Aída Betanzos, the woman in apartment 8, teaches math at a college. She lives alone and has few worries, scarcely any relatives, and an occasional furtive affair with another professor, a married man, at her school. Her life isn’t bad: she does her job well, goes to the movies, plays the piano, and considers herself a gourmet. She studies restaurant guides with great care so that she can try new dishes without going overboard in order to maintain her figure. She has tried all kinds of cuisine: Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, Danish, German, Polish, Argentine, and even Burmese. Lately she’s been a bit anxious. She feels life slipping away from her. Her secret affair with Professor Aldo Podalski, which has required an absurd amount of patience, isn’t really satisfying: pressed for time, he’s always bailing out for fear of being discovered. She herself has spaced out those trysts, which have begun to get in her way. Before, she could say, elegantly, she was amused by contradictory situations; she even made fun of movies with supposedly intense romances, which wouldn’t have survived a war or cataclysm—only deep romances would, in her opinion—but now she sighs when she comes across one of those stories in which two people who apparently hate each other end up drawn together by an irresistible attraction. While playing the piano, she casually goes over the list of men she despises, but no one is likely to inspire hidden passion. More than anyone else she hates her colleague Heberto Franco, the archetypal fifty-something professor, cradle-robbing, attractive, and charming. She can’t stand his arrogance, his know-it-all attitude, his gray hair that gives him the air of Mastroianni in his mature years, his apparent suaveness, and his donjuanesque reputation that links him to half the department. Especially, she wonders how, with his paltry salary, he can afford to take so many coeds to the most expensive restaurants and the most luxurious hotels—it has been whispered in the halls that he keeps one girl at an apartment in Polanco—and still feed the two children from his first marriage, a couple of detestable brats. Honestly, she never liked him. When she saw him walking toward the department chair’s office, almost gliding like a prince surrounded by a retinue of nymphs in jeans, she thought him hateful: the so-called great scientist, a provincial Einstein, a one-eyed king among the blind.
Today, after four weeks of misunderstandings, she’s going out with Aldo Podalski. She has tried not to show worry or anger, but sympathy and sweetness—her secret weapons to counteract Mrs. Podalski’s stubborn resistance—although last week she almost made a scene when he called off the date they had made to go see a Chinese movie a half hour before. She managed to control herself, but inside she stayed worried: it must be my hormones acting up, she thought. Tonight they have a dinner date at a Thai restaurant, unless Aída finds some gastronomical wonder and tells him at the last minute. She’s lost in the usual list of restaurants, listening to music, when the phone rings: it’s Heberto Franco, inviting her to dinner. This she did not expect. Since before Holy Week she hasn’t seen him swaying his hips in the hallways of the department, swarmed by his groupies. She keeps quiet, wondering what he wants. Have you heard of Le Bistrot Parisien? Franco asks, as if she has agreed to a date. Aída feels a vague fear. When? she asks. How about tonight? No, not tonight, she thinks. I’m going out to dinner with Aldo tonight. On the other hand, she’s dying to know what Franco wants, but can’t bring herself to ask him. Yes, she answers, I can meet you tonight. She’ll have to call Professor Podalski, but his cell phone is turned off and calling his home is out of question with that wife who has already sniffed out the whole affair. At ten-thirty, she tells Franco. He agrees, a bit confused. So accustomed to young girls, he’s undoubtedly used to deciding on times, places, drinks, and positions, but he’ll just have to bear with her.
The truth is she’s furious with herself. She can’t believe she has let curiosity get the better of her. Next on her agenda is a trip to the beauty salon. She decides to dye her hair red and get a youthful haircut: perhaps changing her hairstyle will liven up her life a bit. Before going out, she puts on her black cocktail dress, which feels tight, even though she hardly eats. She changes into a wine-colored dress, more loose-fitting, but the high waist gives her a matronly air. The last thing she wants is to appear her real age. At any rate, there isn’t much time left. She runs out of the building. The super is about to turn on the lights in the corridors. She tells him, “Good evening”; Aristarco opens the door for her, but he doesn’t return her greeting, as if he hasn’t recognized her. Aída wonders if she has gone too far with her new hair color. She gets around the atrocious traffic. At the restaurant, Professor Podalski is already waiting for her with his usual air of mystery. He’s barely forty-something, like Aída, but he looks older, perhaps because of his height. He looks nervously toward the door, sipping beer. It’s nine in the evening. Aída plans to leave at ten to meet Heberto Franco. She doesn’t like the idea. It’s been a long time since she was last alone with Aldo: their relationship has lately been nothing but discreet greetings and brushes in the hallways. As always, Podalski has placed himself at an isolated table for fear of being spotted by some acquaintance: Elena’s shadow seems to follow him wherever he goes. He greets Aída and says he likes her hair that way. It seems he’s trying to show his romantic side. He wears a blue crew-neck sweater, without a shirt or jacket—a bit casual, but it reveals his tanned leathery neck, which Aída likes. She has the urge to bite him; it really infuriates her that she couldn’t bring herself to say no to Franco, to leave it for another day. Why didn’t she turn him down if she really can’t stand him? Why? She asks for a vodka tonic and the menu. She tells her lover that unfortunately she’s in a bit of a hurry. Aldo looks at her, surprised and sad: I wanted to spend more time with you. Then he takes her hands and announces, somewhat pompously, that he wants to go on a trip with her, get away from his wife, and embrace her on the beach and everywhere, without fear, without sneaking around. Aída stays frozen. She should feel joy and satisfaction, but she’s very anxious, sneaking a look at her wristwatch, wondering whether or not she should stand up Heberto Franco. In silence she swallows her vodka tonic. You really are acting strange tonight, says the professor. Is something the matter? Aren’t you happy? She begins to talk about international restaurants, which serve soups. She asks him if he wants to go to a wonderful rumba place. To celebrate, she adds, coming off a bit ironic without meaning to. He says yes and begins to eat his soup, confused. The waiter returns with their main courses and offers wine; they choose Italian. Aída hurriedly eats her chicken in coconut sauce and leaves half of it, because soon it’ll be ten o’clock. Le Bistrot Parisien is on the other side of the city. Maybe she should arrive late to humiliate Franco. Her mind traces diagonal roads that cross the Periférico, Insurgentes, and Reforma, avoiding traffic. What does he expect, she wonders, since for years their relationship has never gone beyond exchanging hellos and office meetings in which he was determined to ignore her? She shouldn’t have accepted the date, but knowing herself well, she knows she wouldn’t have been able to sleep for the rest of the week. It’s better if she finds out once and for all. Suddenly she notices Aldo looking at her, irritated. Eat, eat, please, he says as she wakes from her reverie, but the professor has already finished his dinner. She imagines spending all day with his irritated look, his manias, his procrastination habit, total dependence, dramas and manipulations. She feels a bit tired. His neck is no longer attractive, the illusion completely gone. She asks him if he wants dessert, as if he were a child. No, thank you, he mumbles, upset by her lack of enthusiasm for the proposed trip. She puts her hand on his. Please forgive me. There’s something that worries me, but we have to get together very soon. How about this Saturday? He doesn’t say anything back—just keeps staring deep into his cup of coffee. I don’t know if I can. I’ll call you, he answers at last. But that is what he always says.
Aída drives across the city to reach Le Bistrot Parisien. When she was young, she remembers, some man took her to that restaurant; it was fashionable back then and served to impress poor college girls. It bothers her that Heberto Franco has chosen the same place where he undoubtedly brings his female students. Who does he think he is? He should show her a little more respect. To top it off, she’s just had dinner. She mentally lists all the French dishes she can think of: all of them heavy, from onion soup to vol-au-vent. Perhaps a salad. And wine will do. She’ll say she’s not hungry. This way she’ll put him in his place: he’ll realize she has no appetite for him. She’s glad when she finds herself stuck in a traffic jam: let him wait. She turns on the car radio. Even though she doesn’t want to admit it, a small spark flickers deep inside her, because Heberto Franco called her—after all, he’s an important person—and she is keeping him waiting. Not so long, of course, that he would leave.
When she finally arrives at Le Bistrot Parisien, located on a charming tree-lined street where it’s difficult to park, Heberto Franco isn’t there. Her first impulse is to leave, but she decides to wait. She’ll drink something and leave. Some digestive drink, preferably mineral water. She sits at a table at the back and orders a glass of white wine. She’s still slightly tipsy from what she drank at the Thai restaurant. By the look of things, the charm and attention Heberto Franco exercises on young girls can’t possibly work on her. Deep down Franco must be afraid of her, she thinks. No doubt he asked her out because he needs some kind of favor. This gives her a sense of power. Or maybe he was going to ask for something, but because he doesn’t need it anymore, he decided to stand her up. She’ll think of ways to get even. Finishing her drink, she gets ready to leave. If Franco calls her to apologize, she’ll say she couldn’t make it either, that she never went, and make up phony excuses in order to hurt him. When she’s about to pick up her purse, she sees a limping figure approaching. It’s Heberto Franco, who was insultingly healthy a month ago, and now is nothing more than a wreck.
The cab dropped me off several blocks away and I’m very slow, sorry, he says frankly. Aída sits again. She has never seen him like this before; he’s looking very ill: pale, haggard, thin, his cheeks hanging over his cleft chin. Some yellowish bristles on his nape ruin the charming effect of salt-and-pepper hair at his temples. And he staggers like a hunchback. Next to him, Aldo Podalski is an Adonis. I’m here, I’m here, he says pathetically, and Aída can’t help taking him by the arm to lead him to a chair. She asks him if he wants something to drink. Tea would do you good, Heberto, she adds, regretting her maternal tone right away. He asks for apple-flavored Sidral and gasps for breath, while resting in the chair. A terrible virus, what can I tell you, a liver problem, he says, shaking his head. They sent me to the hospital. I didn’t know that, says Aída, feeling guilty for being probably the only one in the department who wasn’t worried about his health. It’s a frightful virus; they’re just beginning to study it, he continues. It practically kills you. Indeed, he looks ten years older.
The waiter comes to take their orders. Heberto Franco asks for chicken soup; Aída forgets about her tight dress and what she has already eaten and drunk and orders a medium-rare steak. When she’s nervous, she likes to eat meat. There’s nothing worse than seeing your enemy defeated prematurely, especially when it’s not even your doing. Also, in some corner of her heart, a little pity dwells, which bothers her. She’s not a woman to feel pity. But she clings to this feeling and exclaims with a sad look: Good heavens! How horrible. I would never have imagined it. Heberto Franco begins to give her the somewhat lurid details about the disease: vomiting and diarrhea, chronic fatigue and decreased libido. By the time her steak arrives, Aída wonders if she wished these terrible things on this man. And she can’t forget Podalski’s irritated look when she didn’t jump for joy at his grand announcement of the trip—well, what did he expect? After all this time, did he expect she would appreciate a Hollywoodish scene at the restaurant? While devouring her steak, she keeps talking: you really shouldn’t have bothered to come, you should’ve told me, I’d be delighted to come and visit you, if you needed something, I’d bring it. Heberto Franco sighs over his chicken soup, which seems to last forever: for the first few weeks I had a lot of visitors, but people stopped coming to see me. I know I’m not well thought of among my colleagues. Aída slightly trembles, but holds still. That’s not possible; the whole department admires you. And your female students adore you. Franco receives her remark with an infinitely patient look. Things aren’t like that, he says. But well, that’s not the case. You’re a serious person, Aída. And he keeps staring into her eyes. The only part of his body that retains strength is his eyes. Aída is surprised. He begins to pay unusual homage to her. He talks about her brilliant, well-prepared students, and remembers in great detail the three articles Aída—without anyone’s help, by the way—published in academic journals. You should be at Harvard, he adds, not here. Anyway, that hair color looks great on you. Aída’s face lights up. The pity she feels for this man begins to turn into sympathy, but she keeps herself in check: you have to be prudent. Eating and drinking so much has started to make her feel sick. She excuses herself to the bathroom, locks herself in a cubicle, pees, and washes up; looking at herself in the mirror, she notices slight bags under her eyes. With the inadequate makeup kit she brought, she does her best to hide them and adjusts her dress. But her eyes shine: after all, tonight is a great night. A man has decided to get away from his wife for her; another has fed her vanity—an unexpected gift.
And when are you returning to work? she asks when she returns to the table. Heberto Franco is absorbed, stooping over his soup, as if he has found some revelation in it. He’s so gaunt that his shirt hangs on him loosely; his thin, wrinkled neck peeks out from his collar like a vulture’s. His Adam’s apple bobbles up and down. I don’t know, he answers, maybe in a couple of weeks or more to tidy up everything. I don’t really know how long this will take, he adds with a pathetic smile. That is, if I ever recover. Despite herself, the expected phrase slips out of Aída’s mouth: Don’t say that, Heberto. Of course you’ll get better. And she takes his hand. I don’t really know what’s going to happen to me, murmurs Franco, his eyes still fixed on a slice of carrot floating lifelessly in his soup: I’m alone now. Aída remembers the name of Heberto Franco’s latest conquest, a student of his; he grabbed her around the waist, almost the hips, to take her everywhere: But what happened to Linda? Your children? Do they help you? she asks, trying to sound casual. Heberto Franco answers with a bitter smile, a mixture of pain and annoyance: Young people have no patience for a fucked-up old man. At last you have realized that, says a voice inside her. And now you come crawling to me in tears. She doesn’t know what’s the matter with her, but she’s somehow happy that Franco has come to her: it’s a deep thing, choosing with whom you can be honest. She relaxes and orders a frothy, strong cappuccino. A swig of the hot liquid feels wonderful. Franco asks the waiter to take away his soup and bring him a chamomile tea. While she is looking away, with an unsteady hand, Franco takes his napkin, but before wiping his mouth with it, he drops it—how weak he is! She picks it up, and when she gives it to him, their hands brush. Sometimes life brings you a surprise. You want some dessert? asks Franco. A mousse? They’re very good here. Bring the señorita a chocolate mousse. His use of señorita does not go unnoticed. That dress really does suit you beautifully, he says. And that hair color brightens up your face. Then he looks her in the eye: I always liked you, you know. I want to tell you this, because I don’t know how long I’ll last. The truth is that Aída, too, always liked him, but she had hidden it. She was the first one to fall for his fifty-something charm. Initially, she avidly read about his discoveries and would have given anything to get his attention, until she saw him with a female student, then another and another. So much hatred, in the end, was masking a strong attraction, just like in the movies. They listen in silence to the pianist at the restaurant, who is now playing “La Vie en Rose.” After all, Heberto —already she calls him Heberto—doesn’t look so bad. She remembers his articles, his interviews—they dubbed him a “math superstar”—and admits that he’s admirable, intelligent, charming. Beneath that yellowish man who stares at her as though he were in a dream lies Heberto’s attractive former self, and she wonders if she, too, is dreaming. She talks about a novel she read, and then caresses his hand as if the love scene had already happened and they were an old married couple enjoying a quiet night.
The mousse, though, doesn’t sit too well with her; she shouldn’t have gobbled it down. The warm tingling, the thought that they would continue their evening somewhere more intimate, turns into a stabbing pain in her stomach. It’s not good to eat an uncustomarily large dinner on such a night—she has always known that, but it slipped her mind; she got carried away by the situation. What’s gotten into me? she wonders. Asking to be excused for a moment, she heads for the bathroom again, fighting off a real stomach disaster. She’s turned pale, she sweats, and she trembles; sitting on the toilet seat, she can’t get up. After a while, a restroom attendant, a young woman, asks her if everything is all right, if she needs help with something. An Alka-Seltzer, she murmurs, dizzy. Then she manages to leave her stall, splashes water on her face, and waits for the young woman to bring it, which takes forever, as everything seems to be spinning around. At last, she drinks the medicine, falls into a chair, and waits to feel better. The attendant, very kind at first, begins to lose her patience. Do you want me to call your gentleman friend? Do you want us to call you a cab? Aída realizes she can’t stay in the bathroom much longer. She splashes water on herself again, ruining her makeup; to top it all off, she left her purse on the chair. She does her best to salvage her makeup, but the result isn’t very encouraging. She still doesn’t feel good. With so many eyes on her, she walks across the restaurant: other women surely went into the bathroom and heard her debacle—how embarrassing!
When she returns to the table, Heberto is serious, in a bad mood, and gives her a disappointed look. I had to pay the bill, he says in a sour tone. Aída grabs her purse and mechanically looks for her wallet. Excuse me, something didn’t agree with me. How much was it? It doesn’t matter, he answers. The thing is, with very high medical bills, I’m a little short on cash. Aída, barely starting to discover another facet of herself, gradually feels the effects of the medicine and asks Heberto if he needs money. Don’t worry about it. Maybe later, he answers, putting the coat over her shoulders. Are you better now? What happened to you? As she walks out of the restaurant arm in arm with the man, and helps him into her car to take him to her apartment, Aída realizes she’s in it for the long haul: she’ll have to take care of him, and he probably won’t be the same ever again. A remnant, perhaps, a shadow of the man he used to be. A bit like herself.