Doctor Moreau Did It
Everything in life has its season. And so the day came when Marina said, "I want you to meet my folks."
Ten years have passed since that muggy summer afternoon out in Acassuso. I can still see the eucalyptus trees swaying overhead and smell the distant rain; it's Marina's face I can't remember.
She was a knockout, I'm sure of that. I was in love with her, of course, but no one can deny she was a knockout. And what else . . . what else can I remember? She was a tall brunette, dumb and cheerful, infinitely loveable. How many times we swore we were meant for each other! I wonder if I seem as hazy to her now as she does to me.
We were in our twenties, and everything was going right for me. Till then, I'd never known bad luck, and if I had, I'd forgotten it. With wide-eyed optimism, I took for granted the honesty of politicians, the promotions I'd earn during my career, the completion of my studies, and the dignity of mankind. I inhabited the best of all possible worlds.
Except for minor, foreseeable blips, my plans were all on target. There was no doubt that within a year at most Marina and I would wed.
So, as everything in life has its season, the day came when Marina said, "I want you to meet my folks."
Señora Stella Maris was an older version of Marina (whose whole name was, unfortunately, Marina Ondina). I expected Marina to be just like her in another twenty years when we'd have a daughter of our own with names less cloying. Such was the long-range goal I had in mind as I said hello. Señora Stella Maris was, of course, an elegant lady of forty-five, tall, brunette, and cheerful.
Marina's father, on the other hand, turned out to be the most disgusting man I've ever known. His lot in life was to be short. Now this is not a serious problem. He was not a dwarf, he just wasn't very tall. What completely floored me was the fact that his head alone took up more that half his height. And, my God, what a head! The first thing that caught my attention (or, rather, put me off) was his strange color. His skin, reflecting the shifting light, could be dazzling at times, varying from pink to black with all the shades in between. At the same time, it seemed clammy and sticky. He was completely bald and clearly always had been. No hair would ever sprout on that head. Its upper half threatened to become a perfect globe, but, foiled at the equator (more or less at the height of his missing ears), the head morphed into a cylindrical column which, without any transition for neck or shoulders, became lost among the folds of a kind of yellow, floor-length terry-cloth tunic. In other words, Marina's father had the same diameter from top to bottom. He was a round-topped monolith, wrapped half-way up with a yellow towel. Located a few centimeters above the toga, Señor Octavio's mouth, a mobile, toothless fissure, at once supple and hard as horn, would draw in until it disappeared — or would open so wide it seemed his throat had been slit, and his head, left to teeter on its precarious base by the slipshod assassin, seemed likely to come crashing down at the slightest movement. Where his ears and nose should have been, the skin was as polished and smooth as his bald pate — nothing, not even a scar or a wrinkle, not the slightest mark. The two eyes were huge, round, and bloodshot, with no eyebrows or eyelashes, no whites, no pupils, no expression.
5"Señor Octavio is on a diet," explained Señora Stella Maris, seeing me stare at the plate intended for her husband.
Señora Stella Maris, Marina, and I ate what you might call normal food. Señor Octavio's plate, on the other hand, was like an anthology of sea life. The sudden stench exploded in my nostrils, bringing tears to my eyes. Since my future father-in-law's sleeves were knotted at the ends, he wielded his knife and fork like a person who'd forgotten to remove his gloves. Round after round of raw fish, mollusks, and crustaceans were quickly polished off. By my estimate he ate at least five kilos of the gaudy things; I could make out squid, shrimp, oysters, crabs, snails, jellyfish, mussels, clams, starfish, sea urchins, coral, sponges, and fish of questionable identity.
"Señor Octavio is on a diet," repeated Señora Stella Maris toward the end of the meal. "Shall we have our coffee in the living room?"
I made way for Señor Octavio and watched him walk by. He moved erratically, sometimes taking a very quick step, sometimes a very slow one, without the regularity of a limp. His way of walking made me think of a car with four different wheels — triangular, oblong, round, and oval. I already mentioned that his yellow toga covered him completely, except for his head. The garment's tail was so long it dragged behind him like a bridal train.
Señora Stella Maris placed a tray of cups on an elaborate, eight-sided coffee table flanked by two small sofas. Marina and I sat in one of them; facing us, with the table in between, sat Señor Octavio and his wife. I now noticed another oddity. As if to emphasize important points when he spoke, invisible arms seemed in motion beneath Señor Octavio's tunic. So violent and frequent were the yellow bubbles formed by the toga, his body appeared to be boiling.
Señor Octavio hogged the conversation. He talked and talked and talked. I wasn't really listening, however. I was asking myself, "Could this monster possibly be the father of Marina, my lovely, delightful, angelic Marina?" Suddenly I was sure that in her youth Señora Stella Maris had been unfaithful to her husband and that Marina was the fruit of an illicit love affair. Carried away by this idea, I found myself casting complicitous looks at Señora Stella Maris (fortunately, she didn't see them) as if to say I was in on her secret, but wasn't about to give her away. On the contrary, I approved wholeheartedly, and, in fact, would have forgiven anything rather than acknowledge this babbling monster as the father of my Marina.
A question aimed my way brought me back to the present. The conversation had sunk to a new low, with Señora Stella Maris holding forth energetically on the topic of illnesses--one she seemed right at home with.
"You're like a fish in water," remarked Señor Octavio.
Smiling proudly, she plunged ahead. Her résumé was impressive: operations, fractures, heart attacks, liver ailments, nervous breakdowns . . . . Being somewhat timid, I'd kept quiet up to now, but stung by a look from Marina, I humbly offered up the asthma attacks that plagued me from time to time.
"For asthma," said Señor Octavio, his voice bubbling over, "there's nothing better than the sea. The sea is far better than any of those worthless cures doctors prescribe, except, of course, for cod liver oil."
"Really, Octavio," retorted his wife, "you can't be serious. Remember that time in Mar del Plata, I caught a cold that lasted two months."
"Stop fishing for arguments," Señor Octavio insisted. "You caught that cold here, just a few kilometers from Buenos Aires, when we were going to Mar del Plata, not in Mar del Plata. There's nothing like the sea for one's health."
"Of course, of course," they said, we said, I said; "the coastal climate, the iodine, the sand . . . ."
"Nothing better than the sea," repeated Señor Octavio in a tone of unshakable authority. "Eight days at sea, and so long asthma! You won't even remember you had it."
"Sure, Daddy," agreed Marina, "you like the sea because you're an Aquarius, but there are people who feel out of place in . . . . Me, for example, even though I'm a Pisces . . . ."
"And my sign is Cancer," said Señora Stella Maris, "but I don't much like the sea, either."
"Well, as far as I'm concerned," Marina confessed, "it gives me the creeps."
"Eyewash," said Señor Octavio. "It's all a matter of getting the body to adapt. Once you get used to it, you'll see how the sea can soothe your nerves."
"Talk about nerves," interrupted Señora Stella Maris, "what a scare we had on that flight from Rio . . . ."
"I warned you." (Señor Octavio's guiding rule of conduct was to argue with whatever was said.) "I told you, go by boat. Boats are safe, comfortable, cheap, you can smell the sea, you can watch the fish . . . . Planes may take less time, but there's just no comparison."
The force with which he said this left us at a loss for words. I didn't feel up to any more conversation. As a matter of fact, I didn't feel up to much at all. Though his high-handed pronouncements were delivered with a surprising friendliness, Señor Octavio's monstrous appearance — his watery voice, the smell of his seafood diet — convinced me it was time to go. I could feel the sweat breaking out on my brow, my shirt collar getting tighter. I was quite disoriented, sick, in fact, and only wanted to go home. My legs began to sway uncontrollably, and the rumblings in my stomach promised imminent eruption.
But that yapping threesome was unstoppable. Though their comments always met with an objection from Señor Octavio, Señora Stella Maris and Marina did not seem to mind. This was clearly their normal way of conversing.
Once more I realized that my opinion was being asked for. The topic for debate was where Marina and I should go on our honeymoon. Running her words together without much conviction, Marina suggested the countryside, the hills of Córdoba, the northern provinces; Señor Octavio held firmly for Mar del Plata.
"It's healthier," he said, "more natural. You have the sea, the salt, the iodine, the sand, the seashells . . . . Nothing better than the sea."
I was about to pass out. I thought I could hear Marina arguing in favor of somewhere quiet, away from the tourists . . . .
"You want somewhere quiet?" Señor Octavio was not to be outdone. "You've got San Clemente, Santa Clara del Mar, Santa Teresita . . . . There's scads of quiet places on the Atlantic coast!"
With great effort I got up and announced feebly that it was time to go.
"So early?" asked Señor Octavio, checking his watch. "It's just eight minutes to midnight."
The reproach accompanying his words threw me back on the sofa. What a powerful influence that dreadful man exerted!
I clung to the hope that a bottle of whiskey recently brought in by Señora Stella Maris might boost my spirits and emptied my glass in one swallow.
"In my heyday," Señor Octavio was saying, "when I was young, we would go down to the waterfront bars in Bah'a Blanca to dance . . . ."
I was momentarily distracted as I tried to imagine Señor Octavio dancing.
"Sometimes we would dance till the sun came up. But young people these days, eight o'clock and they're already in bed, with their wittle bwankeypoos and their wittle hot water bottles . . . . Ha, ha, ha! Like a bunch of kindergarten kids."
Señor Octavio's monologue, punctuated in its final phase by the offensive baby talk, had taken on the unmistakable tone of a personal attack. I stood up, resolved to use force if necessary to get away. Luckily, I didn't have to resort to violence. Señor Octavio recovered his charm and, after holding out the knotted end of his sleeve to me, said, with the unhurried ease of someone preparing to bring a perfect day to a close, "Well," — and through the terry-cloth sleeves, he rubbed his hands together — "now to bed with a good book."
I nodded vigorously. I wanted to get out of that house. If I'd stayed another second, I believe I would've fainted.
"I'll walk you to the sidewalk," Marina said.
6The blessed fragrance of pine and fir trees hit me as we crossed the yard. I breathed deeply, letting the fresh air dispel any lingering fish odors. I felt refreshed; suddenly my stomach trouble was gone.
"You saw poor Daddy?" began Marina.
"Yes," I answered vaguely, not sure what to say.
"He's much better," she continued, putting her arm around my waist like someone about to confide a secret. "A year ago we couldn't get him out of the pool. Day and night in the pool. Now, at least, he eats at the table and sleeps in his bed. That's progress, isn't it?"
She said so many things, but I focused on one, the least important: "Your house has a swimming pool?"
"Of course, didn't I tell you? In the back yard. I can't show it to you now because Daddy's using it. Every night he takes a dip before he goes to bed. He digests his food better that way."
I asked a stupid question: "Doesn't it interfere with his digestion?"
"Oh, no, just the reverse. He needs salt water. True, when he's in the water, he gets very aggressive and doesn't recognize anyone, not even us. When he's back on land, well, you saw how nice and friendly he is . . . ."
Appalled, and wanting to stall, I checked my watch. Marina was waiting for me to make a move.
"And the neighbors?" I asked. "Don't they complain?"
"Why should they? There's no noise. Daddy couldn't be any quieter. He doesn't even dive in. He goes to the edge of the pool and lets himself slide in like this: shhhh . . . ."
Her hand slithered softly over my face. Startled, I jumped back. Marina tried to put me at ease with a funny story:
"One night he was halfway under water, near the edge of the pool. Our neighbor's little dog came through the hedge and started sniffing around the pool. Then some of Daddy's arms popped out and . . . shak!"
And with a playful smile, Marina pretended to strangle me. She didn't touch me, she just moved forward, with her arms, suddenly strong and rubbery, stretched out in my direction. If before I had jumped backward, I now flew several meters. Marina started laughing, amused by this overreaction. She laughed and laughed and laughed. Her mouth seemed to open all the way to the back of her neck, her head became rounder and longer, her nose and ears disappeared, she lost her magnificent dark hair, her skin tone was alternating between black and pink . . . . To keep from falling, I leaned against a tree.
"Hey, what's the matter?" Marina shook my arm, and I came to my senses.
She was the same adorable Marina as always: a tall brunette, dumb and cheerful, infinitely loveable.
"It's nothing," I said, fighting to breathe. "I just don't feel very good."
To cheer me up even more, she said, "Why don't you come over for a swim tomorrow morning. It's Sunday, you know. Bring your suit, and in you go."
I promised I would, around ten. I said good-bye to Marina as always, with a kiss.
"See you tomorrow," I said.
But I didn't go back.
With sudden clarity, before the train had reached the second stop on my way home, I knew what I had to do. For the next two weeks I was a whirlwind of feverish activity, putting all my affairs in order. I avoided answering the phone and managed to change my address as well as my job. As the crime stories say, I no longer frequented the usual places. In time, I was able to settle permanently in the province of La Pampa. The city of Santa Rosa enjoys a very dry climate and is located as far from the Atlantic Ocean as it is from the Pacific.