It’s 2:00 in the afternoon on Monday when he gets up from his desk, leaving his computer in a state of hibernation. He has a couple of hours to eat lunch. He removes a book from his drawer. His colleagues make the most of their lunch breaks by driving to their houses and spending time with their families. Almost all of them are married; the majority of them have children. Unlike them, he lives alone. He will marry in a few months, but for now, he prefers to use his lunch break to relax. He has a routine of reading while walking to one of the many nearby restaurants. His office is located on a wide, busy avenue. Today he has decided to walk on a different route. He takes a cross street, arriving at a major road with too much traffic. The sun is keeping the temperature at almost 90 degrees. A few yards away, he sees a restaurant—or rather, a motel with a dining room in the front.
He hesitates for a second. The place looks deserted, and besides, it’s a motel. For some reason, the idea of eating there strikes him as perverse. He approaches the door, stops, and then continues on his way, advancing a few yards. Along the sidewalk, he sees only office buildings without any activity. Aside from drivers in their cars, advancing slowly, hysterical with each movement, he doesn’t see any people. For a second, it seems to him that the city has changed: he doesn’t recognize it; everything seems foreign. He remains there, under the sun, static. He sits down on a bench at a deserted bus stop and opens his book.
He is absorbed in the story he’s reading. When he raises his head, he sees a young woman smiling at him. He looks over his shoulder by reflex, but only the two of them are there. As she approaches him, he closes the book. She is wearing pants made of a thin white fabric and a tight sports top. For a moment, he imagines that she doesn’t exist, that he is hallucinating. These things don’t happen to people like him. The girl asks him about a line of public transportation, and he answers, “I’m sorry, I wouldn’t know what to tell you.” She asks if he knows how to get downtown from there. He tries to look her directly in the eyes. She seems very pretty; this thought obliges him to lower his gaze. “It’s been years since I’ve taken the bus.” “Thanks,” she says. “What time do you have?” He looks at his watch and tells her the time. She moves to his side, and he can’t help staring at her. In the intense light of the sun, her pants seem almost transparent. He notices a thong. He can’t tear his eyes away from her shapely glutes.
He sees her move away a few steps, and he realizes that he’s staring at her shamelessly. He feels an erection. In his embarrassment, his cheeks turn red. He begins to walk back to work and then stops again at the motel restaurant, deciding to go in. After opening the glass door, he sits down at a table near the window. He looks at the menu. As he waits for someone to take his order, he opens the book. He tries to follow the story. The girl he saw on the street enters and sits down across from him. She smiles at him again and asks what he recommends that she eat. He answers that it’s his first time there. “Hello?” she shouts. A drowsy-looking young man sticks his head through the door behind the bar. She shouts at him again: “What do you recommend for us?” His reply is a studied silence, as if he is struggling to come up with the right words, as if the question requires an analysis of the stability of the universe. “The hamburger,” he says slowly, as if he didn’t believe anyone were really talking to him.
“That and a coke,” the girl says. Without leaving his stupor, he orders the same. She picks up the book. “I’ve never heard of this writer,” she tells him. “Is he good?” “He’s one of my favorites,” he answers. She opens the book at random. For a few minutes, neither of them says a word. She seems amused. “Don’t tell me your name,” she says. “I will call you Roberto Bolaño, like the author.” He smiles. “What’s your name?” he says, ignoring the game. She turns her eyes toward the ceiling. “Let me think of something. Is there some actress or singer that you like?” “Natalie Portman,” he answers. “Pleased to meet you,” she concludes, supporting her torso on the table, giving him a kiss on the cheek.
She looks at the title. “Is it fiction or nonfiction?” He can’t tell if her question is innocent or ironic. Sensing his confusion, she clarifies: “Why is it called Murderous Whores?” “It’s a collection of short stories,” Roberto says. Natalie begins to read the title story aloud. He listens to her, thinking that nothing is real, that he must have thrown himself into traffic on the main road, and that Hell is being in a motel restaurant, where a beautiful girl reads aloud the stories of a Chilean writer, precisely that story in which a woman speaks to a silent Max.
Their meals arrive. She begins to talk about how she has always wanted to know a writer. Roberto looks her in the eyes. She tells him, with a piece of hamburger between her teeth, not to think she’s crazy. “Use your imagination. Haven’t you ever wished that you could share a meal with Natalie?” He nods his head, takes a swallow of his soft drink, and lowers his gaze for a moment. She covers her cleavage with her hands. He blushes. She laughs. “How shameless you are!” He is going to say he’s sorry, but she doesn’t allow him to speak. She begins to talk about music. He tells her that he knows almost nothing about this topic. This doesn’t stop her from continuing to talk about bands he’s never heard of.
When he finishes eating, he looks at his watch. “What time do you have to be back at work?” Natalie asks him. “In a little while,” he answers. “Young man,” she shouts again at the waiter, “is there a discount for people who are staying in the motel?” “No,” the man says, confused. “It’s a pity,” she says. “I’ll wait for you at reception,” she adds in a whisper to Roberto. He pays and leaves the restaurant. Something tells him that he needs to get away from there. He doesn’t know what to expect. From where he is, he can see her at the reception desk. She waves at him and gestures for him to approach, and he feels compelled to obey her.
They open the door and enter their room. A double bed, an old TV, paintings of snowy landscapes. The air conditioning is turned on, and the cold freezes Roberto’s sweaty shirt. She lies down on the bed and stretches out. He looks at her, confused, as he slowly approaches the bed. He feels as if he is under water, that at any moment this hell will be revealed for what it is, that Lucifer is a woman in tight sports clothes. Natalie looks for the remote control and, as soon as she finds it, turns on the TV. “The secret word,” says a tenor voice as a packed auditorium is shown. The audience repeats the phrase. He begins to pay attention to the program after noticing that she is watching it with fascination.
“Escape,” says Natalie, imitating the chorus of the audience. Roberto is sitting on the bed, just beside her. The program is a version of the game hangman, except that each letter involves losing a percentage of the prize money that will be awarded at the end. After two rounds (“palace” and “sunset”), she gets up. “I need a shower,” she tells him as she enters the bathroom, leaving the door slightly ajar. He immediately approaches the bathroom door. From where he is standing, he manages to see a mirror in which her nude back is reflected before she hides herself behind a plastic curtain. He doubts for a moment, looking around, touching his erection. Finally, he slowly begins to remove his clothing. He thinks of his fiancée, of what it will mean for him to be with another woman. His internal warning system tells him that he might be in danger. Immediately afterward, he steps back, searching for reasons to leave before he makes a mistake. But his excitement is more powerful than any coherent thought.
He enters the bathroom cautiously. He hears water and sees steam that is growing denser. Natalie sings in a soft voice. He opens the shower curtain, and the image of water falling across her body paralyzes him. She goes silent, looking at him fixedly, turning around in order to face him in a defiant attitude. She doesn’t smile now, and she seems too serious, as if they had broken the rules of the game. Roberto is disconcerted. She closes the curtain, and he excuses himself and gets out of the shower. He begins to get dressed. As he is about to leave the room, she orders him to stop. He turns around. She is wrapped in a towel, partly revealing the breasts he had contemplated a moment ago, her shoulders covered by a dewy glaze. She looks him in the eyes. “Are you married?” she finally asks. “No, but…” Roberto can’t decide whether he should be honest or lie. “I’m going to be married soon,” he responds finally. A smile appears on her lips. “Are you going to invite me to the wedding?” He stammers: it has been several months since a question made him so uncomfortable. “Perhaps,” he says. She lets the towel fall to the floor. “I’ll behave myself,” she says, as she lies down on the bed. She asks him to lie down by her side and continue watching the program.
Party. Vagabond. Lie. Roberto looks back and forth between the television and the woman. He perceives that she is damp, breathing slowly. Her eyes are hypnotized by the words that are being revealed letter by letter. Labyrinth. Elevate. The time of day, the buzz of the air conditioning, the program, and its tenor-voiced host. He would like to stretch out his hand and touch Natalie, kiss her. “Where do you think they find all these words?” she asks, slightly inclining her head, looking him directly in the eyes. “I don’t know,” he says, “A dictionary, some computer program, a book.” She laughs, moving a few centimeters closer to him. Television. “News!” says the girl. Football. Dentist. Africa. They reach the part of the show where anyone can guess the word. They repeat the telephone number before going to a commercial. “We should call,” says Natalie. “We could win something.” Roberto looks at her in silence.
She moves, straddling him, kissing him on the lips. He wants to embrace her, but he’s paralyzed when suddenly the image of his fiancée appears before his eyes. She ignores his passivity, running her tongue across his neck, opening his shirt, delicately sucking on a nipple. “Commemoration,” says a voice on the TV. She stops what she’s doing, stands up, and begins to get dressed. “Conference!” she yells excitedly, with her thong still in a ball in her hand. Confused, he looks at her. Rage and frustration fight for control of his mind.
“Wait,” he says as she ties her tennis shoes. “Good luck with your wedding,” she replies as she approaches and gives him a kiss on the forehead. He feels her breasts graze his face; he wants to detain her by force. “At least give me your phone number,” he whispers. She smiles, answering, “Okay.” She grabs Roberto’s book and takes a pen from her purse. “With one condition: you can’t call me until you’ve read the last page.” Roberto looks at her with skepticism. Natalie gives him one more kiss and leaves the room in a hurry. He stays and watches the rest of the program. It’s four in the afternoon.
Roberto walks back, arriving late from his lunch break. He invents a mishap that delayed him. Someone mentions that his hair is mussed. He endures jokes for the remainder of the afternoon. That night, he asks his fiancée to go for a drive with him. He directs them to the same motel. He rents the same room. He asks her to call him Roberto Bolaño. “Like the writer of the book you’re reading?” she asks. “Yes. And I’ll call you Natalie Portman.” The woman looks at him with doubt, almost amused. “I didn’t know you liked her so much.” “It’s a game,” he says, trying to downplay its importance. She plays along. They make love with violence and fall asleep in each other’s arms. When she wakes up, she tells him she loves him, and he responds with the same.
For a couple of days, he can only think of Natalie: of the image of her body, of the possibility of cheating on his fiancée. He doesn’t call her, not wanting to seem anxious. On Thursday, throughout the morning, he repeatedly glances at the number on the final page. He has dialed it a couple of times: no one answers. He ignores her warning that he finish the book before calling. He can’t concentrate. By 2:00 in the afternoon, he is decided. He walks toward the motel, almost running, with the book in his hand, thinking that he’ll run into her again. The sun is at its highest point. As he approaches the motel, his sweat falls on the pavement. There’s not a single customer in the motel restaurant. The young waiter must be behind the door in the back. He follows the path. The bus stop is deserted. He looks around. He waits for half an hour. That sensation of being outside of his environment returns to him. He doesn’t recognize the site. It seems that only he exists, that he floats in a world that is an illusion made of vapor. In his memory, he replays the image of the girl who kissed him three days ago: her sensual voice reading aloud a story in which the protagonist tells Max that women are murderous whores.
Tired of leaving another encounter to chance, he takes his cell phone and dials once more the number written on the last page. A tenor voice answers, asking him for his name. He hears the sound of distant applause. He closes his eyes: “Fuck,” he says with anger. He doesn’t know that on the other side of the speakers, the audience has fallen silent and the host, still confused, changes the subject while the producers scramble to figure out how to avoid being fined by the official censors. When the crisis passes, a woman calls into the program. “The word is hell.” The host congratulates her for guessing correctly on her first try, for winning a considerable amount of money. He asks her for her name. She answers in a mocking tone that she likes to be called Natalie.