As one of Catalonia’s most acclaimed literary talents, Jordi Puntí’s writing is “full of invention and consistently gripping” (The Times Literary Supplement). Now, he returns to his American audience with this breathtaking short story collection. Sharing the title of the David Bowie song, it travels from Spain to America and back, showing the differences between the two places.
A man recalls a past love as he strolls through the lonely streets of Barcelona. A hitchhiker on the outskirts of the city of Vic carries his secrets in a briefcase. In northern Catalonia, a villager receives letters from a long-estranged brother and grapples with how to respond. Then there’s the man who wants to surprise his wife with a trip to Paris, only to swap it for a solitary cruise.
Showcasing “the author’s vivid imagination” (Kirkus Reviews), the stories in This Is Not America are effortless evocations of the strangeness of everyday life and the universal search for love and belonging.
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This Is Not America
He leaves the subway in Plaça d’en Joanic and, coming up the stairs into the night, hears some nearby church bells chiming ten. Maybe they’re imaginary bells and they’re only ringing in his head, but never mind. What counts is here and now. He repeats it mentally: here and now, right? He lights a cigarette and walks briskly down to Passeig de Sant Joan. There aren’t many people in the street, not many cars, or it might just seem that way because the orangey glow from the streetlights is scattering arabesques of lackluster shadows everywhere. As he passes the churro shop in Carrer de l’Escorial, which is closed today, he shoos away a bittersweet memory. Not now, not yet. But then, just after that, at the top end of Passeig de Sant Joan, facing the half-hidden statue of a friar and a small boy, he stops for a few seconds and thinks of her. The thought is full of pain, yet hazy. A few days ago, and he can’t be more specific than that, Mai’s face started being wiped out of his memory . . . Well, not exactly that. He doesn’t want to use a negative verb. Rather, it’s been gently fading away, a vapory cloud of smoke, little by little, very slowly dispersing, and the days go by and you keep seeing it even though it’s no longer there, and you reach a point when you can see it only because you can imagine it, because you’ve seen it before and you know it was there.
This sensation of impending oblivion is what’s finally got him moving today. He looks up at the sky. It’s a serene starry night. The warm air’s playing with the leaves in the trees. Now resolved, he starts to walk, one step after the other. When he reaches the statue of Josep Anselm Clavé, he glances at it but doesn’t stop. One day, years ago, they decided that this fusty, frock-coated fellow with his bushy moustache had to be someone more eminent than this Clavé. Someone really internationally famous. They started trying to work out who he looked like. Balzac. Nietzsche. Trotsky, but without the glasses. Wouldn’t it be great if Barcelona had a statue of Trotsky? In the end, she came up with the best answer. Since he was holding a wand in his hand, it would be the statue of a famous magician from the days of the first illusionists and conjurers. Houdini, Max Malini . . . Clavini! The magician who, from his pedestal, made all the boring residents of Barcelona’s Eixample neighborhood vanish into thin air!
The memory makes him smile for a moment—that wicked gleam in Mai’s eye—but it immediately shrivels to leave a hollowness in his guts, so he walks faster trying to get rid of the nascent burning. He’s got to get used to it, he tells himself, and this nighttime walk has to help him too. This might be why, when he gets to Carrer de la Indústria and stops at the traffic lights, he realizes he’s been going too fast. He won’t leave any trace if he rushes so much. The ink of his footsteps won’t write anything. Then, like a man possessed, he turns around and runs back to the beginning of Passeig de Sant Joan, even overtaking two jogging boys. Sweating and panting with the effort, he stops and starts over, now more slowly.
Tonight he’s walking to trace out the letter I in “Mai.” Passeig de Sant Joan from end to end, right down to the Arc de Triomf. When they met up again, a million nights ago, he changed her name. She immediately agreed because she was convinced that every age deserves a different name, and she’d been waiting for this for quite a while. When she was a little girl her parents called her Maria Teresa. At school she became Teresa—Tere, to her closest friends and first boyfriend—and, a little later, at college, Maite. They’d seen each other around the Arts courtyard, and maybe they’d shared the odd conversation with mutual friends in the faculty bar. Then, all those years later, they met up again at a party in the Gràcia neighborhood, in an apartment that was too small, or too crowded with last-minute guests. A spring night, like now. Music of Echo & the Bunnymen, Ride, Pixies. They’d introduced themselves clinking beers and looking deep into each other’s eyes. She moved her lips over the distortions of the guitars and he read there “Mai.” A woman’s name that could also mean Never. The day she moved her things into his place three weeks later, they fucked as if they had to celebrate the fact, and then she asked, “You’re not one of those guys who gets tired of being with a woman . . . ?”
“I mean, you won’t leave me or kick me out, will you?”
“Never, Mai. Never.”
Then they fucked again and, still lying there all sweaty in the bed, cracked a bottle of Ballantine’s and smoked some Afghan weed to keep the well-being going, or whatever it was they’d been wanting for such a long time. They were both thirty-four, a lousy age, and with more than one failure to forget about.
That was more than fifteen years ago, and right now he doesn’t know if he’s walking to forget it completely or to remember it all. Once again he’s heading down Passeig de Sant Joan, more conscious of his steps, as if his shoes are leaving real prints in the asphalt, a sign that can be read from a bird’s-eye view. He walks past the Great Clavini, and when he gets to the traffic lights at Carrer de Sant Antoni Maria Claret he notices the Bar Alaska there, on the left. It’s full because there’s a soccer match on TV. That’s why there’s no one out in the streets tonight. He wonders if he should go over for a moment, but there’s no need. He can easily revive that family feeling: TV on, waiters in the typical getup, stinking of sweat, the permanent drunks . . . There was a time when he and Mai used to go out for beers with some friends who lived nearby. They called it the Chamfer Route. They’d meet on Saturdays, midafternoon, and started with beers in the Pirineus on the chamfered corner of Carrer de Bailèn. Then to the Alaska and the Sirena Verde, to end up in the Oller till they closed. In the Alaska, they always made fun of the other drinkers and laughed a lot. Old ladies who hung around there all afternoon badmouthing their kids over a pathetic Cacaolat; the separated guy at the bar getting into the cognac as he checked out dating ads; the couple who never spoke as they shared patates braves and a toasted ham-and-cheese sandwich for dinner (so they played at guessing who’d be beating up whom later that night). They stopped doing the Chamfer Route precisely because of soccer. The bars were packed with rowdy people and you couldn’t talk or drink in peace.
He crosses at the lights. A bicycle goes past next to him and, heading down Passeig de Sant Joan, is soon lost in the gathering darkness. A young couple sitting on a bench is sharing a bag of chips. They eat one and kiss, another chip, another kiss. A dog goes over to them, a black schnauzer. The girl wants to give it a chip but the dog is old and lazy and can’t decide. Then the owner whistles and the dog loses interest and turns tail. For a few seconds they’re walking together, him and the dog, at the same pace. These instants make up a scene of workaday routine, and, more than anything, it bothers him. He and Mai never got used to that; thinking about it a little more, it’s clear to him they weren’t into it at all. When the days started looking too much alike, when they achieved some semblance of normality—not that they made much effort—the thing always cracked at some weak point in the end. You would have thought that Mai’s character was too unpredictable, too edgy, a lethal combination in itself, but there was more to it than that. Blame and risks were shared between the two of them, and that’s probably why they loved each other with that unconditional madness. When they did love each other.
By the time he reaches Carrer de Còrsega, a sudden roar breaks into his thoughts. Someone’s scored a goal. Fireworks are going off, like a dress rehearsal for Midsummer Eve. A driver festively toots his horn. He looks up and sees two boys who’ve come out onto a balcony to smoke. There are lights on in nearly every apartment. It’s a warm night, and most windows are wide-open. Let the city noise come in now, when the heat’s bearable, there are still no mosquitos, and Barcelona’s streets don’t stink of sewers. Suddenly that poem by Gil de Biedma comes to mind, the one called “Nights of the Month of June.” They read it together and liked it a lot. It spoke of a night like this. He especially recalls the slightly melancholy mood, the student with his balcony doors open and, below, the recently washed street, the solitude, the uneasiness about all the unknowns of the future, but only a slight uneasiness . . . He tries to remember some of it and comes up with a vaguely affective state of mind, with that nicely placed adverb. But there was another more important line near the end . . . Now he can’t get it. The collection of poems by Gil de Biedma was the only book they had two copies of at home after they put their libraries together. They’d bought it when they were students, around the same time, and years later they reread it, looking for excuses for being the way they were, a poetic ploy to justify their actions. Here in the street, as he walks, it only takes a brief flashback to those hungover mornings of crusted vomit, the stale reek of cigarette smoke in the sheets, empty bottles and full ashtrays scattered on the floor—still life at the foot of the mattress—for the words he was looking for to pop into his head. Pero también la vida nos sujeta porque precisamente no es como la esperábamos. Yes, that’s right. Life holds us fast, too, precisely because it is not as we thought it would be.
Mai’s death left him stunned. It was a sense of unreality that at first numbed the hours and was like waking up comatose after you’ve been drinking nonstop for days, when you flow back disoriented and with a calm that inevitably runs off down some drain you never knew existed. He was sober but didn’t seem it. They’d let him go back to work at the high school, and he did his classes on automatic pilot without thinking about what he was saying or getting pissed off with his students. He ate out, always locally and alone, sitting at the bar and never finishing what was on his plate. In that new, lonely netherworld Mai’s absence overwhelmed everything, but it also held out periods of surprising lucidity. If he thought about her as if she were still alive, he’d suddenly know what to do. And there was her betrayal with the whisky, if you can put it like that—eight months after they’d detoxed together yet again—but he forgave her more than anyone. He’d found her one Tuesday night when he came back from Prague after a school trip with his final-year students. She was lying on the sofa, naked, hair in a tangle, and her head hanging down in an unnatural position. She’d choked on her own vomit. Such a cliché death. If it hadn’t been for her wide-open eyes and cold body, he would even have found her beautiful. It was a scene they’d already rehearsed together more than once, more than a couple of times.
The constant, stupefying confusion hasn’t left him, but he’s learned to live with it and sometimes he even tells himself he can manage it if she helps him. Like that day, quite a while after Mai was dead and cremated, when he decided that he had to write her name on the city. It was a game they’d played in the past, after the third detox which was theoretically the successful one. Once the jitters had calmed down and they were starting to be human again, the doctor recommended that they should walk every day, do some exercise, and, at the same time, chase away dangerous ideas. Then Mai remembered a book by Paul Auster in which his main character walks around the city, his steps tracing letters that are interpreted by someone coming behind him. They got a pencil and a map of Barcelona and began to imagine possible routes. They went out in midafternoon, when he got back from the school and she left her translations, and they walked or, more accurately, strolled around for an hour and a half. The grid layout of the Eixample neighborhood was ideal for monosyllables. Gràcia, Sants, and El Guinardó allowed calligraphic flourishes, while El Xino, a labyrinth of temptations, suggested garbled, dangerous graffiti, which was best to avoid.
Now, coming down Passeig de Sant Joan, he feels a sort of revival of the spirit of those walks, as if Mai were actually at his side. A few days ago, in an attack of longing, he started on the M, up Carrer de Muntaner, then continuing its strokes in the streets of Gràcia. The A, much more complicated to draw, was hidden in the ups and downs of the Putxet neighborhood. Now it pleased him that the I should be coming out from under his feet with this vertical simplicity, yet with the vigor of a nighttime downhill run. A single stroke and her name would be complete.
He’s about to cross Carrer del Rosselló when he sees the famous journalist Joan de Sagarra going by, looking like he hasn’t had dinner and gloomy and mad at the world or his neighborhood, or maybe mentally writing his next article in which he’ll be mad at the world or his neighborhood. He knows that Sagarra lives around here because he’s said so in more than one of his Sunday pieces. In a playground a little farther down, a small boy frenziedly climbs up and hurtles down a slide while a girl makes sure he doesn’t hurt himself when he hits the bottom. He’s about four or five and you can see he’s hyper. His shouts echo in the absence of traffic. The girl, who must be his mother, is wearing a full-length turquoise sari with silver embroidery glittering under the streetlights. He watches her for a few seconds, guessing that she’s not yet twenty-five and noting that she doesn’t seem at all bothered that it’s so late. Other children are at home sleeping, and this one has the whole playground to himself. He slows down, still looking with a touch of envy at the two figures, which seem to have been teleported from another faraway place at another time of day. A few meters farther along, he gets what’s happening. On the other side of the street is a small Pakistani supermarket, and it’s still open. From the doorway, a man is watching the movements of the mother and child. Get the kid tired and he’ll drop off straightaway.
He keeps walking and now, yes, while he’s lighting another cigarette, the memory he just had to suppress comes back. Late one night they went out for drinks and to dance in the Almo2bar, or whatever the dive was called, and they’d stopped to get churros in Carrer de l’Escorial. They’d eaten very little and drunk a lot, and, since they only smoked hash in those days, they were famished. They were eating the churros as they walked along, and Mai wanted to sit on one of the swings in the playground of Plaça d’en Joanic. He got behind her and, with a churro in his mouth, started pushing her. First he pushed gently, as if being careful with a small girl, but then, little by little, pushed harder and harder. Mai was laughing, screaming with extravagant fear, instinctively lifting and lowering her feet, but the swing, thrown out of kilter with her weight, was wobbling like crazy. In one of its lurches, just when she told him she’d had enough, her paper cone slipped out of her hand and two or three churros flew into the air. When she tried to grab them, she lost her balance. The fall, which left her flat on her back on the ground, was spectacular, clumsy, but harmless. He was laughing, and as he staggered over to help her up, the swing whacked his back and he also fell, next to Mai. The next day he’d have a bruise for sure, but now, trying to ignore the pain, he flung himself on top of her. They rolled around on the ground, locked together in a long kiss, a mix of laughter, churro dough, tobacco, and alcoholic spit.
“You see? We’d never be able to have kids, you and I,” she blurted out in a pause, with a soberness that didn’t match the happiness of the moment. “We wouldn’t even know how to swing them, let alone parent them. Imagine what a disaster we’d be.”
He was about to protest, but he knew Mai was right, so in response he hugged her tighter. Then, in the deeper voice that came out of him when he was tipsy and got all transcendental, he whispered, “We’ll be our own kids.”
They’d both turned forty.
They got fed up with everything. They’d been walking around, writing words in the streets of Barcelona for a while, when they decided they had to change things. Mai said it would be more fun if they followed each other, as in The New York Trilogy, and the one walking behind would decipher some kind of message along the way. Each of them had to imagine what the other was writing, but it wasn’t easy, like when someone writes a word on your skin and your brain has to know what it is from the touch. Their conspiracy amused them. Sometimes, halfway through the walk, the pursuer caught up with the pursued, saying, “I’m lost. Start again.” And they laughed at the absurdity, or guessed the end of the word and went to the writer to say “I love you too” (although they tried not to be too tacky). Since it was sometimes quite difficult to work out what was being written, he suggested that every time they finished a letter, they should pause to indicate a space by stopping and jumping, for example, or squatting to touch the ground. The plan lasted only a day, because the silly little jumps made Mai feel ridiculous. But one way or another they found new incentives to keep walking. They gave each other hints, like crossword clues.
“Today I’m going to write the name of a Russian novelist.”
“Not ‘Dostoyevsky,’ eh. We’ll never get to the end.”
“Stop telling me what to do! Maybe I’ll write ‘Fyodor.’?”
Sometimes the invisible word was related with the street they’d started out from, or they used the game to comment on everyday matters with monosyllabic shopping-list words—“juice,” “bread,” “milk”—but there were also days when they didn’t feel like saying anything or were in a bad mood, and then they walked separately, wherever they wanted, randomly filling the city with unintelligible scribbles.
If someone had been watching them from the air, they would have looked crazy, or maybe as if they were acting out some sort of complicated sexual perversion. For them, however, it was just playing to keep boredom at bay in an alcohol-free evening or, more like it, fending off any tantalizing thoughts of booze, now they were on the wagon. They didn’t talk about it much, but it seemed to them that their walks made the world go round, that their feet warmed the asphalt, as if they were helping to generate the energy that moves big cities. They didn’t keep a record of the words they wrote and soon forgot them, but perhaps an imprint remained in the memory of the streets, as if all those invisible flourishes were ribbons and knots binding the two of them together, making them inseparable. So, in the times they weren’t together, each was comforted by the idea that the other was walking round the city—at the other end of the thread—and they might link up at any moment.
He lights another cigarette and crosses Diagonal, hurrying because the traffic lights are about to turn red. Suddenly he has the sensation that someone’s following him. He can almost hear footsteps. When he gets across the road, he turns, intent on seeing who it is. But he can’t see anyone. It must be the specter of Mossèn Cinto, he tells himself, Verdaguer the poet-priest, stuck up there all alone on top of his column, struggling with the temptation to leap into the void. A few cars go by, tooting their horns and waving flags. So the match has ended well. Behind Mossèn Cinto, a bit farther on, as if hanging in the sky, the owl on top of the Roura building winks at him. With eyes like two phosphorescent yellow lanterns in the dark, the bird’s a kind of superhero guarding over Barcelona’s night people.
He’d decided to do this last walk at night because that was when Mai shone most. If it wasn’t for his job teaching at the high school, which meant he often had to get up early, they would have ended up being denizens of the wee hours, urban vampires. Mai worked at her translations until late. She said that nightfall opened up the way for crossing between languages, and she’d only stop if he convinced her to go and see a movie in the late-night session at the Casablanca or the Arkadin. In winter they tended to stay at home, night creatures of inside realms. Sometimes, when she was still working, he’d go shopping, then boil up a saucepan of chicken and vegetables to make a three-day soup, which, when it was nearly finished, was warmed up again, padded out with a tot of whisky and a couple of egg yolks. At night they liked reading together, in their own worlds, or just chatting while they smoked some dope and listened to CDs. There was one by Pharoah Sanders that lasted exactly as long as the joints she rolled. Moreover, it was as if the music followed her mood swings. He’d eventually have to go to bed, but Mai stayed up. Sometimes she phoned a friend in Paris with the excuse of some problem with a translation, and, when they got talking about life, he was lulled to sleep by erotic murmurs in French coming from the next room.
At weekends or when the weather was nice and he wasn’t teaching, any excuse was good enough for them to go out. They caught up with friends, went to concerts or to the Galician bar downstairs to have a beer, and if they were on some substance, they didn’t get home till the next morning. They could never get enough of it, and it wasn’t surprising that they took refuge in the night to avoid bad blood between them, as if it was neutral ground or constituted an armistice. For Mai, night wasn’t a measure of time. It was a space, a thick, verdant forest that needed to be crossed from end to end, even if you didn’t know what was waiting for you on the other side. And it was cheating to turn back. She said, “I don’t care if we never come back from the night.” He went along with that.
They were often out of control and got too squalid—well, a day is just a day, and each day was each day—but they looked after each other to the end. The next day they tended to wake up at home, in bed, in the middle of a devastated bedroomscape that seemed to have been attacked by machete blows, the result of some violence they didn’t know about. Then the first one to wake up and see it blamed the other for the excess, and in the whole ritual they found some solace.
“Who am I doing this for?” he asks himself as he keeps walking down Passeig de Sant Joan. “Her or me?” The owl whispers in his ear, “For both of you, knucklehead.” He heads down the wide pavement in a straight line and doesn’t walk past anyone for a while. The bars are closing after the soccer fever and waiters are clearing the terraces with a racket of tables and chairs. He’s walked more than half of the I and now he’s afraid of finishing it. He slows down, stops for a moment, and feels ridiculous. Once again, he has the feeling that someone’s coming up from behind, and even has a shiver of nearness but this time, too, there’s no one there. Just the night. He lights up and starts walking again, trying to shake off the paranoia, convincing himself with every step that he’s doing what he must do. No, he’ll never forget her. Mai. Never. He knows that. If he’s writing her name, it’s only so the city will remember her.
When he gets to the Plaça de Tetuan, he hesitates for a few seconds, wondering whether to go round it to cross Gran Via or go straight through it. The iron gates of the park are still open and, though there’s not much light inside, he goes in, because he has to keep the line of the I straight. In the shadows he can see three or four people talking in a ring, keeping an eye on their dogs, which are sniffing and chasing each other up and down the patches of grass. In the best-lit part, near the central group of sculptures, three adolescents are playing catch, trying to keep the ball in the air. They’re shouting, yelling insults if one of them fumbles and drops it. A bit farther on, in the stripy shadows of palms and banana trees, he spots the silhouette of a couple lying on the ground but, walking past, realizes that, no, it’s a hobo sleeping on a bed of cardboard and plastic bags. He keeps going and, just when he’s about to leave from the far side of the square, he hears someone calling his name.
What surprises him most is that the voice sounds so calm and natural, as if it’s been waiting for him. He stops and looks harder to see where it’s coming from. Then he sees two figures coming toward him.
“It’s you, right? What the hell are you doing here?” says the voice. He immediately recognizes Toni Forajido, who vigorously pumps his hand as if they were pals having an arm-wrestling contest. He and Mai called him that because he played bass in a garage band named Los Forajidos. They had a couple of college friends in common and they’d seen them play at Sidecar or Magic, but he can’t remember which. Then Toni left the band and went off to live in Berlin, after which they’d lost track of him.
“Nothing. Just walking, as you can see,” he says, taking a couple of steps toward the gate of the park, where the glow from the streetlights is brighter. It’s at least ten years since he’s seen Toni, who’s hollow-cheeked and hasn’t aged well. It looks like he’s still sporting the same old black leather jacket, cowboy boots, and earring that he wore back then, but over the years he’s lost the air of outsider cockiness that bass players from all the bands around the world tend to have. “So, what are you two doing?”
“Gonna get wasted.” Proud and solemn, Toni shows him two bottles of cheap vodka they must have bought five minutes ago. His roguish expression triggers the memory that Mai couldn’t stand Toni Forajido, that she used to say that he was a poseur and a moron. “We worked hard today, so we earned it. Yeah, Christa?”
Then he notices the girl who’s with Toni. She must be Polish or German, and if he put her age at eighteen, that would be pushing it. Her upper lip is pierced, so her smile looks mocking, and her blond hair is a snarled mess. It must be days since she’s washed it. When he says hello, she looks at him with ill-concealed impatience. She seems tired, as if she’d rather sleep than get drunk. Toni Forajido strokes her back, tenderly caresses her cheek, and, with a wink at his old friend, asks if he’d like to join in the fun.
“No, thanks,” he says. “I’ll pass.”
“You still see anyone from the old days?” Toni asks. “We were such a bunch of animals.”
He shakes his head, saying no as neutrally as he can because he doesn’t want to get into a conversation, let alone rake over old coals. He wants to go, leave them to it, and meanwhile the girl’s starting to walk backwards, shuffling away to let them know it’s about time he did go. Before saying goodbye, Toni Forajido asks, “By the way, are you still with that woman? Mai, right? She was a bit . . . well, I don’t know how to put it, but, jeez, she had a spectacular ass and she liked a good time. Yeah, I remember her well.”
“Right, right, we’ve been together for years.” He doesn’t want to tell the truth. Mai would see it as a defeat, and there’s no need. Then they say goodbye and go their separate ways, but at the last minute he stops and shouts, “Hey, Toni, just a matter of curiosity: Do you still play bass?”
Toni Forajido doesn’t say a word but raises his open left hand, waggling it as if waving. In that light he’s just got time to notice that there’s a finger missing, the middle one.
He’s now on the last stretch of Passeig de Sant Joan and his feet are heavy. He’s done. The ink’s getting thicker. He thinks about the fluke of coming across Toni Forajido, today of all days, imagining the scrapes that have turned him into this seedy loser, a dopehead who picks up girls at railway stations or youth hostels or whatever. He also thinks about the way he referred to Mai. At first he felt flattered that Toni Forajido still remembered her after all those years, but was riled, too, by the offhand way he spoke about her. Now he feels bad for not objecting. They’ve known each other since the worst days (or best, depending on how you look at it) and he suddenly gets a mean idea: Toni, that bum, could have died and not Mai. Like a prisoner swap, except, in the end, it wouldn’t have been any use either.
Now he can see the Arc de Triomf. There are more people going up and down in this section of the street, maybe because the subway’s nearby. A couple gets out of a taxi and goes into a building. He watches them, can see them entering, waiting for the elevator, how he loosens his tie and she laughs at something. When he crosses Ausiàs March, he once again has the feeling that someone’s coming behind him. He stops and a peppy girl with long, dark hair, jeans, blue sneakers, and a “spectacular ass” strides past, and he can’t help shouting, “Hey!” His voice comes out fretful, almost desperate. The girl hesitates for a moment or two but doesn’t turn around. On the contrary, she walks even faster and he knows he can’t follow her.
As if needing some sign, he stops a few meters farther on in front of Norma Comics. Mai came here often. She loved comics. Through her, in their early days, he discovered Métal Hurlant, the brutal style of RanXerox, and Tardi’s war stories. They lost themselves in Moebius’s dreamworlds, and got worked up over Guido Crepax’s Valentina. He checks out the comics in the window, the names of superheroes he doesn’t know, the rubber figures of Tintin and Snowy, a life-size poster of one of Milo Manara’s beauties. He examines it all with an intensity that’s rare for this hour of the night. If it were open he’d go in. You might think he’s dragging out the time before coming to the end. But it’s not really that. He has a craving that can’t be satisfied.
After a while, he starts walking again. At what point does writing a letter end if you can’t lift the ballpoint from the paper? He walks under the Arc de Triomf and then realizes that Mai’s name is now written on the city. He stops. He wants to cry but manages not to. He wipes his nose on his sleeve and lights up again. All at once, it’s as if she’s there, standing in front of him, more alive than ever, a fleeting presence with long, translucent hair, a weightless hand tugging at the other end of the narrative thread, pulling it tight. He looks at his sneakers. If he keeps walking now, the line won’t end. There are no rules today. This isn’t a game. He takes them off and keeps walking, barefoot, with the shoes in his hand. For a few seconds he’s not sure where to go, but Mai shows the way—go right—and he enters the cramped space of Carrer del Rec Comtal, heading for the narrow streets of La Ribera, looking for the darkest alleys. He pats his back pocket, where he always carries his wallet. Luckily he remembered to grab some cash before leaving home.