by Edward Alban
— Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer
Leonardo Martel, eighty-five years old, retired professor of
Spanish Literature, lecherous roamer throughout his life,
married three times and now widowed, had finally shifted
gears and lived a lonesome quiet life, reminiscing and
daydreaming about the days of love, women and song. Lately
he tired easily and had dizzy spells which invariably brought
premonitions of death. He had called his doctor and made an
appointment, when fate rushed things. One night while driving
home after a dinner party he blacked out at the wheel and
suffered a stroke. His car rolled over an embankment and
crashed against a tree, compounding his stroke with a broken
clavicle, a broken left arm and a concussion that left him in a
coma. Doctors feared the worst. Even if he survived, he could
be trapped in a mute, motionless body that could only hear
and see, with a mind that could only think, reminisce and
From his hospital bed, Leonardo recalled the night of the
accident. He had gone out for dinner with friends at a luxury
hotel and everything had been delightful. On his way out, he
stopped by the men’s room. While at the urinal he looked
around, admiring the spotless room like an altar of pulchritude
with its impeccable marble walls and floors, its spotless
mirrors and glittering fixtures. The elegance, the stillness, the
emptiness imparted intimations of death, which he dismissed
with typical macho bravado, saying, “It’s just la pelada” (“the
baldheaded lady”), as Latins contemptuously call Death.
It was while in this frame of mind, half daydreaming in the
bathroom, that from the corner of his eye he saw a woman
entering the room. She wore a long black evening dress with
white gloves up to her elbows, just like the Givenchy outfit
that Audrey Hepburn wore in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. A fur coat
hung loosely around her neck, draping her shoulders. Could
she be a lady just come from the opera who had walked into
the men's room by mistake? No, she lingered too long for
that. He swallowed hard and addressed her.
“I've been expecting you," he told her. "You are more
beautiful than I ever imagined. But your timing is bad. I didn't
think you'd stoop this low.”
She chortled back: "You call this low? This sumptuous hotel?
You don't know what low is!"
"It’s not the hotel. It’s the indecency of interrupting my piss.”
"Oh, that," the woman said dismissively. "That’s nothing.”
Leonardo finished and washed his hands and turned to face
her. “You are Death, aren’t you?”
“Do I look like Death to you? Take a good look,” she said as
she strutted around hamming it up. She was a beauty of raven
black hair in her late forties.
“What else would you be then? A she-devil? Your outward
beauty doesn’t fool me. It’s a façade. What’s underneath your
finery, dry bones?”
She flung off her fur exposing her lovely bare shoulders. Then
she took off her long white gloves and as she exposed her
arms, she said: “There! You see? It’s all flesh and real!”
“Show me more!”
“Okay,” she said, “but just one quickie little peek.”
He thought she would peel off her clothes gradually, but
instead, with a sudden magic flair, abracadabra, she went
completely naked in seconds, making all her clothes disappear
at once. She stood there naked before him, adopting a Venus
de Milo pose, arms akimbo and intoning: "Tah, dah!"
“Holy guacamole! You're loaded. I always dreamed of dying in
the middle of an orgasm. You can just take me to heaven
right now. I'm ready.”
But she, with another fast legerdemain, snapped her clothes
back on in a flash, saying: "Not so fast, Gramps. You forget
you are a toothless tiger."
“Oh, I wouldn't bet on that,” retorted Leonardo. “One more
look at you in the buff and I’d be re-toothed for action. We
could just go into one of those stalls over there.”
“You are already in arrears, Gramps, cheating fate too many
times with your cat lives.”
“All the more reason to take my eternal soul once and for all.
Isn’t that what you want?”
“Well, we do tease, and we also aim to please, although not
as much as you'd like.”
The old man walked toward her determined to touch her, to
pinch her, to embrace her. She started backing off from him.
Just then, a man entered the room and the lady went poof,
popping off like a soap bubble.
He left the restroom, grumbling about the crapper who had
spoiled it all. Damn, to be so close to heaven and lose it all
to the intrusion of one crapadoccio! He left the hotel and was
driving home, still thinking of the restroom episode,
remembering the woman, how beautiful she was. It was then
he had the accident.
From his hospital bed he could hear the doctors and nurses
talking about strokes, aneurisms and comas, but he might as
well have been on the moon, observing that hospital room. At
times he despaired. His condition was getting to be sheer
torture and he wanted to die. He didn’t care how death came
anymore. He would welcome her even if she came as the Grim
Reaper, as the ugly pelada.
Time stood still for him and he slept a lot. When awake, he
would recite poetry to himself to pass the time. But
sometimes, when he really wanted to spice up his life, he
thought of the woman in the restroom, Lady D, as he called
her. She intrigued him. Was she Death parading as a
goddess? Her image eluded him now. He could only envision
her vaguely, darkly and he asked questions for which he had
no answer. Why, if she was Death, hadn’t she taken him?
Why did she let him survive the accident? Why was she
prolonging his agony? Was she inept perhaps, klutzy at
killing? How could she botch it up so badly? Or was she being
cruel, punishing him, but for what?
Several days went by and then one day a nurse came into the
room who reminded him of Lady D. There was a resemblance,
but he couldn’t get a good look. She came in and out of view
as she went about her business, reading charts, checking
connections, adjusting things. But there was one way to find
out. If he addressed her telepathically, the only way he could,
and she heard him, it would be Lady D because a nurse, not
being part of his dream world, could not hear his mind.
“Is that you, Lady D? What are you doing in a nurse’s
Then his prayers were answered. The nurse turned around
immediately at the sound of his thought. “What? Are you
awake? I didn’t want to disturb you. Yes, it’s me.”
“Come closer. I can’t move.”
“Oh, you poor thing. You've been through a lot…”
She was like a rescue ship breaking over the horizon toward
his shipwrecked island; she was sunshine flooding the
dungeon of his dreary existence. He heard music. Joy flowed
through his veins like a breath of spring.
“Oh, my God, it’s you. I’ve missed you so much. I am so glad
to see you. I’ve been through wars! Listen, please take me
now! I’m ready to go. Do it any way you see fit, but just do it.”
She didn’t say anything. She just patted his hand in a gesture
of sympathy and caring. So he pressed the issue.
“Did you hear what I said? I am ready to die. Don’t play
games with me anymore. What are you waiting for? This
hospital ought to be a gateway to your kingdom. You got
everything here: germs, bacteria, infections, lethal drugs and
malpractice—all sorts of weapons to finish me off. So, please,
be done with it. But, of course, if you really wanted to do it
right, I still think sex would be the best way to go.”
“What a dirty old man you are, so obsessed with sex.”
“It’s your fault, for being so beautiful, so irresistible. You are
Niagara Falls to a man who has just walked across a desert
and is dying of thirst and who would gladly drown in your
She started to say something, but an intern and a nurse came
into the room and Lady D disappeared again. Leonardo cursed
the intruders to the top of his voice from his inaudible world.
“Damn you! You idiots, you ran her off! Now it will take
another eternity until I see her again!”
Time passed slowly without her. While the intruders went
about their business, he thought about her. He had so many
questions to ask her. Who was she, really? Why would Death
be playing such a waiting game with him? You’d think Death
would be rapacious like a famished hyena. And then, also,
why the teasing? Why did she drop her clothes? Much as he
loved it, he didn’t understand her game. There was so much
she had to explain.
Lady D reappeared shortly after in what seemed like hours to
“Thank God you’re back! When you leave me, my world is a
torture chamber. I feel dunked under water, choking for a
breath of air. It’s pure hell. When you return, I resurface. I
see blue skies. I breathe fresh air again.”
Lady D smiled as she approached him. “You poor dear. I’m
going to stay longer. I promise. But there are some things we
need to clear up right away. I know how much you are
suffering not knowing who I am. So, let me tell you. First and
above all, I am not Death! Get that through your head.
Please! I have no power whatsoever over your life. So, please
don’t ask me to take you from this world because I can’t. I
know you thought I was Death and, to be honest, I did
nothing to correct that impression. I sort of played along. For
that, I sincerely apologize. That also goes, and doubly so, for
the nude scene—that silly little drama in the restroom. But it
won’t happen again.”
“Oh, no, no,” he objected. “Please, don’t—”
“No, let me finish. You need to be very clear about who I am.
To repeat, I am not Death. I do not have her powers. All of
which brings us to our next question, which is: who then, am
I? Well, I am just a figment of your very fertile and implacably
sexed up imagination. It happens that you have been wrapped
up in thoughts of Death and fantasies about women and you
fused me into a composite of Death-as-woman.”
“I love the way you tell me off.”
“Yes, as I was saying, I am a creature of your imagination
and, as such, whether you know it or not, you control me more
than I control you. I appear before you because you summon
me to the stage of your dreams. You call for me with such
longing that I cannot ignore you. I come to your rescue, trying
to help, but I never know exactly what I have to do. My part is
never fully clear. There is no rehearsing. I feel like an actress
who is thrown onto the stage of your mind and is asked to ad
lib on the spot with no cues. I am supposed to personify your
ideal woman. Trouble is, you love all women and you can’t
make up your mind about your ideal. Should I be docile or
shrewish? Sexy or intellectual? Blonde or brunette? Your
instructions are always changing and imprecise.
“I did my best to spar with you in good fun in that restroom.
But it got out of hand. I regretted it immediately. When you
approached me, bent on taking me to the stall, I had to
invoke a deux ex machina to rescue me. That's why the
crapper –as you call him –popped into the restroom in the nick
of time. I was really calling for a time-out.
“Look, Leonardo, Perhaps the best way to think of me is as
your Pooka, which, as you know, is an imaginary creature from
Irish legends that hangs around lonely men, as in the movie
Harvey with Jimmy Stewart.”
“Yes, but wasn’t his Pooka a giant rabbit in that movie?”
“Yes, indeed, but that wouldn’t work for you. You’re not dotty
and innocent like the Jimmy Stewart character. You are
mischievous and lascivious.”
Leonardo was smiling with a lecherous mien. "My Pooka?
Really?” His mind was already thinking ahead, trying to take
advantage of her pookiness, her servile obligations. “Aren’t
Pookas supposed to grant wishes and try to please?”
“Hah! I know where you are headed. Get this straight. This
Pooka has some will of her own. Things have changed since
your accident. I am not playing the role of femme fatale
anymore. I am more of a nurse and caregiver now. Remember,
also, that I’m part of your intellect and you are a discerning,
cultured, intelligent man. It's not in your nature to want a
dumb rag doll or a floozy for a Pooka. So, be warned: I can
and will countermand you when you get out of line.”
He said nothing. He was content to have her by his side. He
would give her all the latitude in the world just to have her
“And another thing,” she added, "let's be realistic here. You
keep drooling about sex. Well, put that out of your mind. I
will be your platonic friend, gladly. But that's all. Let me give
it to you straight. I am incorporeal. I cannot love you that
At the sound of that, the old man became agitated and
emoted something passionately in Spanish, saying: “Oh, ven,
ven tu!” ("Oh come, come! It's you!").
Startled by his outburst, she asked him: "What was that
The old man looked wistfully at the ceiling, as if recalling a
cherished memory. "Do you know the Spanish poet Gustavo
Adolfo Bécquer? He is a favorite of mine. The line I just
quoted is from his Rimas Amorosas—Love Rhymes. It is
number 51, I think. Here’s the gist of it:
“A man is visited by three women. The first one is a brunette,
swarthy and fiery, who tells him: 'I am full of passion. I can
give you carnal joys galore; I have fire in my lips, excitement,
and fulfillment. Is it me you're looking for?' The man looked at
her, mulling it over and responded: No, it's not you.’
"Then a beautiful blonde came next. She had golden braids
and eyes blue as the sky. She said to him: 'I am gentle, full
of tenderness and sweetness. I can soothe you lovingly. Was
it me you wanted?' And, again, the man said: 'No, it's not you
"Finally, a third woman appeared, saying: 'I am a dream, an
unreachable untouchable apparition of fog and light. I am
intangible. I cannot love you.' And before she could ask her
question, the man said, excitedly: 'Oh ven, ven tu.'"
“Aha, you see?” said Lady D. "There you have it. The poet got
that right. I, too, am just a phantom. You should be like the
man in the poem and be content with your dream, my friend.”
“But I, too, want nothing else but your friendship and
companionship now. Forgive me if I got carried away. I won’t
bother you with sex anymore. But please, please, just stay by
me. Don’t leave me. That's all I ask. I am fond of you and I
need you. I want nothing more than to have you around me so
I can see you, hear you and talk to you. You are all I have in
this abominable limbo. And, God knows, I could be here for a
long time, especially if these misguided Samaritans succeed
in keeping me alive by their artificial means. They should just
pull the plug and let me go. Ah, just look at them come and
go with their life-sustaining contraptions, rigging their
machines to keep on goosing a comatose horse. Look at them
adjusting things and watching their dials.”
Lady D interrupted him to make a point. "Has it occurred to
you that they may have reason to think you could be cured?"
"No. I can't see that and, actually, even if they could, I don't
want it. I'm ready to go. I think they are chicken about
making a tough decision. They think I can't hear them, but I
can. I know what they are saying. 'Does he have a DNR
voucher?' the doctor asks the nurse. 'Yes sir,' says the nurse.
'Next of kin have been notified'. They talk in acronyms, but I
know their jargon. By the way, do you know what DNR means?
It means: Do Not Resuscitate.
“The fact is that I’ve wanted to die for quite some time, even
before all this. I was probably headed for a nursing home and
I dreaded that more than death. Of course, after the accident
I begged for death. But since you came I am happy. I feel
lucky to be marooned in this timeless cocoon with a lovely
goddess by my side.”
Lady D caressed his face tenderly and kissed him on the
cheek. Her long black hair cascaded all around him and
enclosed his face in a soft canopy with the bewitching aroma
of something sweet like lavender or jasmine that was like an
aphrodisiac to him.
"You are a bundle of contradictions, Leonardo. You don’t want
to live, but you don’t want to die. You want to stay like this,
but how long do you think this will last?”
“I have no idea. Some people live this way for years. But this
is for sure: if you left me, I’d want to die right away.”
“Well, I won't leave you. I’ll stay for as long as you need me.
We’ll play games. We’ll think of something to pass away the
They both remained silent, each to their thoughts. He thought
that, much as he loved her, this was not natural. There was a
limit to human endurance under these conditions, not being
able to move, to speak, to enjoy food or drink.
She, too, wondered how long this could last. At some point he
would get tired of her. What could she do to entertain him?
For how long could she make his hours happy under these
Leonardo had always been resourceful and had always
managed to make the best of trying circumstances. Surely,
there had to be a trick. He searched desperately for a
solution. In his heart, he knew there was a way. Then, after
twenty minutes of brain-storming, he had his eureka moment.
Suddenly, he sat up in bed. He was young again, half his age
“Hey, look at me! I am free and young like you. I can move. I
can jump. Isn't this great?”
“Oh, my God, what's going on here? Have you died?”
"Nope! I am alive. This is neither magic nor supernatural
hocus pocus. This, my dear Dee, is just my mind taking the
reins of a hopeless situation and letting my imagination be all
it can be. Whatever damages my brain may have suffered,
have not affected my imagination and it is high time I ran it
to its maximum. I don’t know what took me so long to realize
that I can dream. Man, I can dream! But I have not been
using my mind to its full potential. But starting now, look out!”
Suddenly the room expanded. The walls moved outward and
the ceiling rose. The small hospital room zoomed to the size
of a big ballroom. Light flooded the space.
“Wow! Wow!” said Lady D, astonished. “Is this your mind
doing all this?”
“Yup! My mind is taking over. The world is a slave of my
imagination now. It took me a while to figure out the
paradoxes of this existence. My mind transcends my brain
itself. Why should my imagination be confined to the limits of
my prison? I am free to roam. I can be whatever I dare dream.
Why limit myself to the confines of my decrepit body? How
dumb! I have just opened the bird cage of my mind and my
imagination is flying freely. My heart and soul are unleashed!
That's what's happening here, my dear Dee. I am free. Come
and dance with me. We can have a ball now."
He embraced her as the room suddenly filled with music. They
waltzed and tangoed with abandon, drunk with joy.
“Long live my coma!" he shouted as they turned. "Who would
have thought that within this coma was an oasis, a corner of
paradise with the fountain of youth. Youth is mine again.
“I'll drink to that.”
“What will you have? You just name it. I can turn air into
“Goodness! Don’t overdo it.”
Leonardo tapped on a table and materialized a bottle of
champagne and two flutes and raised a toast. “To modern
medicine! To the machines that take our fate out of the hands
of nature and put them in the hands of man. And, above all,
here’s to you, my lovely Dee, who brings me so much
“I'm so glad for you, Leonardo. May this idyll last a long, long
After carrying on with abandon for a few minutes, they sat
down on the bed side by side to rest and catch their breath.
He stared at her, still not believing that it could be so easy to
turn his coma into a heavenly interlude. He started rubbing
her, caressing her. He tried to kiss her, but suddenly she
acted coy. She met him only half way.
“What's the matter now?” he asked, exasperated. “We have
heaven all to ourselves and you are acting strange. I don't
understand. A minute ago you were so happy.”
“I'm sorry. A terrible, most upsetting thought just flashed
through my head. Something you said just hit me with
delayed effect. You said: our fate is no longer in the hands of
nature, but in the hands of man and his machines.”
“Yes, that's right. That's why we could stay like this for a long
"Or not!" she said firmly in rebuttal.
“Why is that?”
“I am not sure that this machine setup ensures much time for
us. I fear something so awful that I can't even say it.”
“What is it? Spit it out.”
“Oh, God. Just when you thought you had found happiness
and could touch heaven with your hands, it all comes tumbling
"What are you talking about? What's the problem?
“The problem is that somebody could pull the plug any time
“Why would they do that?”
“Because --don't you remember? --you signed a paper: Do Not
Resuscitate. They could end this bliss with the flip of a
switch. If doctors thought you could never regain your health,
they could just pull the plug.”
“Oh, my God. What a trap! Damn!”
He paced the floor like a wild man, gesticulating, moaning,
cursing, and pulling his hair. "Is there any way we could pass
word to them to disregard that note?"
“I can't think of any. The process is probably already under
way. Your family has surely been called by now. They respect
your wishes and will want to put you out of your misery. To
them you are nothing but a vegetable. They think you are in a
living hell. All they have to do is give the order: 'Do it!’”
“Damn it! Shit!”
“I'm so sorry. This is a real bummer...just when you thought
you had it made.”
They embraced, consoling each other, trying to find strength
in accepting what they could not change.
"I feel like a condemned man,” he said. “A scene from
Puccini's Tosca keeps playing in my head. I feel like
Cavaradossi in that opera. He has just written his farewell
before being shot. I hear the aria 'E Lucevan le Stelle.' It fits
me so well. It is so beautiful. Cavaradossi ends the aria,
saying: 'I never loved life so much!' as he goes to face the
“Yes, yes, I hear it too. It's lovely.”
After a few long minutes he regained his composure. "Well,
you know what? I was ready to die anyway. When you first
came, I thought of you as a frightful presage of the end. You
were Death and I wanted to take you to the stall and die by
seismic orgasm. Instead, you became the promise of new
beginnings. You bloomed in the desert of my life. You brought
me joy and hope. Wouldn’t it be great to fall back on Plan A
again and beat the doctors to the plug? Let them be surprised
when they come to turn off the machines and find my happy
cadaver. Mr. Leonardo Martel regrets.… What do you
“I am game for anything you want. I want to please you. But
this has been so upsetting, after all we've been through. Let's
give it a little time.”
“I didn't mean right now. We don't need to rush things.”
A few minutes elapsed in silence. They held hands and gazed
into each other's eyes, and then he had an idea. "Aha! I've
thought of something. Bear with me. I’m not joking. I’ve never
been as sincere as I am now. What if I proposed? Would you
be willing to marry me? I can't think of anything I want more
for the rest of my life than to be married to you. This should
show you how much I love you and respect you now. So,
would you marry me?"
She burst into laughter. "You are crazy. You're nuts! It's a wild
idea, but I love it. Who is going to marry us here? Have you
thought of that?"
"We will marry us! We are not just two people here, Dee. We
are a world. And we are king and queen. We are our own
ensemble of cleric, congregationists, wedding party and bride
and groom. We make up a diverse totality in this wild world of
my mind, where just the two of us matter. Everything else is
props, and I'll take care of those. You just repeat the
appropriate lines after I make my pledge. But first, you have
to say whether you are really game to marry me. You must
answer that from your heart."
“Then, I say, yes. Oh, yes. Yes!”
“Good. Then, without further ado, here is my vow: I, Leonardo
Martel, take thee, Lady D, to be my wife, for the rest of my
life and, if possible, beyond forever.”
She said her vows similarly and then he uttered (through a
distant voice, like a ventriloquist): "You are now man and
wife. You may kiss the bride."
They kissed passionately. They told each other 'I love you'
from the bottom of their hearts and between kisses he told
her: "Love me to death now. I am all yours. Swallow my soul."
She responded with body language, unbuttoning her blouse.
Then she added, "I'll die with you, you know. But I am game.
Let us pack an eternity into the time we have left. Let’s cram
a decade’s worth of happiness into each minute we have left.
I only hope that death slow pokes her way getting here. Let
her arrive some time past the third climax, when the fireworks
still light up our sky and the moans of joy still thunder."
“Oh, Dee, you are turning out to be the three women in
Bécquer’s poem all rolled into one. You are passion,
tenderness and, as if that weren’t enough, you are the
ineffable ideal of my deepest heart’s desire come true. I knew
you were special. You are poetry. You are love. You are the
fire of a thousand suns come to embrace me. I love you, Dee.”
They loved for the timeless moments of a bliss that could not
be measured in mortal time. The energy generated by their
love caused short circuits in the electro-cardiograms and life
machines. The gauges ran haywire; the bells and whistles
rang and whined. When the nurses caught the wailing alarms
in his room and went to check on him, they found him dead,
but with the smile of a Cheshire cat, like a cherub contented
in his heaven.
Edward Alban was born in Ecuador and moved to the U.S. at age
14. He is a retired professor of economics living in Savannah,
Georgia. He has published a novel, Dialogues of the Sleeping Mind
(Dogear, 2011) and a collection of short stories, Stories that Words
Told Me (Authorhouse, 2007).
|Yo soy un sueño, un imposible
Vano fantasma de niebla y luz;
Soy incorpórea, soy intangible;
No puedo amarte.
¡Oh, ven, ven tú!
|I am a dream, an impossible
fleeting phantom of fog and light
I’m incorporeal, intangible
I cannot love you.
Oh, come, come; it’s you!