A Private Gathering

Norberto Luis Romero
Translated by H.E. Francis

n this marvelous night we have the honor to celebrate our five years of life," the speaker said in a voice perhaps too sharp and triumphal for the occasion. No one applauded, only a fortyish woman who obviously was frankly content and moved. She was the oldest member of the club. In the four years and eleven months of her membership, she still had not fulfilled her charge, the principal reason for which she had become a member.
The rest of those gathered stared at her with surprise and a certain suspicion: She was considered a blot on the club, a profound cause of discredit. The woman, finding herself standing applauding in the midst of a cold, cutting silence, glanced at the other tables and, ceasing her applause, her smile frozen in a grimace of anguish, sat again in silence.
The speaker went on: "And during the course of these five years, we can be proud to say, our heads raised high, that now 156 members have fulfilled the sacred task of our organization." He changed his everything-is-lovely tone for one of modesty and respect: "I believe it is the opportune moment to render homage to those 156 members whose labor and achievement will be engraved in our hearts and memories forever. It is also the propitious moment to thank them for their labor and active presence without which this association would long since have lost its meaning. At the same time we hope that this year more members will fulfill their obligation, to make for continued growth and to show the world our praiseworthy work and our support of society."
After a slight bow, he left the stage as a soft, monotonous music invaded the hall. A few couples rose to dance; others reluctantly drank and talked at their tables. On one wall were bronze plaques with the 156 names of ex-honorary members; on the opposite, the list of the next group, who had announced the fulfillment of their commitment. The ancient silver urn containing the ashes of the last of the ex-members was exhibited on a black podium, surrounded by exquisite lilies.
The woman who had stood to applaud the speaker found herself alone at a table, in a corner of the hall next to the dance floor, visibly altered by what had happened. She had her eyes fixed on her martini and dared not shift them to other tables for fear they might be pointing the finger at her.
A gentleman approached.
"May I join you?" he asked respectfully.
"Delighted." The woman raised her eyes, flushing slightly.
"I saw how they gave you the cold shoulder," the man said as he sat beside her. The woman made a vague smile and an almost imperceptible shrug of her shoulders.
"It's not the first time it's happened to me," she explained. "I'm too impulsive."
"I understand. Often my own impulses have carried me away for similar things. Have you been in the club many years?"
"Almost five. I'm one of the original members. My card is number eleven."
"That's many years," the man reflected. "Why haven't you done it yet?"
"I don't know exactly . . ." She shrugged as if not knowing. "I think it's because of the club. I feel good here . . . They're all so good and so unfortunate. Despite incidents such as the one you've just observed, there are real moments of understanding and companionship, although lately I've come to realize they give me the cold shoulder, considering me a kind of rara avis.
"I'm not surprised that they shut you out, but if you don't take a stand, sooner or later you'll have to leave the association."
"I know." She leaned her head to one side and gazed at him with languid eyes, "but I can't do it. Not yet." And straightening up, she added, "There's a right moment for everything, don't you think?"
"And through these five years the moment still hasn't come? Don't you think five years are too long?"
"No, not yet," she answered calmly. "Adequate circumstances don't always come. And I haven't desired to rush events. Nobody has ever spoken to me of a time limit. From the first moment it was very clear that I was under no obligation."
"Morally one is obliged from the moment one becomes a member," the man contradicted.
After a silence, in a challenging tone, she asked, "Then you intend to do it soon?"
"Of course. As soon as possible. That's why I'm here."
"I admire your decision and your confidence," she said with a touch of irony. "If only I could say the same. Have you thought out the way you're going to carry it out?"
Without hesitation, the man answered firmly, "With poison."
"A very dignified way," she underscored. "If the moment were to come, I don't believe I'd be capable of doing it that way. The very idea of physical suffering terrifies me. I believe I'd elect a faster and less painful way; if possible, I'd look for a way I'd be unaware of. I don't feel, like many, that suffering adds merit to it. No, I don't believe that. I think that the act itself is enough . . ." And abruptly she asked, "And you, have you been coming to the club long? I haven't seen you before."
"Not quite two months. But from the first day I came, I noticed you..."
At that moment a waiter who had approached to serve them interrupted. He was dressed in impeccable, severe black and wore a white flower in the lapel of his satin jacket.
"A martini," the man ordered. "Dry," he added. The waiter went off.
The man resumed their talk. "Have you at least tried it?"
"Once," she replied laconically. "I tried to throw myself under a train, but at the last moment I backed off. I don't believe I had the courage."
"Of course that in no way resembles the intimate desires you just spoke of."
The woman smiled.
"I was desperate. I didn't know what I was doing. Fortunately I realized it in time. It would have been horrible."
"I could help if you wanted me to. We're here to lend a hand."
"Thank you, you're very kind, but I believe I must do it myself without anybody's help. You may think I have too much pride, but that isn't so. I merely think all the responsibility should be mine, I mustn't implicate anyone in something I consider too intimate."
"Perhaps you're right, but I think there are moments when one should be more flexible, though you attitude is certainly a worthy one."
She lowered her gaze timidly before that compliment.
Then he said, "Something makes me feel you and I have much in common, perhaps the same or similar reasons for doing it . . ."
"Why do you suppose that?" she asked briskly as she bit an olive from a toothpick. "All of us here have similar motives, at times the very same."
"I don't know with certainty. I repeat that it's simply a feeling."
"I see! You're one of those who think the motives are the same for everybody, but that the methods of facing them different."
"No. I didn't say that. Indeed, I think each of us has different reasons, and among ourselves even opposing ones, besides the fact that the way we face them and achieve the end is always individual and intimate. There's something in your look that makes me think _our interests_ are the same."
"What do you see in my eyes which makes you suppose that?"
"Besides their lovely green color, a certain sadness."
"I'm not sad," she answered, heedless of his flattery. "I've reached the conclusion that life is simply useless. But I'm not a sad woman, absolutely not, but deceived, like the rest of us."
"Then you've deduced it? It's not the feeling but the reason which impels you to do it. How I admire you! You're a brave woman."
"Thank you," she said, blushing. "That's what the others don't understand. They're all convinced that it must be an impulse, a kind of instinctive leap, misfortune or unhappiness the driving force. They don't believe the possibility of reasoning exists, the power of conclusions one obtains from reason and logic."
"Logic furnished you with reasons, but doesn't give you the will to do it."
"Will doesn't depend on logic, but on something else that I don't have. . . in itself . . . or courage."
"In a word, you lack will."
"Yes. And they can't understand that."
"Esteemed members," the sponsor said again, "the moment we have all been waiting for has arrived."
The hall lights dimmed slowly, leaving only a single one lit on the stage, a high white glow which illuminated the sponsor. A profound silence reigned among the public, expectation reflected in every face. The sponsor went on:
"Once more we shall have the honor of sharing emotional moments, moments which will always remain in our memories because of their intensity and because of what they mean to those gathered here. Our common ideal, the reason for all our concerns and anxieties, the anguish which runs through all our bodies--our end, in a word--we shall see presented here tonight, on this stage, under this roof which receives us lovingly."
Silence invaded all the rooms, and at once he solicited a volunteer to go up on stage. He had no wait: A man of about forty-five rose form his table and, skirting tables, crossed the hall, agilely mounted the three steps and extended his hand to the sponsor.
"Your name, please," the speaker urged as he held the microphone up to his mouth.
"Robert. Robert Garrido."
"Will you be so kind as to tell us your age--no lies, please."
Many smiled discreetly.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, Roberto, our dear, amiable Roberto, will be the one who shows us the grandeur of our creation and reminds us of our honest commitment to life. Roberto, are you now prepared?"
"Yes," the man answered confidently.
At that moment the only light on the stage went out, in its place burgeoning others, small and diffuse, which created an intimate, warm atmosphere. A woman in a nurse's outfit approached them from the forum; she was carrying a small flesh-colored case in one hand. She took her place between the two men. Soft, sweet music flooded the hall.
"These ceremonies cheer everyone up," the woman said to her social partner.
The man with her smiled. "I don't doubt they're a great lesson which we must all learn, especially you--"
She merely smiled.
The woman in the nurse's uniform opened the case and extracted a small syringe from it, showed it to the public as the expectant silence gave birth to a beat of drums. The man rolled up his right sleeve, exposing his forearm with two distended blue veins. The nurse tied the rubber band around his biceps and the arrow reached almost the bursting point. The drumbeat rose in intensity. A shot of light fell vertically on that naked arm as the other lights went out, and the nurse reached for the man's arms, but he rebuffed her with a lofty gesture and, seizing the syringe, penetrated one of those knotty veins. The drums ceased. A bluish liquid disappeared from the transparent cylinder. The man withdrew the syringe with a precise motion as the nurse, with the same precision, applied cotton soaked in alcohol over the tiny hole the needle had left. A brilliant bluish light slowly invaded the scene. The volunteer stood unflinching; his face seemed to reflect no emotion. The nurse went off, disappearing in the hall. The speaker, the microphone still in his hands, stood at a certain distance, concealed in darkness. The drumbeats burst violently. Suddenly the volunteer's mouth twisted horribly toward the right side, his face turned the color of paper, he closed his eyes, his lids pressed firmly, while his hands sought his chest, and from his forehead fell great drops of sweat. In an instant he collapsed on the floor. There was absolute silence. For some minutes his body convulsed grotesquely before he lay rigid.
"Cyanide," the speaker cried as lights flooded the stage and two male nurses came on to take the body away.
The public burst into applause. . . .
"I've seen this spectacle a dozen times," the woman said, raising her voice above the applause. "I'm still not used to it. It's overwhelming."
"You should take example from courage," her companion said.
"You're right. Seeing that and talking to you have made me very enthusiastic."
Now, while the orchestra attacked a waltz, the public pitched themselves euphorically onto the dance floor. They twirled in a vortex. The lights tinged the faces a light gold and invited intimate, whispered conversations. Women in evening dress, with muslin gloves, with diadems, glided over the floor with insinuating cadences accompanied by men in meticulous formal dress. Here and there sounded the dry, stentorous pop of a bottle of champagne, laughter and conversation between the tinkling of toasts; diligent waiters attended the tables, balancing enormous trays laden with exquisite canapes. The party was at its height.
"I feel truly happy. In all the years I've been coming, I've never seen the club so vigorous and jammed with people. The spectacle was one of the best I've seen. I certainly won't miss the funeral tomorrow. I'm sure there'll be a surprise. The club directors are certainly not short on imagination."
The man smiled.
"Would you like to dance?" he said.
"I'd love to."

It was about three in the morning. The floor was empty but for one couple drifting to the music, now somewhat faint. The lights were dimming discreetly.
"I think it's time to go," he whispered.
She raised her head from his shoulder, threw it back, and smiled as she separated from him. Looking deep into his eyes, she said, "I'll do it tonight. I've made up my mind."
He too smiled.
They crossed the dance floor to the hall, where she asked him to excuse her for a moment, went into the lady's room, and returned a few minutes later, her face radiant, her makeup retouched, took her companion's arm, and together they walked to the exit in silence. They asked an old woman for their coats, leaving a generous tip, and went at once to the ticket office. He shook hands with the attendant and, to pick up his membership card, gave his number.
She did the same.
But the attendant declined.
"I'm sorry. I can't return the lady's card. She's no longer a member of the club. Her term has expired.
Copyright CrossConnect, Inc. 1996