Among all the connections he’d made inside the World Bank, a city within a city, Malik was the closest thing he had to a friend. They’d shared a tiny cubicle when he started at the organization, and they’d developed an open, easygoing working relationship: they chatted at break time, strolled out together for a midmorning coffee, and shared part of the commute home to the suburbs on the Metro. Their exchanges always had something of the comic routine in them, which the other employees in the Development Projects office found a little shocking.
The difference between his relationship with Malik and those he had with the rest of his acquaintances at the Bank lay exclusively in what they talked about. Malik had been born in Sri Lanka and raised in Boston. He was intelligent, cultured, progressive, and nobody among the few who knew him understood very well why he worked there. I’ve got four little savages to feed, was the most he offered as an explanation. The extent of his erudition regarding almost everything showed that he was essentially a reader: between the ruckus from his children and his wife’s Hindu relatives, about whose endless visits he never stopped complaining, he must have spent his afternoons and evenings in some armchair in a little white house with a yard and garden, reading up on world culture.
The problem with gringos, Malik said to him one day, is that they don’t know how to make conversation. They share their opinions when they feel authorized to do so, but they don’t know how to sit down and talk about anything just to talk about it, without getting impatient. In Boston I used to live in the Hindu neighborhood, which is really something else, but since I came to the Washington suburbs, I’m like the deaf mute of Sidon.
He recognized the Biblical sound in the name of the deaf mute that Malik was talking about, but he preferred not to ask: on a previous occasion when he’d shown his ignorance about Christian tradition, the Sri Lankan had worn himself out laughing at him. He waited until Malik went to the bathroom to make his ablutions—he was notoriously slow about it—to look up the reference on the internet. He found it in a moment: it came from the Gospel of St. Mark.
Jesus departed the rich, illustrious, and orthodox region of Tyre, where he had been preaching in synagogues to his own class. He entered the poor Gentile region of Decapolis, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, where the people that had heard tell of him were more interested in his shamanic healing powers than in his reputation as a rabbi. During his first day staying in Decapolis a large crowd brought to him a man who was a deaf mute. Resigned to his fame, Jesus drew apart a little from the spectators; he took the man by the shoulders and violently pushed him down onto his knees. He vigorously thrust a finger in the man’s ear. With his free hand he forced open the deaf mute’s mouth, and in a single motion stretched out the man’s tongue, letting fall on it a drop of his own saliva. He shouted at him Ephphatha!—which means Be opened! and he tugged on the man’s hands for him to rise. The man thanked him with perfect diction then asked what he could do to repay him. Jesus told him to keep his cure a secret. St. Mark doesn’t say whether or not the man lived the rest of his life in the paradox of pretending to be a deaf mute, although he shows that the man’s companions didn’t pay much attention to the Nazarene’s orders.
When Malik returned from the bathroom, he was waiting for him with a joke: Ephphatha! he shouted at him when he saw him walk through the door, and in case his friend didn’t remember the evangelist’s exact text, he translated: Be opened! The Sri Lankan smiled. I’ve tried, he added, but it turns out worse: to be open you need someone who feels like listening, and gringos have enough problems being gringos without trying to listen to others.
A few days after talking with Malik about Jesus curing the man from Sidon, and his paradoxical destiny, the telephone on his desk rang. A secretary informed him that the Bank’s Director of Communications wanted to speak with him, that he should come up to the third floor right away. It was then nine or ten o’clock in the morning and by lunch time he was already cleaning out his desk. He said goodbye to the Sri Lankan, who accompanied him to the elevator carrying a small box, and who did not once stop talking about the relationship between medieval mendicants and the modern day globalophobics who made their lives impossible with their demonstrations and protests.
The Communications Office was much more demanding than the catacombs of Development Projects, so much so that he was forced to alter his habits completely. He had no news about Malik for more than a year, until one day they happened to run into each other at the Middle Eastern food stand in the Bank’s food court. “I haven’t heard anything about you,” he said to his old office companion, a little bit embarrassed because it was obvious who had been the master and who the apprentice, and who should have been the one to call whom. I’m in the same place as always, in the asshole of the building, at the bottom of the ladder. And you? Moving right along: a few months after they called me up to Communications they promoted my boss to be regional director, so now I’m on the fourth floor, in an office with a window. And you must be delighted. Delighted. In this company, the higher up you go the more sinister it gets, so I don’t really envy you. That’s why you’re my hero. I don’t want your admiration, I want money. That’s what I need so I can quit this shitty job. As they walked to the table they caught up on the details of each other’s lives. You’re really skinny, the Sri Lankan told him when they were seated, I’m sure they’ve got you working morning, noon, and night. They do, he answered, but that’s not why. Then it’s from chasing skirts. More or less. Ephphatha!
Since I accepted the job here and they put me into Development Projects with you, he told him, I was aware that a woman with whom I’d had a very intense relationship many years ago was living in DC, married to a Bank employee. That was the only thing I knew, and it was only secondhand gossip because I’d never been in touch with her since we split up. Then one day, added the Sri Lankan as if to speed up the story, you ran into her buying milk in the shop on the first floor. No: the day after they promoted me to Communications she just showed up at my office out of nowhere and told me that I hadn’t thanked her. When I recovered from my shock I asked her what for. She explained that she’d spoken about me to her husband and for that reason he’d had me called up. She sat down in one of the chairs facing my desk and added: I told him that we’d been very close friends. And what are you doing here? I asked her. We’ve got tickets for the opera but he’s in a meeting. Shall I grab a couple coffees and we can chat while we wait for him? Go get two coffees.
Malik interrupted him, saying, with his eyebrows raised very high: She’s your boss’s wife? Yes. Now I don’t know if I want to hear any more. You sound just like a gringo now. He half-closed his eyes and conceded: Ephphatha! Then continued: So, then you invited her to have lunch another day. No, I didn’t see her again for two or three months: if working in Development Projects leaves you no free time, in Communications your personal life practically doesn’t exist. So then? So my boss got promoted to be director for the Pacific Basin and we threw a cocktail party in his honor, at Old Ebbit’s, a place he really likes because he used to work in the Treasury. On the way to the official naming ceremony he stopped by my office and told me: I’ll see you at the party, bring your wife along. Is yours coming? I asked him. He raised his hands, like he was praying to heaven and answered me: She’s been driving me crazy for weeks, telling me how nice it was to see you, and how she’s dying to meet your wife. By now Malik had finished his brochette, and said: So you hooked up with her right in front of everybody. It wasn’t me: it just happened. We ended up chatting, and by the time I realized it, we were already sharing the same glass. Then she told me that she had a message she’d been keeping for me. What? I asked her. It’s a message passed through saliva, she answered. And she pushed you down on your knees, finished Malik, standing up from the table, and she opened your mouth, and she let fall a drop of her holy water on your tongue. That’s a little bit poetic but you might put it that way. The Sri Lankan glanced at his watch and said: I don’t have to leave yet but the truth is, I don’t want to hear any more.
—Translated from Spanish by Brendan Riley.