March 11, 2015
Exactly six minutes and thirteen seconds before her life took a drastic, horrifying turn, Elisa Robledo was working at something quite ordinary. She was teaching an elective on modern theories of physics to fifteen second-year engineering students. She in no way intuited what was about to happen. Unlike many students, and even a fair few professors for whom the setting proved formidable, Elisa felt more at ease in the classroom than she did in her own home. That was the way it had been at her old-fashioned high school and in the bare-walled classrooms of her university, too. Now she worked in the bright, modern facilities of the School of Engineering at Madrid's Alighieri University, a luxurious private institution whose classrooms boasted views from the enormous windows overlooking campus, perfect sound from their superb acoustics, and the rich aroma of fine wood. Elisa could have lived there. She unconsciously assumed that nothing bad could happen to her in a place like that.
She couldn't have been more wrong, and in just over six minutes she would realize that.
Elisa was a brilliant professor who had a certain aura about her. At universities, certain professors (and the occasional student) are the stuff of legend: the enigmatic Elisa Robledo had given rise to a mystery everyone wanted to solve.
In a way, the birth of the Elisa Mystery was inevitable. She was young and a loner; she had long, wavy black hair and the face and body of a model. She was sharp and analytical, and she had a prodigious talent for abstraction and calculation—characteristics that were key in the cold world of theoretical physics, where the principles of science rule all. Theoretical physicists were not only respected, they were revered—from Einstein to Stephen Hawking. They fit people's image of what physics was all about. Though most people found the field abstruse (if not wholly unintelligible), its champions always made a big splash and were seen as stereotypical, socially awkward geniuses.
Elisa Robledo was not cold at all. She was passionate about her teaching, and she captivated her students. What's more, she was an excellent academic, and a kind, supportive colleague, always willing to help out in a crisis. On the surface, there was nothing strange about her.
And that was what was so strange.
People thought she was too perfect. Too intelligent and too worthy to be working in a mediocre physics department at a business-oriented university like Alighieri, where no one truly cared about physics. Her colleagues were sure that she could have had her pick of careers: a post at the Spanish National Research Council, a tenured professorship at a public university, or some important role at a prestigious center abroad. Elisa was wasted at Alighieri. Then, too, no theory (and physicists love theories) adequately explained why, at thirty-two, almost thirty-three (her birthday was in April, just a month away), Elisa was unattached, had no close friends, and yet seemed perfectly happy. She appeared to have all she wanted in life. No one knew of any boyfriends (or girlfriends), and her friendships were limited to colleagues with whom she rarely if ever spent free time. She wasn't conceited or even arrogant despite her obvious good looks. And although she accentuated her attractiveness by wearing a whole range of perfectly tailored designer clothes that often made her look downright provocative, she never seemed to be trying to hard to attract the attention of men (who often turned to gawk when she passed) with the clothes she wore. Elisa spoke only about her profession, was courteous, and always smiled. The Elisa Mystery was unfathomable.
Occasionally, she seemed unsettled. It was nothing concrete: maybe a look, or a momentary dullness in her brown eyes, or just a feeling she gave people after a quick conversation. As though she was hiding something. Those who thought they knew her—Noriega, the department chair, among others—thought it was probably best that she never reveal her secret. For whatever reason, some people, regardless of how insignificant their role in others' lives, or how few close moments they've shared, are unforgettable. Elisa Robledo was one of them, and people wanted it to stay that way.
Professor Víctor Lopera, one of Elisa's only real friends, was a notable exception. Sometimes he was overwhelmed by an urgent need to unravel her mystery. Víctor had experienced the temptation on several occasions, the most recent being last year, in April 2014, when the department decided to throw Elisa a surprise birthday party.
Noriega's secretary, Teresa, had come up with the idea, and everyone had jumped at it, including some students. They spent a month enthusiastically preparing, as if they thought it would be the ideal way to infiltrate Elisa's magic circle and touch her ephemeral surface. They bought a cake, balloons, a giant teddy bear, and candles shaped into the number thirty-two; the chair even went in for a few bottles of champagne. They shut themselves into the seminar room, decorated it quickly, drew the curtains, and turned off the lights. When Elisa arrived that morning, one of the custodians told her they had called an urgent faculty meeting. Everyone waited in the dark. The door opened and Elisa's hesitant silhouette was framed by the doorway, outlining her cropped cardigan, tight pants, and long hair. Suddenly, laughter and applause erupted, the lights were turned on, and Rafa, one of her best students, was there recording the young professor's disconcerted expression on one of those state-of-the-art video cameras that was no bigger than a pair of eyes.
The party was brief and made no inroads at all into the Elisa Mystery. Noriega said a few emotional words, people sang the same old songs, and Teresa stood before the camera, waving a funny banner with caricatures of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, and Elisa Robledo sharing a cake (Teresa's brother, a graphic designer, had made it). Everyone was jovial and affectionate and tried to show Elisa that they gladly accepted her without asking anything in return, except that she continue to enliven them with her mystery, to which they'd grown accustomed. As always, Elisa was perfect, her face an ideal picture of surprise and happiness. She even seemed a little moved: her eyes looked like they'd welled up. Judging from the video, and seeing her perfect body outlined by her sweater and pants, she could have passed for a student, or maybe the presenter at some spectacular event or (as Rafa later told his friends on campus) a porn star winning her first award. Einstein and Marilyn Monroe, all rolled into one, he said.
Excerpted from Zig Zag by Jose Somoza Copyright © 2008 by Jose Somoza. Excerpted by permission.
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