Jonás Ager is disappearing: a recent separation has left him aimless, his once promising photography career has ground to a halt, and his assignments at the newspaper are drying up. And an ever deepening mystery is threatening to engulf him. His mother disappeared without a trace two weeks ago; his gallerist can’t locate his fellow photographer Oliver; and every time he and his best friend Sergio visit the pool for their regular swim, another lane is empty. An entire city seems to be evaporating into thin air.
While changing lines at Matheson, he realizes the subway is much emptier than usual. He tries to recall whether today is a holiday, since his work conditions result in a somewhat peculiar calendar, wherein he works every day, and yet every day could also be considered a day off of sorts, unless his routine is interrupted by a lengthier assignment, such as covering a party convention. But today is no holiday, and he finds the subway much less trafficked than normal at that time, around 1:30 in the afternoon, with all those thousands of parents headed to schools and daycares to pick up their kids, or leaving the office to enjoy a semi-palatable prix fixe lunch. These are pursuits which escape his comprehension, though he knows they exist, that all this human matter and its temporal framework are what the city feeds on: what would happen if all these people suddenly vanished into thin air, if the children never went back to school and their parents failed to appear punctually and whisk them away; what if the teachers never left home, for no good reason, if they had the same thought as his mother and they disappeared; what will it be like to barge into her apartment this afternoon and search through it, he wonders as he listens to the metallic jangle of the keys inside his backpack and begins to climb the escalator, lost in thought, as a sort of warm-up before his swim: he would be left all alone, looking through the windows of the subway car at the deserted platforms.
This could be an idea for new photographs, he thinks to himself as he exits at Estadio and contemplates the splendid construction which houses football matches every other weekend; he would just have to wake up early, before it gets light out and there is still no one in the streets, and wander the city’s different neighborhoods. He could call it Reality without Actors or something like that, he could try to capture the settings separated from the cast: when the performance is done the stage so often continues on, defiantly, still bearing the traces of its protagonists. It’s not the most promising start, but at least he could tell Sebastian, use it as a point of departure and see if he can pull something together for that group show, maybe a couple decent compositions.
The glass-encased terrace where he and Sergio usually eat lunch offers a perfect view of one side of the stadium. The rooftop of the restaurant is covered by a false wood ceiling, painted green, the same color as the furniture, with somewhat sparse creepers drooping timidly over the cornice. Looking at the empty tables, each surrounded by four stuffed chairs and set extremely close to one another, Jonás wonders how they ever managed to achieve that degree of intimacy they sometimes share, despite practically sitting beside the restaurant’s other occupants. The best part of those meals usually comes with the glass they both order after eating—whisky with a dash of water for him, on the rocks for Sergio—and it is at that point in the conversation, from four o’clock on, when the restaurant dies down a bit. They’ve even stayed long enough on occasion to see the first dinners served, failing to notice as night fell.
He is crossing the avenue when the school’s front doors open and the students appear. Since boarding at Arco del Sur, less than an hour and a half ago, he’s had the impression he was alone in the streets: that solitude has accompanied him in the subway and then as he passed by the restaurant, this time rather empty. Finding himself in front of that mass of boys and girls, all so serious in their uniforms, varied in age, taking up the sidewalk and also the crosswalk he has just traversed, gives him a welcome sensation of normalcy: the laughter and games, those cigarettes smoked slowly with studied conspicuousness while several older couples display their exhibitionistic abilities, help Jonás sink his way back into a more recognizable environment, something that slips through his fingers at times; surely that’s why he swims with Sergio, to recover that normalcy, or what’s left of it. He feels glad, slightly quickening his step when he spots his friend fifty meters ahead in his charcoal gray suit, his stature unsullied and his broad shoulder bag hanging behind his back, speaking almost violently into his cell phone and gesticulating with a hard-edged sobriety next to the complex door, mussing his hair with his free hand, his expression still irritated as he hangs up.
“Sorry, but I’ve got to go; my secretary is an idiot. I had a meeting scheduled for the day after tomorrow, but they moved it up on me and he just barely thought to let me know.”
“Well, what can you do?”
With an agile movement of his right hand, Sergio quickly consults his agenda for the rest of the week with a fleeting look of introspection.
“Let’s see. Tomorrow’s no good. The day after either. How about dinner at my place this Saturday?”
“Problem solved, then.” He takes out his key fob, pushes a button, and the locks in all four doors of his family car, parked next to them, pop up remotely as the front and rear lights blink. “Even better, actually. It’s been so long since last time; Martina will be excited and this way you can see Paula.”
They say goodbye with a haste carried over from Sergio’s phone call, or perhaps from much before; Jonás isn’t worried, though: his friend can handle his emotions, the pressure and the urgency; it’s in those moments when time is short and expectations high that he so often shines. He waves at Jonás as he starts the car, enormous and copper-colored, designed to transport not just a family, but all the accessories Paula needed when she was a baby: the carriage, stuffed animals, baby bath, sets of towels, diapers, oils and shampoo, moisturizing soaps, protective creams, clothing, baby food, and doubtlessly many other items which Jonás is unable even to imagine, inevitably rendering Sergio’s pure and stylized metallic blue convertible coupé, with its elegant curves and automatic top, too small.
It has done Jonás good to see his friend. He notices it in his step, suddenly brisk and energetic as he walks through the locker room door. He doesn’t take long to don his bathing suit, close the locker with his belongings inside, and head straight for the pool. The humidity in the air refreshes his nostrils; he can practically feel it hydrating his skin. In the middle lane he makes out the practiced and powerful movements, paired with a deep and enduring respiration, of Aquaman, today unrivaled; not even the other swimmers, though they carry on at an appreciable pace—most of them doing the crawl or backstroke, his only company besides the lifeguard with the same yellow tank top as always, and a red bathing cap, sitting distractedly in a chair as he leafs through a magazine—are any match for him today. He is an arc of flesh, growing tense and going slack, and every time he slackens he advances twice as much as the others, as if the water itself were too small for him and his true element was air.
But today Jonás too feels sure of himself, having overcome the morning’s initial mood. He dives into the water and begins to glide slowly; he soon realizes he’ll have no problem, within the next five or ten minutes, in matching the other swimmers’ pace. This is how Jonás swims: little by little, gaining ground over time; he is cut out for long distances. He’s never been explosive, in swimming or in anything else; he doesn’t worry when the other swimmers pass him by, lapping him several times over, because his body hasn’t yet warmed up enough. Surely Sergio would have taken off at the same speed as them, but he would have had to stop sooner, unlike Jonás, who never rests, who starts and finishes without a single pause because his limbs require that combustion, they become greased as the minutes pass, with the laps and the fatigue; Jonás is unconcerned by the swimmers doing the crawl and the backstroke: today he thinks only of matching the movements of Aquaman’s arms. He is so unconcerned with the others that he has just now noticed that one of them is Pongo, the shortish redheaded guy who listens patiently to those lessons on economics and life which Bongo, taller and more slender, offers so generously—not just to his companion, but the whole locker room. Jonás doesn’t see Bongo, and inwardly he is grateful.
As expected, he overtakes them all a quarter of an hour later. It seems remarkable that today the two fastest swimmers in the pool are swimming the breaststroke. Jonás is well aware, nonetheless, that he is still far from matching him, though if he’s ever been close it’s precisely in this instant. Jonás feels almost like a breath exhaled: he notes the movement of the water in the wake of his powerful kicks, finely synchronized with the wedge opened by his fingers. Swimming like this, as if breaking out of his own body, he can meditate on any matter, and he thinks even of Leopoldo: he wishes he could contemplate the sight of that oneness, a body modulating its course; he feels it as he displaces the weight of the water, and it is then, as he draws near Aquaman, swimming in the next lane over, after proving that he can maintain the same intensity, that the other exits the pool at a leap, stretches quickly on the edge and walks with celerity toward the locker room.
Jonás leans on the opposite edge, panting, and wonders whether he could have kept up for another half hour. He continues swimming, though less interested now in maintaining that velocity; he simply locks into a rhythm slightly superior to that of the others swimming the crawl. As the speed of his strokes diminishes, his consciousness likewise grows calm, his perception broadens, and it is then that he remembers that this afternoon he will go to his parents’ apartment—only his mother’s for some time now—to look for any kind of clue as to her whereabouts: whether she’s taken off on some sort of journey of initiation as secret as it is belated, or whether she’s just vanished. This is a possibility he hasn’t truly considered, because no one escapes from life just like that, without a trace, he thinks as he scans the wide indoor windows of the hall and spots the shadows, evidently talking amongst themselves, tall and wavering like almost always: he’s not even sure they aren’t just a reflection of the light on the water. If his mother really did decide to disappear, she has to have gone somewhere.
JOAQUÍN PÉREZ AZAÚSTRE (Córdoba, 1976) has published several poetry collections, a collection of short stories, and several novels, including La suite Manolete, for which he was awarded IX Premio Fundación Unicaja Fernando Quiñones in 2007. A journalist and columnist, he has also been awarded the Premio Adonáis de Poesía, the Premio Loewe and the Premio Loewe a la Creación Joven, among others.
Editor’s Note: The Swimmers is being published by Frisch & Co. on August 27, 2013 and a sample is available for download on the publisher’s website.
About the Translator:
LUCAS LYNDES lives in Lima, Peru, where he works as a translator. He is co-founder of the digital publishing house Ox and Pigeon, which aims to bring translations of heretofore unknown foreign-language writers to English-reading audiences.