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Authors: Arturo Perez-Reverte

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BOOK: What We Become
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As he was about to descend to his cabin in second class, they bumped into each other next to the elevator, their reflections caught in the huge mirrors on the main staircase. She was wearing a gray fox fur cape and carrying a lamé purse. She was alone, on her way out to one of the promenade decks, and, with a swift glance, Max marveled at how steadily she walked in high heels despite the roll, for even the floor of a vessel that size took on a disconcerting three-dimensionality when the ocean was rough. Turning back, Max held the exterior door open for her until she was outside. She responded with a curt “thank-you” as she crossed the threshold. Max bobbed his head, closed the door, and walked back along the passageway, eight or ten steps. The last of these he took slowly, thoughtfully, before coming to a standstill. What the hell, he thought. Nothing ventured nothing gained, he concluded. Providing he trod carefully.

He soon found her, walking along the upper deck, and stopped casually in front of her, beneath the muted glow of lights covered in sea salt. Doubtless she had come up for some air to avoid feeling seasick. Most of the passengers did the exact opposite, shutting themselves away in their cabins for days on end, prey to their own churning stomachs. For a moment, Max was worried she would walk past, pretending not to see him. But instead she stood still, gazing at him in silence.

“I enjoyed our dance,” she blurted out.

Max managed to stifle his astonishment almost instantaneously.

“So did I.”

The woman went on gazing at him, perhaps quizzically.

“How long have you danced professionally?”

“For five years. But not all the time. The job is . . .”

“Amusing?” she interrupted.

They continued strolling along the deck, adapting their steps to the vessel's slow sway. Occasionally they passed the dark figures or familiar faces of other passengers. The only parts of Max visible in the less illuminated areas were the white blotches of his shirtfront, waistcoat, and tie; the meticulous inch and a half of each starched shirt cuff; and the handkerchief in the top pocket of his tailcoat.

“That wasn't the word I was looking for.” He smiled softly. “On the contrary. I was going to say part-time. It has its advantages.”

“Which are?”

“Well . . . As you can see, it allows me to travel.”

By the light of a porthole he could observe that she was the one smiling now, approvingly.

“You do it well, for something that's only part-time.”

Max shrugged.

“For the first few years it was more steady.”

“Where was that?”

Max decided to omit part of his employment history, to keep certain names to himself. Including the red-light district in Barcelona and le Vieux Port in Marseille. And the name of a Hungarian dancer, Boske, who used to sing “La petite tonkinoise” while shaving her legs, and had a penchant for young men who woke up in the middle of the night drenched in sweat, troubled by nightmares that led them to believe they were still in Morocco.

“Luxury hotels in Paris in the winter,” he said, summing up. “And in the high season, in Biarritz and the C
Ô
te d'Azur . . . I also worked in the cabarets of Montmartre for a while.”

“Ah.” She seemed interested. “We may have bumped into each other.”

“No. I would remember you.”

“What did you want to tell me?” she asked.

For an instant he couldn't think what she was referring to. Then he realized. After bumping into her below, he had caught up with her on the promenade deck, appearing before her without any explanation.

“That have I never danced such a perfect tango with anyone.”

She was silent for three or four seconds, possibly contented. She had come to a halt (there was a lightbulb close by, screwed into the bulkhead) and was gazing at him through the briny blackness.

“Indeed? . . . Well. You are very kind, Mr. . . . Max, isn't that your name?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Believe me, I appreciate being flattered.”

“It isn't flattery. You know that.”

She laughed. A frank, healthy laugh. The same one as a few evenings before when he had jokingly calculated her age as fifteen.

“My husband is a composer. I am surrounded by music and dance. But you are an excellent partner. It's easy to follow your lead.”

“I wasn't leading you. You were yourself. I know the difference.”

She nodded, thoughtfully.

“Yes. I suppose you do.”

Max placed his hand on the wet gunwale. Between rolls, he could feel the throb of engines deep inside the ship vibrating through the deck beneath his feet.

“Do you smoke?”

“Not now, thank you.”

“May I?”

“Be my guest.”

He fished the silver case out of his inside jacket pocket, took out a cigarette, and raised it to his lips. She watched him.

“Egyptian?” she asked.

“No, Turkish. Abdul Pashas . . . With a hint of opium and honey.”

“Then I'll have one.”

He leaned forward holding the book of matches, and cupped the flame with his hand as he lit the cigarette she had inserted into a small ivory cigarette holder. Then he lit his. The wind quickly carried the smoke away, smothering the taste. She seemed to be shivering with cold beneath her fur cape. Max gestured toward the door of the nearby palm court, a conservatory-like room with a large light on the ceiling, furnished with wicker chairs, low tables, and potted plants.

“Dancing professionally,” she commented as they went in. “That seems like a strange occupation, for a man.”

“I don't see the difference. . . . We make a living from it just as easily, as you can see. Dancing isn't always about intimacy or amusement.”

“And is what they say true? That a woman expresses her true nature when she dances?”

“Sometimes. But no more than a man.”

The room was empty. She sat on one of the chairs, casually allowing her cape to slip open. Examining her reflection in the lid of a vanity case she had pulled from her bag, she applied a touch of pale red Tangee lipstick. Her sleek hair gave her face an alluringly angular, androgynous appearance, while the black satin dress, Max thought, clung to her body in a fascinating way. Aware that he was looking at her, she crossed one leg over the other, rocking it slightly back and forth, and propping one elbow on the arm of the chair, raised the hand in which she was holding the cigarette (her nails were long and manicured, painted the same color as her lips). Every now and then, she flicked the ash onto the floor, Max noticed, as if all the ashtrays in the world were nothing to her.

“I mean strange seen from close up,” she said after a while.
“You're the first ballroom dancer I've exchanged more than two words with: thank you and good-bye.”

Max had brought over an ashtray and was standing, his right hand in his trouser pocket. Smoking.

“I enjoyed dancing with you,” he said.

“Likewise. I would do it again, if the orchestra was still playing and there were people in the ballroom.”

“There's nothing to stop you doing so now.”

“Pardon me?”

She studied his smile as if analyzing an impertinence. But the professional dancer held her gaze, unflustered. You look like a good fellow, both the Hungarian woman and Boris Dolgoruki had told him, agreeing about that although they had never met. When you smile like that, Max, no one could ever doubt that you are a damn good fellow. Try to use that to your advantage.

“I'm sure you can imagine the music.”

Once again, she flicked her ash on to the floor.

“You are very forward.”

“Could you do that?”

It was her turn to smile this time, with a hint of defiance.

“Of course I could.” She blew out a puff of smoke. “I'm married to a composer, remember. My head is full of music.”

“How about ‘Mala Junta'? Do you know it?”

“Perfect.”

Max stubbed out his cigarette, then smoothed down his vest. She remained motionless for a moment: she was no longer smiling, and was watching him thoughtfully from her chair, as if to make sure he wasn't joking. Finally, she left the cigarette holder smeared with lipstick in the ashtray, stood up very slowly, her eyes fixed unwaveringly on him, and placed her left hand on his shoulder and her right hand in his, as it hovered, outstretched. She remained like that for a moment, erect, tranquil, unsmiling, until Max, after gently squeezing her fingers twice to indicate the first bar, leaned slightly
to one side, moved his right foot forward, and the couple started to dance in silence, closely embraced, looking straight at each other, amid the wicker chairs and potted plants in the palm court.

A twist (“Rita Pavone”) is playing on the white plastic portable Marconi. In the garden at the Villa Oriana there are palm trees and umbrella pines, and between them, leaning out the open window of his bedroom, Max can see across the Bay of Naples: the cobalt-­blue background with the wide, dark cone of Vesuvius and the coastline stretching toward Punto Scutolo, with Sorrento on the cliff top and the two marinas with their stone jetties. Dr. Hugentobler's chauffeur has been reflecting for some time, without taking his eyes off the view. Since eating breakfast in the quiet kitchen he has been standing by the window, mulling over the possibilities and probabilities of an idea that kept him tossing and turning all night, unable to make up his mind, and which, contrary to his hopes, the light of day hasn't thrust from his thoughts.

At last, Max appears to collect himself and paces for a moment around the modest room on the villa's ground floor. Then he looks out the window again, toward Sorrento, before going into the bathroom to splash cold water on his face. After drying himself he looks at his face in the mirror with the care of someone trying to see how age has caught up with him since the last time he looked. He stands like that for a while, as if searching for someone in the distant past—wistfully studying his silver-gray hair, already thinning, his skin ravaged by time and life, the furrows on his brow and at the corners of his mouth, the white bristles on his chin, the drooping lids that deaden the gleam in his eyes. Then he feels his waist (the notches closest to his belt buckle are marked from where he has gradually loosened it) and shakes his head disapprovingly. He is dragging around a surfeit of years and pounds. And possibly of life as well.

He walks out into the corridor, past the door leading to the garage, and continues until he reaches the drawing room. Everything in there is clean and neat, with white dust sheets draped over the furniture. The Lanzas are spending their days off in Salerno. For Max this means absolute peace and quiet, with nothing to do besides keep an eye on the house, forward any urgent mail, and ensure that Dr. Hugentobler's Jaguar, Rolls-Royce, and three vintage cars are all in working order.

Still pensive, he goes over to the cocktail cabinet in the drawing room, opens the door to where the drinks are kept, and helps himself to a small measure of Rémy Martin in a cut-glass tumbler. He proceeds to sip it, knitting his brow. Generally speaking, Max doesn't drink much. Almost his entire life, even during the harsh, early years, he has drunk in moderation (perhaps the word should be prudently, or carefully), and, whether imbibed by himself or by others, he was able to turn alcohol into a useful ally rather than an unpredictable enemy; into a professional tool of his ambiguous trade, or trades, which, depending on the situation, could be as effective as a smile, a blow, or a kiss. In any case, at this point in his life, heading toward the inevitable scrap heap, an occasional glass of wine or vermouth, a perfectly shaken Negroni cocktail, still quickens heart and mind.

Finishing his drink, Max wanders around the empty house. He is still thinking over what kept him awake the previous night. On the radio, which he has left on, a woman's voice rings out from the other end of the corridor. She is singing “Resta Cu'Mme” as if the words were truly making her suffer. Max becomes distracted for a moment, listening to the song. When it has finished he returns to his bedroom, opens the drawer where he keeps his checkbook, and verifies his bank balance. His meager savings. Just enough, he thinks, to cover the necessities. The basics. Amused by the idea, he opens his wardrobe and surveys the contents, imagining probable situations, before making his way to the master bedroom. Max is
unaware of it, but he walks with a relaxed spring in his step. With the same agile, self-assured gait he possessed years before, when the world was still a dangerous, thrilling adventure: a constant challenge to his wit and ingenuity. He has finally made a decision, which simplifies things, joining past and present in a surprising circle that seems to make everything fall into place. In Dr. Hugentobler's bedroom a golden glow is seeping in through the curtains. As Max draws them back, light floods the room, revealing the view over the bay, the trees, the neighboring villas clustered on the hillside. He turns toward the closet, takes down a Gucci suitcase from the top shelf, and opens it on the bed. Hands on hips, he contemplates his boss's well-stocked wardrobe. Dr. Hugentobler and he have more or less the same neck and chest measurements, and so he selects half a dozen silk shirts and a couple of jackets. The shoes and trousers aren't his size, because Max is taller than Hugentobler (he sighs: he will have to pay a visit to the expensive men's shops along the Corso Italia), but a brand-new leather belt is, and he puts it in the suitcase together with half a dozen pairs of soberly colored socks. After a final glance, he adds a couple of silk neckerchiefs, three attractive ties, a pair of gold cuff links, a Dupont lighter (although he gave up smoking years ago), and an Omega Seamaster De Ville wristwatch, also gold. Back in his own room, suitcase in hand, he hears the radio again: now Domenico Modugno is singing “Vecchio frac” (“The Old Tuxedo”). Incredible, he reflects. As if this were a good omen, the coincidence makes the former ballroom dancer smile.

BOOK: What We Become
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