The first time she heard it, she didn't recognize what it was.
The apartment was tiny, ugly and stuffy. With a view of the sea, far away, it was odd how everything — blinds, sheets, bargain-basement Provençal furniture (you could imagine the ad: furnish your flat for 500 euros, mattress included!) — seemed to ooze so much humidity. The first thing she saw on entering was an appalling clown made of colored glass on a shelf, and a triangle of cigarette burns on a square of brick-colored fabric, but she said nothing. Her friend Marita, bright and efficient as always, opened the curtains a bit, popped the clown out of sight in a drawer, came up to her, put an arm over her shoulder, hugged her and asked: better? She nodded and smiled.
Marita, her best friend since university days, was not to blame for her life being a disaster. Marita had also been unlucky in marriage, had also separated, also had two kids who were now spending the second half of August with their father. But she didn't complain. Marita was a lawyer too, but she had not caught her hubby in her own office with her own personal trainer, naked on the floor, one morning when a trial was canceled and she came back early. The worst of it was the trainer herself: 30, great body, blonde... "So what? Look, what we're going to do, you and me, is go to the beach together. What do you say? To do nothing, eat, drink and flirt with fascinating men..."
So they had gone, and ended up in that infernal apartment which, at night (when they came back without any fascinating men but at least with a few drinks inside them) didn't seem so bad. But she found it hard to sleep. Only three months had gone by since she had caught her husband with the trainer, and sleeping alone was still a problem for her.
Marita was a lawyer too, but she had not caught her hubby in her own office with her own personal trainer
This is why she heard it; a noise muffled at first, like a deep, rhythmic purring that soon rose almost to a thunder, and fell again to a dull murmur. It took her a while to identify it, a dog whining, she thought, or a child crying. But no, she knew all about child noises. In the morning she asked Marita, but her friend had slept like a log, and heard nothing. All day long, beach, bar, grilled sardines, mojitos, more beach, more bar, more mojitos; she forgot, but at night she heard it again, and understood that it was on the other side of the wall.
From then on she paid more attention to this than to her own program of fun. That tenacious, disconsolate sobbing came from the body and spirit of a man alone, pushing fifty, head close-shaven to dissemble baldness, paunch barely noticeable thanks to long runs which, morning and evening, brought him back to his apartment soaked in sweat, skinny legs, neither handsome nor ugly, but very sad. This guy has caught his wife with his personal trainer, she thought (and she was right). One day she found him down at the street entrance, talking to some children. "Borja? Pablo? When are they coming?" No, he answered in a whisper, this year they're not going to come. Her neighbor's apartment had three bedrooms, but only one window was ever open. When they crossed paths in the supermarket, she saw him take a carton of six packs of whole milk off the shelf. He put it in his cart, then put it back in its place, and took a single pack of skimmed milk. So he has high cholesterol too, she thought, poor guy, and felt a mysterious surge of tenderness for this unknown man.
"You're not thinking of getting involved with him, are you?" asked Marita. No, she said. In fact, it wouldn't be a bad idea, but that wasn't what it was about. Yet his sobbing kept her company at night, even after it had stopped, and the sounds of quiet sleeplessness that took its place, the creak of the bed, the click of the light switch, were her own lullaby.
She never knew his name. When August came to an end, they smiled at each other on the stair and each went their own way; but she returned to Madrid in a much better mood.