I smoke one cigarette after another, walk round and round the table, think about how to start the essay I have to hand in tomorrow. It’s the end of year essay and I’ve left it till the last minute. It’s Thursday evening, my tiny apartment is a mass of photocopies, open books, notebooks, index cards, coloured post-its. I’ve read, re-read, underlined, I’ve marked ideas that might help me with a yellow highlighter but I don’t know how to start. I have a show on the university radio station on Thursday nights, but this afternoon, after lunch, I called a friend to ask him to fill in for me tonight. I‘ll hand in this essay if it’s the last thing I do. But first, coffee. I make an instant coffee with powdered milk. I go back to walking round the table. I don’t know how to start, I have a sip of coffee. I don’t know how to start, but more importantly, I don’t know how I’m going to drink such bad coffee. I go out to buy a decent up of coffee and walk for a while. I think of possible sentences, rule out certain quotes, certain books, certain authors. I think about the possible tone, the possible focus, a possible conclusion, but first I’ll buy a sandwich. I see the night stretching ahead of me, the small hours, the early-morning hunger, that last full stop. On my way home I stop at a drugstore and buy some candy. And if I’d passed a fun fair I would have taken a ride on the rollercoaster before beginning the essay. It’s going to be a long night.
I’m writing my first line when the phone rings. A man’s voice. He says my name, then immediately asks for a CD, which, according to him, I haven’t given back. I don’t recognize the voice at the other end of the line. I hang up. I delete my first line, the phone rings again. I don’t answer and won’t answer. The phone rings again, I answer. The same voice, the same request, blah blah blah, but the voice sounds familiar now. I rule out the obvious, it’s not my dad, it’s not my brother. I ask him to describe the CD cover and at the same time I run through my cousins’ voices. What was I thinking? He speaks slowly. Very slowly. It’s Alonso.
Alonso is my uncle, my father’s youngest brother. He’s forty-five, has always lived with my grandparents, and has always been a bit slow. He’s the youngest of five brothers, the fattest of the five and the one with the most comprehensive collection of pyjamas. What I know about him would fit on a postage stamp. I know, for example, that he has a girlfriend, who also lives with her parents, a woman he met at the special school he went to. I know her from a photograph: Alonso and his girlfriend, full-length, holding hands, each looking up at opposite corners of the picture. The framed photo that stands on my grandparents’ piano, whose sole purpose is to serve as a side table to display family photos, confirms that she exists, that she’s not imaginary. I know too that he pronounces his words slowly, I know that when listening to him speak, his words are visibly spelled out in round, clearly outlined letters. I know he likes watching television, I know he eats the same cereal my brother and I used to eat when we were kids. And I realize, it’s clear now, his voice is similar to my father’s, to my brother’s.
I have to hand in this last essay and I have an uncle who could have chosen another day, another week, another year to make this call. He sounds upset, he’s talking slowly, but I don’t know what CD he’s talking about. What made him decide to call me now, for the first time ever, just as I was about to start writing? I don’t ask, I try to help him. I know which CD he means, the love songs. He says he’d like to give it to his girlfriend, that it’s their anniversary tomorrow, that he wants to give it to her. It’s weird, I know, but I’ve got that CD, I even have other similar ones. I keep a plastic bag of CDs that people have sent in to the station, to give to whoever will take them. Music I don’t like, that no one at the station likes, but there’s a man at a record company who insists on sending them, regularly. I have to admit to Alonso that I have the CD. But I didn’t take it from my grandparents’ house, I explain. The essay deadline’s looming, I haven’t forgotten, but I invite him to my apartment for the first time ever. I give him the address, tell him to take a taxi.
Apart from the plastic bag with twenty new CDs tightly wrapped in cellophane, I’ve got nothing to offer him. Tap water, I guess, and there’s always the photocopies I’m not going to use for my essay. I go round and round the table, I smoke, I promise myself I won’t spend more than half an hour with my uncle. He does deserve half an hour, after all. He arrives, I pay the taxi driver. I ask him if he wants something to drink, maybe a Coke, which we’d have to buy before going in. He asks if there’s a Starbucks nearby. We walk eight blocks to the coffee shop, which he admits is his favourite. He tells me his girlfriend likes strawberry milkshakes with whipped cream, but that he, being a man, prefers coffee. A girl serves us, I ask for an americano, she asks for my name. She asks Alonso what he’d like. Slowly, very slowly, he orders an iced coffee with two shots of vanilla syrup, with whipped cream, with chocolate sprinkles on top. I watch the girl, she picks up a black marker and draws crosses on a plastic cup. I ask him if he wants a cake, or a muffin, because I don’t have anything at home. He doesn’t answer, he’s busy spelling out his name to the girl. My americano arrives quickly.
We wait for his drink. Alonso, nervous, looks at the floor, puts his hands in his pockets, takes his hands out of his pockets. He does it again, but this time, from his left pocket, he takes out a pen cap and some keys. He puts them back. He drums his fingers on the counter where his drink will arrive. I ask him what’s wrong. In a low voice he says he hasn’t got any money. But you don’t need any, it’s on me, I tell him. It’s just, he says slowly, then slowly repeats, it’s just, I wanted to ask them to add caramel to the whipped cream. I pay for the extra caramel.
At last he gets his drink. I’m heading for the exit when I notice him busily opening packets of sugar. I can’t believe he’s emptying two, three packets of sugar into his drink, but he is, stirring the sugar in with a straw. I sit down on a sofa next to a teenager with a laptop lighting up his face and his red sweatshirt. Alonso takes his time stirring in the sugar. He picks up more packets of sugar. He puts them in his trouser pockets. I can’t tear my eyes away from him, from what he’s doing. I see him, his back to me, in his navy blue suit, my father, thirty kilos heavier, stashing away more and more packets of sugar. I see it clearly, distinctly: white sugar, demerara sugar, Splenda and Canderel. He’s taking more packets, whole fistfuls. White packets, brown packets, yellow and pale-blue packets. He’s stuffing far too many packets into his jacket pockets. Why is he doing this?
While we cross the street he slurps the dregs of his drink noisily through the green straw. I have to help him cross, I remember now, because Alonso is forever gazing up towards the top corner of the picture. Back in my apartment I tell him how I’ve been drowning in photocopies ever since I started university. He asks me what I’m studying, although he’s asked me this before, on the few occasions we’ve seen each other at my grandparents’ house. His next question, which could have come right out of my father’s subconscious, is also a carbon copy of a conversation we’ve already had: Why didn’t you study law like my brothers did? I distract him by giving him the bag of CDs. I quickly clear the books off the only two chairs I own. He leaves the empty cup on the table. He smiles, feels the weight of the bag, puts it on the table and counts the CDs one by one, sticking his face and hands inside the bag. When he emerges, like a swimmer coming up for air, smiling, he asks if I’m really going to give them to him.
He immediately opens the CD that led him to call me in the first place. He goes back to the other CDs, counts them out loud. He takes some out, examines the covers. He tells me how much he likes this kind of music. Slowly, he thanks me, slowly, he asks, sounding out each letter, each clearly outlined letter, if I’d mind if he gave some of the CDs I’m giving him to his girlfriend.
I go to my room to get a book. I think it’d be nice to include a book in the present Alonso is giving his girlfriend tomorrow. When I come back he’s transfixed by a pile of post-it notes on the table. He asks where I got so many. Leave me the boring ones, leave me the yellow ones and take the rest, and this book’s for your girlfriend, on the house. Alonso can’t believe it. He picks up the green straw, bites on the end, again and again. The tip of the straw is bitten and flat. He looks at me happily. He tells me he collects post-it notes, tells me he hasn’t got any post-it notes in those colours. He stands up, I tell him to watch out for the papers on the floor behind his chair. I mention I have to hand in my final essay tomorrow morning. He wants to say goodbye. He thanks me, slowly, for everything. He puts his hands in his pockets. He gives me the packets of sugar, placing them in my hands. He puts white packets, blue packets, brown and yellow packets on the table. Thank you, he says slowly, these packets are for you.
Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean, Bridget Lely, Catherine Mansfield, Emily Toder, Isabelle Kaufeler, Julia Sanches, Noemi Rubio, Rosalind Harvey, Rosa Shaw, Peter Collins and Verónica Minieri with the collaboration of the author.