I was going crazy in my house because I didn’t know what I was doing anymore and feared the advent of the future. But the future never came.
I said, “I think I’m developing agoraphobia.”
My wife (who knew how to ignore me) said, “Could you hold this for me, please?”
She put a curtain rod in my hands. Then she slid a curtain onto it with a single-mindedness that left me breathless with admiration. How did she do it? How did she find the time for curtains?
“I’m tired of the neighbor staring at us,” she said. Then she went up a step ladder and hung the curtain rod in place.
“Fuck you,” she whispered, either to the neighbor or the entire world.
We went out and got in the car. Someone my wife knew had died and she had to go to the wake. She didn’t expect me to go — but the TV was broken, I didn’t know how to read anymore, drinking alone had never really appealed to me, and I didn’t feel like staying home and brooding about my agoraphobia and the advent of the future. So I got in the car.
I said, “Was this that woman who liked the smell of cowshit?”
“Yeah, she liked the smell of cowshit. It reminded her of where she grew up.”
“Now she’s dead.”
“She isn’t dead,” said my wife. “She died.”
“You can’t be dead, because once you die you can’t be anything.”
“God, I hope you’re right.”
We got to the funeral home. It looked like a lunar station shopping mall. The windows were tinted yellow like an astronaut’s sun visor.
“Mind if I come in?”
“Ah, I don’t care. Just don’t say anything.”
“I won’t say cowshit, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Don’t say agoraphobia either.”
“I’m not sure I could even say that in Spanish.”
“It’s pretty much the same as it is in English.”
(Our conversations took place in a terrifying mixture of English and Spanish. We veered from one language into the other without even realizing we were doing it. We just threw it all together and gibbered at each other. There was also a fair amount of telepathy involved — probably the case with most active marriages. But at the funeral home we were obliged to refrain from English since Spanish was the language of the bereaved.)
We went inside. The place was enormous. There were sliding glass doors and arrows telling you where to go. There was an information desk staffed by beautiful women with quiet faces. They wore make-up and had their hair up in ponytails and knew how to put on their clothes. There were large screens with names and room numbers listed on them. It was like an airport, except that each flight only had one passenger, and there were no arrivals, only departures.
“There’s a bar here?”
“It’s open 24 hours,” said my wife.
“This is a strange country.”
“Your prejudices are strange. This country is what it is.”
As usual, she was correct without even trying.
She found the name of the woman for whom the smell of cowshit had evoked childhood nostalgia and we followed the arrows to the room indicated – room 34.
And there she was. She lay in a separate room, an alcove really. You had to view her through a window. I hadn’t expected that. No fiddling with the corpse in this place. No crazy last kisses or pilfering of wedding rings.
“Why is she behind glass?” I said.
“Gases,” said my wife.
Apparently they didn’t embalm the body until after the wake.
I hung back, worried someone might ask me to explain myself if I got too close. Did they all know each other in there? Would they know I’d never met her? All I knew about her, after all, was that she was dead – had died — and had liked the smell of cowshit.
I sat on a bench, but the future began to rise out of the marble floor and terrify me. This was it, then. It was happening now, here, in this gigantic shining funeral home. The future was about to manifest.
“Fuck,” I said and made a dash for the bar.
The future followed me down the hallway. It was a kind of cloudy thing the color of egg whites.
“Oh my God,” I said. “Oh shit!”
“You speak English?” said some guy sitting at the bar.
“Yes,” I said.
The words cowshit and agoraphobia flapped down from the rafters of my mind like a pair of jackdaws and started strutting around on the floor.
I sat next to the guy at the bar. He was eating a steak. As long as I talked to this stranger I was pretty sure I could keep the future at bay.
The woman came over and I asked for a beer.
“Where are you from?” the guy said in English.
I told him where I was from. Then he wanted to know more about me. He wanted to know everything. Too much. But I didn’t care. I knew what it was like speaking a language you didn’t know all that well. You ended up interrogating total strangers. You were impolite out of the politest of motives. Your questions were simple, direct. Anything more nuanced was out of your range and virtually impossible.
Where do you live? Where do you work? How old are you? Do you like Spain? Are you happy here?
No, I just sit in my house and do nothing. I’m crazy.
Switching to Spanish he said, “Well, it’s time for me to head back to work.”
“You work here?”
“No, I come here for lunch. They have a good menu.”
I said, “Nobody in America eats lunch in a funeral home.”
“You only go there when somebody dies. I don’t even think they serve food. Maybe in big cities. I don’t know. Definitely no beer on tap.”
I could see he found this notion hard to accept.
Yet another instance of American barbarism.
“When I was young and full of various drugs,” he said, “I used to stop here late at night with my friends because it was the only bar still open. We wanted another drink, you know? Now you can find a bar at any hour, but back then things were different.”
“You don’t look that old.”
“Change happens in this country in spurts. Nothing happens for the longest time, then suddenly everything is different.”
“Not really a measure for measure kind of place.”
“No. Now I just come here for lunch.”
He looked at his watch and said, “Me cago en la leche,” which means, I shit in the milk. That’s one of the things they say around here when they get a little upset and need to mouth off a bit.
He paid his bill and said, “I hope I won’t be seeing you here again.” Then he left. I wondered if he said that every day to some grief-shocked stranger.
I looked around. There was no sign of the future. Not yet.
My wife found me.
“What the hell are you doing?” she said.
“Having a beer.”
“Yes. Right now. You want one?”
I said, “Me cago en la leche.”
She looked at me like I was made out of air.
Then I said, “They have a good lunch menu.”
“I’m not following you.” She was glancing around at the doorways as if she were expecting someone to join us.
“I just had a conversation with a total stranger,” I said. “He was nice.”
“Why don’t you sit down?”
“Because I hate this place.”
I paid for my beer and we went out and got in the car. The future sat in the back seat. I saw him in the side-view mirror. He could have been my brother.