The Lady with the Lapdog
Written by Griselda Gambaro
Translated by Marguerite Feitlowitz
Illustrated by Atefe Maleki Joo
He’d met her in the square. Years ago when he retired he’d decided always to occupy to the same bench, opposite one tree whose name he didn’t know but which had a green crown he liked to look at, and under another whose leaves were sparse in winter and let in the sun.
The first time she sat down beside him, on his bench, he’d felt nothing more than condescending annoyance. Though occasionally someone else sat down there, some old guy looking for another old guy like himself, he always got his bench back right away. He’d snort, spit, make broad hints or else sink into aggressive silence, and the intruder would end up leaving. It was an inhospitable square, very open to the wind, and there were empty benches left. They can use those, he’d say to himself. He was no cow out to pasture with the herd, but a man committed to his solitude
After he recovered his bench he’d study the tree opposite, his eyes dull but still alert, and savor his shrewdness. He’d spread his arms on the backrest and smile happily until someone on the path came close. Then he’d kill the smile and get ready.
This time, as the intruder was a woman, an old woman, he hesitated to spit. He whistled grimly with fake concentration until, outraged, he saw the woman was nodding along. Or else had a tremor in the head. This beanpole would be in her grave soon enough, he predicted after a quick glance, then pushed off toward his end of the bench, taking pleasure in his health.
With all of his rocking, her barrette came undone. Laboriously she refastened it, fighting with her abundant white hair, strands of which spilled across her wrinkled cheek. Watching her out of the corner of his eye, he recoiled from that cheek as though she were flirting with him shamelessly. A gap-toothed little comb fell on the bench. She picked it up, muttering something he didn’t even try to understand. She fiddled with the comb, which had dirty little threads between its teeth, cleaned it with a shaky fingernail and then, raising her pointy elbows, tried repeatedly to slide it behind the barrette at her nape. Revolted, he moved to the very edge of his side of the bench, stretched his legs and studied his shined-up shoes. He wanted to be offensive, but nothing occurred to him. She finished with the barrette and folded her hands in her lap. Whenever anyone passed by, she followed him with her eyes until he was out of sight. He got up earlier than usual and left.
The following day she was already on his bench. She was holding a mangy dog in her lap, caressing it with her short, thin-skinned, age-spotted fingers. She looked at him with a complicit smile, as though to say: I brought my dog, do you like him? He hated animals, especially dogs and cats. The wind blew hard, he thought she’d never be able to stand it. The way her back was bent you could see the rocky, twisting road between her vertebrae. She had the dog plastered against her chest for warmth. That wheezing dog had to be stupid, it kept itself still as a cushion.
He didn’t return the smile she had pasted on her face. She waited patiently, sure that he’d respond. She could die waiting, he thought. He clamped his mouth shut, he wouldn’t give her even a breath. After a while she must have realized that patience and assurance weren’t going to work. She bowed her head and smiled at the dog.
Uncomfortable and inexplicably offended, he adjusted his muffler and stood up. Moving so suddenly gave him a stitch in his side. He kicked a stone, took a few steps down the path, pretending his foot had fallen asleep, then returned to the bench.
He sat down stiffly and discovered with pained astonishment that his fly was open, and that a piece of his dark blue underwear showed. He shrank down and cautiously worked the zipper, whose teeth were all worn down. While covering himself with his bad hand, the one that had stayed contracted after his attack, he tried hopelessly with the other to close the zipper. She stared at him intrigued, then immediately looked away. From the look on her face, he thought she would burst out laughing. He sank down on the bench, humiliated and full of rage.
She said, “My dog is sick.”
Amazed he heard himself say, “Really?”
“He’s going to die. We all have to die,” she said mildly.
He made horns with two fingers, wishing her tongue would turn to stone. To his surprise, she gave a girlish laugh, leaned over the dog and added, “But not yet.”
He gathered saliva but didn’t spit. One more word from her and he’d let go with a big, fat plug. “Beautiful tree,” she said with a sigh. He kept working the zipper. When he got it all the way up he spit, far. He wasn’t sure she’d noticed; she was looking at the tree and petting the dog.
He felt hot, wiped his cheeks and forehead with his handkerchief. By the light filtering straight down through the leaves he knew it was exactly noon. He wasn’t supposed to be in the square now but at home sitting down to lunch, maintaining the punctuality he thought they appreciated but that only annoyed them. He wanted to leave, but didn’t want to say good-bye. It seemed to him that good-bye would establish a pact.
She stayed glued to the bench. Hunched over the dog, she rubbed its fur, touched its nose. He felt an impulse to grab that mangy dog and give it a good kick. The temptation was so violent he hid his hands in his pockets and his feet under the bench. He smiled like an idiot. She immediately turned her head and returned his smile.
“Ah, ah, ah,” he sputtered unintelligibly. When he stood up she said good-bye in a strong, friendly voice. He turned, not believing his ears. What did she say, Until tomorrow?
“Until tomorrow,” she repeated. She’d raised her glasses to her forehead and looked at him. With one hand she calmed the dog, trembling now in the stupor of sickness or a dream. She squinted to see him more clearly, and he tilted his head back–an unsociable, uncompromising gesture–thinking rancorously that she couldn’t see an ass from two feet away, and that flirty way she had of lifting her glasses was ridiculous, insane.
When he woke the next day, he decided not to go to the square. A fine drizzle saved him from making excuses. He’d never felt good in this room stuffed with the furniture that once had filled a large house. He was idle, sad as a lion in a cage. He thought resentfully of the woman in the square as he picked things up and put them down. He drummed on the windowpane and imagined the bench, empty in the rain.
It rained until mid-morning. Then he dressed and went out. He was sure she wouldn’t be there, but just in case, he decided to bring the newspaper–which he’d already read and re-read–to spread over the bench as a sign of ownership. He wished he had two bodies. One would protect the other, that had grown used to living in solitude. But there she was, as though the rain hadn’t scared her. He observed her light clothes and, asleep under a pile of old newspapers, the wheezing dog.
“How is he?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she answered. “Feel his nose.”
“No, thank you,” he said.
“He isn’t contagious.”
What did he care? The dog might as well have the plague, he’d never touch it.
“It isn’t that,” he said. “I don’t like dogs.”
She looked at him, incredulous. He harbored a bitter satisfaction. It had been centuries since anyone had looked at him, incredulous. Nothing he said or didn’t say mattered enough to inspire disbelief. He no longer had any kind of role. Kindly, even affectionately, they only expected him to bear up as time went by.
“No,” he repeated emphatically, vengefully, gladly. “I don’t like them.”
She caressed the animal trembling under the newspapers from cold or fever. Her gesture seemed to say to the animal: You’re warm and I’m alone. He laughed, without malevolence for he felt strong, but then stopped, choked back his laughter, for she’d exclaimed with astonishment, lifting her hand to those thick glasses of hers. She fought a moment with a piece of hair that had got tangled around her ear, then took off her glasses. The ear didn’t go with the face, it had kept its perfect caracole shape and flawless rosy skin, as though it had nothing to do with hearing, with the rest of the body that listens and grows old. She looked at him, her eyes myopic and confused. He realized that her eyes must have been beautiful once, not her eyes but her gaze, still as a gentle river that ran deep but flowed without a sound, without a fuss. Something forgotten, he couldn’t say what, overwhelmed him.
He left suddenly, without saying good-bye, trembling angrily at this feeling that overwhelmed him. Not watching where he headed, he walked straight into people. Careful, someone yelled, pushing him away with indifferent brutality, he still didn’t register what had provoked the attack. He got to his room, closed the door and leaned against it, his eyes flashing, fury and hostility choking his heart. Damn her, damn her, he said, thinking of the usurper of his bench.
His daughter-in-law pushed open his door and looked at him curiously. “What’s going on,” she asked.
He smiled. “Is it time to eat?”
“Not yet,” she said, her interest spent.
Alone, he leaned his forehead against the windowpane and wondered what to do. He never went to the square in the afternoon, that’s when he went to the movies or more often watched TV or re-read one of his history books–he didn’t like novels and poetry appealed to him even less. But that day he changed his habits so he could enjoy his bench, recover his enduring friendship with wood and silence. He hadn’t missed a day in twenty years, except for torrential rains. Neither cold nor wind had ever kept him away.
He saw her from a distance–apparently she hadn’t left at noon–and went no closer. He sat down on the edge of a fountain. He had nothing to lean back on and felt the dampness of the stone. The greenish water smelled lightly of dead leaves. He watched the intruder from there. It was getting late, soon she’d be going, taking her dog. She’d leave with her tender nape, the caracole of her ear and her anonymous life, which he bet was sordid and gloomy, like that of anyone having a miserable old age. In a couple of minutes he’d be enjoying his solitude again. It was his bench, his square. Even the trees belonged to him: the one grew to be looked at from the bench, and the other to give shade or let in the sun. He was overcome by a speechless rancor, a confused hatred, as though someone unjustly had stripped him of the last things he would ever have on this earth. He gathered saliva to spit at her feet, but even as he fought his desire to approach her, the gathering darkness would force her from the bench. A cold wind stirred up papers and fallen leaves. He drew circles with his foot on the sandy ground, and then erased them.
“I waited for you,” she said, as he sat down beside her. She sniffled, looking for a handkerchief she never found. “You forgot your newspaper,” she held it out to him. The skin on her short fingers was transparent, freckled with age.
“How is he?” he asked, pointing to the dog.
“I don’t know,” she said, with amiable sadness.
“Is he eating?”
“Milk.” After a silence she added, “He’s going to die.”
“No,” he answered, but to the feeling that assaulted him. What a skinny woman, he thought suddenly, wanting her to have more shelter in her flesh. She took his hand, held it as though unsure what to do with it, then placed it on the dog. Shyly, the hand twitched on the dirty coat.
What’s happening to me, he wondered, desolate and afraid. Slowly the dog opened its eyes and looked at him weakly, without interest. He brushed the dry snout then gently started petting the dog, as though seeing into his own nightfall.
Griselda Gambaro is widely considered to be the most important Latin American playwright of the 20th century. Born in Buenos Aires in 1932, she has seven volumes of Collected Plays that have been produced internationally. She has also written novels (Ganarse la muerte, Dios no nos quiere contentos, Después del día de fiesta, Nada que ver con otra historia), short stories, a memoir about her Italian immigrant family (El mar que nos trajo), and many books for children. Forced into exile by the “Dirty War” dictatorship in 1977, she lived in Spain until 1980. Among her many awards are the Argentine National Prize for Theatre, an honorary doctorate from the University of Buenos Aires, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She gave the Plenary Speech at the Frankfurt International Book Fair in 2010. A towering figure in Argentine cultural life, Gambaro is beloved for her personal ethics, courage in the face of deathly repression, and solidarity with those most vulnerable to political, social, and economic neglect and predation. Her most recent book, Al pie de página, is a collection of essays and lectures, and draws its title from her speech at the Frankfurt Book Fair. (Updated Aug. 2012)
Marguerite Feitlowitz is the author of the internationally acclaimed A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture. A literary translator of French and Spanish, she edited and translatedInformation for Foreigners: Three Plays by Griselda Gambaro, translated Gambaro’s La Malasangre/Bad Blood (for The Gate Theatre in London), as well as several stories and speeches. Feitlowitz’s fiction, poetry, essays, art criticism and translations have appeared in BOMB, Words Without Borders, Tri-Quarterly, Agni, Salmagundi, Les temps modernes, El Viejo topo, in volumes published by the major museums, including The Museum of Modern Art, and in many other journals and anthologies. Her op-eds and other pieces on human rights have appeared in The International Herald Tribune, Salon, and The Guardian. Forthcoming from the University of Texas Press is her translation of Salvador Novo’s Pillar of Salt: An Autobiography with Nineteen Erotic Sonnets. She is a Professor of Literature at Bennington College, in Bennington, VT. (Updated Aug. 2012)
Born in 1977, Atefe Maleki Joo, is an Iranian illustrator. She has illustrated several children’s books and she also works for a number of children’s magazines. She has won several national and international awards, including the 16th Noma Concours for Picture Book Illustrations, 2008, and 4th CJ Picture Book, Korea. (Updated Aug. 2012)