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Around the World
Kiss by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
I never told anybody, but getting that apartment was nothing short of a miracle. All I knew about Laura was that she worked part-time at the offices of the landord on the first floor, and that she kissed like a tango. I met her on a July night when the skies blanketing Barcelona sizzled with steam and desperation. I had been sleeping on a bench in a nearby square when I was awakened by the brush of her lips.
Do you need a place to stay?
She led me to the lobby. The building was one of those vertical mausoleums that haunt the old town, a labyrinth of gargoyles and patch-ups at the top of which you could still make out 1886 somewhere beneath the layer of soot.
I followed her upstairs, almost feeling my way in the darkness. The building creaked under my feet like an old ship. Laura never asked for any references, personal or financial. Good thing, because in prison you don't get either. The attic was the size of my former cell, a spare room perched over the endless roofworld of the old city.
I'll take it.
Truth be told, three years in the slammer had obliterated my sense of smell and the issue of voices leaking through the walls wasn't exactly a novelty for me. One man's hell is another's paradise lost.
Laura would come to me every night. Her cold skin and her misty breath were the only things that didn't burn during that scorching summer. At dawn she would silently vanish downstairs, leaving me to doze off during the day.
The neighbors had that meek kindness granted by years of misery and oblivion. I counted six families, all with children and old-timers reeking of dead flowers and damp soil. My favorite was Don Florian, who lived right downstairs and painted dolls and tin toys for a living. I spent weeks without venturing out of the building. Spiders were building arabesques at my threshold. But Doña Luisa, on the third floor, always brought me something to eat. Don Florian lent me old magazines and challenged me to endless domino matches. The kids in the building invited me to play hide and seek.
It was a good life. For the first time ever I felt welcomed. Even appreciated.
By midnight Laura would bring me her nineteen years wrapped in white silk and give herself to me as if it were the last time. I'd make love to her until the break of dawn, savoring in her body everything life had denied me. Afterward, I'd dream in black and white, like dogs and cursed people. But even the lowest of the low sometimes get a taste of happiness in this world. That summer was mine.
When the demolition people came by in late August I mistook them for cops. The chief engineer told me he had nothing personal against squatters, but unfortunately they had to dynamite the place and raze it to the ground no matter what.
There must be a mistake.
Most chapters in my life begin with that line.
I ran downstairs to the landlord’s office on the first floor looking for Laura. All I found was a coathanger and two inches of dust. I went to Don Florian's. Fifty eyeless dolls rotting in shadow. I went through the entire building looking for just one neighbor, one voice. Silent corridors lay covered in debris.
This property has been closed down since 1938, young man, the chief engineer informed me. The bomb damaged the structure beyond repair.
I believe we had some words. The wrong kind. My kind. I believe I pushed him. Down the stairs. Hard.
This time the judge had a field day with me.
My old cellmates , it turned out, were still waiting.
After all, you always come back.
Hernán, the library guy, found a ten-year-old newspaper article about the bombardment during the civil war. In the photograph the bodies are lined up in pine boxes, disfigured by shrapnel, but they were still recognizable to me. A shroud of blood spreads over the cobblestones. Laura is dressed in white, her hands crossed over her open chest.
It's been almost two years now, but in prison you live or die by memories. The guards think they’re smart, but she knows how to sneak in past any walls.
At midnight I am awakened by the brush of her icy lips. She brings regards from Don Florian and the others.
You'll love me always, won't you?, she asks.
And I say yes.
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