A Lunch Date
At Drones they had given him a table shoved into a corner by the staircase, shrouded in a profusion of greenery. When he leaned to the left, the branch of a kentia tree lightly caressed the nape of his neck as a motley assortment of aromas—chile con carne, gnocchi with four-cheese sauce, mandarin soufflé—wafted up the shaft of the spiral staircase. At least they had not condemned him to the arctic zone, the downstairs dining room, or, in other words, the shadowy underworld where the maître d’ normally sends pariahs.
Molinet leaned back a bit in his chair. He had arrived ten minutes early, as was his habit, and he allowed his eyes to wander about the restaurant in search of a familiar face. There wasn’t a single one. It had been years since he’d last lunched at Drones, and he was pleased at how little the place had changed. The same black-and-white-tiled floor, the same red chairs, even the maître d’ seemed familiar—an old waiter. The walls were the same as ever, which was just as well, since they were, after all, the main attraction at Drones. Years earlier, when David Niven, Jr., had taken over the restaurant, he had decided to decorate it with a rather curious collection of photographs. The photographs’ subjects looked like nothing more than a bunch of anonymous children, but the waiters were quick to explain that the youthful faces were actually those of actors, star- lets, well-known beautiful people, and many of old Mr. Niven’s Hollywood colleagues and cronies. There were large photos, small photos, color photos, and black-and-white photos, and they all served as entertainment for the neophytes, who would either study them and try to guess who was who or else use them as conversation fillers when the chitchat waned. Molinet gracefully unfolded his napkin. He had never fallen prey to that temptation, not even with the dullest of companions. He considered himself a sterling conversationalist, and even when desperate, he never permitted himself to stop something so trite.
Now it was different, however, for he was alone, and so he decided to take a look at the photographs closest to him. He couldn’t identify a single person in them until, finally, he thought he could make out . . . was that Sophia Loren in her First Communion dress? Yes, that just might be her, a homely little girl whose lovely eyes were not quite able to distract the viewer’s attention from her rather disproportionate-size mouth.
Seven years. Seven long years away from this world, thought Molinet. Too long, he thought, to have been so far removed from all this. It was a relief to see that all these worldly things had remained more or less the same—pleasures, after all, change very little. That was precisely what he admired about London: A man could really believe in a city where five, ten, even fifteen years could go by and the same restaurant would still be in fashion. This thought, however, was just a momentary digression, and Molinet immediately decided to abandon this line of thinking. The last few years had been a parenthesis, a black hole to which he did not wish to dedicate even five minutes of his luncheon, for he had returned to the land of the living—in fact, he had even organized a little excursion to celebrate his return, and right then his only concern was Fernanda and her imminent arrival. It was one-thirty on the dot and he was beginning to get hungry.
He realized that at least twenty years had gone by since he’d last heard from his niece. He had been quite surprised when she had called him. Could this possibly be Fernanda’s first trip to London, in all this time? Probably not, but it might very well be her first trip without her husband, which would explain why she had come to call upon her old uncle.
For certain women, he mused to himself, traveling alone always begins with a little flip through the date book: charter flight, budget hotel, and then a glance through the very last pages of the book, which is where the old addresses pile up. These old addresses— obsolete as they may be—are copied down year after year, from date book to date book, on the off chance they might be useful sometime. As on this occasion.
Molinet wondered if he would even be able to recognize his niece’s face, for she belonged to a scattered, foggy past that he generally referred to as “my relatives in Madrid”—family members he felt connected to by an affection that was, in all honesty, more abstract than real. But they nevertheless shared a bond, one that translated the occasional seasons greetings over Christmas and inspired them to write occasional letters that kept everyone abreast of only the most essential news, such as deaths, marriages, and the obligatory scandal.
Molinet signaled to the maître d’, who chose to look directly through him with that selective blindness so typical of restaurant employees. Finally, after a very long while, Molinet managed to catch the attention of a young waiter passing by as he performed a balancing act with a tray piled high with plates and spoons that clinked away against the china. At long last, he ordered a sherry.
“I’d soooooo love to see you,” Fernanda had said to him over the phone. His reply had been very cautious so as to avert the possibility that she might invite herself to stay with him.
“Darling, I would simply love it if you could stay with me at Tooting Bec, but things aren’t quite the way they were when Mama was alive,” Molinet had replied. “You see, I’m dreadfully far from the center of London, and in fact I’m going away on holiday. Morocco, if you can believe it, a little vacation.” He didn’t think it necessary to offer any more details: that he had spent seven long years taking care of his mother day and night, for example. That after she died he had spent a month and a half in a hellhole, a terribly expensive hellhole at that, called the Cedars of Lebanon Mental Hospital. That he now rented two miserable rooms in a neighborhood on the outskirts of town. That the last thing he wished to ponder was exactly how he was going to get his life on track, and that the very first thing he had done was reserve a hotel room in Morocco for two weeks. After that, God would provide for him. Why bother going into all of it? Surely his niece knew at least half of the story—the hospitalization, the depression . . . sordid tales do travel the fastest, after all.
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” Fernanda had said to him, adding that she was coming to London on business and had no intention of staying at his house, even though she would “be thrilled to see you even if it’s only to have lunch. You know, I would have come with Alvaro-husband, but at the last minute he didn’t come through, as always, and no . . . no, don’t worry about me, really, I’m perfectly happy at the hotel, it’s an adorable little place, right in the center and everything . . .”
And so they had agreed to see each other on Friday. Fernanda would be through with her professional appointments by around twelve-thirty, and she could take the Tube to be at Pont Street at about one, one-thirty.
“Yes, yes, it would be really grand if we could meet straight at the restaurant. I’m here for the Ideal Home Exhibition, you can’t imagine how boring it is—for the past two days I’ve talked about nothing but casserole dishes. But, well, what’s the use complaining? This is what has become of my life ever since I decided to become a domestic worker . . .”
Molinet hadn’t had the easiest time understanding some of Fernanda’s ironic turns of phrase. His visits to Spain were very infrequent. It had been years since he’d last been there, and his childhood summer vacations in San Sebastián, at the home of his maternal relatives, were vague memories. Also, he considered himself neither Spanish, like his mother, nor Uruguayan, like his father, who was also from no place in particular, having lived here, there, and everywhere. For this reason Molinet spoke Spanish with the ambivalence that comes from feeling no particular claim to any one nationality; he was the kind of person who had learned so many different languages that he peppered his speech with words and expressions from all of them, stealing and adapting them to fit his own, very idiosyncratic kind of Esperanto. Rootless people such as he, people who have learned to speak in the family home and not out in the street, at work, or in school, end up speaking in the most outmoded fashion, using expressions that have long since become obsolete, and are always ignorant of newer, more contemporary terms.
Even so, after his telephone conversation with Fernanda, it hadn’t been too terribly hard to figure out that his niece belonged (as did he) to that illustrious social class known as the New Poor. From what little she had said, he was able to deduce that she had been forced to supplement a meager household budget (“Alvaro-husband is a landscape architect, so you can just imagine how this little recession is treating us”) with the help of a personal catering business.
“To put it bluntly, darling, I am what you might call a high-class maid,” she had explained to him. “I’ll do anything from a cocktail party for two hundred people to some rich old lady’s afternoon tea party, with watercress sandwiches and mango infusions. That pretty much sums things up for us right now.”
By the time the waiter finally brought him his sherry, Molinet was already thinking about other things. It was fifteen minutes past the hour they had agreed to meet, and though he was more than accustomed to female tardiness, he nevertheless had the limited patience of a man who was not terrifically charmed by the opposite sex. After another sip of his Dry Sack he patted about the inside pocket of his jacket, to make sure that the plane ticket he had just picked up was still there. Yes, giving himself that little gift had been a truly marvelous idea. “Relaxation,” the advertisement had proclaimed, drawing him in like a spider weaving a web: “Relaxation, silence, and nothing but pure luxuriant bliss.” Truth to be told, it was a vacation that was far beyond his financial means, but two weeks in Morocco—at L’Hirondelle d’Or, a magnificent hotel according to Tatler magazine—couldn’t possibly make him any more bankrupt than he already was. Such an extravagant Eden seemed to be the perfect place to visit after seven long years of (somewhat) voluntary captivity.
All of a sudden, this last thought reminded him that he should not drink another drop of alcohol if he didn’t want to disobey the recommendations—or orders, depending on how you looked at it—of his shrink. This was how he referred to Dr. Pertini, a psychiatrist who had studied at the University of Chicago and who also happened to be a somewhat rootless Latin American. Dr. Pertini insisted that Molinet call him his “therapist,” but Molinet figured that if Woody Allen (and every other rich New Yorker, for that matter) could call his therapist a shrink, so could he.
As Molinet took a long sip of sherry, he looked through the goblet and the golden-colored liquid in it and his eyes were met by the vision of his niece Fernanda. From the very first moment he knew it was her. In reality, he realized this not because they shared any kind of family resemblance but because of the clothing she wore.
During the long, dark years of tending to his mother (and also during the last month and a half, as the occupant of a very tranquil room at the Cedars of Lebanon Mental Hospital), Rafael Molinet Rojas had developed a special talent for guessing the nationality of certain people based on the way they dressed. It was all in the details—things that would be missed by the casual observer but highly revealing to someone like him, who had so many hours to kill in a day. During his stay at the mental hospital he had become quite adept at examining the many photograph-laden magazines he regularly purchased—Paris Match and ¡Hola! primarily, Tatler and Der Spiegel only when a copy somehow found its way into his hands. This was how Molinet had honed his very peculiar talent for recognizing people—and not just famous people. For Molinet, star-watching was a pastime for doormen and chambermaids. No, no. His particular gift was an uncanny ability to identify the origins of the incidental characters who appeared in those gossip-magazine photographs—the person standing behind Luciano Benetton at a regatta, for example, or some random person laughing away next to Arnold Schwarzenegger at a hotel in Gstaad. Over here, for example, an English-born Greek shipping tycoon; over there, a third-rate actress from Texas trying to rub shoulders with the rich and famous; and just a bit further down, a Milanese financier. Very rarely did he make a mistake.
This talent was precisely what helped Molinet recognize his niece at first glance, and he stood up to greet her like a father welcoming home his prodigal son.
“Fernanda darling, it’s you . . . I’m here, right over here. My, how lovely it is to see you!”
On this typically drizzly October day Fernanda had dressed up like a real English lady, complete with gabardine raincoat and cashmere scarf draped rakishly across one shoulder—only her bulky Loewe purse, misshapen from overuse, gave her away as unmistakably Spanish. Of course she would never have guessed how her Uncle Rafael had managed to pull off that bit of extemporaneous long-lost-relative identification.
How Would You Like to Hear the Story of a Murderess? molinet and fernanda tacitly decided to dedicate the appe- tizer period of their lunch to a discussion of family members. Old relatives. Dead people. Children. And in the final fifteen minutes, once all blood relations were exhausted, Fernanda did her best to stretch, as far as she possibly could, the topic of casserole dishes, thermal blenders, and other startling innovations she had just learned of during her visit to the Ideal Home Exhibition.
Good girl, he thought, duly noting her efforts to be sociable. Even so, he was not too concerned about livening up the conversation, simply because he was not the kind of person who felt the need to maintain constant small talk. And anyway, a perfunctory conversation had its advantages: He could let his mind wander off, do a bit of idle speculation, concentrate on other things. On her, for example.
The first thing that occurred to him was that Fernanda most definitely was something of a health nut. That much was obvious from the food she had ordered: lots of herbs, sprouts, and watercress, not to mention the collection of pills that she very quickly arranged in a little line on the tablecloth. But then again, who knew? Nearly everyone had become some kind of health-food addict these days. In anticipation of more significant hints, Molinet decided to review her external appearance, which was much easier to classify.
Fernanda was thirty-five years old, but she had an adolescent air about her, the kind that made people think her much younger than she actually was. She had a wide face, clever eyes, and a mouth that smiled often enough to reveal a row of teeth with just a few too many gaps. None of her features could be called perfect in the strict sense, but the overall result was not at all unattractive.
He knew that face of hers, for he had seen thousands like it before, in magazines as well as in real life, where the passage of time always seemed to manifest itself so remorselessly. It was the kind of face that always reminded him of Mickey Rooney. Masculine or feminine, it was a face with adorable chubby cheeks, a snub nose, and smooth dimples that lasted well-past age thirty, when, little by little, wrinkles would etch their way into the skin before time erased those childlike features and turn her into an elderly-looking elf.
Fernanda, however, had not quite begun to pay that steep price for her seemingly eternal youth. Also, she seemed to have a predisposition for seeing everything in life as a kind of amusing joke—she had a dispassionate way of speaking and wasn’t afraid to laugh at herself from time to time. In this manner she regaled her uncle with the details of her life, in the very best manner of the relative one sees on very few occasions.
By the time Fernanda decided it was time to get her uncle up-to-date on her present life, Molinet was already thinking about other topics—the trip he was taking the following day, for example. As such, he only registered bits and pieces of his niece’s storytelling. He vaguely heard something about Fernanda’s children, three big boys of various ages, none of which he could remember, and about how they took lots and lots of classes.
“You can’t even imagine all the classes: piano, judo, tennis, horseback riding, karate, and God only knows how expensive it all is. It’s a nightmare, I’m telling you . . .” From there, his niece then found it necessary to go into a detail about the Ideal Home Exhibition that had brought her to London with the intention of purchasing some kitchen utensils for the catering outfit she ran, something called Paprika and Dill—or was it Cayenne and Dill? In any event, all of a sudden, she leaned in toward her uncle to tell him something in a most conspiratorial tone of voice:
“Listen, Rafamolinet—” That was how she addressed him, saying first and last name all together in one long tongue twister. “Listen: how would you like to hear the story of a murderess?”
For a moment, he felt a shiver run up his spine, but he quickly shrugged it off, certain that he knew what the question was leading up to. He squinted his eyes and then patted his pockets for his glasses. Of course, the explanation was right in front of him: Surely she was referring to one of the actors’ photographs on the wall. What a melodramatic way of changing the conversation, Molinet thought, with a touch of displeasure. Maybe he was a bit behind the times when it came to social habits, this banal chitchat used for passing the time, but from his point of view, their conversation had not sunk so low that they had to turn to the hopelessly unimaginative topic of the star photos lining the restaurant walls.
“Darling, really, I would much rather you tell me more about your children,” he was about to reply as a way of redirecting the conversation when he realized that Fernanda’s eyes were not at all glued to the lineup of celebrity photographs. Gazing just a bit to the left of him, peering in between the pillars along the staircase, Fernanda seemed to be spying on someone downstairs in the lower-level dining room.
“Did you hear what I said, Rafamolinet?” she repeated. Molinet then assumed that she always chirped first and last name like that, all together in a powerful phonetic blast, because she went on to pronounce another name in the very same manner.
“Look at her right there, Isabellalaínez,” she said. Then, leaning back to allow her uncle to see who she was talking about, she flicked her chin to indicate some indeterminate location in the downstairs dining room.
“If you lean a bit to the right, you’ll see her. No, no—down there, silly, in the dining room for the nobodies, in Siberia. Boy would she be furious if she knew that I came here and saw where they sat her.”
Molinet looked, entirely skeptical, toward the spot Fernanda was pointing at. His angle of vision wasn’t very good; it was awful, as a matter of fact. The plant that swished against the nape of his neck from time to time covered a fair amount of the space between the pillars along the staircase, and he found it annoying to exert such an effort to follow his niece’s instructions, despite the information she had disclosed. A murderess. Come now, he thought, truly gruesome stories never start off that way. But he relented and dutifully steered his gaze downstairs. All he saw was what looked like a married couple with a considerable age difference between them, sitting at a table and eating in silence.
“Who are they?”
“Darling, I thought that in your spiritual withdrawal from the world you spent all your time devouring gossip magazines.”
“I have never seen those two in my life. Though I sense they are a married couple despite the age difference. Am I right?”
“Yes, a marriage maintained through eight years of mutual boredom. Do you want to hear the story or don’t you?” she asked, signaling vaguely for the waiter to remove the salad she had barely touched. “I have never met anyone more immune to high-society gossip than you, Rafamolinet.”
Molinet didn’t bother to explain that he was an old dog. He wasn’t insensitive to gossip, far from it—he simply did not trust clever conversationalists and their theatrical attempts to liven up otherwise boring conversations. Coffee time chitchat, he thought, and his face indicated that yes, he was familiar with her little trick— exaggeration can sometimes be very effective.
“So what do you have to say?”
Molinet shrugged his shoulders without saying anything. The waiter had just arrived with the second course, a cheese soufflé that was listed as an appetizer on the menu and which he had long since learned to request as a main course, since it was quite filling and inexpensive, to boot. “The story of a murderess,” Fernanda had said in that very conspiratorial tone a person uses just before tearing someone to shreds. He looked downstairs. The woman seemed attractive enough to interest him for another ten minutes, at least. Maybe even half an hour, he conceded. She has something of a contradiction about her. She seems like such a good girl.
Molinet paused for another moment to study the husband and then he turned his gaze back to the woman before admitting surrender. What a shame I have no idea who these people are, he said to himself. No matter how intriguing it may be, a story is never quite so fascinating when the protagonists are two illustrious people you don’t know. Distracted, he took a little sip of the sherry that an imprudent waiter had not seen fit to remove from the table. Then he added, to himself again, I do hope that Fernanda is not one of those insufferable types who take an eternity to tell a completely idiotic story.
Terrible Things That Only Happen to Other People
fernanda’s first version of the story of jaime valdés’s death was told amid a fit of giggles, combined with a confusing tale about two friends and her description of a man who listened to Silvio Rodríguez songs, as well as two or three additional anecdotes that Molinet could make neither head nor tail of. It was now painfully clear that his niece was not someone who could speak and eat at the same time. And to make matters worse, as she talked on and on, the little arabesques she drew in the sauce of her scorned fish grew more emphatic. Once she had laid out the basics, she sat up straight in her chair, waiting for some kind of a response.
“Fernanda darling, I haven’t understood a single word of what you just said.”
She leaned in toward her uncle once more, her fork pointing toward her sauce, threatening to begin a new set of designs, but he stopped her with a halting hand gesture.
Holding out his fingers to reveal a set of fingernails that were not quite as well tended as the rest of his person, he began to enumerate with his pinky: “First of all, there is no way she can possibly hear you. Second, from what I can see, there is nobody in the vi- cinity who might interrupt us, and third, neither my ears nor my sensibilities will allow . . . des chuchoteries, my darling. So, please, start from the top and tell me that . . . terrible story with the same level of detail you use when you tell me about our dearly departed relatives. Better yet, try and do it slowly. With serenity,” he said, and immediately congratulated himself for having used such a word. “Serenity” sounded good. It was a word that he had not used or thought of in quite some time.
“All right, fair enough. But don’t go telling me now that I talk too much. Have you ever thought about how bad girls always seem to have better luck in life than us saints? Well, that is what this story is all about.”
Molinet was able to endure this little digression without losing his patience. It was the kind of digression that often serves as a prelude to a frivolous gossip tale, and he took advantage of the moment to sneak another peek at the two restaurant patrons sitting at the only occupied table downstairs. Drones had emptied out little by little. A group of noisy Italians were still jabbering away at a table nearby, but on the downstairs level the only people in sight were the two that Fernanda had pointed out. In silent boredom, they alternated between taking sips of their coffee and staring out at nothing in particular, and their faces had that ventriloquist’s-dummy look of unhappy husbands and wives who think that nobody is watching them. The man was sixty-something, rather short, and had the curious habit of jerking to attention in his chair every so often, as if to stop himself from nodding off. Now he sat upright once again, took a long sip of coffee, and allowed his gaze to settle on the wall in front of him, as if he was scanning it or waiting for something or someone.
Apart from a pair of unusually alert eyes, there is nothing out of the ordinary about him, thought Molinet. He may just be a man who is extremely bored, although I would say he has a certain air about him . . . What would be the right word? Self-assured. Yes, that is what it is, the kind of self-assurance that comes from having held countless glasses of champagne at countless gala benefits where he is always something of the outsider.
Then he turned his gaze to the woman, who was easily twenty-five years younger than her husband. Even from that distance, he was duly impressed with her angular face, which changed depending on whether you looked at her face-on or in profile. It was fickle in the way that some Magyar faces are, with high cheekbones and very dark eyebrows. Her medium-length hair, on the other hand, was very light—an inconsistency. Pulled back, it rested softly against the nape of her neck to reveal her very tiny ears.
“Now, you might think I’m old-fashioned, but I am going to start this story by telling you what Alvaro-husband thinks of our friend Isabella,” he heard Fernanda say.
“He thinks Isabella is a bitch. Well, actually, that’s what he thought of her until the day the two of them ended up in the same Golf Clinic at the Puerta de Hierro Golf Club. ‘Oh, Alvaro!’ she kept saying. ‘Oh, I’m sorry! I’ll just never get the hang of this club!’ And that was all it took to change his opinion—radically change, I might add. But you know, don’t you, that men’s moral judgments can be so . . . fragile when it comes to pretty women. They fall to pieces with a simple little flutter of the eyelashes.”
As Fernanda laughed, Molinet noted that his niece’s eyelashes were not exactly paralytic, either.
“That should give you a fair idea of what kind of person we’re dealing with. In any case, and all joking aside, one thing is for sure: Isabellalaínez—and take a good look at her, now—came very close to getting herself in a big old mess, thanks to her personal charms.
“It’s the oldest story in the world,” she continued. “I could tell it to you in two words. But I don’t want to do that. I think it would be much more fun to first describe all the personalities involved. Tales of adultery are so boring if you don’t accessorize them a bit. Even this one, which ended up in the Almudena.”
“The what, my dear?”
“In the cemetery, darling. Forgive me, I a-a-always forget how foreign you are,” Fernanda remarked. And as she said “a-a-always,” Molinet thought he saw her emphasize this on the table with one of the colored pills that had not met the same fate as their brethren. He couldn’t be certain, however, for he was wearing his distance glasses—he needed glasses for both distance and reading, a double curse that somehow made everything blurry in the end.
“She,” continued Fernanda, tilting her head in the direction of the couple, “is called Isabella Laínez, née Isabel Alvarez. She acquired the Italianesque ‘la’ and the less-common last name of Laínez through her first marriage. I suppose you have heard about the very convenient nature of last names in Spain: If you’re a woman you can practically pick yours. Some women keep their last names. Others—the sharp cookies—adopt the last name of a dead husband, while others choose to mooch off their new husband’s last name. It all depends on the convenience of the pedigree.”
“What about the man with her?” asked Molinet. “He doesn’t look terribly Spanish.”
“Jewish. From Tangiers. Rich, though nobody knows exactly what he does. I mean, just picture it: a house in La Moraleja filled with Boteros and Warhols, a Doberman that answers to the name of Kaiser, and tons—I tell you tons—of money . . . enough to whitewash his own shady past and hide Isabella’s as well. Because she is, after all, from Madrid and she does still have a number of, say, inconvenient relatives in neighborhoods like Ventas . . . or is it Embajadores? Something of the sort, anyway.”
Molinet smiled. He was decidedly in favor of this more venomous facet of Fernanda’s character. “Everybody has a darker side, it is just a question of drawing it out,” as he always said. Plus, he told himself. This is what everyone is going to be like when you get to the hotel in Morocco—divinely superficial, every last one of them.
“The story is as follows,” Fernanda began. “Eight or nine years ago, our friend Isabella Laínez suddenly appeared on the scene in Madrid—out of nowhere, it seemed. As if she’d dropped down in a parachute from somewhere. Even before marrying Steine (he calls himself Steine, by the way, so that nobody has the slightest doubt as to his background—Jean Jacques Steine is his full name), she was already all over the place, never missing a single party. She dated all the single men in the city at one point or another, but she had to get herself remarried and was not interested in wasting her time with professional bachelors. No scandals. No bed-hopping (or at least she had a very wise and discreet way of dealing with that). With these tactics, she managed to cultivate a reputation for being something of a prude. Now, believe it or not, that, coupled with a pretty face, works miracles for a woman. And one fine day she turned up married to Steine. It was a smart move on her part; he was the perfect stepping-stone for her. And let me tell you,” Fernanda continued, barely stopping to catch her breath, “Steine had a reputation for being a total bore, but he liked to have a good-looking woman on his arm, and he liked to be ‘in the know’ about things. Beauty and money are not a bad mix, plus Isabella is very sociable—right away she cast her net, to fix things so that she could rub shoulders with—oh, I love this expression—‘the right people.’ At first she had a tough time, as you can imagine, but after the first few snubs and a couple of other fiascos, our friend decided to use an infallible method for opening the most exclusive of doors: the old oxpecker system.”
“The what?”From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Last Resort by Carmen Posadas. Copyright © 2005 by Carmen Posadas. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.