Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font  

The Zahir, Page 2

Paulo Coelho

  Tourism and money can perform miracles, but how come I haven’t noticed this before? It has obviously been a long time since Esther and I met here to drink hot chocolate, even though we have each been away and come back several times during that period. There is always something more important. There is always some unpostponable appointment. Yes, my love, we’ll have that hot chocolate next time, come back soon; I’ve got a really important interview today and won’t be able to pick you up at the airport, take a taxi; my cell phone’s on, call me if there’s anything urgent; otherwise, I’ll see you tonight.

  My cell phone! I take it out of my pocket and immediately turn it on; it rings several times, and each time my heart turns over. On the tiny screen I see the names of the people who have been trying to get in touch with me, but reply to none of them. I hope for someone “unidentified” to appear, because that would be she, since only about twenty people know my number and have sworn not to pass it on. It doesn’t appear, only the numbers of friends or trusted colleagues. They must be eager to know what happened, they want to help (but how?), to ask if I need anything.

  The telephone keeps ringing. Should I answer it? Should I arrange to meet up with some of these people?

  I decide to remain alone until I’ve managed to work out what is going on.

  I reach the Hôtel Bristol, which Esther always described as one of the few hotels in Paris where customers are treated like guests rather than homeless people in search of shelter. I am greeted as if I were a friend of the family; I choose a table next to an exquisite clock; I listen to the piano and look out at the garden.

  I need to be practical, to study the options; after all, life goes on. I am not the first nor will I be the last man whose wife has left him, but did it have to happen on a sunny day, with everyone in the street smiling and children singing, with the first signs of spring just beginning to show, the sun shining, and drivers stopping at pedestrian crossings?

  I pick up a napkin. I’m going to get these ideas out of my head and put them down on paper. Let’s leave sentiment to one side and see what I should do:

  (a) Consider the possibility that she really has been kidnapped and that her life is in danger at this very moment, and that I, as her husband and constant companion, must therefore move heaven and earth to find her.

  Response to this possibility: she took her passport with her. The police don’t know this, but she also took several other personal items with her, among them a wallet containing images of various patron saints which she always carries with her whenever she goes abroad. She also withdrew money from her bank.

  Conclusion: she was clearly preparing to leave.

  (b) Consider the possibility that she believed a promise someone gave her and it turned out to be a trap.

  Response: she had often put herself in dangerous situations before; it was part of her job, but she always warned me when she did so, because I was the only person she could trust completely. She would tell me where she was going to be, who she was going to see (although, so as not to put me at risk, she usually used the person’s nom de guerre), and what I should do if she did not return by a certain time.

  Conclusion: she was not planning a meeting with one of her informants.

  (c) Consider the possibility that she has met another man.

  Response: there is no response. Of all the hypotheses, this is the only one that makes any sense. And yet I can’t accept it, I can’t accept that she would leave like that, without giving me a reason. Both Esther and I have always prided ourselves on confronting all life’s difficulties together. We suffered, but we never lied to each other, although it was part of the rules of the game not to mention any extramarital affairs. I was aware that she had changed a lot since meeting this fellow Mikhail, but did that justify ending a marriage that has lasted ten years?

  Even if she had slept with him and fallen in love, wouldn’t she weigh in the balance all the time that we had spent together and everything we had conquered before setting off on an adventure from which there was no turning back? She was free to travel whenever she wanted to, she lived surrounded by men, soldiers who hadn’t seen a woman in ages, but I never asked any questions, and she never told me anything. We were both free, and we were proud of that.

  But Esther had disappeared and left clues that were visible only to me, as if it were a secret message: I’m leaving.


  Is that question worth answering?

  No. Because hidden in the answer is my own inability to keep the woman I love by my side. Is it worth finding her and persuading her to come back? Begging and imploring her to give our marriage another chance?

  That seems ridiculous: it would be better merely to suffer as I had in the past, when other people I loved had left me. It would be better just to lick my wounds, as I had also done in the past. For a while, I’ll think obsessively about her, I’ll become embittered, I’ll bore my friends because all I ever talk about is my wife leaving me. I’ll try to justify what happened, spend days and nights reviewing every moment spent by her side, I’ll conclude that she was too hard on me, even though I always tried to do my best. I’ll find other women. When I walk down the street, I’ll keep seeing women who could be her. I’ll suffer day and night, night and day. This could take weeks, months, possibly a year or more.

  Until one morning, I’ll wake up and find I’m thinking about something else, and then I’ll know the worst is over. My heart might be bruised, but it will recover and become capable of seeing the beauty of life once more. It’s happened before, it will happen again, I’m sure. When someone leaves, it’s because someone else is about to arrive—I’ll find love again.

  For a moment, I savor the idea of my new state: single and a millionaire. I can go out in broad daylight with whomever I want. I can behave at parties in a way I haven’t behaved in years. The news will travel fast, and soon all kinds of women, the young and the not so young, the rich and the not as rich as they would like to be, the intelligent and those trained to say only what they think I would like to hear, will all come knocking at my door.

  I want to believe that it is wonderful to be free. Free again. Ready to find my one true love, who is waiting for me and who will never allow me to experience such humiliation again.

  I finish my hot chocolate and look at the clock; I know it is still too soon for me to be able to enjoy the agreeable feeling that I am once more part of humanity. For a few moments, I imagine that Esther is about to come in through that door, walk across the beautiful Persian carpets, sit down beside me and say nothing, just smoke a cigarette, look out at the courtyard garden and hold my hand. Half an hour passes, and for half an hour I believe in the story I have just created, until I realize that it is pure fantasy.

  I decide not to go home. I go over to reception, ask for a room, a toothbrush, and some deodorant. The hotel is full, but the manager fixes things for me: I end up with a lovely suite looking out at the Eiffel Tower, a terrace, the rooftops of Paris, the lights coming on one by one, the families getting together to have Sunday supper. And the feeling I had in the Champs-Elysées returns: the more beautiful everything is around me, the more wretched I feel.

  No television. No supper. I sit on the terrace and look back over my life, a young man who dreamed of becoming a famous writer, and who suddenly saw that the reality was completely different—he writes in a language almost no one reads, in a country which is said to have almost no reading public. His family forces him to go to university (any university will do, my boy, just as long as you get a degree; otherwise you’ll never be anyone). He rebels, travels the world during the hippie era, meets a singer, writes a few song lyrics, and is suddenly earning more money than his sister, who listened to what her parents said and decided to become a chemical engineer….

  I write more songs, the singer goes from strength to strength; I buy a few apartments and fall out with the singer, but still have enough capital not to have to work for the next few years. I get married for
the first time, to an older woman, I learn a lot—how to make love, how to drive, how to speak English, how to lie in bed until late—but we split up because she considers me to be “emotionally immature, and too ready to chase after any girl with big enough breasts.” I get married for a second and a third time to women I think will give me emotional stability: I get what I want, but discover that the stability I wanted is inseparable from a deep sense of tedium.

  Two more divorces. Free again, but it’s just a feeling; freedom is not the absence of commitments, but the ability to choose—and commit myself to—what is best for me.

  I continue my search for love, I continue writing songs. When people ask me what I do, I say I’m a writer. When they say they only know my song lyrics, I say that’s just part of my work. When they apologize and say they’ve never read any of my books, I explain that I’m working on a project—which is a lie. The truth is that I have money, I have contacts, but what I don’t have is the courage to write a book. My dream is now realizable, but if I try and fail, I don’t know what the rest of my life will be like; that’s why it’s better to live cherishing a dream than face the possibility that it might all come to nothing.

  One day, a journalist comes to interview me. She wants to know what it’s like to have my work known all over the country but to be entirely unknown myself, since normally it’s only the singer who appears in the media. She’s pretty, intelligent, quiet. We meet again at a party, where there’s no pressure of work, and I manage to get her into bed that same night. I fall in love, but she’s not remotely interested. When I phone, she always says she’s busy. The more she rejects me, the more interested I become, until, at last, I manage to persuade her to spend a weekend at my house in the country. (I may have been the black sheep of the family, but sometimes rebellion pays off: I was the only one of my friends at that stage in our lives to have bought a house in the country.)

  We spend three days alone, contemplating the sea. I cook for her, and she tells me stories about her work and ends up falling in love with me. We come back to the city, she starts sleeping at my apartment on a regular basis. One morning, she leaves earlier than usual and returns with her typewriter; from then on, without anything being said, my home becomes her home too.

  The same conflicts I had with my previous wives begin to surface: women are always looking for stability and fidelity, while I’m looking for adventure and the unknown. This time, though, the relationship lasts longer. Nevertheless, two years on, I decide it’s time for Esther to take her typewriter back to her own apartment, along with everything else she brought with her.

  “It’s not going to work.”

  “But you love me and I love you, isn’t that right?”

  “I don’t know. If you’re asking me if I like your company, the answer is yes. If, on the other hand, you’re asking me if I could live without you, the answer is also yes.”

  “I’m glad I wasn’t born a man. I’m very content with my female condition. All you expect of us women is that we can cook well. Men, on the other hand, are expected to be able to do everything—they’ve got to be able to keep a home afloat, make love, take care of the children, bring in the money, and be successful.”

  “That’s not it either: I’m very happy with myself. I enjoy your company, but I just don’t think it’s going to work.”

  “You enjoy my company, but hate being by yourself. You’re always looking for adventure in order to forget more important things. You always want to feel the adrenaline flowing in your veins and you forget that the only thing that should be flowing through them is blood.”

  “I’m not running away from important things. Give me an example of something important.”

  “Writing a book.”

  “I can do that any time.”

  “Go on then, do it. Then, if you like, we can go our separate ways.”

  I find her comment absurd; I can write a book whenever I want to; I know publishers, journalists, all of whom owe me favors. Esther is just a woman who’s afraid of losing me, she’s inventing things. I tell her it’s over, our relationship is at an end, it isn’t a matter of what she thinks would make me happy, it’s about love.

  What is love? she asks. I spend half an hour explaining and realize that I can’t come up with a good definition.

  She says that, since I don’t know how to define love, I should try and write a book.

  I say that the two things are completely unrelated. I’m going to leave the apartment that very day; she can stay there for as long as she likes. I’ll go and stay in a hotel until she has found somewhere else to live. She says that’s fine by her, I can leave now, the apartment will be free within the month—she’ll start looking for a new place tomorrow. I pack my bags, and she goes and reads a book. I say it’s getting late, I’ll leave tomorrow. She says I should leave at once because, tomorrow, I won’t feel as strong or as determined. I ask her if she’s trying to get rid of me. She laughs and says I was the one who wanted to end the relationship. We go to bed, and the following day, the desire to leave is not as urgent, and I decide I need to think things through. Esther, however, says the matter isn’t over yet: this scenario will simply keep recurring as long as I refuse to risk everything for what I believe to be my real reason for living; in the end, she’ll become unhappy and will leave me. Except that, if she left, she would do so immediately and burn any bridges that would allow her to come back. I ask her what she means. She’d get another boyfriend, she says, fall in love.

  She goes off to her work at the newspaper, and I decide to take a day’s leave (apart from writing lyrics, I’m also working for a recording company). I sit down at the typewriter. I get up again, read the papers, reply to some urgent letters, and, when I’ve done that, start replying to nonurgent letters. I make a list of things I need to do, I listen to music, I take a walk around the block, chat to the baker, come home, and suddenly the whole day has gone and I still haven’t managed to type a single sentence. I decide that I hate Esther, that she’s forcing me to do things I don’t want to do.

  When she gets home, she doesn’t ask me anything, but I admit that I haven’t managed to do any writing. She says that I have the same look in my eye as I did yesterday.

  The following day I go to work, but that evening I again go over to the desk on which the typewriter is sitting. I read, watch television, listen to music, go back to the machine, and so two months pass, with me accumulating pages and more pages of “first sentences,” but never managing to finish a paragraph.

  I come up with every possible excuse—no one reads in this country; I haven’t worked out a plot; I’ve got a fantastic plot, but I’m still looking for the right way to develop it. Besides, I’m really busy writing an article or a song lyric. Another two months pass, and one day, she comes home bearing a plane ticket.

  “Enough,” she says. “Stop pretending that you’re busy, that you’re weighed down by responsibilities, that the world needs you to do what you’re doing, and just go traveling for a while.” I can always become the editor of the newspaper where I publish a few articles, I can always become the president of the recording company for which I write lyrics, and where I work simply because they don’t want me to write lyrics for their competitors. I can always come back to do what I’m doing now, but my dream can’t wait. Either I accept it or I forget it.

  Where is the ticket for?


  I’m shocked. Air tickets are expensive; besides, I can’t go away now, I’ve got a career ahead of me, and I need to look after it. I’ll lose out on a lot of potential music partnerships; the problem isn’t me, it’s our marriage. If I really wanted to write a book, no one would be able to stop me.

  “You can, you want to, but you don’t,” she says. “Your problem isn’t me, but you, so it would be best if you spent some time alone.”

  She shows me a map. I must go to Madrid, where I’ll catch a bus up to the Pyrenees, on the border with France. That’s where a medieval pilgrimag
e route begins: the road to Santiago. I have to walk the whole way. She’ll be waiting for me at the other end and then she’ll accept anything I say: that I don’t love her anymore, that I still haven’t lived enough to create a literary work, that I don’t even want to think about being a writer, that it was nothing but an adolescent dream.

  This is madness! The woman I’ve been living with for two long years—a real eternity in relationship terms—is making decisions about my life, forcing me to give up my work and expecting me to walk across an entire country! It’s so crazy that I decide to take it seriously. I get drunk several nights running, with her beside me getting equally drunk—even though she hates drinking. I get aggressive; I say she’s jealous of my independence, that the only reason this whole mad idea was born is because I said I wanted to leave her. She says that it all started when I was still at school and dreaming of becoming a writer—no more putting things off; if I don’t confront myself now, I’ll spend the rest of my life getting married and divorced, telling cute anecdotes about my past and going steadily downhill.

  Obviously, I can’t admit she’s right, but I know she’s telling the truth. And the more aware I am of this, the more aggressive I become. She accepts my aggression without complaint; she merely reminds me that the departure date is getting closer.

  One night, shortly before that date, she refuses to make love. I smoke a whole joint of marijuana, drink two bottles of wine, and pass out in the middle of the living room. When I come to, I realize that I have reached the bottom of the pit, and now all that remains is for me to clamber back up to the top. And I, who so pride myself on my courage, see how cowardly, mean, and unadventurous I am being with my own life. That morning, I wake her with a kiss and tell her that I’ll do as she suggests.