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issue 43: July - August 2004 

spanish original | author bio

MÓNICA'S LETTERS
Juan Bonilla
translated by Rupert Glasgow

I saw her photo in the children's supplement of one of the Sunday papers. I almost never looked at this supplement, but I suppose that on that particular Sunday I was so bored that after lingering over the pages dedicated to the latest literary news, cars, fashion and sport, and before burying myself in the orange-coloured pages of the business supplement, I decided to have a glance at the drivel that was polluting the minds of the country's children and adolescents. The last page of the supplement was a selection of messages and letters that the readers had sent to the editors, you know, along the lines "My name is Guillermo, I enjoy X Patrol, reading and swimming, if you are between 10 and 13 and have similar interests to mine, you can write to me at..." That was where I saw her photo: delicate oriental features, redressed by eyes of a blue otherwise found only in the sky of watercolours painted by children, short black hair, a tired smile that raised a crease to the corner of her eyes, a broad, noble forehead. The message accompanying her photo did not start any differently from the rest of the letters assembled on that page, but almost at once it acquired a personality and lyricism of its own: "My name is Mónica, I am 12 years old, and I am reading Orwell's Animal Farm. I like playing chess, although I am terrible, the music of Kronos (the singer more than the music), and cycling. I also like Bart Simpson. I am not very talkative, but from time to time I feel very happy without knowing why. On the days when this happens, it's not because I've learned something I did not know before or anything like that, it's as though someone really powerful is playing the maracas inside my stomach and my heart is happily bleeding itself out through my ribs just to let my whole body beat. The days when this happens are like a gift from someone, they make me feel like kissing everything I come across and going up the highest mountain in the world just to shout out "THANK YOU!!!" before rolling all the way back down again. I like writing letters to people whose tastes are either similar or totally different (because with the former I can share my passions and with the latter I can persuade them how wrong they are). If you belong to either of these categories and you like the idea of us writing, here is my address."
      I longed to be 13 years old, dash to my desk, and write a letter confessing that I detested Kronos and especially their long-haired lead singer and his arms blackened with tattoos, that I didn't even know how to ride a bike, I thought Bart Simpson a pain in the neck, and I much preferred the pigs that provided us with Jabugo ham to George Orwell's. And that I dreaded those days that are like a gift from someone, those days when everything seems to be in place, bathed in a miraculous light that is enough to justify them, when everything
the silent expanse of sea, the mountains like sentries in full uniform, the vast sky a slippery dance flooreverything seems to be celebrating your existence. I longed to be 13 years old and end my letter confessing that despite all these differences I hoped that a beautiful friendship might arise between us. But I was not 13. I was 31. I was stuck between the rungs of an interminable Sunday without anyone to ring up, the book I was reading was dropping from my hands every third paragraph, on television was a succession of game shows for the menopausal, and the firm conviction coursed through my veins that Sundays in fact kill more people than bombs do. I miraculously battled through to night time, had a cold shower, tossed aside the book that for the last 100 pages I had been blindly struggling on with in full knowledge that I wouldn't be able to finish it, watched a Nicholas Ray film on television that dumped me into the bowels of the early hours, and Sunday had died without killing me and the only thing I had to do now was keep clear of the weekday bombs to get to Friday night once more and feel the firm conviction coursing through my veins that it was beautiful to be alive. In fact I could not get to sleep. The face of that 13-year-old girl had embossed itself on the walls of my brain, the incandescent light of her smile was causing me burns that stopped me closing my eyes, Bart Simpson and the lead singer from Kronos had united their voices to split my ears open, a thousand pieces of chess were making implausible moves on the board that was my chest and Orwell's pigs were mobilizing forces to conquer what remained of my peace of mind. So I got up, went and sat at my desk, and wrote down what was happening to me: "it's all your fault Mónica, but I can't sleep tonight, I don't know what's up with me, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about you all day, it's been a Sunday as empty and sad as an exile's letterbox, an exile whom nobody remembers in his home country and whom nobody knows in the new country where he is trying not to forget who he is, it's your fault, all your fault Mónica, the hours are like a goods train chugging through the rust of my insomnia with the promise of a station to rest in..." Things like that I wrote, and then I deposited them in an envelope onto which I copied the 13-year-old girl's address. I had signed the letter with my name and added a minimal postscript, "Have just turned 15."
      It must be said that around that period – I was 31 at the time—I would come over all cold every time I consulted my telephone book in search of a voice to help me through the inclement times. My fingertips would go wrinkled if I dipped my hand into the letters I had received not all that long ago. Photo albums gave me vertigo, and the songs I used to know off by heart now made me gnash my teeth. At nightfall I was racked by doubts which I would decapitate at dawn with the razor-sharp certainty that being alive could not be so bad if you could afford to pay for a maid to come into your room at eight o'clock in the morning bearing a perfectly balanced tray with a glass of orange juice, a cup of boiling coffee, and a plate with a freshly bought doughnut on it. Like dying puppies, all my hopes and dreams had shrivelled to the point of extinction, and whenever I plunged my hands into my pockets during the course of a working day the one certainty I could feel palpitating in the tips of my fingers was this—that the only thing you truly own is what you couldn't lose if you survived a shipwreck. Which meant I needed to be shipwrecked in order to realize and define what the only thing I truly owned was. Otherwise, the idea of committing suicide would go on making itself more and more at home inside me, like a shadow I was incapable of shaking off. People commit suicide, basically, because they are sick and tired of dying, because they know their future off by heart and so can perfectly well manage without it. To put off my suicide I needed to find a space of serenity where the passing seconds would stop paining me like a splinter caught between my nail and the skin of my finger. I was tired of sleeping 10 hours a day in an Italian suit wearing a silk tie and shoes I got shined every morning. At half past nine I would dump myself in an office with doodles worth millions hanging on the walls and devote myself to sleeping with my eyes wide open and the tip of a pencil resting on my lower lip. This was more or less all my job amounted to. All I had to do by the end of the day to justify what they paid me was come up with some apt expression or snappy slogan about a tyre or some nappies. The other people working at the agency—either sarcastically or admiringly—referred to this state of open-eyed slumber as "searching for inspiration."
      Throughout the following week, I was restless and slept badly, turning the stupid thing I had done over and over in my mind, looking for explanations that would justify it, promising myself that I would not reply if the girl in the end decided to answer me. Even so, despite my endeavours to distance myself from Mónica, 13 years old, eyes of a blue otherwise found only in the sky of watercolours painted by children, I was surprised at how agitated I felt on returning home to find that my letterbox was being disputed between advertising brochures and letters from the bank but without a single envelope from Málaga, the city where Mónica lived. I began to worry on the Friday (I had posted the letter express delivery, and it would have reached her on Tuesday: if she had answered me promptly and sent her reply express, I should have heard from her by Wednesday; if she had sent it by normal post I should have got word from her on Thursday; the fact that her letter had still not arrived on Friday sent me hurtling down a chute of remorse leading straight into a Monday whose main fault was that it came after another completely aimless weekend), when—instead of going out as I usually did to counter my worries with drink-induced anaesthesia—I stayed at home, having first gone to a video club where—instead of renting ten gangster or sci-fi war films to get me through the weekend—I opted for the entire collection, on seven videocassettes, of the first series of Bart Simpson. From the highest shelf in my bedroom I also rescued my copy of the Penguin paperback edition of Animal Farm, defaced as it was by marginal annotations. And to add insult to injury, I turned on my computer with the sole intention of challenging it to a game of chess, having made up my mind to achieve something I had never managed previously—to beat it on level 10, a feat only within the reach of a genuine master.
      After having a splendid time in the company of The Simpsons, following the fortunes of Napoleon the pig, and taking a repeated thrashing at the hands of my computer, I spent the rest of the Sunday immersed in a cloud of resentment at what I had just been doing, unable to understand what I was trying to achieve, at a loss for explanations but with a well-armed arsenal of invective to heap upon myself. I did not even waste my time looking through the children's supplement for the drivel that would be keeping Mónica entertained, preferring to doze through the orange-coloured pages of the business section. As I went to bed, I told myself it had all been worthwhile: in a certain sense I had cured myself, albeit only by means of the expeditious strategy of making myself completely ridiculous in my own eyes, not exactly an advisable therapy when the patient is weak. Yet the fact of the matter is that I slept the sleep of the just, and not once throughout that Sunday did it even enter my head to throw myself from the roof with a "thank you" before landing on the tarmac in a nice little hollow of my own making.
      But there it was when I returned from the office on the Monday. Among the brochures and bills, with its normal rate stamp and its feminine writing, there was Mónica's letter. I gave a jump for joy, and then cursed myself: "What are you doing? You shouldn't be opening it." As I went upstairs, I tried unconvincingly to persuade myself that the best thing to do would be throw the letter away without opening it. As I put the key in the door, I reached a compromise with myself: I would not throw it away, but nor would I open it. As I turned the key, I modified the strict conditions of the compromise: I would open it but not answer it. Half an hour later, I sat down at my desk to pen my response to Mónica.
      I told her it was her fault, her blessed fault, that I had spent the whole weekend splitting my sides over the ups and downs of the Simpson family, that I had read the English original of Orwell's book ("it's no big deal me reading it in English," I added, so she would be less likely to think I was too clever for my own good, "as my mother's from the States"), that I had sullied my ears listening to Kronos ("How can you like that stuff?"), and that I had failed in my vain aspiration to beat my computer's chess programme on level 10. In fact Mónica's letter did not encourage me to expand any further, for it only amounted to three paragraphs in which she acknowledged receipt of my letter and confessed that she had been very surprised by the massive response the publication of her letter in the children's supplement had provoked, and that for the moment she could not cope with all the letters but would gradually select her correspondents and all she could do for now, she felt, was reply to each and every one she had received. And that was all. My answer spun out to three sheets of A4 ("as you can see, for each of your paragraphs I am sending you a sheet written on both sides"), and I found myself wondering why her letter had mesmerized me in this way, given that I had never before felt the least temptation to write to any of those newspaper readers who publicize their urge to start a correspondence with people they have never met. "Something drove me to write the first letter to you," I told her, "and something I cannot put my finger on but that flows through my blood is now leading me to contact you again, encouraged by the conviction that you exist and that now you can't leave me in the dark." I then set about fulfilling one of the requirements Mónica had made in her reply, where she had asked her correspondents to go into more detail about themselves. I did not know whether to tell her about the boy I had been at her age or to invent an identity that was not too different from what I had been but improved upon it. I opted for the latter, telling her that when I was grown up I wanted to be an architect, that I didn't have too many friends, possibly through my own fault as I tended to be very shy and reserved, that I spent the day reading and from time to time also wrote science fiction stories ("Are you interested in science fiction? If not, I'd be willing to do everything in my power to show you its charms"). I sent her the letter express that very afternoon. I did not have to wait too long before receiving Mónica's reply: it arrived on Friday. This time round, she took the trouble to give a detailed account of why she couldn't stand science fiction novels, the things that made her fall in love with a boy ("more than anything else he's got to have a radiant smile and deep eyes that make you lose the notion of time"), and how it was on the advice of a good friend that she had come to discover Bart Simpson. Then she confessed how sometimes, in the grip of melancholy, an unknown force impelled her to ask herself questions in the form of poems ("without rhymes or anything like that, you know, I don't know why—if I say the sadness terrifies me, I'll end up with some far-fetched metaphor about war or claim it makes me want to lose myself in the mountains when I'd really rather lose myself on an island"), and she finished off by telling me that in the end she had decided to keep a correspondence with just two of the children who had answered the letter published in the Sunday supplement. I was one of them. The other was a kid ("he's only 11 but he seems very bright") who had sweet-talked her into it by regaling her with the problems of his parents (here she took the opportunity to ask about mine, having first dispatched hers in a few sentences that could not disguise an acute resentment beneath their apparent good will). By way of postscript she whispered that she still hadn't decided what to be when she grew up, although if she had the choice she'd opt for never growing up, and added that she thought it unfair that I knew what she looked like while she didn't even have an inkling how I looked, so why didn't I send her a physical description of myself or, better still, include a photo in my next letter? I took the entire weekend to answer her. It was not until the last minute—on Monday morning, just before dashing off to the post office on the way to work—that I made up my mind to add a photo of my 14-year-old cousin, a good-looking lad with big eyes and a charmed expression, to the four sheets of A4 that had accumulated. The honour of making the journey to Mónica's hands was disputed by a photo of me when I was 12, but I had the feeling that the clothes I was wearing looked slightly old-fashioned and might have aroused the girl's suspicions.
      At the beginning of the letter I made it plain how much my vanity had swollen at the knowledge that I was one of the only two correspondents Mónica had chosen to exchange news with. At the end, laconically, I voiced a desire that I had been reluctant to articulate while I was busy inventing adventures or dredging the swampy waters of my adolescence to find anecdotes with which to entertain the girl. I wrote: "it would be great if we could meet one another soon." There were moments when even raising the possibility struck me as too great a risk to take, but at the same time I shrugged off the need to make the desire explicit persuading myself that it was no more than a harmless formula and that should the opportunity arise for us to meet in person, I would have to turn it down using whatever excuse came to hand. I promised myself never to yield to the temptation to see the girl in the flesh, but at night I could not help but fantasize these wonderful sequences in which the two of us would arrange to meet in a park somewhere in Málaga, and I would turn up with my heart pounding and the palms of my hands bathed in sweat and she would appear looking every bit as wonderful as I had imagined her, and when I told her that Juan, her pen-friend, was unable to come and had asked me to race over and tell her not to wait for him, she would decide to tarry a little longer, and we would get into conversation, and, to cut a long story short I would fall back on the most unlikely of strategies to get Mónica into my hotel room, where I would linger over every inch of her fragility with the thirst of an awkward adolescent about to discover the jubilant quiver of desire.
      On the Wednesday of that week, with the anxiety of waiting for another letter from Mónica playing havoc inside me, I went out for dinner with a colleague from the agency, and I could not resist the temptation to tell her what I had done.
      "Are you really that desperate?" she asked me, her eyes wide with incredulity. We had ended up in my house for one last drink.
      "Do you think it's desperation? I don't know, I don't think it is, I don't know what it is as I haven't been able to ask my psychoanalyst, it really only began as just a joke, but there's no way round it I've sort of got hooked. You might think it's just a new trick to fight off the boredom of the working week and those desolate weekends with nothing to do, no-one to ring that you really fancy seeing, nothing to fill the empty time with."
      "In other words desperation."
      "Perhaps, but the fact of the matter is that it makes me feel good."
      "But come on, don't be immature. Suppose the time comes when little girl wants to meet little boy."
      "The possibility's been on my mind for days now. So far the best idea I've had is asking my cousin to turn up instead of me, although I could also go along myself as the kid's uncle and explain that he's not come because he's ill, depressed, dead, missing, anything just to be with her there for a while."
      "You're pulling my leg."
      "Of course I am. I enjoy pulling your leg, it's proof of your naivety, and that makes you much more attractive."
      "Now you're pulling my leg again."
      Actually, no, I wasn't pulling her leg, but it doesn't matter, it's not something that's relevant here. She asked to see one of Mónica's letters. I only showed her the first one. She insinuated that it was the handwriting of a psychopath. "I didn't know you were an expert in graphology," I snapped. "It's a secret passion of mine," she explained. "Look carefully, it's obvious, the roundness of these letters here is a sign of repressed anger, and the way she crosses her t's downwards—see, she doesn't keep it perpendicular, she makes it slope down—that's a symptom of uncontrolled aggression, graphology's a science, it's never mistaken, it can lie, but it's never mistaken, just remember the case of the Brighton Butcher, he also made a point of rounding his letters, and together with the fact that he made his h's so tall and wrote his a's as though they were alphas it was enough for the police to level charges," she argued. I protested: "Well that and the small detail that they discovered a box full of human eyelids on his bedside table."
      The fact of the matter is that the letters continued to arrive one after another, one per week, with an express-delivery stamp and a steadily increasing sense of complicity. The three paragraphs of Mónica's first letter had already turned into several dozen sheets incorporating everything from commentaries on books and films to descriptions of people we hated, as well as our long, medium and short-term projects. Of these projects, the one that obsessed me most, the one that simultaneously succeeded both in setting my nerves on edge and my arteries on fire with desire was the idea that Mónica and I should finally meet one another in person. We were scarcely 200 kilometres apart. My plan consisted in arranging to meet her one day in her city, travelling there one morning, showing up at the appointed spot ("just in case you don't recognize me, I'll be carrying a fairly large, illustrated edition of Animal Farm with a pig dressed up in military uniform on the cover," I wrote, after coming across just such a book—a volume which included Orwell's own text together with a number of illustrations—in a second-hand book shop), going up to her (as I was counting on being able to recognize her at first sight and also assumed that even though I was armed with the volume she would hardly dare approach a man in his 30s), and apologizing on behalf of the boy she was waiting for, explaining that a domestic accident had prevented him from turning up as arranged. I suggested a date I would be able to make it to Málaga ("my uncle, a great guy who I'd like you to meet, he's 30 but he's like a mate, he's my best friend—well, my uncle has got to go to sort out some business there and has asked me if I'd like to go along with him, I think we'll have a few hours to spare next Saturday, please tell me what you think, and if like me you are dying for us to meet at last, tell me the time of the morning and a place where we could see one another"). It was a rainy Tuesday when her reply arrived, containing the name of a café that served as an effective antidote to the days of torrential rain that still separated me from the sun-drenched morning when I would finally meet Mónica. In her letter she told me she would also be carrying her copy of Animal Farm, "just to be on the safe side, we could swap them then, so you keep my copy and I get yours—don't you think that'd be a nice idea?"
      When I stopped to think about the state I was in, when I reflected on what I was about to do, of course I ended up pretty scared. I berated myself in front of the mirror, asking myself what the hell I hoped to achieve, why I was clutching at this affair like a drowning man clinging to a fictitious plank that only exists in his imagination. Nervously, slowly, I would wander through the streets as though a column of air had solidified on my shoulders and then turned into a block of ice that sooner or later was going to end up pressing me into the ground. I was surly and objectionable with other people. Like a mantra that hid one of nature's inner truths, an elementary secret that drove you to madness once you were acquainted with it, I would repeat to myself: "This is nothing more than a game." I tried to analyse how the hell it had got so out of hand, how it had come to infect me with forbidden longings, how I was going to get out of it unscathed. The fact that in the end I had decided to present myself as a relative of the boy Mónica would be waiting for neither lessened the guilt that tainted me nor of course did it mollify my fear that I would end up being enraptured by the girl's beauty. How was it all going to end? For if I really did end up being enraptured by Mónica, if my expectations really were fulfilled, what could I do? Abduct her? Continue our correspondence as if nothing had happened, as if the person writing those letters filled with refined melancholy and Sunday-afternoon lyricism really were my teenage nephew?
      Despite the overdose of lime tea I took to try to calm myself down, I failed to get a wink of sleep the night before my trip to Málaga. The palms of my hands were moist with sweat, my fingertips wrinkled, a sure sign that my anxiety had reached a limit that was far from healthy. My ulcer must have secreted enough acid in those few hours to produce a leak in the side of a sizeable boat. At six o'clock in the morning, I had a long, hot bath. By eight I was on the road. By 8:45 I had already made two stops to vomit up bile.
      It was a morning of glorious sunshine, with a small flock of clouds sculptured above the flesh of the skyline and a temperature perfect for making an excursion into the country. I kept a constant eye on how I looked in the rear mirror, attempted to side-step all the questions that were wrestling to form a firing-squad inside my brain, whistled along to the music station I had tuned into on the radio, and also kept my eye on the front seat next to me where the padded envelope containing Animal Farm was.
      I arrived in Málaga on schedule. That just gave me time to stretch my legs and have a cup of lime tea to calm myself down, before slipping into hiding in the leafy shadow of a cluster of magnificent shrubs. From here I could look on at the doll-like girls walking—or being walked by—their dogs, their faces still bearing the marks of the previous night's excesses.
      I arrived at the café 15 minutes before Mónica was due to appear, provided, as she had claimed, that punctuality really was one of her proudest traits. I ordered a yoghurt ice cream and a croissant with jam to throw my stomach into even greater turmoil. I got the Orwell out of its padded envelope and sat down at a table next to the café window. From here I could keep my eye on the street outside and, I hoped, spot Mónica with enough time to spare to enable me to put an end to the madness once and for all and leave the place as soon as I had seen her. I was the only customer in the café. The 20 minutes after I had entered the place saw the arrival of two blokes wearing ties, who talked loudly about football and politics, a hectic group of youngsters who gobbled down buns dunked in coffee and disappeared, and a scraggy little old man who took a table to himself and ordered a breakfast of gargantuan proportions. It was not a pretty sight watching that little old man devour his two fillets of chicken, a fried egg, an ensaimada pastry which he dunked into the yolk of his egg, a number of sausages, two pears and a bunch of grapes whose pips he spat out all over the floor. I found it odd that Mónica should have chosen this particular place for us to meet. It was not a bar frequented by people of her age and where I was out of place. For a moment I was over-whelmed by the suspicion that perhaps Mónica had chosen the place because she knew that the guy she was going to be meeting was not a teenager, because she had deduced my age from my letters and decided to play with me. But that was absurd. How could she ever have found me out? I ordered myself to calm down. "Don't get carried away now with stupid thoughts," I told myself. "Perhaps the café is near her house and that's why she chose it as the spot to meet. On the other hand perhaps it's far enough away from her house but next door to one of her friends', and she judged that that was the perfect place to meet." What did it matter?
      Fifteen minutes late, a blonde girl came into the café. She was not alone, but accompanied by a girl the same height as she was, ginger-haired and elegant. Possibly her elder sister. Both of them were weighed down with schoolbags, and their faces displayed a tranquillity that made me think—if Mónica really was the blonde—that it was not the first time she had met up with a stranger she had arranged to meet by letter. I waited for them to take a copy of Animal Farm out of their schoolbags and put it on the table, but they did nothing of the sort. They sat down at a table on the other side of the café and, having ordered their drinks, two strawberry milkshakes, immersed themselves in conversation without paying the least attention to what was going on around them, as though they knew perfectly well that their role was simply to sit and wait for the person who—according to etiquette should have been waiting for them, yet whose absence did not appear to bother them in the slightest; as though they attached no importance to the fact that he was not in the café when they arrived, whether this was because he was running even later than they were or because he had grown bored with waiting for them and had gone for a walk with a view to returning either a little later on or not at all.
      I was gripped by nerves, and hid the Orwell, putting it back in the padded envelope so as not to identify myself and to give myself the opportunity to escape without arousing the girls' suspicions. After all, at least I had seen her—but was it her? She seemed older, 16 or possibly more; I could make do with that, going any further would be especially dangerous, and I could declare myself satisfied as it was, even though Mónica was not as deliciously beautiful as I had imagined her. Her features were coarse, and she had possibly gone over the top with her make-up in an attempt to camouflage the ravages of acne on her skin. Nor did her face correspond to the one published in the children's supplement: if it was her, she had certainly managed to send in the most flattering photo she had. It was also possible that the couple of years that had past between the photo being taken and the present moment could have divested her appearance of the charm it had exerted in the snapshot or perhaps it was the simple fact of having her there in person, rather than her fixed gaze on the paper of the children's supplement that had caused her charms to lose their magic. I don't know. I didn't understand why she had brought someone else either. The redhead must have been going on for 20. They didn't stop talking. I had just about lost all hope, and the gap left behind had been taken over by fear instead. My hands were shaking. I told myself that I could rest content with having got that far, I had reason to be satisfied: I could close my eyes and masturbate at night in the knowledge that she was not a fictional being, touching her up in my imagination and transforming her into the marvellous, impossible adolescent which she wasn't in spite of the fact that her body—which I only glimpsed for a few seconds—was well-formed and had the roundness characteristic of dancing-girls on TV shows. On nights of more intense ardor, I would even be able to fantasize about a ménage ŕ trois incorporating the elegant-looking redhead, who at one point consulted the yellow rectangle of her watch and then lit up a cigarette (the putative Mónica had offered her one, but she had turned it down), which prompted me to dedicate several seconds of thought to the question whether she had consulted her watch with a view to deciding that it was too late now and that the boy who had arranged to meet her friend was not going to show up or whether it was in order to observe a strict rule she had imposed upon herself to keep to one cigarette every half hour.
      I let the minutes pass. I observed the second hand of my watch marking out the time as it passed. I resolved to wait five more minutes. From time to time, I raised my eyes from the dial on my wrist and watched the girls. I was yearning to catch Mónica's eye, I was yearning for her to recognize me, just as much as I was terrified that she might actually do so, and the idea of striking up a conversation with her attracted me in the same measure as the possibility she might actually decide to get up and come closer left me petrified. Two young lads entered the café, and the girls welcomed them exuberantly, as though they hadn't seen them for months or as though the two or three hours that their separation had lasted had been an excessive period of time for their infatuated hearts. The shorter of the lads sat down next to the redhead, stroked her face, and gave her a long kiss on the lips. The other one confined himself to looking at them, sitting next to the spurious Mónica, who stretched across for the packet of cigarettes that the redhead had left lying on the table. She offered one to her companion and then took out another for herself.
      Well, what more could I do there? There was no way round it now: the presence of the lads had reassured me. The knowledge that Mónica was not going to show up helped me calm down. I ordered a large black coffee and made up my mind to enjoy it to the full while following the evolution of the two couples' petting and dialogues. I shouldn't have bothered. They had not yet served me when Mónica arrived. As soon as I heard the groan of the café door, I knew it was her, although perhaps this is a false impression my memory has chosen to accommodate in its recollection of that afternoon, for what grounds could I possibly have had for my conviction that the diminutive figure of that woman, around 40 years of age, slim, wearing a striped shirt, jeans and sneakers, was the adolescent girl to whom I had been writing?
      After glancing round the café to try to find the boy who should have been waiting for her, she sat down at a table opposite me. She ordered a white coffee and then got out Animal Farm and put it on the table. We looked at one another for an instant, but I quickly looked away. They brought my coffee. I escaped to the toilets.
      "It could be the mother," I told myself, locked in one of the cubicles, sitting on the lid, head in hands, "it could be that Mónica couldn't make it and asked her mother to come and hand the book over to a boy who would be carrying another edition of Orwell's tale. It could be that she's ill, everyone knows there’s a flu epidemic going round," I repeated to myself, "it could be that she’s had a fall and had no option but to send her mother as an ambassador to represent her." She certainly looked enough like her, when Mónica reached 40 she would probably look just like that woman, slim, fine features, not exactly pretty, perhaps not even attractive or seductive. A well-preserved woman: maybe the 40 years I had decided to endow her with were more like 50. "Mónica's mother? Rubbish!" I told myself. Someone came into the toilets. I flushed the lavatory and stood up. But I didn't leave the cubicle. I rested my forehead against one of the tiles on the wall, my eyes closed. How could this have happened to me? What was I doing here? Going mad. I had started sweating. So then—it was that woman, Mónica, 40-something, who had sent the letter to a children's supplement simply to satisfy some perversion of hers. Yes, that was it, there was no other explanation possible. And the thought of that possibility—the possibility that I was about to meet some woman older than myself to whom I had been writing letters without suspecting she was a pervert who had arranged to meet an adolescent boy with God only knows what intentions—filled me with disgust. Even though, I thought, things could have been even worse, for what if the person I had been writing letters to and who had shown up with the Orwell in that café had not been a mature, single woman seeking only to broaden her correspondence, but some guy who used this strategy as a way of meeting young boys whom he then abducted and raped? It would of course have been much worse; I smiled to myself without opening my eyes. My memory now insists on persuading me that even before Mónica entered the café I had for a moment felt the bitter conviction that the person I was about to meet was not Mónica, 13 years old and with the face of an angel, but a grown woman trying to make herself look youthful with her jeans and pumps, someone who was Mónica, 13 years old and with the face of an angel, but 30 years ago. But if I had felt this conviction, I would have probably taken to my heels well before Mónica entered. As I emerged from the toilets, I felt like a gold prospector who after the vicissitudes of a long search finally arrives at the spot where he was hoping to find those nuggets but where the only thing he discovers is the dead body of another gold prospector.
      I granted myself five minutes to observe the woman, who had placed Animal Farm on the table and was savouring her milk coffee. In the course of those five minutes, I went from being certain that the teenager I had been writing to had sent her because she was ill to being certain that the woman was herself the Mónica I had been writing to, and that, like me, she had pretended to be a teenager so as to meet up with her correspondent, and the last thing she was expecting was to find a pervert in his thirties expecting to find a young girl of 13. My copy of the Orwell was still out of sight. For a split second, I was about to get it out, to get the whole thing over with and share my disappointment, my shame, with that woman. It didn't seem fair that I was the only one to be suffering. If I were to get the Orwell out from its padded envelope and put it on the table, I thought, Mónica would perhaps pluck up the courage to come and say hello to me and apologize on behalf of the teenage girl, informing me that she was in bed with the flu and explaining that she was the mother, to which I would have to reply that I was Juan's uncle, that he hadn't been able to come with me because he had broken his ankle, and that he had asked me to go and meet Mónica to give her the Orwell in return for the volume that she would give me for him. The woman remained lost in thought, gazing through the café window and glancing at her watch whenever she returned from her daydreams. She seemed neither worried nor tense.
      In the end, I made up my mind. I got out the Orwell and left it on the table. She noticed, scrutinized the sleeve of the book for several moments, and then, slowly, raised her gaze from the book to my eyes. Now she did seem tense. I don't know how long that duel of stares went on for. I do know that I was the one to look away. Mónica got up. I could feel a lump in my throat. The sound of my breathing seemed to fill the whole café. She came up right next to me and headed for the toilets, but not without first taking the Orwell from the table. We didn't say a word. I suppose that the shame of it all had struck us both dumb, that the only thing we wanted was to disappear from there, a firing-squad in our brains shooting us with a thousand reproaches fired in unison. We could have just as well gone for an ending that was less dramatic and humiliating, true, we could have lied to one another, but we lacked the strength to invent things we were convinced the other person wasn't going to believe anyway. Or we could have told each other the whole story, much as we might reveal without the least inhibition a jealously guarded secret, one that not even our closest friends know of, to a fellow traveller we know we'll never see again. We could have asked one another why we had done what we had done, why we had felt the need to keep up that fraudulent correspondence, why we had tried to pass ourselves off for someone we were not, perhaps in an attempt to recapture someone we used to be, or simply impelled by the vulgar mechanism of curiosity. Why had she sent the photo of a girl to a children's supplement in order to establish a correspondence with teenagers? Had she met up with other 14-year-old boys and spun them some story about the Mónica they were expecting to meet, leading them up a garden path and back to her home, where she then fucked them? There was something inside me forcing me to stay and wait for Mónica to come out of the toilets. I was on the point of moving my coffee to her table to wait for her there. But I didn't. I went to the bar. I paid the bill. And as I made for the door, I looked back because I could feel an icy glare eating into the back of my neck. It was Mónica. She was standing in the door to the toilets, with the Orwell under her arm. I understood what she was telling me to do. I went to her table, picked up the copy of Animal Farm that she had brought and without looking at her turned and left the café.
 

© Juan Bonilla
© translation: Rupert Glasgow
spanish original

This electronic version of  "Mónica's Letters" appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the author and his agent. It appears in the author´s collection Six Stories, Angkor Wat  Words Collection, 2004; translated by Rupert Glasgow.

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author bio
Juan BonillaJuan Bonilla (Jerez, Spain, 1966) is the author of the novels Nadie conoce a nadie (1996) and Cansados de estar muertos (1998); the novella Yo soy, yo eres, yo es... (1999); and three short-story collections El que apaga la luz (1994), La compańía de los solitarios (1998) and La noche del Skylab (2000). An English translation of selected stories, Six Stories, was released in 2004 by Angkor Wat Words Collection. He has also published two volumes of poetry, Partes de guerra (1994) and El Belvedere (2002), and his essays, reports and articles have been published in El arte del yo-yo (1996), La holandesa errante (1998) and Teatro de variedades (2002). Bonilla is a columnist and reporter for the daily newspaper El Mundo. His most recent work, the novel Los príncipes nubios, won an award (el Premio Biblioteca Breve) in 2003.

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issue 43: July - August 2004  

 
Short Fiction

Barry Gifford: Holiday from Women
Nic Kelman: girls
Brian Leung: Executing Dexter
J.K. Mason: A Caricature of Faith
Juan Bonilla: Mónica’s Letters
picks from back issues
Julie Orringer:
Care
Javier Marías:
Fewer Scruples

Interview

Nic Kelman

Quiz

The Iliad
answers to last issue’s quiz Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald

Book Reviews

Do the Blind Dream? by Barry Gifford
The Little White Car by Danuta de Rhodes
girls by Nic Kelman
World Famous Love Acts by Brian Leung
Deadfolk by Charlie Williams
One Hundred Strokes of the Brush Before Bed by Melissa P.
Psychoraag by Suhayl Saadi (review available August 7)

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