The message read:
“haven’t told him yet, it’s really hard. argh. i © u.”
But the message wasn’t for me. Life changes when the love messages aren’t for you. That love message arrived like a lightning bolt, unexpected and electric, and changed my life.
I was standing at the bar, my fingertips brushing the green plastic tray on which a bustling cook would place my order as soon as it was properly embalmed in silver foil. I felt my cell phone vibrate in my pocket. I’ve never picked a sound to alert me to incoming calls or text messages. Ringtones are a nuisance, so sudden and rude. I don’t even ring doorbells. If I can, I limit myself to a few little raps with my knuckles on the wood. So when it comes to my cell phone, the vibration’s enough for me. Sometimes I’m afflicted with what’s called vibrating phone syndrome, the false impression that your phone’s vibrating in your pocket, and when you take it out you find there’s no call, there’s no message, it was all in your head. My friend Carlos says cell phones will have the same fate as cigarettes: seventy years after being popularized and diffused throughout the population, they’ll come to be persecuted as a harmful addiction. He says there will be deaths, million-dollar judgments, and detox clinics. He says mobile phones affect the vital organs, and if you keep a phone in your pocket, every time you get a call the spermatozoa in your testicles undergo something like an electric shock. That’s the reason why there are so many hyperactive children these days, he says. If my friend Carlos had been there with me at that moment, he would have said, you see? You see how much harm cell phones do? Because the vibration was real and the message came to me, even though I wasn’t the person it was intended for. Marta had sent it. So I turned and looked over to where she was sitting, at the table next to the window. The table we’d sat down at just a very short while ago, before my life changed.
Marta and I had arrived in Munich the previous day. We didn’t know the city, but a volunteer from the conference was waiting to drive us to the InterContinental hotel. She was holding a little card with my name on it, and she greeted us when we responded. I’m Helga, she said, introducing herself. We followed her to the parking area, where she gave us a little acrylic book bag with the schedule of events and our conference credentials. Lebensgärten 2015, all the logos announced. There was a friendly welcome, printed in two languages, from the organizers, and another page giving the time of our presentation on the following day, the name of the contact person, and the sector in the convention center where the presentation would take place. For anything else, you can just ask me, the woman said. And during the drive to the InterContinental hotel, apart from a few questions about our trip, she kept quiet and let us look out the window and take in our surroundings with our own eyes. When the soccer stadium came into view, she pointed it out and said it was very famous for its architecture. I made some remark to Marta about the architects, but she didn’t seem very interested.
The name of the conference, Lebensgärten, could be translated as “Gardens of Life” or “Life and Garden,” although that last one sounded more like the name of an insect spray. We’d been invited to the conference to present a project in competition with others. My work’s hard for me to explain. For my demonstration on the following day, I’d show a series of computer-generated images that would save a good deal of explanation. The category we were competing in was “Future Prospects,” which in German – Zukunftsperspektiven – sounded less empty and more metallic, more reinforced. This was an international competition, more than twenty projects were entered, and the prize was ten thousand euros. The challenge was to depict a landscape intervention, not necessarily a feasible or reasonable one; it was to be something like a fantasy or a fiction. A story competition, but instead of telling stories, we’d tell a garden. In our line of work, you get used to dreaming up impossible prospects, sidestepping the lack of funding or interest by realizing your vision in digital simulations.
My idea was a park for adults. An exterior urban space, simple and realistic. With benches for reading or taking a quick break from the office routine. As its main innovation, the park contained a forest of human-sized hourglasses, also known as sand clocks, which if you turned them over accorded you a measured period of time to devote to your own thoughts.
An hourglass could serve as a reminder and quantifier of time, but also as an escape. What I like about hourglasses is that they reformulate the notion of anxiety at time’s passage, they transform this inevitable process into something visual. Actually, those were the words I planned to use in my presentation the next day. I thought I’d limit myself to saying that I like hourglasses, and that I like them because they illustrate the real meaning of life, namely submission to the law of gravity, like the sand that falls from the upper glass vessel to the lower one. The idea of the garden was that it would teach you to appreciate exactly what three minutes were. That’s the way my talk began: Has anyone here ever happened to stop and think about what three minutes really are?
I was more surprised than anyone when my “Three-Minute Garden” – or, as it was officially called, Drei-Minuten-Garten – was selected among the finalists. Along with the EURAU symposium and the IFLA world congress, the Munich conference was one of the most prestigious events in the world of landscape architecture. And over the course of the past ten years, the young prizewinners’ projects had offered some outstanding, revolutionary ideas. As with all competitions, the mere fact that they’d accepted me as a contestant discredited the event somewhat in my view. Unemployed as we were in the midst of the economic crisis, our commissions few and far between, and resigned as we were to hibernation on a web site that provided zero income, we were inclined to look upon contests as offering the possibility, however slim, of making some money. Marta and I were the only partners in our firm; we worked in a room in our apartment we called the office. Marta had studied neither architecture nor landscaping, but she was a person of rare sensitivity, always coming up with advice or corrections that improved my proposals. Working together extended our synchronicity as a couple, and we never quarreled. She was our company’s administrator and representative. Nothing had been planned, because the business was originally an architects’ studio five of us had founded after graduating from the university. But little by little, the firm broke up and collapsed. The last to go was Carlos, when he accepted an offer from a more established architect. It seemed natural that Marta would join me in a last-gasp effort to stay afloat, in the days when I still cherished some hope that we could earn a living in such a flimsy profession.
I was nervous about my presentation. We’d already participated in several competitions, but we’d never been invited to a city to show our work in person. In almost every case, a letter would arrive informing us that our project had been shortlisted, followed some time later by the news that another finalist had won. So Munich was a challenge. In fifteen minutes, and in English, we had to present our proposal to the panel of judges and the people in the audience. I was sure my absurd project had no challenge of winning; I figured the ultimate reaction to it would be sarcasm, and it would be dismissed as mildly amusing nonsense fitter for a playground than for advancing the career of a creator of public spaces. Marta calmed me down. Everything will be all right, she kept telling me, you’ll see, and during that first day in the city she was affectionate and considerate with me.
Shortly after arriving, we visited the Gasteig cultural center and checked out the succinct montage of color photographs showing the various contestants and their work. Marta thought our project had a real chance to win. I thought we augmented the general mediocrity of the finalists. There was a park made out of garbage, an aquatic garden, an artists’ corner with plastic figures, a children’s recreational space. All this one needs is a plaster gnome, I grumbled. Marta hit me on the arm and looked around, hoping nobody had heard my disparaging comment.
At night I wanted to make love. Our double bed had two separate duvets instead of one big one we could share. A practical breakthrough, it turned out. And what a good idea: the couple don’t steal each other’s covers, and each can settle on his or her ideal temperature for sleeping. That rationality, which I identified with the German character, was what terrified me when I thought about my presentation the following day. My proposal was playful, almost frivolous, more emotional than scientific.
Marta didn’t want to make love. She was tired from the long walk we’d taken through the snowy city, and her knees were hurting her. Her efforts to keep from slipping had put too much stress on joints weakened by years of ballet. Marta had stopped dancing at the age of twenty and turned to acting. She’d danced ever since childhood, but she’d eventually grown jaded and dissatisfied with her professional progress. She still had a dancer’s body – powerful legs and beautifully smooth, harmonious musculature – flawed only by her feet, which lengthy practice sessions had hardened and slightly deformed, leaving her with crooked little toes and bunions from hours spent sur les pointes. Marta was ashamed of her ballerina’s feet, and even when I applied myself to kissing and licking them she’d sometimes stop me with a nervous kick. On one occasion, she split my lip, but she consoled me so tenderly and delicately that I would have let her split my lip every night.
The life of an actress hadn’t been any better for her. There were classes and then more classes; there were a few little roles in short films and stage plays seen only by her classmates and those of us who were her closest friends. She started thinking her true vocation was to be a student and take courses, but then she worked in a short film called Los peligros de la conga, The Dangers of the Conga, which won prizes at various festivals and got nominated for a Goya. The film was an interesting, surrealistic story about a guy who goes to a wedding and returns home with a lady clinging to his belt. This lady, apparently the bride’s aunt by blood, had latched on to him in a long conga line – almost all the guests had joined it – and she’d never let him go. Marta played the young man’s girlfriend and housemate, and the arrival of this woman attached to her boyfriend’s belt made her life impractical and difficult and threatened to end their living together until, after several weeks, they hit on a method of getting rid of the unwanted guest. They just needed to go to another wedding, and when the time came to dance the conga, the aunt would grab hold of someone else’s belt.
Marta’s part in Los peligros de la conga was the least interesting of the three. Her character was the only one who behaved with common sense, but the short got plenty of hearty laughs and loud applause, especially in the scenes when the three protagonists were in bed together, and for a few months Marta thought it would elevate her to some more ambitious projects. But they never materialized, and without making any open declaration, she quit acting, enrolled in correspondence courses in psychology, and began to work with me in my landscape architect studio, which was between the living room and the kitchen in our apartment. We complemented each other and coped with poverty while she insisted that I mustn’t give up my vocation, my profession. I’ve already given up my dreams, and it’s enough for one of us to do that, she’d say on the days when I let my discouragement show.
Marta had just turned twenty-seven, and she maintained that the number 7 was a serious, solemn number, always a decisive point in the decimal scale. She tried to convince me that in each decade, the 7 is more end than beginning, more like a terminal station. Seven is the age of reason. At seventeen, you’re considered an adult. Twenty-seven is the end of youth. At thirty-seven, you indisputably enter the world of maturity. And that was the way Marta, with comic desperation, played the 7 scale. There are seven days in a week, the world was created in seven days, seven are the plagues of the Apocalypse. The 7 is a 1 obliged to lift its head, grow, and get older, as depicted in a drawing she dashed off on a paper napkin, where a good punch forces a number 1 to turn into a number 7.
I was three years older than she was, and I had more than enough reasons to cite the traumas of my thirty years. At my age, I had yet to find a paying job or a stable situation. I was adamant that Marta should understand how much longer youth lasted nowadays. Don’t you see that we live to be ninety? Proportionately speaking, that means we’re young until we’re forty-seven or fifty-seven. Don’t you see it in the street? Before, it used to be that only children wore sweat suits, I pointed out, but now they make them for all ages.
I thought Marta didn’t want to make love because she was still angry at me. When we got back to the hotel, I’d tramped across the wall-to-wall carpet in our room with my boots on, leaving wet footprints and melting snow. Why wouldn’t it occur to you to take your boots off before you get everything all wet? she complained, pointing at the little puddles on the carpet. I tried to make it into a joke. Whose idea was it to put wall-to-wall carpet in a hotel room? I think it’s disgusting to walk on a carpet a thousand other people have walked on before me. There’s something dingy about it. It’s like bathing in the previous guest’s bathwater. Look, here are some traces left by a guy who jerked off in this room three months ago, and there’s a wine stain, or maybe a bloodstain from a girl who was having her period the weekend before last, and look, look, can you see the little bitty guy waving over there, he’s stuck, you see him? He’s been forced to live in the carpet, hello, Herr Muller, shall I order you some dinner, or do you have enough with the breakfast crumbs left by the last several guests? Oh, excuse me, I don’t mean to interrupt your cockroach training session. But Marta wasn’t laughing at my obnoxious comedy routine and didn’t think talking to the tiny creatures hiding in the shag carpet forest was funny.
I preferred not to insist on making love, which we hadn’t been doing very much lately anyway. When we’d met five years ago, Marta was shattered and full of rancor. She’d broken up with a Uruguayan singer-songwriter, an arrogant guy despite his small-scale success, who left her for another girl he’d met during a tour as the warmup act for Jorge Drexler. His songs never interested me, but all Marta had to do was hear a chord in some bar or on the radio and her face would cloud over. I found it exciting, that sadness of hers, that private sorrow she never shared with anyone, and healing Marta’s secret scar became for me a vital mission. We fucked without stint, but sometimes, all of a sudden, she’d start to cry. Making Marta laugh was my greatest pleasure in life. I’d exaggerate my clownish side, I’d act the comedian for all I was worth, and in the end she’d burst out laughing. Marta thought I was funny, she even thought my work – gardening – was funny, she told me. Marta’s laughter was my reward. But lately Marta and I had been laughing less, and fucking less too. My friend Carlos said that was normal. For all intents and purposes, you’re married, he said, you’ve been living together for more than four years, and married couples hardly fuck at all. You don’t fuck the person you live with very often, just like you don’t use soap every morning to wash out your coffee cup when you’re the only one who drinks from it.
That first night in Munich we slept late, even without the sedative of sex. We had the unplugged feeling you get when you’re far from home. Every now and then, her leg broke through the duvet barrier and brushed against mine. And after we ate breakfast in bed, we put the trays aside and took a nap. At my urging, which I thought subtle and affectionate, Marta gave me a handjob, and ejaculation always makes me sleepy, like a fat baby that’s just been fed. When I woke up again, she was just emerging from the shower, glowing and beautiful, with her soaked hair dripping onto her powerful shoulders, more like a swimmer’s than a ballerina’s. I’m going to take a walk, she told me, and then I’ll wait for you downstairs.
I showered for a long time, the pounding water as hot as I could stand, the steam enveloping me. When you don’t stay in hotels very often, you tend to exploit their amenities. The water in our apartment in Madrid was under negligible pressure and came out tepid and dribbling, like an angel’s pee. Actually, the apartment was Marta’s, but I’d moved in with her when she gave up the dream of earning her living as an actress, and it was cheaper to share one rent. The financial crisis had accustomed all of us to a pretty ridiculous level of insecurity, in that we accepted degrading jobs and subhuman salaries in order to feel we were still stakeholders in the system and not yet reduced to beggary. She considered herself the dispensable part of the business, but I needed her advice, her involvement, her eyes, whose vision extended beyond technical matters and revisions to plans. Participating in the conference and the competition in Munich was one of the few satisfactions afforded us by our work, which was an experiment on the verge of failure.
The next work we’re going to consider comes from Spain. That’s how I was introduced by Helga, the same woman who’d picked us up at the airport and who greeted us with delighted familiarity when she saw us enter the Gasteig. She’d act as my German interpreter, she explained, in case somebody in the audience had trouble understanding my English. I assure you, I have trouble understanding my English, I admitted. And she laughed, showing a row of strong white teeth behind her barely painted lips. Helga moved between her native language and English easily and naturally when she introduced us to the conference director, a rather eccentric German whose eyeglasses hung from a little cord and who was stooped like the villain in an expressionist movie. Helga warned me that the director was a pretty complicated character: everybody says he’s crazy, she said, but he’s very talented. Two wonderful parks in Munich were preserved through his efforts, and he’s very highly regarded in the city, she explained. And then she led Marta and me to the little auditorium where the presentations were to take place. Marta sat at the computer she’d use to project images onto a screen behind us. In the seats reserved for the jury, I saw some faces that looked as friendly as welcome mats. Some of the other contestants, easily identifiable by their suspicious, bored expressions, were also out there, along with the rest of the audience, a miscellaneous handful of curious and idle spectators. Helga spoke my name into the microphone and turned to me with a gesture indicating that the floor was mine. From the moment we stepped into the convention center, I’d received so many urgent reminders from people connected with the conference about the absolute necessity of limiting my presentation to the allotted fifteen minutes that I thought it would be appropriate to begin with this detail.
Everybody has asked me not to go over my fifteen-minute limit, I said. Figuring in the time required for the German translation, I calculate that I have seven and a half minutes left to present my proposal. If we further subtract this preliminary statement and the conclusion, let’s say I have three minutes. I paused at this turning point to let Helga translate. Then I went on: and that’s precisely what my work is about. It’s about the rush. The rush we live in. The rush. Helga translated “rush” as Eile. When Marta, whose English was way better than mine, revised my text, she’d chosen the word “hurry,” which to my surprised ears sounded like “Harry.” Dirty Hurry?
My garden is an attempt to give our time its true value back, to make us reflect on how we dispose of our time. I noticed the conference director in the audience, taking notes and looking interested in what I was saying. And so, I went on, I call my project “The Three-Minute Garden.” Der Drei-Minuten-Garten, Helga repeated, with a pleased, encouraging smile. She was a mature woman, a little over sixty. Her good cheer and friendliness seemed unforced. She looked at me again, with genuine curiosity, and her interest calmed me down and made me feel confident about the images I was about to present. Marta smiled at me from her position at the computer, the lights in the room gradually dimmed, and a swift movement of her slender fingers threw the first image onto the screen.