Pablo Simó is at his desk drawing the outline of a building that will never exist. He has been making the same sketch for years, like a man condemned to have the same dream every night: one about an eleven-storey tower facing north. There’s a series of identical drawings in a file; he doesn’t know exactly how many, he lost count a long time ago – more than a hundred, less than a thousand. They aren’t numbered, but each one is dated and signed: Pablo Simó, Architect. If he wanted to know which day he drew the first one, he would need to find it and look at the date, but he never does that; the most recent bears today’s date: 15 March 2007. One day he plans to count them all, these drawings of the same tower on the same plot of land, with the same number of windows and balconies identically spaced, always the same façade, the same garden to the front and sides of the building, with the same trees, one on either side of the front door. Pablo suspects that if he were to count the bricks drawn freehand on the façade, he would find exactly the same number on each drawing. And for that very reason he doesn’t count them – because it scares him to think that this obsessive drawing isn’t the product of his own application but of some external force.
His eight-of-an-inch Caran d’Ache pencil goes up and down the page, shading, retouching, and Simó tells him- self, yet again, that he will build this tower one day, when he finally decides to leave the Borla and Associates architectural practice. But this isn’t the day to make such a decision, and so Pablo tries not to dwell on the fact that he is already forty-five, that this tower gets further every day from being anything more than graphite lines on a sheet of white paper and that a mere two yards from him Marta Horvat is carelessly crossing her legs as though there were nobody sitting opposite to notice.
He notices, of course, though Pablo Simó no longer thinks of Marta in the way he once did. Not that he doesn’t want to, but for some time now – and he would rather not remember precisely how long – he hasn’t been able to think of her without sudden and even violent interruptions to his pleasurable fantasies. It was different before. He used to dream of Marta all day and in his mind he owned her; he undressed her, he kissed her, touched her – and, since he couldn’t foresee ever separating from Laura, Pablo Simó imagined that if his wife died, as all of us shall die one day, Marta Horvat would cease to be simply that woman he undressed in his fantasies and he would try to win her for real.
Two yards from where Pablo is drawing, with a skill that comes as naturally to him as walking, talking or breathing, Marta sits at her own desk, shouting down the telephone at a contractor. She’s complaining that this man hasn’t finished a cementing job on time; she says she doesn’t care about the rain or the two public holidays that fell within that month, much less about the transport workers’ strike. She declares, with a vehemence that is all too familiar to Pablo, that she likes people who keep their word. And she cuts him off. Pablo pictures the contractor, left hanging at the other end of the line, reeling from this tongue-lashing and with no chance of a comeback. Without looking up from his drawing, Pablo knows that Marta has risen from her desk and is pacing around the office. He hears each step, hears her light a cigarette, hears her throw the lighter back into her bag and the bag onto a chair. He hears her walking again and, finally, coming over to him. Pablo covers his sketch with other papers; he doesn’t want Marta to see what he is doing – not that she hasn’t found him drawing this north-facing, eleven-storey tower before, but he wants to be spared her comments about him and his useless ob- sessions. Mind you, Marta Horvat would never use those words; she wouldn’t say “useless obsessions”, she would simply say, “The plot ratio doesn’t work, Pablo.” And even though Pablo doesn’t need anyone to tell him what that means, over the years she has often explained it to him, apparently in the belief that Pablo doesn’t really grasp how important it is to exploit to the maximum the relationship between a plot’s square footage and the number of flats that can be built on it. For that reason, she says, nobody will ever construct a building like the one he has in mind on any plot in Buenos Aires that has enough square feet to build something higher than his whimsical eleven storeys. He always lets Marta say her piece, but Pablo Simó knows her argument would collapse if he pointed out one detail: he doesn’t want to build the tower in Buenos Aires. This isn’t the city where he aspires to carry out the first project he can really call his own. He knows it too well. There isn’t a street he hasn’t gone down looking for plots for Borla and Associates, and his exhaustive surveys have taught him that you can’t lay a single brick in Buenos Aires without first finding a building and condemning it to annihilation: a car park, a school, a family home, a cinema, a warehouse, a gym – it doesn’t matter what, so long as the width and surface area allow for a high-rise. Pablo Simó doesn’t want to raise his building on the rubble of something else, but in Argentina’s capital there is no longer any alternative. What Marta doesn’t realize is that when the day finally comes he’ll choose another city. He doesn’t yet know which – perhaps somewhere he’s never been – but he does know that it will be somewhere where a north-facing building can get the morning sun and be built without anyone shedding tears for what was there before.
Marta pauses behind him. On top of the pile of papers Pablo has used to cover his sketch is the advertisement he has to look at before returning it to the agency. In a few days they are going to start selling another building off-plan and the announcement needs to appear in the weekend’s newspapers. The heading they’ve chosen is “Paradise Exists”, in big, colourful typography above a page of text at the bottom of which the same burgundy letters spell out “Borla and Associates”. Marta reads it over his shoulder. She suggests he cross out “laundry room” and replace it with “utility room”. Pablo isn’t sure, but she insists, remind- ing him that the agency must have used as a template the announcement for the last building they sold, the one in Avenida La Plata, and that while a laundry room is fine for Boedo, it isn’t for Palermo. Pablo lets himself be persuaded, crosses out “laundry” and writes “utility” above it. Marta, evidently taking this small intervention as a territorial victory, returns to her desk and packs up for the day.
In fact the day is not over yet, although Borla himself seems to be concluding business, coming out of his office carrying his briefcase and an umbrella that must have been left there on some previous occasion, given that the sky dawned blue over Buenos Aires this morning and stayed blue all day. Borla walks over to Marta’s desk and asks some routine questions while taking advantage of his position to peer into her cleavage. She smiles and answers; he lowers his voice and Pablo can’t make out what they’re saying, but he can see that the bad mood that induced Marta Horvat to shout at the contractor has evaporated. Marta’s hands move in the air, accompanying each of her words. Pablo, still at his desk, follows their movement, hypnotized by the red nails; he watches her hands dance in the air, swirling back and forth, making circles, pausing as though ready to swoop and finally covering the face that disappears behind them when Marta bursts out laughing. Borla draws closer and whispers something quickly into her ear, some word that takes no longer to say than it takes him to lean in to her then move away to watch her reaction. And then they both laugh.
All indications are that in a few minutes Pablo will have the office to himself, that he’ll proceed as he does every evening, tidying his drawing board and desk, patting his top pocket to be sure that the tape measure is there where it should be and putting his smooth-paged notebook into the inside pocket of his jacket; he’ll attach the Caran d’Ache pencil between the second and third buttons of his shirt, with its point tucked in under the fabric, and finally he too will go, after all the others. However, things don’t always work out as imagined, and on that evening that Pablo Simó drew, yet again, his eleven-storey tower that will never be built, precisely at the moment that Borla says to Marta, “Want a lift anywhere?” there is a knock at the door and a young woman steps into the room, wearing black trainers, jeans and a white T-shirt, a woman carrying a much larger backpack than you might expect of someone merely popping in, a woman Pablo judges to be no more than twenty-five years old, and without any greeting or preliminaries she says:
“Do any of you know Nelson Jara?”
And at that moment, just as Pablo had always feared might one day come to pass, the world pauses for a fraction of a second before immediately beginning to spin at top speed in the opposite direction. All three of them, without answering the woman or saying anything, without even exchanging glances, feel themselves transported back through time to the night, three years ago, that they swore together never to revisit.
“I’m sorry, but I’m looking for Nelson Jara…” the girl tries again.
Borla is the first to break his trance and ask, “For whom?”
“Nelson Jara,” she repeats.
“It doesn’t ring a bell,” says Borla. Then he asks, “Does the name mean anything to you, Pablo? Do you know of any Nelson Jara?”
Borla waits for the answer they agreed on, but Pablo Simó isn’t going to give it. “No, I don’t remember” – that’s what he’s supposed to say, but he says neither that nor anything else. He keeps quiet, following Borla in as far as his silence will take him, yet unable to utter a single word, for all that the other man is fixing him with that particular expression. How can Pablo deny what he knows, and what Marta knows and what Borla knows: that Nelson Jara is dead, buried a few feet beneath the heavy-wear tiles over which the three of them walk every day on their way into or out of the office, under the concrete floor of the parking lot, exactly where they left him that night, three years ago.