The gifted storyteller Isabel Allende sets her novel In the Midst of Winter in current-day Brooklyn where three lives intersect, bringing in the past from Chile and Brazil of the 1970s and more recent times in Guatemala. As two academics in their 60s try to help a young undocumented immigrant, they form a bond in this time-hopping exploration of the situation faced by immigrants and refugees.
Traffic was restricted except for emergencies, which was exactly what this was. He looked up the address of the nearest veterinary hospital, which he remembered passing by at some point. He wrapped the cat in a blanket and put him in his car. He was glad he had brushed the snow off that morning, and relieved the disaster had not occurred the day before while the blizzard was raging. Brooklyn had become a Nordic city, white on white, the angles softened by the snow, empty streets, and a strange peace, as if nature were yawning. “Don’t you dare get the idea of dying, Três, please. You’re a proletarian cat, you’ve got steel guts, a bit of antifreeze is nothing, hang in there,” Richard encouraged him as he drove with painful slowness through the snow, conscious that each extra minute could prove fatal for Três. “Stay calm, pal, hang on. I can’t go any quicker because if we skid we’re done for. We’re almost there. I’m sorry I can’t go any faster . . .”
A journey that would normally have taken twenty minutes took twice as long. By the time he finally arrived at the clinic, it was snowing again and Três was being shaken with fresh convulsions, bringing up more pink froth. The cat was seen by an efficient veterinarian of few gestures or words. She showed no optimism about the cat or sympathy for his owner. His negligence had caused the accident, she told her assistant in a low voice, although not so low that Richard did not hear. On another occasion he would have reacted to this sarcastic comment, but a powerful wave of bad memories caught him off guard, and he remained silent, humiliated. This was not the first time that his negligence had proved fatal. From that terrible moment on, he had become so careful and had taken so many precautions that he often felt he
went through life walking on eggshells. The vet explained that there was little she could do. The blood and urine tests would show whether the damage to the kidneys was irreversible, in which case the cat was going to suffer and it would be better to give it a dignified end. It had to stay at the clinic; there would be a definitive diagnosis in a couple of days, but he should prepare himself for bad news. Richard nodded, on the verge of tears. He said goodbye to Três with his heart in a knot, feeling the vet’s hard look from behind: an accusation and a sentence rolled into one.
He handed his credit card for the initial deposit to the receptionist, a young woman with carrot-colored hair and a ring in her nose. When she saw how he was shaking, she took pity on him, reassuring him that his pet would be very well looked after, and pointed out the coffee machine. Faced with this gesture of minimal kindness, Richard was overwhelmed by a disproportionate sense of gratitude and let out a deep sob. If anyone had asked him his feelings toward his four pets, he would have answered that he fulfilled his duty by feeding them and cleaning their litter tray. His relationship with the cats was no more than polite, excepting with Dois, who demanded affection. That was all. Never had he imagined he would come to appreciate those aloof felines as part of the family he did not have. He sat on a chair in the waiting room and drank a cup of watery, bitter coffee while the receptionist looked on sympathetically. After taking two of the green pills for his nerves, and a pink one for his stomach acidity, he gradually regained control. He had to get home.
The car headlights revealed a desolate cityscape as Richard drove cautiously in the twilight, peering out through the semicircle free of frost on the windshield. The streets seemed like those of an unknown city; for a minute he thought he was lost, even though he had taken this route before. Time seemed at a standstill. The hum of the heating blower and the relentless back-and-forth motion of the windshield wipers gave the impression that the car was suspended in a fog.
With the unsettling sensation of being the only soul alive in an abandoned world, Richard was talking to himself as he drove, his head filled with sounds and gloomy thoughts about the inevitable horrors of the world and of his own life in particular. How much longer was he going to live, and in what state? If a man lives long enough, he gets prostate cancer. If he lives longer, his brain starts to disintegrate. Richard had reached the age of fear: no longer attracted by travel, he was tied to the comfort of home. He did not want any shocks and was scared of getting lost, or of dying and no one finding his body until a couple of weeks later, by which time the cats would have devoured most of what remained. The possibility of being found in a puddle of putrefying viscera terrified him so much that he had agreed with his neighbor, a widow with a steely temperament and a sentimental heart, that he would send her a text every night. He had given her a key so that if he did not text her for two days in a row, she could come and take a look around his house. The text message was just two words: Still alive. She was under no obligation to reply but, feeling a similar fear, always did so with three words: Shit, me too. The most dreadful thing about death was the idea of eternity. Dead forever, how terrible.
Richard was afraid the cloud of anxiety that often enveloped him was closing in again. Whenever it appeared, he took his pulse and either could not find one or discovered it was racing. In the past he had suffered from panic attacks, which were so similar to heart attacks that he ended up in the hospital, but in recent years they had not returned, thanks to the green pills and because he had learned to control them. He focused on visualizing the black cloud above his head being pierced by powerful spears of light, like the divine rays in religious pictures. Thanks to that image and some breathing exercises, he would manage to disperse the cloud, but this time there was no need to have recourse to that technique because he soon accepted the novelty of his situation. He saw himself from afar, as if in a film where he was not the protagonist but a spectator.
For years now he had lived in a perfectly controlled environment where there were no surprises or upheavals, and yet he had not completely forgotten the fascination of the few adventures he had known in his youth, particularly his mad passion for Anita. He smiled at his apprehension, because driving a few blocks through Brooklyn in bad weather was not exactly an adventure. At that moment he clearly saw how small and limited his existence had become. Then he really did feel afraid, afraid of having wasted so many years shut in on himself, afraid of the speed with which time was passing and old age and death were approaching. His glasses misted over with perspiration or tears; he tore them off and tried to wipe them on his sleeve. It was growing dark and visibility was poor. Clutching the wheel with his left hand, he tried to put his glasses back on with the right, but the gloves made him fumble, and the glasses fell down between the pedals. A curse issued from deep in his guts.
At that moment, when he was briefly distracted as he groped on the floor for his glasses, a white car that was almost invisible in the snow stopped at an intersection in front of him. Richard crashed into the back of it. The impact was so unexpected and overwhelming that for a fraction of a second he lost consciousness. He recovered at once, but felt as he did earlier that he was outside his body, with his heart racing, bathed in sweat, his skin burning hot, his shirt stuck to his back.
Despite this physical discomfort, his mind was on another plane, separated from this reality. The character in the film kept on muttering curses inside the car while he, a spectator in another dimension, was evaluating the situation coolly and calmly. He was sure it was only a minor accident. Both vehicles had been going very slowly. He had to find his glasses, get out of the car, and talk to the other driver in a civilized manner. After all, this was what auto insurance was for.
As he clambered out of the car he slipped on the icy sidewalk, and if he had not clung to the door he would have ended up flat on his back. He realized that even if he had braked he probably would have crashed, as he would have glided on along the ice for three or four yards before coming to a halt. Since the other vehicle, a Lexus SC, had been hit from behind, the force of the collision had knocked it forward. With the wind against him, Richard struggled the few yards separating him from the other driver, who had also emerged from the car. At first he thought it was a child too young to have a driver’s license, but as he drew closer he saw it was a tiny young woman. She was wearing pants, black rubber boots, and a parka that was far too big for her. Her face was obscured by the hood.
“It was my fault. I’m sorry, I didn’t see you. My insurance will pay for the repairs,” said Richard.
The young woman glanced at the broken light and the dented, half-open trunk. She tried in vain to close it properly, while Richard went on about the insurance.
“If you want we can call the police, but there’s no need. Here, take my card, it’s easy to find me.”
She did not seem to hear him. Visibly agitated, she continued beating on the trunk with her fists until she was finally convinced she could not close it. Then she rushed back to the driver’s seat as quickly as the gusts of wind allowed, followed by Richard, who was insisting on giving her his contact details. She got into the Lexus without even looking at him, but he tossed his card into her lap just as she put her foot down on the accelerator without even closing the door, which banged into Richard, leaving him on his backside in the street. The vehicle turned the corner and disappeared. Richard struggled to his feet, squeezing the arm hit by the door. Conclusion: it had been a disastrous day; all he needed now was for the cat to die.
Excerpted from In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende. Copyright © 2017 by Isabel Allende. Published with the permission of the publisher, Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc.