The brain thief

This is a short story about two friends who go through the horrible experience of a robbery.
The brain thief

[1] Claudia is coming today

How tedious. Claudia is coming today. I don't know why I decided to invite her on a Sunday, especially after such a hectic week. I could stay in bed until three or four in the afternoon, but no, I have to prepare that blessed quinoa cake I promised her.

Besides, I don't even know what to talk about. For everyone else, it's so easy to talk about anything. I have to plan all my conversations. I have to keep in mind all the details of a meeting; otherwise, I stay silent and get desperate. For example, I know Claudia hates talking about movies or series. She always comes up with some nonsense and avoids the subject. It's very strange that we're such good friends because both of those things fascinate me. Usually, she says something like "I don't have time to watch," talks about the only three movies she's seen in her entire life, or just ignores the topic.

The more I think about it, the less I understand why we're still friends. Crossing forty, it's not so easy to meet new people, or if you do, they have their lives established; they have their family, their social circle. It's very difficult to form friendships later in life because routines are already in place. I remember when I was little; I only needed to ask, "do you want to be my friend?" and that was enough to form a friendship. Then, I would give a flower, a small trinket, or anything I found, and we were the best friends for life. Now, Claudia is not a horrible person either. As a friend, she's relatively present, and we keep each other company. She helped me a lot with that idiot Ricardo.

Well, I have to plan the conversation. The first thing is to remember the things we've already talked about to avoid redundancy, and also so she doesn't say I never listen. So, I can discard the topics of her mother's illness and the communication problem she has with her sister. In any case, I can use those topics to warm up the conversation: "how is your mom doing now?" would be a great start.

Then, I have to think about the things she's currently interested in. That master's degree she's pursuing, I don't remember exactly in what, something about sales or administration. Then, the debt she'll soon finish paying off. I think in seven installments, she'll be free, or maybe she already is; I don't know, she can explain. Oh, yes, I can't forget the most important thing: the issue of her damn depression. Although the truth is, I'm going to have to act a little hypocritically because I don't understand how a woman with so many things can feel depressed. I'm sorry, but I'm not moved by people with money who get depressed. Maybe they really feel that way, but at least they can hide it by buying things or traveling. If they could see the freedoms that money offers, they could quickly find happiness. I probably say this because the lack of money depresses me constantly, and I can't imagine the opposite situation. I live adjusting my desires to the monthly paycheck; Claudia, on the other hand, buys stupid things three times a week.

Still, realistically, I can't pretend to be poor, since I enjoy food and hot water every day. Why do I need more money? I treat myself to my little pleasures, and with that, I'm happy. I'd like to travel and see some places, but the possibility gives me anxiety. When I'm far away, I just think that at any moment, I'll return to my routine. Time passes so quickly that the two or three weeks of vacation seem like just a couple of hours. It's an emotional rollercoaster that costs me a lot of time and money. So much hassle for a couple of photos and three anecdotes.

Claudia, Claudia, Claudia. I think we'll quickly exhaust the topic of her master's degree. She'll probably tell me she's the best student, and everyone in class admires her. I wonder if she really believes what her ego whispers to her. Well, probably not, that's why she's so depressed. The problem with her debt will also be a fleeting topic of conversation. Therefore, the whole conversation will revolve around her depression. I'm worried she might start crying and then hug me. It's not that I don't love her. I can give her a hug anytime, but it's just that in those cases, I feel like I have to say something, and I don't like giving advice. I don't have any, and I'm not an example of a person to follow. I stay silent and create an awkward moment for both of us.

The last time she told me she wished to have a child. And of course, I, Inés the fool, a dignified representative of the House of Real Stupidity, couldn't say anything better than "but adopt." I forgot that she had already tried, and in that endeavor, they had shattered her. They told her that, as she didn't have a husband, she couldn't prove she was emotionally stable. They pointed out that, at her age, it was surely menopause talking. They explained that, with such low self-esteem, she would be an emotional danger to the child and that she should better get a pet. The worst part is that another woman told her all that. But what am I saying! Everyone, especially men, loves to hear that: "another woman said that," as if women don't have the right to behave like idiots.

Illustration by Oscar Zalles
Illustration by Oscar Zalles

Poor Claudia. Now that I think about it, I believe the two conversations she had with the lady from the adoption social center killed her morally. And, of course, I, Inés, the duchess of the Big Mouth and the Little Brain, had to suggest, "you're charming, why don't you go to a bar and find the father the same night." Of course, I made her cry. I would have preferred if she slapped me and left my house after such an insensitive comment. How difficult it is for me to comfort people! I don't know how to ask them to calm down. The more they cry, the more I sink inside, and I feel like running away.

Thinking about it, regarding the topic of children, all I did was see myself in her. It's me who also didn't dare to have them, but in my case, it was out of laziness; I like things comfortable, simple. Although I yearn for something more; maybe I would have liked to start a family, pick up the kids from school in the afternoons, bake cakes, and listen to their adventures. Although it probably isn't that romantic. Probably parents spend their days trying to prevent their little ones from killing each other.

Wow! It's already eleven, and I won't make it to bake that cake if I don't start now. I'm going to call my mother to get the recipe, although she will probably start badmouthing my poor father. Why does everything boil down to talking about relationships in my life? No one talks to me about movies or series. Everything must inevitably be a soap opera of reality. There's the odd guy who talks to me about movies, but their true motives are pathetically romantic. Do guys really think that because they know the names of all the actors and directors, a woman will go to bed with them? But what do I know about what they think! I barely know what I think, and I don't have much faith in myself either. Come on, Inés, stop thinking and start baking that cake!

[ 2 ] The insurance company

There's nothing worse than an insurance company. I'm not a communist, but I won't let them fool me either. These companies are a horrible creation of capitalists who don't know what else to sell. Now, what rubbish are these people selling? Fear! That's what they sell you! That's why insurance salespeople foretell disasters. They smile while telling you that your house is going to catch fire or flood, or that a roof tile will fall on your elderly mother's head while she visits. Someone told me that the Italian mafia invented these companies, institutionalizing the business of wrecking your house or shop if you didn't pay them.

I wait for Claudia, who is focused on explaining to the insurance agent that, while we were having lunch, someone stole the brain of her car parked outside my house. At least the lunch was good. The quinoa cake I made wasn't bad at all. It wasn't dry, probably due to the Mennonite cheese, which is getting more watery every time. Those Mennonites, what hypocrites! They till the land with wooden picks, but at night they're glued to the cell phones they hide under their pillows. You can't live without technology either. Where did they get that silly idea that everything in the past was better? Nostalgia is nothing more than deception, a fantasy. Our heads are forced to filter only the beautiful memories because, otherwise, we would live only with traumas.

Technology is so advanced that even Claudia's car had a brain. I don't understand; why put a brain in a car? It doesn't have much to think about. It goes forward, backward, turns to the sides, and that's it. A couple of levers and a steering wheel are more than enough. But no, they have to invent all sorts of nonsense! Also, a car with a brain should be smart enough not to get stolen. Of course, it's not a brain. It's probably just a circuit, but today's sellers love to invent terms. How intelligent can a TV or a refrigerator be? How many options can you add to a watch besides telling the time?

I'm probably the fool here. I'm old, I'm forty-seven, single, and childless. What else can I do but think about nonsense? At my age, I should be preparing my offspring for college, living in rental accommodation or taking out a loan, and laying out life plans. How to behave in the office, how to know if a partner is a good match or not. Advice, advice, and more advice. Of course, I don't know how parents dare to give advice; they are worse than the Mennonites with their cell phones.

It seems Claudia is about to come out. The expression on her face isn't of good news. It's a fact; she'll be without a car for a while. What a tragedy: I'll have to listen to her lamentations for at least two weeks! I'm sure our ancestors complained the same way when the carriage wheel broke or when the horse got sick, and they couldn't leave their homes. At least in those times, they had to solve the problem themselves and not beg for help from these insurers. Those weren't better times either; they were all so small and malnourished that they died at thirty from a cold. Of course, I'm a petite complainer in my forties. Come to think of it, they were better times.

[ 3 ] The neighborhood of thieves

I don't understand why I'm still friends with Inés. Rather, I don't know why she puts up with me so much. Sometimes we spend hours talking about my problems, and I almost never ask her how she feels. She's excellent at listening, but she doesn't talk much. It seems like she lives inside her head, although she's always aware of what's happening around her.

I think I use her as a trash can for my emotions, but she doesn't set a limit. She knows that when I start with my dramas, I can't stop talking. I love her; I got used to her and her silences, although lately her attitude has become a bit cold. Maybe I'm boring her with my problems. Now it seems that, with the theft of the car's brain, at least we're going to distract ourselves together.

I ponder and complain. For God's sake! Who would think of stealing the brain of a car that only works for that car! Thieves aren't very smart either; if they were, they wouldn't be thieves. In movies, they romanticize them, making them look interesting and sharp. In real life, they are desperate people who don't know what to do. They live thinking about other people's possessions, fearing being caught, joyless; always nervous, always lurking from the shadows. There will never be a happy thief, although maybe I only express my desire out of anger towards them. Probably they are very happy, and I am the only unfortunate one on this planet.

Last Wednesday, we went to the auto mechanic workshops at Zapata field. A man who was with us at the insurance company assured us that normally, that was the first place to go looking for stolen auto parts. Now, neither Claudia nor Inés were very subtle with the sellers; we asked them directly if they had stolen our brain. They, very offended, sent us away with shouts and insults. However, the eldest of them all, who seemed very calm, approached us and advised us to go look in Chinatown.

That name contains a double lie: there's not a single Chinese person, nor is it a neighborhood. It's a one-block street that operates during office hours, from nine to six. It's crowded with people selling stolen items at dirt-cheap prices. You can easily find a state-of-the-art camera next to a blender or a bicycle tire. However, as the place is full of thieves, it's very likely that you'll get robbed. They say you should carry your money hidden in your underwear, no keys or documents, and a lot of courage.

Inés shows more courage than I do, or maybe she has less to lose in this life. She was the only one of the two who dared to cross Chinatown in search of my car's brain. We met on the other side of the street, and she told me that the experience wasn't as bad as we imagined. She didn't find the brain, but she did find a lovely teapot that looked like one of those fine Polish antiques, with its delicate white and blue decorations. The "Made in China" inscription was the last of the bad news that afternoon.

Illustration by Oscar Zalles
Illustration by Oscar Zalles

The next day, we went to the place where we should have started searching: El Alto market. This place seems like an entire city dedicated to informal commerce. It's so vast that visiting the entire market would take at least a couple of days. I believe there's no product on the face of the earth that hasn't been there at least once. Unfortunately for us, that place is informal but not criminal, so stolen items only surface in the early morning and in very specific areas.

This time I wasn't a coward, and I stayed with Inés throughout the journey. We weren't lucky. I'm starting to believe that the brain is shattered in some landfill or floating in some contaminated river. Surely, the thief realized that it was useless and couldn't sell it to anyone other than me. I imagine he got rid of the evidence, like those criminals who toss the weapon after committing a crime.

At least we could enjoy the market a bit. I like seeing odds and ends and antiques. They remind me of my mother; she could spend her entire life looking at things. She didn't need to buy them and have them as decorations; her enjoyment was in seeing them. She was fascinated by discovering society through the strangest products it produced. She could imagine a thousand stories when she saw mine lamps or peculiar hats. Thus, she remembered her father when looking at pipes and her mother when gazing at glass syringes. I don't know what object she would associate with herself; probably, some miniature.

[ 4 ] The trap

"Claudia, I think there's no other option but to wait for the insurance company to bring the spare part. We've been everywhere, and the brain doesn't show up."

"It makes me angry, you know? It wasn't a great car, but it was mine, and I had already gotten used to it. Now that it's not working, I start to miss it, and that makes me feel helpless. It's not the first time they take something from me; I've lost like five wallets, three phones, and now this. Enough is enough, it's a vicious circle. I'm sure thieves, police, insurance companies, and auto repair shops are all combined, and they all take a bite from the cake of our misfortunes. I'm tired of us always being the poor victims, staying in the frying pan all our lives while any fool grabs the handle. It's time for us to do something, I don't know what, but something."

And that's how Claudia, with a mediocre speech, managed to convince me to catch the brain thief. The plan was very simple: we had to recreate the same conditions as the first theft and monitor the scene until the thief repeated the act. Lightning doesn't strike twice in the same place, but we were sure that several mice easily fall into the same trap.

We asked a friend to lend us his car on Sundays to use it as bait. The idea was to repeat the time and place. Claudia arrived at my house around noon for lunch and parked the car near the entrance. Then, we stayed glued to the window, waiting for the criminal to appear to catch him.

Such a simple plan couldn't fail. When you explain too much, things get tangled, and situations become complicated. Of course, it was also a rather boring plan. The first Sunday was the worst; we were like fools chatting, eating, and looking out the window every ten minutes. On the second Sunday, we aimed Claudia's phone camera at the car and could have lunch at the table watching the images from mine. The third, fourth, and fifth Sundays were identical to the second. As we were bored with not catching the thief and spending every Sunday together, we decided that in two weeks, we would suspend our silly mission.

To our surprise, the sixth Sunday was the winner. Half an hour after leaving the car on the street, we saw a very strange guy approaching. It was incredible how he managed to open the car door in a matter of seconds, so incredible that it seemed like a magic act, and we were frozen in surprise. Accustomed to nothing happening, when something did, we didn't know what to do. Claudia snapped out of the shock and ran out, grabbing the first thing she found on the stool. It was a small hammer used for hanging pictures. I went down the stairs behind her with no weapon and more fear than decisiveness.

Illustration by Oscar Zalles
Illustration by Oscar Zalles

We rushed out through the building gate to catch the thief, and we caught him red-handed. It was a very strange feeling; I expected to see a monster with a disfigured and foul-smelling face, something like an animal digging for food in dumpsters. However, he was a guy who could easily pass as our friend. He wore a fairly clean white shirt, frameless glasses, a leather jacket where he undoubtedly hid all his work tools, and corduroy pants. He looked so neat that we couldn't act with violence; hitting him with a hammer didn't seem appropriate. Claudia shouted, "Hey, what are you doing?" I looked at her in surprise because we knew very well what he was doing.

The thief took advantage of our surprise and ran out the back. He was too fast; it would have been useless to run after him. At that moment, we realized the naivety of our plan; we didn't know what to do with the thief if we caught him. Kill him? Tie him up and report him? I think we just wanted to catch him and nothing more, assert our presence in the face of his wrongdoing. A bit like those fishermen who only dedicate themselves to tearing apart the mouths of fish with their hooks, only to throw them back into the sea afterward. All we needed was to surprise him there, in the act, and say, "We're here, this time you won't steal from us."

And yes, it was a fiasco; the situation wasn't even suitable for an anecdote. What we did made no sense. We looked at each other and realized that the thief had not only stolen the car's brain but ours too.

[ 5 ] They stole everything from us

It's been almost half a year since I heard from Claudia. The last thing she told me was that the insurance company expedited the procedures, and they were able to repair the car. Also, she mentioned that she was dating a foreigner with two children. They were just starting to see each other, so they had to keep their relationship a secret from the kids. It must be difficult to balance the love of a partner with that of a family. Claudia has all the odds against her; she can embody great love, but eventually, that wears off. Children, on the other hand, are forever.

I'd like to say that I miss her, but the truth is, I don't. I think the only lasting memory of our friendship is precisely that of the brain thief. I still don't understand what we were thinking when we wanted to catch him. What were we going to say?: "Sir, can you please return what you took without permission?" Lucky for us, the guy wasn't violent, or he might have hurt us. In the end, nothing happened to us. I don't know if thieves have time to think about revenge. Surely, they live dreaming of the possessions of their next victims.

It seems strange that I have fewer and fewer friends to talk to. I admit it scares me a bit. I hope not to end up like those ladies who stop you on the bus and tell you anything just to keep company. I don't know if life offers such silent endings. One day, I'll wake up in a nursing home, where at least I'll spend my time recounting this and other silly stories to everyone I meet there.

This is the moment I should get a pet to channel my emotions, but I can't stand dogs or cats. I would do better with one of those large reptiles or a turtle, although those animals seem not to have feelings; they're like plants that move seeking the best spot to bask in the sun. Thinking of those creatures, I remembered that two weeks ago, I killed the little cactus on my nightstand by watering it too much.

My craving for quinoa cake is growing. Tomorrow, I'll call my mother to remind me of the recipe, although I'm sure she'll end up speaking ill of my father.