SHORT STORY CONTEST
LOVE RHYME NUMBER 51
by Edward Alban
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!
— 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 dream.
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 uniform?”
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 waters.”
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 him.
“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 near.
“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 way.”
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 about?”
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 either.’
“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 time.”
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 conditions?
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 in fact.
“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. Mine!”
“I’ll drink to that.”
“What will you have? You just name it. I can turn air into champagne now.”
“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 happiness.”
“I’m so glad for you, Leonardo. May this idyll last a long, long time!”
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 time.”
“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 down.”
“What are you talking about? What’s the problem?
“The problem is that somebody could pull the plug any time now.”
“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 firing squad.”
“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 say?”
“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).