Exclusive fiction for Prospect subscribersby Andrés Neuman / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
Andrés Neuman was born in Buenos Aires in 1977. He was selected as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists in 2010 and was shortlisted for the 2013 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. The story below comes from his new collection, The Things We Don’t Do. Explaining the inspiration for “Anabela and the rock,” Neuman says: “The beach is a place of desire. But it is also a stage for what does not happen. Most of us have spent part of our childhood or our adolescence there, spying on unattainable bodies, pleading with time. Maybe that is why a beach is something of a blank page, where everything has yet to be told.”
Who dares to swim to El Cerrito? asked Anabela, her face, I don’t know, like something moist and very bright. I imagine a cookie as big as the sun, an enormous cookie dipped in the sea. That’s sort of what Anabela’s face looked like when she asked us.
Nobody dares? she insisted, but I don’t know what face she made then because my eyes slid further down. Her bathing suit was green, green like I don’t know what, I can’t think of an example right now. It was light green and the top was sort of pinched in the middle.
Anabela was always laughing at us. And that was okay, because she was two, or maybe three years older than we were, she was almost a woman, and we, well, we were staring at the top of her bathing suit. It was worth having her laugh at us, because her shoulders went up and down and the light green material moved around inside as well.
Since no one replied, Anabela folded her arms. And that was bad, because now we could no longer see anything and had to look at each other and notice our fear of the water and our irritation at not being good enough for Anabela. Good enough for, I don’t know, those big waves, like the ones the older boys surfed, and then we realized that only one of them could make Anabela happy. Except that she never took any notice of them, which made us even more confused.
Every afternoon, Anabela would swim out on her own to El Cerrito, a dry rock about two kilometres east. We couldn’t go there. Well, we could, but we weren’t allowed, because it was dangerous and besides they said strange things went on over there, like naked people sunbathing and other stuff. It took nearly an hour of long, hard swimming to get to the rock, and made us a bit nervous to watch Anabela plunge in, to watch her head appear and disappear until it became, I don’t know, a buoy, a speck, nothing. She would swim over there, sunbathe for a while, two of us reckoned without the top half of her bathing suit on, and three others reckoned with nothing on at all, and at sunset she would come back in a motorboat, because there was always someone with a motorboat coming back to the beach. That was the worst part, we all agreed, of her going off on her own. We all felt sure nothing bad would happen to her on the way there, she was older and very fast, she was a really strong swimmer and always knew what to do. Besides, Anabela was amazing at ﬂoating, when she got tired she would lie on her back, her arms and legs spread wide apart, and she could stay like that, almost asleep, as long as she wanted, like a mermaid or, I don’t know, a green lifebelt, with only her mouth, nose and toes poking out. And pointy bits in the top of her bathing suit. It was the journey back from the rock that worried us, because some scoundrel, that’s what my dad said, some scoundrel in the boat might, I don’t know. My dad didn’t say what.
Anabela scoffed and turned her back on us. In fact, I think she had only asked for the sake of it, she already knew none of us had the nerve to swim that far. Not just because we were afraid of El Cerrito, but because of the awful punishment our parents had threatened us with if we dared go. And what about Anabela’s parents? Did she have their permission? It’s funny, because I had never thought about it before that afternoon. I had imagined she must have, or had imagined nothing at all. Nothing. Anabela was tall, and very fast, who could forbid Anabela anything? When I saw her walk once more to the water’s edge that afternoon, when I saw her move, I don’t know, in that way she had, I felt something tremendous there, between my stomach and sternum. Until suddenly Anabela heard a voice, and I heard that voice too and I realized it was mine telling her: I’ll go with you.
It was a burning sensation down there.
Anabela turned towards us in surprise. She shrugged, the light bouncing off her shoulders, I don’t know, like a beach ball, it rolled down her arms and all she said was: All right. Let’s go.
The others looked at me, I know for sure, with more envy than fear, and I even suspected one of them was going to tell tales on me to my dad. Was I doing the right thing? But there was no time for hesitation, because Anabela’s suntanned arm was already tugging at mine, her yellow down was guiding me to the sea, and her feet and mine made the pebbles crunch at the water’s edge, that was happening now and it was almost impossible to believe. Then I had the feeling I had been born and learned to swim and spent the summer holidays at that beach just for this, to perceive that moment, I don’t say experience it because in that instant it wasn’t happening to me, it was happening to somebody else. I saw myself take my ﬁrst strokes behind Anabela’s thrashing legs, Anabela’s feet that went in and out of the water. My friends were yelling, it made no difference.
I don’t know how far we swam. The sun was blinding us, we could no longer hear voices from the beach, only the sound of the waves and the seagulls. We felt a mixture of cold and heat, the current was pulling us along and I was happy. When we set out, the ﬁrst few minutes, I had only thought about what I was going to say to Anabela, how I should behave when we reached the rock. But then everything started getting wet, I don’t know, sort of going soggy, my head too, and I stopped thinking and I realized this was it, we were together, we were swimming as if we were speaking. From time to time, Anabela would turn her head to make sure I was still following her, and I tried to keep my head up high and smile at her, swallowing salty water, so that she saw I could keep up with her, although the truth was I couldn’t. We only stopped for a rest twice, the second time because I asked her, and I felt a bit ashamed. She ﬂoated and taught me how to play dead, she explained exactly what you have to do with your stomach and lungs in order to stay aﬂoat, like a lilo. I thought I was no good at it, but she congratulated me and laughed like, I don’t know what, and I thought about kissing her and I laughed too and I swallowed water. That’s when I decided that instead of telling my friends how things had gone, instead of boasting about every detail, which is what I had planned to do at ﬁrst, I wasn’t going to tell them anything. Not a word. I was just going to remain silent, smiling, triumphant, with a knowing look on my face, like Anabela, in order to let them imagine whatever they liked.
I don’t know how far we swam altogether, but El Cerrito was close, or it looked close. It was a while since we had stopped the second time. I felt exhausted, Anabela was relaxed. I was no longer enjoying myself, I had only one mission, to keep going, keep going, to push with my arms, my stomach, my neck, everything. That’s why it is so difficult to explain what happened, it was all very quick or very invisible. Every second stroke I rolled my head half out of the water, glanced at the rock and calculated how far we had left to go, and to take my mind off my tiredness I started to count Anabela’s fast kicks and my own heartbeat. It was because I was counting Anabela’s kicks, that I was so surprised when I paused for a moment, saw the rock ahead of me and didn’t see her. She was simply gone. As if she had never been there. I turned in circles a few times, arms ﬂailing, swinging my head from side to side. I saw myself in mid-ocean, miles from the beach, still a long way from El Cerrito, ﬂoating in the midst of silence, with no sign of Anabela. And I felt, I don’t know, doubly frightened. Not just because I was alone. But because I realized that for a good while I had been counting my own kicks.
I cried out a few times, the way she had perhaps cried out when I hadn’t heard her or had mistaken her cries for seagulls, I don’t know. But crying out exhausted me as well, and it made my body ache. I realized if I wanted to have the slightest chance of reaching the rock I had no choice but to be quiet, calm down, stiﬂe my terror and keep swimming. Move forward and keep swimming, nothing more. This time I didn’t count, I didn’t think, I didn’t feel anything.
I swam until I lost all sense of time, as if I were part of the sea.
By the time I reached the shore of El Cerrito, the waves were dragging me along almost with no resistance. My body was one thing and I was another, I don’t know. I don’t remember much about it. My head was spinning, I could hardly see, I was gasping so much no air came out, it only went in. My blood was going to explode, my arms and legs felt hollow or, I don’t know, like a deﬂated lilo. Sprawled amid the rocks, I heard voices approach, I saw or thought I saw several naked men around me, suddenly I felt like going to sleep, someone touched my chest, I was drifting off, air started coming out of my mouth, I made an effort, I opened my eyes and now, yes, I thought about Anabela, and how I had done it, how for once I had been good enough for her.