The Art of Wearing a Trench Coat: Stories

The Art of Wearing a Trench Coat: Stories

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Overview

A baker’s dozen of intertwined stories that brilliantly evoke the ups and downs of relationships between strangers, spouses, parents, and children.
 
Drawing on the author’s own experiences, this slim, intimate collection of thirteen stories explores myriad forms of love (and disappointment and nostalgia and panic) through a narrator who bemoans his inability to wear a trench coat well, like Humphrey Bogart and the other elegant men his mother taught him to admire. In these encounters and these endings, in these details and these feelings, a compassionate portrait of a life emerges.
 
Terse, droll, sometimes absurd but always lucid, Pàmies casts his gaze on the urge to write as seen through his mother’s final days; on his teenage fantasy that his father was actually Jorge Semprún; and on situations such as adopting a dog to staunch a failing marriage, or a father asked to play the part of a corpse in his son’s short film. In this phantasmagoria of failure and loss, Pàmies confronts us—pulling us in with his use of the second person—with the omnipresence of well-intentioned lies without which it might be impossible to ever make anyone else happy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781635420784
Publisher: Other Press, LLC
Publication date: 03/16/2021
Pages: 128
Sales rank: 1,216,456
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Sergi Pàmies was born in Paris to a family of Spanish political refugees. He moved to Barcelona in 1971 and went on to work as a translator, journalist, television and radio presenter, and writer, for which he has received several awards. He is the father of two children.

Adrian Nathan West is a writer and literary critic based in Spain. He has translated more than twenty books, among them Rainald Goetz’s Insane and Sibylle Lacan’s A Father: Puzzle.

Read an Excerpt

ECLIPSE
 
We’ve met next to a hotel pool. As yet there is not a body floating in it. It’s the birthday—the fiftieth—of a well-known radio announcer. The nearly two hundred guests were chosen from among family members, friends, and work colleagues. The view overlooks seven miles of beachfront in the form of a crescent moon, a horizon that weaves together all the colors of the dusk, and a procession of airplanes making their way toward the airport in orderly succession. A common friend has introduced us, a woman who insists we’ll want to get to know each other. During the two perfunctory kisses on the cheek, each of us detects in the other the same blend of bashfulness and tension. Perhaps because we don’t want to disappoint this friend in common, our first look is one of resignation, as if we had agreed wordlessly to put an end to this ordeal as soon as possible. The mutual scrutiny persists until we get in sync. Our friend has left us high and dry. Now it depends on us whether or not the conversation drowns in the pool. We do what we can. You with a deference I’m grateful for. Me with a gracelessness made worse through years of lethargy. We cycle through effervescent questions and answers until my resources run dry and I propose we get a drink from the bar. You order cava, I order wine; I know myself, and I suppress the temptation to come up with some theory as to why. We toast to the honoree, who thanks us and announces that in a few months, he’ll be appearing in a play. We don’t clap, because we have glasses in our hands, and we ask each other how he will manage to balance these performances with the six hours a day he spends on the radio. “He’ll give up sleeping,” you conclude, with unqualified common sense. At that instant, I do what I had not dared to do before: instead of hearing you and seeing you, I look and listen. The unease I feel when socializing does not keep me from noticing the harmony between the color of your eyes and the introverted vibrancy of your stare, the attention you seem to pay to your hair and the gentleness in your smile. Our questions are no longer effervescent, and, even though we’re talking about work, I have the sense that we’re picking up a conversation begun some time back. Differences between a moment ago and now: a moment ago, I didn’t mind coming across as a misanthrope, and now I would do anything to avoid it. I calculate that no more than ten minutes have passed since we were introduced, and you’ve had time to tell me you graduated with a degree in humanities (with a thesis on the function of landscape in the works of Mary Shelley and Edgar Allan Poe) and that you have some kind of business deal in the works. I arrange, in descending order, like the planes making their way to the airport, the questions I would like to ask you. Like a control tower, I register your eyes, which project a series of coded signals I wish I were able to decipher. I take an unusually long sip of wine. A sommelier would detect in it notes of disorientation, an aftertaste of panic, and a hint of citrus: the adrenaline of volatile expectations. I am no longer pretending to have a conversation: I am having one. And this entails listening more than speaking, and not rushing and not asking why you studied humanities or what sense of irony led you to pick Shelley and Poe. But just as I prepare to address you at greater length, to enhance the impression I must be giving, the jubilant host picks the microphone back up and invites us all to continue the party on the twenty-sixth floor of the hotel, at a dance club reserved for the occasion. Immediately, the guests start filing out. A man appears next to you, still of an age and appearance that permit him to call himself young, familiar in the way a brother is rather than a friend, and he encourages—even urges—you to go along with him. Now it hits me that I don’t know a thing about you. Do you have children? Are you divorced, too? Did you come alone? I don’t even know how old you are, though I’d say you are the kind of person whose looks are a faithful indication of their age. I take a step back and accept, with the good sportsmanship of someone never in the running, that this pro forma ritual is now at an end. We don’t say goodbye. I’d like to believe this is because we think the party is informal enough that more comings and goings are in the offing. You walk off with your brother/friend while I say hi to other guests and force myself to analyze our meeting pragmatically: most likely you didn’t come alone; most likely you’re married. The attendees, many of them couples, are waiting for the elevators to arrive. To go up—ten seconds of supersonic ascent—we were required to put on an orange wristband (with access to the open bar) stamped with a circle with the word eclipse inside. The last time I wore a wristband was at the hospital, I remember. After an attack of lipothymia accompanied by amnesia, they took me in and gave me a diagnosis more a disappointment than a relief: stress. From the windows of the twenty-sixth floor, the panorama improves. The vertical and horizontal grandeur of the landscape seems heightened by an unusual perspective on the pool. Despite the distance, which reduces its proportions to those of an architectural model, I would swear there is a body, perfectly illuminated, floating on the surface of the water. I say nothing, because I might be hallucinating, and enter the dance club. I avoid the booming speakers and try to participate in conversations about two omnipresent topics: Twitter and Catalan independence. When I talk, I have the feeling no one hears me. I don’t look around for you so it won’t seem I’m trying to force an ostensibly chance meeting of the eyes. As always, I envy the dissolute aplomb of the people out on the dance floor. Pleased, the host is talking with a friend, a famed musician, who volunteered to play disc jockey and whose perfect repertory is neither too nostalgic nor too modern. I order a gin and tonic and they serve it to me with the proportions reversed. I grab it, impatient to see how long the mix of alcohol and the new medications I’ve been prescribed will take to strike me down. The effect is immediate. The minutes heap up in my mind, annihilate the most active of the neurons, and make me feel more circumspect than normal. This may be why, when friends who live close to home offer to give me a lift in their car, I accept, even knowing I’ll regret leaving without saying anything to you. I take leave of the radio announcer with a cordial handshake, and when we reach the parking garage, I get a message from him: “Sorry you didn’t have fun. But thanks for coming. I mean it. Cheers!” I wonder how he diagnosed my mood, which I myself wasn’t aware of. By now, the friends who offered me a ride are struggling with the machine in the parking garage, which keeps spitting out a corporate credit card meant to be accepted in any and all situations. They try again and again, in an ever-deepening rage, until, to ease matters, I slide in a banknote, which the machine devours hungrily. “Machines prefer cash to credit,” I affirm, as if it’s some kind of neoliberal maxim. We get into the car and leave the hotel via a diabolically curvy ramp. More than squeal, the tires scream. We have to stop near the entrance because, between two police cars, paramedics in reflective vests are loading a corpse covered with an emergency blanket into an ambulance. The stretcher passes close enough for us to see a wet sleeve and a dangling arm—plus wristband—the loafers of the deceased, identical to my own, and, lit bright by the sirens, the gnawed nails on the hand and a Swatch, which, like mine, tells the time from three hours ago. I imagine our common friend calling you tomorrow to say: “You know that guy I introduced you to? They found him drowned in the pool.” The police order us to take a detour through neighborhoods I didn’t know existed. Through the car’s tinted windows, the city looks like the capital of a country of vampires who feed not on blood but on noise and euphoria. The people move in groups, in slow motion, and those not busy tapping their cell phone screens wave at us at the zebra crossings and none of us respects the color of the traffic lights. I suspect that this hallucinatory impression is a flight strategy to avoid admitting that, against medical advice, I am thinking of you more than I can bear to. And I also have the sense that those minutes we were together are insufficient to afford me any precision when eventually I try to recollect you. And so, before it gets too late, I scan your eyes, your hair, and the vertices of your smile in my mind. It’s a smile that portends warm peals of laughter I would love to share, were I not dead and laid out on a stretcher in an ambulance.

OUTLINE OF A LECTURE FOR A HYPOTHETICAL CONFERENCE OF DIVORCEES

1  

Couples who divorce should wait neither for the decline
into boredom nor for the temptation to deceive. At the moment of plenty, when love is borne forward by enthusiasm and shared affinities, both parties should be generous enough to leave things be and agree, with the feeling of a job well done, on a finale that will not dishonor the time they shared. This would save them the pain of  giving up and the trial of seeing their feelings for what they are rather than as a pretext for the transformation of affection into repulsion or indifference. Like elite athletes, who realize it as soon as they reach the end of their prime, lovers should have the loyalty and courage to protect each other. Doing so would mean consideration for that respect for freedom that languishes and finally rots when a relationship stretches on through stubbornness alone.
It’s not true that the erosion is imperceptible. Long before the point of festering, it makes itself known through details couples notice but refuse to acknowledge, because inertia has hobbled their capacity for decision-making or because they try to believe better days are on the way. Though it doesn’t seem so, these postponements can be fruitful. The proof is how frequently they yield offspring and shared moments that transform us so that, when we try to go back to what we were, we realize feelings evolve faster than the people who experience them. This discrepancy produces misunderstandings and multiplies opportunities to ignore what is evident. A sense of guilt heightens the inevitable ending’s mediocrity. This is why, for the first seconds of the breakup proper, my reaction reveals a desire to live up not to our last few years together, but to the whole of our shared history. Once more, I visualize the scene, which probably resembles scenes many of you have lived through yourselves. She tells me I’ve been expecting her to tell me for a long time. That we need to talk. That she no longer loves me. That she’s met someone. That they’re seeing each other. First I feel hot and ashamed. The two sensations are contradictory, unexpected, cruel. I check: the heat is more emotional than physical. The shame, on the other hand, makes my muscles tense and dynamites the scaffolding of normalcy we’ve taken refuge behind without fully grasping all the risks involved. I don’t need to think to realize the change we’ve just initiated has countless consequences, but no way back. Sorrow isn’t long in coming, and, with a sense of priority that surprises even me, I lay down a condition: no self-deceptions. If I already had a intuition, I can’t pretend this came out of nowhere. To avoid unnecessary difficulties, I put principle before emotion. The gulf between us is epitomized in the way she crosses her arms and looks down, weak from overdoing herself. I pinpoint the origin of my shame: my recognition that the fact that I love her now means nothing to her, that even the comfort of a companion more willing than able no longer matters. We’re in the kitchen, which has always seemed like the ideal terrain for truth-telling. In the kitchen, privacy is relative. You hear the dryers beeping, the whir of the washers in the inner courtyard, and the refrigerator’s cyclothymic hum plays the role of fair-minded mediator. I look at her and, without saying so, thank her for what I’ve reproached her for before: resorting to unfathomable silence until everything gets summed up in a categorical message followed—I always have the impression with her that each abyss leads to a new one—by another silence. This time, appearances don’t deceive. The fluorescent lights harden our expressions and defuse the temptation to cry. We only split up five minutes ago, and already, it feels like two years. Now I can admit it: subconsciously, I had prepared myself to reach this point. I’ve made it through all the training phases, the most exasperating ones and the most promising. And I’m amazed at the quantity of resources I realize I possess. I’m also anxious to see how much my training will help me avoid paroxysms of reproach and rancor. I could turn this breakup into an act that will lend coherence to all we’ve lived through without debasing us more than we’ve debased ourselves by staying captive to a now-obsolete respect. When we first knew each other, we were improvising. And so it hits me that in this loveless phase we’ve just inaugurated, we’ll have to be stricter and avoid letting random fits of spontaneity blind us. And the conviction that there will be much more love in this breakup than in the decline that preceded it has an analgesic effect; I don’t know why.

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