First love

Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914–99) is one of Argentina's greatest writers. This story is published as "Men Are All the Same" in Bioy's Selected Stories (forthcoming from Green Integer).

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Life just keeps playing like boys with toys

To this day I still regret that my mother never gave me a sister. If any of the women I know could become my sister, I'd choose Veronica. I admire her capacity to make decisions (how peaceful to live beside such a person), her ability to be a gracious loser, her rare gift for remaining calm in the most trying of circumstances, her genius for discovering absurdities and even for laughing, and a certain tenderness as diligent as it is delicate. I think I've always known her – I could say that my childhood winters were spent at Veronica's house in the neighbourhood of Cinco Esquinas, and my summers at Veronica's villa in Mar del Plata – but my friend's beauty still retains the power to move me. At times her green eyes harbour a glimmer of sorrow, lending a note of ineffable seriousness to her expression, but a moment later those same eyes brighten with the spark of playful mockery. With Veronica you get used to such moods, and miss them in other women. As often happens with women one is fond of, I like everything about her, from the dark colour of her hair to the perfume her hands leave on mine. At the time of this story, twenty-eight years old and the mother of four children, Veronica looked like a schoolgirl.

For a long time, every Sunday I went to her house for lunch; but life, which separates us from real brothers and sisters as well as adopted ones, interrupted that custom. I don't know how often I resolved to renew it the following Sunday, but just as many times I forgot or put it off. Then Veronica married, surrounded herself with children, and was happy. One afternoon I saw her and the family out for a drive in Palermo in a large automobile, a Minerva that even then seemed a bit old-fashioned. Even though I hadn't forgotten her, I must have thought that my friend needed me less than before. Her husband, a fellow by the name of Navarro, was what one called a cultured gentleman; in refined and prominent circles of society he was reputed to be a writer, probably because he owned an outstanding library whose catalogue, published by Colombo, he had personally assembled. On two or three occasions I visited them in their house on Arcos Street facing Plaza Alberti; the fellow never failed to entrust to my hands, as if offering a box of chocolates, some deluxe edition or other of Les Fleurs du Mal, or Aphrodite, or Les Chansons de Bilitis, bound in silk paper with coloured illustrations. I have often asked myself if the arbitrary ill will I felt toward Navarro might not have arisen from the manner in which he dismissed my admiration for these volumes. The truth lay elsewhere: I found him (as I found everyone, quite honestly) to be unworthy of his wife.

In Montevideo, where I had gone on family business, I heard about the accident in which poor Navarro died. I think I even sent a telegram of condolence. In any case, I decided that I would visit Veronica as soon as I returned to Buenos Aires. I remembered that I was thinking, one night in the Hotel Alhambra (distance and the night imitate madness), that I should comfort her, that I had been a bit foolish to keep treating her as a sister, and that for certain sorrows the only remedy is love. A photo of Veronica taken years ago that I always carried with me thrived on the night table for some days. When I returned to Buenos Aires, I forgot my resolution. Months later, someone mentioned to me how painful the death of her husband had been for Veronica. That same afternoon when I got home, I rang her up.

"May I have dinner with you tonight?" I asked.

"I'll come pick you up," she answered.

I waited for her at the window. The sight of the Minerva reminded me of other times when the full car seemed like a symbol that there was not enough room for anyone else in Veronica's life.

On the way to her house, I watched her with fascination, so gracefully did she drive the old automobile. I reflected: "She bears her sorrow with the same grace. I sense it; there's no doubt that she feels it, but Veronica isn't burdening me with it; she never asks for anything; she always gives."

We had a pleasant meal, looking out over the plaza. A blonde young maid waited on us, a sort of lighthearted Valkyrie, ruddy and common; she had rough hands and legs and an ample bosom, and treated her mistress with naïve familiarity.

"She seems good," I commented at one moment when the girl was in the serving pantry.

"Berta?" she answered. "I'm lucky she stayed on. Without her, I don't know what would have become of me."

I'm sure those words weren't meant as a reproach, but I felt ashamed. I would never abandon Veronica again. I would dine with her every Sunday. Since they spoiled me silly, fed me excellent food, and entertained me, my resolution wasn't particularly meritorious, and even so, I forgot all about it. A year and a half passed before I returned, and when I did, I dropped in unannounced. We ran into each other on the street in front of her house. As she was pulling away in the Minerva, Veronica called out to me gently: "I'm sorry, I'm on my way out."

Her beauty was so radiant that I said: "You must be in love."

She blushed like a young girl.

"How did you guess?" she asked, surprised. She laughed and added: "Some day soon we'll have an intimate chat."

She waved and drove off in the car. I trust that this episode will not arouse in the reader cynical reflections about women. To expect that a person who is left a widow at the age of twenty-seven, after having been happily married, should remain alone for the rest of her life, strikes me as illogical.

But the truth is that while we demand logical behaviour in others, we don't require the same for ourselves. I thought: "Once more Veronica has no need of me." I took for granted that if I visited her she would talk to me of her affair; I anticipated the portentous tone, the trite account, my uncomfortable boredom. At any rate, before the month was out, I returned to her house.

Now I remember: that night there was a problem with the wine.

"It's gone sour," Veronica exclaimed. "I wanted you to try it, and it's acidic. It's a young wine..."

I surprised myself, declaring pompously: "Young wines tend to turn sour very quickly."

Veronica looked at me, puzzled. She knows me too well for me to pretend, in her presence, that I know something about wines. Possibly embarrassed by my presumption, she quickly changed the subject.

"One morning Salomé Uribe called me. She's a friend of my sister; when you and I were children she was a grown-up. Now we've caught up with her; we're all in the same generation. The incredible thing is that a person of our generation has a son at the University. Salomé is very proud of him: Juan's whole life is studying, and if some great temptation doesn't come his way, he'll be a gold medal student soon."

The boy needed a book for an assignment a professor had handed out. He looked everywhere for it in vain until he found it in the famous catalogue printed by Colombo, which Veronica's husband had distributed among his acquaintances.

"Salomé wanted me to lend the book to her son," Veronica continued. "'It's all right with me if he comes over and gets it,' I said."

Veronica explained to me that she never had the patience to decipher the classification system which her husband had concocted, and that the morning Salomé called, it was so hot she couldn't bear the thought of searching about in the library for a book. That same afternoon the boy appeared.

"Do you remember the terribly hot weather we had last summer?" Veronica asked. "The worst day of them all was the day Juan came over. Since I didn't have the energy to leave my room, I asked Berta to attend to him. Two hours later Berta came to tell me that Juan was leaving. Had he spent all that time looking for the book? 'He found it right away,' Berta told me. 'He was reading and taking notes. He's coming back tomorrow. We can't let him take the book home with him.'"

According to her own experience, Veronica declared, libraries were a useless invention.

"At least the one I know always was. My husband, who was the most generous man in the world, had discovered an excuse to defend the library: 'I'm sorry,' he'd say, when they asked him for a book, 'but I can't dismantle the collection.' Now I continue to defend it from readers, so that Berta and the entire family do not accuse me of disrespect or something worse. 'We should ask him if he'd like something to drink. If not, he's going to think we're a pair of old misers,' I said to Berta, who answered: 'I've already prepared him an iced coffee and rum.'"

"It seems that the boy has made a hit," Veronica commented.

When she entered the library, the individual who had made a hit – a sort of insect with eyeglasses, a repulsively young insect – stumbled forward, knocking his drink onto the rug, and held out a sweaty hand. The boy was (in the words of my friend) painfully shy at one moment and wildly forward the next. He either talked too much or shut up like a clam. If he spoke, he held his mouth open too wide, so that the words spilled out like drool.

That first encounter was brief. Juan came back the next day. He came back every day after that.

"Just take a look at this book he spent the whole month reading." Veronica handed me a little book with a grey and blue cover, with white letters that said: Otis Howard Green: The Life and Works of Lupercio Leonardo de Argensola. Toward the right of the shelf where the volume of Howard Green had been, I saw a rococo glass cabinet.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Men are all the same," she replied, shaking her head. "My poor husband called that glass cabinet his spiritual medicine chest."

I stepped closer to have a look. I'll translate from memory the titles of some of the books that were there: The Perfumed Garden, Selected Works of Louis Prolat, Justine: or The Misadventures of Virtue, Carnal Preludes, One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom.

"They're pornographic books," I exclaimed.

"You certainly do not have the spirit of a bibliophile. These are rare and curious books. But did you see the one I gave you? It's not even two hundred pages long. How could anyone take a whole month to read it?"

"Studying takes more time than reading."

"I'm no fool, dear. He didn't come just to read this book." She looked me in the eye and paused, indicating that I should regard the situation in another light. "It took me a while to realize that the object of such persistence was myself. I must admit that the idea amused me. Out of curiosity I went along with it, and even feigned interest in Juan's work."

At first, the results of her strategy were humiliating. The boy didn't notice a thing, but then, with almost brutal audacity, he made his move.

"I gave in immediately," Veronica admitted.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine.

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