My wife didn’t miss the refinements she had been accustomed to, and the day the shipment of furniture and household goods I had ordered to surprise her arrived at the door, all she said was how “lovely” it was. I myself had to figure out where everything should go; she didn’t seem to care at all. The new house was decked out with a luxury unrivaled even in those magnificent days before the place was passed down to my father, who left it a ruin. Huge colonial pieces made of blond oak and walnut arrived, along with heavy wool carpets, and lamps of hammered iron and copper. I ordered a set of hand-painted English china worthy of an embassy, a full set of glassware, four chests stuffed with decorations, linen sheets and tablecloths, and a whole collection of classical and popular records with their own modern Victrola. Any other woman would have been delighted with all this and would have had her work cut out for her for months to come, but not Clara, who was impervious to these things. All she managed to do was train a couple of cooks and the daughters of two of our tenants to help around the house, and as soon as she was free of brooms and saucepans she returned to her notebooks and her tarot cards. She spent most of her day busy with the sewing workshop, the infirmary, and the schoolhouse. I left her alone, because those chores made her whole existence worthwhile. She was a charitable and generous woman, eager to make those around her happy—everyone except me. After the house collapsed we rebuilt the grocery store, and just to please her I stopped using the slips of pink paper and began to pay my tenants with real money; Clara said that way they could also shop in town and put a little aside if they wanted. But that wasn’t true. All it was good for was for the men to go get themselves dead drunk in the bar at San Lucas and for the women and children to go hungry.
We had a lot of fights about that sort of thing. The tenants were the cause of all our fights. Well, not all. We also talked about the war. I used to follow the progress of the Nazi troops on a map I had hung on the drawing-room wall, while Clara knitted socks for the Allied soldiers. Blanca would hold her head in her hands, not understanding how we could get so excited about a war that had nothing to do with us and that was taking place across the ocean. I suppose we also had misunderstandings for other reasons. Actually, we hardly ever agreed on anything. I don’t think my bad disposition was to blame for all of it, because I was a good husband, nothing like the hothead I had been when I was a bachelor. She was the only woman for me. She still is. One day, Clara had a bolt installed on her bedroom door and after that she never let me in her bed again, except when I forced myself on her and when to have said no would have meant the end of our marriage. At first I thought that she had one of those strange ailments women get from time to time, or else her menopause, but when it persisted for several weeks I decided we’d better have a talk. She calmly explained that our marriage had deteriorated and that she had lost her natural inclination for the pleasures of the flesh. She had concluded that if we had nothing to say to each other, we would also be unable to share a bed, and she seemed surprised that I could spend all day being furious at her and then wish to spend the night making love. I tried to make her see that in this respect men and women are very different, and that despite all my bad habits I still adored her, but it was no use. At the time, I was in better shape than she was even with my accident and though she was much younger. I had lost weight as I got older and I didn’t have an ounce of fat on me. I was as strong and as healthy as I’d been as a young man. I could spend the whole day horseback riding, sleep anywhere, and eat anything I felt like without having to worry about my bladder, my liver, or any of the other organs people talk about incessantly. I’ll admit, my bones ached. On chilly evenings or humid nights, the pain in the bones that had been crushed in the earthquake became so unbearable that I would have to bite my pillow to keep people from hearing my screams. When I couldn’t take another minute, I knocked back a big swig of brandy and two aspirins, but it didn’t help. The funny part of it is that although my sexuality had got more selective over time, I was almost as easily aroused as in my youth. I liked looking at women; I still do. It’s an aesthetic pleasure, almost spiritual. But only Clara awakened any real desire in me, because through all the years of life together we had learned to know each other, and we each had the exact geography of the other at our fingertips. She knew exactly where my most sensitive places were, and she could tell me exactly what I wanted to hear. At an age when most men are bored with their wives and need the stimulation of other women, I was convinced that only with Clara could I make love the way I had on my honeymoon: tirelessly. I wasn’t tempted to look for anyone else.
I remember starting to hound her as soon as the sun went down. In the evenings she would sit and write and I’d pretend to be sucking on my pipe, but actually I was looking at her from the corner of my eye. As soon as she began getting ready to go to bed—she would clean her pen and shut her notebooks—I’d begin. I limped out to the bathroom, spruced myself up, and put on the plush ecclesiastic dressing gown I had bought to seduce her in, but she never seemed to notice. Then I pressed my ear to the door and waited. When I heard her coming down the hall, I jumped out ahead of her. I tried everything from showering her with praise and gifts to threatening to knock down her door and beat her to a pulp, but none of these effects was enough to bridge the gap between us. I suppose it was useless for me to expect her to forget my sour temper of the daytime with all sorts of amorous attentions in the evening. Clara eluded me with that distracted attitude of hers I came to despise. I can’t understand what it was about her that attracted me so much. She was a middle-aged woman, without a trace of flirtatiousness, who walked with a slight shuffle and had lost the unwarranted gaiety that had made her so appealing in her youth. Clara was neither affectionate nor seductive with me. I’m convinced she didn’t love me. There was no reason for me to desire her so outrageously and to let myself get so carried away by her refusal. But I couldn’t help it.