Lohner added.
They seemed nervous. He showed them to his study.
—Lohner—Gerardi began and signaled his companion—is going to explain it all to you.
There was a silence. Hernandez spoke:
—I’m waiting for your explanation.
—I don’t know how to begin. A friend from Public Health informed us last night that they are coming to see you.
Hernandez opened his mouth, doubtless in order to speak, but instead remained silent. Finally, Gerardi clarified:
—The doctor is coming.
There was another, longer, silence. Hernandez finally asked:
—Today, Lohner replied.
—Between last night and this morning we have arranged everything.
—What have you arranged?
—The crossover to Carmelo.
—In Uruguay? Hernandez asked, in order to gain time.
—Evidently, Lohner responded. Gerardi reported:
—Our friend from Public Health put us in touch with a man named Contacto, who is in charge of the boat line. He gave us the time and place, ten in the evening at the Del Molino coffee shop, at the table next to the second pillar on the left, as you enter from Callao. There we had three cappuccinos and when I was about to tell him who you were, he stopped me cold. “If I manage to get a boat, I mustn’t know for whom,” he said and asked us to wait for him for a minute, because he was going to make a call to Tigre. But it wasn’t a minute. They wanted to close the shop and Contacto wasn’t able to get his call through. In our country, these things, no matter how simple they may seem, are always complicated. Finally, he returned and gave us a name, a time, and a place: Moureira, at eight in the morning at the Liniers and Pirovano warehouse, opposite the bridge over the Reconquista River.
—And you met with him this morning?
—Yes, he seems reliable. I have the feeling that we can trust him.
—Especially if we don’t give him much time, observed Lohner.
—For what? Hernandez asked.
—I don’t think he can afford not to be trusted. His job is getting people to the other Zone. If he were to betray someone, even once, and it became known, how would he be able to make a living?
—He’s originally from the Delta. In the days when we still had customs, his grandfather and his father were smugglers. He assured us that he is himself a kind of institution.
—When must I leave?
—You should come with us right now.
—I can’t come right now.
—Moureira is waiting for us, Gerardi said.
—It would be better not to delay, added Lohner.
—I have to look for my friend, Hernandez explained.
There was a silence and then Gerardi ventured:
—The one we know of, professor?
Smiling for the first time, Hernandez confirmed:
—Yes, the one we know of.
—Don’t be long. We’ve got to leave now and see if we can catch Moureira, Lohner said.
—Don’t be long. Meet us at the Liniers and Pirovano warehouse, opposite the bridge. It’s a little bridge that’s been falling down since time immemorial.
Impatiently Lohner added:
—It’s not going to be easy to get Moureira to wait.
When he was finally alone he wondered if he was afraid. He knew that he had little time to cross over to the other zone and that he wouldn’t leave Valeria. After the conversation with his students, it seemed to him that he was advancing inevitably down a dangerous path, on either side of which everything, even that which was most familiar to him, had become an impassive witness to his plight.
Without losing a second, he left for the university. On the first floor, near the stairs, he found her.
—You remembered to bring my notes, Valeria exclaimed.
The truth was that he hadn’t even remembered her thesis exam. He had carried those notes under his arm because he had been upset and hadn’t realized what he was doing. He asked:
—Did I get here in time?
—Luckily. Until I can check on two names and a date I’m not going to feel secure.
—I thought only we old people forgot names.
—No one considers you old.
—You’re mistaken. Two students stopped by the house today.
—To warn me that this afternoon the doctor is paying me a visit. A friend of theirs who works in the Ministry of Public Health gave them the news.
—I can’t believe it. At any rate, the doctor will have to admit that you’re fine.
—There is no precedent for that.
—It doesn’t matter. I know from experience how you are. I’ll talk to him. His visit is premature. He’ll have to admit it.
—He won’t do it.
—What’s your plan then?
—A boatman is waiting for us in Tigre, to take us to the other zone.—The professor must have noticed something in Valeria’s expression, for he asked:—What’s the matter? Aren’t you prepared to go?
—Yes. Why? It’s just that for a moment I hated the idea of living among all those old people who never die. But don’t worry. I’ll get over it. It’s just a prejudice that was ingrained in me when I was a child.
—Well, are we going or staying?
—Stay here and have the doctor pay you a visit? I’m not crazy. Was one of the men who brought you the news Lohner?
—And the other was Gerardi.
—He’s so brash. He’d believe anything he heard.
—But Lohner’s not like that.
—There are so many rumors going around. Why don’t you just teach your class as usual? As soon as I finish defending my thesis I’ll try to find out something.
The words “teach your class as usual” almost convinced him, since they brought to mind a colleague’s familiar phrase, “as we were saying yesterday.” He thought it over and then said:
—I don’t think there’s time.
—And it’s very likely imprudent as well. I’m thinking that perhaps it’s better if they don’t see you around here.
There are times when a man is a child in the presence of a woman. He asked:
—Well then, what should I do?
—Go home immediately. If, within an hour, I haven’t arrived, or telephoned, go on to Tigre. Where are they waiting for us?
—At Liniers and Pirovano, under a very old bridge that crosses the Reconquista River.
—At Liniers and Pirovano.—Quickly she added—If I don’t go home first, I’ll meet you there.
He went along with her plan, although he wasn’t quite sold on it. Halfway home he realized the mistake he was about to make by waiting. Although she may not have wanted to acknowledge the danger, he should have made it absolutely clear to her. His house was a trap in which he would spend a long, anxious hour. What if in an hour it would be too late to leave?
Just as he was opening the door to his house, a man suddenly came up the front walk and spoke to him:
—I was waiting for you.
They went into the house together and once in his study Hernandez asked:
—I take it you’re the doctor?
Sadly the man nodded that it was so.
—Although I shouldn’t be saying this, I will tell you that I didn’t quite say what I meant before. I wasn’t waiting for you. I thought that you wouldn’t show up, that you would be a little more clever. Tell me, would it cost you so much to escape? Are you so forsaken that there is no one who would warn you and help you to cross over? Or do you believe for a second that if I examine you I will sign a certificate of health so that they will let you live?
—That seems fair.
—You’re all the same. It seems fair to you that I would take the chance that a second doctor would examine you and give a different opinion, thereby implying that I let myself be bribed. Although you may not believe it, there are many who envy me this job.
—So then, there is no escape.
—I’ll let you be the judge of that. I still have to see another patient. When I get back to the ministry, I’ll turn in my report.
The doctor considered the visit over. Hernandez saw him to the door.
—Well, thank you, anyway.
—Tell me something. Is there something or someone keeping you here in Buenos Aires? Allow me to remind you that if you don’t escape you won’t be able to remain with the person you’re so involved with. They’ll nab you—do you hear me—and liquidate you.
—It’s true, Hernandez admitted.—How very alone the dead are.
He closed the door. For an instant he remained motionless, but then he acted quickly and efficiently. In less than half an hour he prepared his suitcase and left the house. Although it went without any snags, the trip to Tigre turned out to be very long. Finally he met up with his students at the place agreed upon. With them was a very robust man, with a blue jacket and a pipe, who seemed disguised as an old seaman.
—We thought you weren’t coming, Gerardi said.—Mr. Moureira wanted to leave.
—Don’t waste time, said Lohner.
—Get in the boat, Moureira added.
—Just a moment, the professor said.—I’m expecting a friend.
—The woman always arrives late, Moureira pronounced.
They discussed this (waiting a few minutes or leaving right away) until they heard a siren.
—At least the police haven’t discovered yet that their siren warns the fugitive, Lohner observed as he helped the professor into the boat.
Gerardi asked him:
—Is there any message?
—Tell her that for me she was the best part of life.
—But that life includes her and that the whole is more than just one part? Lohner asked.
They heard the siren again, this time much closer. The students took refuge in the warehouse.
—Lie down on the floor of the boat and I’ll cover you with the canvas, Moureira said to the professor.
He obeyed and with a sad smile thought, “Lohner’s conclusion is fair, but at this moment it doesn’t console me.”
Slowly, resolutely, they headed out, bound for the Lujan River and the waters beyond.
—translated by Carole L. Kaye and Alberto Bolanos
April 10, 1986