Sisyphus in Love

Do you want to know what love is? I'll tell you what it is: you feel a strange pressure in the chest, your throat goes dry and your heart beats wildly; your gaze fixes on a point lost in space; you realise that a three-line poem contains your entire life; it dawns on you that you are alive but don't want to be alive; you feel a pain buried inside, so big you would never have thought it possible. Love is melancholy, sadness and laughter at the same time, and also passion, uncertainty, fever, lack and excess; a simultaneous feeling of being your purest self and yet completely alien to yourself. Love marked a before and an after in my life.

Ane grows silent. She is going back in time, as if she were trying to measure the line that links the distant and the recent past and the future. It is difficult, because it is difficult to conjure up the past and bring it into the present by threading words together.

Love is to live on loan, to live a life that's not your own without knowing what to do with that life. How can I put it? How can I explain what love is? If you've lived through it you know, but if you haven't, how can it be explained? I can tell you what love isn't: tranquillity, balance, logic, contentment. If you are in love you want it all and you want it now, even if it's impossible. You feel rules are cruel and convention a form of tyranny. If you are in love you feel like you're fenced in, surrounded by the absurdity of rules. Love killed me, but thanks to love I once lived, just before I died.

Staring blankly into space, without moving a muscle, with her legs crossed, the only thing that moves in the scene is the smoke rising from the cigarette and the ash about to crumble. Esteban Mugarra stops writing. When he closes the notebook that rests on his knees the name ANE is visible on the cover. Don't mental patients have surnames? If we were to flick the notebook open again, however, we would see the name Ane Atela Lasa on the first page, as well as a reference number.

Ane remains silent. The tape is still running. Before she starts talking again Esteban Mugarra takes it out, turns it around, shoves it back into the machine and presses the red button.

"Tell me about the time when you used to be alive."

"It's an old story. It was another life."

"In another country."

"Yes, in Central America."

"But everything started here, in Bilbao, didn't it?"

He doesn't know much about Ane. Her husband told him most of what he knows when he came to see him and beg him to take her case on. The rest he has gathered from the sessions they've had so far. Not much. She is like an unfinished jigsaw puzzle.

From what he knows, Ane never knew what it was to be in love until she met Mikel, and by then she had a husband, two daughters, a mortgage on a beautiful house and her life properly organised. But six years ago everything collapsed when her six-year-old hit her head and Ane had to rush her to hospital. Mikel was on duty at the accident and emergency room and fate brought them together unexpectedly.

From what she has told him so far, until she met Mikel Ane thought that love was linear and moved only in one direction - from more to less, from youth to maturity. Later she realised that, overall, love can't be drawn with one line; that it isn't contained in a linear cycle of birth, development, weakening and death. Love is messy, black and white, unpredictable, full of traps.

If her daughter hadn't broken her nose and cut her face, if Mikel hadn't been on duty, if instead of going to the Gurutzeta hospital she had gone to the Basurto one or the Galdakao one she might never have met him, and then Ane's life would have never changed. Or maybe it would have. Impossible to know.

To what extent is fate inevitable? To what extent is fate just fate?

What matters is that Ane went to that particular hospital on that day, at that time, purely by chance, and that it was fate that brought their lives together then. But the relationship wouldn't have developed if Mikel hadn't pursued it, if he hadn't been so determined to monitor the little girl's healing. For some reason, somehow, something within him clicked that day and he decided there and then that he wanted to know more about Ane. Mikel is a plastic surgeon. When Ane met him he was forty-five years old and lived alone. But Ane didn't know that then; she didn't know it until later. It was a process.

Mikel made an appointment for a week later. He said he wanted to check that the stitches were healing and the nasal septum stayed in place. He wanted to make sure everything went well. During that second encounter he asked lots of questions. Very naturally, almost as if he weren't asking them. Did the little girl have any sisters or brothers, did they live nearby, did Ane take time off work to come to hospital, and whereabouts did they live? It was almost time to finish his shift, she was the last patient of the day and he had to go somewhere near their neighbourhood. He would be pleased to give them a lift home because he wanted to be there in case the kid's nose fell off, he would be able to pick it up and sew it back on right there and then. Like this, joking playful with the little girl, he walked mother and daughter to the underground parking lot.

They had a cup of coffee in a bar on the way and afterwards he drove them home. Later, during their sessions, Ane told Esteban Mugarra that she hadn't suspected anything. Mikel made it all seem so natural. Without questioning her directly, almost as if he wasn't asking questions at all, he forced her to give answers. He treated her like an old friend, made her feel completely at ease. He managed to get her to accept everything he offered without appearing to be offering anything at all. Everything seemed so natural.

Two days later, Mikel walked down the street as Ane was buying the newspapers in her local kiosk and they agreed to have lunch together in a busy restaurant nearby. Nothing fancy, just a menu du jour. Everything felt completely natural. A few days later they met him on the street as she was walking the kids back from school and he took them to a sweet shop, because he wanted to buy the girls a little something. The week after that, when Ane took her daughter for a check-up appointment, they had a coffee again in the canteen at the hospital.

She realised what was going on with Mikel was more than a doctor-patient relationship when, one morning, she found herself thinking of him the moment she woke up. She was suddenly conscious something had changed because three days had passed since they had last met and this made her feel like she had lost an arm. Mikel wasn't a choice, what was between them wasn't an aseptic relationship, something that could be stopped as soon as it had been started. He had become an absence.

I needed him. To live. As much as I needed breathing. When he was away from me I felt as if I were choking. Even my daughters couldn't fill the emptiness I felt. His absence hurt, and it hurt to be near him knowing that soon we would have to go our separate ways. But only those moments together eased the pain. The feelings of guilt came later, and they weren't something that I felt instinctively, but rather a by-product, a response to the rules of society. In the meantime all I wanted was to see him. Such was my desire, my need for him. Nothing else satisfied me.

Three months after she first met Mikel Ane packed a suitcase and left home, leaving a short note behind her: "I can't anymore." That was six years ago, six long years. Less than two months ago she turned up in Esteban Mugarra's surgery for the first time. She has all the obvious signs of depression, but in order to treat it Esteban needs to know more, he has to get to the core of things. And for now, Ane herself is his best source of information.

After six and a half years away, one day she suddenly turned up at home. She opened the door with her own key and put the very same suitcase she had taken with her that day on the floor in the hallway. She stood there, immobile, tense, silent, looking very sad. When a slender thirteen year-old girl asked her who she was she didn't say anything. Eunate didn't recognise her mother, because the woman in the photographs around the house and that woman didn't at all look like the same person.

Š Mintegi, Laura. Sisifo maiteminez, Txalaparta, Tafalla, 2001.

Š Translation: Amaia Gabantxo