The following is from Juan José Millás's novel, Let No One Sleep. Juan José Millás is the recipient of Spain’s most prestigious literary prizes: the Premio Nadal, Premio Planeta, and Premio Nacional de Narrativa. He is the author of several short story collections and works of nonfiction as well as over a dozen novels, including two published in North America: Let No One Sleep and From the Shadows, a Publishers Weekly “Top 10 Book of the Year.” A regular contributor to El País, Millás has also won many awards for his journalism. He lives in Madrid.
Given that sound, like smoke, tends to rise, she guessed that the music was coming from the apartment below, on the third floor, but, even though she had been in the building for seven years, she couldn’t bring herself to go and speak to the person living there. When her father died, she had sold the family home, which had been on the outskirts of the city and boasted a garden, and bought this two-room apartment on the corner of Canillas and Cartagena. And she had some money left over, which she put into savings; money was something that gave her a feeling of security.
She had never met any of her neighbors. It was the kind of place where people didn’t stay long, given that the apartments, almost all of which were rentals, were occupied by recent divorcées or people only in Madrid temporarily. There were students, too; they would move in at the beginning of the academic year, October, and be gone in June. For some time, Lucía had also been seeing tourists in the elevator; they must have rented the apartments online for a few days at a time.
The transience of the building’s inhabitants was the very thing that had sold her on it; she had never been able to stand neighborly interactions. The only constant was the super, a Polish man, who, able to turn his hand to fixing plugs and cisterns alike, saw to the upkeep of the building as well as manning the super’s office. He showed up in the morning and disappeared at night, and let everyone have his number in case of any afterhours emergencies.
Lucía did not know how long she’d been sitting listening to the music coming through the air vent, because she had entered a dreamlike state, one in which her future career had also been revealed to her: She saw herself driving a taxi around the streets of Madrid. She visualized the city as seen from a driver’s seat, with her continuously zooming in on people and buildings, swinging to the left and then, for no apparent reason, to the right. She liked driving, always had. It was not something she found tiring. She sometimes went out in the car for hours, covering distances of 250 or 300 miles, for the sheer pleasure of that six or seven hours in nobody’s company but her own, letting the motorway unfold before her as she turned this or that over in her mind.
In her mind, as she drove this taxi, the opera music she could hear in the bathroom was playing; she imagined it coming from the car stereo and not the downstairs apartment. The melody both broke her heart and plunged her deeper into the daydream. She went on with it, imagining stopping to pick up a passenger, a man of forty-five or fifty, well-dressed, polite, wearing expensive cologne, which melded with her own perfume, intermingling like the smoke from a pair of sweet-smelling cigarettes. That invisible dance between the two fragrances, with Maria Callas’s voice increasing the aromatic tension, sent a shudder through her entire body.
“Do you like opera?” the man asked.
“I’d like to like it,” she replied, and she meant it.
It seemed more seductive to present this combination of inadequacy and ambition, given the position of superiority it put him in—always a turn-on for men. The reverie had become extraordinarily real at the moment the music stopped, suddenly pitching Lucía back into the bathroom. Her panties were moist, and her nipples erect. In other circumstances, feeling turned on like this, she might have decided to masturbate, but it seemed like that would sully the fantasy out of which she had just emerged. Splashing her face, she went back through to the living room, turned the computer on, and googled the phrase “Taxi licenses for sale, Madrid.”
Dozens of results came up, both from individual sellers and from companies offering advice on the subject. She called a couple of the numbers to get an idea of the price of a license, which was anywhere between 120,000 and 150,000 euros, depending on the state of the vehicle and the rest day stipulated in the license. She was relieved to learn that, unlike driving a truck, taxi driving did not require a special license. As long as you passed a test on routes through the city and tourist attractions, all you needed was a basic private car license. Aside from that, the relevant laws had to be learned and a number of psychometric tests passed, all of which sounded straightforward enough. It was, in any case, a question of applying oneself, whether enrolling at a taxi school or buying the manuals and studying independently.
She rose feeling excited at the prospect and did a few calculations. She had enough in savings to buy a license without a loan from the bank, and she would still have a little put aside to see her through any unforeseen difficulties. There was also the fact that registering as self-employed meant she could ask for her monthly unemployment payments, to which she was now entitled, in advance. She began pacing the apartment, chewing her fingernails. She could forget about the world of programming, given the situation in the market, but she wanted a change of direction anyway. Not only that; she had just been given the clearest of indications as to which way she ought to go.
Something’s going to happen, said her mother inside her head.
Going back to the computer, she went on the City Council’s website and saw that a taxi license examination was being held the following month. That meant thirty days to study for some tests, which, for a person of her abilities, would be relatively straightforward. Without further ado, and on an impulse rather out of keeping with her calculating character, and thinking to save herself the cost of the driving school, which seemed gratuitous, she immediately ordered the manuals.
From Let No One Sleep by Juan José Millás, translated by Thomas Bunstead. Used with permission of the publisher, Bellevue Literary Press. Copyright © 2018 by Juan José Millás, translation copyright © 2022 by Thomas Bunstead.