And what happened in Leuven? The worst. Although sometimes the worst is the best thing that can happen. It must be said that Elisa could have been nicer, a little less cruel. But if she had been nicer, he might not have understood. She didn't want to leave that possibility open. He called her from the station, and Elisa thought it was a joke, but she started walking toward him anyway, talking to him on the phone all the while. Then, she turned a corner and saw him, a hundred steps away, but she didn't tell him she was there and he went right on talking, sitting on his suitcase, half-numb and anxious, looking at the ground and then at the sky with a mixture of confidence and innocence that was repulsive to Elisa—she couldn't put her feelings, her thoughts, in order, but she was sure of one thing: she didn't want to spend the coming days with Rodrigo, not those days or any others, none. And maybe she was still a little in love, and she cared about him, and liked to talk to him, but for him to show up out of nowhere, like in some bad movie, ready to embrace and be embraced, ready to become the star, the hero who crossed the world for love: that was, for Elisa, much more of an affront and a humiliation than a cause for happiness.As she took long strides back to her house, she felt the constant vibration of her cell phone in her pocket, but she only answered half-an-hour later, already in bed, duly protected: "I'm not going to pick you up," she told him. "I don't want to see you. I have a boyfriend (lie). I live with him. I don't ever want to see you ever again." There were another nine calls, and all nine times she answered and said more or less the same thing, and in the end she told him, to add a little realism to the thing, that her boyfriend was German.
…she was sure of one thing: she didn't want to spend the coming days with Rodrigo, not those days or any others, none.
Rodrigo tests out a quick and mindless walk around the city. He sees twenty or thirty women who all look more beautiful than Elisa; he wonders why Hans—he decides the German's name is Hans—chose Elisa, who isn't so voluptuous or so dark-skinned, and then he remembers how good she is in bed, and he feels rotten. He goes on walking, but now he sees nothing but a beautiful city full of beautiful people. He thinks what a whore Elisa is, and other things typical of a scorned man. He walks aimlessly, but Leuven is too small a city to walk around aimlessly in, and after a little while, he is back at the station. He stops in front of Fonske: it's practically the only thing Elisa had told him about the city: that there is a fountain with the statue of a boy (or a student or a man) who is looking at the formula for happiness in a book and pouring water (or beer) over his head. The fountain strikes him as strange, even aggressive or grotesque, and he tries to avoid engaging with the irony of a "formula for happiness." He goes on looking at the fountain—which for some reason that day is dry, turned off—while he smokes a cigarette, the first since he 's been off the train, the first on European soil, a pilgrim Belmont cigarette from Chile. And although during all this time he has felt an intense cold, only now does he feel the urgency of the freezing wind on his face and body, as if the cold was really trying to work its way into his bones. He opens his suitcase, finds a pair of loose-fitting pants and puts them on over the ones he is wearing, along with another shirt, an extra pair of socks, and a knit cap (he doesn't have gloves). For a moment, carried along by rage and a sense of drama, he thinks that he is going to die of cold, literally. And that this is ironic, because Elisa had always been the cold-blooded one, the most cold-blooded girlfriend he 'd ever had, the most cold-blooded woman he 'd ever met: even during the summer, at night, she used to wear jackets and shawls and sleep with a hot water bottle.
People travel from Leuven to Brussels, or from Brussels to Antwerp, or from Antwerp to Ghent, but they are such short journeys that it's almost excessive to consider them travel in the proper sense of the word. And even so, to Rodrigo, the half hour to Brussels seems like an eternity. He thinks about Elisa and Hans walking around that city, such a university town, so European and correct. Again he remembers Elisa's body: he recalls her convalescing after she had her appendix out, receiving him with a sweet, pained smile. And he remembers her some time later, one Sunday morning, completely naked, massaging rose hip oil into the scar. And maybe that same night, playing with the warm semen around that scar, drawing something like letters with his index finger, hot and laughing.
An hour later he has only made it seven blocks, but fortunately, at a kiosk, he finds a blue umbrella that costs him ten Euros. At first he still feels unstable when he walks, but the umbrella gives him confidence, and after a few steps, he feels like he's gotten used to the wobbling. Only then does he look at or focus on the city; only then does he try to understand it, start to understand it. He thinks it's all a dream, that he's near Plaza de Armas, near the Cathedral, in the Peruvian neighborhood, in Santiago de Chile. No, he doesn't think that: he thinks that he thinks he's in Plaza de Armas. He thinks that he thinks it's all a dream.The stores are starting to close. It's hard to know if it's day or night: 5:15 p.m. and the lights of apartments and cars are already on. He starts to walk away from downtown, but instinctively he goes into a laundromat and decides to spend some time there—he doesn't really decide this, actually, but this is where he ends up, along with two guys who are reading while they wait for their clothes. It isn't exactly warm there, but at least it isn't cold. It's absurd—he knows that he's short on money, that he's going to need every coin—but still he decides he is going to wash one of the pairs of pants, the second shirt, and the extra pair of socks. It takes him a while to figure out how the washing machines work—they're old and look sort of dangerous—but he figures it out and throws in the clothes and this small victory gives him a stupid and absolute feeling of satisfaction. He sits there looking at the tumbling clothes, entranced or paralyzed, focused like someone watching the end of a championship game on TV, and maybe for him this is even more interesting than the end of a championship game, because while he 's watching the tumbling clothes pushed up against the glass, soaked in soapy water, he thinks, as if discovering something important, how these clothes are his, how they belong to him, how he has worn those pants a hundred times, those socks too, and how once upon a time that shirt, a little faded now, was his best, the one he picked out on special occasions; he remembers his own body washing that shirt with pride, and it's a strange vision, vain, awkward. It's perhaps his kitsch idea of purification.
It's hard to know if it's day or night: 5:15 p.m. and the lights of apartments and cars are already on.
That's when Bart arrives, Piet's editor who lives in Utrecht. Only then does Rodrigo find out that Piet is a writer, that he has published several books of short stories and a novel. He likes that Piet showed this kind of discretion, that he was so reserved. He thinks that if he were a writer, he wouldn't go around proclaiming it to all the world either.Bart is even taller than Piet, he's a giant of almost two meters. Along with a friend, who is also named Bart, he runs a small press that publishes emerging writers, almost all of them fiction writers, almost all of them Dutch, but there are a few Belgians, also. The other Bart, oddly, lives in Colombia (because he fell in love with a woman from Popayán, Rodrigo learns), but he handles everything online from there: his job is to manage distribution—to a series of small bookstores, none of them commercial—and organize small events and conferences where he sells the books himself.Bart is friendly and he tells his story in pretty fluent English, though he is also helped by his emphatic gestures and a certain talent for mimicry when words fail him. It's almost ten; they walk for a few blocks. Rodrigo feels better, he leans on the umbrella-cane, but it's more of a precaution than a necessity. They reach La Vesa, a somewhat gloomy bar that has poetry readings on Thursdays, but today isn't Thursday, it's Tuesday, and the patrons are scarce, which is better, thinks Rodrigo, who enjoys this feeling of intimacy, of routine camaraderie, this sensible chatting with new friends, and the comments—short but laden with slight ironies—that come every once in a while from Laura, an Italian waitress who isn't beautiful at first sight, but who becomes beautiful as the minutes pass, and not from the effect of the alcohol, but because you have to look at her really closely to discover her beauty. His friends are drinking Orval and Rodrigo orders wine by the glass; Piet asks him if he dislikes beer, and he replies that he likes it, but he's still too cold and he prefers the warmth of wine. They start talking about Belgian beer, which is the best in the world. Piet tells him it's not so cold out, that there have been many worse winters. Then Rodrigo wants to tell them the joke about the coldest man in the world, but he doesn't know how to say friolento, cold-blooded, in English, so he says "I am" and makes the gesture of shivering, and Bart tells him "you're chilly", and it all gets tangled up because Rodrigo thinks they're talking about Chile, about whether he 's from Chile, which supposedly they already knew, until, after several misunderstandings that they celebrate thunderously, they understand that the joke is about the chilliest man on earth, and Rodrigo adds that the most cold-blooded man on earth is definitely Chilean, he 's the chilliest man on earth, and he laughs heartily, for the first time he laughs on Belgian soil the way he would laugh on Chilean soil.Rodrigo starts the joke uncertainly, because as he strings the story together, he thinks that maybe in Belgium and Holland they have the same joke, that maybe there are as many versions of the joke as there are countries in the world. His listeners react well, however, giving themselves over to the story: they enjoy the enumeration of the cities, whose names sound so strange to them ("Arica sounds like Osaka," says Bart), and when the chilliest man in the world, who was Chilean, dies of cold under the burning sun of Bangkok, his friends let out an anxious giggle and grab their heads in a mournful gesture.The chilliest man in the world had been a good son, a good father, a good Christian, so Saint Peter accepts him into Heaven without delay, but the problems start immediately: incredibly, even though in heaven hot and cold don't exist—at least not in the way we understand them down here—and even though all the rooms in that formidable hotel that is Heaven automatically adjust to the needs of their guests, the Chilean still feels cold, and in his friendly but also effusive manner he goes on complaining, until the blessed patience that reigns in Heaven runs out, everyone gets fed up, and they all agree that the chilliest man in the world should go find a truly beneficial climate. It is God himself who decides to send him to Hell, where it's unthinkable that he could go on feeling cold. But in spite of the unquenchable fires, of the frightful burning waters, of the colossal hot water bottles and the human heat, which in such an overcrowded place is intense, the chilliest man in the world still feels cold, and the case becomes so famous that it reaches Satan's ears, who sees it as a fun challenge and decides to take matters into his own hands.One morning, Satan himself leads the Chilean to nothing less than the hottest place imaginable: the center of the sun. It's so hot there that Satan has to put on a special suit or else he'll get burned. Once inside the center of the sun, they come to a small two-by-two meter cubicle, and Satan opens the door. The Chilean enters and he stays there, hopeful and deeply grateful. Weeks pass, months, years, until one day, moved by curiosity, the Devil decides to pay the Chilean a visit. He puts on his special suit again—even reinforces it with two additional layers, because he thinks he may have singed himself on the previous trip—and he heads off to the sun. He has scarcely opened the door to the cubicle when he hears the Chilean shout from inside: "Please close the door, it's chilly in here!""Please close the door, it's chilly in here!" says Rodrigo, and his performance is a success."I think that you are the chilliest man in the world," Bart tells him, "and I want the chilliest man in the world to try the best beer in the world." Piet proposes they go to a bar where they sell hundreds of beers, but in the end they decide to go somewhere closer, where they clandestinely sell Westvleteren, the so-called best beer in the world, and on the way Rodrigo leans on the umbrella, but he doesn't know if it's necessary, he feels like he doesn't need it anymore and could throw it away, but he goes on using it anyway while he listens to the story of the Trappist monks who make the beer and sell it in modest quantities, a story he finds amazing; he hopes he likes the beer a lot and he does, although they only buy one for the three of them, because the bottle costs ten euros.
He tries to ask Bülent if the the place has wifi, but it is truly difficult to mime the idea of wifi.
They go back to the apartment at two in the morning with their arms around each other, so Rodrigo doesn't have to use the umbrella: they look drunker than they are. Later, in the living room, they go on drinking for a while, they half-listen to each other, they laugh. "You can stay, but only for tonight," says Piet, and Rodrigo thanks him. They drag in a mattress while Bart stretches out on an old chaise lounge and covers himself with a blanket. Rodrigo thinks about what he will do if Bart tries something in the middle of the night. He considers whether he will reject him or not, but he falls asleep, and Bart does too.He wakes up early; he 's alone in the living room. He 's a little hungover, and the coffee he finds in the kitchen does him good. He looks at the street, he looks at the buildings, the silent facade of the pizzeria. He wants to say goodbye to Piet, and he cracks open the door to his room: he sees him sleeping next to Bart in a half-embrace. He leaves them a note of thanks and goes down the four flights of stairs. He has absolutely no plan, but he's encouraged by the idea of walking without a cane, and once in the street he tries it, like in a happy ending. But he can't do it, and he falls. It's a nasty fall, a hard fall, his double pants rip, his knee bleeds. He stays on the corner, thinking, paralyzed by pain, and it starts to rain, as if he were a character in a cartoon with a cloud hanging above him—but this rain is for everyone, not just him.It's a cold and copious rain and he should look for a place to take shelter. He has very little money left, but he has no choice but to buy another umbrella. This is the moment to think of Elisa and curse her, but he doesn't do it. Now he has two umbrellas, the blue one for balance and the black one for the rain; he says it out loud, with the same calm tone in which he would say his name, first and last, his birthplace. Now I have two umbrellas, blue for balance and black for rain, he repeats, as he starts to walk, with no other purpose than that, simply: to walk.
Later, in the living room, they go on drinking for a while, they half-listen to each other, they laugh.