1. Dead Leaves
It’s 4:17am and Tomás is still smoking out the window and drinking coffee. He drinks it straight from the French press because she took all the tea mugs and coffee cups. She took a lot of other things, too: the chopping board, the landline phone, a wok and the German shower curtain with embroidered chalets and pine trees. He really did like that curtain. But that stuff doesn’t matter. He moved into the new flat last week and he bought straws for the cafetière this morning and he was glad, so glad about moving out, although he should probably have built the bed frame as soon as he arrived. It’s too late now and he doesn’t want to wake his new neighbours up.
He places the needle back at the edge of the record. That’s the only thing she left him that was hers: a record player and a Greatest Hits Serge Gainsbourg vinyl (presumably because it’s miserable, but most likely because the needle has no weight and gets stuck on the fourth song). The endless looping of three rising chords, Serge going on about dying leaves, dying leaves, dying leaves, oh dying – leaves, makes all the sadness seem pretty fucking ridiculous, a scam, like a dead guy sitting up at his own wake and pointing at a hidden camera, or when you cry in front of a mirror. But despite Serge, today is an OK day. He lifts the needle again and the strings open in dissonance.
Earlier today, instead of working, he went to a library and looked at stuffed birds and paintings of dead people. Before moving to Santiago, his parents had once told him that cities are places for the young and that he should be happy, like all young people are meant to be but so rarely are. Judging by their smiles, the painted army generals and the dead birds at the museum begged to differ too. Just like every morning, the streets had been filled with the elderly from very early on. They don’t have much time left and they can’t afford to share what time they do have with the crowds they live to avoid, and the man who pretends to be blind (Tomás is certain he pretends because he only thanks women who give him change) in a corner of Plaza Italia had been singing about not having any time left either but he’d seemed pretty happy about it, like he’d even moved his hips a little, and the whole thing was depressing as hell. Tomás had been about to give him change because he couldn’t give him time, but as he’d stood in front of him, the man thanked him before he’d even dropped the coins in his metallic cup. Tomás pretended he was deaf and walked away.
And before that even, he had sat in the rain on a bench near his office and written his name on it. He’s been writing it on trees, benches, bus seats and cubicle doors since he was a child because his sister, Angela, would eat his snacks and steal his pens if they weren’t tagged. Although he knows it’s a stupid ritual (then again, he can’t think of a ritual that isn’t stupid), this bench is different because there’s someone out there who insists on erasing his name and leaving different ones behind. Today it had been Susi. Yesterday it said Santiago, but it’s always the same handwriting and Tomás wonders if he’ll ever meet him or her so that they can agree to own opposite sides of the bench.
This city wears him out like that. He doesn’t really know why, but kindness can be unbearable in a city that returns none of it. What does that even… leaves, leaves, leaves, death, fuck… He has to find a way to make Serge finish the damn song or he’ll lose it, by which he means to sit in silence just like he does anyway for most of the day. He lights another cigarette and some of the ashes fall on the record in smooth white spirals that will never reach the centre. At least he has all the time in the world.
He leans out of his window and looks down to the empty visitor’s parking spots. Cars in the dark can look like bodies too, and the stack of bins in the corner like animals, but no one will paint them, no one he has ever known will crowd the walls next to the golden pheasants, captain-general O’Higgins or the Atlantic puffins. No one will paint him either but that’s OK because he wouldn’t know what to do with his hands. He’s also glad he’s on the second floor because he can just flick dead cigarettes out and watch them spiral down with the wind until they disappear. The Santiago skyline is brighter than the stars above it, a golden mess with constant strobes of red and green dots on the highest roofs, blinking at imaginary private helicopters no one here owns. He shuts the window and it becomes a blur of amber and he must remember to clean it even if he knows he won’t.
So why can’t he sleep? He doesn’t even try anymore. Getting up, taking a shower, dressing up, drying and waxing his hair, cleaning his glasses and shaving… Shaving. Is there anything worse than shaving? He finds it hard to want to do any of it, as if he could predict how tiring every one of those things could be and… God knows he needs to keep himself awake to work or he will never finish anything again and…
“But you must eat,” his dad had told him after he broke up with his first girlfriend. It had been a bad breakup because they were both eighteen and she had given him so many symbolic gifts – a fluorescent green piece of string tied up to match her ring size (though it loosened up to the size of her big toe), a school napkin paper boat (which had half-sunk when they tried it on a puddle), and a lot of photographs of full trash cans because she wanted to be a photographer– and, unlike the present breakup, she had told him to stick the symbolic shoebox up his ass. So he’d kept it. “Leave that stuff and go somewhere nice and eat,” his dad had said. “When I was shooting Argentinians at the border, all I thought about was coming home and having a nice casuela by myself. A-lone. Away from their fucking accents… Oh puro Chile es tu cielo azulado… Tomás, don’t be embarrassed about eating alone.”
But that wasn’t it. Despite Tomás’s first girlfriend being Argentinian, his father had shot no one – outside of his imagination – because his mother had taught him how to break into patriotic songs to manage his anger. Plus, eating at Domino’s every day, where they don’t even have tables and the cashiers now refer to Tomás by his first name, has made him impervious to embarrassment. It’s not like he cooks at all either (and he’s closer to Domino’s than he’s ever been before). No, it’s shaving, shaving for yourself, that’s far worse. He really does understand why beards have become fashionable amongst lonely men.
He gets his computer bag out of his suitcase and gets the printed paper that says ‘HI - I HOPE YOU’RE WELL : )’. He had had this stuck on the window facing the street in his last place because there was a commuter bus filled with shopping mall workers that passed by his street every morning, and they could see that he could work from home and never even shower, and one of them even middle-fingered him when he waved. It still has the blue tack on each corner and he sticks it on the new window and finishes the coffee. But it isn’t for them. It’s complicated (and rather pathetic). Thing is, he really does hope she is well. But not as well.
He goes to the kitchen and starts the kettle. It was his birthday on Saturday and he is still pretty upset about it. More dead leaves, dying leaves, needle on track one and play. He had received a letter from her that morning. It was a birthday card and the front was green and yellow spots and she had written ‘H.B. Hope you’re keeping well : ). Eva. x.’ Her wishes had come in abbreviations and he’s sure it’s because she couldn’t get herself to write the word ‘happy’ since she must be feeling worse than him. What really bothered him though, was the part about ‘keeping well’. He had only just turned twenty-seven. Even worse is how his parents’ card also said the same thing. ‘Keep well, son’. Had he crossed some age gap he wasn’t aware of? Would people call him ‘Sir’ from now on when they first met him? Would they ask him ‘what do you do?’ so they could use him to confirm how well they were doing in comparison? Would no one notice that, despite it all, he shaves for himself? It doesn’t help that there’s no special look for mid-twenty-year-olds. You either look like a teenager or your dad and so it’s all about ‘taking’ from other ages, not ‘keeping’. Must he now also wear those terrible khakis with a polo shirt (with a random mini-animal embroidered on the chest) tucked underneath? That doesn’t even… He doesn’t work at a place where that…
He presses down hard on the coffee and puts in a new straw. At 4am it’s hard to know if he should give up on the previous day or get ready to start the new one, but he has so much work to finish; so much to start, rather. And so he goes to his desk, lights the half-melted vanilla candle and opens his IDEAS book.
Jaime told him yesterday that their videogame has to be finished by the end of the term and so they decided (Jaime did) to split the work, so that Jaime would be in charge of programming and Tomás the story design. He’s been trying to come up with a story for months now and he lied to Jaime about his progress. He told him ‘it was coming’, IT, because after all, that’s what it takes. One idea, one moment, and it will come, it must, because can you really live your whole life without one great idea? But nothing he comes up with resembles the Big Narratives, as Tomás calls them, of games like Final Fantasy VII, or Chrono Trigger or Zelda… It isn’t all his fault though. They only make cheap games for mobile platforms, bad copies of known games filled with product placement, pop-up ads for deodorants, horoscope readings and package holidays to Acapulco. And Jaime can’t program anything without a bug either, and the last flash game they finished had to be taken down from the App Store due to its poor quali… It was shit. It was about an elephant called Bimbo, and he defied the laws of gravity, because when he jumped to collect coins he never dropped back down, and all you were left with was an empty screen with moving platforms. Disney bought it in the end, and rehashed it as a cheap mobile game about Dumbo, the flying elephant, and they were both allowed to keep their jobs at the university. The reception for their previous games had always been divided. People either loved the storylines and hated the gameplay or loved the gameplay but hated their storylines. This means that every game Tomás has had a part in currently appears as MEDIOCRE on App Store reviews – 2.5/5 stars, and that’s taking into account two of Jaime’s 5 star reviews – and he can’t stand the fact that game reviews focus only on what the games lack instead of what they have. But what he really means is he hates knowing he’s MEDIOCRE, just like everyone else, part of another filled-up bus, heading to another kind of MEDIOCRE shopping mall.
So now his job is to try and find a reason, a story, for any fault that might come up in Jaime’s coding. But is that even possible? Can he really write a narrative about all those gaps, all those mistakes that aren’t his? And isn’t it also unfair that Jaime can set out the conditions, all the mechanics of a world that he must then justify with a simple story? And does it really matter? After all, as game reviewers always point out, if the gameplay’s crap, everything else falls with it.
He opens the IDEAS book on the last page. He had been writing a scene about a man who could make rain go upwards because Jaime had messed up the physics engine again. Why on Earth would anyone want rain to go back to the clouds and even worse, how can rain exist if it doesn’t fall in the first place? But he will think about reversing rain tomorrow. For now, he must accept that people as simple as Jaime do exist. He walks back into the kitchen and takes the Domino’s pizza box out of the fridge. He cuts two slices out and puts them on a cardboard plate that he takes from a stack of cardboard plates and microwaves them for two minutes.
They come out flaccid like wet bread. He turns the radio on even though Serge is still stuck on dead leaves. It’s playing ‘Sigue sus Ojos’ by Caravana. Why are all good songs sad songs? Why must everyone sing about the things they don’t have? He doesn’t know the answer, but what he does know is that if he had continued playing in the band with Yiyo, he too would be happy playing music for a living and all their songs would be about being young, memories of being even younger, and Santiago, at night, shining for them.
He cleans the grease from his fingers with the kitchen towel and bins the plate on top of dozens of similar plates. He takes out a new packet of post-it notes from the cutlery drawer. He notices that she also took the dessert spoons but that’s OK because he never has dessert. He writes ‘e-mail Yiyo’ on a post-it and sticks it on the cream-coloured cupboard above the kettle (why must all new flats always be cream-coloured?).
He turns the tap on and leans over to drink and then turns off the radio just before the singer repeats and this time I would like to see you appear. He knows the lyrics by heart. Or at least he thinks he does. OK, so he’s never actually finished listening to it because it was Eva who had told him to do so. She was always showing him new music and even Yiyo had once said that she had better taste than him. At the time, anything she was better at felt good. It was as if by standing next to her he was making everyone aware of his luck, which is superior to just being lucky. And hell, he knew she was much better at a lot of things. Her parents were obsessed with France and so she was too, and she’d watch (and make him watch) all these French cooking shows like J’ai Encore Faim and Chef Hannibal where groups of fat chefs feathered geese and chickens onscreen and always with a smile despite all the blood, and used pans that looked like spaceships from Battle Star Galactica, and she took notes and said a lot of French things like quoi real quiet so that he had to ask and she had to explain, and they then ate the TV recipes on Sundays and… She always asked how it was and he always said it was good but on the last week that they were together he told her, while she was boiling six pans with different things at the same time, that she should be careful with the gas bill. She didn’t say quoi or ask him how the food was but she did ask him, ‘Tomás, I’ve been thinking, if I take the Transiberian train, will you come with me?’ and he answered, ‘Cherie, let’s get the gas bills first,’ and there was no dessert. She left a whole feathered chicken on the chopping board and he put it in cling film and stuck it in the freezer. She said he should just bin it and he said he would, but he’s been carrying the feathered chicken from freezer to freezer ever since.
He looks out the kitchen window and tries to see the mountains but it’s all smog and passing empty buses. When the day starts in Santiago, the city at a distance disappears into a new night, all of it grey-veiled and dark, and the Andes, the great peaks no one ever talks about (can only he see them?), loom above the concrete like secret mirages, pointing not North or South, just Out.
He puts the coffee in the French press and pours in the water. He adjusts the lid on it but doesn’t press it because Eva had once told him he had to let it brew for five minutes but he’s not sure why. If all the grains are instantly suspended in the boiling water and in the end they all gather up at the bottom, right where they started, then pressing or not pressing doesn’t change a thing. Plus, all coffee tastes the same and he should really just buy instant… But he’d need a mug for that, which doesn’t matter, but neither does waiting five minutes. And so he waits and then presses it and turns to go back to his desk and notices (not that he’d ever need any more) that his kitchen only has two electric hobs.
Was it true? Was he just boring? Surely he could have asked for more hobs. The last time he saw Eva it was to hand her the gas bill. He thought it’d make her laugh but it didn’t. She didn’t even look at it. She had lost weight and told him she had stopped smoking and started going to ballet lessons, and he told her he had stopped smoking too but she just let out a quiet laugh. He asked her why she had left him. The way she had done it too: she called him up (she had left him eight missed calls, eight!) but he’d been sleeping; she left messages with the secretary and she had phoned him up at his office but he’d slept through those too (in all fairness, Jaime likes keeping the office phone disconnected as he says admin gets in the way of what he calls his ‘creative trances’, so he might have not been able to miss them at all). And then Eva knocked on his office door and he got up, though he may as well have been sleeping because when she waved her phone at him, he waved back with his. He showed her the floating elephant onscreen and she said, ‘Tomás, I’m leaving you,’ and then she just left. And so, when he later asked her why, he expected a story, a big low after a moment of great but flawed happiness, a story arc like the ones he teaches in Games Design 1:
HAPPY AS FUCK
TWO ELECTRIC HOBS
But she only said: ‘I didn’t know I could do better. And now I know.’ It was cruelty, Tomás thought. Nothing more. To not give him the full story, to make him the base of all the upcoming things that will happen to her and all of them, from then on, all of them secrets. And she had lost weight, was wearing a thick eyeliner he’d never seen her wear, and she told him about her new flat in Bellavista, which is most likely not cream-coloured and must have at least eight hobs, all of them gas, all of them cruel.
He sits at his desk and sticks two post-it notes on either side of the table.
Reasons why I might be boring: Reasons why I’m OK as a person:
I don’t like working. I have a job.
2 hobs (electric). Frozen chicken, head and all, in the freezer.
Dislike travelling. I enjoy travelling once I’m there.
I make games for a living. I make games for a living.
I can’t sleep. I never sleep.
Subject to change Subject I don’t own anything. The possibilities
to change Subject to change are endless (subject to change).
He gets up and takes a straw from the packet on his desk and puts it in the French press. But did it really matter? Could you really separate a life into favourable and unfavourable categories? He had once Googled ‘why do people break up?’ and Minxydoucheover9000 said that sometimes it’s the things that make one fall in love with someone else that were also responsible for the breakup. But if that were true, then surely good and bad things are interchangeable and they could get back together again. And Jaime did say most lasting couples go through ‘rough patches’, sometimes more than once, and this one hadn’t even been rough (she left him a goddam record player). And sure, Jaime’s been single for years, but if someone who didn’t know a thing about relationships could tell him that, then surely it means he, who knows much better, should have the evidence to support it. The record does an 80s rap song scratching noise to a beat that never starts.
He tears up the post-its and bins them. He’ll have to get in touch with Eva tomorrow. He will thank her for the birthday card and tell her that he hopes she’s well and then she’ll ask him how he is and he’ll say something French, oulala, miss all the hobs, oulala the taste of non-coffee, oulafuck did I just get us two tickets to Paris? He’ll also tell her that he’s still working on a game about her, even though he’s never started it… Which is fine because beginning things is not as important as wanting to begin things and, like shaving for himself, it will show her that he has not forgotten about his priorities.
A note appears under his door and he can hear steps outside in the corridor. It’s 5am so it can’t be the postman but he hopes it’s another gas bill under Eva’s name, if only to see her name on a piece of paper that wasn’t his, and written by someone other than himself. He walks up to it and takes it. It’s the same note that showed up under his door at the same time last night. It’s a folded A4 that says:
You are cordially invited to come to Abdul’s vintage madness on Sunday at the Plaza Italia market.
We sell anything from kitchenware to voodoo dolls.
Please come. The sales are mad on Sunday, mad!
Cordially, your neighbour, Lucas.
(P.S. Please come. X)
Tomás opens the door and checks the corridor but Lucas is gone. He steps out of his flat and hears heavy metal coming from the apartment facing his and then some loud laughter. It’s Goat Eater all over again. He had shared a flat as a student with the drummer and vocalist of death metal act Goat Eater. They were both vegans and they slept most of the day and practised all night so as to not bother the parrots that gathered in the trees lining the apartment block. He notices strobes of light on the edges of the door and on the bottom, half of Lucas’s note still sticking out. Someone suddenly takes the note and Tomás turns and hears a peephole lid opening so he goes back inside, slowly closing his own door. He hopes that he’s not sharing a corridor with Goat Eater fans. Then again, if that were the case, he’d have something to add to his favourable list and it’s not like he’d be sleeping.
He goes to the kitchen to turn the heating on. He hates having showers in the cold and he should really be getting ready to take the metro to work. Tomás only teaches at university on Thursdays, tomorrow, and then he can try and sleep at any time, usually under his desk when Jaime goes home. He should really build the bed frame when he gets back though, but only if he gets back early enough not to bother anyone.
He finishes his coffee and sees the beginning of sunrise and the backyards and gardens shine with dew. When grass shines in Santiago it means winter is about to end. Eva used to say that. It makes no sense but it is indeed the end of August and winter has to end, shine or not. He looks at the picture of Eva on his desk. She’s holding a miniature Eiffel Tower key ring he got her for her birthday. He turns it so that it faces the door when he comes back from work.
He gets into the shower once the flat is warm enough. He must remember to buy soap because he only has lavender shampoo. Although he thinks they’re actually the same thing in different bottles and there’s no such thing as too much lavender. So no, that can also…
He’ll thank Eva tomorrow, or today rather, and write a game about her, always to remember, to replay the days she left, the days she came back, the dead leaves dead leaves that are gone as soon as he imagines them and fuck Serge, fuck him to silence, he really does hope she’s keeping well : )