Sara Mesa is a master of tension and unease. With her novels Cuatro por cuatro (Four times four) and Cicatriz (Scar) she’s proven herself to be a versatile and extremely efficient narrator but her prose thrives in the shorter form thanks to the elegance of her composition and her skillful employment of expressive economy. “Just a Few Millimeters” is a bold story (in dual sense: morally and aesthetically) in which playful shifts in perspective put compassion and kindness to the test. Who is benevolent and who is despicable here? Launching the story from a small but inexorable conflict (a student with severe disabilities wants to attend the Sex Ed. Seminar with the rest of his class), Sara Mesa throws the reader into this uncomfortable situation in order to explore our true ability to understand others and to accurately perceive our own kindness. Employing very few elements, she guides us down into hell. An impeccable story in many ways.
Translated by: Frances Riddle
The first thing that hit me when I entered, I mean my first impression, was of walking into a place that was extremely strange and humid and dark, not just because of the closed doors and the low ceilings and the enormous amount of junk piled up not only in the entryway but also in the hall that the woman invited us to walk down, something that couldn’t be called messiness, because that wasn’t it, but more like lack of space on one hand and, on the other, the real need for all that junk, equipment, to be more precise, oxygen tanks and gurneys and other orthopedic devices the names of which I don’t know, in addition to the typical domestic items—a cart for grocery shopping, a folding ladder, boxes of shoes, cleaning products—all kinds of things were piled up all over the house, which, as we’d already observed from the outside, was pretty small. The woman smiled, and her smile went beyond friendliness to an expression of deep satisfaction that, God forgive me, at first looked to me like enjoyment, although I imagine that to enjoy something like that or to be proud of something like that isn’t normal or healthy or desirable. In any event, she wore a wide smile on her face, a sincere happiness to see us, and she immediately accepted our apologies for being late—“traffic …”—as she guided us down the narrow hallway to the end room, the only one with the door open, or, more like, half open, through which we heard the murmur of a ventilator or an air pump, and we could make out a different light, with an orangey or cloudy hue, forming a triangle on the floor as if to mark the entrance.
That light, I found out later, provided him with vitamin D and also helped his mood, because, she told us, as hard as she tried to take him out of there to get some sun, it was complicated, it was really difficult: it took two hours to prepare him and two more hours to get him back into bed, without even mentioning that she needed at least two people to help her transport all the machinery that he depended on to live, that is, three people to move the boy, who must have weighed no more than forty kilos. This whole explanation without a crack in her smile, a selfless smile, full of self-sacrifice, a smile that doesn’t question the destiny imposed upon it no matter how bad that might be, and I suddenly felt a little embarrassed, and I lowered my head, and I realized that that’s how you were supposed to enter that shrine—because it was a shrine—with your head inclined and with your heart open to the suffering all around and with admiration for the capacity to bear it.
The specialist walked over to the boy, she took his hand and rubbed it while talking to him sweetly, as if he were a small child, despite the fact that she herself had been reminding me on the way there that his mental age was exactly as it should be, that is, that he was a boy of fifteen with the mental capacity of a fifteen-year-old or even older, she said, because his isolation meant he could read without stopping, and he studied everything he could and all that had allowed him to develop a great intelligence, added to his already enthusiastic and curious nature and, although it sounds unbelievable, an overwhelming desire to live, so don’t forget, speak to him like you would speak to any of your other students, to do otherwise would be hurtful to him, and I’d nodded, looking straight ahead without letting go of the wheel, imagining something very different from what I now saw before me. She made an impatient gesture.
“Come on. Aren’t you going to say hello?”
“Hello,” I muttered.
The boy’s eyes didn’t register any change. They looked, or more like pointed toward, the ceiling, completely void of expression, but even so I continued speaking to him, how are you, I said, and I introduced myself, I told him that I was his biology teacher and that I’d come to give him a test, and, smiling, I added that he needn’t worry, that the questions I’d ask were very simple, that he’d surely be able to answer them all straight away. The specialist rushed to clarify that they were the same, exactly the same, questions that the other students had to answer, so he had no reason to feel less intelligent than the other kids, you already know, you’re no less intelligent than the others, and you’re going to take the same test as everyone else, and you’ll get your report card just like everyone.
The boy’s eyes didn’t move.
The mother stood up, with that smile still stamped on her face, and she asked us if she could stay. They’d been studying the material together, and she wanted to be present in his moment of triumph because she had no doubt that her son would get a perfect score in the test. The specialist suggested that she ask the boy, to see what he thought. It’s his opinion that should count most, she added. Of course, the mother muttered, and she looked at her son without repeating the question, she stared at him, and the boy, I saw him, raised his pupils a few millimeters, just a few millimeters, and that, it seemed, meant “yes.” The mother smiled and sat back down.
“You see,” the specialist informed me, “he hears all our conversations, something people often forget.”
Then she took out her chart with the letters of the alphabet ordered according to their frequency of use in Spanish, from the most common to the least common, this order made the process quicker, she told me, although the order wasn’t correct according to the latest linguistic studies, which placed e in first place once you factored in articles, prepositions, and conjunctions such as the omnipresent “que,” she explained, and I was confused, but it didn’t matter, the general idea was clear, and the general idea was that the boy had what he needed to make communication easier, and he’d concentrate on the most important words, she clarified, therefore her table started with a, followed by e, and then s, o, r, n, and i, but sometimes the sequence being formed clearly demanded a vowel next, and then she jumped directly to the vowels, for example if the boy signals p and then l, it’s obvious there will be a vowel next, do you understand? I nodded, and then she told me that we’d start the test.
“Do you want to say anything to your teacher, darling?”
I thought that it was unnecessary to call him that, “darling,” considering that he was a student like any other student, as she had insisted on reminding me so many times, she needed to realize that no teacher would talk to their students like that, at least not any that I know, and much less a fifteen-year-old student. I felt a mix of fear, guilt, and bitterness stir up inside me as I watched the specialist mark the letters with her pointer, quickly and agilely, stopping only when the boy raised his pupils, to form a message that started with h—we follow the correct rules of spelling, she said—and finished after a few minutes with the following message:
HELLO TEACHER YOU ARE VERY PRETTY
The specialist, setting her chart on the bed, let out a long jovial laugh.
“He has a great sense of humor.”
I smiled and looked again, although I have to admit that it was hard for me, very hard, to look at him as if there was nothing wrong, as if that was the most normal thing in the world, that crushed, deformed body, the cranium almost flat, the arms without muscles, the emaciated legs under the sheets, despite the fact that the specialist had told me that this boy was happy with his life and that his existence was a lesson to everyone, a “moral” lesson, she said, for us, the rest of us, who always complain about trivial things and keep ourselves from being happy, while he, yes he, made do with what he had, not only did he make do, “make do” isn’t the phrase, but he accepted it as a gift and even thought, according the specialist, that he’d been very lucky to be born that way, because it allowed him to be who he was, and he was proud of who he was, and he never wished he could have been someone else.
It was hard for me to believe, it was hard to accept that this weak body, tenderized, aged, could host a human being who had a sense of humor and who had said Hello teacher you are very pretty, and an absurd idea crossed my mind, fleetingly, that it was all, or could be, the specialist’s own invention, that she was fooling us into believing that that soulless body felt, reasoned, and communicated, when in fact she’d made it all up, the pointer and the chart and the sentences that came from her like she was a Ouija board, but I was immediately ashamed of that thought, most of all the expression “soulless body,” that I’d literally thought that, a body without a soul, cruel, a clear example of my enormous insensitivity and my ignorance and my inability to empathize, which, in the past, in other situations, other people had thrown in my face, so I made an effort to believe everything, and I was prepared to love that being, give him all I had to give, and I took out my notebook and announced that I was going to start the test.
The specialist repeated, “The same questions everyone else gets.”
And the mother nodded, satisfied. I endorsed the statement with a small nod, yes, they were the same, but it was also true, and obviously I wasn’t going to say anything, that they were the same because I’d modified the usual test, changing the essay questions for shorter ones that could be answered with a couple of words at most, and I’d even come up with new multiple-choice questions, just three choices of answer, which, I understood after hearing about the whole issue of the raising of the pupils, would make things much easier for me. I also had a drawing of a human ear, the parts of which he had to identify after we fixed the sheet to a lighted screen that hung over his head and which, apparently, he could see.
We took an especially long time with the issue of the drawing, because it required too many long words and even some compound terms such as “Eustachian tube,” “semicircular canals,” “ceruminous gland,” or “endolymph conduct,” a good two hours because the boy knew them all and he insisted on spelling them out completely, it wasn’t enough to spell CON or even CONDUC, he had to get all the way to the end, which made it tiresome and extremely stressful for me, I felt like there wasn’t enough air in that room, it was too hot, the mother sitting there with her arms crossed, smiling, proud of her son, the specialist with her little pointer marking the letters on the chart with quick taps, and I thought that this method was clearly outdated, that surely with that tiny movement of the pupils—the most movement the kid could aspire to—there must be some kind of screen reader that could interpret a binary code of communication or something like that, although I don’t know much about these things, I’m convinced someone could have designed a quicker system. Then I thought that maybe they’d never considered that the method could be different, and when I say “different” I mean “better,” because that smiling and happy woman in her house filled with junk, that poor woman, in the end, had the attention of the government—she’d showed me some framed photos of the mayor with the boy, the bishop with the boy, the minister of education with the boy, and even a fairly well-known soccer player with the boy, too—attention that, without that indisputable element of tragedy, she’d never have been able to get, but without a doubt insufficient attention, superficial, and with a much, much lower budget than required.
“Nine point seven out of ten,” I said when we’d finished.
“Are you happy?” the specialist asked the boy.
Raising of pupils. “Yes.”
Without lowering the chart, with the pointer between her tense fingers, she congratulated him and asked him if he wanted to say anything else to me.
CAN YOU RECOMMEND BOOK
“A biology book?” I said.
TO READ NORMAL
“What do you like?”
I thought that for him any book, even the most realistic, would be a fantasy, but I immediately felt guilty for my cynicism, and I recommended the stories of Poe. The specialist let out a little laugh, saying that now she had more work, that the boy, always hungry for new stories, asked for book recommendations from everyone who visited him, but then she was the one who had to read them to him because, she’d explained in the car on the way there, the mother wasn’t a strong reader, and even though the mother had been the one who introduced him to the joy of reading—that’s what she said, “the joy of reading”—through children’s books mostly, there came a point when she couldn’t keep up with the level of complexity that the boy demanded, she got stuck, read very slowly, she couldn’t pronounce the foreign names, so now it was the specialist who read to him, and, for example, she listed smugly, she’d read him novels by Gabriel García Márquez, whom he’d liked a lot, and by Isabel Allende, whom he’d also liked a lot, and one by Eduardo Mendoza, which had surely made the boy laugh hysterically in his way, so, she concluded, good literature, and I’d nodded with my eyes fixed on the road and the long line of cars in the traffic jam in front of us.
Later she looked openly at the clock—I’d done it earlier discreetly—and announced that we’d better go, to which the mother responded with an obliging “of course” and a new even wider smile than before—the almost perfect test score, I guess, had made her even happier—and I turned for the last time back to the cranium flattened against the pillow, deformed by his posture since birth, the inexpressive mouth, the eyes now immobile without any shine to them, like the eyes of a fish, and I muttered a goodbye and, even though it was absurd to do it, I waited passively with my stupid sympathetic smile for the boy to say goodbye, another long while because the boy was very polite and his goodbye was complete:
UNTIL NEXT TIME THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR COMING TEACHER
When we got outside the house I couldn’t help but take a deep breath.
“It’s suffocating,” I said.
The specialist gave me a long, disapproving look.
“Yes, that’s what everyone says.”
The way back, the highway now empty at that hour, didn’t take long, and we hardly spoke. It was obvious that we were both exhausted.
I poked my head in because the door was open and the principal wasn’t one for formalities. With the phone tucked between his chin and his shoulder, he gestured for me to sit, but I refused with a smile and stood waiting, looking at the posters of NGOs, the shelves with mementos of his children—photographs, drawings—a couple of flowerpots, a ridiculous little jug with a paper flower that seemed somehow ostentatious, not in the sense of any luxury but just the fact that he’d put that out for everyone to see, to show it off with pride, and I remembered that the principal always mentioned his good taste, not directly, of course, but in subtle ways, asking our opinion about this or that, isn’t this bowl I brought back from Morocco pretty, look how lovely this print I bought at the Tate is, that kind of thing, and in that moment I became aware, maybe for the first time, of how much I actually disliked him, and I had the feeling that maybe he’d called me in to reprimand me about something that I didn’t even see coming. When he hung up he looked me in the eye and used my full name—which he knows perfectly well that no one does—and then he mentioned the Sex Ed. talk. The talk? I asked. What about the talk? We had to think about how we’d modify the room to accommodate the boy, he explained, we’d need a mobile medical unit, and now that the ministry had approved the budget we needed to get everything in proper order so we didn’t look bad in front of them. Get everything in proper order? I said, and he repeated, get everything in proper order, which meant, he added, working out the logistics, a plan of action—“plan of action” was a term he liked especially—to prepare the other students, although most of them already know him—they’d organized visits to his house in turns that semester—and most of all prepare the person who will give the talk, the sexologist, psychologist, or whatever she was, make sure everything’s taken care of, to avoid one of those horrible surprises that always comes up, and I thought I detected a hidden criticism of some other issue I couldn’t figure out, I was overwhelmed by the unexpectedness, it was so surprising that I couldn’t avoid raising—more than I should have—my tone of voice.
“But is he really going to come to the talk?”
“Of course. Why wouldn’t he?”
He continued, now in an angry, impulsive tone. The Language teacher hadn’t caused any problem when they’d decided to take him to the theater and the Art teacher had submitted the proposal for him to visit the exhibition of engravings in the Cárdenas Museum. I swallowed. That’s different, I said. The talk is going to have a practical focus, it’ll be centered on the prevention of pregnancy—we’ve already had several here—and sexually transmitted diseases, and, in general, we’ll talk about responsibility in intimate relationships, so it would be insane—I said “insane,” but I immediately corrected myself and said simply “a mistake”—a mistake, therefore, to bring in a boy who unfortunately will never be able to have sex—that’s what I said, or maybe I said “to be with a girl”—and it would be very uncomfortable for everyone for him to be there, and it might even be upsetting for him, so it should be avoided, his visit should be cancelled, it would be a mistake, I repeated, a mistake. He raised his eyebrows; he looked at me skeptically.
“We’re never going to climb Everest either, but we love to watch others do it on TV.”
“That’s different,” I insisted.
He crossed his arms and asked how. How was it different? Could I explain exactly what made it different? He placed a lot of emphasis on that “exactly,” forcing me to be more explicit. I told him that in the talk they were going to explain, for example, how to put on a condom, they’d simulate it with a plastic penis, they’d show how to unroll it properly, how to put it on to avoid accidents, I’d witnessed the scene several times now, the students usually laughed a lot, elbowed each other, blushed, and made comments, it’s a strange moment, and what good would it do for the boy to see that, he will never be able to put on a condom, correctly or incorrectly, he’s never even been able to touch himself, he can’t have an erection—here I blushed—so it seems cruel to me, that’s what I said, “cruel,” like waving a piece of candy in front of his mouth that he’ll never be able to eat.
“Cruel?” His laugh was sarcastic, dry, sharp. “It would be more cruel to exclude him,” he said. He stood up to be on the same level as me. “He can’t have sex, fine, but there’s not a single reason to rob him of that information. Also, there are things he can do: interact with the other students, laugh with them, have a good time. Why not?”
“Laugh with them? He can’t laugh!”
“What do you mean? Laughter is more than chuckling. Even if you’re not capable of understanding it, he can laugh.”
He gave me a disgusted look, and my answers came streaming out, all jumbled up, furiously, how could he talk about laughter, if he doesn’t do it outwardly how can he know if he’s laughing, maybe he’s crying, who are we to interpret what he feels, but he responded just as well as any of the other pupils, he said that the boy expresses himself perfectly, that after every activity he always explains how he felt, what he thought of it, if he liked it or not. He did it after the theater, when the show started an hour late because he couldn’t see anything from the box in which they’d seated him, so they had to raise his bed almost ninety degrees, with the added complications of the tubes and everything else. What a spectacle, I thought, more of a show in the box than onstage, but the principal insisted that the boy had a wonderful time, he’d said so himself when it was over, he liked interacting with his friends, he repeated, and I thought—I didn’t say it—that he could call them whatever he liked, but they were not his “friends,” and it was ridiculous to pretend that he went to class like everyone else and that he had friends like a normal kid, because he didn’t, as much as anyone tried to dress it up, the reality was that they weren’t his friends, they were just regular kids with regular lives that had nothing to do with him, and those weekly visits to his house that they arranged were, at best, an uncomfortable obligation for them and, at worst, a freak show.
“He’s learning everything he’s supposed to learn,” I continued. “I’m not hiding anything from him, no one’s hiding anything from him. He learned about the reproductive system years ago. He knows about the human body, every part of it, including the clitoris. I gave him the anatomy test myself. But this is different. To think that he could participate in everything like there was nothing different about him is simply patronizing. It’s ridiculous.”
“Patronizing? You’re patronizing! Do you know that he asked to come? That his mother has agreed? Why do you think you have the right to decide what’s good or bad for him? Are you trying to protect him, or yourself?”
And I thought, how could he ask to go to the Sex Ed. talk if they hadn’t invited him to come, and who’d thought to invite him, and how could he possibly say no, and how could his mother say no when she was all smiles, gratefulness, her entire life revolving around getting him out of there for him to be seen and loved, and that whole adventure of the mobile medical unit, the nurses sent there especially and an ambulance and breaking that asphyxiating routine, all so that the boy could see the proper way to put on a condom, the proper way for other people to do it, but not him.
“By that same logic, he should participate in field day at the end of the year.”
“We’ve thought about that, too.”
They’d thought about it? Really? He wasn’t joking? The boy propped up in his gurney like a book on a lectern, with his flattened head and his immobile body, out there on the field watching the other kids running, jumping, throwing water balloons at each other, shining, playing around, wanting each other, and he, meanwhile, raising his pupils a few millimeters to say, yes SO MUCH FUN? I was overcome with anger for a moment, then with laughter, then I hesitated for a second. Why would the principal, and everyone else, according to him, the Language teacher, the Art teacher, why would they all see it as so bright when I saw it as so dark, there it was again, maybe, my tendency always to see things from the most pessimistic angle, those were the exact words someone I once loved very much had said to me, “tendency always to see things from the most pessimistic angle,” but I also thought that I wouldn’t gain anything by going against their wishes, the wishes of the boy himself and his mother, according to the principal, who now insisted on telling me, in no uncertain terms, that the boy would participate in all possible activities, that I’d better get used to it—with a hint of threat—that society better get used to it, society as a whole, which is uncomfortable with what’s different, which places a blindfold over its eyes because they don’t want to look at other human beings different from them, a festive and hedonistic society that doesn’t accept the suffering and sacrifice and vitality of others, of those below them, the ones they consider useless, unfit, incapable, ugly, and he was lecturing me, he was preaching, I was perfectly aware, but I lowered my head because I also thought that there was some truth to his words, at least what he said about not wanting to look, I really didn’t like to look at the boy, I preferred to pretend that he didn’t exist, I would have preferred that he’d never been born, and the principal had always been a good speaker, he could clearly express his arguments, but I couldn’t, I expressed myself clumsily, I got too nervous, I lacked vocabulary, and he outdid me, he almost convinced me, and yes, I ended up giving in to him, maybe I was wrong, I said, even though I didn’t really believe it, not totally, I added that I’d only been thinking about what was best for the boy, but he interrupted, now that he knew he’d won he wouldn’t accept excuses, what’s best for the boy is to be able to take part in life at school, as hard as that might be, as complicated as it might be, that was the goal, and he wasn’t going to allow anyone to question that goal, and everything had already been arranged, and all I had to do was go along with it and not create obstacles, and it had all already been discussed, and I said OK, I said OK and I left.
Then I ran to the car with a tickling of discomfort in my stomach, but when I started the engine I forgot about the boy immediately, I just stared at the flyer someone had placed on my windshield, “We get rid of fines, consolidate debts, financial planning, ask about our services.” They did everything, and I saw that the rain had softened the flyer, and it had stuck to the glass so that when I turned on the windshield wipers it became a scrap of paper with smeared ink, “ask deb finan fine consol,” a paste that only came free, piece by piece, as the car picked up speed on the way home.
Then everything else happened. The looks in the hallway, the whispers, the insistent rumors. She was against it, she was the one who didn’t want to do it, it was all her fault, she didn’t get the students prepared, there should have been some filter first, she didn’t do anything, she did it all. And yet we all knew it was going to happen. We put one foot over the edge of the cliff, and we fell, that’s all it was, that’s what I think. The girl in charge of the talk, the sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was, had accepted it with professionalism when I told her, of course, it was no problem, she said, psychology applied to sexual education includes all kinds of cases, there was nothing to worry about. He can’t move anything, I explained, not a single part of his body, he’s critical, “vegetable,” I was going to say—but I didn’t—she made a calming gesture with her hand, impatient, don’t worry, really, I’ve seen worse. Worse? I had to laugh inside. Later I studied her when he arrived, I scrutinized her face for any traces of surprise, fear, maybe some small movement of her jaw or the size of her pupils, and I did it as discreetly as possible, but a bit shamelessly even so, I suppose, and, it was true, she didn’t seem to be perturbed in the slightest when presented with all the paraphernalia, the ambulance pulling into the field, the lowering of the hospital bed, the sight of his body moving closer under the sun, with that whitish tone that made you think more of rubber than of human flesh, the clatter of the wires, the tubes, the mother hovering, the teachers hovering, the students already leaning out of the windows. And then, in the classroom, the giggles, the elbowing and pushing, but what was that about, I wondered, after all there is always giggling at these talks, it could all be ambiguous, it was all ambiguous, except for the boy on one side of the classroom like an unambiguous reality, propped up but still not able to see everything, without being able to giggle, hermetic and enigmatic. The sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was asked the students questions, she made them participate, speak, she let them take turns asking questions, while the specialist sat beside him, ready with her chart and pointer in case the boy was asked about masculine and feminine contraceptives, if he knew where the morning-after pill was sold, and how, and the risks associated, if he really believed that the first time couldn’t lead to pregnancy, she was ready just in case, but the sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was smoothly put an end to the participatory atmosphere and stopped asking questions, it was now all pure lecture, in a dynamic tone, I’ll give her that, youthful and casual, as is usual in presentations of that nature. Meanwhile, the mother was waiting outside, sitting on a bench in the hallway, drinking the coffee they’d offered her in the teachers’ lounge, and the paramedics watched the senior girls playing basketball on the new court, all shiny.
Everything pointed right to it, and we weren’t able to see it.
It was the girl who started it, one of the kids who’d been held back a year, dark-haired, with her gum, her long earrings, her long hair, her long nails, a girl who was both vulgar and gorgeous at the same time, she started to giggle, shaking her shoulders without dissimulation, her eyes half closed in laughter, right at the point that the sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was had leaned toward the edge of the bed so the boy could see the crude representation of the penis and condom—she called it a “prophylactic”—and, of course, she laughed, I thought, it was a nervous laugh really, almost cathartic, something probably inevitable that someone had to do because we were all very tense, all of us except maybe the specialist, who kept her chart ready, if only she’d just kept quiet, if only, I thought, we would have all kept playing out the comedy as if it were normal, pretending that we hadn’t heard the laugh, but no, she had to stand up, she had to go over to the girl—a lioness, as I already well knew—and confront her and ask her what was wrong with her, what she was laughing at, what was so funny, shouting right at the lioness, who answered right back—this one wasn’t going to keep quiet, she never kept quiet—saying what we were all thinking, why would they teach that kid about it if he was never going to be able to do it?
“You never know what we’re going to do in life. Maybe a bus will hit you later and kill you, and you won’t be able to do it either.”
The girl slapped her thigh. “Yeah, right,” she said. “I’ve already done it a ton of times! Just try to take those fucks away from me!”
That was it, an explosion of laughter, commotion spread through the room, a tide of voices, laughs, insults, and whistles, and I stood up, too, I asked the girl to keep quiet, while the sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was stood there with her mouth hanging open and the condom in her hand, she still hadn’t gotten the chance to slide it onto the plastic penis, and the specialist raised her voice, you should be ashamed, and the girl, what do you want from me, teacher, I pity the dude. What do you mean pity? You’re going to get kicked out for what you said. And a voice from the back, a smartass, the girl’s boyfriend maybe or one of the many who gathered around the girl, defending her, lion, peacock, grouse himself, with his battle cry, but, teacher, she’s right, if that kid can’t even jack off, why the hell did you bring him?
“Why the hell did you bring him?” Those words to which we pretended to be deaf echoed loudly through the classroom.
Then came the silence. A very brief and total silence that immediately turned back into commotion like labored breathing.
I kicked the couple out of class. The boy’s mother saw them when they went out, she smiled at them because she had no idea what had happened inside—maybe even if she had known, full of compassion and generosity, she would still have smiled at them in the same way. The specialist and the sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was took turns expressing their indignation, giving the group an extra dose of enlightenment, and I added some comments of my own, this can’t be, we have to work more on fairness, no one should laugh at anyone, we all have the same rights, while the students calmed down, some even clearly ashamed at what had happened, scandalized by the rudeness of the ones who’d been kicked out and, some, ready to continue with the class to get it over with as soon as possible, looking at the boy out of the corner of their eyes, lying stiff in his bed like he hadn’t heard anything, like he didn’t know anything, without showing the slightest sign of anything.
Once order had been restored, the talk continued and, after another half hour, it was over.
The principal was now waiting at the door, talking to the mother, or, more like, talking at the mother, who nodded with a nervous expression as if she were trying to understand but she didn’t quite. When they moved the gurney out, everyone crowded around the boy, and by everyone I mean the sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was, the specialist, two or three other teachers who taught in the adjoining classrooms, and me, too. I remember that a ray of light, filtered through one of the skylights, fell on the boy’s face, right over his eyes, and I thought that maybe it would bother him when he had to move his pupils, but no one said anything, and neither did I. The specialist took out her chart, she tousled his hair—very straight, with bald patches at the back from where the bed rubbed—took a breath and asked him the same old question: how was everything? Then the listing of the letters, a, e, s, o, r, n, the rapid movement of the pointer, the message taking shape in our heads, the message that made the abnormal normal once again:
VERY GOOD ENJOYED EVERYTHING LEARNED A LOT
The specialist leaned sweetly toward the boy without lifting the pointer from the chart. The sexologist-psychologist-or-whatever-she-was was now rubbing his hand maternally, with just the tips of her fingers, an evasive and uncommitted caress. His pupils moved again.
The principal shot me a glance. He didn’t need to say anything: the look itself contained the entirety of his victory. I had a contradictory feeling inside me of guilt, and not only guilt but also the certainty that, even if everything had happened differently, if I had done the opposite and said the opposite and behaved just the opposite, I wouldn’t have been able to make that guilt go away, it was a collective guilt, Guilt With A Capital G, the guilt of the healthy in the face of illness or, to go even further, I’d say, the guilt of life in the face of death, a guilt that pulsed within just a few millimeters, that is, if it didn’t sound so solemn and so corny and, at the same time, if it didn’t sound so uncomfortably true.
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