Another supposed cure-all was the bezoar stone. These stones are secretions found in the stomachs of animals that devour their own hair, especially in a certain Indian goat, and it is said that they prevent melancholy and jaundice and that they serve as an antidote against all kinds of poisoning.
– Ambroise Paré, Les Discours
Despite hesitating time and again, I have decided to write this absurd journal after all. Since our first interview, you’ve insisted how important it is that I note down any memories and impressions that come up while I’m here. I have to admit the location is stupendous: by the sea, away from any anxieties, other than what I constantly inflict upon myself. This place, beautiful and silent all at once, is more health spa than rehab clinic. The window in my room gives on to the edge of the cliff, so that I notice the slightest changes in the landscape – I’m sure these details, important to me, are totally irrelevant to whoever’s reading this fucking diary (forgive me doctor, if I don’t try to let loose nothing will come). I’ve never kept a journal like this so I don’t know where to start. Perhaps I should start with the day I broke down and admitted myself, or maybe the moment I started taking hallucinogens to ward off my compulsive tendencies. I regret that I will have to disappoint you. Although it may be true that taking drugs – at least drugs you’re not prescribing me – is practically impossible here, you have not managed to exorcise my demons. Let me explain: my addiction didn’t start with those first innocent marijuana cigarettes, and it didn’t start during that time I found it impossible to stop masturbating; a period my sister mentioned in her interview and which you brought up during our last consultation. It manifested itself many years before, with a habit you yourself couldn’t imagine and, therefore, can’t even attempt to cure. I ask myself how much longer I will have to spend in this Eden of isolation before you understand the true problem, that all of this is merely the consequence of an infantile gesture, simple and distant, yet not entirely inoffensive.
I was nine years old. Months before, my parents had announced their divorce – I’m sure this nugget of information will please you, since I know all too well the importance you attribute to this sort of coincidence, although, to be frank, it seems to me to be a psychologist’s superstition, like how painters never walk under a ladder and electricians avoid mentioning the word ‘cat’. I suppose every profession has its own.
It was one of those sunny June mornings when getting up for school is effortless, on the contrary, time seems to move slower than it normally does. My sister Luisa and I were combing our hair in front of my mother’s dressing table; she a gloomy girl with never-ending plaits, me with a trendy auburn fringe. Unsure what clothes she should wear that morning, my mother was running from one end of the room to the other, like an insect frantically looking for a way out, but which only ends up splattered against the windows. During one of these comings and goings she decided to inspect her daughters. In the mirror’s reflection, I saw her disapproving glance rest on my fringe for a few seconds. ‘If you keep combing it like that,’ she warned, ‘you’ll start growing hair out of your forehead.’ I lifted my fringe to check and discovered that half my forehead was now overgrown. At least that’s how it seemed to me at that moment. My mother had finished doing her make-up more than ten minutes ago, but her things were still on the dressing table: the open mascara; the blusher brush, out of its case; and the golden tweezers which, for some reason, had always grabbed my attention. I held them carefully between my fingers and began to remove the hairs that had – or so I believed – invaded my forehead. I remember how pulling them out gave me an indescribable sense of relief, as if each one of them had come to represent a problem.
This was also the morning I discovered the anatomy of a hair. I realized that in addition to the part we all know about, the bit you can see from the outside, there’s a hidden, slimy part that makes up the root. This part provoked an animal aversion in me. It wasn’t disgust – more like a kind of hatred, along with the need to eliminate it as soon as possible. The first thing that occurred to me was to put the bulb in my mouth and swallow it; maybe this was because it came from inside my body, and so it only seemed natural to return it to the bottomless depths it had come from. All this happened very quickly, but it wasn’t an isolated incident. Despite not taking the tweezers with me, I repeated the procedure several times over the course of the day, using the tips of my fingers – which, back then, were clumsy and lacked the dexterity they would acquire as the years went by. Who would have guessed that such a casual act would herald the start of a lifelong habit? If my mother had known, she certainly would have never let the tweezers fall back into my hands. But I imagine when she noticed, she just thought it was one of those passing eccentricities that characterised me back then, something I’d forget after a week or two. But for reasons I’ve never understood, it didn’t happen that way.
From then on, every time something difficult happened at school, every time the teacher explained some incomprehensible grammatical rule or I lost myself in the unnavigable labyrinths of mathematics, I would return to the ritual like somebody seeking refuge in a magic spell. It was a way of disconnecting from the world, of turning my back on a life in which I resolutely did not want to participate.
When you read this, doctor, I’m sure you’ll ask yourself why I present no visible signs of this mania. My tonsure period passed quickly. It was embarrassing enough being caught at it when I couldn’t manage to be discreet – sometimes I couldn’t even hold off for long enough to run to the toilet not to mention being called ‘baldy’ or ‘the mad monk.’ So I learned to evenly space out the places I tore hair from. It’s true that some locations were more agreeable than others – the pleasure to be gained from pulling out a hair varies according to where it originates. Some parts are better than others – hence the risk of making bald patches – but even the slightest exploration leads to unexpected pleasure. The legs, for example, turn out to be an inexhaustible mine for these bulimic moments, but aren’t my favourite area, not even close. There are far more irresistible spots. Among the best are the small hairs, isolated and greasy, that grow below the chin. The morbid delight that comes from plucking one of these is so great that I’ve often been tempted to start shaving, just to see if more will grow.
Perhaps, Doctor Murillo, you think my writing about hair is nothing more than a way of avoiding the subject of addiction. I, on the other hand, am convinced this is the origin of everything: the vice that begets all vices, to put it one way. If you pay attention, you’ll see that I’ve switched addictions a great number of times: I started smoking when I stopped drinking; I abandoned marijuana when I discovered the euphoria of cocaine; which in turn seemed innocuous when I found the blessed pleasure of ecstasy. However, a day has never passed – not even here, where nothing should bother me – without my pulling out a hair. Just yesterday, as I was deciding whether or not to speak to you about all of this, I fell into one of my momentary trances.
Even while writing the last page, I started playing with my curls and, without noticing, began pulling out hairs. I only noticed when I placed my pen back on the empty page. ‘I have to tell Doctor Murillo as soon as I can’, I thought, but something in me, maybe that antisocial rebelliousness you’ve mentioned, stopped me from doing it. ‘I won’t say anything’, the other part of my persona responded, ‘I’ll at least preserve this one intimate space’. While I was thinking this, hairs were falling on the notebook like leaves from my own personal autumn. I searched my head for a juicy one and took it between my fingers: ‘This will be the last,’ I promised myself. ‘If it comes out with a root I’ll tell Murillo, if not I’ll continue the battle in silence.’ I yanked out the hair and looked at the result: the root was enormous but the consequences seemed unbearable, so I decided to try again. It took me some time to find another equally appealing specimen. My arm was tired from the effort of looking. When it finally appeared, I mechanically repeated the action, but on this occasion there was no bulb. The hair was one continuous thread. ‘Best of three,’ I said to myself, ‘the third will decide it.’ This time a root came out again, although much smaller than the first.
I only stopped because my arm was sore from spending so much time in what my sister called the ‘ape position’. Out of my window I could see night falling, and that’s when I realised I’d spent hours trying to make up my mind. My shoulders and my neck were tense and painful. I gathered the hairs on the table and put them away in the desk drawer.
I come back to this diary with a sense of shame. In spite of my resolution, I wasn’t able to bring up the matter this morning. I have to say, doctor, you didn’t leave much room for me to say anything. I’ll have to do it sooner or later though – in the same way that you adhere to your scientific conclusions, I adhere to the hair oracle. It is not to be contradicted.
You’ve asked me to go into more detail about my biography, especially in relation to Víctor. But before speaking about him or, better, about our ill-fated meeting, I need to lay out what came before it. I suppose, Doctor Murillo, that as well as satisfying your curiosity, writing about him will help scatter some of the dust from the chaotic archive that was once my memory. I’m convinced that what led us both to where we are now comes down to a series of ostensibly insignificant incidents, which I’ll do my best to recall. I also have a feeling this journal may come in handy, especially if I have to face trial, whether in a court of law or before my own family.
I’m going to glance over my adolescence – a tiresome period for anyone, but more so for those who stand out from the crowd. Back then, I had absolutely no idea how to control myself. I would repeat the gesture several times a minute; not a trace of my own free will remained. Like the survivor of a shipwreck, carried across the sea by the whims of the waves, I let myself be led by my habit. I felt constantly humiliated, as if I was violating myself without knowing why. Nothing was under my control: neither the times nor the places where these crises – in which I’d pull out entire locks rather than single hairs – occurred. As I’ve said before, I had bald patches of various sizes during this time, and although I tried to hide them beneath a John Lennon fringe, my hair would never reach far enough to cover my disgrace. Back then, ‘combing’ my hair meant choosing which bald patch I was going to hide, and which I would leave on show.
It was difficult for my parents to allow me outside. Taking me to public places, like church or family reunions, was a shameful experience for them. When they saw me, people usually pretended not to notice, but it was so obvious that even the most clueless eventually realised. To put it briefly, I walled myself off in that unease so characteristic of continued deception. As I was only a girl (I’ve always looked younger than I really am), inquisitive looks fell immediately on my parents; faced with my abnormality, people alighted on the most obvious explanation: it wasn’t possible for someone of my age to be so nervous, so my parents must have been partially, if not entirely, responsible. Cornered, my parents took refuge in Luisa, who besides being conventional was very feminine and did well in school. They kept their attention fixed on her and would spend the rest of the day enumerating her virtues.
It wasn’t just the fact of feeling dominated by an action I couldn’t control that affected how I carried myself in those days, it was the way people looked at me. Other children, when they didn’t hold me in contempt, were scared of me, and adults were always wary around me. Someone like me was capable of anything. This idea was so ubiquitous that in the end I found myself accepting it. Family friends, sufficiently distant to be able to rationalize the situation, assured my parents that time would sort things out. It was just a matter of waiting for adolescence to pass.
I remember a book about myths and legends that came into my hands at this time. In it there was a drawing of a woman with hair all the way down to her waist; she carried a marvellous gem in one hand. According to the author, in a place very far away from our continent there existed a stone or hairball with healing powers. The bezoar was the remedy for all poisons, a stone of perfect calm. This discovery troubled me. On one hand, it seemed difficult for me to believe that a gem could be confused with a hairball. On the other, there was something oddly coherent to the legend: if I pulled out a hair, it was for that sensation of perfect tranquility and calm, even if it only lasted a fraction of a second.
A stormy night.
Yesterday, after dinner, I stayed in the clinic’s dining room for several minutes, hypnotised by the large windows. It seemed as if the sea was crashing into us. I couldn’t help thinking about Víctor, who I haven’t heard from in more than a month. Will things go on this way? Even writing this question scares me. You just asked me, during our last consultation, if I still feel capable of committing impulsive acts. Allow me to stop writing for a moment while I laugh. Doctor, every moment of my life, including this very instant, I grapple with a downpour of possibilities you would call irrational, and which to me feel like the most attractive things in the world. Half an hour ago, when the nurse rang the bell announcing she was bringing up my nightly medication, I considered breaking a chair over her head. It’s not that I dislike her, on the contrary, she’s an amicable and attentive woman, but sometimes the mere fact that she exists is enough to infuriate me. The day you handed me the note with Víctor’s unmistakeable writing on the back, I was torn between throwing myself out the window right then and there or waiting until the lights of the clinic went off, so that the last thing I saw would be the lighthouse shining over the bay. When you’ve allowed yourself to be overpowered for so long by actions that are neither your own nor those of another, when you have completely lost control of the sphincter of free will, you can never know what you’ll do next. You may or may not be considered ‘responsible’ for what you’ve done. But, like wrinkles and other imperfections, one learns to cover up these defects. And something tells me you know that very well. I’ll return to my life story now, though, so you can understand me better.
By the age of seventeen I was already a professional in the art of deception. If I wasn’t exactly back to normal, I was at least no longer subject to those shameful momentary losses of self-control. I was still pulling my hair out – I hadn’t stopped for a single day since that morning in front of my mother’s dressing table – but I’d learnt to hide it. My consciousness was a make-up box of ruses and dramatic devices. Unlike the haircut I wore when I was eight, I now had a long auburn mane, voluminous enough that no one could imagine entire zones devoid of hair were hidden underneath.
I could, for example, spend the whole night chatting with a friend at a restaurant table without her or any of the diners noticing what I was doing; I could listen without interrupting my companion’s confidences, follow her thoughts on this summer’s fashion, the abyss which – according to her – separated her from her boyfriend, while at the same time giving myself over completely to my addiction.
Only at the end of the evening, after taking our plates away and sweeping under the table, would the waiter discover an auburn trail, like the ones that grow under hairdressers’ seats, but I no longer cared. I left the restaurant happy, thinking of nothing but enjoying myself. I’d become a functional being, and this, believe me, was the greatest achievement of my entire existence. Anyone who has come out of a swamp of infamy, like the one I lived through in childhood, will recognise the sensation of relief that comes from going unnoticed. So you’ll ask what drove me to the state I arrived at this clinic in, skeletal and insomniac, mired in addiction. I’ll come to that, doctor, but be patient. I don’t want to omit a single detail.
As I explained earlier, social integration was a triumph greater than any other, and it changed my personality radically: I turned into an extrovert, surrounded by friends and suitors. Even my sister Luisa paled before the charisma I displayed during those years. The ease with which I seduced people had its origins in the inexhaustible well of frustrations I wanted to make up for and was, therefore, just short of overwhelming. When I started university I got a job in a modelling agency, and my auburn mane advertised shampoo and hair products on television. I liked parties, and agency work is perfect for people like that. I didn’t earn millions, but I did earn enough to set my parents’ minds at ease about my future. On the surface, I was leading a life like any other. But I lacked something that almost no one can do without, something that to start with I felt no need for but which I ended up missing without realising it: intimacy. Relationships built on sincerity and trust were completely off limits. I knew exactly what it meant to be the talk of the town, and I was not prepared to risk that happening again for anything in the world. In my case, the confidant you tell all your troubles and dreams to was merely an illusion. Although I liked some of the boys who pursued me enough to go out with them, my relationships were limited to chance encounters, generally at dawn and in states of extreme drunkenness. I don’t know how long I could have kept on like that, perhaps forever, and maybe that would have been more prudent. As arbitrary as they may seem from the outside, those rules kept my life afloat; breaking them would have meant jeopardising my survival. But rules, as the old proverb goes, are there to be broken, don’t you remember, Doctor Murillo? And I, like many who understand the unique structure of their vital balance, was tempted to pull out the pin that was holding me up.
It happened the day I met Víctor Ghica, whom my friends nicknamed ‘Rumanovich’, because of his surname and his Moldovan origins. Víctor was working in the same agency as me. He specialized in underwear. I’d seen his naked torso in several of the magazines I appeared in, as well as on billboards, and I’d promised myself I’d have a taste of him. I didn’t really care that he was known for being abusive and perverted. With me, no one ever had long enough to get smart. I just needed to find the right time and the right place.
It was at the end of summer, during a party at the Palace of Dance. I had spent the whole night on a balcony wall, accepting every one of the dry martinis my friends brought me and throwing the olive stones off the precipice. I was wearing a flowery cotton skirt down to my knees; my legs were at the peak of their tan. There were two reasons I stayed on the balcony: there were fewer people – which meant I could put my glass on the railing without asking anyone to hold it and didn’t have to fight for space – and, because I had my back facing the precipice, nobody could stand behind me and watch my hair falling into the abyss. The view of the city was a treat, the sea air soothed my skin, so mistreated by the sun. Nothing that night would have moved me from that spot had I not recognised Víctor Ghica among the people moving around inside.
When I saw him, I was already so drunk that I didn’t bother coming up with an excuse to approach him. I walked into the room as best I could and found a space next to him at the bar. I took a cigarette out of my bag and fired off the first entry in the beginner’s guide to pulling: ‘Have you got a light?’ I asked, making eye contact.
Rumanovich smiled as he put his hand into his pocket. He took out a silver lighter and, before lighting it, made a strange movement with his fingers. His phalanges cracked together as the flame went up. This boy’s got style, I thought. Víctor called the barman over and asked for a beer. Then, looking in my direction, he asked, ‘Can I get you a Martini?’
As we went out to the balcony, he assured me, without any preamble, that he had been watching me at the last couple of parties.
Rumanovich didn’t look much like he did in photographs. If he appeared cocky in the underwear ads, with an overwhelming, taurine sensuality, in real life he was withdrawn, almost tense. He had the appearance of a nerdy boy, owing in part to his glasses, but also to the way he measured each of his sentences. That first night, he explained to me that the agency work was only a way of earning a living, and that his true passion was for philosophy. He wasn’t like the other young men who worked in the modelling world. He wasn’t like any one I’d ever met.
On the balcony I returned to my perch, and as he talked about university and his projects I abandoned myself to my vice of choice, although with extra discretion. Something about this boy exasperated me, perhaps his way of questioning the world I was making my way in, or his way of looking at me – too inquisitive for my liking – or the way he cracked his knuckles and this unease made the compulsion all the worse.
We spent that night in the Palace greenhouse, next to a pot filled with several different species of cacti. There among the plants, I remember, we waited for sunrise. We smoked a few cigarettes as we watched the sun paint the plastic curtains red. My skirt was stained with semen and there were traces of earth on my legs.
‘Do you like cacti?’ asked Rumanovich.
‘I don’t think so,’ I said, lifting my shoulders.
‘How strange. I thought you’d love them.’
I took another drag on my cigarette and let the smoke disperse slowly in the morning cold before responding.
‘Oh yeah? You did?’ I said. ‘And may I know why?’
‘I don’t know’, he said. ‘Maybe because of the spines.’
I lifted the plastic curtain, left the greenhouse and stretched my arms out in a theatrical yawn.
Víctor drove me back to my house in his car. When we arrived, they’d already taken his photo down from the bus stop.
In spite of what you may think, Doctor Murillo, I had no intention of seeing Víctor again. That morning I got out of his car a block away from my door, and when I said goodbye I gave him a fake number. It’s not that he disgusted me, on the contrary, I’ve already told you that he seemed both mysterious and attractive, but that was my rule: no man had the right to more than one night, especially if he happened to be sober.
‘I’ll call you on Sunday’, Rumanovich promised, his voice all romantic, at the door of my putative building. I gave him a limp smile where an answer was expected. The same one I’d used in my Pantene commercial. When he left, I walked back to my house. I remember having an infernal hangover for a few days, as bad on Sunday as on Saturday. Even worse, I was tormented by how much hair I’d pulled out during the party. As I got out of the shower it seemed that not even the best extra volume mousse could save me from what I’d done. I’d have to go out of circulation for a couple of months until the roots grew back again: a suicidal move if you took into account that I’d only been contracted to the agency for less than a year. And the more I thought about this, the more I indulged in that ignoble act.
On Sunday I didn’t answer a single telephone call. I told my mother I had a headache and stayed shut up in my room. But in the afternoon Mum couldn’t take it any more and came knocking at my door: ‘This guy’s called six times now. He says if you don’t answer he’ll come looking for you at the house.’
I couldn’t believe it. Rumanovich had found my real number, and probably the right address too.
I didn’t doubt for an instant he’d act on his threat, so I picked up the phone to tell him personally to get fucked.
I ended up having dinner with him that same Sunday, in a Japanese restaurant on Calle Londres. Víctor was less tense, but he was no less handsome.
Before the food arrived, he put his cards on the table:
‘I know you like me,’ he conjectured with a fake, velvety voice, ‘you can see it a mile off.’
(Evasive silence from me.)
‘I like you too, and I want you to be my girlfriend.’
(This time, a wry, but discreet, smile.)
‘I know that you’ve spent your whole life decapitating your lovers,’ (who told him?) ‘but you won’t do it with me.’
When he said this, Rumanovich cracked his knuckles and lit a cigarette.
I chose the tactic of courtesy and with the friendliest and most intimate tone I could manage I asked him to forgive me but, for reasons I was not going to explain, I couldn’t have a boyfriend. I assured him that he was the agency’s most handsome and interesting model, and I suggested he find a young university student, preferably in philosophy, someone who could truly understand him.
‘You’re the only who can truly understand me,’ he said. ‘Although you’re still too stupid to realise it.’
‘But the thing is, I don’t want to understand you,’ I said, losing my patience. ‘I swear’ – the expression was fashionable at the time – ‘don’t insist, it’s better you don’t.’
The sushi arrived. Rumanovich picked up the chopsticks with his long, slender fingers and looked at me in silence. That white shirt looked very good on him. I asked if he’d done an advert with Loewe or if he’d bought it with his own money.
‘Don’t change the subject,’ he said, ‘I’m here to convince you. Let’s see – you’ve never had a boyfriend? Not even in school?’
‘No,’ I replied.
‘And now that you’ve met the man of your life, you’re going to let him slip through your fingers just like that?’
‘That’s how you see it,’ I countered. But something inside me agreed with him.
‘You’re trying to be reasonable,’ he replied with his nerdy Moldovan accent, ‘but even if it doesn’t suit either of us, there’s no other way.’
It was amazing how much his Romanian charm reminded me of ranchera songs.
I looked at my watch. I had gone for more than an hour without pulling a single hair out, and to congratulate myself I decided to order a green tea ice cream. We ordered a third bottle of sake and I felt the heat of the fermented rice going to my head. Víctor was irresistible. What did I stand to lose from just a few more kisses?
‘I’ve been watching you for more than month,’ he said. ‘When you asked me to stop the car at that building I knew perfectly well you didn’t live there: I knew you were giving me a fake number and that you’d only see me again if I forced you. I also know that if you refuse to go out with me it’s because you’re scared I’ll discover your obsession with your hair, but that, darling, I’ve known about for a long time.’
The effect of the sake vanished in a matter of seconds. Víctor had transformed into a kind of white hangman, the personification of all my fears. I didn’t respond. Instead I got up and said I needed to go to the bathroom. I went through the restaurant feeling like I could fall to the floor at any moment. Once I was alone, I soaked my face with cold water, trying to lower the temperature it had suddenly acquired. I lit a cigarette and weighed up the scarce possibilities: I could deny everything and call him a liar; I could say he’d sexually harassed me to discredit anything he might say about me afterwards; I could cause an accident by cutting his car’s brakes. I returned to the table with a smile on my lips, and feigned insanity.
‘Right,’ I said, ‘sorry, what piece of nonsense were you spouting when I left?’
‘I like how you’re so deceptive’, he replied, ‘but it won’t work with me. Deep down, we’re very similar. I don’t pull out my hair, but I have other manias. Think about it, beautiful: no one else will give you what I’m offering.’
I asked him to take me home. This time, I really did have a headache and I needed some fresh air.
Víctor paid the bill and handed a valet the parking ticket for his car. He’d stopped talking. I also said nothing. When we got onto the highway, he opened the sunroof and put a tape on. The Beatles started playing, but now we weren’t going to my house, we were going uptown, to the greenhouse at the Palace of Dance.
The year is coming to a close. The trees in the garden are turning red, it’s as if they are extensions of my hair, mocking me. Despite the pills I haven’t been able to stop. Two days have passed since I received Víctor’s note. He says he’s interned in the clinic, too. He wants us to see each other again. I’m not exactly sure how to explain the sensation this news produced in me. The closest word I can think of is ‘fear.’ Be extra vigilant, Doctor Murillo. I don’t believe in this pacified facade.
Returning from our consultation yesterday afternoon, I found myself in the company of the woman who lives next door, the one with the nose tic. Her door was open and I could see her shouting on the bed.
‘Turn off the air conditioning,’ she was saying, ‘I’m freezing to death.’
It was actually quite hot. Only the faintest hint of a sea breeze made it into the building. ‘Who ever heard of it being cold in here?’ the nurse who was escorting me responded sarcastically. Listening to her made me feel better. I admire people who know how to shout. ‘If I could shout like that,’ I said to the nurse, ‘I’d probably be somewhere else.’
Víctor was right when he told me he’d be the man of my life, and I was right when I said it’d be best if we didn’t get started with any of that. All the same, after three weeks we decided to live together. We rented a flat opposite a park. Those first days now seem so distant and impossible. It’s hard for me to believe that we were once happy, and that the word ‘intimacy’ could contain – even for such a short span of my existence – more than one person. I trusted Víctor like I’ve never trusted anyone. Very soon, however, came disillusionment.
Don’t get me wrong, doctor – our problems had nothing to do with the fact that he thought in Romanian and I in Spanish, or with his passion for literature that I did not in the slightest share, or in our eventual squabbles over the way the flat was decorated. To put it briefly, they arose not out of our differences but from our irremediable similarities. There were many times I couldn’t make do with the occasional and discreet depilation. Locked in the bathroom or in my bedroom, I would succumb to my tweezers and hold a veritable hair banquet. Sometimes these binges lasted for hours. Before the bathroom mirror, or sitting on my bed with the compact in my hands, I mounted attacks on my eyebrows, temples, armpits – whatever body part captured my attention at that moment. The rhythm of my life throughout those months was exhausting – as anyone who knows the modelling world could attest – and I don’t know how I could have survived without those moments of solace. And it’s not the case that I was any less embarrassed with Víctor by my side, but at least I could talk to him about it. He listened in silence, most of the time with a cigarette between his knuckles. His face displayed neither the sickening piety mental disorders provoke in some, nor the frivolity of those who know nothing about them. He guessed the seriousness of the matter perfectly, and at the same time knew that it was manageable. Talking to him was a genuine relief. We were like two clandestine exiles on a foreign planet.
Víctor’s manias were also hidden from the eyes of the world. You had to watch him for a long time before you realized that he cracked his knuckles compulsively – and not just to look cool, like I thought at first – because his way of doing it was so natural, and the sound almost inaudible. But after the first few months had passed, this superfluous and totally inoffensive action started to annoy me. Little by little, my ear grew sensitive to the cracking. I could feel it from the bedroom while he was preparing something in the kitchen. The sound of his bones struck my ears like a lethal note, too persistent to tolerate. If you, Doctor Murillo, or any of your students, think less of me for this, know, before you judge me, that I put up with this torture for months without saying a word. But a moment arrived when I could no longer stand it. While I suffered from sudden, random attacks, he was constantly dominated by this gesture. At night, as we slept, the cracking of his bones marked the passage of time, in counterpoint to the alarm clock. There wasn’t a single moment, not even during sex, when Víctor stopped cracking his knuckles.
To see our own flaws reflected in the person we share our lives with is an unbearable experience. Could you see yourself living with a sadistic, hairy nurse who reminded you of how much you look like a walrus? You too would find it unbearable. The problem, Doctor Murillo, is that I loved Víctor, worse still, I was convinced that he was the only person I could trust, and I was not going to leave him for anything.
Before leaving my room I wait, ear to the keyhole in my door, for the corridor to be empty and silent. The idea of bumping into another patient on their way to the showers or the dining room scares me. You never know. The people who come to these kinds of places can be nice but dangerous at the same time. For some time now I’ve been suspicious of the human race, and I prefer to avoid it. Víctor, on the other hand, isn’t scared of people. He was never bothered that others might see him cracking his knuckles or folding up bits of paper until they were microscopic in size. According to him, those eccentricities were compatible with his philosopher persona; the price of maintaining his personal style. I recognise that I have always found impertinence admirable, but his attitude made me truly uncomfortable. That a stranger might put his dark side on public display is one thing, but to have a freak for a boyfriend is something else. I had been a weirdo all through childhood, and I didn’t see any reason why I’d want to continue being associated with one.
Every time I heard that dreadful cracking my face would tense up, only momentarily but he noticed, and it hurt him. I don’t know how to explain it, but each crack – which some would see as slight, minimal contributions to ambient noise – eventually took on a catastrophic dimension. The effect was similar to that produced by five fingernails slowly scratching across a chalkboard. I know that there was a great deal of variety between every sound and its duration, but for me these differences were non-existent. They say that the dripping of water on a dungeon floor destroys a prisoner’s nerves in a matter of days. I assure you, doctor, that living with someone who cracks their knuckles at every possible opportunity is just as bad.
I began to keep my distance, to seek any pretext not to be near him: if there was a party, I’d stay home and enjoy the tranquility of a night without his constant noise. I started thinking about leaving him, to forget about his existence and embrace a life of absolute silence – like the one here in this clinic, so long as my neighbour isn’t shouting incoherently. In the end I decided to talk to him and come up with a way to save our relationship.
We tried as hard as we could, and although we managed on the whole to reduce our symptoms, it wasn’t enough for us to be able to put up with each other. In the same way I listened to each and every one of his cracking knuckles – even when they sounded off several metres away – he’d register my intention to pull out a hair before I even did it. We lived in a state of constant anticipation, committed to the act of censure while, at the same time, fleeing it. Neither of us could bear this conjugal repression, but the self-policing made it even worse.
After putting up with this deranged dynamic for a few months, I had the idea of seeking professional help: if we wanted to stay together, we needed to try even the most humiliating solutions.
We thought about some different options and tried a few. Among these was a Compulsives Anonymous therapy group. It was a failure. That type of group is sustained by mutual understanding, and at this one everyone else was a smoker, drug addict or binge eater. Our tics were like jokes to them; they found it difficult to take our addiction seriously. I suggested a psychiatrist – a specialist in the field – but Víctor said no. His parents had dragged him from doctor to doctor throughout his childhood without ever finding any effective cure for what he considered nothing more than a quirk.
Summer brought new hope: our neighbour gave us a flask of his ‘special mixture’, distilled from different strains of marijuana and a bit of mescaline. The preparation turned out to be an instant remedy. Not only did the marijuana make our actions seem less despicable to one another, it relaxed us, and kept us occupied with a series of fantasies, inhibiting the frequency of our compulsions. From June to September, Víctor and I lived in blessed peace; the house regained the festive atmosphere of our first days together. But sooner or later the panacea was bound to stop working. Víctor, who generally tended towards prudence, had cut down on his use of the mixture in the middle of August. Even so, by early September, the flask contained nothing more than the faint smell of those calm, irrecoverable days. In vain, we asked the neighbour to sell us a little more of his fabulous potion: he’d stopped making it.
That was why we tried mescaline paste, which we never learnt to dose and led to moments of genuine panic. Marijuana alone didn’t have the same effect, either. It was desperation, doctor, not vice – as you and those like you believe – that led us to try so many different substances. Víctor and I were looking for something that would keep us together, nothing more. The neighbour’s marijuana was our epilogue, that final burst of strength the dying experience in their last days.
You urged me to finish this journal before our next interview. It’s no trouble for me to tell you the facts, but I warn you the details will add almost nothing to the version I told you when I first arrived.
As I said, the night before we came here, Víctor had gone out to one of his agency’s shows, and I didn’t want to go with him. I rented a film and ordered a couple of pizzas, ready to enjoy the solitude I had so longed for, but it wasn’t possible. Instead of relaxing, I spent the whole night fearing his return. The anxiety got so bad I vomited violently on my way to the bathroom. When he returned, he found me in front of the sink, tweezers between my fingers. All around me, auburn threads denounced the massacre. I had pulled my hair out for more than two hours, indiscriminately, and there were two big bald spots on the top of my head.
‘I can’t take it anymore,’ he shouted when he saw me, his breath reeking of alcohol. ‘I’ve been dreaming of shaving it all off for months,’ and as he said this he punched the bathroom door, his fists clenched. The blood that trickled from his knuckle provoked a strange sensation of relief in me.
Perhaps that night we stood closer to salvation than we had ever done before, we just couldn’t see it through, drink a nice, hot lime-blossom tea and go to bed. It’s always better to argue about important things in the morning. But we decided to take the easy route and call the dealer. As we waited, I bandaged his wounded hand, hoping it would remain covered for a long while.
We bought enough mescaline to spend three weeks holed up in the house. We went out only a few times, to buy food and water. During those three weeks we made a sort of homage to our life together: we listened to all our CDs over and over; we showed each other the photographs we’d never seen of one another. I discovered a six-year-old Rumanovich playing in the snow in Bucharest’s Lenin Square, and another at fifteen, dishing out Pizza Hut at anti-communist demonstrations. He saw a skinny version of me in my parents’ house, next to my sister Luisa, showing off a beautiful monk’s crown and a face as strange as the one I had on now, after several days of mescaline. The end was coming, and to keep us from collapsing we kept taking that shit, but all it did was trigger an eruption.
There are volcanoes that remain active for decades, to the point where one learns to live alongside their constant threat. I had always felt a latent violence within me, one that had never come out, and I’d ended up believing I knew how to contain it. I don’t know if it was the mescaline, being holed up with Víctor or the childhood photographs that roused it, what’s certain is that one day I couldn’t hold it back any more. When you’ve feared something your whole life, it inevitably comes along at the worst possible moment. It must have been around two in the afternoon. I found myself in the kitchen preparing a salad for lunch, with artichokes and peppers. We’d kept up the custom of eating something every day before smoking. From the kitchen window I saw the beautiful clear sky and I told myself that it was a shame to stay inside the apartment for another day. On the other hand, the drugs were running out and we had to decide if we were going to get more or stop forever. While I was doing this, Víctor showed up with a glass of whiskey in his hand. He’d lost so much weight his pyjama trousers hung off his hips. He leaned against the counter, and with his free hand played around with the bits of vegetable I had discarded. In a moment of ignominious weakness, he bent his index finger and cracked the two phalanges of his thumb into my nostrils; the sound tore through my brain. It was a reflex action: I pulled the knife from the peppers and lunged for his long fingers. Víctor shouted. The glass he was holding with his left hand fell to the floor. When I saw the blood spouting everywhere, my body had the good sense to lose consciousness. And so he had to get it together all alone, call the ambulance and hide the rest of the mescaline with his bleeding hand. He didn’t lose the fingers, but they kept him in hospital for a couple of days to make sure there was no infection. Meanwhile, I packed my bags and checked myself into this clinic.
Yesterday it was at dawn, but it’s happened at other times of the day. When I least expect it, I’m sure I can hear the sound of Víctor cracking his fingers in my room. Will it continue, doctor? If so, it’s best we don’t see each other.
Last night I forgot to take my meds again. Doesn’t it seem incredible to you, doctor, how long it takes to get used to certain things? While it might take years to stop smoking or get used to doing exercise, some habits embed themselves in our lives from the very first. I’m thinking of my next-door neighbour: how long must it have taken her to acquire that tic of wrinkling her nose every five minutes? And does this expression of hers respond to an emotion or thought she can’t stop having? How is it possible that the morning I discovered those tweezers on my mother’s dressing table has determined the way I live to such an extent? I often think, as I’m pulling out my hair, how difficult it is to free myself from the habit. It seems to have always been a part of me, as for an insect that can’t help but taste the pistil of flowers that have attracted its species since the beginning of time. It will seem stupid to you, doctor, but during these moments I’ve come to believe in an eternal recurrence of past lives in which I also, inexorably, plucked out my hair.
The month of November is getting away from us. I arrived at the clinic at the beginning of October, and I won’t leave until I’m done with this story. I’ve arranged to meet Víctor this afternoon, by the cliff. One of us will have to leave. Whatever happens, I want to make it clear to my family – and to him, if he survives – that I’ve always loved them, and it was never my intention to do them any harm. The habit is stronger than all of my good wishes. I want to thank my parents for supporting me, and to Víctor I beg forgiveness for not having known how to support him. If my attempt to free myself from him this afternoon fails, I’m sure he will be better off without my manias, and that he’ll end up admitting with relief – that same relief he’s never allowed me to feel – that there’s no space in this world for two people so similar. If I don’t meet my end on the cliff, I’ll remain here for the time that’s left. Now you see, after all that’s happened over the years, I’m still looking for the same thing, the prescription for perfect calm.
Photograph © Anne Weston, LRI, CRUK, Wellcome Images,