Philip Roth´s Millicent Kramer

Introduction

Philip Roth (born March 19, 1933) is an American novelist.

Roth’s fiction, regularly set in Newark, New Jersey, is known for its intensely autobiographical character, for philosophically and formally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction.

Roth´s novel “Everyman” was first published in 2006. Millicent Kramer is a character described in this novel. I´ve translated to  Spanish  an extract in which Roth tells us about her and her circumstances. Roth tackles in this passage one basic issue with poignant accuracy and disturbing courage. Yet, curiously enough, i´ve seen my thoughts with regard to the text following another path, a path that has lead me to a personal account of events that could be titled:

Have I anything in common with Millicent Kramer?

To what extent, if to any could I possibly have anything in common with Millicent Kramer? At first glance the answer may seem obvious. I have absolutely nothing in common with Millicent Kramer. There´s nothing else to discuss about. Period.

In the first place, I´m not a woman, nor am i character of one of Philip Roth´s novels and in spite of my being born three hundred eighty five thousands  hours ago, give or take an hour, i´m not as old as she. My health is, besides, in a pretty good shape or at least that is what I believe because, honestly, i´ve never checked it out- I will cross my fingers to settle this unexpected  and troubling matter for the moment- Anyway, coming back to Millicent, contrary to her, neither was I married to a roughneck nor have I ever lived in the United States. With this track record one doesn´t need to own a blog with the somewhat irksome and pretentious name of “Trilingual enquiries of an anti-economist” to find out that one has nothing at all in common with Millicent Kramer. Why, then, such a stupid question? Why then this dubious casting of a doubt as to my flawless identity?

Let´s start at the very beginning. At the very beginning I was born in the Spanish city of Bilbao under the compound name of Luis Javier, Luis in homage to my father, Javier, a tribute to my godfather to whom I once spoke by phone-quite doubtless my life must owe something to this patriarchal tradition. I was raised in an average Spanish middle class family. My father was an entrepreneur, a tough, rather unscrupulous self-made man.  May be even a bit of  a roughneck. Who knows?

Being himself born the same year as Philip Roth and, perhaps not by chance, the  same year that Hitler arrived to power, he would be now Roth´s  same age , that is 80, hadn´t he passed away in the last days of 2009. My father, however, was not born in the city of Newark, he was, like me, also born in Bilbao. His surname Pedrazuela, having seen swapped for unknown reasons its original “e” for an “a”, corresponds, nonetheless to a small Castilian village called Pedrezuela which you can find on your left hand if you drive from Madrid up to the north following the road to Burgos, about 30 kilometres away from Spain´s capital. His father was a left wing trade unionist and came from somewhere around Madrid. The franquists sent him to prison during the Spanish civil war and was afterwards released. My memory has kept above all the traces of my father´s unscrupulous toughness, the toughness of a man who had grown up a slum kid in nearby Santuchu- just as Gerald , Millicent´s husband had grown up a slum kid in nearby Neptune- a neighbourhood, Santuchu, close to Bilbao and where people coming from other parts of Spain looking for work in the affluent, industrial city used to settle. My father did all what he could to shake off these origins , he wanted to thrive almost at any cost. I say almost, because I don´t want to be unfair to him. He wasn´t a scoundrel, may be not even a bit of a roughneck. Who knows?

I also remember  that he was quite fond of some very popular Spanish singers that sung “copla”, the typical Spanish songs whose lyrics talk of overwhelming feelings in a kind of overacted way, singers that appeared in the TV of that time and whose shows he enjoyed watching. Yet not quite, I sometimes think. On the one hand something in his personality made it difficult for him  to understand anything that had to do with entertainment. He was totally alien to cinema for instance, something that still surprises me because this inability placed him, as it were, out of his own time, when almost everyone has amused himself at least once in his life watching a movie. He never did, his total lack of interest  just lead him to fall remorselessly asleep in front of everything that was not a news broadcast or Rocio Jurado blowing up her breasts while singing on stage. On the other hand I´ve always thought that my mother secretly hated  “copla” and that she managed to convey this hate to her children as well as inflict a kind of censorship on my father´s true musical sentiments. Whether or not he really felt ashamed of them, the fact is that one possible exit that could have made up for his toughness was  blocked and perhaps that´s why it is for me so hard to link  his memory to any gentle, tender trait, simply because there were none at hand. My mother was, on the contrary, the tender pole of the family, the genuine expression of human kindness, the insurmountable immaculate conception. Just like Millicent Kramer she would have never let any paint drip all over her clean sneakers. No way. Her family´s background was connected to the sea and to a vague notion of openness. Her father had been cook in a cargo ship, he was born in a fishing village called Lequeito and he spoke basque but was unable to pass this language on to his children. Some of his siblings emigrated to the United States at the beginning of the 2oth century and established there and he himself attempted it as well. After having opened a bar and lived in New York for an uncertain period of time, he was sent to Ellis Island and deported back to Spain. Because of his basque nationalist ideas he was, like my other grandfather, also imprisoned by the franquists during the Spanish civil war. One should add, to be honest, that on my mother´s side this open – mindedness was already a thing of the past, my grandfather´s sons and daughters evoked it nostalgically as a kind of feat. Myth was possibly already here at work. In contrast, my father business spirit took him to effectively deal with countries such as the former members of the Warsaw pact. I remember him once bargaining down the price of one of the pleats of the iron curtain after one of his trips. If this was not open-mindedness what else could it be? If the soviets finally went bankrupt, he might have well contributed to it.

As you may have noticed from all these facts, both sides of my family were in the losing side of the Spanish civil war. You could ask yourselves at this point if within these two losing sides there was ever a winner, if there wasn´t an inner, pitiless, rough, yet unspoken war still going on in spite of Franco´s pitiless victory or perhaps under its protecting canopy, under its hothouse atmosphere if i´m allowed to borrow the title of a novel “The hothouse” by the german  author Wolfgang Koeppen referring to post-war Germany. Moreover you could ask yourselves which of these two losing sides was going to have better prospects in the mindset of their descendents. While I don´t claim to have the answer, one thing is sure: I  don´t take any more as a matter of course such neat ways of assigning roles, such neat manners of trenching sin from virtue, goodness from evil, love from hate, mother from father, believing as I do that everything in life is far more entangled. I can´t help thinking, that , in the case of my family, such  radical allocations of feelings were consistent with the real way in which myths in catholic Spain operate no matter how they distort reality, now matter how are they prone to knead a raw chunk of truth in the most twisted, cunning, even perverse manner. In this sense, now and then i come to wonder whether this family pattern is an exception or it rather enhances some of the features that run across and underlie Spain´s still, in my opinion, frail social structure.

So, coming back again to my initial question: have I anything in common with Millicent Kramer? I would now restate it and ask myself: “could the Kramers have been my parents and, had they had any children- something Roth´s  text doesn´t  tell us-, could these have been my brothers?”

Millicent Kramer

All these procedures and hospitalizations had made him a decidedly lonelier, less confident man than he´d been during the first year of retirement. Even his cherished peace and quiet seemed to have been turned into a self-generated form of solitary confinement, and he was hounded by the sense that he was headed for the end. But instead of moving back to attackable Manhattan, he decided to oppose the sense of estrangement brought on by his bodily failings and to enter more vigorously into the world around him. He did this by organizing two weekly painting classes for the village residents, an afternoon class for beginners and an evening class for those already somewhat familiar with paints.

There were about ten students in each class, and they loved meeting in his bright studio room. By and large, learning to paint was a pretext for their being there, and most of them were taking the class for the same reason he was giving it: to find satisfying contact with other people. All but two were older than he, and though they assembled each week in a mood of comradely good cheer, the conversation invariably turned to matters of sickness and health, their personal biographies having by this time become identical with their medical biographies and the swapping of medical data crowding out nearly everything else. At his studio, they more readily identified one another by their ailments than by their painting. “How is your sugar?” “How is your pressure?” “What did the doctor say?” “Did you hear about my neighbour? It spread to the liver.” One of the men came to class with his portable oxygen unit. Another had Parkinson´s tremors but was eager to learn to paint anyway. All of them without exception complained-sometimes jokingly, sometimes not-about increasing memory loss, and they spoke of how rapidly the months and the seasons and the years went by, how life no longer moved at the same speed. A couple of the women were being treated for cancer. One had to leave halfway through the course to return to the hospital for treatment. Another woman had a bad back and occasionally had to lie on the floor at the edge of the room for ten or fifteen minutes before she could get up and resume working in front of her easel. After the first few times, he told her she should go into his room instead and lie down for as long as she liked on his bed- it had a firm mattress and she would be more comfortable. Once when she did not come out of the bedroom for half an hour, he knocked and, when he heard her crying inside, opened the door and went in.

She was a lean, tall, gray-haired woman, within a year or two of his age, whose appearance and gentleness reminded him of Phoebe. Her name was Millicent Kramer, and she was the best of his students by far and, coincidentally, the least messy. She alone, in what he charitably called “Advanced Painting”, managed to finish each class without having dripped paint all over her running shoes. He never heard her say, as others did, “I can´t get the paint to do what I want it to do,” or “I can picture it in my mind but I can´t seem to get it on the canvas”, nor did he ever have to tell her, “Don´t be intimidated, don´t hold back” He tried to be generous to them all, even the hopeless ones, usually those very ones who came in and said right off, “I had a great day-I feel inspired today.” When finally he´d heard enough of that, he repeated to them something he vaguely remembered Chuck Close´s* having said in an interview: amateurs look for inspiration: the rest of us just get up and go to work. He didn´t start them with drawing, because barely a one of them was able to draw, and a figure would have set up all sorts of problems of proportion and scale, so instead, after they´d finished a couple of sessions going over the rudiments (how to lay their paints out and arrange their palettes , and so on) and familiarizing themselves with the medium itself, he set up a still life on a table-a vase, some flowers, a piece of fruit, a teacup-and encouraged them to use it as a reference point.

Charles Thomas “Chuck” Close (born July 5, 1940) is an American painter and photographer who achieved fame as a photorealist, through his massive-scale portraits. Though a catastrophic spinal artery collapse in 1988 left him severely paralyzed, he has continued to paint and produce work that remains sought after by museums and collectors. Close currently lives and works in New York’s West Village] and in Bridgehampton, New York

He told them to be creative in order to try to get them to loosen up and use their whole arm and paint, if possible, without fear. He told them they didn´t have to worry about what the arrangement actually looked like: “Interpret it”, he told them, “this is a creative act.” Unfortunately, saying that sometimes led to his having to tell someone , “You know, maybe you shouldn´t make the vase six times larger than the teacup.” “But you told me I should interpret it” was invariably the reply, to which, as kindly as he could, he in turn replied, “I didn´t want that much interpretation”. The art-class misery he least wished to deal with was their painting from imagination; yet because they were very enthusiastic about “creativity” and the idea of letting yourself go, those remained the common themes from one session to the next. Sometimes the worst occurred and a student said , “I don´t want to do flowers or fruit, I want to do abstraction like you do.” Since he knew there was no way to discuss what a beginner is doing when he does what he calls an abstraction, he told the student, “Fine-why don´t you just do whatever you like,” and when he walked around the studio, dutifully giving tips, he would find, as expected, that after looking at an attempt at an abstract painting, he had nothing to say except “Keep working.” He tried to link painting to play rather than to art by quoting Picasso to them, something along the lines of their having to regain the child in order to paint like a grownup. Mainly what he did was to replicate what he´d heard as a kid when he started taking classes and his teachers were telling him the same things.

He was only called upon to be at all specific when he stood beside Millicent and saw what she could do and how fast she got better. He could sense right off that she had a knack that was innate and that far exceeded what little gift some of the others began to demonstrate as the weeks went by. It was never a question with her of combining the red and the blue right off the palette but rather of modifying the mixture with a little black or with just a bit of the blue so that the colors were interestingly harmonious, and her paintings had coherence instead of falling apart everywhere, which was what he confronted much of the time when he went from easel to easel and, for lack of anything else he could think of, heard himself saying, “That´s coming along well.” Millicent did need to be reminded “Don´t overwork it”, but otherwise nothing he suggested was wasted on her and she would look for the slightest shade of meaning in whatever he told her. Her way of painting seemed to arise directly from her instincts, and if her painting didn´t look like anyone else´s in the class it wasn´t solely because of stylistic distinction but because of the way she felt and perceived things. Others varied in their neediness; though the class was largely full of good will, some still resented it when they needed help at all, and even inadvertent criticism could make one of the men, a former CEO of a manufacturing company, frighteningly touchy. But never Millicent: she would have been the teacher´s most rewarding pupil in anyone´s amateur painting class.

Now he sat beside her on the bed and took her hand in his, thinking: When you are young, it´s the outside of the body that matters, how you look externally. When you get older, it´s what´s inside that matters, and people stop caring how you look.

“Don´t you have some medication you can take?” he asked her.

“I took it,” she said. “I can´t take any more. It doesn´t help but for a few hours anyway. Nothing helps. I´ve had three operations. Each one is more extensive than the last and more harrowing than the last, and each one makes the pain worse. I´m sorry I´m in such a state. I apologize for this.”

Near her head on the bed was a back brace she´d removed in order to lie down. It consisted of a white plastic shell that fit across the lower spine and attached to a web of elasticized cloth and Velcro straps that fastened snugly over the stomach an oblong piece of felt-lined canvas. Though she remained in her white painting smock, she had removed the brace and tried to push it out of sight under a pillow when he opened the door and walked in, which was why it was up by her head and impossible not to be continually mindful of while they talked. It was only a standard back brace, worn under the outer clothing, whose plastic posterior section was no more than eight or nine inches high, and yet it spoke to him of the perpetual nearness in their affluent retirement village of illness and death.

“Would you like a glass of water?” he asked her.

He could see by looking into her eyes how difficult the pain was to bear. “Yes”, she said weakly, “yes, please.”

Her husband, Gerald Kramer, had been the owner, publisher, and editor of a county weekly, the leading local paper,that did not shy away from exposing corruption in municipal government up and down the shore. He remembered Kramer, who´d grown up a slum kid in nearby Neptune, as a compact, bald, opinionated man who walked with considerable swagger, played aggressive, ungainly tennis, owned a little Cessna, and ran a discussion group once a week on current events-the most popular evening event on the Starfish Beach calendar along with the screenings of old movies sponsored by the film society-until he was felled by brain cancer and was to be seen being pushed around the village streets in a wheelchair by his wife. Even in retirement he´d continued to have the air of an omnipotent being dedicated all his life to an important mission, but in those eleven months before he died he seemed pierced by bewilderment, dazed by his diminishment, dazed by his helplessness, dazed to think that the dying man enfeebled in a wheelchair- a man no longer able to smash a tennis ball, to sail a boat, to fly a plane, let alone to edit a page of the Monmouth County Bugle- could answer to his name. One of his dashing eccentricities was , for no special reason, to dress up from time to time in his tuxedo to partake of the veal scaloppine at the village restaurant with his wife of fifty-odd years. “Where the hell else am I going to wear it’” was the gruffly engaging explanation that went out to one and all- he could sometimes woo people with an unexpected charm. After the surgery, however, his wife had to sit beside him and wait for him to crookedly open his mouth and then feed him gingerly, the swaggering husband, the roughneck gallant., with a spoon. Many people knew Kramer and admired him and out on the street wanted to say hello and ask after his health, but often his wife had to shake her head to warn them away when he was in the depths of his despondency-the vitriolic despondency of one assertively in the middle of everything who was now in the middle of nothing. Was himself now nothing, nothing but a motionless cipher angrily awaiting the blessing of an eradication that was absolute.

 “You can continue to lie here if you like,” he said to Millicent Kramer after she had drunk some of the water.

“I can´t be lying down all the time¡” she cried. “I just cannot do it anymore! I was so agile, I was so active-if you were Gerald´s wife, you had to be. We went everywhere. I felt so free. We went to China, we went all over Africa. Now I can´t even take the bus to New York unless I´m laced to the gills with painkillers. And I´m not good with  painkillers-they make me completely crazy. And by the time I get there I´m in pain anyway. Oh, I´m sorry about this. I´m terribly sorry. Everybody here has their ordeal. There´s nothing special about my story and I´m sorry to burden you with it. You probably have a story of your own”

“Would a heating pad help?” he asked.

“You know what would help?” she said. “The sound of that voice that´s disappeared. The sound of the exceptional man I loved. I think I could take all this if he were here. But I can´t without him. I never saw him weaken once in his life- then came the cancer and it crushed him. I´m not Gerald. He would just marshal all his forces and do it- marshal all his everything and do whatever it was that had to be done. But I can´t. I can´t take the pain anymore. It overrides everything. I think sometimes that I can´t go on another hour. I tell myself it doesn´t matter. I tell myself, “Don´t engage it. It´s a spectre. It´s an annoyance, it´s nothing more than that. Don´t accord it power. Don´t cooperate with it. Don´t take the bait. Don´t respond. Muscle through. Barrel through. Either you´re in charge or it´s in charge-the choice is yours¡ I repeat this to myself a million times a day, as though i´m Gerald speaking, and then suddenly it´s so awful I have to lie down on the floor in the middle of the supermarket and all the words are meaningless. Oh, I´m sorry, truly. I abhor tears.”

“We all do,” he told her, “but we cry anyway”

Millicent Kramer

Todos estas intervenciones y hospitalizaciones le habían transformado en un hombre más solitario y más inseguro de lo que lo había sido durante su primer año de jubilación. Incluso la paz y el silencio que tanto estimaba parecían haberse convertido en un solitario confinamiento que él mismo se había fabricado. Le perseguía la idea de que su vida enfilaba el fin. En lugar, sin embargo, de volverse al vulnerable Manhattan decidió luchar contra la sensación de extrañamiento que le provocaban los fallos de su cuerpo y adentrarse con vigor en el mundo que le rodeaba. Con este fin se le ocurrió dar dos clases de pintura semanales a los residentes de la urbanización donde disfrutaba de su retiro, una clase a mediodía para debutantes y otra a la tarde para los que ya tenían alguna noción.

Había como diez estudiantes en cada clase y estaban encantados de encontrase en su luminoso estudio. Aprender a pintar era, para la mayoría, un pretexto para acudir ahí y la mayor parte se había apuntado a las clases por la misma razón por la que él las impartía: para poder disfrutar del contacto con otras personas. Excepto dos, todos los demás eran mayores que él y aunque se reunían cada semana con el ánimo de buenos camaradas las conversaciones terminaban girando inevitablemente en torno a cuestiones relacionadas con la enfermedad y la salud. Confundiéndose como se confundían a estas alturas sus biografías vitales con las médicas, el intercambio de informaciones a este respecto acababa por desplazar cualquier otro tema. Cuando estaban en su estudio les costaba menos reconocerse por sus padecimientos que por su forma de pintar: “¿Cómo llevas el azúcar?” “¿Qué tal la presión?” ¿Qué te ha dicho el doctor?” “¿Te enteraste de lo de mi vecino? Se le ha pasado al hígado”. Había un hombre que venía a clase con bombona de oxígeno portátil. Otro, a pesar de los temblores del Parkinson, se mostraba deseoso de aprender a pintar. Todos ellos, sin excepción, se quejaban -a veces en broma, otras, no- de lo peor que cada vez estaba su memoria y de lo rápido que los meses, las estaciones y los años pasaban, de cómo la vida había acelerado su ritmo. Dos de las mujeres estaban siendo tratadas de cáncer. Una de ellas tuvo que dejar el curso a medias para retomar el tratamiento en el hospital. Había otra mujer con problemas en la espalda que a veces tenía que echarse en el suelo en una zona apartada del estudio durante diez o quince minutos hasta que podía reincorporarse y seguir pintando delante del caballete. Después de esas primeras veces le propuso que fuera a su dormitorio y que se tendiera en su cama el tiempo que necesitara – tenía un colchón duro y ahí se encontraría mejor. En una ocasión, tras media hora sin salir del dormitorio,  tocó la puerta y, al oírla llorar en su interior, la abrió y entró.

Era una mujer alta, esbelta, de pelo gris, uno o dos años más joven que él. Su aspecto y lo dulce de su carácter le recordaban a Phoebe. Se llamaba Millicent Kramer y era de lejos la mejor de sus estudiantes y, no por casualidad, la que menos manchaba. Era la única que en lo que él caritativamente denominaba “Pintura Avanzada” se las arreglaba para acabar la clase sin haber dejado que la pintura salpicara sus zapatillas de deporte . A diferencia de otros, nunca la oyó decir “No consigo que la pintura pinte lo que quiero”, o “Lo veo en mi cabeza pero me veo incapaz de trasladarlo al lienzo” y nunca tuvo que decirle “No te dejes intimidar, no te cortes”. Trataba se ser generoso con todos ellos, hasta con los casos perdidos, justamente los que al llegar a clase decían: “He tenido un día estupendo, hoy me siento inspirado.” Cuando se cansaba de escuchar cosas así, les repetía algo que recordaba vagamente habérselo oído a Chuck Close* en una entrevista: los aficionados esperan a que les llegue la inspiración, al resto nos basta con levantarnos e ir a trabajar”. No empezaba por enseñarles dibujo puesto que apenas había nadie que supiera dibujar y sólo una silueta les hubiera supuesto ya toda una serie de problemas de proporción y escala, en lugar de ello, después de un par de sesiones repasando los rudimentos (cómo disponer pinturas y paleta etc.) y familiarizándoles con el medio, colocó una naturaleza muerta sobre una mesa- un jarrón, algunas flores, fruta, una taza de té- y les animó a que lo utilizaran como punto de referencia.

*Chuck Close (Charles Thomas Close, nacido el 5 de julio de 1940 en Monroe, Washington, EE.UU.) es un artista estadounidense, pintor y fotógrafo fotorrealista. Desde 1988 una hemiplejia derecha, restringió su capacidad de pintar tan meticulosamente como antes, pero prosiguió su carrera utilizando diversos métodos alternativos para manejar pinceles y brochas, por ejemplo atándolos a su muñeca.

Les decía que fueran creativos para que se soltaran y, utilizando todo el brazo, pintaran sin miedo, que no se preocuparan de lo que les saliera: “Interpretad lo que veis”, les decía “Esto es un arte creativo” A pesar de ello, a veces se veía obligado a advertir a alguno diciéndole: “Estaría mejor si no hicieras el jarrón seis veces más grande que la taza de té”. “Pero si me has dicho que lo interpretara” era la inevitable respuesta, a la que solía responder tan amablemente como podía: “No pretendía que lo interpretaras tanto”. Una cosa que en la clase de arte, de poder, evitaba era que se pusiesen a pintar dando rienda suelta a su imaginación: no obstante, su entusiasmo por la creatividad y por el “dejarse llevar” hacían que estos temas volvieran una y otra vez en cada sesión. En ocasiones sucedía lo peor, cuando un alumno decía: “No quiero pintar flores ni frutas, quiero hacer pintura abstracta como tú”. Como sabía que no hay manera de comentar lo que un debutante está pintando cuando se le deja hacer lo que éste llama pintura abstracta, se limitaba a decirle: “Vale, haz lo que quieras” y  cada vez que al darse una vuelta por el estudio repartiendo benévolamente consejos se encontraba ante un intento de hacer pintura abstracta, tal y como esperaba, se veía con que no le salía otro comentario que “Vale, sigue así”. Procuraba relacionar la pintura antes con el juego que con el arte y citaba a Picasso, aquello de que para poder pintar como un adulto hace falta recuperar al niño. En realidad, lo que hacía era repetir las cosas que había escuchado de crío cuando él mismo recibía clases y los profesores le contaban lo mismo.

Sólo cuando llegaba donde Millicent y se daba cuenta de su potencial y de lo rápido que progresaba se veía en la necesidad de ser más específico. Saltaba a la vista que tenía un don innato y que superaba de lejos cualquier habilidad que los demás podían dejar entrever conforme pasaban las semanas. Con ella el asunto no era la mezcla del rojo y el azul en la misma paleta sino cómo modificar una combinación de colores con algo de negro o un poco de azul de modo que la combinación quedara sugerentemente armoniosa. Lo que pintaba además tenía una coherencia interna y no se descomponía, que es lo que las más de las veces se encontraba al pasar de caballete en caballete y ante lo cual, a falta de ocurrírsele nada mejor, solía escucharse a sí mismo diciendo a modo de comentario: “Va cogiendo forma”. A Millicent había que recordarle que no fuera tan perfeccionista pero ,por lo demás, nada de lo que le decía caía en saco roto y buscaba cualquier indicio de significado en las apreciaciones que él le hacía. Su manera de pintar parecía brotarle instintivamente y si lo que pintaba era tan distinto a lo que pintaba el resto, ello no se debía únicamente a su estilo sino a su manera de sentir y percibir las cosas. Había otros que requerían otro tipo de atenciones. A pesar de la buena voluntad que reinaba en la clase había también quien era reacio a que se le ayudara en nada y a quien – el ex director de una fábrica, en concreto- hasta el comentario más a vuelapluma le incomodaba. A Millicent, jamás: cualquier profesor de clases de pintura para aficionados hubiera encontrado gratificante tenerla de alumna.

Se encontraba ahora sentado junto a ella en la cama y, cogiéndole de la mano, pensaba: cuando se es joven es el exterior del cuerpo lo que cuenta, la imagen externa que damos. Cuando nos hacemos viejos, lo que cuenta es lo que hay en el interior y a la gente deja de preocuparle tu apariencia.

 “ ¿No tienes contigo los medicamentos que tomas? Le preguntó.

“Ya me los he tomado” le respondió. No puedo volver a tomarlos. De todas formas sólo hacen efecto durante unas horas. Nada sirve. He pasado por tres operaciones. Cada operación es de más alcance y más desgarradora que la anterior y tras cada una el dolor más difícil de sobrellevar. Siento estar en este estado. Me avergüenzo de todo esto”

En la cama junto a su cabeza había una faja para la espalda que se había quitado para poder recostarse. Era una carcasa blanca de plástico que rodeaba la columna lumbar y que incluía una serie de pedazos de tela elástica y de tiras de velcro encargadas de ceñir al estómago un lienzo rectangular de fieltro a franjas. Aunque seguía con la bata blanca de la clase puesta, se había quitado la faja y había intentado colocarla debajo de la almohada para que él no la viera al entrar. Por eso la tenía junto a su cabeza y resultaba imposible no tenerla presente mientras hablaban. Era una faja lumbar corriente de las que se llevan bajo la vestimenta y cuya carcasa de plástico no tenía más de de 18 ó 20 centímetros de altura pero no dejaba de recordarle la continua proximidad de la enfermedad y la muerte en el pudiente complejo residencial donde disfrutaban de su jubilación.

“¿Quieres algo de agua?” le preguntó.

Mirándola a los ojos  podía darse cuenta de lo difícil que le era soportar el dolor. “Si”, dijo con una voz débil, “Sí, por favor”

Su marido, Gerald Kramer, había sido el propietario y editor del semanario con más tirada de la comarca, un semanario en el que no se rehuían las denuncias de la corrupción municipal a lo largo de la costa. Sus recuerdos  de Kramer, quien se había criado en un barrio pobre del cercano pueblo de Neptune, eran los de un hombre recio, campechano, obstinado, que se pavoneaba bastante al andar, que jugaba agresiva y torpemente al tenis, que tenía una avioneta Cessna y que, una vez a la semana, organizaba un foro de discusión para comentar la actualidad- el evento vespertino de mayor popularidad en el programa de Starfish Beach junto con el pase de viejas películas patrocinado por la sociedad cinematográfica- hasta que un cáncer se le presentó en el cerebro y , empujado por su mujer en una silla de ruedas, se le veía pasear por las calles del complejo residencial. Incluso ya jubilado no había dejado de tener el aire de una persona omnipotente llamada toda su vida a dedicarse a misiones importantes pero en esos once meses antes de morir parecía penetrado por el desconcierto, perplejo por la inexorable pérdida de facultades, aturdido por el desamparo, trastornado al pensar que el enflaquecido moribundo en silla de ruedas- un hombre que no iba a poder más jugar al tenis, navegar a vela, pilotar un avión ni menos publicar una página del Monmouth County Bugle-pudiera responder a su nombre. Una de sus excentricidades más chocantes era de ciento en viento y sin motivo especial aparente vestirse de smoking para compartir junto con su mujer de cincuenta y tantos un escalope de ternera en el restaurante de la urbanización. “Dónde diablos si no me lo voy a poner?” era la brusca, cautivadora explicación que soltaba para que la oyese todo el mundo- conseguía a veces ganarse a la gente con un encanto inesperado. Después de pasar por el quirófano, sin embargo, su mujer  tenía que sentarse a su lado y esperar a que torcidamente abriera la boca para alimentarle con cuidado- al marido bravucón, al rudo galán- con una cuchara. A Kramer le conocía y admiraba mucha gente que en la calle le quería saludar e interesarse por su salud pero a menudo su mujer tenía que hacer un gesto con la cabeza para que no lo hicieran por encontrarse su marido sumido en lo más profundo del abatimiento- el acerbo abatimiento de alguien que había estado confianzudamente en el centro de todo y que ahora estaba en el centro de nada, de alguien que en sí mismo ahora no era nada, nada salvo una  insignificancia inmóvil esperando con rabia la bendición de una erradicación absoluta

 “Puedes seguir tumbada aquí si quieres” le dijo a Millicent Kramer después de que ésta bebiera algo de agua.

“¡No puedo estar aquí tumbada todo el rato!” gritó. “¡Simplemente no aguanto más!” Era tan ágil, tan activa- si eras la mujer de Gerald lo tenías que ser. Ibamos a todas partes. Fuimos a China, estuvimos por todo Africa. Ahora no puedo ni tomar el autobús a Nueva York a menos que esté puesta hasta las cejas de calmantes. Y no me van los calmantes- me vuelven loca. Para cuando llego, de todas formas, el dolor ya ha vuelto. Oh, vaya, lo siento, siento mucho todo esto. Todo el mundo aquí tiene su calvario. Mi historia no tiene nada de especial y lamento cargarte con ella. Probablemente tú tengas la tuya.

“¿Te aliviaría una almohadilla eléctrica? le preguntó.

“¿Sabes lo que me aliviaría? dijo. “El sonido de esa voz que ha desaparecido. El sonido del hombre excepcional al que amé. Creo que podría con todo esto si él estuviese aquí. Pero sin él no puedo. No le vi flaquear en toda su vida- entonces vino el cáncer y le destrozó. Yo no soy Gerald. El se armaría de valor y lo conseguiría- se armaría de toda su persona y haría lo que fuera que hubiera que hacer. Pero yo no puedo. No puedo aguantar más el dolor. Lo anula todo. A veces pienso que no podré seguir ni una hora más. Me digo a mí misma que no tiene importancia. Me digo, “No le prestes atención. Es un espectro. Es un incordio, no es nada más que eso. No le des poder. No colabores con él. No muerdas el anzuelo. No respondas. Impón tu fuerza. Abrete paso. O estás tú al mando o lo está él- ¡La elección es tuya! Me repito esto a mí misma un millón de veces al día, como si fuera Gerald el que lo dijera, y, de repente, se vuelve tan terrible que tengo que tenderme en el suelo en medio del supermercado y todas las palabras pierden su significado. Ay, lo siento de veras. Me horrorizan las lágrimas”

“A todos nos horrorizan”, le dijo, “pero lloramos igualmente”

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