Although I wished to leave Gijón, I had dragged my girlfriend into this trip, so we settled for checking out the tourist area that surrounds Poniente beach. We walked for a bit along the promenade while Alazne looked at the beach. The sky had become overcast, so the dozens of beachgoers remained dressed and just took walks or played around. If one has seen a beach, one has seen a thousand of them, although this one featured more washed-up detritus than I would have expected, as I don’t recall seeing much of it in Donostia’s beaches. Alazne also eyed meaningfully the blue banners that encouraged people to visit the nearby aquarium. My girl loves animals, so I know she would enjoy hitting every aquarium and zoo in the cities to which we end up travelling.
I was struggling to sustain a conversation with Alazne, although she kept bringing up topics kindly. Putting words together in my head and verbalizing them was sucking the energy out of me. I felt I would only endure around an hour more outside of the safe house that our hotel room represents. Still, we’d likely only return around nighttime. I wasn’t in the mood to see the sights, to eat good food, to talk. I wanted to go back to Hondarribia, to the expensive house that I stole from a dead man when I took over his ruinous life, and to our bedroom, where I would curl up under the sheets and merge with the darkness.
It’s the time of the day to settle for a restaurant and pay strangers to prepare a meal for us. Past a series of long benches fully occupied by groups of teens or old couples, Alazne and I find a raised restaurant with outside seating, which offers a panorama of the numerous leafy trees that keep most of the square in shadows, as well as a view of the beach, from which come the cheerful voices of children.
We sit under a patio umbrella. I don’t think I will be able to retain much food, so I order a hamburger with a side of fries. However, my girlfriend chooses a combo plate and a strawberry smoothie with yogurt. The restaurant is thankfully half empty, so they bring our food quicker than I expected. It only takes a bite of my juicy burger, and tasting the crispy bacon, for my shoulders to relax a bit. Even though my girlfriend will have to eat a fried egg, fried potatoes and a steak, she steals some of my fries and tops them with dollops of sour cream. I don’t mind.
“It’s so delicious,” Alazne says as she munches on one of her own oily fried potatoes. “Eating solves most ills, doesn’t it?”
She takes a forkful of her egg. The yolk is still gooey, but not liquid enough to break and make the food gross.
“Serves as a distraction, at least,” I say hoarsely. “Eating, fucking, sleeping. The three only pure joys for any living creature on this planet.”
“I’m not so sure about that,” Alazne says. She smiles with her mouth closed as she chews her food. “But I hope you feel better.”
I lift the bun of my hamburger and I realize that they haven’t poured any ketchup, so I open the packet and empty it onto the bacon and the cake of minced beef.
“I think I will be able to hold a conversation properly in a short while. I don’t want to keep worrying you.”
“I’m your girlfriend, it’s not a bother if you worry me. I’m glad that you talk to me.”
“You have been really accommodating and self-sacrificing today, Alazne. I truly appreciate it.”
Alazne eats another fry.
“You’re welcome,” she says in a mild tone. She looks towards the busy square, located maybe thirty meters away, as if she’s thinking. “Hey, was it a good idea for you to talk with Irene’s father?”
I sigh. My head hurts.
“I don’t know. Is it ever worth it to talk things out with people who think so differently from oneself? He will never change his mind, and neither will I. So what’s the use?” I take a sip of my water to wash the food down. “But it’s done. I doubt I’ll ever speak with that man again.”
Alazne lowers her head and sweeps the table with her gaze.
“You are so resentful and guilty because Irene killed herself, Asier,” she says in a low voice, as if fearing that it will upset me. “After so many years. Like a painful tumor that nobody can take out.”
“I wasn’t able to save her,” I reply grimly. “If I had known you during your worst times but I hadn’t been able to date you and prevent you from killing yourself, it would have destroyed me inside as well.”
Alazne drops her fork noisily on her plate to cover her face, as if overwhelmed by a sudden pain. After a few seconds of breathing deeply, she lowers her hands to the table and speaks.
“I would have never expected to meet you, or anyone for that matter, let alone that they would be interested in spending any time with me. That’s part of what depression does, right? It hunts you down until it traps you against a corner, and then it murders you. I don’t dare to assume how Irene must have felt during her last days, but she also bore the burden of only being able to love people of her own gender, which makes life far more difficult. Poor girl.”
I place my right hand on top of hers and squeeze it softly.
“She would have gotten along wonderfully with you, I’m sure,” I say, but I stop myself from talking further, because I fear that my voice is about to break.
Alazne chuckles sadly.
“I suspect she would have wanted to date me. Misery loves company and all that.”
I draw back my hand that was caressing hers, and I take a big bite of my hamburger to camouflage my sudden unease. I munch on the beef and the bacon slowly, and once I swallow the morsel, I dare to ask.
“You think that you would have been able to date Irene, despite…?”
Alazne sips her smoothie through the straw, then she licks her lips.
A warm sensation bursts in my chest. I clench my ass cheeks and sit up straight. My heart starts beating faster.
“Because I don’t have a problem with people loving anyone they want, as long as those people are of legal age and aren’t related to one another. It’s not really any of my concern who anyone is dating or having sex with, and why would it be? It’s a free world, and I don’t pretend to have some sort of moral high ground, because my entire life has been one mess after another.”
“That’s one thing, but I mean Irene dating you in particular. You aren’t attracted to women in the slightest, right? So would you have been able to get involved in a romantic relationship with her?”
Alazne puts her elbows on the table and rubs her hands while she looks down with an unfocused gaze.
“I don’t know, maybe. I mean, I think so. I’ve never been attracted to women before, but that doesn’t mean I can’t. I have been so terminally lonely that even if the one person who wanted to love me was a woman, I think I would have opened up to it. But maybe this is all just talk, and the moment I found myself feeling her naked body against mine as she held me to make love, I might have felt such revulsion that I would have pushed her away.”
My throat had tightened and my hands tingled as my brain worked itself up into confessing my unforgivable deception, but I force myself to calm down. I have learned enough about human beings in my four decades of half-life.
“The problem is that the stories we tell ourselves are mostly fiction, aren’t they?” I say with a thin voice and a feeble smile. “We convince ourselves we like this or that, and sometimes we arrange our lives around those beliefs, even though our instincts clash with those rationalizations. Some people spend their existences pursuing what they decided through such arguments, but they need to fight their instincts every step of the way. To an extent, our modern civilization has become a tangled rationalization dedicated to burying and suffocating our instincts. Different groups of people and ideologies are invested in it. Getting people to reject what their hearts demand makes them malleable.”
Alazne brings to her mouth a forkful of egg while she frowns as if she’s having trouble holding on to the meaning of my words.
“What I mean to say is,” I insist, “you aren’t in a relationship with me because you decided that’s what you wanted. You’re in a relationship with me because your instincts pushed you into it. We both admitted it during our glorious first day together, right? For me it was love at first sight, as if I was meant to be with you, and I didn’t need to stop and ponder the pros and cons. In spite of whatever logic has convinced you that something is the right thing to do, the real you keeps screaming inside to get out.”
Alazne gulps down noisily more of her smoothie, which as it goes down leaves that stretch of the glass covered in foam.
“What you mean is that if Irene still lived, and was in her twenties, and had approached me because she found me attractive, I might have ended up in a bedroom alone with her, both naked, and she would have stared at me hungrily with that pretty face and the uniqueness in her eyes. And then different things could have happened. Maybe I would have found her love or at least desire for me so erotic that I would have welcomed a lesbian relationship with her. Or maybe I wouldn’t have been attracted to her, but I would have considered that any romantic relationship with a person who wanted me would have been better than rotting alone, so I would have gone along with it just to keep Irene around. Or I would have been so disgusted by the idea of a woman kissing me and fondling me and caressing my pussy that I would have excused myself and declared our date a horrible mistake.”
I nod, although I remain nervous.
“That’s exactly what I meant, yes.”
Alazne wipes her fingers with a napkin.
“To be honest, even if I didn’t find Irene attractive, I would still have wanted to keep her around as long as she could hold me through the night.”
My heart hasn’t calmed down. I munch on some fries as I wonder whether I should be happy about that confession. I can’t think straight with my pulsating headache, and I don’t think Alazne has ever had to prove that supposition with another woman, so it may mean close to nothing.
“You know…” Alazne starts, but she looks down as if she can barely bring herself to say something. “At times I grew fond of the spiders that appeared suddenly on a corner of my ceilings. Because they chose to be there, and wanted to stick around. Human beings only hurt you. That’s what I thought. At least mindless creatures won’t reject you if you let them be.”
I swallow the sour taste in my mouth.
“I wish I had been there the first moment you felt lonely, Alazne.”
She lifts her gaze to meet mine, and she smiles so amorously that it makes me shiver.
“These days I wouldn’t change a thing of what has happened to me, Asier, because I can sit here and eat this food and be with you.”
I nod, and as I fear getting overwhelmed, I bury my face in my hands and take a deep breath.
“I don’t want to cry,” I manage to say. “It has already been too emotional for me.”
“You can cry. You’re allowed to do that.”
Once I dare to look at Alazne, she smiles briefly before she opens her mouth again.
“Do you know Daphne du Maurier?”
For a couple of seconds I only let out confused noises.
“I don’t know… Daphne du Maurier? I think she’s a writer, right?”
“Glad you know. She mainly wrote in the first half of the previous century, I think. Long dead, the poor lady. Anyway, she wrote ‘Rebecca’.”
I shake my head slowly as I frown, dazed.
“This is one sudden change of topic.”
“I’ve been thinking a lot about it. It has been one of my favorite books since I read it years ago.”
“To be honest, I’m surprised you would know her books at all, given that she wasn’t Japanese nor a manga author.”
Alazne giggles, and touches my hand.
“Hey, I am a woman of culture.”
“That’s what I mean.”
“I have been known to delve into exotic fiction as well. Anyway, have you read that book, ‘Rebecca’?”
“No. I haven’t even heard of it.”
Alazne nods slowly.
“It’s a love story. The main character is pursued romantically by a rich man who brings her to live in his mansion. As she struggles to fit in a role for which she doesn’t feel prepared, the ghost of another woman, the titular Rebecca, haunts every corner of that place, figuratively, as well as every nuance of the protagonist’s relationship with the man who chose to love her.”
I shift my weight in the chair, as I feel uncomfortable.
“It sounds a lot like ‘Jane Eyre’.”
“Yeah? I haven’t read that one…”
Alazne opens her mouth to question my words, but then chuckles.
“Alright, but do you get why I brought up Daphne du Maurier’s book?”
“Well, let me think… Because you were pursued by a rich man who brought you to live in his mansion, which also happens to be haunted, literally? I guess many people could have interpreted that relationship, just from your brief summary, as if the man was merely obsessed with the protagonist for whatever reason, and the relationship turned poisonous until eventually the main character realized that the guy didn’t really love her, but rather loved his own twisted reflection of himself that he saw in her?”
Alazne blinks a few times, and narrows her shoulders as if she fears shuddering.
“I suddenly regret bringing up that book. I don’t like that interpretation at all. But I mentioned ‘Rebecca’ because Irene pops up everywhere in my relationship with you, Asier. Maybe you were in love with her and never resolved that feeling because she was a lesbian, in addition to the lack of closure that her suicide caused.”
Talking more about myself in the third person implies making up more outrageous lies that will pile up the anxiety I deal with every day. I want to sigh deeply and shake my head, but Alazne has every right to wonder why this Irene person was fundamental to me. I shouldn’t have gotten so worked up when talking to my rotting old man.
“Are you suggesting that before I met you I remained in love with a lesbian ghost?”
“I’m not sure if that’s what I mean… But I think you may have been mourning her for a long time, and only now you are realizing it in the process of recovering your memories, hence your surprise at your own behavior.”
I struggle to figure out how to retort to that. Alazne realizes she has broken my mind, so she continues.
“Do you think Irene’s ghost is out there?”
I snap my head back, and the irony of it makes me chuckle bitterly. Yes, she’s around. Right in front of you, in fact. I fell in love with you, or maybe it started out merely as an obsession because I was hopelessly lonely and not even spiders would have paid attention to me. And because I knew you wouldn’t love me if I didn’t have facial hair nor muscles nor a cock nor could reliably pass for a father figure as your sexual needs required, I spat upon nature to raise myself from the dead. And now you are happy, so I did good, didn’t I? The hugest unforgivable deceptions in the world are justified if the target remains blissfully ignorant and satisfied.
“I’m sure Irene is still around, hopelessly wandering the wastelands of the afterlife, wishing she would find someone she could love and who would love her back. And I’m sure she will never move on to the beyond. She was too much of a greedy, rotten bitch.”
Alazne considers my words and my tone carefully as her expression turns melancholic.
“Is that how you see her? No, you truly loved her to some degree.”
I shove into my mouth what little remains of my burger, and take the opportunity to picture Irene like the people who had the misfortune of meeting me back then would have seen me. Even though in the theatre of my mind I’m holding a mirror in front of my mental image, I can no longer define Irene’s facial features, that supposed pretty face, nor the eyes that promised I wasn’t another interchangeable speck on the tumorous body of the mushrooming human race. Do I even know you anymore, Irene? For the twenty years I wore your body, I never understood you, and when your heart stopped and the electromagnetic tendrils of your consciousness grasped the fabric of reality, I no longer had any choice but to carry on as an echo of who you used to be. Still, I never learned to love you. Even if I had stepped back from that cliff’s edge and gotten to live eighty years more, I don’t think I would have ever contemplated you with affection.
I shake my head in an attempt to stop the landslip from burying me, but my mind is a desert of unending sand. I’m compelled to keep lying, and I’m compelled to tell the truth.
Alazne has jabbed the tines of her fork in the remaining quarter of her steak, and with her index finger she’s moving the fork around lazily.
“Asier, whenever I try to hold you in my mind, some pieces slip through my fingers. It doesn’t form a coherent whole. I love you more than I would have thought possible, but it still makes me… uneasy.”
A pang of pain shoots through me.
“I’m sorry,” I only manage to say.
I’m not the one dating Alazne. When she holds my gaze, she isn’t looking into my eyes. She pledged her eternal love to someone else, while I observed this dying world through a monitor set up in a dark, cramped, airless bunker. I’m surrounded by a man’s decomposing flesh and his crumbling bones. I want to claw at my face and rip a tear through which Alazne could peek at the person who had been hiding behind the rot.
“I didn’t love Irene, Alazne, I… hated her,” I say. “I remember how she ran around frantically from goal to goal. Any given day she wanted to repeat with one girl or yearned for another, but her solution was to ricochet to a third one. She never committed to anybody nor anything because she knew nothing would last. When a few of the people in her life wanted something deeper, she turned tail and fled. She feared she wasn’t enough, that she couldn’t live up to those people’s expectations, and above all she was terrified of anyone tying her down, chaining her to a time and place. As a result, wherever she went she left a trail of misery in her wake.”
After we finish our meals, none of the staff urge us to leave, so we lounge on the chairs for forty five minutes or so more. Once we descend the stairs to the promenade, Alazne intertwines her fingers with mine.
“My love, I know it has been a taxing day, but I’m sure I would regret having travelled this close to an aquarium and then leaving without exploring it. Could we…? I mean, if you want.”
I stop and turn to hug my girlfriend tightly. When she reacts, she lets out a noise of satisfaction and buries her face in my neck while she hugs me back.
“Of course, Alazne,” I say. “Aquariums are always fun.”
Inside a tank that a hidden fluorescent light bulb dyes green, some big-eyed, silvery, elongated fishes with glittering backs nibble the purplish flesh of a drowned corpse. In another tank, white and pink fishes with elongated mouths poke the corpse’s eardrums through the ear canals, and they dig through the decomposing tissues of the body’s vagina and asshole. A few clownfishes slide through the corpse’s floating hair as if it were an anemone. A crab with bulging, bony articulations, its carapace covered in ossified pimples, cuts little pieces of the corpse’s belly with its pincers and brings the morsels to its mouth. An octopus latches on to the corpse’s rotting torso with its suckers, and then with its free arms the cephalopod probes the outline of the corpse’s muscles and bones. A carp swims through the disemboweled abdomen and upwards until it exits the corpse through a hole in its ribcage. A moray eel lunges against the corpse’s face, plunges its teeth into the greyed iris and then yanks the eyeball out. Dead-eyed sharks bite chunks out of the corpse, opening holes from which gush out clouds of coagulated blood. A school of piranhas cover the corpse and gnaw at every centimeter of purplish skin, and they only return to swimming listlessly when the unlinked bones sway outwards then land on the floor of the tank like sunken waste.