By Marcelo Damiani
Marianne and I walk into the café the very moment the lights are turned off and Gabriel starts to play my favourite theme: Velocity. We stand at the entrance as if the dense atmosphere of the place was too strong, and a small contamination of our bodies was required in order to go forward. I open and close my eyes again and again trying to get my vision to adapt to the new lighting of the place. Slowly, Gabriel’s diffused shapes make advances, intact, there on the stage. His naked body plays at fleeing from the shadows, as usual, while he flirts with the hesitant light. His movement, transformed into a disdainful game now, begins to radiate an illusion of contagious cadence. And then I am under the false impression of being in Gabriel’s place, moving and singing for a cold-hearted public. I can feel the various, indifferent gazes covering the surface of my skin and I do not know if the non-meaning of my words and the meaning of my music reach them.
Interrupting me, Marianne, whose persistent perfume never ceases to excite me, corners me against the door and kisses me on the lips while her hands disappear between my shirt and jacket. Now, when I close my eyes, I see the scene that I cannot get out of my mind: The coloured pebbles falling into the void at the right side of the screen, forming a blind and perfect mountain: The symbol of a geometric clock: Time. Until they all fall at once or there is no more space and the mountain is destroyed with an explosion. The monitor’s screen simulates a black, infinite void: Signalling that the game has come to an end.
Last week (I have always known Sundays are special days and that certain things can only take place on Sundays) the game surfaced mysteriously on my step-father’s computer: Máximo. Not only did it bear the same title as my future text, but it also had no origin. Despite the poor quality of its presentation graphics, and the music, that had no classical influences, I filled in the initial questionnaires to see what it was all about. They then assign me a gender, tastes, physical build, knowledge, skills, defects, and some experience or other, and place me in a situation where I have to find work: Some type of manager interviews me, and promises me an outstanding salary if we have sex immediately (I am a twenty-something year old blonde with a perfect body and a rather low IQ), I give him a flat no for an answer (I am obviously doing the right thing), and he kicks me out of the place. My Self-Esteem drops dramatically (I do not understood how the game works, obviously) and, while distracted for less than a second, I am run over by a car. A final inscription advises me to take more life lessons if I seriously want to play the game.
Meanwhile, in Velocity, the chords of the guitar succeed each other at an ever faster pace, predicting the final frenzy that everyone is waiting for now. When my irritated eyes get used to the murky light, I can nearly make out the gestures and the laughter of Alan and Martin: They look like two swollen clowns who have just seen a harmless ghost, and, to prove to the world how brave they are, call out to him. I take Marianne’s hand and guide her through smoke and noise. Now, as we avoid bumping into the tables and bodies that hinder our progress, I have the feeling that I am in the middle of a play that has me at its heart, surrounded by a ruthless audience that judges every one of my movements as if it were the analysis of a theatrical representation. I feel as if I had loaned my identity for a thing so intangible I cannot even begin to define it. I feel - I think - as defenceless as Gabriel must feel on the scene despite the lowered lights and the experience with which he moves his perfect body sensually. Now, as we reach the table, they all stand up to greet us with kisses and hugs and not too many words. I see Alan has brought his latest girl and Gabriel and Martin their usual ladies. “Hey, Pappy!”, Alan shouts into my ear as we sit down uncomfortably. “How’s the life of meaning going?” And they all laugh out-loud while Alan adds a redundant and effective smile to the question that accentuates his undisputed ambiguity. I can obviously make no reply, surrounded as we are by this dimly-lit atmosphere, full of smoke and smiles and soft music. However, I am not sure I understand the general laughter, even though I believe the question refers to the text I promised to write some time ago, and not to the game that kept me trapped in the house till yesterday morning.
Now, after having gone through all the tiring questionnaires once more, I have to find a job working for a newspaper if I want to avoid starving to death. I manage to secure a frenzied interview with the editorial bosses’ secretary: A fat old lady who must weight at least a few tons. I think the fat woman will want sex, and I do not know what to do. (Now I am a frigid amoral philosopher who cannot abide romantic postulates.) But she wants to know who the most romantic and the best lover of all contemporary philosophers is. Inflamed, I reply that her question not only lacks epistemological rigour, but sense, and I shout that for these reasons it is totally and absolutely impossible to reply. This time, after starving to death, the final inscription is rather laconic: Too much feeling for philosophy. Now, in the previous questionnaires, perhaps the most decisive part of the game, I try to change my luck by invoking chance: I reply as absurdly as possible. Before I even finish I see my destiny was obvious: The mental hospital. The place, I have to admit, was truly dispiriting, and as if this was not enough my Self-Esteem and Energy are at an all time low. Then a doctor turns up, and asks me how I feel. The answer cannot be all that difficult. Surely, I think, for all I am a hunchbacked, cross-eyed, hard of hearing dwarf, I have to say I feel fine. But it takes me so long to reply that the doctor suggests I rest for another nine months until our next interview. That same night, my depression leads me to suicide. The final inscription, this time, can only be defined as classical and cruel: The world is a better place without people like you.
Suddenly, Martin asks Marianne why she has come here alone, thus beginning one of our favourite jokes. Marianne, suspecting nothing, answers that she came with me. Which is the same as coming alone, Alan adds. And now we all laugh – except Marianne, who looks at us one by one regretting the fact she does not understand the idiom of the island. With speed, while the final frenzy of the fighting guitars is deliberately reflected by Gabriel’s delighted expression, the bouncers come up to a table nearby and throw out two reporters who had intended to take an illegal photo. The velocity of Velocity, meanwhile, has grown slowly, unbearably, to the point that two of the strings of Gabriel’s guitar break, but he carries on as if nothing had happened, and plays the final frenzy all over again, as well as he can. Alan and Martin call out, insane: They jump onto the table and start dancing a wretched mixture of tango and waltz. Marianne looks at me with a European expression and I gesticulate in a specific way that she takes to mean this happens almost always and this madness is not contagious to anyone who does not live on the island. Gabriel expands Velocity’s final frenzy to a point he had never done before, and before taking the drumsticks he looks towards our table as if coordinating the final ending. Alan and Martin, understanding the look, take impulse and jump in synchrony: They spring, turn in the air, stay suspended for a fraction of a second and start to fall as Gabriel lifts his arms slightly and makes the drumsticks spin between his fingers. Before anything happens, I know the two pairs of feet will hit the table at precisely the same instant the double dry blow of Gabriel’s drumsticks hit the drums. And I also know that before the song becomes an echo and the pieces of broken glass fly off in all directions, the table will shatter into pieces and Alan and Martin will end up on the floor, dying of laughter.
The next day I discover two very important things: Firstly: One has to pay attention to all the variables on the screen, especially Energy and above all Self-Esteem. When they are below twenty, death looms. It takes me many hours of practice to keep my Energy above forty. And Self-Esteem is so volatile I can never keep it above thirty. Afterwards I realise that in the initial questionnaires it is necessary to show arrogance no matter what. Doing so, I manage to have a couple of interesting adventures, a furtive affair or two, a wife, a job, and other such things. But I never get any older than thirty. After this age, it becomes incredibly hard to avoid dying. For instance, the last time I played I am a mediocre lawyer (like all lawyers) with few skills and many defects. I am married to an ugly, feminist psychologist (sort of normal) that shows no signs of madness (which is rather strange). She is in her eighth month of pregnancy and everything is going rather well. I start to believe I will win this time, and so reach the level of Self-Esteem and Energy known as Happiness on the game. But while at the tribunal I receive a long distance call: My parents have been involved in a terrible car crash and they are now in intensive care. My Self-Esteem drops violently, almost too much, but thanks to external stimulants like drugs I save myself from relapsing. When my mood is stabilised, I phone, first, my sister and then, my wife. I cannot get in touch with either. I order my secretary to reserve a plane ticket to leave the island as soon as possible. And I decide to stop at the house before leaving for the airport. My sister’s car is parked at the door. Of course, I think, she must have heard news of the accident before I did. I go in, and look in the living room and the kitchen to no result. I climb the stairs, thoughtfully. I am about to open the bedroom door when I hear some strange noises. Noises that could either be complaints or groans. I open the door slowly, not able to believe what I am witnessing: My sister and wife. Naked. In bed. With a giant black man between them. Playing like adolescents, enjoying the new accessory of the eight month pregnancy. I realise someone is ringing the doorbell insistently. I run out of the room and down the stairs. I open the main door and Marianne is there, wearing her best smile. I look at her, incredulous and smiling, and she leaves out the usual courtesies and hugs me and kisses me as if she were, in fact, my sister.
Now, while Gabriel’s shapes and music make harmless advances; while I breathe in Marianne’s strong perfume that enfolds me like the fumes and humus of this place; while I am aware of Martin’s rhythmic movements and laughter as he crashes into the ground; while the memory of all the people I once was superimposes the images of my friends and makes me doubtful of everything we call reality, I realise, resigned, idiotic, that Alan was right, inexplicably perhaps. The meaning of life is no more than the life of meaning. A significant symptom of the ugly sum of questions without answers whose result is the world: Desire and deception. The multiple madness of permissive personalities, unstable and ambivalent beliefs and failed attempts at oblivion. A film that begins with a terrible script, an incompetent director and a load of mediocre actors who believe they are geniuses.
Yes, I think to myself, the meaning of life.
Such an awful title for a story.
Translated from the Spanish by Laura Pros Carey.