Right in front of the house, across the street, lives a very old lady. When you move, you immediately start building a neighborhood cadastre. On my map, this lady has always been a question mark. I only saw her in a light nightgown through her window, her shutter half open, like someone who needs to let the sun in (life) but is reluctant to let the world know too much (about her life).
His routine was minimal, so recurrent that it seemed irreparable: every day at mid-morning he appeared around the room; in the afternoon he sat motionless on the bed: his hands in his lap. He stayed for half an hour, then got up and disappeared. I don’t know what he did at night or the rest of the day. I don’t know her name or nothing about her. I never saw his face.
By trial and error, I learned to make waiting a method. Then Rilke appeared and gave literary form to that vigil for giving certainty to the uncertain – be patient with everything that remains unresolved in your heart, he wrote to his young poet. As an adult, I let events dare (or not) because I know it is futile to chase a river. What must be revealed will do so.
So with the lady, I just decided to wait for something to happen. I did not impose my vigilance: chance could give me what I was looking for, and that also included the possibility of never knowing. What did I expect? Two ideas moved me: knowing her face — the absence of identity dehumanizes — and the reason for that wait for more than a quarter of an hour sitting on the bed. Did I pray, observe something? Was anyone attracting your conversation?
We all build the lives of others in the same way that we fantasize about our own. We select segments and enhance them: we mythologize the least, we hide the debris from ourselves. The history of others, like their own, is a permanent fiction intertwined by the imperfections of our observation, the emptiness of memories, that random machine of producing incomplete stories that is memory, the need to self-narrate. Lying and believing, masking ourselves: live.
After all, while I waited for her to reveal herself, I did that with the lady: I built her a tiny, manipulable world; obedient and submissive, because nothing else depended on my choice and was not subject to being corroborated by much more than the glimpses of that woman’s life.
Thus, for some time I assumed that the woman lived with an older husband, the man of her entire life, the most worn-out, demolished to eviction: she acted there as a back, shoulder, home heroin. If that man lived – or rather, if any of him survived – it was all born of the strange woman.
Then I decided that she lived alone, because no one else seemed to move in that semi-dark house – behind the window there was only the side of a low bed covered by a faint, wrinkle-free bedspread – and that her life had already been lived. He got up, ate breakfast with the frugality of an old canary, moved like a shadow around the house, perhaps he watched TV all day, perhaps he just sat down to spend hours in a single circular thought. He could not endow it with eschatology; I was not interested. If there was one thing, the woman was a dressed soul, two legs that often appeared out of the window, half a body wrapped in a white cardigan, with no head or face, hands in her lap.
In any case, loneliness alone (the woman, with no one) or accompanied solitude (the woman with the old man) ended up being my chosen story. A while back, I stopped asking myself questions about her. Imperfection is easier to tolerate in small doses, said a great poet.
But these days, all of a sudden, I’ve been wondering about the woman. I haven’t seen her in weeks. Neither in the morning nor during prayer or conversation or evocation. The window remains the same: motionless halfway. I don’t know what happened to her.
I just don’t know. And I have framed that uncertainty in the fear that corrodes us daily because death has gotten through our noses.
His absence made me feel half agonized, screwed up. Today we read how families –loves– must let their dead, taken by the Shit Virus, go without saying goodbye. Perhaps just hug – for a moment – a sealed drawer that will end up cremated in a morgue. Nothing was written to make things happen like this. A fortnight ago everything was normal. We hugged each other.
There is a poem by Emily Dickinson, The bustle in a house, what does it say:
The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, –
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
The poem talks about the enormous activity that exists in a home after a death. All that activity to sink the pain into the movement. All acting, clearing the body of emotions, keeping the love that will no longer be needed for the rest of life.
Too many people are losing their loves without being able to say their last words to them, without knowing more about them, without asking them questions they would have liked. We lose people in this silence to which we are condemned as matter that disintegrates in the air, like that woman who always was, and no longer.